Sunday, 29 December 2019

My Albums of the Decade - 2010-2019

As we approach the end of 2019 I've been looking thought my year end reviews for the last few years with a certain amount of interest. I started doing these reviews in 2011, but that year's was very general in its approach. I started publishing a ranked list in 2012, and have done so every year since.

Looking at my Top 3 albums for those 8 years certain bands cropped up on more than one occasion - unsurprisingly to me Big Big Train and The Tangent. As there wasn't any 'list' for 2010 or 2011, I looked through my collection and came up with some albums from those years that I could include, to make a decade-wide list possible.

Three major criteria were used in drawing up this list: they had to be albums in my collection; they had to have featured in my Top 3 in the year they were released; and I would only include one album by any one band. I'm not going to try and rank these albums in any order of merit - simply alphabetically. But these are the bands/ artists & albums that have particularly appealed to me over the last 10 years.

Abel Ganz - Abel Ganz (2014)
Anderson Stolt - Invention of Knowledge (2016)
Anglagard - Viljans Oga (2012)
Big Big Train - English Electric (2012/13)
Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow (2011)
Echolyn - Echolyn (2012)
Freedom to Glide - Rain/ Fall/ Seed trilogy (2013/ 16/ 19)
John Hackett & Nick Fletcher - Beyond The Stars (2018)
Lazuli - 4063 Battements (2011)
Pat Metheney - Orchestrion (2010)
Moon Safari - Lover's End (2010)
Oak - False Memory Archive (2018)
Opeth - Heritage (2011)
Chris Potter - Circuits (2019)
Snarky Puppy - We Like It Here (2014)
The Tangent - Proxy (2018)
Colin Tench Project - Hair on a G String (2016)
Tiger Moth Tales - The Depth of Winter (2017)
Andy Tillison Diskdrive - Electric Sinfonia No 2 (2014)
Tinyfish - The Big Red Spark (2010)
Theo Travis Doubletalk - Transgression (2015)
Unitopia - Artificial (2010)
Steven Wilson - Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015)
Wintergatan - Wintergatan (2013)

There's obviously much I've missed out, but that's my stab at a Decade list from my eclectic and at times quite strange taste in music. Do let me know what you think... (but please be kind...)

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Music of 2019

2019 reaches its end, and here is my look back at the albums that have entranced me - or at least mildly entertained me - during the year. If you're a regular reader of my incoherent ramblings here, you will know that I've been doing a brief review month on month (apart from November & December): below are my November gigs, and then my year-end list.

2019 has been a good year for live music, thanks at a) being retired now, and b) living about 200 yards from one of the best live music pubs in Sheffield, The Greystones. As well as the gigs I've already reported on, November saw me at another seven shows. Steve Hackett and his band gave a stellar performance of Selling England By The Pound and Spectral Mornings, along with other stuff from his latest album, At The Edge of Light, and other solo stuff, at the City Hall. The following night I was at the Greystones for Gordon Haskell, briefly a vocalist with King Crimson (a part of his life he doesn't like to be reminded of, as I discovered...), who put on a great show featuring songs from his Harry's Bar album and some new material, with just an acoustic guitar and an accompanying saxophonist. Later that month, with a large amount of South Yorkshire under water, there was a trip to Kimberworth in Rotherham for the inaugural show by Moonspinner, a project of John Hackett & Howard Sinclair, aided and abetted by Matthew Lumb on keyboards. They performed music from John & Howard's repertoire, alongside some Steve Hackett, Genesis & King Crimson material. A real shame the weather kept many away, because it was a great night. The following week it was back to the O2 Academy for Steve Hillage supported by Gong. Like Al Stewart the month before, it was another spine-chilling nostalgia-fest for me, and it was well worth 4 hours standing at the front of the stage for the experience. Then the John Hackett Band (again), and finishing the month (and the year) with an as-always stellar show from Australian Pink Floyd - the next best thing to the real thing, imho, and the small matter of a trip down the M1 for the opening night of DanFest to see Encircled and The Emerald Dawn, both of whom were wonderful!

Steve Hackett

Gordon Haskell

Steve Hillage

John Hackett Band

Australian Pink Floyd

The Emerald Dawn

So, now to my top albums of 2019. I've tried to keep the number down a little, but in compiling the list I found I'd identified 26 albums worthy of note, and couldn't decide which to leave out to give you a Top 25. So here's my Top 26, with 26-11 in alphabetical order, and the Top 10 ranked.

Cheeto's Magazine - Amazingous
John Coltrane - Blue World
The Emerald Dawn - Nocturne
Farmhouse Odyssey - Fertile Ground
Fat Suit - Waifs & Strays
Gong - The Universe Also Collapses
Grand Tour - Clocks That Tick (But Never Talk)
Steve Hackett - At The Edge of Light
IZZ - Don't Panic
Kaprekar's Constant - Depth of Field
Red Bazaar - Things As They Appear
Nad Sylvan - The Regal Bastard
Thieves Kitchen - Genius Loci
This Winter Machine - A Tower of Clocks
United Progressive Fraternity - Planetary Overload Part 1
Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Colorado

And the Top Ten...

10. Rosalie Cunningham - Rosalie Cunningham
The former Purson front-woman picks up on the psychedelic vibe of the Purson album and takes it further.

  9. Jon Anderson - 1000 Hands Chapter One
There's just something about this album that makes me feel better about life every time I listen to it.

  8. Cirrus Bay - The Art of Vanishing
Gentle, melodic, symphonic progressive music, carrying on the great work of their earlier work.

  7. Nova Cascade - A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
An album which should increase the band's reach into both the ambient and progressive schools of music.

  6. The Far Meadow - Foreign Land
Some quite spectacular modern progressive tunes, rooted in the heritage of the past yet looking clearly forward to what Progressive music might become.

  5. Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars
A wonderful example of The Boss's knack of telling moving stories through simple melodies. More Mid-West than East Coast, but some of his best material in years.

  4. Moron Police - A Boat on the Sea
What can I say about this album other than captivating and bonkers! Some wonderful songs here, some of which go off at wild tangents, other that have echoes of Elton John for me.

  3. Chris Potter - Circuits
Every now and then a jazz album comes along that simply astounds me by its breadth, style and musical dexterity, and in 2019 that album was Circuits. Chris Potter, with Eric Harland, James Francies & Linley Marthe, simply blew me away!

  2. Big Big Train - Grand Tour
Ten years on from their breakthrough album 'The Underfall Yard', this is Big Big Train at their best in terms of composition, atmosphere and musicianship, and an album that was underscored by stellar live performances on their first tour this year.

  1. Freedom To Glide - Seed
Few albums, in all my years of listening, have affected me as much as this one, from the first listen through and on subsequent visits afterwards. The third of the band's trilogy reflecting on World War 1, this is an absolutely stunning work, tinged with reality, pathos, anguish but above all hope for a better world

I hope to be able to put together a 'Best of...' for the past decade, and even for the 21st Century (so far) at some point, but that may take some time... In the meantime, have a happy new year, and I hope, like me, you're looking forward with anticipation to what 2020 has to offer musically.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Potter's Daughter - The Blind Side

Music is a very important part of my life, and new music always gives me a sense of anticipation and sometimes challenge. When that new music is from an act that I'm new to, those senses of anticipation and challenge are heightened. New music comes my way in a number of directions: sometimes it is from established artists that I have a strong affinity to; sometimes it's through 'browsing' music sites or stores; often it's from favoured labels (Bad Elephant Music or Edition Records being particular strengths for me); sometimes I am sent music to review by sites that I occasionally write for; and every now and then a band or artist will contact me and ask if I would be interested in reviewing their material.

This is one of the latter.

I heard about Potter's Daughter through a friend request on a particular social media site from their singer and pianist, Dyanne Potter Voegtlin and a subsequent conversation online. When the files arrived, I wondered what to make of something described as 'Art Rock & Jazz Folk fusion', so I gave it a listen.

'The Blind Side' is the 2018 debut album by this 5-piece band from NYC: Dyanna Potter Voegtlin - piano & vocals; Amit Chatterjee - guitar,guitar synth & percussion; Lincoln Goines - bass; Ian C Voegtlin - guitar; and Randy Crafton - percussion & drums.

The first thing that struck me about this recording is the sheer beauty it encapsulates, both musically and lyrically. The virtuosity that one comes to expect from artists on the progressive wing of the musical world is here in spades: Dyanne is a classically trained pianist and she brings all that technique and skill to the table, allied with an obvious love of the freedom and innovation of jazz. I found it at times intriguing and at times awe-inspiring, and she brings many different 'textures' of piano throughout the collection. This is a mix of instrumental and vocal tracks - they actually alternate, with the odd tracks being instrumental and the even ones vocal.

City Lights opens things up, with some wonderful lyrical jazz on piano, bass and drums, on a par with anything from the classic repertoire of the genre, to my mind. Electric guitar enters midway through and changes the mood of the tune, but always good. She is Dreaming  has vocals in tight harmony, with a hint of Bjork for me. Some soaring guitars towards the end and a sense of 'shuffle'. Memento is quite ballad-like, with jazzier guitar than hitherto, and Its Summer Night brings some suspenseful chords, almost ecclesiastic harmonies and an overall ethereal feel in the voice, guitars and piano. Moment IV has a strong, driving rhythm that comes more from the piano than from the drums, and some wonderful heavy guitar introduced. To My Love is wonderfully eclectic song, with a bluesy feel to the guitar at the start, an almost eastern feel to the voice and melody, and for me a feel reminiscent of CSNY.

Silver Moon has for me echoes of Steely Dan in the guitar & piano intro, and as a song builds nicely in intensity while always allowing the piano to lead. Sure On This Shining Night begins with some good piano arpeggios and an unusual melody, and is enticingly choral with overlapping vocals towards the end. Journey Into Spring is an evocative, ponderous, multi-layered piece with an acoustic guitar solo and a nice interplay between guitar and piano. I Lay Down has guitar and bass playing in unison for a large part of the song, and has for me a distinct reminder of British jazzy Progressive band Thieves Kitchen, particularly in the vocals. Another Rain Song uses the piano arpeggios to evoke the feeling of rain, the guitars are almost flute-like, and there is a cymbal crash about a minute in that sounds like a sigh (just how I feel when it's raining...). The final track, Night Has Come, uses some glorious 3- or 4-part vocal harmonies to great effect in a dark but moving song.

Holding all this together are the musical dexterity of all the band, and Dyanne's vocals, which are strong, tender, hypnotic and evocative. Earlier this year (2019) the band released a couple of singles, which extend the band's reach a little further. Blood and Water uses keyboards as well as piano, and has more of a folky feel to it, perhaps through the use of Annie Haslam on vocals alongside Dyanne, each with equal strength. This Winters Child, released earlier this month, is a wonderfully jazzy piece, mostly in 11/8 and joyously evocative (that word again!) of the season.

All of this enriching, life-affirming music is available on Bandcamp and elsewhere, and is well worth exploring further.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

The Forgotten Prog of Tom Kelly

Every now and then one comes across hidden gems of music, and one of my recent 'discoveries' (I didn't really find it: it found me!) was the music of Tom Kelly, previously unknown to me.

Tom Kelly grew up in California in the 1950s, and at the age of 5 was introduced by his mother to the music of Andres Segovia, after which Tom was hooked. He began learning the guitar, and eventually graduated to other instruments, mostly keyboards. Inspired by classical composers such as Debussy and Holst and drawn to the psychedelic & classic rock scene of the late 1960s, Tom began composing his own songs, and formed several bands that have now faded into obscurity: 'Still'; 'Yellow Autumn'; 'Museum' and latterly 'Mistress Quickly'. The style was symphonic progressive rock, and was described by one music producer as 'chamber music for electric instruments'.

Mistress Quickly garnered some interest from a recording company, but by that time disco was in the ascendancy and the record company lost interest. Tom carried on, though, as a solo artist and his legacy - following his untimely death in 2017 - is a set of three recordings recently compiled by a previous band member and continuous friend and collaborator, David Hurst, and Tom's widow, Nickie.

These three collections give an insight into Tom's multi-layered, symphonic, 'orchestral' style, and show what an accomplished composer he was. All three are instrumental recordings.

The Tolling of St John's Bells/ Burnt Peas is, for me, perhaps the strongest of the three collections. There are echoes for me of Tony Banks in the keyboards and of Mike Oldfield in the guitars in places, and the overall feel of a solo multi-instrumental package is strongly reminiscent of Oldfield throughout. The music is evocative, at times ominous and melancholic: in fact the overall mood of all three albums is quite dark and brooding - there's not much to tap ones feet to, not that that would be easy with all the changes in time signature that take place throughout the songs!

A Quail's House has echoes for me of The Enid, and passages of the 4-part suite 'The Wayfarer' have a stately air to them, without being pompous. 'The Fork' suite has a pensive mood: decisions have to be made, yet there is always a feeling of hesitation and caution. The 3-part 'Travels' has an air of movement and a more upbeat feel, but a discordant edge to part 2 and an almost hobbling part 3, with constant time signature changes, gives the travels a feeling of uncertainty. One thing that this collection seems to lack for me - indeed all three albums do - is drums. They're not totally lacking, but very scarce, and there are times when some rhythm would lift the music just a bit.

Spinning Through Eternity has some longer compositions in it, which is a nice change, but there are times when the tunes seem to have run out of steam a little before they reach their conclusion. It does tend to be a bit same-y throughout, but in that there are some interesting sounds being used, and non-conventional orchestration. The title track has an almost ambient tone to it, and there is a little more light and shade throughout than the earlier collections.

I've found this to be music that repays re-listening, as each cycle brings out something new and fresh, but it's not gentle, background, feel-good fare. This deserves to be listened to and to be heard! To have a listen, go here.

Monday, 11 November 2019

October's Music

October was a full month of musical delights and some disappointments. A lot of live music, some new albums, and some old stuff rediscovered.

Let's start with the live stuff.

Me and Hasse Froberg!
I've been attending the Summer's End festival for the past 4 years, and have found it to be a place for hearing great music and discovering new bands. Most of this year's line-up was known to me, but it was still a delight to share in the atmosphere and fellowship of the event. The music was generally excellent: Friday evening gave us Kentish Spires, who put on a great set, even though they were ‘breaking in’ a new vocalist - and a male one instead of a female, which changed the feel of the band a little. The new material seemed to lack the English, pastoral feel of the debut, but was highly entertaining. And also Wobbler, who were excellent: full of proggy goodness, but perhaps a little too loud (or maybe I should move from in front of the speakers...). Saturday brought with it a few technical issues, but these were overcome. The Far Meadow kicked off proceedings brilliantly: great to see them do live what they do so well on disc, and 5 songs in a hour - none more Prog!; The Windmill overcame the glitch at the start to give an excellent set which included a tribute to King Crimson as the 50th anniversary of Court of the Crimson King approaches; The Room, last minutes substitutes, played a rousing collection of their poppier prog to a room that was definitely heating up; Comedy of Errors gave us 90 minutes of material old and new, and though Joe Cairney was flagging towards the end, he still managed a walkabout in the crowd while singing; and Phideaux, again with technical difficulties at the start, gave a crowd-pleasing set, most of which was new to me but left a packed hall delighted. Sunday usually has a 'different' band to open proceedings, and this year it was Rise (formerly Talitha Rise), who produced a very minimal, ethereal sound for a 6-piece, dominated (if that's the right word) by piano and vocals; Mayra Orchestra gave us a multi-layered sound with strong female vocals, various time signatures and plenty of energy and enthusiasm; then This Winter Machine: excellent; hard-hitting, driving, thoughtful, melodic Prog with a heavy edge, and a band whose reputation and standing is growing by the gig. Third time seeing them, and tighter every time (a change in personnel may be a factor); penultimate band were Hasse Froberg & Musical Companion, a band I've enjoyed for a number of years and who simply gave us a set of Symphonic Scandinavian Splendidness. Finally came District 97- a kind of mix of progressive metal, jazz and urban swagger. For many a ‘marmite’ band, and seeing them live I can understand that. Those who were there seemed to be warming to them, however.

Al Stewart
Later in the month came a chance to see This Winter Machine again, this time a little nearer to home: again they were excellent, and being in Yorkshire they had some home support with them. They were ably supported by Under a Banner, whose material seemed a lot heavier than it does on disc. The following evening I finally got to see one of my all-time favourite singer-songwriters - Al Stewart, who played some newer stuff along with lots of his classic material, mainly from Year of the Cat. I was amazed just how emotional I got listening to this music that has been a part of my life for the best part of 40 years.

Towards the end of the month came the behemoth that is HRH Prog! I was delighted that the organisers had decided to hold one of the versions of this festival in Sheffield, and having 'won' tickets it made it a very cheap weekend. Musically it was a little disappointing, to be honest, mainly due to the volume in the hall being too loud. The Saturday line-up were pretty much of a muchness to begin with: Captain Starfighter & The Lockheeds, Premed, and Hawklords were all channelling Hawkwind, which I suppose is great if you like that kind of thing, but it did get a bit stale very quickly (and I spent most of Premed's set out at a restaurant). The Vintage Caravan - an Icelandic Power Metal trio - were not what I would call 'Prog', but the day was redeemed with an excellent set from Gong - whom I'm seeing at the same venue supporting Steve Hillage in November (more on that next month!) - and then finished with Uriah Heep, who I only got to see one song from before fatigue took its toll on me. Sunday gave us 4th Labyrinth, who were OK; Pearl Handled Revolver, very Doors-like, and again OK; & Krankschaft, who were not really my thing. Redemption came, once again, this time in the shape of Soft Machine, who were on blistering form, and Caravan, who were just out of this world! Again, I missed the final act, The Pineapple Thief, due to fatigue. So, a mixed bag really, but the highs more than compensated.

The final live outing of the month saw a road trip to Halifax to catch leg three of the Grand Tour of Big Big Train. This was my 4th time seeing them, and the experience continues to improve. I've written elsewhere about the sense of togetherness among the passengers, but the band were on great form and just continue to delight.

Musically related visits this month were a couple of evenings at a literary festival here in Sheffield called Off The Shelf, where I listened to Mark Radcliffe talking about his new book 'Crossroads', and also to David Hepworth on his book 'A Fabulous Creation: how the LP saved our lives'. And then there was a visit to the cinema to see the Miles Davis biopic 'Birth of the Cool', which was insightful and honest, and reminded me of the Jaco Pastorius biopic from a few years ago.

So, with all this going on, have I had any time for recorded music? Well, just a bit! The new live album from The Fierce and the Dead does exactly what it says on the tin (!); I picked up some stuff at Summer's End by Kentish Spires, The Windmill, This Winter Machine and Kaprekar's Constant, all of which are excellent. On the jazzier side there was a new album by Chris Potter along with Dave Holland & Zakir Hussain - Good Hope, which has 66 minutes of brilliant eastern-tinged jazz on it; and Waifs & Strays, the new album from Scottish jazz ensemble Fat Suit, which sounds very much like Snarky Puppy, and that's never a bad thing! I've also managed to squeeze in albums from Ray Alder - What the Water Wants - interesting Prog Metal from the Fates Warning frontman; Tool - Fear Inoculum - my first listen to Tool: dark and brooding, and reminds me in places a lot of Riverside; Hats Off Gentlemen, It's Adequate - Ark - an excellent EP with a more electronic edge than I remember; Malcolm Galloway (from HOGIA) - Transitions - a really good collection of electronic ambient music; and Moron Police - A Boat on the Sea - captivating, bonkers, and a strong contender for the Top 5 this year.

And, breathe...

A busy month: much to listen to, much to take in, and much to think about. And even more waiting in the wings. Ah well, soon be Christmas...!

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The Passengers alight in Halifax

Last night I joined hundreds of fellow 'Passengers' aboard the Big Big Train in the Victoria Theatre in Halifax, the third leg of the band's Grand Tour of the UK in support of their latest album. It is the fourth time I've seen the band play live: last time at Cadogan Hall in 2017, and twice at King's Place i 2015.

Reflecting after the King's Place gigs, I wrote a piece on here about how the whole experience put me in mind of church - or at least how church should be. Following on from last night's joyous outing, I have been reflecting further on this idea.

This is clearly a meeting of like-minded people. They will not agree on everything, but one thing that draws them together is a love of the music. This was evident in the way that the concert was enjoyed: engaged attention during the songs; rapturous applause following. The music matters, and those performing it matter just as much.

This is a family. And when families get together, there is much chat, much reminiscing, and much catching up. There were people there last night whom I have not spoken to face to face since Cadogan Hall, or even before that, and some for whom this was a first meeting 'in the flesh'. And as with family there was much laughter, some concern and overall togetherness. I was struck by a small gesture at the end of the show, when one of the band, spotting a 'passenger' in a wheelchair, jumped down from the stage in order to greet them. And the atmosphere in the bar afterwards, when the band were chatting and signing, was truly supportive: just a bunch of friends, old and new, getting together.

This is a supportive bunch, showing what I would call Pastoral Care for one another. It was good to see, for instance, a card being passed round for a couple who will be celebrating their wedding anniversary by attending the Birmingham gig, and on a personal level it was touching to receive the concerns of many in the band and others in the wake of my early retirement. And earlier in the tour an inventive, apt and touching memorial was arranged for a beloved Passenger who had sadly died recently. A small basket was place don what would have been his seat in Edinburgh, and it was filled with sprouts in his memory! The Prog equivalent of lighting a candle?

There's a passage in The Acts of The Apostles which says: "They... ate together with glad... hearts... and ... added to their number..." No gathering of Passengers would be complete without food - usually curry - and it was good to end the night sharing together in food as we had begun the evening sharing together in drinks. Food and drink have been a part of church gatherings since the start, and this is no different for Passengers.

And of that common bond that drew us together - the music (No Spoilers): we were treated to such a delightful evening. We began with a short but excellent set from Sweet Billy Pilgrim, which included a glorious re-working of a Prog classic. And then the main attraction: a beautifully crafted couple of hours from 13 (count them...) top-notch musicians at the top of their game. Tight, melodic, harmonic, virtuosic, and simply spell-binding renditions of material mostly from their latest album, Grand Tour, but also from earlier releases, some of which left barely a dry eye in the house.

If you haven't managed to get to see the band yet on this first tour of theirs, and you have a chance to, grab it with both hands: your ears and your heart may well love you for ever!

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

September's Music

These monthly summaries kind of make trying to remember all the music I tend to listen to a little easier. I hope they are proving informative and perhaps even entertaining for you who bother to read these posts.

A little more settled now in the new house, and quite a bit more music consumed this month. One of the benefits of our new house is that it is only about 200 yards (in old money) from a wonderful little real ale and live music pub by the name of The Greystones, here in Sheffield. I've managed to get to a couple of gigs there in the past month. The first was by a collective called The John Martyn Project, a group of musicians who got together to play John Martyn's music as a tribute to him on the 10th anniversary of his death earlier this year, and afterwards decided to tour with the music, They were faithful to John's legacy, though mainly played material from Solid Air, Bless The Weather and Sunday's Child. An excellent evening, enhanced by the support act, a local act called Mishra, who play Indian Ragas on banjo, double bass, whistle and tabla. Totally enthralling and fascinating, and I hope to find them again locally soon. Later that same week I was back for an evening with Kathryn Williams, Mercury Prize-nominated in 2000, looking back over her 20-year career so far and playing material from most of the 10 albums she's released in that time - which have recently been released as an Anthology box-set with 10 bonus CDs and a lyrics booklet and some of her personal artwork. Had a lovely chat with her after the gig, which was excellent, and managed to pick up a copy of the anthology for a much reduced price!

My other live outing was to the City Hall (Ballroom) for a fantastic evening with Focus, who were as engaging and entertaining as ever, and delved into their wide repertoire for an excellent show.

My recorded music falls into three, or possibly four, main categories. First there's the Old Stuff, mostly if not entirely bought as a result of hearing it played on Progzilla Radio, one of my go-to Progressive Internet radio stations. This month they led me to Camembert Electrique by Gong, thus adding to my now growing Gong collection. This is wonderfully bonkers and brilliant music - weird, eccentric, off-beat, but enticing and evocative of the music that drew me in during my teenage years. The other was Rain Tree Crow's only and eponymous album from 1991. This was a band I was unaware of, and discovered that it is essentially a late reunion album by Japan. Most of that 1980s electronic music slipped me by at the time, but it has grown on me since then, and this is a dark, brooding, atmospheric, ethereal and magical work.

My possible fourth category (yes, it's out of sequence, but hopefully you'll see why...) is Old Stuff that's actually New Stuff - or possibly New Stuff that's actually Old Stuff! This month has seen 'new' albums from Jazz giants John Coltrane & Miles Davis. Coltrane gives us Blue World, a collection of material that was originally recorded in June 1964 mainly for the soundtrack of the film 'Le chat dans le sac', and is typical of his work at that time and wonderfully melodic and strident. Miles Davis's 'lost album' from 1985-86 is finally released as Rubberband. Davis was a true progressive of the Jazz world, and having gone through his Be-Bop and Fusion phases among others this is a collection more of a soul or funk groove with Miles's horn at times providing more of a background that a lead, but always being unmistakeably there. For any fan of jazz I would strongly recommend both albums, though the Davis may take some time to grow.

So the second (or is it now the third) category is New Jazz. If you've read these posts before you'll know that I am a keen listener to the output of Edition Records, who release a wide selection of music from the jazzier end of the spectrum. Three of their albums have come my way this month. The first was by Laura Jurd, another Mercury Prize nominee with her band Dinosaur, and her project entitled Stepping Back, Jumping In. Here are 6 good length compositions - nothing under 8 minutes - exploring their themes through brass, strings, piano, keys, double bass, drums, banjo, guitars & santoor. Laura is ably assisted by a host of fellow musicians including fellow Edition players Elliot Galvin, Rob Luft & Corrie Dick. Moody, stirring and emotive stuff. Secondly was  Hope by Kevin Hays & Lionel Loueke. Simple music on piano & guitar with some vocal input from both men, this has a rounded yet exotic feel to it. I was not that aware of Hays's work previously but had come across Loueke about 12 years ago with a song called Abominwe.Captivating stuff. And then there was the latest offering from Oddarrang, a Finnish quintet who make dark, brooding experimental music that I suppose could only come from Scandinavia. This new album, Hypermetros, is a typical offering from them and has been well worth the wait.

So, the final category for me is New Prog (however broad that particular tag is), and most of this month's material comes from a label that proudly represents that breadth and diversity in its output - Bad Elephant Music. The five albums from them all represent material from established acts on the labels roster, but they are all wonderfully different. In order of release, We Are Kin's third album, Bruised Sky, is moody, dark, brooding modern progressive rock, with a soulful edge courtesy of Emma Brewin-Caddy's wonderful voice. Tom Slatter's Demon carries on the unique acoustic steam-punk balladeer-ing that Tom has made his own, and continues to do so with wonderful aplomb. The Bob Lazar Story continue their bonkers approach to music making with Vanquisher, a collection that leaves me simultaneously with a smile on my face and scratching my head in bafflement. Emmett Elvin once again with The End of Music produces sublime music, at times rock, at times almost classical, but always stimulating, thoughtful and profound, an epithet that could also be used of Charlie Cawood, whose Blurring Into Motion is a modern-day classic of composition and musicianship. And the final new Prog is the much-awaited seventh album from Thieves' Kitchen. Genius Loci explores the idea of the Spirit of Place in their inimitable jazz-laden progressive style, something they do to great effect, and Amy Darby's voice never fails to send shivers down my spine!

So, that's been September -  a busy time in all aspects of my musical world, but one that continues to give me life, hope and inspiration. The coming month offers much in the way of live music - with 2 festivals and other gigs I've got at least 26 bands in my diary between now and Armageddon - sorry, Brexit Day... (if it happens...)

Thursday, 5 September 2019

August's Music

August, the height of summer in the UK, was a mixed kind of month for me. Much of it was taken up with settling into a new house and into retirement, but there was time for some music as well, so here goes a very brief summary...

Elsewhere I've written about three albums that came my way: "The Sky Has Fallen" by Apolis; "A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows" by Nova Cascade (a little early: not released until September 9th); and "Star Chamber" by Hollow Hand. I picked up the latter of the three at the Greenbelt Festival, where I had my only experience of live music during the month. All three were different in their own ways: shorter, poppy Prog; more ambient Progressive music; and some interesting, almost psychedelic, rock.

On the Psychedelic front I also picked up Rosalie Cunningham's new self-titled album, which picks up on the psych vibe of the Purson album which she fronted in 2016, and is an excellent addition to the collection. Alongside that was the new CD from iamthemorning, The Bell, which carried on their evocative canon with another fine example of keyboard virtuosity and breath-taking vocals.

I've just taken delivery of a cornucopia of delights from Bad Elephant Music, and am expecting some new jazz from Edition Records, which will, no doubt feature in next month's instalment. See you then, I hope!

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Hollow Hand - Star Chamber

One of the joys of this time of year is that it is Festival season, and over the past six or seven years the Greenbelt Festival has featured in our calendar. Greenbelt is a creative gathering, which for the last 6 years has met at Boughton House in Northamptonshire, and although faith-based in its foundation it is not overtly so, and certainly not cloyingly so.  The programme is always varied, with speakers, actors, activists and musicians filling a variety of venues over the four days.

Whilst it is a time to catch up with old friends, and listen to nationally- and internationally-renowned acts, Greenbelt also offers opportunities to expand one's horizons - to try something new. This I did on the opening evening when I joined a select crowd for a 40-minute set by Brighton-based band Hollow Hand. I was drawn to them by the 'blurb' in the programme, which said that they "cite Syd Barrett and The Grateful Dead as influences, and conjure up a rural idyll accompanied by beautiful stories and sunny guitars. Lovers of Big Star and Super Furry Animals will find themselves resonating with their blissed-out, summery, ever-so-slightly-psychedelic sound." I was intrigued.

The set delivered what it promised: the cited influences were evident, and they even performed a cover of one of Syd Barrett's songs alongside their own material (can't remember which one, sadly...). For a three-piece band - guitars, bass & drums - the sound was solid and full, and there was plenty of musical dexterity on display. I was impressed enough to pick up a copy of their CD, Star Chamber, after the gig  and had a nice chat with their guitarist/ songwriter/ singer, Max Kinghorn-Mills.

Star Chamber is the second album by the band - though both seem to be more or less the work of Max on his own. The credits on Star Chamber include Atlas Shrugs on drums, and Pan Andrs on various keyboards and additional guitars. Their first album, 'Ancestral Lands', from 2015, is available as a digital download on Bandcamp, and alongside Star Chamber it offers a wonderful nostalgic feel bringing to my mind the music of The Kinks, The Grateful Dead and particularly the dreamy acoustic sound of early '70s Pink Floyd (Summer '68/ Granchester ... kind of thing)

Star Chamber opens with a track called Ancestral Lands, a reflective solo acoustic song, in contrast to One Good Turn which opens with the sound of children playing and is more of a full band song, electric, joyful and jangly with good strong vocal harmonies. Blackberry Wine  is up-beat, with a strong Kinks or Steve Harley feel to it. A World Outside ticks along nicely with some good chord progressions and a familiarity about it for a 'new' song, (Stealer's Wheel?...) and for me just a hint of Paul McCartney in the vocals at times. Milestone is kind of Syd Barrett meets The Killers, strong and metronomic throughout with an understated guitar solo towards the end (a bit more to the fore in the live setting). Side one (the album is also available on vinyl) ends with It's You, late-Beatles-like in its vibe and a mellow end to the first half of the album.

Two of Us opens side 2, and has a kind of Allman Brothers feel to start with before becoming more Kinks-y and Floyd-y and flowing into an eastern vibe. End of Everything, perhaps understandably, has a darker feel to it, played in a lower register and with brooding drums and eerie harmonies. Made Up My Mind is thoughtful, and almost reggae-like at the start and carries on with a laid-back vibe throughout. Avalon is in 3/4 and has a cheeky, playful air to it, acoustic in feel and a very pleasant song. Land of the Free is the album closer, the longest song in the collection, and another in triple time. It is an excellent, thoughtful song with many aspects to its structure that interplay wonderfully well together, and the length of the song gives time for these aspects to work their own particular spell. The long slow fade brings the album to a close and one is left uplifted yet chilled by the experience.

This is certainly a band that I will keep an eye on in the future, as a third album is on the horizon, and I encourage you to check them out if you haven't already.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Nova Cascade - A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

In my review of Nova Cascade's debut album, Above All Else, I urged readers to buy a copy, to 'encourage the band to create and develop more ideas'. This, it seems has borne fruit, as the second album - 'A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows' - is about to be released.

Like the debut, this is a collection of ambient Progressive music, around 36 minutes in length (some might say an EP rather than an album, these days...), and a mixture of vocal and instrumental songs. There are 9 tracks in all, all of which bar one are between two and four minutes in length - the exception being over 10 minutes: what we call 'an epic!' Four of the musicians from the first album: Dave Hilborne (vocals, synths & programming); Dave Fick (bass); Charlie Bramald (flute); and David Anania (drums) are joined by Eric Bouillette (violin & guitar). Charlie is, I believe, also responsible for the cover art, which is quite stunning and draws you in to this collection of fine music.

Anyone familiar with the band's first album - and if you're not, do yourself a favour and listen to it! - will know the kind of music that they produce, but this follow-up is definitely a progression for them: a more accomplished work, with songs that have been developed more and a much fuller sound.

The album opens with 'Unwavering', an instrumental track which builds layers of keyboards over strong but not intrusive guitar, strong bass and decorative drums, which then grows into strident and striking chords before the final brief fade: a strong start. 'Antillas' is a more thoughtful piece with a more percussive, 'plucked' feel, feeding into a central section of Dave H's restrained vocals (with more than a hint for me of Chris Isaak about them) and a smoother, quieter backing, before a return to the opening texture. 'Rabbit Hole' is a little more upbeat, but still with the restrained vocals that are, for me, a trademark of the band. 'Echo & Narcissus', the pre-release 'single', opens with a drum machine that immediately puts me in mind of early solo Phil Collins or Duke-era Genesis, a thought reinforced by the keyboard sounds later. The violin gives some depth to the sound that has a wonderful ethereal feel to it. 'Apophis' opens with a simple motif played concurrently on piano and wind, and flows into an instrumental piece that has a much more ambient feel to it than has so far been present.

'Plasticine & Paint' is the track on this album that is most reminiscent of the work on the debut in its overall feel and structure, and is also wonderfully evocative of childhood and innocence. 'Joseph', the next instrumental track, is quite 'jolly', but not in a supercilious way, with the violin dancing playfully at times: quite understated at times, but positive as well. And then comes the 'epic'! The title track, 'A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows', twice the length of anything the band has done before, and drawing its inspiration from the urban dictionary of the same name by John Koenig, is for me the most accomplished song on the album. There's a wonderful contrast of tempos working together, with fast drums and slow keys & guitars overlapping. The song gives them time and space to develop ideas that I thought was lacking in the debut album - some tracks were just getting going when they finished. There are hints of Tangerine Dream in places for me, and even of Pink Floyd. In contrast to the epic, 'Thaw', the album closer, is the shortest song in the collection at just over 2 minutes, but it draws things to a close well - quiet, reflective, and atmospheric.

This album, if given the attention that it richly deserves, should increase Nova Cascade's reach into both the ambient & Progressive schools of music. There is definite and evident growth musically from their debut, and in such a short time too, and if that trajectory can be maintained we are certainly in line for more sublime music from the band. You can order a copy of the album here - I would strongly encourage you to do so!

Friday, 9 August 2019

Apolis - The Sun Has Fallen

When one mentions 'Progressive Rock', there are certain assumptions that many people make. One is that the genre is a particularly English phenomenon: most of the leading lights from the heyday of Prog were English, or at least British; another is that the songs will be at least 8 minutes long, and preferably 15 minutes-plus, and will be on some fantastic theme.

So when I was asked if I would listen to an album by a Greek band, my ears pricked up a little. I'm aware that Greek Prog has been around since at least the days of Aphrodite's Child, and that there are some excellent Greek bands out there at the moment - Verbal Delirium and Residuous Mentales are a couple that I have written about on this site - so my interest was piqued at the prospect of more. And then the album arrived. 15 tracks, a total playing time of around 50 minutes, and none of the songs were longer than 4:45.  Is this Prog, as we know it?, I found myself asking.

So I gave the album a listen.

The Sun Has Fallen is the work of Apolis, a three-piece band from Athens, who list their influences as including Socrates and Pink Floyd!: Tassos Loukos, vocals & guitar; Christos Kyrkilis, keyboards & piano; and Simos Melissourgos, bass & vocals. There are drums also on the album, but I'm not sure who plays them. The band have been together since 2008, but this is their first album, released in 2017. Well, I say first album: the band apparently were originally called 'The Sun Has Fallen' and released an album called 'Apolis' in 2008, but then changed their name and the name of the album accordingly! The cover art is simple yet effective, and reminded me of Utopia's album, 'Ra' a little.

The album opens with 'Intro', a simple instrumental lead into the songs with ringing arpeggio guitar into a crescendo of keys and swiftly segues into 'Solve Me'. This is a more driving, heavier song, with a powerful bluesy guitar riff that carries the song throughout, supported by a Hammond-esque keyboard, and a good rock-y guitar solo towards the end. My only gripe is that the vocal could be a little stronger. 'Misty Trips' is gentler, the vocals a little breathy, and the feel a little psychedelic, though the pace picks up as the song progresses as guitar and keys vie for dominance. 'The Yard of the Strangers' is the first, though not the last, song in 3/4, which gives it a different feel to the other songs so far. There is flute (or similar) throughout, and some simple but pleasant vocal harmonies in the chorus which gives a different feel to the tune. 'Just a Sweet Melody' has a slow funky vibe, with quiet, breathy vocals again that gives a laid-back feel enhanced by the guitar solo that comes in half-way through and again towards the end.

'Ariadnes's Thread' has a kind of Middle Eastern feel to it, and is slightly darker and more syncopated than hitherto, with a heavier, staccato edge with guitars and bass working well together. 'Evening Walk' is a gentle acoustic guitar song that grows with the addition of keys, drums and bass, and is the second song in 3/4 time. There is some oboe & xylophone sounds at times which gives an interesting colour to the song. 'Ridin' in The Night' is a longer instrumental track and for me one of the stand-out tracks on the album. A quieter tune, with funky, phased guitar & keys and some simple wordless vocalising. For me it had clear 70s blues-funk feel to it, almost Isaac Hayes-y at times, with some great screaming Hammond and driving bass towards the fade-out at the end. 'Inside War' opens with lyrical piano, and with the vocals comes some excellent fretless bass. And that's all that this song has - no guitars, no drums: just piano, fretless and voice, and that gives it an increased melancholia that is quite staggering at times.

'Face Your Idols' has fast arpeggio guitars in contrast to the last song, and almost military snare drums, then some more ponderous vocals. But the song changes its dynamic in places, and even its signature in the final section moving from 8/8 to 3/4. 'Bring Me Home' has some dominant bass and vocals that are almost rap-like in their attitude and style, though quite ponderous in their delivery at times (in a good way). Acoustic & electric guitars tootle alongside an almost Latin feel at times, and they then go into a radio fade to a quieter acoustic guitar to finish.. 'Waltz Of Fear' is, unsurprisingly, also in 3/4 time (!), and surprises with Oboe again and even accordion and upright bass, which give the song a distinctly "wooden", homely, almost Parisian feel to it. 'Apolis' is, I suppose, the band's theme song: a steady, ponderous tune with phased guitars & keys giving it a kind of Led Zeppelin's 'No Quarter' vibe musically combined with an almost Steven Wilson vocal edge. 'Outro' is just a solo plucked electric guitar and some quiet vocals that ends with 19 seconds of silence. And then, almost as a after-thought, or perhaps a coda, is 'Childhood', the final instrumental piece in this collection, a pleasant work of solo acoustic guitar that draws the album to a thoughtful and fitting conclusion.

So, is it Prog? And, in the end, does it matter? It is, I believe, a collection of interesting, stimulating, entertaining music, that touches on rock, blues, funk and ethnic European music, drawing it all together in a magical musical melting pot. This is an album that has grown on me with every listen, and I invite you to join me in discovering its many delights. With Apolis, Greece continues to give us some excellent contemporary music at the Progressive end of the spectrum, and long may it do so!

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

July's Music

July was a quiet month musically, as I spent most of the month in the throes of down-sizing, packing and moving house. So my only purchases were second-hand and quite old.

A visit to one of my favourite record stores, Record Collector in Broomhill, Sheffield, got me a couple of excellent discs. One was an album I had on cassette after going to see this guy play back in the late 1980s: Courtney Pine's 'The Vision's Tale', his third album. An excellent collection of jazz from players at the forefront of the New British Jazz scene in the late 1980s, and a delight to re-visit.
Alongside this was a copy of Gryphon's third album 'Red Queen to Gryphon Three': a joyful collection of four good-length instrumental tracks all in a progressive/ early music style which has wonderful appeal. The band have recently reformed and released their first album since 1977, and I must check it out.

On a trip out with my wife to the High Peak Bookshop (as you do) I came across a small shelf with music on, and among the small number of albums on offer were a couple of things that had been on my 'list' for a while now. The first was Miles Davis's 'Milestones', the album just before the seminal 'Kind of Blue', which saw the return to John Coltrane to Davis's band, alongside Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley, and which gives us some wonderful modal jazz written by Davis as well as Ahmad Jamal & Thelonius Monk among others. The other was actually a box set of five 70s albums by Boz Scaggs, in the Original Album Classics series - definitely neither Prog nor jazz. Of the 5, Moments and Slow Dancer have a certain appeal, though Middle Man & Down Two Then Left seem a little dated, but Silk Degrees - the only material of his I was previously aware of, mainly through the 3 hit singles of his and We're all Alone which was a hit for Rita Coolidge - stands out as a wonderful collection of songs, well-written, well-performed and well-sung. A definite departure for me, but a worthwhile one.

Just a short piece this month, but there'll be more shortly, as I settle into my new home and load the decks for more music...

Friday, 5 July 2019

June's Music

June was another good month for music, from my perspective: some excellent new stuff and some interesting steps back to forgotten or neglected gems from the past. There's been Progressive music from many genres: progressive rock, fusion, jazz and some a little hard to pigeonhole - but all good stuff, which at the end of the day is really all that matters.

Let's start with the new stuff.

Gandalf's Fist have recently produced a sort of prequel to their monumental 3-disc story-in-song, 2016's 'The Clockwork Fable': a 2-disc offering entitled 'The Clockwork Prologue'. Part narrative, part song, this tells a bizarre story of Cogtopolis with memorable tunes and some ripe language at times, but hugely enjoyable nontheless.

Completing his trilogy of albums begun with 'Courting The Widow' & 'The Bride Says No', Nad Sylvan - one-time singer with Unifaun and Steve Hackett's go-to vocalist for the Genesis Revisited tours - brings us 'The Regal Bastard' which is full of the same thoughtful prog with Sylvan's Gabriel-esque vocals to the fore.

Also completing a trilogy are Freedom To Glide, whose 'Seed' brings to an end their exploration of the First World War begun with 2013's 'Rain' and continued with 2016's 'Fall'. Few albums have affected me as much as this one, and after the first listen I was in tears - absolutely stunning work and even at this stage in the year in line to be very high in my end of year list.

Firefly Burning have released their third album, 'Breathe Shallow'. It's very hard to describe their music, which I first encountered in the 'church slot' at Summer's End a couple of years ago: there are elements of folk, classical, country, world music... all sorts. Bea Hankey's voice draws you in around the melee of music and on the whole it's wonderfully enchanting stuff, though so far this album hasn't captivated me as much as their previous one, 'Skeleton Hill'. Maybe it needs more time...

Bad Elephant Music have given us two offerings this month. First came Introitus with 'Shadows', a band I was unfamiliar with. There are echoes for me here of Karnataka and Muse in places, and this is a good mix of vocal and instrumental tracks with a couple of meaty 'epics'. And towards the end of the month there was the fourth album from The Gift - 'Antenna'. This is still 'bedding in' with me, but so far it doesn't seem to have the immediacy of their earlier albums. Maybe it will grow...

Away from Progressive Rock there's been a couple of new jazz acquisitions from Edition Records, both from piano/ bass/ drums trios. Alexi Tuamarilo Trio have produced a couple of excellent earlier albums in the past, and their latest, 'Sphere', is another great collection, enhanced on three of the tracks by trumpeter Verneri Pohjola: moody, moving and magnificent! Alongside this is the latest from Elliot Galvin - 'Modern Times', which is just as good and maybe a little more melodic.

The new album from Bruce Springsteen, 'Western Stars', is a wonderful example of The Boss's knack of telling moving stories through simple melodies, and although it's more country than Jersey - more Mid West than East coast - there's no denying it's Bruce and the songs are instantly memorable and feel like they've been around for ages.

I took the plunge last month with Gong, and this month I've given their latest album, 'The Universe Also Collapses' a spin. Although a different band now, with Kavus Torabi taking the mic and guitar, there is still that Gong magic: the music is deep and complex yet at the same time approachable, and I am so much looking forward to seeing them supporting Steve Hillage later this year.

Among the older stuff was another Gong album, 'Shamal', very much at the jazzier, fusion end of their music. Very much in the fusion 'camp' is The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and I recently treated myself to their first 5 albums, 2 of which - 'Apocalypse' & 'Visions of the Emerald Beyond' were new to me. All five albums are, of course, stunning.

Browsing around HMV (as I am wont to do) a couple of albums  commended themselves to me. One was Scott Walker's debut solo album, inventively titles 'Scott' which has some outstanding songs on it, just, in 1967, showing signs of going out on a musical limb a little. Another was a compilation collection of songs from Creedence Clearwater Revival. I was only really familiar with their singles, so it was good to hear a little more of their repertoire which (to quote the CD sleeve) "fused the raw, organic honesty of country music with the fire and urgency of rock'n'roll to create a catalogue that even four decades [now 5 decades] later still sounds fresh and vibrant."

So, that's been most of my listening over the past month. No live gigs this month, apart from a visit by Christian singer/ songwriter Paul Field to the church in Ashby, which was a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon. And then there were a couple of early listens to up-coming albums from Magic Pie - a belter, really - and Pattern-Seeking Animals, who draw heavily for personnel on Spock's Beard, which shows in the music: pleasant-enough, if you like Spock's Beard...

Here's to the second half of the year! July is already looking interesting and mixed in content... but there's a house move to fit in sometime.

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.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Residuos Mentales - Introspection

The kind of music that I tend to listen to - Progressive Rock - has a reputation for certain traits, and one of these is the Concept Album: the idea that there can be an overarching story across a whole album, linking the songs and reaching a satisfying conclusion by the end of side 2 (or more often side 4), back in the halcyon days of gatefold vinyl. This is done with musical themes but mainly through the lyrical arc of the songs.

But how do you tell that story on an instrumental album? Can you? Well, Residuos Mentales is a studio project from Athens, Greece consisting of Stratos Morianos (keyboards, also member of Verbal Delirium) and Alexandros Mantas (guitars, flute) which was formed back in 2012, and on Introspection, their debut release from 2018, they aim and claim to do that over 38 minutes of linked songs.

 The 'story' opens with Pandora's Box, with some ambient sounds on keyboards and almost city sounds, before the piano gently fades in. This is thoughtful and ponderous stuff, that slowly builds and develops almost a heartbeat as inner voices are unleashed. Alienated builds the mood further with thunder and piano arpeggios which are then joined by brooding cello with a strong classical feel. Immersed begins with the sound of a needle on vinyl, as if a record is being played: “With the right music, you either forget everything or you remember everything” and here it seems memories come flooding back, illustrated through the interplay of piano, guitar, bass & violin culminating in a swell of melancholy. The Thorn in Me brings us some vocalised keys accompanying some reflective guitar, flute, strings and some quiet electric guitar. This is, for me, one of the more accomplished parts of this album - a stunning piece of instrumental music which builds very nicely, and we finally get some drums about 3 minutes in!

My Stories has almost a Tangerine Dream feel to it, using strong electronic loops, and introduces some spoken word via a soundtrack to the film "The Words". (A Prospect of) A Blooming Life is an interplay between piano & classical guitar, joined later by cello, and has that sense of a hope and expectancy for the future that can often be lost. Home has some humming vocals behind the guitars early on, and has a distinct Camel feel for me in places. It All Becomes Clear has a drone to it that is quite Floyd-ian (Is there anybody out there?), and what appears to be radio static and 'bleeps' behind some reflective guitar. Drums give some urgency to the song as it ends, enhancing the rhythm of the guitar melody.

Narrative has a Spanish air to it, with the guitars bringing almost an air of jollity to the album for the first time, albeit reflective jollity! The strings give a sense of movement to the piece, and what sounds like Theremin near the end took me back to Ripples by Genesis. On The Borderline is quite upbeat - the jollity returns! - and again the sense of movement is evident, almost as if we're on a train. There's some laughter in places (manic?), too, and this is a very cinematic section. We close with A Promise Unkept/ Mental Residuals which is a wonderful jazzy piece (in 5/8, I think), with guitars, keys & flute all taking the lead at times. Towards the end it almost begins to break down structurally, until we are left in the end with a simple bass note on the piano.

This is an album that grows with listening and reveals more depth the more you immerse yourself in it. Listening at home today was a different experience to hearing it the first time yesterday in the car, and one can always find more in this music as one listens. Not the most upbeat music, but then it is entitled 'Introspection': though it does have its moments, especially towards the end. There are clear influences for me from classical music, from 'classic' Progressive rock, and some jazz notes too - all of which, for me, are a delight. Perhaps for me the stand-out tracks are the two longest ones - The Thorn in Me and A Promise Unkept - but as a whole an excellent debut.

Did it tell a story, though? Well, the band said that the theme is this: "Memories and feelings mingle. A futile attempt to get to the bottom of it. But does it make sense? Will you get anywhere or back to square one? But there is no need to think about it because you’ll do it anyway, after all the rain has this knack of retrieving memories and every time the needle lands on a spinning vinyl, the music either makes you remember or forget everything, you never know beforehand. But it is everything that is coming back, your stories…an introspection." I'm not sure whether I would have gleaned that just from the music, but you know what? They took me on a journey, and a very pleasant one at that, and that's good enough for me!