Author Archives: Nick

Hand.Cannot.Erase. – Live

This is not a proper gig review.

I’ve not got the time right now to do it justice, and besides, I’m still trying to process what I witnessed last night in Manchester.

So this is just me trying to get a few random thoughts and impressions committed to whatever the wordpress.com equivalent of paper is (data centre hard disk, I guess), before the buzz I’m still feeling subsides and the memory fades.

First things first: Wilson is a showman. Or rather, he’s grown into one. I’ve seen Porcupine Tree three times live and don’t remember him being as confident and self-assured with PT as he now is in front of an audience. He knows he’s produced a superb album (just the latest in a string of superb albums, let’s face it) and he knows he has musicians on stage with him who can deliver every nuance, night after night.

Of course, it’s not just about the music. Sure, he could walk on stage with his band, they could play and we could all go home happy that we’d been at a good gig. But a Steven Wilson show is more than that. It’s an experience, a veritable feast for the senses. The videos and lighting effects complement the music brilliantly. However, you don’t need to take my word for that: just check out Lasse Hoile’s photographs from the Manchester show. I’m getting shivers right now simply looking at them, as the memories come back to flood the synapses.

Attention to detail is the phrase that springs to mind – both in the way a Steven Wilson gig is presented to the audience visually and in the way that it actually sounds. A crap PA or poor venue acoustics can turn brilliant music from the greatest of bands into an evening’s entertainment that is mediocre at best. But that most emphatically is not the case here. I’ve seen him live on each of his solo tours and each time, the sound is up there with the best I’ve ever heard at a gig: not just good, but quadraphonic, to boot!

I won’t say too much about the set here, in case any of you reading this have tickets for upcoming gigs and want to avoid spoilers. However, I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that he concentrates on the new album. The new material translates effortlessly to the live setting, particular highlights being the thrilling crescendo of Ancestral and the subsequent heart-wrenching rendition of Happy Returns. The emotional punch of the latter brings a lump to the throat, demolishing the common misconception that prog is cold or overly cerebral.

If the opportunity arises to catch this show then grab it with both hands. Seriously. If you have any liking for his music, this is something that you do not want to miss.

February First Impressions…

As Winter gives way to another Spring, new album releases are finding their way onto my radar in ever increasing numbers. Three new CDs dropped onto my doormat in rapid succession a couple of days ago and each, in its own way, is making a big first impression.

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First up, we have Please Come Home, by Lonely Robot, John Mitchell’s new solo project. This is a disc that grabs you immediately – melodic and catchy as hell, with superb guitar playing throughout. If you enjoyed Sound Of Contact’s debut, or the recent release from former SoC member Dave Kerzner, there’s a strong possibility that you will fall in love with this. A proper review will follow soon…

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Next is Public Service Broadcasting‘s second full album release, The Race For Space. If you’ve not heard this band, you really should give them a listen. They expertly blend sampled clips from various audiovisual archives with a unique musical style that is very difficult to pin down, leaping between pop, dance, ambient & electronic. Imagine if Kraftwerk played conventional instruments as well as synths… and were English… and wore tweed. It isn’t prog but it is innovative and highly entertaining. This album scores bonus points with an unashamed space geek like me simply because of its subject matter: the ‘golden era’ of space exploration, from Sputnik through to Apollo 17.

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Finally, we have Sanguine Hum’s double-CD magnum opus, Now We Have Light. Confronted with this sprawling, ambitious epic, I can imagine just how a Genesis fan must have felt back in 1974, expecting another Selling England but faced with the intense, bewildering genius of The Lamb. On the strength of just two listens, it’s already clear that this is an altogether darker, more mature and more subtle offering than its excellent predecessor, The Weight Of The World. Dare I say an early candidate for Album Of The Year? Time will tell. It’s going to take me a while to untangle the complex musical threads of this album and make sense of it all, but it’s an adventure I look forward to with relish…

In The Zone

For quite a while now, I’ve been intrigued by Swedish proggers Beardfish and their distinctive, highly imaginative output. My level of interest grew considerably on encountering them live in 2013, in an all-too-brief slot supporting Spock’s Beard. Since then, I’ve been awaiting new music from them with a great sense of anticipation.

What, then, to make of latest release +4626-COMFORTZONE?

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First, and most obviously, there’s that bizarre title – a reference to the dialling code for the birthplace of songwriter & founder member Rikard Sjöblom and his compatriots, and to the stifling small-town attitudes that can persist in such places. This, indeed, seems to be a theme linking several tracks on the album, not least Comfort Zone, where the protagonist bemoans his inability to leave that smothering environment, declaring

I don’t even like it here
And I do nothing but curse the very lot of you
I hate everything and everyone – except for the chosen few

A lifetime suffering bullying and intolerance in such places can lead to even more extreme antipathy, as demonstrated in Can You See Me Now?, the dark tale of a killer “setting out with a scythe to calm their hubris”. The message conveyed here is a powerful one:

And as your children shape themselves in your image
When they grow up to be just like you
And when they push the kid with the glasses
Face-first in a puddle of mud
Will you secretly smile and think “That’s my boy”?

Memorable though these moments are, it is the second half of this album that truly shines, offering depth and variety aplenty. The One Inside: Part 2 is delicately melodic, subtle and restrained, standing in stark contrast to out-and-out rocker Daughter / Whore. The latter, with its cheeky opening nod to Motörhead, evokes the gritty heaviness that characterised much of 2012’s riff-saturated The Void, but overall, the album is closer in feel to the signature expansive progginess that graced 2011 release Mammoth and, more particularly, its predecessor Destined Solitaire.

Two other tracks deserve special mention. If We Must Be Apart (A Love Story Continued) is the long-overdue sequel to an epic from 2005’s The Sane Day. As the longest track on the album, it is equally deserving of the ‘epic’ moniker. A Love Story dealt with a relationship break-up and this superior follow-up charts its distant aftermath. The story is terribly poignant, telling of a woman who can’t forget her past:

Now he’s more of a ghost who haunts her
And her husband can never know
Even with the new life that grows inside her
She still thinks about him from time to time

Her thoughts are interwoven with the words of her former lover who, unable to live in the present, writes her a desperate letter:

I cannot believe it’s been so long since we last spoke
You should see me now and how my life is just a joke
Everything I do reminds me of everything we used to do

Suddenly, events take a much darker and more disturbing turn, encompassing suicide threats, Internet stalking, black magic and a drug overdose, leading to a shocking conclusion:

She remembers that night when she found him laying
Curled up like a ball inside a circle of candle lights
He wasn’t dead, he wasn’t there, it wasn’t him no more

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, because unexpected twists and turns are a hallmark of this most fascinating of bands. Anyway, this track can justly lay claim to being the album’s masterpiece.

Ode To The Rock’n’Roller is even more compelling – from a lyrical perspective, at least – than If We Must Be Apart. Rooted in bitter personal experience, with its barbed swipe at the tribute band circuit and the attitudes of some music ‘fans’, it proves that Sjöblom can rival Andy Tillison for acerbic wit.

The song’s protagonist experiences a moment on stage where he feels transported to “a place where they make music that’s not written to accompany the vacuuming of your flat”, where “one minute I was rolling’ on the river, the next I was caught up in the rites of spring”. Predictably, this doesn’t go down well with the paying customers:

They look pretty pissed out there
I opened my heart and my soul for you
But you didn’t understand – your mind was locked
You just thought I was trying to be cool

Sjöblom leaves us in no doubt as to his disdain for these closed minds:

They didn’t come here to listen, they came here to drink
So play those three chords over and over
So they don’t have to think
Be that noise in the background
Just keep it on the backbeat
The rhythm of drinking
Til the singer goes “Yeah Yeah Ye-ah”

Thankfully, Beardfish are not content with being just a noise in the background. This album more than holds its own amongst their stellar prog portfolio, being cleaner sounding and more refined than predecessor The Void, and deliciously dark, to boot. Thoroughly recommended.

Works Of Art

First there was the announcement of the new Flying Colors album, then the upcoming release from The Pineapple Thief was revealed, then Brad posted about this little beauty from North Atlantic Oscillation heading our way.

Did I miss something? Has 2014 been declared Year Of Gorgeous Album Artwork without me noticing?

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Madness Returns: More From Lunatic Soul

A new release from Lunatic Soul, the solo side-project of Riverside’s Mariusz Duda, is due on 13 October, according to Kscope.

Mariusz regards the 64-minute new album, entitled Walking On A Flashlight Beam, as “dark and intense”, “very melodious” and “one of the best things I’ve ever written” – all of which has my prog salivary glands working overtime.

Here’s a very brief taste of what’s to come…

Abel Ganz – a Mini-Review

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Veteran Scottish proggers Abel Ganz, Alan Reed’s alma mater, released an album this month – their first since 2008’s Shooting Albatross.

The eponymous Abel Ganz is a whopping 72 minutes of new music and marks a deliberate attempt to move in a new direction, absorbing new influences. But the key thing you need to know is that it’s utterly splendid. Just a single listen was enough to put it squarely on my ‘Albums Of The Year’ shortlist and have me staying up late to share my excitement with you here in the hallowed pages of Progarchy.

I can’t offer much beyond some basic impressions after spending such a short time with this music, but here they are, for what they’re worth:

Delusions of Grandeur is a short instrumental opener that starts with delicate piano and oboe, then a crescendo of strings – just an orchestral appetiser for what is to follow.

Obsolescence is up next – an epic in five parts, totalling nearly 22 min. Part 1 is fleetingly reminiscent of Steve Hackett’s Narnia in a couple of places, but the acoustic guitar and harmonies are mostly of the Crosby, Stills & Nash sort, setting up the lovely summery vibe that pervades the album. Part 2 layers drums, synth and recorders on top of that acoustic loveliness, yielding some up-beat pop that is sure to have you tapping your feet and singing along. Bass guitar comes to the fore in Part 3, before some classic prog synth soloing. Part 4 returns us to largely acoustic territory initially, augmenting guitar with flute, before building to a crescendo of church organ sounds. Part 5 closes the suite with some electric guitar that starts somewhat wistfully and then develops into a more epic solo.

Spring is another short instrumental track, this time played entirely on acoustic guitar, serving as a bridge to subsequent more substantial pieces.

Recuerdos takes a leaf out of Big Big Train’s book and brings a brass band into play. Brass and acoustic guitar interweave over the soft chirrup of cicadas in this delicate and rather beautiful song, one of the highlights of the album.

As Heartland begins, the sound of insects morphs into the noises of a children’s playground and then the song develops a distinctly eastern flavour, both rhythmically and melodically, the latter due largely to some heavily treated female vocals that sound like they are being played backwards.

The album’s third instrumental track, End Of Rain, has a repeating acoustic guitar motif at its core but surrounds this with more conventionally proggy sounds, Mellotron included. The outro is unusual, played solely on bass and drums.

By way of contrast, Thank You has a warm and very traditional feel, even to the point of having lyrics that are partly in gaelic. It’s part folk and part country (complete with slide guitar), but the mash-up is surprisingly effective.

The oddly-titled A Portion of Noodles is the last and best of the album’s four instrumentals. It’s a purely acoustic track, like Spring, but is melodically more interesting.

Clocking in at over 14 minutes, penultimate track Unconditional is the longest single piece on the album (the five parts of Obsolescence being identified as separate tracks). It’s a good solid prog epic that flirts with jazz for a brief period, 4 minutes in.

Brass is at the forefront in closing track The Drowning, adding a tinge of melancholy to this understated piece.

In summary: this is gorgeous, summery, acoustic prog – and you really need it in your life. Head over to Bandcamp now to listen and buy.

Celebr8.3, Day 1

The third, and sadly last, outing for this two-day celebration of all things prog saw it decamp from the seedier previous setting of a Kingston-Upon-Thames nightclub to the far more salubrious surroundings of Islington Assembly Hall, an elegant 1930s municipal building in a fashionable part of north London.

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Aptly, veterans Twelfth Night kicked off this final incarnation of the festival with what is supposedly their last ever performance. One can only hope that they reconsider after a barnstorming set drawn for the most part from their classic Fact & Fiction album. Clive Mitten took to the stage looking more like a retired gentleman on his way to the village cricket match than a bassist in a rock band – but looks are deceptive, as Peter Gabriel once sang, and it soon became clear that age has not dimmed the musical power and presence of these Britprog legends. Longtime friend of the band Mark Spencer, guesting as frontman before a stint on bass for Galahad the following day, did a fine job of interpreting the singular vision of the late lamented Geoff Mann.

The ranks in front of the stage thinned noticeably for second act, Thumpermonkey – which was rather a shame, as these heavy progressive modernists are true innovators. Theirs was a challenging and noisy set focusing largely on new or less familiar material, although Asymptote from 2007’s Bring Me Sun For Breakfast made a very welcome appearance, eliciting the biggest response from the audience. Some of the subtlety was lost in a mix that unduly favoured Michael Woodman’s lead guitar at the expense of Rael Jones’ keyboards, but despite these small concerns this was an engrossing performance – dense and complex to be sure, and quite different from what had preceded it, but highly rewarding for those who gave it their full attention.

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Those unsettled by the uncompromisingly tricky Thumpermonkey will presumably have found Karmakanic‘s particular brand of melodic prog to be the musical equivalent of an Alka Seltzer. Bassist Jonas Reingold was a tall, muscular presence on stage, commanding his troops with calm authority and taking every opportunity to impress with his virtuosity. The cast of musicians at his disposal included the versatile and precociously gifted Luke Machin on guitar, the stellar twin talents of Lalle Larsson and Andy Tillison on keyboards and the rich voice of Göran Edman. The marvellously full sound created by this starstudded ensemble also benefited from the best mix of the day thus far. A powerful and affecting Where Earth Meets The Sky was overshadowed somewhat by the bold decision to close the set with a stunning, previously-unheard 30-minute epic having the provocative working title of God, The Universe and Everything Else Nobody Cares About. It doesn’t get much more prog than this, folks!

Perennial favourites Anathema, in three-piece acoustic mode, occupied the evening session’s support slot. Those who’ve seen them in this form will know only too well that such downsizing barely diminishes their ability to excite and stir the emotions of an audience. Their opening salvo of the beautifully dovetailed Untouchable Parts 1 & 2, from 2012’s Weather Systems was followed by another crowd favourite, the achingly sublime Dreaming Light from We’re Here Because We’re Here. Longtime fans were catered for by the inclusion of older tracks Flying and a gorgeous, wistful A Natural Disaster, before the set closed with a world premiere of the hypnotic title track from new album Distant Satellites, heard here a week before its release. It was magical but over all too soon, leaving us with the hope that a full-band headlining tour will be coming our way before long.

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Delight was mixed with a sense of déjà vu when headliners The Tangent took to the stage, for this group of familiar faces was nothing more than a reconfigured Karmakanic, with Andy Tillison now at the helm. Evening TV from latest release Le Sacre du Travail provided an energetic start to proceedings before a short hiatus while keyboard problems were sorted out. Consummate professional that he is, Andy was able to make light of it all, name-checking Progarchy’s own Alison Henderson for her astute observation in an earlier review that it wouldn’t be a Tangent gig without some kind of technical fuck-up.

After this uncertain start, it didn’t take long for the band to settle into their groove via an impressive Perdu Dans Paris and equally strong GPS Culture, both given additional texture and depth by the sax- and flute-based contributions of guest Theo Travis, but the highlight of the set surely had to be the lengthy closing piece, a superb rendition of the In Darkest Dreams suite that included the haunting and atmospheric Tangerine Dream homage AfterRicochet.

After an encore of an up-tempo untitled new track, the band morphed back into their Karmakanic configuration for rousing anthem Turn It Up, ending proceedings on a suitably joyous note before the tired but happy revellers dispersed to the homes and hotels of London and beyond, to recuperate for Day 2…

Coming up in Part 2: Galahad, Sanguine Hum, Cosmograf, The Fierce & The Dead and Frost*

Total Mass Retain: Yes at Sheffield City Hall, 7 May 2014

Pedants and purists will forever grumble about Yes line-ups that feature neither Jon Anderson nor Rick Wakeman, but the fact remains that a performance of The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and Going For The One in their entirety was simply too good an opportunity to miss. After all, how many more chances will any of us get to hear Awaken in all its shiver-inducing, goosebump-raising magnificence? Hence we needed no persuading to make the relatively short train journey south from Leeds to Sheffield for this very special show, the fifth UK date of the band’s extensive three-album tour.

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As we took our seats after collecting our VIP passes and goody bags, I couldn’t help thinking that the art deco interior of this Grade II-listed building was a fitting venue for music with such a distinguished pedigree, but there was little time for further rumination as the house lights dimmed and the languid opening notes of the familiar Firebird Suite intro tape sounded out across the Oval Hall. A screen above the drum riser displayed a fast-moving montage of photos, magazine covers, promotional posters and gig tickets from tours past, before the band took to the stage, readied themselves and then launched into Close To The Edge.

You read that right: they began with Close To The Edge – arguably the most intricate and complex piece in the entire set. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the first few minutes weren’t as tight or assured as they could have been. What with this and the disturbance of latecomers wanting us to move so they could find their allotted seats – a literal case of “I get up, I get down” – the start of the show didn’t quite have the impact I was hoping for. But it didn’t take long for that feeling to pass. Soon enough, the band were fully warmed up and, as ‘Total Mass Retain’ segued into Chris & Steve’s “In her white lace…” vocal duet, the music was casting its spell over the audience and the anticipated goosebumps were all present and correct.

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And You And I was just as magical and moving as you’d expect, and Siberian Khatru just as powerful, if played a bit more sedately than the band would have countenanced in their younger days. All three pieces from this most definitive of albums earned rapturous applause and standing ovations from the crowd, but it all seemed to have passed too quickly – the hallmark of those classic gigs where you are so captivated that you lose any sense of time.

All too soon, it seemed, Steve Howe was introducing the second album of the evening, Going For The One. This was the undoubted highlight of the show for me, not because it is my favourite Yes album – it isn’t – but because Wonderous Stories was the only track from it that I had previously witnessed in concert. To say I was giddy with anticipation at experiencing the rest of the album performed live is a massive understatement. In fact, this segment of the show put me in such a state of transcendent joy that I’m struggling here to provide any cogent analysis. Had a camera been pointed at me for the next forty glorious minutes it would undoubtedly have captured a facial expression alternating between ‘big dumb grin’ and the quivering lower lip of someone valiantly attempting (but failing) to ‘keep their shit together’.

After the earnestness of CTTE, Going For The One’s title track gave the band their first opportunity to cut loose and really rock out, an opportunity which they seized hungrily. Parallels, too, packed a powerful punch. But it was in recreating the album’s more delicate moments that this segment ascended to even greater heights. Turn Of The Century, undeniably beautiful in its recorded form, was an absolute revelation live, thanks to a peerless vocal performance from Jon Davison. It was the biggest emotional hammer blow of the evening so far, if the lump in my throat and the moistness of my eyes were anything to go by – exceeded only by an utterly mesmerising rendition of epic pagan hymn Awaken that put tears on the cheeks of many of those present (myself included). It was a fitting climax to the first half of the show and gave us the interval to pull ourselves together!

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Twenty minutes later, the house lights dimmed a second time for the evening’s final act: The Yes Album. With the intensity of CTTE and GFTO behind them, the band seemed more relaxed, moving effortlessly through the album’s six classic tracks. Yours Is No Disgrace and Starship Trooper were every bit the crowd-pleasers you’d expect them to be, whereas the reception given to the long-unplayed A Venture was more polite than rapturous. Curiously, the stand-out piece for me was Clap, played flawlessly by Howe and earning a huge cheer from the audience. Seriously, I don’t recall a single missed note or buzzing string. The man’s powers seem remarkably undiminished by time, praise be.

That left only the customary encore of Roundabout, as energetic and rousing as ever, bringing most of the audience to their feet and prompting some of those in front of the stage to move around in a manner perilously close to ‘dancing’ – hardly the most natural state for prog fans, it must be said! The band lingered on stage for a while, revelling in the crowd’s lengthy ovation, and then it was time for us all to head home, drained by the experience but with a buzz that would last for days and precious memories that will live considerably longer than that.

I suppose I should finish by considering new vocalist Jon Davison. On this evidence, he is a fine fit for the role. Predecessor Benoit David’s voice is closer in timbre to Jon Anderson’s, but Davison’s has superior purity and power – and he also seems more of a natural showman than Benoit. It will be fascinating to hear how he sounds on forthcoming album Heaven And Earth.

Making Memories

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You know we’re havin’ good days
And we hope they’re gonna last,
Our future still looks brighter than our past.
We feel no need to worry,
No reason to be sad.
Our memories remind us
Maybe road life’s not so bad.

 

Thank you, Alex, Geddy & Neil.

It’s been an immense pleasure and privilege to have you in my life for the last 35 of your 40 glorious years as rock’s greatest trio. On behalf of all Rush fans, let me wish you well and say that we are looking forward to more road life memories in 2015!

BBT Video Opportunity

Fancy appearing on the forthcoming Big Big Train DVD?

All you need to do is film yourself asking the band a question. Greg Spawton provides further details on his blog.

Let’s see if any Progarchists can be immortalised on video…

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