Author Archives: Russell Clarke

Two Thousand Thirteen Top Ten Tracks

Look at all those ‘T’s in the title. Beautiful! Alliteratively awesome! You don’t know how long it took me to come up with that!

I must admit to being slightly uncomfortable about dropping the ‘and’ though. It’s so…ahem…un-British.

The things I do for my art. Ho hum.

Anyway as we are fast approaching the last day of the ISO8601-designated year Two Thousand AND Thirteen (phew, payback!) it’s time to reflect on the high points of the past solar cycle. Life’s too short to dwell on stuff I hate, therefore this post won’t contain anything about politicians, rap or raw celery. Yes – only raw. Cooked is nom.

If my ears could talk* (or access a Twitter account) they would no doubt mention the fact that 2013 has been a fantastic year for them. My tinnitus definitely not included, some truly virtuous vibrations have occupied my ossicles, careened around my cochleas, camped in my cortexes (insular, cingulate and prefrontal, naturally,) harassed my hypothalamus and hippocampus and attacked my amygdala. They have emancipated my endorphins and endocannabinoids, drenched me in dopamine and nurtured my nitric oxide. Laughter, tears and all that lies in between have resulted.

Now, I’ve always been an albums kind of chap. My particular brand of OCD means I must listen to an entire album from end to end. I distrust the very concept of track shuffling, mixtapes and best-ofs – it just seems wrong, somehow disrespectful to the skipped tracks and to the artists. Perhaps it’s just my egalitarian nature – share the love!

This year, however, I am going to go against my nature. Here I present my list of favourite individual tracks from the past just-under-365-and-a-quarter-days.

Yes! Mr Clarke lives on the edge like this every day of his life…

Anyways, without further ado, I present my list of fave choons from this year!

…OK…just a little more ado.

My ranking system is simple. It’s a list of n tracks (where n is a number probably,) presented in no particular order. To get into this list, a song must:

  1. Be released in 2013.
  2. Still be played regularly by me.
  3. Make me grin / laugh / cry / dance (!) / drive erratically.
  4. Ermmm…that’s it.

Simple!

Right, no more ado. I promise. All the ados have been used up. They’re all gone. Yes, no more ados whatsever. No siree Bob! This is now an ado-free zone! What’s an ado, by the way?

Big Big Train – East Coast Racer

She flies!

Yes she bloody does!

’nuff said.

http://bigbigtrain.bandcamp.com/track/east-coast-racer-2

 Camelias Garden – Some Stories

While the entire album ‘You Have a Chance’ is a great listening experience, there’s something about the opening track that’s so warm, so inviting, and so delightful, that it has wormed its way into my brain, settled there, laid eggs and had a very large family. It has since built an extension onto its bungalow. And then the grandchildren came along…

I don’t really begrudge that it’s not paying rent.

http://cameliasgarden.bandcamp.com/track/some-stories

Big Big Train – The Lovers

This was first released on the Make Some Noise EP, and then soon after on the utterly sublime English Electric: Full Power album which, if I was doing a Two Thousand Thirteen Top Ten Albums post, (which I’m obviously not…) would have easily taken at least the first 7 positions.

The track starts off relatively sedately and simple with acoustic guitar and flute, but soon builds into the most incredible listening experience. The instrumental break (surely meant to portray a love scene – which it does so well!) is just legendary – Danny’s electric piano, Greg’s bass and Nick’s drums doing something absolutely amazing to my brain – and then Dave’s guitar – oh the guitar! On it goes before reaching a very satisfying climax (so to speak) via sweeping melloton and David’s soaring vocals. So! Damn! Good!

http://bigbigtrain.bandcamp.com/track/the-lovers-2

Cosmograf – When The Air Runs Out

If you haven’t heard how good the Cosmograf album ‘The Man Left In Space’ is, you must have been left in space.

‘When The Air Runs Out’ is a track I can’t get enough of. Its a brooding epic – its musical acrobatics send a shiver down my spine every time I hear it. Actually I get a shiver every time I think about it. It’s definitely my favourite sad moment of 2013 – oh come on, we’ve all got  to have one!

The rollcall of the ‘giants of their time’ is quite sobering – we’re all brilliant until we’re not – so what should we do when the air runs out?

A true tragic gem.

http://cosmograf.bandcamp.com/track/when-the-air-runs-out

Thieves’ Kitchen – Of Sparks And Spires

There’s something about this song that got stuck in my head the first time I heard it, and it’s still there. It’s such a delightfully-put-together track with a real earworm of an organ riff. Lyrically this song tugs at my (admittedly somewhat idealised) view of an England far away in time and place. And what a great, uplifting finish! It’s crescendo almost takes the crown from the closing track of their 2008 masterwork The Water Road. Brilliant!

http://thieveskitchen.bandcamp.com/track/of-sparks-and-spires

Spock’s Beard – A Treasure Abandoned

Uplifting and bombastic. And just when you thought you were fully lifted up and bombasted, it lifts you up and bombasts you even more.

This track seems to use every move in the prog playbook so in some ways I feel I’ve heard it all before but it’s just done so beautifully all is forgiven!

The Beard’s latest album ‘Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep’ has been a welcome return to a form that’s been missing for me since their last great album – V.

http://spocksbeard.bandcamp.com/track/a-treasure-abandoned-2

Big Big Train – The Permanent Way

I still remember the moment I first heard this track, and exploded in laughter and tears, pretty much all at the same time. I adore ‘Hedgerow’ from EE:Part 1 -  I can’t sing along to ‘That is where you will find me…’ without choking up. Hedgerow perfectly captures so many of the feelings I have about my erstwhile homeland. Every time I hear it I’m taken back to happier, simpler times. So imagine my surprise and delight when the same refrain made an appearance in TPW!

Boom! It was an amazing moment to find so much new meaning in a phrase that had already become an old friend. Kudos, BBT!

http://bigbigtrain.bandcamp.com/track/the-permanent-way-2

Haken – Pareidolia

‘The Mountain’ surprised me this year. We were on holiday in Europe when I first heard a snippet of it and couldn’t wait to get home to order it. The album’s opening tracks ‘The Path’ and ‘Atlas Stone’ are immensely, arse-kickingly satisfying, but the standout track for me is Pareidolia. The roiling opening moments of bass, sitar, guitar, tabla build to what must be the most yellable chorus of the year:

Be the moon and sun
Be the wind and cross the storm
See the stars begin to swarm
Read the writings in the stone

Go on, try it!

Big Big Train – Seen Better Days

What can I say about this song?

Quite a lot actually.

Big Big Train’s four most recent albums have dealt pretty-much exclusively with the country in which I was born and raised – a country that I grew to dislike and then hate, and eventually in 2001 leave in a bit of a huff.

9 years pass…

…and so to the reconciliation…

I was very fortunate to stumble across BBT’s The Underfall Yard. Through listening to that album I faced and (mostly) resolved the disdain I had for my homeland, projected from the shores of New Zealand, where I now reside. Music is a very healing thing, you know! English Electric Parts One, Two, and now Full Power brought more stories of the amazing and the ordinary, of epic and personal themes, all of which I felt I have a strong connection to. So what does all that have to do with Seen Better Days? Well, to me it takes everything from the past 4 BBT albums and distils their essence to what, for me, is a most compelling story of greatness, decline, love and loss.

I don’t need to mention the incredible level of musicianship on display here as you all know BBT are second-to-none in that department, but I must give special props to Greg’s bass playing on this track. ‘MAJESTIC’ is the only word that’s appropriate.

http://bigbigtrain.bandcamp.com/track/seen-better-days

And finally…

Anyway that’s my list. Thanks for reading. Have a splendid December however you choose to celebrate whatever it is you celebrate. Personally I will be celebrating not having to go to work.

…ok not finally!

2013 has been a very special year, mostly because of Scott and I schlepping across the Equator to Europe and the UK (yes, the Brits don’t like to think they’re part of Europe. At least they and Europe agree on something.)

I may have mentioned this a few times, but The Big Big Weekend was a simply fantastic couple of days spent in the south west of England. Thanks to everyone for making it such a special occasion – the memories stay with us and I hope we can all get together again one day.

If, dear reader, you are one of the few who have managed to miss my incessant spamming of Facebook with these videos, it’s your lucky day. Never has Youtube contained video of such a delightful bunch of chaps and chapesses. And if you have seen it all before, watch it once more just for shits and giggles!

Mary Christmas! Whoever she is.

*Rest assured, if my ears did start talking I would have them removed immediately, kind of van Gogh-like. The voices I already have in my head – the ones telling me to eat celery (raw), listen to rap and politicians – are more than enough to keep me company thank you very much indeed.

The Big Big Weekend 2013 – Day 2 in Video

The moment you’ve all been waiting for!

Day 2 of The Big Big Weekend saw us head South of Winchester to Southampton to visit Rob Aubrey’s Aubitt Studios. There we met Andy Poole and Rob for a fascinating couple of hours learning how the astonishingly splendid track ‘Judas Unrepentant’ was crafted.

With a guest appearance from Steve Thorne, a sneak preview of the Make Some Noise video a week before it was released, and a sample of the Big Big Train Beer, this was the perfect way to end an amazing weekend among friends.

You can find video of Day 1 here… http://progarchy.com/2013/09/25/the-big-big-weekend-2013-day-1-in-video/

The Big Big Weekend 2013 – Day 1 in Video

What happens when a bunch of fans of the critically-acclaimed progressive rock group Big Big Train get together in a beautiful, ancient English city?

The inaugural Big Big Weekend took place on the 14th & 15th September 2013 in Winchester, in the United Kingdom.

A celebration of the music of Big Big Train and its many ties to Winchester, the weekend was organised by the amazing Alison Henderson via the BBT Facebook page and well-attended by fans from across the world. Several members of the band (plus a few guests!) also attended, making this weekend a very special and memorable event.

This video shows the highlights of the first day – a walk around Winchester guided by Alison and Greg, followed by a traditional prog curry!

On day two we headed down to Rob Aubrey’s hallowed Aubitt Studios in Southampton for a candid and fascinating chat about about how BBT’s albums are crafted, with special focus on the rip-roaring fan favourite “Judas Unrepentant”. Stay tuned for a video of that day – coming soon!

Review: Time and Space, by Lobate Scarp

From Soundcloud:

Over 50 musicians were involved in this progressive space-opera rock extravaganza. Guitars, Drums, Synths, Organs, Trumpets, Saxophone, Viola, Violin, Cello, Theremin, Glockenspiel, and a Latin singing choir were all recorded on this one. Peru Percussionist Alex Acuña (Weather Report) appears as a special guest percussionist and Rich Mouser (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Tears For Fears) mixed and mastered the album.

Imagine having that many people involved and managing to keep things together! There sure is a lot going on in this album but whether that’s for better or worse is in the ear of the beholder. I think the decision to use so many instruments worked some of the time, but sometimes not so much.

The eponymous 15-minute opening track is a great example of a surfeit of variety. It opens with a moody cello, which adds some nice gravity (hur hur, space rock, geddit?) and eventually leaps, Latin-esque into what reminds me of V-era Spocks Beard. Brass, congas, funky! Soon the instrument tally is rapidly increasing, and past the 9 minute mark I actually lose count. Most of it works well but a few choices are somewhat jarring to my delicate ear. Sometimes less is more and…well…more is too much. But it’s still a great opening track. Could it have been a bit shorter? Yes, they could have brought things to a close at the 9-ish minute mark after the wonderful soaring synths, and as most of the instrumentation super-sizing seems to be post-9 minutes I’m not sure the track would have lost much if they had chopped it off then. Anyway it’s still a very strong opener.

And this is where things get a little disappointing. Between tracks 2 and 6 the album has too much of a recurring “Ooh baby I love you and miss you” theme, disguised with some proggy flourishes. Granted, many of those flourishes are pretty nice – symphonic, melodic, blood-pumping (you name it, they have it – and of course they certainly have the instrument inventory to pull it off…) but it leaves me with an overall feeling that there is nothing lyrical I could enjoy. Lyrics-wise, I’m of the opinion that too much of the same thing soon becomes stale, especially when it comes to the ‘L’ word. As I am sure William Holden would tell you, were he able to speak any more, “Love is a many-splendoured thing,” (although he would omit the ‘u’ but I am English I so will spell it properly,) and maybe I’m sounding like a 9-year-old, but when every song is about luuuurve things get a bit…well…icky. This sort of thing (at least this sort of thing when repeated 5 tracks in a row) doesn’t float my boat. I look for higher themes in my prog, or at least lower themes dressed in frills. Or subtle clothing. The raiment on display here is neither spandex-clad and expensive-looking nor sufficiently-subtle and heartstring-tugging for my personal adulation. It has pop music lyrics. The astronaut (assuming that’s what he is) sounds like he should have failed his NASA psych evaluation.

So that’s quite disappointing for an album that started off pretty well.

And then the last track comes along, and I’m bemused once again. It has a great, atmospheric opening, and is really interesting to listen to. There’s some great guitar work, a full choir, and it nicely builds the momentum, eventually returning to some of the themes from the opening track. It’s a great way to end the album. It’s as if all of the banality of the middle 5 tracks didn’t happen. Damn!

In short, Time and Space is an album bookended by great tracks, but the middle is, for me at least, too weak to justify a purchase.

And if you are wondering about the band’s name:

Lobate scarps are widely distributed over Mercury and consist of sinuous to arcuate scarps that transect preexisting plains and craters. They are most convincingly interpreted as thrust faults, indicating a period of global compression. The lobate scarps typically transect smooth plains materials (early Calorian age) on the floors of craters, but post-Caloris craters are superposed on them. These observations suggest that lobate-scarp formation was confined to a relatively narrow interval of time, beginning in the late pre-Tolstojan period and ending in the middle to late Calorian Period. In addition to scarps, wrinkle ridges occur in the smooth plains materials. These ridges probably were formed by local to regional surface compression caused by lithospheric loading by dense stacks of volcanic lavas, as suggested for those of the lunar maria.

Big Big Train’s English Electric (Part Two) is now available for pre-order

Big Big Train’s follow-up to last year’s highly-acclaimed English Electric (Part One), will be released on the 4th of March 2013.

The aptly-titled English Electric (Part Two) is now available for pre-order. Here’s the link! http://bigbigtrain.com/main/shop/ee2

Big Big Train continues its journey across the English landscape with an album of seven new songs which tell further tales of the men and women who work on and under the land. Along the way, stories are told of the shipbuilders in Neptune’s Yard, of a machine that burned its legend across the pages of the history books, of a keeper of abbeys and a curator of butterflies, and of a second chance at love.

Personally I can’t wait to get my hands on this release!

Thieves’ Kitchen’s new album releases Jan 29, now available for pre-order

On 29 January Thieves’ Kitchen release their new album, “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy.”

It’s now available for pre-order. More information at the link below.

On “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy”, the band are joined by Paul Mallyon (Drums – Sanguine Hum), Brad Waissman (Bass – Sanguine Hum), and Anna Holmgren (Flute – Anglagard) to provide a thrilling journey into a musical landscape rooted in a progressive heritage, but not limited by it. Fans of The Water Road will hear a continuity of their instantly recognisable sound, but from a band still moving forward, still exploring.

Recorded and mixed by Rob Aubrey at Aubitt studios (IQ, Big Big Train, Spock’s Beard), “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy” is a crystalline document of a band surfing the extremes of dynamics across a mosaic of shifting themes to provide an organic and engaging listening experience.

http://us6.campaign-archive2.com/?u=9765a966a943631101e12f74b&id=7b6c2dc271

Focus – Hocus Pocus

I post this for the simple reason than that every time I watch it, it makes me bellow with laughter. I hope it tweaks your brains similarly, dear readers.

However you choose to celebrate or ignore the season, have a splendid one!

My top 10 of 2012…almost

I was sorely tempted to do a “Top 10 ‘Top 10 of 2012′ Lists” list. But I decided that’s a bit meta so instead I tried to scientifically rank my favourite albums released in 2012 and present them with my thoughts about why they’re so awesomely excellently fabulously brill.

I even considered building an Excel spreadsheet. Imagine if you will a matrix, using subtle pastel hues of course, with a list of 2012 albums (alphabetical by title for convenience) down the left side and a list of prog ‘features’ (aka clichés?) along the top. Then I’d cross-reference the albums by the ‘features’ they contained, and put a little tick (that’s a ‘check’ to you US types!) in the corresponding box. Perhaps I’d even colour-code each tick to weight it based on such criteria as homage to past bands/decades/instruments/guest artists/dress sense/lack of dress sense. The album that got the highest score would be the clear winner. It would be awesome*.

Easier said than done. Plus, the winner wouldn’t have been my favourite album. Not by a long, long way.

So I went back to basics, to think about what I really mean by ‘favourite’. I considered that even though I bought a lot of music in 2012 very few albums are still played routinely in my house or (and this is reserved for the holier-than-holy) elevated to a spot on my car’s MP3 player, which is where I have some of my most profound musical moments. Drivers of NZ beware!

So I present my easy-to-use criteria for blistering prog:

1. Tears flow.

2. Smiles erupt.

3. 1 often occurs concurrently with 2.

4. Ermmm…that’s it.

And without further ado, I present my Top 10 Albums of 2012:

1. Big Big Train – English Electric Part One

1. Echolyn – Echolyn.

OK, so I failed at making even a Top 10 list, but I am very happy with my top shared first place selection. Each does weird/good things to me for completely different reasons, and each will join me as a truly special companion on my (hopefully) long journey into the future. Kudos, BBT and E!

Finally, if I may make an honourable mention of other favourite 2012 prog moments, in order of merit again:

1. Being invited to contribute to Progarchy.com.

1. Joining the Big Big Train facebook group and meeting some incredibly fantastic people.

Enjoy December everyone, however you choose to/not to celebrate. Personally I will be training for the 2013 Hedonism Olympics. Huzzah!

*Apologies, I work with software people. But I refuse to be one of them. Mostly.

An Englishman Abroad

First, thanks to Brad for inviting me along. I hope that I don’t disappoint, at least not consistently. I’ll indulge myself with a short piece to start off, as I’d hate to wear out my welcome too soon.

This post is all about me. Sort of.

An Englishman by birth, I was born and raised South of London. I flew the nest at the tender age of eighteen and spent eight long years at university in the West Midlands and the Shire of Bedford.

During that time I learned a few lessons about myself, crowded towns and how we don’t generally get on. So I settled as far away from civilisation as possible, in a small village called Chedworth, in the South-West of England. There I spent many a happy year, enjoying the simple life in a four hundred year old stone cottage, indulging my loves of folk music and real ale, visiting the local pub most evenings, enjoying the stories of amazing people I’d never meet in the big city, and soaking up the history and nature that was all around me. I later moved further West, to a different stone cottage in a different Cotswold town, but the things I sought were much the same.

Read the rest of this entry

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