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The French Connection

Dominique Leonetti with Romain Thorel on drums and Vincent Barnavol on hand drum.

Dominique Leonetti with Romain Thorel on drums and Vincent Barnavol on hand drum.

Few bands out there in Progland have a unique power and magic to completely rip up the rule book and make music which messes with your mind, touches your soul and fills you with a joie de vivre, that leaves you ever gasping for more.

As regular readers of my occasional blogs may now be more than aware, I have forged a very close connection with prog’s most original and certainly most exciting live band, Lazuli. Who? Well, if you live in the USA, you may not have encountered them yet but, hopefully, that will change soon.

Having performed in mainland Europe and also Canada, Lazuli’s one US appearance was at Rosfest in 2009 and their first live UK gig was at the Summers End Festival two years ago. They were Friday night headliners, unknown to all – including yours truly – but a handful of the more savvy festival goers.

We were conscious there were some guys resembling the cousins of Legolas, Boromir and Aragorn mingling with the audience but, having noted how striking they looked, thought nothing more of it – until they arrived on stage as the headliners. The rest, as they say, is history.

As well as looking like the good guys in Lord of the Rings down to their goth Masonic attire and elaborate hair styling, including a plaited beard, their inventory of instruments is extraordinary, comprising French horn, mandolin, marimba (more of which later), beat box, assorted guitars, an elegantly angled keyboard,a single hand drum and the Leode (more of that later too). Their other USP (unique selling point) is that they do not sing a single word in English.

Now imagine how all that could look and sound when delivered live on stage. I tell you in all sincerity – it is mind-melting. Central to the sound is the aforementioned Leode, an instrument invented by the band’s original guitarist Claude Leonetti after he lost the use of his left arm in a motorcycle accident back in the 90s. According to the band’s website, Claude had a dream about creating an instrument, literally a sonic box of tricks which he could operate with one hand. This extraordinary electronic device, resembling a Chapman stick can conjure up all manner of sounds, ranging from Middle Eastern mysticism to out and out prog metal.

Their UK debut at Summer’s End was without exaggeration the greatest live performance I have ever seen. Never mind none of us being able to understand a word they were singing, such was the sheer brilliance of their show, it was as if you were being transported away to a parallel musical universe, indeed to Lazuli Land.

It was not just the originality of their music, which owes much to the influence of the Beatles, to whom they listened when they were young Lazulis, but the way they delivered the songs – with a passion, a love, a belief, an intensity and also with great joy and humor.

Frontman Dominique (Domi) Leonetti, brother of Claude, is quite bewitching with his clear, powerful pitch perfect voice and his almost waist length hair secured in a long ponytail which takes on a life of its own when at his most animate. He also plays rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar and mandolin.

His main compadre is the ever-smiling guitarist Gederic (Ged) Byar, a fellow possessor of an extravagant head of braided hair and sculpted beard, but blessed with a fluid, vibrant smooth style which runs in perfect parallel with the cutting edge sounds of the Leode. He even occasionally runs a screwdriver up and down the fretboard,

They don’t have a bass player either. I thought I ought to mention that. The lower registers are left to the laser eyed Romain Thorel and his keyboard, again another instrument which seems to have an endless repertoire of sounds ranging from piano to drums. Oh, and he is the one who also trebles up on French horn and the drums, freeing up regular drummer Vincent Barnavol to play marimba, a hand drum resembling a djembe and beat box.

So, there’s the lowdown on what they do and how they do it.

French prog tends to either veer towards the avant-garde and experimental or the more Celtic. So, in many respects, Lazuli really have broken the mould, their songs centering on subjects important to them such as L’Arbre (The Tree) that is all about nature and man’s evolution (or lack of it).

Their most recent album 4603 battements, released in 2011, had time as its central theme. Many would argue that their adventures in recording are a far different and less exciting proposition than their live shows but I defy anyone to hear the incredible 15H40 (more about this later too) and its depiction of time ticking without a sense of wonderment. The album title translates as 4603 beats because that is how many there are on all 11 songs on the album.

And so to the present. Lazuli have been more than aware that I have been their UK cheerleader in chief since that epic performance two years ago. Last year, they performed at Germany’s Night of the Prog at Loreley, which clashed unfortunately with the first Celebr8 festival here in the UK.

So it was a masterstroke when the Summers End organisers announced they would be back for this year’s festival, along with German band Sylvan who had been the main crowd pleasers the year before in 2010. When Prog magazine asked me to write a preview of this year’s Summers End, it was a chance to touch base with Lazuli again to get their reaction about coming back to the UK to play.

Thanks to Google’s translation facilities, Domi provided some charming responses to my questions, saying how they grew up on British music so to cross the Channel to play here was very symbolic. Of their 2011 show, he said it was “beautiful and terrifying at the same time.” However, the welcome they received was so warm, they soon forgot their anxiety and enjoyed “this precious moment”. They were very excited and honored to be back at the festival.

Fast forward to Saturday October 5, the night they were appearing at Summers End, following the main headliners Gordon Giltrap and Oliver Wakeman performing the stunning Ravens & Lullabies.

Well, Lazuli rocked up halfway through the afternoon. It was great to catch up with them again and I gave them a copy of Prog magazine with my preview, ending up using my very rusty French to translate back to them the quotes they had given to me!

Cutting to the chase, they finally came on half an hour late and I must admit the ensuing one hour and forty minutes were a bit of a blur, because all that Gallic sorcery and charm was still there. Again, it is that connection they make with the audience which is so special as they give every part of their being to making their performances as dynamic as possible.

One song Film D’Aurore saw Domi with a tiny light on his hand that he shone onto his expressive face, but it is the extraordinary Le Miroir Aux Alouettes which hopefully you can see at the end of this paean, which is them at the height of the powers for many reasons, mainly its immense tempo change halfway through when Romain takes over drums from Vincent, then the whole mood goes from folk to Arabic scales.

Romain is such an accomplished musician, he gets his own solo spot to show off his incredible versatility on the keyboards, all improvised with a bit of jazz and funk thrown in this time. Even Domi and Ged crouch down by the side of the stage to watch him in full flight.

Then when they played 15H40, Domi decided to spin out the tension and to my utter surprise, decided to include yours truly in the song when trying to convince everyone it was “twenty to four” instead of around midnight so he jumped down from the stage and sought my counsel on the time.

Well, the time was ticking away and fast approaching 12.30 when they were called to order because of the lateness of the hour. So, instead of playing the brilliant 12 minute long Naif where audience participation is key to its success, they pushed the marimba to the front of the stage. And this is where the true genius of this band really showed with their Nine Hands Around The Marimba as all five band members simultaneously played chords and melodies, while taking the occasional potshot at each other. And was that a few bars of Solsbury Hill in there somewhere too?

If it was not for some of the throng having to rush out to get the bus back to their weekend lodgings, the band would probably still be playing as no-one wanted them to go.

How can I explain it succinctly? This band has such a positive, humble and uplifting vibe about them that they seem to reach inside and illuminate every corner of your inner being. Even over a week after the show, I am still buzzing about them like a hyperactive queen bee!

If you want further proof then catch their new DVD, Live @ l’Abeille Rode, the first part of which is them performing their live show without an audience but which is so beautifully shot, you feel you are part of the invisible crowd watching – and probably cheering them!

Well, what more can I say about this French connection except that Martin Reijman, who loves photographing them, and I are doing a crash course in French with a view to meeting up with them again next year in France. My aim is to interview them in French which hopefully will further help us all to understand the essence of this truly remarkable, unique band.

If you want to learn more about them, go to: http://www.lazuli-music.com/ and you can tell them Alison sent you.

Otherwise, please enjoy the Summers End encore (courtesy of Pete “Pedro” Waite) or Le Miroir Aux Alouettes shot at the Night of the Prog last year.

Je vous remercie.

The Unexpected Christmas Progparty, folks!!

TFK Christmas Progparty

The Flower Kings are throwing a Christmas Progparty in Gothenburg!! At least one Progarchist is going to be there!! :D There is a party in Stockholm as well, the day before the Gothenburg ballyhoo! Ho ho ho!

The stunning molten lava from Anna Calvi’s mouth

After reading my e-mails this morning, I was left with some burning questions: How did I miss that Anna Calvi had a new album out? When would I get to hear it? Should I write about it?

Answers: I have no idea. Today. Yes.

If you’ve not heard of Calvi (website), here’s my short description: she is like the mysterious, nearly other-worldly, torch-singer-rocker-love child of Jeff Buckley and Kate Bush, or Freddie Mercury and Édith Piaf, with enough mystery, angst, and yearning for an entire band, which may explain why she usually performs as a spare trio (with a drummer and keyboardist/percussionist). A recent review in The Guardian of a live show captures it quite well, at least as well as can be managed with words:

Anna Calvi is a creature of contrasts. She says almost nothing between songs, breathing her thanks in a shy murmur – but when she sings, it’s as if molten lava were pouring from her mouth, a torrent of red-hot emotion. The sounds she conjures up from her guitar are crisp and precise – yet she plays with fluid motions, fingers rippling across frets, hand moving in circles across the strings. She is a vision of decorum, elegantly prim in tailored trousers and a long-sleeved blouse – but her songs drip with lust, voicing the cries of a body rejected, consumed, gripped by obsession.

Or, in other “words”, this (if you’re pressed for time, start watching at about 3:30):

Now, that is a lady with something going on deep, deep, deep inside! The Guardian reviewer further states, “It’s ridiculous that, after 60 years of rock’n’roll, a well-dressed woman wielding a guitar should still be such a rare sight as to be exciting in a primal, nerve-tingling way, but it is. She’s all the more commanding because her playing is so controlled…” Much of the uniqueness of Calvi is that the sum is far more than the parts, as good and unusual as many of the parts are. She is, in my estimation, one of those performers who completely transforms on the stage; in interviews she seems truly shy and almost apologetic (in this, she reminds of that Prince fellow). She has a voice that alternates between husky beckoning, whispered perplexity, and wailing anguish; when she fully unleashes a note, it’s a force of nature. Her guitar playing is both precise and wild, or perhaps it is precise but rendered with wild (but perfectly rehearsed) flourishes. Her appearance is somewhat androgynous and yet, ultimately, deeply feminine, as if she wishes to hide in dress what she prefers to reveal in song. Perhaps she is confused; perhaps she wishes to confuse (again, Prince comes to mind).

Regardless, the music ranges from very good to great, and her second album, “One Breath,” builds impressively on her eponymous debut. The music is again quite atmospheric, lush, and yet focused; the arrangements are intelligent and often complex, but they are accessible and attractive, even when discord and chaos are occasionally introduced. Calvi makes great use of silence; she is one of the few artists I know who will let silence be an obvious part of a song (in a way, this reminds me of jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal and his great admirer, a trumpet player named Miles Davis). Certain songs immediately stand out (“Suddenly,” “Eliza,” and “Tristan”) but this album is best heard as an operatic-like whole. The twist, if that’s the right word, is that Calvi bares her soul with unblinking ferocity and yet makes it warm and attractive and even magical, much like Kate Bush has done on some of her best albums (“The Hounds of Love” and “The Sensual World”). David Von Bader puts it well in his Consequence of Sound review:

The thing that sets Calvi apart from most virtuosic musicians is an ability to spin art out of technique without alienating the listener. Whether it be the percussive hammering of her guitar strings on “Tristan”, the emotional immediacy of her athletic vocals throughout the album, or the lush and occasionally noisy atmospheres, the album offers heaps of aural fiber without pretense or unnecessary complexity. One Breath is a dynamic statement from a young woman who could very well be the next David Bowie or Nick Cave. Much like the gilded aforementioned names, Calvi is an accomplished musician and composer, possesses an exceedingly well-developed artistic vision, and rounds the package out with a striking aesthetic. All that sets her in a class of her own as a young, exciting artist who should have strong material for years to come.

Agreed! As a bonus, here is Calvi performing Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” live, with just an acoustic guitar to accompany:

Billy James: PR Demi-god

glassonyon22

As announced elsewhere, progarchy.com is now a year old.  Happy birthday to us!!!

We could never have done what we’ve done, though, without the support of a number of great folks out there.  One of the best is Billy James of Glass Onyon PR.  If you’re looking for someone to promote your work and to do so with art, tenacity, and integrity, look to Billy.

We’re proud to be affiliated with him–in any way possible.  We even style his PR statements, “BillyNews.”  Proudly.

http://glassonyonpublicity.wordpress.com

Supper’s Off?

Almost a couple of months ago, Brad wrote about L’Étagère Du Travail, the long-awaited companion disc to the wonderful Le Sacre Du Travail. With uncharacteristic restraint, I chose not to listen to the proffered download of this, preferring to wait instead for my physical CD. But it finally arrived last week – hence these words.

I won’t attempt to duplicate Brad’s eloquent review, but I thought his favourite track, Supper’s Off, deserved some deeper analysis, since it struck me also as a particularly noteworthy piece.

I’ll say right up front that I regard Andy Tillison as a major figure in prog, not just because of the sublime music that he creates, but because he has something important to say, too. In a genre where oblique lyrics and obscure concepts are considered almost a virtue in some quarters, his style is admirably direct and unusually relevant. Le Sacre‘s critique of the rat race certainly put one or two noses out of joint, and the pointed observations he makes here may have a similar effect.

Critics will no doubt latch on to the Genesis reference in the track’s title, as well as the lyric

We tried to change the world
But the world won’t take the hint.
They go running off back to Genesis,
and all the other bands are skint.

But this is not a dig at Genesis fans in particular. Tillison writes in the sleeve notes that “Genesis were great. I don’t mean to offend either them or their fans. Just the non-inquisitive attitude of people who will never listen to the myriad of bands who offer an equally adventurous experience to their heroes of the 1970s and who don’t necessarily have blood line with them.”

Other lyrics, spoken over the music, deliver the crux of his argument with laser-like precision:

And of the thousands of people who watched Yes at QPR in 76, only a few hundred will turn up to watch their descendants on a whole tour.

Yet if The Who were to plan some kind of comeback, they’d sell tickets for 90 quid to hundreds of thousands of people my age all over the world, who’ll turn up in posh cars and 4x4s, because I am talking about my generation…

There are some important and interesting questions at the root of all this. Is it not true that people retain a great fondness for the music they fell in love with during their formative years? And if this is the case, why don’t they make the connection to contemporary artists doing the same kind of thing? Do people form allegiances to bands rather than to styles of music? Do they prefer nostalgia to the joy of discovering new music? I could go on…

Those who would rush to condemn Tillison for his abrasiveness should think first about how difficult it is to make music for a niche audience these days. The digital revolution has been a double-edged sword, democratising production whilst simultaneously devaluing the product in the eyes of the general public. David Byrne argued cogently in UK newspaper The Guardian recently about the particular threat to creativity posed by streaming, for example.

I’ve never heard a prog artist put money up at the top of their agenda, but there’s no denying that artists need some kind of income from their music if they are to continue as artists. Besides the fact that it is a deserved reward for an artist’s efforts, money buys them time and space, the freedom to make good art – and we all benefit as a result.

So here’s my plea (I guess I’m preaching to the converted here, but what the hell):

By all means, go see the rock legends in the big arenas, but don’t forget about the little guys. Buy their albums. Go see them if they are playing anywhere near your home town, however pokey the venue is. And if you have to choose between tickets for a comeback tour by dinosaurs looking to put an extra couple of Ferraris in the garage or for a band still writing exciting new music whilst trying to make ends meet… Well, you know what the right thing to do is!

Reviewing Progressive Rock: An Editorial

The Good.

The Good.

I’m reading a couple of books related to progressive rock right now.  They range from the wonderful (Stephen Lambe’s Citizens of Hope and Glory (2013)) to the arrogantly bizarre (Gareth Shute’s Concept Albums (2013)) to just plain and unadulterated absurdity (Paul Hegarty/Martin Halliwell, Beyond and Before (2011)).

I will freely admit that I can be more than a bit fanboyish in my writing.  I know what I like, and I know what makes me happy.  I consciously choose to be as loyal as possible to that which I believe good, true, and beautiful.  Plato once argued that we must love what we love and hate what we hate.  Amen, Greek pagan, amen.

But, I also strive like mad (as do all progarchists) to have the writing style match in excellence the work of the musicians and the lyricists we review.

If the art of the review doesn’t match the art of the album, why bother?  Writing poorly about Big Big Train, The Tangent, or Talk Talk, for example, would not only be tacky, it would be an insult to the art itself.  And, really, what kind of character dwells on the thing she or he hates, that is, as an art (supposedly), unless of course called to be a prophet.  And, there are very few of those.

Additionally, if the art of writing and reviewing does not strive for the highest style, what use is criticism?  What effectiveness of criticism can there be?

The Ugly.

The Ugly.  Sadly, I couldn’t find an image of The Bad: Shute’s Concept Albums.

Messrs. Shute, Hegarty, and Halliwell, you should keep your cynicism and ignorance to yourself.  Or, if you must be nasty and foolish, at least find a good writer to emulate.

Longer reviews of each book to follow.

John Bassett Solo Album

Great news from our rocking friend (and very, very interesting social commentator), John Bassett.  He has just announced a solo album.  If John’s work with the fabulous Kingbathmat is any indication–and I would bet much of my life savings that it is–this should be excellent.

Here are the details directly from John:

John Bassett, creator and producer of KingBathmat,

Sketch of Bassett by the wonderful and captivating Anne-Catherine de Froidmont.

Sketch of Bassett by the wonderful and captivating Anne-Catherine de Froidmont.

is releasing an acoustic prog album this winter, the album will be released under  his own name “John Bassett” and promises to be a subtle, sophisticated album of modern acoustic songs, imbued with melancholic melodies and a progressive slant, you can hear a brief audio snippet from this fortchcoming album at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dtq3hOsMk2Q
A website to support this release will soon be launched at http://www.johnbassett.co.uk and there is a facebook page athttp://www.facebook.com/johnbassettsolo

Also, an announcement of a free Kingbathmat gig in two days.  Once again, jealous about living on this (wrong!) side of the Atlantic strikes your dear progarchy editor.

Kingbathmat Gig this Sunday (Oct 13th) at The Dublin Castle
We will be playing in London, Camden Town this Sunday night (October 13th) at the The Dublin Castleit is Free Entry. Be lovely to see you there.

Pavlov’s Dog: Midwestern Rush

Pavlovs-Dog-band

Pavlov’s Dog was a little known band from St. Louis, Missouri. Over the years, they have been compared to Rush, mainly because singer David Surkamp’s voice is eerily similar to Geddy Lee’s. With that said, this is a band that you will either love or hate, because Surkamp’s voice is even higher and has more vibrato than Geddy Lee’s voice. Even if you are not a fan of Lee’s voice, do not let that deter you from listening to Pavlov’s Dog because they have a very unique sound. The original band was made up of David Surkamp (Lead vocals and guitar), Rick Stockton (Bass guitar and vocals), Mike Safron (drums), Steve Scorfina (lead guitar), David Hamilton (keyboards), Doug Rayburn (mellotron and flute), and Siegfried Carver (violin). This band offers a little bit for everyone, with great guitar, bass, and the violin as a nice added touch.

Their first album was “Pampered Menial,” released in 1975. The soaring vocals on this album truly stand out above all else, but musically it is very good as well. From their use of flute to the use of the violin, they create a distinctive sound. While their lyrics are similar in style to that of Rush pre-Peart (Rush’s self-titled album), they create a more complex sound than early Rush did with their utilization of many different instruments. Their second album was “At the Sound of the Bell.” This album is remarkably quieter than their first, with Surkamp’s vocals blending in with music more. On “Pampered Menial,” the vocals sounded distinct from the rest of the music, but not so in their second album. His voice seems to be a little more refined and in sync with the rest of the music. All in all, Pavlov’s Dog was a very good American Prog band that never really caught on. Maybe if they had hit their stride in Rush’s wake they could have made it big, but it is what it is. Give this band a listen, and let the music speak for itself. For those of you that are early Rush fans, Pavlov’s Dog just might be right up your alley.

Listen to “Pampered Menial” here: 

Listen to “At the Sound of the Bell” here: 

20 Looks at The Lamb, 7: Cages

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
(Arcade Fire)

lamb-picto-2 (cage)Descartes, widely touted as the father of modern philosophy, taught us to think that what we are most certain about, what we grasp most confidently and most tightly, is “in here.”  I know that I exist if I am thinking, he said, and this implies that I am a thinking thing regardless of what is “out there.”  It’s a picture that has been rejected by most recent philosophers, but it still casts its long shadow over Western culture.  It’s the picture that makes both The Matrix and Inception compelling.  I am my mind, and my mind is an inside that knows no outside, what Leibniz called a “monad.”  Even if I have a body, the body is outside, like a cage that imprisons me, from which I might hope to be set free in an afterlife.

Whatever life (in any strong sense) that I have, I have “in here.”  “I’ve got sunshine in my stomach. But I can’t keep me from creeping sleep.”  And worst of all, I might be truly alone.  Others are outside too.   Outside the cage, Rael sees his brother John (a name meaning “graced by God”).  It’s a cage not only because I am kept in, but also because others are seemingly kept out.

If my body is the cage, then it is so, so tempting to think that the “windscreen wiper,” the dick that the doc docks, might be some sort of key, but when it disappears into the ravine, isn’t it still radically unclear whether anything is really unlocked?

Bruce Cockburn reminds us that a cage is something that an animal might pace, that we catch ourselves “pacing the cage.”  And the cage in that context implies darkness, too:

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend
(Bruce Cockburn)

The cage is dark like a cave.  Rael’s cage, congealing after the cuckoo cocoon, is in fact a cave.  Here it’s difficult to avoid thinking of Plato’s cave, where prisoners are chained, watching shadows of reproductions of supposedly real things.  And the real things are outside.  Cages are joined together in a network, yes.  But John sheds a bloody tear and turns away from Rael’s cries for help.

When the cage dissolves, it’s still the body (another cage?) that revolves.

Palpating the texture of Rael’s story at this point, we find cages within cages.  But are any of them really cages?  They come and go (perhaps dreaming of Michelangelo?).

If I could change to liquid,
I could fill the cracks up in the rocks.
I know that I am solid
And I am my own bad luck.

Is it just too simple, too freaking trite, to suggest that we forge all of these cages ourselves, that we are our own jailers?  If so, perhaps it is even more trite, even more oversimplified, to think that I can find the keys to my own cages, all by myself.  The suggestion that there are others, that there may be an Other who must take part in our various releasements, may bring us back toward what I am broadly characterizing as “religious.”  I don’t mean that to be a narrow, highly controlled veering-back.  I don’t have a dogmatic agenda.

Or, maybe at one level, I sort of do.  If you pick up the idea that release from cages is necessarily tied to others, to An Other, then you are getting a major element of my drift.

But it’s only a drift, and I hope it carries you back to Rael’s story so that you may test it yourself.  In your own cages.

Leah’s New Website

leah coverThe Canadian Celtic Metal Maiden, Leah McHenry, a brilliant (and rather gorgeous) young musician, has a nice, new website.

Visit it here. Leah will be releasing her new EP, Otherworld, on October 31.  Leah has been a very good friend to Progarchy, and we’re honored to be associated with her.  She’s very much her own person.  If, however, I had to categorize her for our progarchy readership, I would say it would be best to imagine Sarah McLachlan and Arjen Lucassen getting together for a project.

Leah’s voice is rather stunning, as is her sense of drama.  Here’s a teaser for Otherworld.  And, it really does sound as if she’s singing from Avalon.

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