I’ve chosen for this, my first piece for Progarchy, to write about an incredibly talented independent musician making music of the very highest quality all on his own. Or rather a number of said musicians all of whom have released records in the last year or so which in my opinion are as good as, if not better than anything the ‘mainstream’ has been able to come up with. And by mainstream I mean both the prog mainstream and the mainstream, er mainstream. I am however going to review one of those records as this is still ostensibly a review. It’s fair to say I am honoured to be among such esteemed colleagues – the quality of writing here is second to none and an ego-free zone. It’s all about the music, just as it should be. A celebration of the genre we all love, in its many and varied forms.
Now in the past I’ve made no secret of my love for American and Scandinavian progressive rock and admit I’d rather listen to Discipline, echolyn, Izz, The Flower Kings and Beardfish et al than to a lot of what passes for progressive rock music in the UK. With one or two major exceptions of course but by and large to my tired old ears a lot of it sounds just that. Tired. And old.
However, I’ve chosen as my first review piece a record by an Englishman. Which is for my money as good a record as good as anything I’ve heard this year. And which kind of makes a mockery of my contention in the paragraph above. Now I never said I couldn’t be contrary, and I think what excites me most about the current progressive rock scene is not some new over-produced major label piece by an 80s neo-prog band that sounds pretty much like what they were doing in the 1980s. But rather it’s the current crop of independent solo/duo artists making exciting, vibrant modern progressive rock music all by themselves. It’s hard enough to play one instrument well, but these guys play half a dozen or more, write lyrics, sing, do the art, and mix, produce, manufacture and market the album. They will no doubt have made the tea too.
That Englishman is Tom Slatter. But he’s by no means unique. And before I delve into his current album, Three Rows of Teeth in a bit more detail it’s pertinent I think to give what young people term a ‘shout out’ to some other unsung heroes who have refreshed my somewhat jaded palate and who have given me a lot of pleasure musically in recent months.
Sean Dunlop and Jim Radford (These Curious Thoughts) have been making quirky, polished alt/pop prog for a while now and I’d heartily recommend their back catalogue to one and all. Similarly, Johnny Unicorn (of Phideaux fame) made for me one of the albums of the year recently in Sadness and Companionship; as did Chris Wade (Dodson and Fogg). Chris has a new album out, his third in a year. Sounds of Day and Night is I feel a mellower, more introspective record than Derring-Do which has garnered a phenomenal amount of good press and good will in the progressive rock media and has seen wider radio play by DJs rightly mesmerised by his blending of folky and psychedelic elements and his inspired use of guest players. Matt Stevens continues to impress in both his solo guise and as part of instrumental band The Fierce and the Dead whilst John Bassett (KingBathmat) has just released the very excellent Overcoming the Monster, reviewed here on Progarchy and yet another in a long line of excellent albums that for some inexplicable reason seem to have slipped under many people’s radar.
If you haven’t heard of any of these artists I’d strongly recommend you check them out and have a listen to modern progressive rock music in its truest, most honest and open form. Unimpeded by dreams of riches beyond avarice, and corporate jiggery-pokery. Which brings me nicely to Mr Slatter. I have my friend Leo Koperdraat to thank for switching me onto Tom’s music and if ever there was an ‘add to cart’ moment (and I’ve had a few) then this was it. A quick listen on his bandcamp page (http://tomslatter.bandcamp.com/) and I was duly hooked. The glass on the emergency debit card box was duly broken and due to the wonders of Paypal two (count them) shiny discs were promptly dispatched to chez bri. The new one, Three Rows of Teeth, which is reviewed here, and his previous album IronBark.
Tom describes his music on his website, http://www.tomslatter.co.uk/, as “the sort of music you’d get if Genesis started writing songs with Nick Cave after watching too much Dr Who”. And who am I to disagree with him?
He’s from London and his music is inspired by both steampunk and sci-fi genres. Three Rows of Teeth, released in March, is his third solo album and “contains songs about such clichéd subjects as fake spiritualists, murder, time travel, replacing one’s body parts with mechanical alternatives and flying an airship into a cloud full of birds with too many teeth. There is also mention of ravenous church steeples”. So there.
At 44 minutes it’s not a long album by any stretch of the imagination but it is perfectly paced and after my first listen at home on decent kit I hit the replay button straight away. I’ve had it on in the car for a week’s worth of (albeit short) commutes to the train station.
It’s bursting at the seams with the unbridled burlesque mania of The Cardiacs, the eccentricity of Johnny Unicorn, and the tunefulness and melody of These Curious Thoughts. To name just three of my favourite bands. It’s a joyous and endlessly surprising record musically and the lyrical content, touched on above mean that you will give all 44 minutes your unbridled attention. He has quickly become a firm favourite of mine – an autobuy candidate in the parlance of the prog forums. And rumour (i.e. his website) has it that he wore a cape when performing the guitar solos.
Now I love every song but if I had to choose a favourite it would be Dance Dance Dance. I have had difficulty shaking this one from the memory banks recently – it’s an earworm alright and the main vocal refrain is simply sublime. There’s an equally super little guitar solo that’ll have you tapping the steering wheel (if you are in a car, that is) like a thing possessed. However the title ‘favourite song’ is a close run thing since the album concludes with all twenty minutes or so of the three-part Time Traveller Suite. Which is simply immense. It demands to be listened through to in all one go even the three sections are individual tracks on the disc. Track of the year? Perhaps. All I know is the girl with the missing eye has a lot to answer for. It’s cinematic in scope and an absolute triumph. It twists and turns all over the place but remains melodic throughout and is chock full of hooks and delightful little guitar solos. Lyrically it’s packed full of imagery and inventiveness. All the more impressive when you remember this is all the work of one dude.
All I know is that Tom has cornered the market in steampunk sci-fi prog (if sub-genres are your thing) and has proven that modern progressive rock can be truly progressive in terms of movement forwards. I’d heartily recommend this record to one and all and I for one can’t wait to hear the next one.
Oh, and IronBark is staggeringly good too. A tad more acoustic than this one but highly recommended as well. If he’s got any left.
If your interest has been piqued you can find an interview with Tom at:
The album, and his back catalogue can be ordered at his bandcamp page.