Weekend Roundup 2: DIY Britprog

One indication of the absolute glut of recorded music available today: more of what I’ve whimsically labelled “DIY (for Do It Yourself, a la Peter Gabriel) Britprog” is available than ever. With Prog Magazine providing a megaphone and Big Big Train’s international impact paving the way, countless musicians from England have brushed up their chops, dusted off their home recording setups, and churned out self-released albums by the bushel in the past decade. Even as the chances of market penetration narrow in the age of Spotify and live lockdowns, an astonishing number of artists seem compelled to keep plowing the furrows first tilled by Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and their sundry heirs. The sheer amount of “meh” music that’s resulted notwithstanding, three recent releases (and a teaser of more to come) indicate there’s still enough fertile soil in that ground to keep yielding fresh harvests.

First up: Tiger Moth Tales’ The Whispering of the World from late 2020, for which TMT mainman Peter Jones stripped down both his writing and his usual instrumentation. Working with producers Robert Reed and Andrew Lawson, Jones eschewed multi-sectional tunesmithery and one-man-bandship in favor of a song cycle for voice, piano and string quartet. The result works like gangbusters! From the vigorous, propulsive opener “Taking the Dawn” through melancholy mini-epics like the title track, “Quiet Night” and “Waving, Drowning” to the grave, sweeping pop of “Blackbird” (no, not THAT one, but arguably as affecting) and the closer “Lost to the Years”, every track feels unpretentious, fresh and heartfelt. The semi-classical sonics mesh effortlessly with the compelling songcraft; Jones’ sensitive singing and lush piano playing weaves in and around the light and shade of the strings. Even better, the music proves the right medium for the lyrical message, as Jones narrates a cathartic passage through (in his words) “special or significant moments . . . coming to terms with both losing those close to us and our own mortality and place in the universe.” Sound a bit heavy? Well, yeah — but paired with Jones’ solo Quiet Room Session, The Whispering of the World is a sentimental journey well worth taking. Sample it for yourself, then order it on Bandcamp.

Meanwhile, Lifesigns (the pride of Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire) have overcome not only COVID restrictions but also the delays inherent in releasing physical product nowadays to unveil their long-anticipated third album, Altitude. This beauty shares a pensive, understated sensibility and the occasional violin line with TMT’s latest, but it’s a rockier proposition overall. John Young’s evocative writing, emotive vocals and striking keyboards set the pace; guitarist Dave Bainbridge lays down supple rhythm work plus stinging riffs and solos on tracks like “Gregarious” and “Shoreline”; and bassist Jon Poole locks in marvelously with new drummer Zoltán Csörsz (formerly of the Flower Kings) for suitably crisp grooves. Stir in the aforementioned string seasonings and Lynsey Ward’s creamy backing vocals with Steve Rispin and Young’s widescreen production, and you have a mouthwatering musical recipe — poised, focused, with sweep and ambition that flowers in the extended title track and culminates with the stunning power ballad “Last One Home”, leaving you wanting to hear it all again. Sample the album below, then order direct from the band.

Cheshire-based songwriter/impresario John Holden also put the ongoing limitations of the pandemic to good use, generating his third album, Circles in Time only a year after 2020’s Rise and Fall. Holden’s typical modus operandi — hot takes on hot button issues, plus romantic slices of life that span the globe and the centuries — is intact here, whether he’s reacting to the “Avalanche” of social media negativity, portraying a nascent love affair on New York’s “High Line”, speculating on the Victorian enigma behind “The Secret of Chapel Field” or indulging in “Dreams of Cadiz”. The musical palette is appealingly eclectic, as Holden supplements his guitar, bass and keyboards with high-power guest shots from (among others) keyboardist Vikram Shankar, drummer Nick D’Virgilio, Peter Jones on vocals and sax and Cosmograf’s Robin Armstrong — who also mastered the album — on bass. Holden’s lyrics, co-written with wife and executive producer Libby, suit their musical settings well, with enough detail to form intriguing narratives while stimulating listeners’ imaginations to fill in the blanks. It all wraps up with the 7-part mini-musical “KV62”, as Holden, Shankar, D’Virgilio, That Joe Payne, Jones and Jeremy Irons (!) team up to bring Howard Carter’s obsessive quest for the tomb of King Tut-Ankh-Amun back to life. (Is there even a hint of Steve Martin-style comedy in the “Tut mania” section?) If you’re in need of a sonic staycation, Circles in Time might be just your ticket. Sample the album and order the download at Bandcamp; or order the CD from Holden or The Band Wagon USA.

And still there’ll be more from this corner of the prog world: Cosmograf’s new album, Rattrapante is due out on March 26, with Robin Armstrong promising “a collection of five songs about our interaction with time”. Check out the lead video “I Stick to You” (featuring Chrissy Mostyn from The Blackheart Orchestra) below . . . and watch this space!

— Rick Krueger

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