The Age of Insanity

Age of Insanity
Clive Mitten of the C:Live Collective

Twelfth Night was one of the most influential and respected British neo-prog bands. Though the band’s career was interrupted by various changes in the dramatis personae,  many view Fact or Fiction, released in 1982, as their finest album. This was a commentary on the double speak and mind control beginning to permeate society, arriving two years ahead of the year of reckoning as predicted in George Orwell’s 1984.

The album represented the band at their zenith which also saw them playing the Reading Festival for the second time, a tour across the UK and a live album recorded at London’s legendary Marquee Club, at which vocalist Geoff Mann was to make his final appearances with the band.

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An enlightened musical journey: John Holden

2CD Wallet with Spine (slot cut).pdf

 

Now here’s an interesting thought to ponder. Out there in the home studios – namely the studies, spare rooms and sheds of the Western world and beyond, a legion of creatively inclined souls are currently working hard, writing, playing and developing compositions and songs, which, they hope, will be subsequently released to a wider audience.

Because of the miracles of modern technology and the close camaraderie that exists in the greater prog community, this initial concept can be taken a step further so that as well as making your own music, you can invite other artistes to provide their own contributions. I have seen countless examples of this taking place where the global village concept of music is now a reality rather than prophetic line from Marshall McLuhan in the early 60s.

This ease of connection has been key to John Holden, a multi-instrumentalist and composer from the north of England, following his star and capturing light for a musical project, which, in terms of dramatis personae, is right up there with any line-up Alan Parsons ever assembled.

Continue reading “An enlightened musical journey: John Holden”

Galahad – an epic for our changing times

Galahad album cover

Based in the same county in southern England as Big Big Train, the backstory of Galahad could be a prog prototype for Spinal Tap.  In the 30 plus years the band has been together, there has been more than a fair share of drama – multiple personnel changes, mayhem on the road and alas, tragedy.

But this is a band which lives up to its name by being bold and courageous, not afraid to take a few risks and break taboos along the way.

Central to all the band activities is Stu Nicholson, the band’s vocalist, lyric writer and spokesperson, who is the only original member and who once auditioned for the vacant singer’s berth in Genesis.

Stu has seen it all and, despite  the band going through so many changes, he has kept his focus throughout – and his sense of humour. He is also a very shrewd observer of life as his lyrics and many personal conversations I have had with him have revealed.

Continue reading “Galahad – an epic for our changing times”

Cosmograf – new beginnings

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I first came across Robin Armstrong and his musical project Cosmograf back in 2011 when one of his songs was featured on a Prog magazine sampler.

It was the stand-out track on that particular compilation as it had that certain something which usually draws me in: interesting  instrumental and sound effects, thoughtful lyrics and astonishing emotion. The track was called Into This World and into Armstrong’s bucolic, wistful world of past memories I was duly enticed. This was beautiful, soul-stirring and thoughtful.

The song opened his third self-made Cosmograf release,  When Age Has Done Its Dutyfor which he had enlisted some top talent to help him tell his very personal and poignant story.

Now, nearly seven years later, the perfectionist that he is, Armstrong has made some significant “improvements” to the album and has reissued it as as 2018 remix edition.

For my part, this is great news because along the passage of his subsequent superlative four albums (The Man Left In Space, Capacitor, The Unreasonable Silence and last year’s The Hay-Man Dreams), Armstrong has attracted legions of new fans and many may not have managed to get hold of a copy of  “Duty”.

The opportunity to re-issue the album came after all the original physical versions sold out. Armstrong left his record company, he went independent and the album rights returned to him.

Robin Armstrong

As Armstrong explains on his website:  “It’s considered by many to be a seminal work in the Cosmograf catalogue, so rather than just re-issuing it I thought it would be better to completely remix and master it and address some of the issues that were less than perfect on the original recording.

“Many of the original guitar, bass and vocal parts have been re-recorded, new string arrangements added, and a more dynamic low volume level master produced. I’m really pleased with how it’s now sounding.”

And so he should because the new features have only enhanced what is a truly remarkable album.

What marked out this album was the way Armstrong took his own very personal story and, using some of his musical influences, shaped a collection of diverse songs into a memory board of observations and emotions.

Central to these are his childhood memories of staying with his Uncle Harry and Auntie Mollie in the rural English county of Shropshire, an area of the country which lies between Wales and the industrial West Midlands, renowned for its unspoiled natural beauty.

What he delivers is a cradle to grave concept. which goes way beyond those childhood memories and delivers his own testimony to life and. in particular, growing old, a journey which he depicts with great tenderness and sorrow.

Going back to the beginning, Into This World is still an astonishing opener, the ticking clock and telephone ringing bringing about the anticipation of new life into this world that comes through the sound of a baby crying.

The song is given as a meditation on the meaning of life through a series of  homespun truths.  To the new mother, “Your life will change to the sound of an infant voice” and to the new arrival, “The years will soon pass, the seasons will change, follow your heart, explore your own range.

For musical style, look no further than Steven Wilson, one of Armstrong’s heroes, another artiste who looks at the complexities of seemingly simple strands of life and makes them extraordinary.  There’s a melancholic piano and searing guitar solo in there too to heighten the poignancy.

Those childhood memories reach an early peak on the acoustic loveliness of Blacksmith’s Hammer, starting with the physical sound of eponymous hammer (which I always thought had the lightness of touch as found on ELP’s Lucky Man).  This is further uplifted by light and airy electric guitar passages, gorgeous vocal harmonies and Steve Dunn’s underpinning bass lines.

Armstrong has re-recorded the acoustic guitar in the haunting  On Which We Stand, co-written with guitarist Simon Rogers  (Also Eden, Ghost Community). It features a church-like organ and more close vocal harmonies. Roger’s soaring guitar and a huge ELP-like synthesiser further heighten the rural picture it paints.

For pure retro nostalgia, Bakelite Switch has it all. That recurring clock-ticking motif reappears, along with the sound of a brass band, as Armstrong recalls some of his memories of childhood. Bob Dalton of It Bites provides the heavy duty drums as the song begins to gather momentum.

However, there’s a darker side to this song as Armstrong begins to drill down into the realities of getting older through lyrics such as:

“Your busy life will lead you to forget, where your life came from, what is right and wrong.”

There’s also a blistering guitar solo from Luke Machin. It’s hard to believe he was delivering such fantastic fretwork seven years ago as he began his apprenticeship with The Tangent, his own band Concrete Lake/Maschine and, later, Kiama. 

Armstrong’s music influences appear in a countdown sequence reminiscent of David Bowie’s Space Oddity,  the lyrics taking on a Floydian turn at one juncture with a mention of  “The lunatic is on the grass,” followed by a Beatles’ reference,  the brass band re-emerging to bring it all to a close.

The recurring clock and a short speech in the manner of Prof Stephen Hawking do little to prepare you for the heart-wrenching anguish of Memory Lost. It features, to my mind, one of the greatest single vocal performances from Huw Lloyd-Jones (Midnight Sun, Unto Us, Also Eden) which will tear the fabric of your soul. It’s a song which will move anyone who witnesses the onset of age and its challenges in either their nearest and dearest or their friends. As Armstrong explains, it is about his Aunt battling on with life after the passing of his Uncle when all she has left to sustain her is her memories of their time together. It’s will simply break your heart as it does mine every time I hear it.

The wonderfully named Tom O’Bedlam recites Matthew Arnold’s poem “On Growing Old” to start the title track When Age Has Done Its Dutybefore the understated melody line, comprising piano and mellotron, gives space to the extraordinary voice of Steve Thorne who all but delivers last rites in the song:

Prised from her home, in a poor state of health, The time had come to face her death.

But the Farrier (Uncle Harry) is there waiting by her bed. The moment of passing comes, depicted by a church organ and followed by a searing guitar solo from Armstrong.

Changing the mood again, Armstrong introduces an electro-synthesiser and an insidious beat, together with the heavy guitar riffs of Lee Abraham (Galahad), for White Light Awaits, his voice taking on a seriously sinister edge as he menacingly asks:”How do you feel, does the light hurt your eyes, is the change a big surprise?

Finally, the tranquillity and peace returns on the beautifully chilled  Dog On The Clee, in which Armstrong refers to himself as “the boy from down south.”

I love this album now as I loved the album then. It is Armstrong’s voice you hear throughout, musically, lyrically and above all, vocally and what a voice it is. Some may cite the likes of Messrs David Longdon, Steve Hogarth and John Young as the outstanding contemporary prog vocalists but listen to Armstrong and he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. He is a consummate story teller, able to inject pathos, drama, nostalgia and pain into his intonation and delivery.

The 16 page accompanying booklet, including the stunning original artwork from Graeme Bell, provides the stories behind the songs, some of which I have touched on here.

I looked up my original review of this album, written for another music website, and it alluded to him sounding like Van Der Graaf Generator and Pink Floyd. Listening to it now, yes, the influences are in there but this was the album which shaped the unique Cosmograf sound, so no comparisons are required: only compliments on how Armstrong has created his own special place in the current prog landscape.

Copies of the album are available from the Cosmograf website  here.

 

2017, another great year for prog passionistas!

Jargon 2
From Athens with love – Jargon of Verbal Delirium

 

2017 – what a year it has been for prog. Against the backdrop of some highly perplexing and disturbing events across the world’s stage, but, to quote the title of Paul Stump’s excellent assessment of prog, The Music’s All That Matters.

On a personal note, it has been a particularly challenging year, having early on developed a stress-related condition due to pressures presented by a previous employer, which led to an emergency operation and a month’s recuperation.  This was coupled with seeing a parent being subsumed in the clutches of dementia. However, equilibrium was restored in the latter part, thanks to the kindness, belief and support of many people both inside and outside the prog bubble.

Though prevailing conditions resulted in me missing several high profile happenings, including HRH Prog in March, 2017 has continued to astound and astonish with the quality of the music being produced, and also the wonderful community of people. This is the tribe that cherishes and follows prog in individual capacities from the fans and supporters, to the writers, the promoters, the merchandise sellers, the record label owners and of course, the artistes themselves, most of whom make scant financial returns on their considerable investments of time and energy. As was originally stated, the music is all that matters.

Without further ado, here are the highlights, and some of the lowlights, which made 2017 another great year for us prog passionistas.

Top Albums:

1) The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery – The Tangent. As one of prog’s most outspoken savants, Andy Tillison brings profound political and social commentary into the narrative of this musically outstanding album. This is a clarion call to wake up and see how our perceptions of the world are being manipulated. Some stellar musicianship peaks on Dr Livingstone (I Presume), co-written by his brilliant fellow Tangential collaborator Luke Machin. Thoughtful, profound with hints of jazz and dance-trance, it also features some extraordinary hard hitting artwork by DC Comics cartoonist, Mark Buckingham.

Continue reading “2017, another great year for prog passionistas!”

As the Cadogan Crow flies..

 

Telescope and crow

It’s a Saturday afternoon in late September and we’re heading to London by train on the second leg of an epic journey that has been gathering speed for several years. The destination tonight is located within the traditional haunt of the once fêted Sloane Rangers, the well-heeled, young members of the Chelsea and Kensington jet set. But tonight, Sloane Square and its environs are the temporary haunts of another social group, better known as Passengers or, for two nights and one afternoon only, the Cadogan Crows.

The Passengers, sorry Crows, have flocked here from every corner of the globe, the furthest travellers coming from Australia and America, with a sizeable contingent winging its way from Europe – Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy among the represented nations.

It’s not a global sporting occasion which has set their compasses and sat-navs to SW1 but the re-emergence on the live stage of one of the UK’s best known unknown bands, Big Big Train.

Since they graced the stage of Kings Place, London, in August 2015, the anticipation of more Big Big Train live dates has frequently reached fever pitch. However, the fans have had to make do with a double live album recorded at those London concerts plus three new studio albums that have significantly moved on the stories they are renowned for telling. Instead of the verdant beauty of Upton Heath, the ethereal loveliness of Curator of Butterflies and tales from the coalface in Worked Out, there have been freshly mined tales to explore.

Talisman

The talisman for these new tales is a crow, which, by custom, is a bird of omen and by a happy co-incidence, often enjoys the collective name of “a storytelling”. The flight starts with Folklore, released last year, which was joined this year by its companion piece Grimspound, the eponymous name of the crow, and finally by The Second Brightest Star, which acts as the coda to this particular musical chapter.

Also, maybe by design or perhaps another happy co-incidence, the Cadogan Hall, the venue which Big Big Train has chosen for this particular leg of the live journey, is just a short crow’s flight from the River Thames, which features so prominently on the recently released London Song EP.

The imposing Byzantine Revival-style hall has an interesting history, having originally been built as a Christian Science church, hence its impressive stained glass windows.  It nearly became the palatial home of former Harrods owner, Mohamed Fayed, until Cadogan Estates Ltd bought the building and turned it into a concert hall. In fact, its prog credentials include Marillion’s Live From Cadogan Hall DVD, which was recorded here in 2010.

As the hour approaches, there’s a sizeable crowd assembling outside in the intermittent drizzle. It’s one of those moments when you realise that around 75% of the fans there probably know each other personally or have spoken at some juncture on Facebook. At one point, I look up to see a Facebook friend, previously unmet, who regularly thrashes me at online Scrabble!

Handshakes, hugs, selfies – the sight of so many people of a certain age, some meeting for the very first time but conversing like old friends, is a significant part of what this evening is all about – and all united by one band. If any adjudicator for the Nobel Peace Prize is in the vicinity of SW1 this evening, they may find some worthy contenders for bringing together people in the spirit of peace, love and understanding.

The hall’s expansive foyer is soon consumed by the swelling tide of concert-goers, many of whom are immediately drawn to the expansive merch desk running along almost one side of it.

Mementos

The desk is in overdrive for most of the evening as thoughtfully-crafted mementos and souvenirs literally fly off the table. Umbrellas, car air fresheners in the shape of the last two albums, aprons, mugs, concert tee-shirts and of course, the ever growing collection of albums, available on CD and vinyl, all find new owners. My own personal choice is an exquisite hand-painted pendant depicting the cover of The Second Brightest Star. Alas, the pendants have all been snapped up within an hour on the Friday night. Continue reading “As the Cadogan Crow flies..”

Magenta – the stuff of legends

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Very few prog bands have sailed through nearly two decades of music-making with flying colours quite like the Welsh Magenta.

With prog’s Captain Prolific, Rob Reed, still holding a strong and steady course at the helm, Magenta’s band of sister and brothers are united in their overwhelming desire to create some of the most mellifluous, melodic prog around.

Never afraid to steer into previously uncharted waters, Magenta’s canon of work now includes seven studio albums, the newest being We Are Legend, which is released on 27 April.

Again, this is completely new territory for a band that is now so adept at giving us memorable figures and concepts within their specific landscape, but more about that later.

I truly believed they had reached the zenith of their considerable powers when they released The Twenty Seven Club in 2013, an album depicting six musical legends- Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Jones, Cobain and Johnson, all of whose lives came to tragic ends at that Bermuda Triangle age of 27.

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