My album of the year (see Prog Magazine Issue 125) may have been overlooked by a lot of music lovers, but its existence has now been brought into sharp focus through David Longdon’s contribution on it.
“Songs From The Apricot Tree” (Ethersounds) is the 11th solo album from Theo Travis, the much respected jazz saxophonist, flautist and composer, who has played with a diverse range of bands and artistes such as Robert Fripp, David Gilmour, Soft Machine, Gong, The Tangent, Steven Wilson, Brian Eno, David Sylvian and Bill Nelson.
What makes this album so different is because on each of the songs, he plays the duduk, an ancient double reed wind instrument originating from Armenia, made from a single piece of wood from the apricot tree.
The sound it makes can only be described as haunting, a sound which touches the soul and evokes mysteries from the ancient past.
Travis first heard it played by former Gong bandmate Didier Malherbe but he did not realise its full power and beauty until Peter Gabriel’s Passion.
Malherbe gave him a duduk and Travis’ lockdown project was to learn how to play it, discovering it was not an easy instrument to master. He has been taking lessons from Arsen Petrosyan, who appears on Steve Hackett’s recent acoustic album, “Under A Mediterranean Sky”.
Whatever he perceives his current level of ability to be, the album comprises 10 eclectic compositions, all of which showcase the achingly poignant tones and nuances of the duduk.
The first two songs, “If I Forget You” and “Love and Mourning” give a real sense of the emotions the duduk evokes – feelings of sadness and loss, perhaps very apt now for the track which follows.
That is Longdon’s intensely beautiful interpretation of “Brilliant Trees”, the title track of David Sylvian’s first solo album, the song co-written with Jon Hassell. It’s a gentle acoustic song which Longdon delivers with incredible tenderness, Travis staying relatively true to the original with the duduk replacing the electronica.
Gong fans will be delighted with the way he stays in tune with the spirit of the band’s “Magdalene” in which he uses multi-tracked duduks to produce its jazzy, psychedelic edge.
The meditative quality of the duduk is at its most plaintive on “A Quiet Prayer”, a spiritual incantation during which the text of a traditional Hebrew prayer is sung by Gaddy Zerbib.
Again, the mood changes through “The Shadow of Your Smile”, the jazz classic on which Soft Machine’s John Etheridge provides some resonant guitar underneath the shimmering melody line.
On “All I Know”, one of Travis’s older songs, the duduk is multi-tracked and looped, creating a trance-like musical state. “She’s Coming Home” has King Crimson’s Jakko Jakszyk delivering all the voices on piano-led ballad which sounds both contemporary and classic, the duduk taking the place of the guitar parts.
A combination of Middle Eastern rhythms and a haunting melody are the irresistible features of Travis’ reimagining “A Feeling Begins”, the composition which opens Gabriel’s “Passion” album.
Closing the album, “Delusion Angel” has a modern jazz groove but within it, the duduk sounds even deeper and darker.
Among all the wonderful prog albums released this year, “Songs From The Apricot Tree” stood out because Travis has totally embraced the possibilities of this wondrous instrument and created a 45 minute meditative, magical musical journey unlike any other.
The UK is renowned for its panoply of music venues ranging from the regal Victorian magnificence of the Royal Albert Hall and the cavernous expanses of the 02 in London to its wealth of small pubs and subterranean clubs, sadly some of which are now either closed or threatened with extinction.
However, there’s one venue which defies any conventional description because, well, there’s nowhere else like it, and to summarise, where else can you wine, dine and prog at the same time?
Music fans travel considerable distances to go to gigs at Trading Boundaries, which is nestled away in the south eastern English county of East Sussex and whose nearest hotels include those serving London’s Gatwick Airport.
Housed in a Grade 2 Georgian coaching inn, by day, it’s a shopping emporium specialising in high desirable imported antique Indian furniture and handicrafts, its courtyard full of specialist shops and boutiques.
Its prog credentials are heightened by the fact it is where legendary prog artist RogerDean holds an exhibition of his legendary works every year, this being the closest venue to his home.
However, at the centre of the complex is the Elephant Café-Bar, which, on gig evenings, transforms into a magical Arabian nights music venue full of lush satins and silks, and lit by twinkling lights. In this exotic splendour and as part of the ticket package, gig-goers also enjoy a two-course meal and drinks ahead of the performance.
Over the years, regular visitors have included prog luminaries such as Steve Hackett, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Carl Palmer, Focus, Caravan, Jon Hiseman and Colosseum and Damian Wilson.
However, on this particular night, it’s that most English of contemporary prog bands, Lifesigns, who are treading the polished boards in deepest Sussex. A birthday treat to my husband Martin Reijman, whose photographs have graced many of their promotional posters, it’s a chance to enjoy a band, who, for many people, currently appears to be the most popular entry point into modern prog.
There are many possible reasons for this, notwithstanding the inherent warmth and rich melodies within the music, the exceptional artistry of each of Lifesigns’ players past and present, and the all-embracing geniality and modest genius of the band’s founder JohnYoung, who has previously played with Asia, the Scorpions and Greenslade. His day job is currently as Bonnie Tyler’s concert keyboards player.
As he later reveals between songs, Lifesigns began as a bet in a pub when someone challenged him to create some fresh, original prog music.
He also remembers his last visit to Trading Boundaries when the audience comprised a man and his dog. Tonight, the venue is packed to capacity – a sell-out of more than 100 people seated and dining, and an additional circle of around 40 standing fans.
The burgeoning popularity may also be due to the band’s continuing organic evolution, from when the original core team of Young with stalwart drummer Martin “Frosty”Beedle (ex-Cutting Crew), prog bass player and demi-god Nick Beggs and sound engineer Steve Rispin began to develop the songs, melodies and themes running through Young’s head.
To achieve the desired result, they called upon the services of illustrious friends such as Thijs Van Leer (Focus), Robin Boult (Fish’s guitarist), Jakko Jakszyk (King Crimson) and Steve Hackett to augment the Lifesigns sound and help to create its individual marque.
This evolution started on record through the exquisite eponymous debut album released in 2013 and its equally laudable follow-up Cardington in 2017. For the live performances that started in 2014, the highly animate and extrovert Jon Poole (ex-Cardiacs) became the resident bass player, and following the departure of guitarist NikoTsonev late in 2017, Dave Bainbridge (Iona, the Strawbs) who played on Cardington, joined as guitarist and occasional keyboards player in time for the early gigs in 2018 including Cruise to the Edge.
This night’s performance is again a wonderfully balanced set, comprising songs from both albums – and one which will appear on the forthcoming album, but more about that later.
The set is of a slightly different construct to the previous tour and starts with Lighthouse, the cosmically charged opener from their first album, and to my mind, the song which literally set the tone for everything else that has since followed.
It’s one of those classic prog songs, full of delightful twists and turns, delicious melodic hook-lines, some beautifully evocative lyrics and whose pulsating climactic ending is all about bass pedals, crashing waves and the cry of the seagulls. It will always remain a song in which I feel both lost and found.
Young, with his flowing silver locks and cans clamped to his ears, remains the focal point behind his bank of keys, his resonant clear voice one of the band’s greatest assets.
It’s obvious the band has benefited from its recent break as there’s a renewed vigour and enthusiasm in the way they are playing, especially from Beedle who is visibly loving every moment, attacking his drums with palpable joy and exhilaration.
Poole is the joker in the pack, but the message on his bass “Destroy all genres” shows where his convictions lie. Always animate, bouncy and alternatively “duetting” with Beedle and Young, he injects a funky, chunky vibe that beefs up the song-lines.
Bainbridge, since joining the band, is a revelation, his shy, retiring but always expressive persona belying the brilliance of his lyrical, fluid guitar runs and solos. His presence has indeed taken the band to another level live, because he and Young are like twin souls in the way that between them, they elicit every nuance of melody from every song.
It’s a classic canon of songs tonight drawn from both albums, including the hypnotically lovely Voice In My Head; Young’s broadside to radio mediocrity Touch; Different; Impossible; Open Skies (about aliens and Manchester United), the ever-uplifting Cardington about an airship service that never took off; the commercial and potentially radio-friendly Chasing Rainbows and the very prophetic, upbeat End Of The World.
All these are spread over two sets, and they end with the extraordinary Carousel, the closing track on the debut album, which, despite a technical keyboard glitch immediately after Bainbridge’s frenzied opening, always hits the personal “set to stun” button due in no small part to the personal poignancy of some of the lyrics and that particular line “Let me be, Don’t turn the light out.”
It’s a heavenly evening, one of exuberant energy, majestic music and a hugely engaged and enthusiastic audience, which mirrors exactly what is happening on stage. And there’s dancing during three of the numbers!
Back they come for the encore, the aptly titled Last One Home, written by Young, which originally appeared on Live In The Hood, the only album released by the short-lived band Qango.
Hidden then on an album full of Asia and ELP covers, this moving ballad about those in peril on the sea will appear on the much anticipated third album and already, we can safely say this will be viewed as a Lifesigns’ classic if only for the ethereally beautiful and emotional guitar solo from Bainbridge. Even after the fourth time experiencing it live, it still has all the qualities to make grown women – and hopefully men – weep.
The acoustics at Trading Boundaries provide both intimacy and clarity, both crucial factors in the Lifesigns’ sound that Rispin, who has recently been on tour in the USA with Yes, always brings out to best effect.
As an aside, I ought to mention that the band also played a little birthday tribute to Martin in the form of a most off-beat version of TheBeatles’ When I’m 64 which Poole sings the opening line in different variations of the lyrics and Bainbridge plays piano, followed by getting everyone to sing him Happy Birthday.
It also helps that the owners of this unique venue are avid music fans and the sight of one of the co-owners, Michael Clifford, introducing them wearing a Lifesigns’ tee-shirt tells its own story.
There will be more prog here this autumn, including two acoustic sets by Steve Hackett, the return of Focus, an evening of music based on the albums of Ant Phillips, Genesis’ original guitarist and Mike Rutherford, a visit from Italian wizards Barock Project and a fascinating double bill featuring the U.S’s District 97 and English prog metal merchants Maschine.
There is also a performance from Yes tribute band Yes Please to coincide with the launch of Roger Dean’s new exhibition there in October.
This is definitely one the UK’s best kept secrets. Hopefully, after you read this, it won’t be much longer.
And Lifesigns are still continuing to delight on their current tour and will be visiting Eleven in Stoke on Trent on Wednesday 4th September; Bannermans Bar in Glasgow on Thursday 5th September and Ivory Blacks in Glasgow on Friday 6th September.
It’s five o’clock on an atypical Saturday in London, a day during which one million people have taken to the central city streets to protest about a political and democratic decision which threatens the entire nation, its relationship with Europe and indeed the whole world.
Discarded placards are stacked up against railings in Trafalgar Square, symbolic to a degree because of the history of the place. There, on top of his high plinth, stands the British naval hero Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was partly responsible for curtailing the expansive ambitions of French emperor, Napoleon Buonaparte.
So much has changed in the ensuing 214 years after the Battle of Trafalgar, the country now totally at war with itself over the European referendum, the deadlock in the differing political ideologies causing fear, anxiety and confusion.
But tonight, in the city, there’s a far more discreet French invasion taking place in a subterranean corner of Soho, adjacent to the massive earthworks of the Crossrail train engineering project.
Jokingly, the band in question, the Gallic fivesome Lazuli think this incredible turn-out on the streets on London is for them. In a saner world, Lazuli would indeed be filling huge auditoriums. In these extraordinary circumstances however, it has taken them nearly four hours to navigate their way around motorways and roads into London to get to the venue.
With one of their staunchest fans, who took part in the day’s protest, in possession of a European Union flag, they are fully aware that they are among friends here at the Borderline, a popular if slightly claustrophobic music venue/nightclub, which has undergone a significant facelift since they were last here two years ago.
There’s around 160 in the venue tonight, a very healthy number considering a sizeable new prog festival is happening about a two and a half hour’s drive away and there are a couple of major gigs in town the following evening (Lifesigns and the Neal Morse Band).
This London date has been rescheduled from the previous autumn when the band embarked on a mini-tour of the UK, culminating in a triumphant third headlining appearance at the British flagship prog festival, Summer’s End.
Back under the tender loving care of tour manager, Nellie Pitts, a second show has been added the following night at Level III , another fascinating basement music venue located in the south-west English railway town of Swindon.
But tonight’s is a completely different show to the ones delivered last autumn to promote their thoughtful, achingly lovely album Saison 8 (to reflect this being their eighth album). This is a two and a half hour celebration of their finest and most popular songs.
But first for those unfamiliar with Lazuli, this band is very much a family-centric enterprise, which began with brothers, the elvish Dominique and Claude Leonetti, whose base is just outside the southern French city of Nîmes.
Claude was the guitarist in the early incarnation of the band, but a motorcycle accident in the 1980s robbed him of the use of his left arm, rendering guitar playing impossible.
However, he had a prophetic dream about an instrument which would allow him to continue playing. And behold, the unique Léode (a combination of his second and first names) was created, a box of sonic programmable tricks – a cross between a guitar, synthesiser and musical saw – from which he can produce the most extraordinary effects, which gives the band their iconic original sound.
The present line-up has been together nearly a decade and represents a steady ascent in their popularity across Europe, notably Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, with, alas, less recognition in their native France. The UK has also embraced them especially after they toured with one of their heroes, Fish, in the autumn of 2015, when the crowd reaction seemed to be along the lines of “What on earth was that!?”
An understandable reaction indeed to a band, influenced among others by the Beatles, Peter Gabriel and the inimitable Fish, who also appears on one of their albums. It might also be down to the exquisite sound and visual experience they provide so spectacularly.
Along with Claude’s Léode, Domi plays electric and acoustic guitars, one of which has been custom made by his son Elliot, again underlining the family connections. Domi’s distinct clear high register voice is effectively another instrument especially to the ears of non-French speakers who can concentrate on and marvel at his incredible perfect pitch.
You can find the expressive, animate multi-instrumentalist Romain Thorel on keyboards with added bass (there is no bass player in the band), drums and French horn, while the solidly reliable ‘timekeeper’ Vincent Barnavol takes care of drums, djembe and marimba. As for the flamboyantly dreadlocked Gédéric Byar, his guitar does all the talking with a little help from a screwdriver and a veritable battery of effects pedals.
Visually, the front three resemble the cast of an unwritten Lord of the Rings chapter, their extravagant hair tied up or braided, Domi sporting his customary plaited beard, costumes sombrely black with ‘aprons’ and bondage trousers included somewhere in the mix, while the clean-shaven, ever-smiling duo of Thorel and Barnavol make up the back line.
However, together, their live show pulsates with a transcendental energy seldom encountered on the world’s stages and the love they feel when they perform transmits directly to the audience. As I have said previously, they simply gather you up and take you on a magic carpet ride to their own musical universe.
Admittedly, the meanings of the songs probably get lost in translation, but as Domi once declared, “I have the soul of a Frenchman, so it would be very difficult to sing in English.” Their songs are full of imagery and metaphors which would not flow if imagined in English. But such is their humanistic view of the world, they are not afraid of tackling big subjects such as the environment, climate change, immigration, injustice and male violence against women.
For tonight’s show, it’s a walk-through Lazuli time (literally) to revisit some of their most popular songs from the past including the sublimely beautiful Cassiopée and the volcanic L’Abîme (The Abyss).
However, for your humble reviewer, two other “old” songs provide the highlights, one being the fabulously evocative 15 hr 40 (Twenty to Four) in which they perfectly capture the sound of a ticking clock locked in the moment of the hour. The following evening in Swindon, they meet the fan who originally asked them to put the song back in the show and duly dedicates it to him.
The other is Naif, a song from their first album Amnésie, which struck a chord when we first saw and fell in love with them in 2011 at the Summer’s End festival, but which Domi explains that he wrote when he was an idealistic youth, and probably still is. This is a particularly clever acoustically driven song on which Thorel crafts a regimented pattern of beats on a snare drum while Barnavol taps out the song’s underlying rhythm on his beat box. It still resonates as strongly as it did nearly eight years.
Despite his halting English, Domi has rehearsed his lines well enough to crack jokes about his recent bout of flu, which, unlike the true tenor tuning made his voice sound like Barry White – which he then changes topically to British Prime Minister Theresa May when she lost her voice during a Brexit debate in Parliament.
He also sounds a more serious note when introducing Les Côtes, a song about the thousands of refugees fleeing conflict and seeking a better life arriving on the southern shores of Europe. “Without immigration, this stage would be empty”, Domi declares, he and brother Claude having Italian ancestry along with Byar’s North African roots.
There’s also an element of gravity to the haunting Les Sutures, a song all about finding each other and relating to one another “under all the sutures of our wounded souls”, whose drama comes when Barnavol begins a military drum beat that is then taken up by Domi and Thorel on a single snare drum mid-stage.
Les Malveillants is another show-stopping favourite, an angry song about malicious people and their evil intentions, which is the nearest they get to prog-metal, this being a full-on, no holds barred barrage of riffage from both guitars and Léode. It comes to a climax when Domi and Byar bravely jump off the stage into the audience and go walkabouts.
Bringing the show to a close, Les Courants Ascendants(The Updrafts) is one of those slow burning songs which suddenly ignites, Thorel going full throttle on the French horn as Byar’s fizzing fretwork suddenly morphs into a ringing, melodic riff, bringing the song to a rousing climax.
As the band leaves the stage, the audience, who know this is far from the end, start singing back the riff and that’s the cue for Lazuli to return as crowd conductors, while Thorel on keyboards and Barnavol on drums duet on some jazzy impro work.
With the passing of this beautiful evening comes the passing of the seasons, Domi launching into the gorgeous Un Automne from Amnésie then brings their story right up to date with J’Attends Un Printemps (I Am Waiting For A Spring) from their Saison 8 album – very apt for a late day in March.
Finally, they regroup for their jaw-dropping finale, Nine Hands Around A Marimba – basically, the five of them playing together on just the one instrument, in which they improvise several familiar tunes, which, tonight include Solsbury Hill and Michelle – all delivered with some knockabout humour.
It’s another phenomenal show from a band who are musical joy bringers. Their fraternal love and respect for each other as musicians and friends (there’s a song in the show called Mes amis, mes frères – My Friends, My Brothers – which sums this all up) is writ large throughout their shows.
Sadly, with the current political situation in the United Kingdom, there’s great uncertainty for bands like Lazuli and other foreign favourites such as the Franck Carducci Band as to how it will impact on future tours to these shores. Already, it is a huge logistical operation to bring their show across the Channel from the south of France and any subsequent red tape as a result of Britain’s drawn-out departure from the European Union could exacerbate this.
As Lazuli’s new tee-shirt slogan so perfectly says, “Music flies over borders”. For now, we can only wait with anticipation for the upcoming new album later this year, which Domi says is a very special one. Let’s hope they will be able to bring it to us live next year.
All photographs by Martin Reijman taken at Level III, Swindon, 24 March 2019.
“Where have all the great showmen gone?” I opined in Prog magazine earlier this year. In other words, who are the artistes that are taking that step beyond playing to offer a performance that also offers theatre, circus – and even a touch of Vaudeville?
The artiste who inspired this question has just been on vacation in New York – and I cannot think of a better place for him to experience a whiff of the greasepaint lingering close by on Broadway.
Before he goes to the Crescendo Festival in France on 21st August then plays further dates in France and the Netherlands next month to wow more audiences, ladies and gentlemen, let’s give a huge cheer for Franck Carducci, the Superstar Mad Hatter, whose musical stock is slowly but surely rising as he continues to conquer Europe in his own inimitable but never understated way.
Frenchman Franck has spent his career drawing on a range of musical and literary influences that now shape his music and, more importantly, his show. A prog muso friend summed it up perfectly when he remarked at a recent show at how well Franck and his trusty band of musical adventurers have managed to devise a big show from relatively small but nevertheless dramatic components.
And there’s the secret of their success. There is no huge Roger Waters “everything but the kitchen sink” theatricals involved. Instead, there are cleverly designed costumes and a couple of randomly unusual instruments involved in their concert set pieces. The rest is down to an innate talent that blends elements of psychedelia, classic rock, prog and even six-part harmonies into a finely tuned and utterly compelling two hours.
Having first encountered Franck a couple of years ago in Southampton, his cheery, warm, friendly demeanour and total belief in what he does were both refreshing and highly contagious.
His influences include classical literature and history (he is big on the Ancient Greeks), classic rock, (one of his ambitions is to support AliceCooper) as well as the prog classics, especially Genesis. In fact, one of his most memorable moments was supporting Steve Hackett, who told him not to give up on his dream then guested on his second album Torn Apart in 2015.
More significant breakthroughs came last year, firstly when he and the band were greeted to a standing ovation at the legendary Loreley prog festival in Germany. This was quickly followed up in the United Kingdom, when, after the Saturday night headliners at the British prog festival, Summers End, elected to go on early evening, several of us “in the know” implored everyone to stay to watch Franck and company.
The magnificent performance they subsequently delivered nearly blew the roof off the modest Drill Hall in Chepstow and prompted my Prog piece. Further endorsement of their burgeoning popularity came earlier this year when they were voted Classic Rock Society’s Overseas Act of the Year.
So what’s the alchemy here? Well, Franck is primarily the band’s bassist and singer, but his onstage persona is that of Master of Ceremonies – with a twist. His opening number, Superstar, sets the tone as he arrives on stage in shades, cowboy hat and outrageously hairy waistcoat, having to use his personal “security” man to fend off the advances of an amorous lady admirer.
The admirer is one of the many roles assumed by the very talented and beautiful Mary Reynaud. She is traditionally the band’s support act as well as being an integral part of the show, especially her seductive dancing seldom seen elsewhere in prog. Her solo work – just her and her trusty acoustic guitar – demonstrates her song writing skills and unique voice which is sweet and powerful in equal measure.
Included in the line-up is Franck’s long time friend and collaborator, guitarist ChristopheObadia, who is one of prog’s more eccentric personalities, acting as a great foil for Steve Marsala, who is the quieter and more sensible of the band’s guitarists.
Keyboard player and Franck’s “security guard”, Olivier Castan and drummer AntoninoReina (“he comes from Sicily”) complete the line-up.
The show simply could not work if there was not a great affection and empathy between the members of the all-star cast. For example, a mutual love of classic rock riffs sees Obadia and Marsala trading licks on some of the legends such as Smoke on the Water and Sweet Child of Mine.
The music is pure rock, fantastically infused with psychedelia and some delicious curios, for example, the use of a theremin without which Good Vibrations would never have vibrated. Mary’s invocation of its extraordinary sounds involves provocatively using certain parts of her body while Obadia’s oscillations are more shock horror than X rated!
As well as her belly dancing solo on stage, Mary also has very differing starring roles in two of their most memorable songs. The recently introduced beautiful, bluesy ballad, The Angel, is a show stopper, Mary arriving on stage in her angel wings, lit by LED lights, which, when she spins, whirls into extraordinary patterns of colour.
The Angel Mary
Then there is Alice’s Eerie Dream, and where to start with this epic? As Franck in his Mad Hatter attire explains, this is the true story of Alice in Wonderland, when her adventures caused her to become a lady of the night. It’s a long and compelling tale, Mary becoming Alice in her fabulous corseted dress and mask, trying to seduce the band members in turn. But it is left to Obadia to finally fend her off, using the throaty strains of an enormous didgeridoo. Yes, you did read that correctly!
As well as classic rock, the band can also stun with their vocal dexterity in the brilliant six-part harmony of On The Road To Nowhere with just Franck strumming acoustic guitar as occasional accompaniment.
Their love of prog classics stretches to them delivering their own interpretations, Pink Floyd’sEclipse giving a chance for audiences to exercise their vocal chords and more recently, they have introduced their own interpretation of Supertramp’sSchool with other members of the band taking their lead on vocals.
Well, that’s being perfectly Franck. He’s an entertainer, a showman, a musician, an actor and above all, a real star.
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’s1984.
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.
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 MarshallMcLuhan 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.
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.
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 ItsDuty, for 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.
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’sHammer, starting with the physical sound of eponymous hammer (which I always thought had the lightness of touch as found on ELP’sLucky 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 DavidBowie’sSpace 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 Duty, before the understated melody line, comprising piano and mellotron, gives space to the extraordinary voice of SteveThorne 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 – 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.
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.
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.
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’sLive 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.
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..”→