Chris, first I would like to thank you for sparing some time (again) from your obviously busy schedule. You’ve just released your second album this year and also written two band biographies on The Incredible String Band and Black Sabbath. This is also your third interview in less than a year by Progarchy with the other two by Craig Breaden to be found here:
Now I’m not normally a folk music listener but after reading a number of positive reviews of your first three albums and listening to them on numerous occasions, you’ve definitely converted me. Not only is there a special beauty to the music you write, but Craig made an important observation in an earlier interview which resonates with me deeply:
“The impulse to go long, as his folk and other prog rock predecessors might have done, is also resisted – there are few wasted notes or words. Less is more sometimes, and service here is done to Song.”
The Call is your fourth album in a very short space of time. Your first two albums evoked classic 70s folk music but your third album, Sounds of Day and Night, developed a dreamier, slightly psychedelic sound with Eastern vibes in places. There was more use of the electric guitar and the arrangements were slightly more complex. What can we expect musically from the new album?
I’m not sure how to describe the sound, because developing from album to album is more of a natural, gut thing really. I write a song and colour it in with different sounds, and keep going until I have a set of songs, say 12 or 13, to fill an album. Then I usually carry on recording and there’s a process of elimination, where new ones come in and replace the older ones, until I am happy with it from start to finish and happy with every single note. It’s really concentrated work, and I love the mixing and producing part as well. I work on it every day. And while four albums in a year and half may seem quick, to me that year and a half has felt like forever. It literally feels like ages since I did the first CD. But this new one is by far my favourite, even though I keep saying this every time. I would say the album is full of unusual sounds blending together, it definitely has a vibe to it, quite surreal maybe and for me “songs” are very important, i.e. something with a subject, an approach, a hook, a chorus and then I think about the best way to colour the song in. I like to make interesting music that surprises and hopefully takes the listener away on a nice trip. it’s hard to describe your own work without sounding like a frilly coloured fop.
Lyrically you appear to be focus upon mellow reflections on life, love and nature. Does The Call follow this path?
My lyrics are always whatever comes to me. A phrase might come up and I elaborate on that. The lyrical content on The Call seemed to follow the same path. It’s all about awareness, being aware of your life, what’s going on around you, the people who are in your life with you and understanding what they have or have not done for you, and not forgetting that. I didn’t purposely explore this as a theme; it just seems to have developed that way. It sounds pretentious to say, but it does have a theme to it; it’s about not wasting time and appreciating the things that are here now, and may not be here in the future.
What inspires you lyrically and what comes first, the music or the lyrics?
It differs really. Many songs have been written on an acoustic guitar. I find a sound or a chord and then get a melody going, and like I say, a phrase might come into my head and it goes on from there. I love getting a different chord progression or guitar sound as a starting point and then I decide what else to do. Lyrics are becoming more important though with each album. I’m not into the idea of obvious lyrics, like openly complaining about the government or work, or the plight of the everyman, and if I do ever sing about it, it isn’t blatant. Also it’s good to write about a real issue or a feeling but not ram it down the listener’s throat. It’s good that people have their own meanings and thoughts on songs. Lou Reed once said that he didn’t like to tell people what his songs were about because it might disappoint them, and they may have attached the song to something precious in their own mind. Sorry I am waffling on now…
It’s not waffle to me Chris! – I know exactly what you mean about lyrics. Lyrics resonate with people in different ways; they become very personal and sometimes finding out the real meaning from the artist himself can disappoint.
Chris, you’ve introduced Chloe Herrington on saxophone and Ricky Romain on Sitar on the new album. Guest artists appear an important ingredient to your output. How important is the collaborative process in producing the music of Dodson and Fogg?
It’s mostly important for me because I listen to a track and think ‘this might sound good with a sax here, or a sitar there.’ Sometimes I think if you’re a one man band (not like the fella that sung Rosie with the bass drum on his back) you do need character and colour from elsewhere. Celia Humphris of the folk band Trees (one of my favourite bands) appears on the new album again, and I feel her voice is very important. There was one song I wasn’t quite happy with and then she did her vocals and I loved it. So it can be really important. Coming up with the idea of the specific musician though can be quite random. I discovered Knifeworld on the internet a few months ago and loved the sax on a track, so got in touch with Kavus of that band to see if Chloe, his sax player, would be interested in playing on a track. It can be like hearing someone and then imagining them on my song. It’s a great part of it. But save for one trumpet part on Sounds of Day and Night, I was the only musician on it. So it’s not essential all the time, but I love the process of hearing what someone else has done and putting it into the song.
Chris, it’s a big understatement to say your multi-skilled! – you play so many instruments and write books on both music and surreal comedy. Do you have a first love?
Definitely music. I have played, or attempted to play at least, instruments from a really young age and always collected records as a boy. I used to dream of having a band, and I did have one with my brother and sister when I was younger and we did gigs for a while, but it fizzled out so I turned to writing, something I had also done since I was a kid. At first I got into the surreal fiction when I did the audiobooks of my stories with Rik Mayall and Charlie Chuck, but I soon found it too be quite limiting and turned back to music eventually last year, thank god, with the first Dodson and Fogg album. I didn’t expect the feedback to be so good, so I carried on and I’ve been learning more about music, releasing music and everything that comes with it. Music is definitely my main thing now and the main focus in my work and hobbies. With my music going reasonably successfully and with such a great response to it, this is the first time I have felt a proper direction, so it’s great. But I can’t take any of it too seriously, because it is still ridiculously fun!
The increasing production of music in vinyl format has attracted a lot of interest over the last few years. I read that the first album was to be released on vinyl but haven’t heard anything. Have you any more plans for vinyl releases or is the production cost too prohibitive?
Yes a company called Golden Pavilion is releasing the first album in a run of 500 next year and I will have around 50 copies available from my website, unsigned or signed, whichever is preferred. I should add though that a signed copy might add an extra value of 3 pence to the item, so I suggest the latter. I would love to have the others on vinyl too one day, and it might be possible, so fingers crossed.
You appear to be at a creative peak replete with musical ideas. What’s next on the horizon for Dodson and Fogg, a live tour, another album?
I’ve been writing more songs, but then I tend to write songs all the time now and some never get finished and others get put in a scrap folder. But for now I am going to promote The Call and start work on more tracks after that. I don’t have any other projects lined up at the minute, so I’ll think about the next D and F album. I would love to do some gigs but I haven’t found the right musicians for the gigs yet.
Once again thanks for your time Chris and good luck for the future.
For those who would like to purchase the new album “The Call” please visit Chris’s website here:
Hailing from Finland The Von Hertzen Brothers is another band from the exceedingly long production line of Scandinavian Prog (in all its various sub-genres). ‘Nine Lives’ is their fifth album. Very popular in their home country, their last album, the critically acclaimed ‘Stars Aligned’, was released in 2011 and provided them with far more European, if not International, exposure.
My familiarity with the band before reviewing ‘Nine Lives’ was restricted to listening once to ‘Stars Aligned’. I remember being slightly ‘underwhelmed’ and placed it in my increasingly large ‘pile’ of CDs to be dug out and re-evaluated at a later date. And, of course I never got around to it.
Following favourable reports of their live act at HRH Prog earlier this year and the release of Nine Lives leading to two nominations in this year’s (UK) Prog Awards, one as ‘Breakthrough Artist’ and the other for their ‘single’ ‘Flowers and Rust’, which won the ‘Anthem of the Year’, I took a chance and purchased the ‘deluxe’ CD (with three extra bonus tracks). I also purchased a ticket to see them headline at the Garage in London in late October.
I decided not to re-listen to ‘Stars Aligned’ beforehand as I always prefer to judge music on its own merits and, as we all know, this can be difficult when confronted with knowledge of a band’s back-catalogue. So I felt I had few, if any, pre-conceived ideas about the band and considered my objectivity level high!
The band consists of the three Von Hertzen brothers, front-man Mikko on vocals and guitars, Kie on guitars and backing vocals and Jonne on bass and backing vocals. They are supported by Juha Kuoppala on (various) keyboards and Mikko Kaakkuriniemi on drums.
Before delving more deeply into the album tracks its worth pointing out that this is an unusual album. On Nine Lives VHB are following a tradition that appears particularly popular in Scandinavia amongst bands such as Motorpsycho and Beardfish. These bands are not afraid to experiment and mix different styles and genres. Nine Lives is certainly not a pure ‘Prog’ album in the classic sense of the word. Two of the first three tracks on the album (and one of the bonus tracks) could easily sit in any indie rock album AND a very good one at that. The rest of the album is far more Prog in terms of song structure, lyrical content, melodies etc.
However, the contrast between, let’s call them Parts 1 and 2, is huge, so much so that Part 1 may knock some self-respecting Prog fan sideways or send them screaming from the room.
It will be pretty apparent from my comments above that those listeners who like continuity and coherence within one album will struggle with this. But my first piece of advice is to persevere. Do not give up half way through the third track and new single ‘Coming Home’ and disregard the rest, thinking that this album is veering towards a Franz Ferdinand or Kaiser Chiefs indie rock-fest because you will miss out on some beautiful moments.
What makes the album stand out for me is the vocal delivery which adds an incredible amount of depth to the music. Mikko has a great vocal range, a powerful and clear singing voice and shows great versatility in delivering both the out and out, hard-edged, aggressive indie rock songs as well as powerfully conveying the emotional intensity of the more reflective and introspective progressive lyrics. The accompanying backing vocals and harmonies are equally as impressive. Vocal delivery seems to be ‘in vogue’ at the moment as I have noticed some stunning vocals on a number of albums this year, particularly on ‘Himlabacken vol 1’ by Moon Safari and ‘The Mountain’ by Haken.
So to the album itself. The first three tracks are delivered at a fast tempo with heavy bass lines. Both ‘Insomniac’ (track 1) and ‘Coming Home’ (track 3) are typical indie rock songs executed with aplomb. ‘Coming Home’ opens with a heavy drum beat and continues with Billy Idol type vocals (think White Wedding!) and morphs into a Franz Ferdinand/Kaiser Chiefs staccato riff and vocal delivery. It’s a classic, catchy as hell with an ‘ear-worm’ chorus. It could have been a Top 20 hit in the good ole’ days when there were music charts worth attention. ‘Flowers and Rust’ (track 2) is less indie and more pop-prog to my ears and it is indeed a fine sing-a-long anthemic track deservedly achieving recognition.
The abrupt change in tempo and mood that follows is arresting. ‘Lost In Time’ is the heaviest track on the album and switches between a heavy, grinding, almost demonic guitar sound and quieter, contemplative passages building up to symphonic keyboard atmospherics.
‘Separate Forevers’ is a slow, ethereal and haunting track with an exquisite mandolin sounding guitar a highlight. My favourite on the album, it’s a stunning piece. The emotionally powerful, ill-fated lyrics tinged with helplessness and yearning tug at the heart-strings and are of a rare poetic beauty, with Mikko’s vocals capturing the mood perfectly:
I thought we had a way out
I fought to rearrange
The pieces of my heart
The more we gathered angels
The more you got estranged
Years tearing us apart
Who am I to hold ?
Who am I to love now ?
For our better or worse
In our separate forevers
‘One May Never Know’ follows and contains a beautiful melody with the piano acting as a perfect counterpoint to the rolling guitar. More outstanding multi-part vocals.
‘World Without’ opens with a delightful a cappella harmony followed by delicate piano lines and guitar melodies. The song is sung completely in harmony. The introduction of a knifonium produces an absorbing complementary sound. The track builds up gradually to a big vocal harmony finish. With the following thought-provoking lyrics:
‘Cause a world without your heart
Is a world without your love
And a world without your love
Is a world without a soul
And a world without your soul
Is a world without a home
And a world without a home
Is a world without hope
We shift again with ‘Black Hearts Cry’, an up tempo folky track, almost shanty-like at times. To me it’s slightly out of place with the mood of the tracks that surround it but it’s nonetheless a pleasant diversion.
‘Prospect for Escape’ finishes the album where we return, once again, to a slower tempo resplendent with swathes of mellow, echo-laden guitar and vocals. The vocal harmonies are marvellous and the guitar melody delightful. An uplifting song with a soaring guitar solo, the vocal intensity to finish the track is striking. A perfect finish to the album.
So let me be clear. The album begins with 14 minutes of strong indie rock and pop-prog and this is followed by 33 minutes of what some may describe as ‘crossover-prog’. Certainly the album eschews extended compositions and unrestrained complexity. Overall it’s an ambitious mix.
A quick note on the bonus tracks. ‘Do What You Want With Me’ is a return to indie rock but the standout is the last track ‘Between The Lines’ with a slightly Eastern vibe and soft vocals. It could easily have closed the album or, in my view, replaced ‘Black Hearts Cry’.
Oh and before I forget, although work prevented me from seeing them live last week, I have it on good authority that they are superb live, showing fantastic energy and enthusiasm and great musical skill.
So what’s my overall conclusion ?
In my opinion bands are more successful when they introduce different genres/styles into their music between albums not within them. Take Motorpsycho as a classic example. The stark contrast between the beginning and the rest of the album will, I think, make it difficult for many to connect with this offering. Perhaps VHB felt like testing their audience to get a reaction or just had an explosion of good ideas that they just wanted to get down musically in one place and at one time. A statement so to speak. What VHB have proven to me is that they are an extremely accomplished band with the ability to write excellent indie rock songs as well as deliver high-quality, lyrically rich, thoughtful crossover-prog. I’m really looking forward to seeing them live and await their next album with anticipation. Please spare some time and give the album a few spins.
Chris Wade aka Dodson & Fogg is a prolific folk/psych-folk songwriter known to us lot on Progarchy. His second (or is it third?!) album of the year titled ‘ The Call’ is out soon and is available for pre-order here:
Chris reckons this is his best yet and includes a number of new contributors including Chloe Herrington from Knifeworld on sax.
Chris is a bit of a polymath, being a writer as well. He’s penned a number of short surreal comedies and band biographies. This year alone he has published books on The Incredible String Band and, more recently, Black Sabbath, which I happen to have lying next to me at the moment !
For those about to read, this is a summary of my visit to the Night of the Prog festival in Loreley, Germany on 13th and 14th July 2013. It’s quite long and is effectively in three parts…The Journey and Site; Day 1 and Day 2. I hope you enjoy it.
Since I got back ‘into’ music about 10 years ago I’ve always had an urge to spread my wings, venture outside our ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ and travel to a European festival. The opportunity arose when I saw the initial line-up of Night of the Prog (8) and this was reinforced with the late addition of Amplifier (a personal favourite). The line-up announced was an unusual mix, with the classic Canterbury sound of Caravan sharing the stage with young post-rock upstarts Maybeshewill. The biggest name in Prog, Steve Wilson may have been headlining on Day 1 but we had Prog Death Metal giants Opeth from Sweden finishing proceedings on Day 2, preceded by metal specialist Devin Townsend. This interesting combination had, according to organiser Win, not helped with ticket sales. Certainly the festival was not replete with Classic Prog artists and for those who weren’t aware of the line-up, here it is:
Day 1Day 2
Sanguine Hum Anima Mundi
Sound of Contact Maybeshewill
The Pineapple Thief Anglagard
Crippled Black Phoenix Amplifier
Steve Wilson The Devin Townsend Project
On day 1 we had the complex Prog sound of Sanguine Hum; the contemporary, slightly ‘commercial’ Sound of Contact; the power pop-prog of The Pineapple Thief; the ‘blended’ rock mix of CBP; Magma’s own unique ‘Zeul’ genre and the dark vision of Steve Wilson.
On day 2 Anima Mundi would kick things off with some symphonic prog; Maybeshewill would follow up with instrumental, guitar laden post-rock; Anglagard would make a rare appearance to grace us with their angular but beautifully haunting sound. Amplifier would rock us out with their heavy, spacey vision; Caravan would share their classic, playful Canterbury sound. I’m sure the DTP would try to blow our eardrums with his wall of sound metal and Opeth would hopefully surprise us with a curious mix of death metal growling (the old stuff) and the newer, more standard prog vibe.
To me a perfect mix with something for everyone. And for those ‘one dimensionauts’ (?) an opportunity to broaden their listening habits and possibly ‘acquire the taste’ for other genres.
We left early on Friday 12th knowing the 475 mile trip would take most of the day. With all our victuals safely onboard my German car we arrived without incident at Folkestone to catch ‘Le Shuttle’. Why we were singled out for a drug inspection is beyond me. We were on a road trip, no other type. No drugs detected we safely embarked on the train and proceeded without incident to France. Trusting in Ms Sat Nav we drove through the flatlands of northern France and Belgium, passing Dunkirk and the fields of Flanders, the scene of so much carnage in two World Wars. Passing Brussels to the north and joining the A314, the Sat Nav perked up and said ‘Follow this road FOR A LONG WAY’. Yes indeed and we finally entered Germany. If I thought there was one country with a hassle free road system it would be this country famed for its efficiency. Unfortunately due to incessant road works and traffic jams we crawled into Koblenz. My co-driver was literally ‘Sleeping in Traffic’ as I listened to my favourite 35 minute track!
Everything in Germany appears big, large-scale. From the monstrous power stations we passed to the sheer scale of the river and other valleys spanned by hugely impressive engineering feats of construction. The countryside in this part of Germany is detritus fee and all the cars seem clean and new. There’s a sense of opulence. I lost count of how many large, black Mercedes passed us by effortlessly.
As we approached Koblenz the Sat Nav came into its own as we traversed a myriad of A and B roads until we found ourselves on the East bank of the Rhine (and that’s very important to get right travelling to Loreley). We climbed up the heights enveloping the river before the road bent down towards the river bank. A ten mile drive along the winding Rhine, resplendent in sunshine, we passed numerous charming villages at each bend.
Arriving at St Goarshausen, the village below the Loreley heights, we abruptly stopped and were ensnared in the ‘Muse’ traffic. The world-famous band was playing the venue that very night. There is only one way up to Loreley and we snaked our way up the steep road in a file of traffic and finally arrived at the world famous site at around 1900 hours. A long journey completed we were in definite need of succour.
The fact that we were only aware of Muse’s presence shortly before the event meant we didn’t have tickets and this was a major bummer. Muse gets a lot of bad press from Prog fans but I have a great admiration for them both as musicians and for their somewhat bombastic rock.
By the time we had erected our tent and had a bite to eat (a very late full English breakfast) the site had exploded into the shuddering power of Muse’s stadium rock.
The campsite was only about 300 metres from the Amphitheatre and the acoustics are such that you almost feel you are sat watching with the paying fans. So we heard Muse perform a greatest hits collection, with a fantastic cover version of Man with a Harmonica from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West as an intro to Knights of Cydonia. Listening to this immense soundtrack to this classic Spaghetti Western is recommended.
Muse finished around 2300 hours and this was followed by chaotic scenes as cars, vans and tour buses tried to leave through the one narrow exit. Although I was tired, sleep was impossible so I texted Nic Dewulf, a fellow Big Big Train fan from Belgium, and we met up on the campsite. We had a good Prog chinwag with Nic and his friends. Nic is keeping the flag flying amongst the youth of today (he’s only 23…a prog babe in arms!).
The returning Muse fans were a little ‘wired’ and this coupled with Prog fans excited with the prospect of a superb weekend in glorious weather, led to a barmy late evening. However, somehow I managed to dose off only to be woken up to what seemed to be Symphonic Prog to the left of me and a Metalfest to the right of me. I have to say that in a masochistic way I enjoyed the surprisingly melodious power of a German baritone accompanied by two tenors singing an unrepeatable (i.e. very rude) chorus from a metal song I knew but just couldn’t place. Glorious stuff!
I eventually returned to slumber, awoke early at 0645 and had an early shower and shave. Generally I found the facilities pretty good at the campsite but there did seem to be a lack of toilet paper (always a camping essential) and there’s little room for modesty as the main shower block was unisex! A nice English cup of tea was imbibed followed by another as I seem to need a couple to get me going in the morning nowadays. This restored me to a semblance of health and my invigorated body felt capable of enjoying the Day 1 festivities.
The Loreley site
It was a beautiful morning and with proceedings not commencing until 1400 hours we decided to enjoy the world famous views. Loreley is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated on the east bank of the Rhine at a sharp bend in the river. The natural cliff face is approximately 120 metres high and the sheer drop has little protection with only a few nominated viewpoints having railings. The campsite is literally on the edge of the cliff face.
The vista is stunning, clearly displaying the natural beauty of this part of the Rhine, which is a walkers’ paradise. Roads run along the edge of both sides of the river as the Rhine cuts through the natural gorge in the countryside. To the north there are beautiful views of picture postcard towns, villages and castles flanking the river. The river traffic is frequent with many huge long barges carrying various trade cargoes and sightseeing boats traversing their course. The river is fairly narrow at this point and navigation is difficult. I have attached some pictures but they cannot do justice to the impressive beauty of this area of the Rhine.
DAY 1 – The Bands
The venue itself was built in the 1930s as a Nazi ‘Thingplatze’ to host cultural events and can hold a maximum of 18,000 with 5,000 seats. Over the next two days the number of attendees was slightly disappointing with perhaps 3000-4000 people enjoying the music. From the back the Amphitheatre slopes quite steeply with the grassy banks offering shade for the weary festival goer. There were the usual official merchandise tents together with CD and vinyl stalls offering the best of European Prog music. Beer and even a cocktail tent provided refreshment. Food stalls mainly provided local cuisine with varieties of ‘Wurst’ on offer.
The stone, semi-circular seating provided both an excellent view and sore bottoms, with various innovative ways being used to provide a comfortable perch.
First up were Sanguine Hum who have been receiving critical acclaim for their last two albums Diving Bell and The Weight of the World, the latter being played in its entirety (I think). This was the second time I have seen them and I would like to report I really like them but I’m still undecided! Their music is full of complex time signatures and lacks the sort of fluidity I like. Joff Winks’ vocals are light and a touch fragile at times. Technically demanding to play with intricate arrangements, it’s clever, inventive music that the band delivers with aplomb but whilst it’s interesting contemporary progressive music, it doesn’t press enough of my musical buttons…at the moment. I need to spend a little more time listening to their recordings, methinks.
In terms of the set, it’s always difficult being the first band and I felt they were slightly in awe of the surroundings. I think Joff Winks, who is obviously a modest chap, seemed almost apologetic to be on stage and could try to engage a bit more with the audience.
Sound of Contact
The brainchild of David Kerzner and Simon Collins (yes Phil is his dad!), Sound of Contact have been kicking up a bit of a storm with their new concept album, Dimensionaut. Once again, my second live listen, the band commenced with a short instrumental number and followed up with three tracks that I would consider almost ‘commercial’ in sound and structure (God forbid!). Simon Collins sounds very similar to his father, with similar looks and mannerisms to boot. A little AOR for my taste, particularly Pale Blue Dot, but nonetheless engaging. They finished with Mobius Slip, a classic long ‘proggy’ track with the middle section reminding me of Porcupine Tree in their heavier period. They are newcomers and I’m sure their sound will develop (and become more progressive?). They performed confidently live and were better than when I saw them at the Garage in London recently supporting Spocks Beard. Good luck to them on their extensive European and North American tour.
The Pineapple Thief
Third up was Bruce Soord’s vehicle, The Pineapple Thief, who were determined to add some more energy into proceedings. The crowd were, like me, beginning to flag in the heat. Bruce Soord has been around a long time and is beginning to receive the acclaim he deserves. I was interested to see how they would perform in a venue that for them was seriously large. I saw them last year at the tiny Barfly club in Camden and you could hardly swing a cat in there.
The latest output Someone Here is Missing and All the Wars is Prog-pop with simple repetitive riffs and this provided the bulk of the set. The band displayed a lot of energy on stage and the crowd responded with chorus singing, clapping in 6/8 time and some dodgy ‘swaying’ at times (or were these people hallucinating as the heat radiated off the stone seating!). I’m a great fan of TPTs output over the years and they delivered an invigorating set that revitalised me. A well deserved standing ovation and the first encore.
Crippled Black Phoenix
A sort of UK supergroup, CPB released their first album in 2006 and has gone through numerous line-up changes over the years. Their sound combines elements of heavy/blues based rock, post-rock and at times a ‘stoner’ sound and they mix instrumental only with standard verse, chorus tracks. I thought they were a little slow to get going at first but when they did they totally commanded the stage and produced a killer set. I particularly liked their cover of ‘Of a Lifetime’ by Journey but that was on the ‘softer’ side of things. I own a couple of their albums, one of which is quite mellow, but live, with the luxury of 7 members and notably 3 guitarists, they produced a much heavier, very powerful, almost ‘wall of sound’. It was slow, head-banging stuff to me. They finished incredibly strongly and literally rocked the amphitheatre down, receiving a prolonged standing ovation as they brought the set to a dramatic, stunning conclusion with the anthemic ‘Burnt Reynolds’. Definitely a band I would see again and one I recommend as a live act. I was so impressed I went to the ‘merch’ desk and bought one of their albums on vinyl.
Magma are the vision of Christian Vander and have been granted their own musical genre called ‘Zeuhl’ and sing in their own made-up language ‘Kobaian’. Heralding from the classic era of Prog in the 70s they sound absolutely nothing like their contemporaries. Magma deliver a truly unique musical sound, with a classical music structure, dominated by repetitive chanting. I was really looking forward to hearing them after being left intrigued by their classic ‘Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh’ (MDK) on vinyl recently (essential preparation I was told!). This album is part 1 of their cult sci-fi trilogy.
Let’s be honest here, the music is bizarre and you have to be a little bit weird, perhaps even insane to like this stuff. However as I can stomach, and at times like, acts such as Captain Beefhart, Zappa , Mr Bungle and The Residents I am probably ‘certified’ myself.
The set commenced with a track from a new but as yet unreleased album which was driven along nicely with a single pulse-like bass line and was even a little funky at times. Was Mr Vander going a bit soft in his old age? Certainly not, as the set took us into increasingly darker and bizarre territory, exposing us to tribal themes and culminated in the whole of MDK itself. The chanting, both unrelenting and severe, was delivered by three accomplished singers (one man, two women). It’s somewhat like Carmina Burana on drugs. The language itself sounds very Germanic and quite harsh to my ear. The music is multi-layered with a strong drum (at times tribal) and bass line throughout. Everything is quite repetitive, particularly the vocal chanting that as it increases in intensity has a hypnotic, even trance-like quality. At times I felt like a drug-induced disciple of Dionysus being whipped into a frenzied state of heightened self-awareness (it was NOT sexual ecstasy!) And, before you ask, I hadn’t imbibed in anything more than a few weak German beers.
One has to admire Mr Vander for maintaining his vision and there is no doubt that all the musicians are talented but it’s a difficult listen and comes over as quite awkward, even uncomfortable at times. If you haven’t heard Magma then I think it’s fair to say you will not have heard anything like it before…well I haven’t that’s for sure.
However, in a strangely masochistic way I actually enjoyed
it. I’ve always been intrigued by challenging music that break boundaries. It speaks volumes for Magma’s reputation that a lot of the other musicians (notably Steven Wilson and Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt) watched the set alongside the audience.
So we came to the headline act, the Prog God himself, Mr Steven Wilson, who was the main attraction to all the attendees I had spoken to. I had already seen the show in London earlier in the year and I know of no-one who wasn’t blown away by that evening, even some of the SW sceptics. The Raven That Refused To Sing is SW’s latest solo offering and he had assembled an array of amazing talent to support him (I won’t repeat them here). The new album shows that SW is quite willing to tinker with his previous winning formula as TRTRTS has a much more jazzy edge to it. I’m a great admirer of most of SW’s work from the early ‘psychedelic’ phase of Porcupine Tree through the ‘heavier’ years to the darker social commentary of his later work. I’m presuming most people at Loreley had not seen the show before. I was hoping for a little variation from the London set but there were only marginal changes. Basically he played the whole of TRTRTS and finished with the old Porcupine Tree favourite Radioactive Toy.
So how good was it? Technically it was almost flawless, like listening to CD quality on a high-spec hi-fi system. The show is a stunning audio and visual experience. The videos are superb, although rather unsettling, but that’s not surprising considering the album’s supernatural themes. But I was slightly disappointed with the lack of interaction with the crowd. The man himself delivered a few quips and witticisms but there was little ‘on-stage’ involvement from the rest of the band who just seemed to ‘get on with it’. There is no doubt in my mind that SW is a real ‘mover and shaker’ in the Prog world and his latest offering is a ‘tour de force’ (especially live). But for me the second offering was a little bit flat compared to my first experience. I like the uncertainties surrounding a live setting with the possibility of hearing a slightly different interpretation of songs but it seemed all very calculated to me. Having said this, the crowd absolutely loved it and they were right to do so.
A great finish to Day 1 with events closing at 1245 in the morning.
Oh dear, that pork burger and spicy fries backfired on me the next morning. Even a quick walk, a caffeine fix and shower wouldn’t do the trick so I lay on my carry mat feeling a tad sorry for myself until gone 11am. With events commencing at midday on Sunday, 7 bands performing and a 2300 hours curfew, I shook myself out of my self-induced stupor and arrived shortly after Anima Mundi had started the festivities on day 2.
Now these guys (and gals) hail from Cuba and have being trawling a lonely furrow in their home country since for over ten years. I had purchased their latest CD titled ‘The Way’ following a taster on ‘The Prog Dog’ show, hosted by the incorrigible Geoff Banks and Jon Patrick. Anima Mundi means ‘spirit of the world’ and hailing from Cuba they evidenced the growing cosmopolitan reach of progressive music. A five piece with extra percussion and clarinet at times, they deliver a neo symphonic rock full of swathing synth and melody. They clearly loved having the opportunity to expose their craft to a wider audience and played with a refreshing passion and energy. I only recognised the last track, ‘Cosmic Man’ from ‘The Way’ but thoroughly enjoyed the whole set which was significantly heavier and rockier than I had heard on cd. A great start to the day.
I think a few eyebrows were raised when MSW were announced as an act as they are a young band delivering purely instrumental post-rock with some limited vocal sampling. Certainly their youthful looks and general attire appeared slightly out of place in the surroundings and, occasionally, they looked slightly uncomfortable. Their sound is quite straightforward with two guitars pounding out short, punchy power riffs and these dominate at the expense of the keyboards, although there were a few nice soft, usually ‘intro’, keyboard passages. Many of the riffs were very catchy, if a bit ‘samey’ and I found myself foot-tapping along. I’m a great post-rock fan with one of my favourite bands in any genre being Mogwai and I also get absorbed into the darker themes produced by Godspeed You! Black Emperor and This Will Destroy You.
I felt that the crowd reaction, who did their best to warm to these youngsters put before them, was not helped by the polite but very taciturn nature of the lead singer. I know it’s the ‘done thing’ for youngsters to be a lit bit distant from the older generation (believe me – I have kids of 18 and 20) but music should, and indeed does, help to break down age barriers. So a piece of advice to the band, if I may be so bold… us old-timers are an accommodating, tolerant bunch and more engagement would help your performance and enhance our enjoyment. Overall , I’m glad they were invited as variety in festivals is important.
I think there was a huge expectation surrounding Anglagard’s appearance. Legendary in prog-circles, particularly in Scandinavia, a cult band who released two acclaimed albums in the early ‘90s before breaking up. A hugely long hiatus was broken with one of my favourite albums of last year, Viljans Oga.
Anglagard produce beautifully constructed pastoral yet angular music with an eerie, mystical feel, redolent of the deep, dark forests of their native Sweden, full of the supernatural.
The band took a long time setting up and this was understandable considering the scarcity of their live performances. They opened with a specially arranged piece, typical of their canon. What a stark contrast between the complexity of Anglagard and the simplicity of Maybeshewill (and that’s not a criticism of ‘simple’).
The live performance lost none of the immense beauty of their haunting music. Truly sublime with excellent performances by all members of the band. The mesmeric flute playing was a highlight for me.
The creation of Sel Balamir, Amplifier are another band who have been around for a fair while and are now getting deserved attention. Their latest offering, the mellower ‘Echo Street’ has been nominated as Album of the Year in the Classic Prog Awards. The band came to my notice after they released (through their own endeavours after four years of hard toil) the two hour concept album, The Octopus, in 2011. The Octopus literally takes you on a trip ‘to another dimension’.
This was my fourth live gig in less than two years, so yes I like them! Amplifier gig extensively throughout Europe and are definitely more popular here than in the UK.
Amplifier deliver Space Rock full of heavy effects-laden guitar riffs and solos. What I’ve always liked about Amplifier’s sound is the heavy driving bass and rhythm guitar coupled with some intricate, subtle lead guitar. This combination produces a huge soundscape that fills my head in a spectacular way. However this is a difficult combination to crack when the volume of all instruments is set at LOUD. I’ve yet to hear them actually nail it totally in a live setting and a combination of sound problems, coupled with the introduction of a third guitar player and a bass on LOUD PLUS, totally drowned out all the subtlety. I’m not a fan of the third guitar and I’ve heard them better with only two. But who am I to judge.
They started with Spaceman from their recent Sunriders EP, followed by the brilliantly riffy, if slightly repetitive and overlong, The Wheel, from Echo Street. They continued with numerous fans’ favourites such as Interglacial Spell, The Wave and Interstellar (what a track that is!), all from The Octopus. As the festival was running behind schedule they had to foreshorten their appearance and finished with the anthemic Airborne from their eponymous first album. Amplifier always give it their all and are dedicated to all that is The Octopus (why always the black shirts and special logo ties?). I’m a stickler for sound so overall I was a bit disappointed but I recommend them live if you like your music at the heavier, spacey end of the prog spectrum.
No sound problems for these old warriors of the Canterbury scene. It was pure plug and play. A greatest hits was delivered with classic tracks from For Girls who Grow Plump in the Night (Memory Lain, Hugh/Headloss, The Dog The Dog He’s At It Again) and from In The Land Of Grey and Pink we had Golf Girl and the classic Nine Feet Underground.
Consummate professionals, they know how to work an audience with plenty of witty banter and the entertainment included skilful playing of spoons and washboard! Always playful but with some clever social comment, I’m never sure whether to take them seriously and how can one with some of the most politically incorrect album and song titles ever put to paper. Ten out of ten; superb entertainment and the crowd loved them.
Devin Townsend Project
I know little or nothing about Mr Townsend and I missed part of the set to ’freshen up’ after another eight hours of hot sun, beer and loud music. When I returned I noticed the following:
The band produced a huge sound for a three piece
There was a cardboard cut-out of a band member on stage
As a lead guitarist and vocalist, Devin Townsend didn’t seem to take himself too seriously and worked the crowd well.
The sound was hard rock and metal; unfortunately the band were missing a guitarist (or was it a keyboard player?) and a huge amount of backing tapes were being used to the extent I didn’t know what was live and what was pre-recorded. Good fun but not really my cup of tea.
To conclude proceedings we had Opeth. Now I like heavy rock but i’m not a death metal fan. I had been recommended the band’s last offering ‘Heritage’ which is a big departure for Opeth, leading them into more mainstream Prog territory (and apparently took a lot of their diehard fans well outside their comfort zone). Band leader Mikael Akerfeldt, on guitar and lead vocals was quick to point out that he understood that there were fans from both ‘camps’ and therefore the set would be a mix of old and new. So we could expect some death metal growling but no apologies would be offered. Mr Akerfeldt introduced each track with wit and intelligence and this was appreciated by all concerned.
Starting with ‘The Devil’s Orchard’ from Heritage, an excellent track with a jazz fusion vibe but a dark edge, the tone was immediately changed as the band hammered out a classic death metal track from Ghost Reveries titled Ghost of Perdition. As the set continued I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of light and subtle with abrupt changes to intensely heavy within each death metal track. And it worked very well to my ears.
I was truly impressed with the quality of musicianship and the eclectic mix of death metal, prog rock, psychedelic and even folk music. Opeth delivered tracks with Oriental influences and Spanish guitar. And Mikael Akerfeldt has a tremendously versatile voice.
Opeth have obviously experimented throughout their career that spans over 20 years and 10 albums and the variety put together for this set was both inspirational and a triumph. I’m certain to re-visit some of their older stuff and would love a DVD of their performance to close Night of the Prog.
So we came to the end of proceedings at 2300 hours on Sunday evening. Night of the Prog 8 had been a superb event, providing me with a perfect mix of old and new; heavy and light; simple and complex.
Highlights for me were numerous. Crippled Black Phoenix seemed infinitely better live than on cd. It was a privilege to see rare appearances from Magma and Anglagard. Witnessing the simplicity of Caravan in a world full of complex sound effects and large show pyrotechnics was refreshing. And finally the surprisingly enjoyable Opeth.
A huge thanks to Win for continuing to organise it. I doubt if any music festival is situated in such beautiful surroundings and the weather was perfect. Thanks also to Nigel Barham for being subtlety cajoled into accepting my invitation. And it was great to actually meet up with some Facebook friends in person.
Roll-on next year. If Win is reading this my request would be Big Big Train, Echolyn, Beardfish, Motorpsycho, Kraan and a re-formed Oceansize!
Here’s hoping 🙂
Oh, and finally a few tips if you are planning to go:-
Bring a cushion as those stone seats don’t half give one a sore a*se.
Take time out to view the stunning landscape
Ignore the rules about bringing food and drink into the event…food selection is limited and you need plenty of water AND ‘security’ seemed happy to allow stuff through.
“Experimental, minimalist, instrumental post/math rock. Simply hypnotic. Specially tuned guitars produce an unusual harmonic sound. The more I listen, the more I like this album. Pretty awesome actually.”
The 4 tracks that could not make it onto the album were released on an EP recently called “Skeleton Groove” . This EP saw the band start moving away from a strictly minimalist slower ‘groove’ to a faster tempo and slightly rockier sound, particularly in the tracks ‘Broken Symmetry’ and ‘String Geometry’.
Sonar (short for Sonic Architecture) like mathematical/technical references in their song titles. Their first album includes track titles such ‘Mobius Loop’; ‘Structure 3.7’ and ‘Tritone Harmonics’. This is not surprising when one considers their lead guitarist Stefan Thelen has a PHD in Mathematics and the band’s sound is based upon tuning their guitars to tritones (‘diabolus in musica’). This creates a somewhat unusual and unique sound, described by the band itself as tritone harmonics.
I had messaged the band to encourage them to visit London as I was intrigued to hear what the band would sound like live. Stefan had said ‘watch this space’ and sure enough after returning from Norway following the recording of new material for their forthcoming sophomore album, they had arranged a short European tour that included a gig at the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston, North London. This was a venue new to me.
Arriving somewhat early, before 8pm, we found the club closed (well it was a bit early for a Jazz club!). Standing around the post-modern looking Square upon which the club faced, I was lucky enough to bump into the band itself and had a chat with Christian Kuntner, bassist and a Facebook friend. Christian is instantly recognizable with his tall, gaunt and shaven headed Germanic looks. We talked about how the recording had gone in Norway (very successful) but he made no commitment about a release date and assured me that releasing the new album on vinyl was just too expensive !
Finally getting into the club we ascended some stairs that opened up into a very small cosy room with a small stage at one end and bar at the other. In between were about 25 small round tables with marble tops and wrought iron legs. Each table was candlelit and could fit a cosy threesome at best. With a small amount of extra standing room, the venue could fit no more than 100 people at a push….we were the first in and tables had name tags on them ! So a far cry from most venues I frequent but not unusual for a Jazz club. It had the necessary Jazz ambience, a French ‘look and feel’, dark and intimate. Beers in hand, Stephan Thelen introduced himself and we talked about his influences, he is a major Robert Fripp/early King Crimson fan and his views on the new album (in his words ‘more playful’)…more about that later. The set would consist of old and new tracks.
However, first up were a band called MooV and they entered stage left (well through the audience actually) and we (now about 30 people) were treated to an intriguing mix of piano sequencer ; cello; bass and vocals for about 45 minutes.
A five piece band, billed as a three piece, but performed as a four piece !…rather confusing but that’s what we got. Colin Riley, pianist and main composer, explained that MooV’s music was malleable and open-ended and this allowed them to perform with a varied number of band members. So tonight there was no percussion but equally on some occasions there maybe no cello. MooV have been around since 2005 and made only two albums and had only performed 16 gigs…that’s only about 2 per year so not a vast output. However, as I found out afterwards, the band members are involved in numerous projects. We were told all this after the first track but, if we were concerned that this might affect their live performance, then we need not have worried. To describe their music is challenging as it appears to have may influences without any one dominating. So I enlisted some support by accessing the band’s web page and got:
‘The final product is absolutely unclassifiable’ (London Jazz Blog) .
Oh well that wasn’t much help !…so let’s have a go anyway:
Arty but not Art Rock
Jazzy but not Jazz
progressive but certainly not Prog Rock
poppy but not pop
electronic but not electronica
a sense of chamber music but not chamber music
does that help ?…probably not
Experimental and avant garde and certainly creative and stimulating; unpredictable, even random; with enigmatic, intimate lyrics with a dark edge. The use of sequencing effects and constant changes in pitch (musical and vocal) and rhythm create the backbone of the music. At times angular and unsettling but at other times ethereal and beautifully soft. Sparse and minimalistic. I cannot think of comparisons but perhaps think of Sigur Ros’s simpler tracks unplugged with a folksy edge with Bjork’s vocals (not sure that makes sense!). There is certainly a Scandinavian ‘feel’ at times. The vocalist, Elisabeth Nygard has Scandinavian roots, being from Norway. She has a hypnotic, breathy and fragile voice in the delivery of both word and sound (e.g. wailing/sighing etc.) She appears totally immersed and connected to the music.
Having bought their latest album and in view of Colin Riley’s words, it is also fair to say that listening to their music on cd compared to a live setting is a very different experience. Only live do you truly feel the power and emotional intensity; the darkness; the light. Whether this music has a wide audience I doubt it as, at times, it is almost inaccessible. But to listen is to experience and whether the feelings and emotions produced are good or bad, it is still worth experiencing. Thanks to Colin, Elisabeth, Natalie (cello) and Pete (bass).
Afterwards I managed to speak with the lead singer Elisabeth Nygard and discovered that her major influences were classical, chamber music and folk. She recommended their latest album ‘Here’ but we could speak no longer as we were both in respective toilet queues !
So after 45 minutes of hearing something I was not expecting and, at the time, felt was almost impossible to describe, we grabbed another beer before the main attraction..
By the time Sonar arrived on stage the club was nearly full and there was a healthy buzz about the place. To be honest I was a little apprehensive as to whether the music would come across as too sparse for a live setting. Known for their minimalist style, their set was also minimalist in nature with each guitar having a small miked up amp. No frills here.
They commenced with probably their most well-known track, Tromso, from their first album. At over 11 minutes long it is typical of their style. Complex interwoven polyrhythmic guitar motifs, superbly played throughout, supported by staccato bass lines and varied percussion. One clear characteristic of their musical style is how the percussion (just a basic drum kit) drives the tempo of each track. The drum is more than a single instrument. Accenting; snare comping; rim shots(?); cross sticking; the effective use of cymbals and a variety of drumsticks, added an extra dynamic that was/is critical to the delivery of each track. Manuel Pasquinelli is indeed a top class drummer with exceptional timing. However the diversity of bass playing techniques and unusual effects was also noticeable and from the top draw.
The use of crescendo and decrescendos is equally noticeable as is the constant use of complex and layered polyrhythms.
After playing a couple of tracks from their first album, the rest of the set focussed on new material. Track 3 titled ‘Static Motion’ was a standout for me. Generally I felt the new output is less minimalistic; has more complexity; is driven along at a faster tempo; has more groove and at times has a rocky and very occasionally a funky edge. I personally like this subtle change in direction and really look forward to the release of the new album later this year.
As the set continued one could sense the developing satisfaction and enjoyment amongst the band members as their confidence increased. This was appreciated by an audience who increasingly warmed to the set. After an hour the set closed but demands for more were accepted. At the end of the first encore we were in danger of missing the last train home, so we not only missed the end of the set but also a beer with the band afterwards. Maybe next time Stefan.
Sonar are a group of accomplished musicians carving out a unique furrow in the prog jazz scene. An essential live experience. Thank you Stefan, Christian, Bernhard and Manuel.
To paraphrase Wikipedia…a “perfect storm” is a term that can be described as a confluence of different related phenomena that combine to create what can be referred to as the “perfect situation” to generate an event (its first use was allegedly to describe a ‘perfect storm’ of applause).
And yes, things came together pretty nicely on Thursday night.
I have to admit I was a reluctant attendee, not because I don’t like Riverside, far from it. Unfortunately I had undergone a seriously bad day at work, leading to the cancellation of my holiday booked for the next day 😦 I also had a dose of ‘man-flu’. So I didn’t feel that inclined to trudge for an hour plus up to Islington; drink gratuitously (polish vodka maybe?) and get home well after midnight.
Things started getting better as travel connections were good and we (Nigel and I) managed to get to the venue fairly early and caught half of the set of the first of the three bands, Dianoya. Hailing from Poland, like Riverside, they were an engaging and enthusiastic Progressive Metal band and, as the set continued, there were various appreciative nods from some of the ‘older’ members of the audience (me included).
I have always liked the Academy, quite small but never a crush. Even a shorty like me can usually get quite close and get a good view. The acoustics are impressive which is important for an audiophile like me. The bar(s) are very ‘adjacent’ and I like the industrial ‘feel’…the ceiling is full of open girders and ducts; wires and lights. It’s a pretty ‘hip’ place and is used as a late night disco for the ‘younger’ folks after all we oldies are tucked up in our beds. At this point I should also name in dispatches the lighting crew, who added to the ambience considerably with a subtle yet creative lighting display.
Two pain killers taken earlier followed by the quick sloshing down of an (incredibly expensive) pint of lager had given me a renewed vigour. And there was not much waiting required for the second act, Jolly, who herald from the great New York City. They produced a powerful cocktail of heavy, experimental, art rock characterised by slow openings, fast bass lines and high quality guitar playing. They aroused my curiosity and I was quite intrigued to find out more. But please forgive me when I say their Facebook band profile is a load of pretentious twaddle; either that or it’s a very long-winded ‘p*ss take in Spinal Tap style. Nevertheless a strong support act.
A move towards the back (to meet another friend) put me in the perfect listening position, at the apex of the classic ‘audio-triangle’, as Riverside took the stage. This Polish progressive rock band led by the virtuoso bassist and singer, Mariusz Duda, have just released their new album, ‘Shrine of New Generation Slaves’ (SONGS), intelligently reviewed recently by my fellow Progarchists, Nick and Erik here:
The band has been gaining popularity following their critically acclaimed 4th album, Anno Domini High Definition (ADHD) released in 2009. Having gradually veered towards a more classic rock sound from their predominantly metal roots, Riverside have been compared with both Tool and Porcupine Tree. Lyrically far less disturbing than Tool they still retain a heavy guitar riff style and the inclusion of powerful keyboards and potent bass lines give the band an added depth, complexity and uniqueness to their sound.
Tonight’s set focussed on the new album and ADHD.
Having just been to one of my Top 10 gigs of all time (Steve Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall, London), how lucky I was to see another band at the peak of their powers. Displaying outstanding musicianship; exemplary timing and an almost telepathic understanding, Riverside are seriously talented. Understated guitar (from a scary looking lead!); extraordinary depth to the keyboards; complex bass patterns weaved by spider-like hands and beautifully sympathetic drumming. Virtually faultless, the only (small) downside was Mariusz’s voice, slightly let down by the flu (I read subsequently that their Sheffield gig the next day had to be cancelled).
There was no showboating; no unnecessary solos; no ego trips displayed. Professional to the last, Riverside were clearly enjoying their evening and showed a genuine desire to engage the audience. And this was reciprocated. How refreshing to see people of all ages. And clearly popular in their home country with plenty of London’s Polish community turning up. Riverside have clearly broken down that difficult barrier that exists for so many Progressive Rock bands…this is not just music for follicly challenged over 50s.
Having been impressed with their last 4 releases, I can say, indubitably, that they sound better live than on record, delivering an electrifying power that is beyond a recorded medium.
Great gigs are not just about the band, they are about the whole experience…the audience; the venue; the lighting; the acoustics.; the beer, absolutely everything ! All these factors combined beautifully to create the ‘Perfect Storm’ and at £19 a ticket it was a steal.
To those interested here is the set-list, with my highlights being tracks 2, 4 and 8:
About 5 or 6 years ago my son’s guitar teacher, a young dreadlocked guy into hard rock and grunge, asked me who was my favourite band. I surprised myself when I immediately answered “The Stranglers”. “Oh” he replied, “The band who sung Golden Brown?” “Yes” said I “but haven’t you heard the early stuff from the punk-era like Hanging Around, Grip, Peaches?”……
I’ve asked a few from the younger generation about the Stranglers and many either haven’t heard of them or they are remembered for some of their 80’s pop hits like the aforementioned ‘Golden Brown’, ‘Strange Little Girl’, ‘Always The Sun’ etc. Indeed they did write some superb ‘pop’ songs but I remember them for their uncompromising attitude; their clear desire to ‘progress’ their musical style and their unique sound, driven along by thumping bass lines and swirling keyboards.
In 1977 and 1978 the Stranglers produced certainly one (Rattus Norvegicus), if not two (Black and White) of the great albums to come out of the Punk Era. Whilst not considered punk, these albums stand alongside the great Punk albums of the period: The Clash and London Calling by The Clash; NMTB by the Sex Pistols; Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by The Dead Kennedys; Machine Gun Etiquette by The Damned; The Ramones by The Ramones; Love Bites by the Buzzcocks and Pink Flag by Wire, to name a few. But you won’t find Rattus or B&W featuring highly, if at all, on any Top list of Punk albums.
Many at the time said they had jumped on the punk bandwagon. Certainly they had been playing as an unsuccessful pub-rock band for a couple of years as the Guildford Stranglers. But by opening for the 1976 tour of the Ramones and Patti Smith they got noticed and signed a deal with United Artists.
From a punk perspective they were considered outsiders, both in terms of their age, being older than their peers (Jet Black was in his late thirties when Rattus was released) and musically different. Their sound was unusually melodic (helped by the fact they were ‘relatively’ musically accomplished); their lyrics could be clearly heard (!) and even solos were allowed (!).
The band certainly took advantage of the musical zeitgeist but never truly embraced the punk culture. They did adopt the aggressive and abrasive punk attitude on stage; they delivered their lyrics with snarling brute force. Their dealings with the musical press were notorious leading to JJ Burnel punching a music journalist. Some of their lyrical output reflected the punk-spirit. They exhibited a total disregard for political correctness at times, highlighted by bringing strippers on stage at the Battersea festival in the summer of 1978 (strangely the main support act was a man by the name of Peter Gabriel !).
Led by two charismatic front men, Hugh Cornwell on lead guitar and Jean-Jacques Burnel on bass, they delivered an incredibly varied output over the years. From the simply arranged punk anthems of ‘No More Heroes’, ‘5 Minutes’ and ‘Something Better Change’; through the reggae-inspired ‘Peaches’; to the dark more complex and experimental ‘Black’ side of the Black and White album; and they even wrote the 4 part and 8 minute long ‘Prog-structured’ classic, ‘Down in the Sewer’. They broke away from the punk scene totally in 1979, their early success giving them the confidence to release their avant-garde fourth album, The Raven. They followed this with the unusual but ultimately disappointing concept album, The Gospel According to the Men In Black (which lost me and many others as fans for a while). The Stranglers were definitely not derivative and did not want to be pigeon-holed. Their musical and lyrical diversity on a track by track basis is rare and a testament to their originality and innovative skills.
Their signature sound was driven along by the ‘rough’ and a chest-filling bass lines of Jean-Jacques Burnel, usually followed by the swirling Hammond organ and mini-moog keyboards of Dave Greenfield. Unusually the guitar melodies were shared between lead and bass and there are an astonishing number of catchy riffs in their early output. Dave Geenfield’s psychedelic keyboards are hugely inspired by Ray Manzerek of the Doors, particularly on their brilliant cover of Bacharach and David’s ‘Walk on By’. Jet Black’s drums ties everything together nicely with competent drumming. Martin Rushent’s production on the early albums superb.
Their musical style and structure was initially quite basic but over time became more intricate with the use of complex time signatures; effects to slow and speed up sound and, from Black and White onwards, the more frequent use of synthesizers to create weird vocals and soundscapes.
The band’s lyrical themes were hugely diverse. Songs about boring lives, disenchantment, alienation, and the breakdown of political and social order were laced with biting political and social comment and par for the course at the time. But they were also inspired by the writings of Nostradamus, Japanese and Viking culture and even by a Victor Hugo novel.
Their lyrics quite often pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. ‘Peaches’ is the only song I know that has the word ‘clitoris’ in it (changed to ‘bikini’ for the UK’s Top of the Pops). Clearly their lyrics were at times sexist and whilst unacceptable they were tame compared to today’s rap music and I believe ignore the playful irony and satire inherent in much of the band’s output. Most controversial was the misogynistic ‘Bring on the Nubiles’, about the obsession of older men for younger girls. The song comprises ‘in your face’ vulgarity and alludes to incest. Were they serious or just exploiting the times? What we do know is the band was deliberately antagonistic and courted controversy to increase their profile and this was indirectly supported by their record company who saw no reason to censor their lyrics or curtail their behaviour (it sold records for God’s sake!!!).
Here are some of my favourite lyrics:
From the punk anthem ‘No More Heroes’, the witty:
Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky?
He got an ice pick
That made his ears burn
From ‘Grip’ the truly memorable:
Stranger from another planet welcome to our hole
Just strap on your guitar and we’ll play some rock ‘n roll
Visceral social commentary from ‘Hanging Around’:
I’m moving in the Coleherne
With the leather all around me
And the sweat is getting steamy
But their eyes are on the ground
They’re just hanging around
(The Coleherne was an infamous gay leather bar in Earls Court, London in the 70s and 80s frequented by many famous clientele).
Here’s a typically aggressive live, albeit shortened, version…
Acerbic criticism of the educational system in ‘School Mam’:
In the free-form, abrasive and controversial ‘Ugly’, only the Stranglers could juxtapose a reference to Ozymandias, a poem by Shelley about folly in the pursuit of power, with the shallowness of mankind’s attitude towards aesthetics:
I Could Have
Read A Poem Called
To Her Instead
I Lived For The Moment
It Was A Futile
I Was Here
And She Was Here
And Being Broad
Of Minds And Hips
We Did The Only Thing Possible
I Guess I Shouldn’t Have Strangled Her To Death But
I Had To Go To Work And She Had Laced My Coffee With Acid
Normally I Wouldn’t Have Minded
But I’m Allergic To Sulphuric Acid
Besides She Had Acne
And If You’ve Got Acne, Well,
I Apologise For Disliking It Intensely,
But It’s Understandable That Ugly People Have Got Complexes
I Mean It Seems To Me
That Ugly People Don’t Have A Chance
It’s Only The Children Of The Fucking Wealthy Who Tend To Be Good Looking
An Ugly Fart
Attracts A Good-Looking
Chick If He’s Got Money
An Ugly Fart
Attracts A Good-Looking
Chick If He’s Got Money
An Ugly Fart
Attracts A Good-Looking
Chick If He’s Got Money
It’s Different For Jews Somehow.
I’d Like To See
A Passionate Film Between
The Two Ugliest
People In The World.
When I Say Ugly
I Don’t Mean Rough Looking
I Mean Hideous.
Don’t Tell Me That
Just Know The Truth
When You See It
Whatever It Is
Powerful stuff indeed.
In 1990 Hugh Cornwell left the band and it appeared to be the end of an era. Over the subsequent years they continued to release albums with little mainstream success but were (and still are) supported by a fanatically loyal fan base. However, with the addition of Baz Warne, whose energy and snarling aggression making him a worthy replacement to Hugh Cornwell, they have become a superb live act. Their latest album ‘Giants’ released in 2012 is a huge return to form, echoing their halcyon period of the late 70s. It seems ironic that I saw them headline a predominantly ‘Prog’ festival, Weyfest, in 2010 but it’s a clear indication of their popularity amongst a wide cross-section of music lovers.
The Stranglers are arguably the greatest and certainly the most enduring band to emerge from the punk era. I look forward to another brutal encounter with them later this year in Guildford, their spiritual home and fortunately only a few miles away from chez moi.
Final words though must go to Hugh, JJ, Dave and Jet from the epic ‘Down in the Sewer’
I tell you what I’m gonna do
Gonna make love to a water rat or two
and breed a family
they’ll be called the survivors
You know why ?
Coz they’re gonna survive
Nearly 40 years on and they are surviving remarkably well 🙂