Porcupine Tree, Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, Illinois, September 20, 2022.
The kick-off of Porcupine Tree’s first Chicago show in twelve years was nothing if not dramatic: a deep drone booming out as automated stage lighting menacingly swept the 3,000+ plus audience, the house lights dimming at the point of maximum tension — then a full-on visual assault from lights and screen, tracking with the slashing hard rock riffs of In Absentia’s “Blackest Eyes”.
At stage left: Richard Barbieri, ensconced in his wraparound nest of keyboards, conjuring up fearsome sonic webs of mist, gloom and abrasive noise as required. At stage right: Gavin Harrison, similarly surrounded by an overwhelming array of drums, cymbals and percussive accessories — and somehow appearing to be able to hit them all at once. And at center stage: Steven Wilson, throwing shapes on guitar as the power chords crashed, scrambling toward the mike on bare feet to chime in with typically sunny lyrics about a serial killer making a move on his desired prey.
It was an impressive opening, but something seemed off, and Wilson quickly acknowledged the state of affairs — sickness had been running through the band, and tonight it was effecting his voice. Promising his best efforts on both the Tree’s back catalog and the whole of their new album Closure/Continuation, singer and band proceeded to a nimble, ominous reading of “Harridan” and a lilting take on “Of The New Day.” Here Wilson’s challenges for the evening became apparent, as congestion and pitching problems crept into passages sung with less than full power. By “Rats Return”, though, Wilson had his voice under control, excoriating the cowardice of political strongmen both at the top of his lungs and in chilling undertones, while vicious fuzzed riffs raged around him.
The rest of the first set was completely stunning, mixing new tracks with superbly chosen throwbacks like the Floydian angst of “Even Less” and the doomy drive of “Drown With Me”. A zesty “The Sound Of Muzak” had it all: a bitterly hilarious Wilson intro (“21 years ago, I wrote a song about how music was becoming commodified — something you picked up at the supermarket, or as part of a software application. Well, thank goodness that didn’t come to pass!”), one bewilderingly brilliant Harrison drum fill after another, and a spontaneous audience singalong to the choogling chorus. Then it was Barbieri’s turn to stoke the darkly atmospheric “Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled”, its instrumental build eerily synced with the video suicide note of Heaven’s Gate cult founder Marshall Applewhite. And after senseless death, mourning: the new “Chimera’s Wreck” finally clicked into place for me as a survivor’s lament, Wilson diving into the depths of human experience, probing extremes in search of exorcism and catharsis. But after that emotional a ride, what do you do for the second half?
It’s been another excellent month for new music. So let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? Purchase links are embedded in the artist/title listing; playlists or video samplers follow each review.
Dave Kerzner, The Traveler: A third concept album from Kerzner, continuing the through line of New World and Static (with nods to In Continuum’s Acceleration Theory lurking about as well). The opener “Another Lifetime” sets out this record’s remarkable strengths: confident, appealing songwriting with hooky yet sophisticated melodies and structures; Kerzner’s best, widest ranging vocals to date; and the perfectly judged contributions of Fernando Perdomo on guitar, Joe Deninzon on violin, Ruti Celli on cello and Marco Minneman on drums (only a smattering of the stellar guest list here). The dry, forward sound and the copious use of vintage keyboards on tunes like “A Time In Your Mind” evokes early-80s Genesis at times (since Kerzner got those keyboards from Tony Banks, no real surprise there), but the power ballad “Took It For Granted” and the closing suite framed by the two parts of “Here and Now” show Kerzner moving his character’s story forward while striking out in fresh musical directions like the sunshine guitar pop of “A Better Life”. Overall, Kerzner exhibits a lighter touch here, and The Traveler is the better for it; by letting his new songs sell themselves and keeping proceedings to the point, he both satisfies us and leaves us wanting more. After repeated listens, this one’s already on my “favorites of ’22” list!
Lonely Robot, A Model Life:John Mitchell has had a rough last few years, and he doesn’t care who knows it. In the wake of a global pandemic, the collapse of a long-term relationship, and a confrontation with his deepest doubts and fears, Mitchell’s done what he does best: slip into his Lonely Robot persona and pour it all out in a fine set of laterally structured, elegantly crafted, fearlessly emotional songs. Writing, singing and playing (especially in his rekindled relationship with the guitar solo) at peak inspiration, Mitchell lays the ghost of his former love (the nervy “Recalibrating”, the forlorn “Mandalay”), skewers our mad world (“Digital God Machine” and “Island of Misfit Toys”), mourns ways of lives and times now in the rearview mirror (the breathtaking ballad “Species in Transition”, the crunching elegy “Starlit Stardust”), and ponders how and why he became who he is (the brilliant final run of “Rain Kings”, “Duty of Care”, “In Memoriam”). Easily his best work under the Lonely Robot banner, Mitchell wears his heart on his sleeve and plays to the gallery at the same time; this is an outright spectacular effort that’s got both all the feels and all the chops. (Check out our latest interview with John Mitchell here.)
Motorpsycho, Ancient Astronauts: the kings of Norwegian drone-prog continue their enviable hot streak on their fifth album in six years. “We’re all a little bit insane,” Bent Saether chirps on the opener “The Ladder”, and as the track spirals upward, mingling the howl of Hans Magnus Ryan’s guitar and Saether’s darkly glimmering Mellotron, you believe him. The edgily abstract interlude “The Flower of Awareness” cleanses the palette for a Crimsonesque workout on “Mona Lisa/Azrael”; Ryan builds towering edifices of distortion over a trademark Saether riff, as drummer Tomas Jarmyr matches their ebb and flow all the way through the shuddering climax and the slo-mo collapse. Astonishingly, all this just serves as prologue to the “Chariot of the Sun: To Phaeton on the Occasion of the Sunrise (Theme from an Imagined Movie)” It’s as if Motorpsycho’s brief for this 22-minute finale was to rival “La Villa Strangiato” in both range and focus; gentle strumming and wordless vocals give way to more menacing bass riffs, fuzz guitar deployed in duet and counterpoint, feral percussive cross-rhythms. It all mounts to multiple climaxes (a mighty unison riff, ominous post-rock minimalism) that circle back to end with the melancholy lyricism that kicked it all off. Ancient Astronauts is a genuinely thrilling ride; strap in and brace yourself for liftoff.
Muse, Will of the People: they’re baaack!!!!!! And as usual, Matt Bellamy, Chris Wolstenholme and Dominic Howard earn every one of those exclamation points. The guitars and drums are turned up to 12, the classical keyboard licks pack double the bombast (including a Bach “Toccata and Fugue” steal), the electronica wallows in creepshow kitsch, the vacuum-packed harmonies are piled even higher, and the gang chants are bellowed louder than ever. All this sound and fury portrays a world on the brink, an elite obsessed with control, and a populace angry that the game is rigged. Still, it’s hard to know who Bellamy is rooting for; at times, his lyrics and driven singing seem equally repulsed by both the leaders (“Compliance”, Kill or Be Killed”) and the led (the title track and “Euphoria”). But in the end, this is quite the slamming album; if you’re in the mood for existential desperation set to one badass, air-guitarable riff and singalong chorus after another — and these days, who isn’t? — this just may be your ticket. Might want to only play that obscenity-laden final track when no one else is around, though.
Boz Scaggs with the Robert Cray Band and Jeff LeBlanc, Meijer Gardens Amphitheater, Grand Rapids Michigan, August 22, 2022.
Fair warning: there was absolutely nothing prog about this show. And there didn’t have to be — my wife, my friends and I got the good time vibes we came for, along with about 2000 other locals, if sometimes from some unexpected directions.
Case in point: opening act Jeff LeBlanc. (All together now: “Who?”) A solo act like many others: one guy with his guitars, a way with catchy melodies that you might hear over the PA system at a place like Walgreens (he said it, not me!) and great taste in covers. Pulling out hometowner Al Green’s soul classic “Let’s Stay Together” as his third tune, he had the crowd firmly on his side by the end of his 15-minute set. If LeBlanc’s music is a bit anonymous, his affable stage presence still provided a great way to ease us into the evening.
Then, the Robert Cray Band took the stage for a absorbing hour of down home goodies. While Cray caught the attention of the 1980s blues scene on guitar, and still showcases great 12-bar tunes like the claustrophobic “Phone Booth” in his set, his singing and songwriting have always had broader horizons, stretching into R&B, soul and beyond. Supported by Les Falconer’s solid drumming, Richard Cousins’ booming bass and Dover “White Cliff” Weinberg’s idiomatic organ work, Cray powered through captivating originals like “Anything You Want”, “I Guess I Showed Her” and the humorous, instrumental Booker T homage “Hip Tight Onions”, singing and playing his heart out even with the sun in his eyes. But it was on quiet tunes such as “I Shiver” and the closer “Time Makes Two” that Cray really impressed, bringing his arresting solo breaks down to near silence and taking the rowdy audience with him. The standing ovation at the end — for a man who didn’t even play his biggest hit, “Smoking Gun” — showed that everyone with ears to hear knew they had just seen a master at work.
Then it was time for Boz Scaggs — sauntering into the spotlight with his six-piece backing band on front of a crowd that expected the hits and wound up getting more than they bargained for. Sure, Scaggs kicked off with “What Can I Say” — the opening track from his smash album Silk Degrees — then kept the slick, disco-edged soul of that record going with hit-radio favorites like “JoJo” and “Lowdown”. But he also dove into his most recent, rootsy effort Out of the Blues with tracks like the gritty “Rock and Stick”, Don Robey’s lush “The Feeling Is Gone” and the piledriving “Radiator 110”. Not to mention his own drop-dead gorgeous ballads “Harbor Lights” and “Look What You’ve Done to Me” (the cue for couples to snuggle as darkness fell and the temperature dropped). Through it all, Scaggs’ laconic, behind-the-beat singing and his effortless falsetto work revealed another master, who’d come through his flash of fame to the decades beyond, with his chops and his instincts for what makes great music intact.
Throughout, Eric Crystal shone on saxes and melodica, as well as utility keys and guitar; Mike Logan laid down smooth, supple work on organ, synths and electric piano; guitarist Mike Miller and legendary bassist Willie Weeks proved that the right few notes equal maximum groove; and a great drummer/percussionist duo (whose names I didn’t catch — your contributions are welcome!) not only kept the rhythms percolating, but joined with Logan to nail the high backing vocals that gave Scaggs’ hits some of their glossy sheen.
And, unsurprisingly for folks who delved deeper than those hits, Scaggs and the band could rock, too! Not only did Silk Degrees’ deep cut “Georgia” and the set closer “Lido Shuffle” roar out of the starting blocks, the band came back for encores “It’s Over” and Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” ready to rumble, with Crystal duckwalking across the stage and Miller ripping off some spellbinding leads. Then, acknowledging the rowdy, wildly applauding audience (“You guys play rough!”) and pushing against the township’s noise ordinance, Scaggs belted out the fiercest song of the night, “Breakdown Dead Ahead”, for a perfectly chosen finale.
To some extent, the careers of both Scaggs (even in the wake of his success) and Cray suffered from the change in American radio that happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when rock stations corporatized and honed their playlists to focus on Album-Oriented Rock. In the process they dumped the prog epics this site focuses on — but they also dropped anything that even paid homage to black music like the proverbial hot potato. (I’d heard at least a third of Scaggs’ setlist on Detroit rock radio back in the day — but only up till about 1979. After that, crickets.) So it’s possible Scaggs and Cray might have been bigger back in the day; but given the rapt reception they received this past Monday night, people seem realize that, whatever fruits of fame might have eluded these artists over the years, they still deliver the goods.
When we last talked with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/prog man-about-town John Mitchell back in 2020, he said that the songs on his 4th Lonely Robot album Feelings Are Good were about “very down to earth things,” in contrast to the outer space trappings of his three previous efforts. The new Lonely Robot effort, A Model Life (released on August 26th), burrows even further into inner space, as Mitchell grapples with recent experiences of loss, loneliness, frustration, conflict and even death. But as heavy as the subject matter is, this album is by no means a downer. Preview tracks like the driving opener “Recalibrating” and the quirky “Island of Misfit Toys” once again reveal Mitchell’s gift for memorable melodies and hooks, his empathetic lyrical journeys from crisis to closure, and his instantly recognizable way with a cathartic guitar solo. Confronting a world in the grip of obsessions, searching for a way through life’s challenges, and emerging at peace with himself, on A Model Life Mitchell invites us to discover what does and doesn’t really matter, charming and comforting us with his remarkable gifts all the way.
In the middle of a busy day filming the video for A Model Life’s “Digital God Machine”, John Mitchell took the time to have a wide-ranging, candid and remarkably humorous chat with us about the new album. Watch the complete interview (including sundry musings and digressions on Netflix documentaries, Phil Collins’ memoir, the forcible learning of Rush songs, changing flat tires near blind curves, grass clipping collection fees and much more) below; a transcription of highlights follows.
The last time we talked, it was about 5 or 6 months into the pandemic – which was right before Feelings Are Good came out. So, my first question for you is a two-parter.How does A Model Life chart a different path from that album? But also, what might the two albums have in common?
The things that they do have in common — I do think of them as quite brother-and-sister albums in a way. I think that in hindsight, I’m much happier with the production on this latest record.
The main difference is, at the time that I did Feelings Are Good, I was still in a relationship, but writing songs about not being in a relationship! But by the time I did A Model Life, the whole thing was over; I was into the whole recovery period of what I was writing about. I approached the songs very differently from that perspective.
And from a production point of view, they are very different. I wanted Feelings Are Good to be a tiny bit more rough around the edges. So, the drum sound on Feelings Are Good is deliberately a bit more trashy; the guitar sounds aren’t quite as refined as they are on this latest record.
They do have a lot in common in terms of that they’re more personal. I’m writing about much more personal subject matter. And who knows what happens next! I might go back to writing about otherworldly things of which I do not know! [Laughs]
I see! It’s true; lyrically, I feel like you really dug deeply this time around. There’s a lot of frustration that comes through, and the emotions you’re singing about are right there, they’re up front. You mentioned the end of a relationship. Are you OK with talking about some of the other things you might have been drawing on as well?
Yeah, of course; I’ll talk about anything. That’s the whole point of this – it’s been very cathartic for me to address certain things. The way that I view things in life – my background is quite complicated. I was adopted by a family, by two people who were considerably older than they would have been had they been my biological mother’s age, who was 17 when she had me.
I find it fascinating that, at the same time in equal measure, I can chart that fact that a lot of my traits as a human being I have inherited, I think, from my [adoptive] mother – a lot of very good traits. They always say, is it nurture or nature? Well, I think largely it’s nurture . . .
A lot of what troubles me over the years has been this strange phenomenon of, whilst having [laughs] unfeasibly vast Impostor Syndrome, I think at the same time I am fascinated by the fact that a lot of the good parts of my makeup are from my [adoptive] mum’s kindness! When you’re adopted by somebody who ultimately – my dad, he basically killed himself when I was 12. Somebody I didn’t really know, but I felt some great duty to live up to in some strange way, whereas I think the opposite is true. Being adopted you don’t have the same sort of genetics. I never have been an academic in the way that he was; my skill set is completely opposite to what his would have been. So, I’m very interested by those things – why it’s taken me this long to realize it’s a fool’s errand to try and chase somebody’s ghost, as it were.
[Tracks] like “Starlit Stardust”, “Rain Kings”, “In Memoriam” – those sound like you’re putting grief on record.
Yeah, pretty much. Certainly “Duty of Care” and “In Memoriam”. “Duty of Care” is pretty much about the twin nature of the relationship with my dad and with my mom. I think it’s been really helpful for me.
I know that [laughs] not everybody’s gonna want to – what did Phil Collins say? He kind of retired from music didn’t he, in the early 90s. And he pretty much said, no one wants to hear another Phil Collins divorce record. [Laughs] And I thought, “well, Phil, you could be right”! But Phil, whether you like him playing drums in early Genesis, or whatever you like or don’t like about Phil Collins, you can’t deny that he’s very good at tickling the emotional buttons that people relate to.
I think a lot of things I’m writing are relatable subjects. And it’s not just me that has gone through these things in life. I have found it cathartic to write about it. And if I find it cathartic to write about it, I’m sure somebody might find it cathartic. But the next time around I might write a completely cheery reggae record, so who knows? . . .
You’ve mentioned not fitting in and not wanting to be part of any cool kids ‘club that would have you as a member. Is “Digital God Machine” part of that as well?
After decades behind the scenes, Robert Berry has unquestionably stepped into the spotlight. In the late 1980s Berry hit the big time alongside Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer as vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and co-producer of the progressive-pop trio 3. Afterwards, he parleyed his new-found visibility into decades of fine work in both mainstream rock (Ambrosia, Greg Kihn, Sammy Hagar, his album-oriented rock band Alliance) and the prog scene (numerous tribute albums for the Magna Carta label, discs and tours by the holiday-themed collective The December People). Though Keith Emerson’s suicide in 2016 thwarted a planned reunion, Berry honored Emerson’s legacy with his deeply felt, impressively realized 3.2 project, releasing the posthumous collaborations The Rules Have Changed(2018) and Third Impression (2021) and mounting a career-retrospective tour in 2019.
But the Robert Berry I spoke with last month is focused on the future, not the past — namely, his brand new, very different trio SiX by SiX. Collaborating on songs with Saga’s guitarist Ian Crichton and anchored by Saxon’s drummer Nigel Glockler, Berry sounds like he’s having the time of his life. The new band’s self-titled album, released by InsideOut/Sony on August 19th, doesn’t really fit into any prog or progressive metal pigeonholes — and it’s all the better for it. One minute SiX by SiX is making an almighty, rifftastic noise; the next comes a killer singalong chorus; the next you’re reveling in a lush, impressionistic soundscape. Wrapping up our interview, Berry said, “we want a wide audience of all kinds of people that just like good music,” and this album has both the ambition and the substance to hit that sweet spot. There’s plenty here for your head, your heart and your guts to grab onto!
When I interviewed Robert Berry at his California homebase Soundtek Studios, he managed to be supremely casual, pumped about his new music (as well as about a graphic novel based on the album by Chicago artist J. C. Baez) and genuinely interested in what I thought of SiX by SiX’s debut, all at the same time! I think both of us had fun; join us by watching the video below or reading the transcript that follows.
So, first of all, tell us about the way SiX by SiX, this new project of yours, came together.
It’s sort of magical, really. My manager Nick [Shilton] who’s in the UK – we were talking, he goes, “well, what are you gonna do next? You’ve said that there’s gonna be three 3 albums, right?” The original one [made in] ’88, and we had The Rules Have Changed and we had Third Impression. I said, “yeah, I feel that’s all we had from Keith, material-wise. I don’t wanna do that on my own; it needs to feed off him.”
“Well, what are you gonna do?” I said, “I’m either gonna hang it up and tour with the past, or I’d like to find a guitar player to work with that was like Keith Emerson, that made up these incredible parts. But except for Steve Howe, who’s very busy, what guitar player makes up parts? Orchestrates a song, doesn’t just play power chords and a smokin’, rippin’ lead?” He goes, “Let me think about it.”
He called me back the next day; he says, “what about Ian Crichton from Saga?” I said, “why didn’t I think of that?” Now I didn’t know Ian at the time. I said, “he plays parts and you could almost sing his solos; they’re so great!” So he tracked him down, got us on the phone. Ian was, like everybody, having some down time with the COVID, not touring. And we decided to start sending some things back and forth – and it couldn’t have been better for me, inspiration-wise! I mean, if I could have written down, really thought about “I’d really like this, I’d like this.” Also, all these parts kept coming! He’s so prolific, making up that great stuff that I only thought of in my head, like “what guy does this?”
And the songs started coming out; we committed to this band once we found the right drummer. Which of course, it was an old friend of mine. I felt anyway; didn’t know if he’d say yes, cause he’s in a big band too, Saxon. And Nigel said yes and bang! It was organic, actually; just happened just like that! But it took a whole year to get it to the point of that now.
OK! What I’m hearing you say, and from what I’ve listened to of the album, I agree with you on what Ian brings to the table. Two or three great riffs on just about every single tune, plus that unique solo voice that, as you say, is so melodic.
Can you talk a bit more about what Nigel Glockler brings to the party?
Nigel and I were in GTR together, back [in] 1987. And Steve [Howe] brought him in to replace the guy that had done the first album with them. And I had said to Steve Howe, “the drums are kinda muddy; don’t we need something a little more solid?” They brought Nigel in; I didn’t know Nigel at all. And he was just the greatest drummer and the nicest guy, that we stayed friends, stayed in contact.
When he came through town here – I’m in Silicon Valley, San Jose, close to eBay and Apple and all that – I went to see him and we just chatted a bit and I said, “Man, the guy, he’s still in good form, still playin’ solid and hard.” And so, he was a top of the list choice for me! And Ian didn’t know him, but they had bumped heads on tours a little bit maybe, and seen each other but not really got to know each other. So once Nigel said “I’m really interested in this,” and then we got his drums on a couple of songs. And it was like having John Bonham in the band, you know? [Laughs] Really heavy hitter, solid! It was a little to me like Cozy Powell in ELP; it just cinched it up!
That comparison just had occurred to me as well; that when Powell was with E[merson] and L[ake], there was this rock-solid bottom. I heard them live. He’s so completely different from Carl [Palmer], but what he brings to the table is amazing.
And it was a good album they did too! Not that we need to talk about that . . . [Laughs]
That’s true! And you can tell that Nigel isn’t just a pounder.
He’s a big prog rock fan, which is probably why Steve Howe brought him in originally. He and Phil, the bass player for GTR, were pretty good friends, and they’d done a few things together before. So, Phil knew about the intricacy of what Nigel could bring. He just doesn’t get to expand that in Saxon, of course. He hit the fine line between “let’s do a few things” and “let’s keep the thing really solid”. So again, Ian’s guitar can do what it does, and if the power chords [makes guitar noises with his voice] aren’t always there, something has to keep it solid. And Nigel just made it happen, really.
And again, hearing what I’ve heard from the album, there’s a lot of elements going into what you do. But there’s also space for all of those elements. It doesn’t feel cluttered or crowded; it feels like everything just locks together.
And it’s mainly the guitar! The keyboards on this, I use them very sparingly, and it’s really just a sort of glue, a little background in there sometimes when the guitar’s gotta do other things. Even onstage, my thing is to once in a while, during a solo or something, I’ll change to the keyboards and left-hand bass and cover the fullness and the bass on keyboards, then get back to the bass guitar when Ian comes back into playing the full chord and whatever he’s doing.
So, you’ve described the creative process. You and Ian are working together and the songs come up out of his ideas; obviously you add to that. What was the recording process like?
In addition to this month’s new music, I’ve taken a few column inches to double back on “Blasts from the Past” — albums that I missed the first time around or haven’t heard in a while, but have become firm favorites as I discovered (or rediscovered) them during the first six months of this year. For new releases, purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing, with playlists or samples following each review as available; Blasts from the Past have listening links embedded in each album title.
Tim Bowness, Butterfly Mind: As Bowness mentioned in his latest Progarchy interview, the concept of his 2020 album Late Night Laments‘ was of a fragile refuge, however imperfect, from current societal storms. Butterfly Mind drops those defenses, confronting protest (“We Feel”), polemics (“Only A Fool”), fear of the future (the album frame “Say Your Goodbyes”) and, yes, death (“About the Light That Hits the Forest Floor”) with Bowness’ typically thoughtful, allusive lyrics and rich, warmly delivered melodies. But there’s also a gritty energy welling up from the roots of the music (bassist Nick Beggs and drummer Richard Jupp are a fabulous rhythm section), toughening the musical tendrils nurtured by soloists like Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Magazine’s Dave Formula, Big Big Train’s Greg Spawton and former No-Man bandmate Ben Coleman. Urgent art-rock that compels multiple listens, as beauty takes on today’s ugliness without flinching. Preorder now for August 5th release.
The Dear Hunter, Antimai:having cleansed their palette with 2017’s relatively straightforward All Is As All Should Be, Casey Crescenzo and his crew of emocore/musical theater/prog rockers settle in for some serious world-building. Exploring the dystopian culture that underlies Crescenzo’s short film The Indigo Child from bottom (“Ring 8 – Poverty”) to top (“Ring 1 – The Tower”), his lyrics portray the variations of despair, complacence, and self-deception each imagined caste falls prey to. Honestly, it’s the music that provides sharper differentiation between social strata, with surprising amounts of sonorous brass — plus jazz/funk, R&B and even hip-hop — snuggling alongside TDH’s trademark power chords, mallet percussion riffs and singalong choruses stacked with Beach-Boys-meet-Queen harmonies. It feels a bit like an aural version of a cinematic trilogy’s middle installment — lots of set-up, with the ultimate payoff beyond the horizon — but with TDH’s sonic and structural ambition clicking so often, Antimai is quite a dazzling trip.
Fernando Perdomo, Out To Sea 4: Even with this year’s return of Cruise to the Edge (the series’ initial impetus), this fresh installment of nautically-themed prog instrumentals comes as a surprise — but then it did to Perdomo as well! Written in the heat of inspiration, his new compositions are sure-footed and energized from first to last, immediately appealing while packed with depth. Playing all the instruments, Perdomo lays down powerful, propulsive grooves on bass and drums and sets up sparkling, jangly chordal textures and fires off his arresting themes on guitar with confidence and aplomb. And his guitar solos! Never pat or predictable, always heartfelt and daringly executed, each solo is a ravishing song in itself. The only reason I haven’t mentioned any standout tracks: every single one is equally excellent. If you’ve heard Out To Sea 1, 2 and 3, you’ll definitely want this; if Fernando Perdomo’s name is new to you, you won’t regret giving OTS 4, the high water mark of a really fine run of albums, a spin.
Robert Berry’s 3.2 Alive at Progstock:Berry’s recent posthumous collaboration with Keith Emerson (an extension of his work with Emerson and Carl Palmer in the 1980s band 3) gave him renewed exposure and the chance to command prog festival stages in 2019. Surrounded by chops-heavy compadres Paul Keller, Andrew Colyer and Jimmy Keegan, he delivers with a thrilling mix of 3 and 3.2 highlights, prog classics as reimagined for 1990s tribute albums, solo tracks and even “Deck the Halls” a la 1980s Rush! Plus, Berry’s unpretentious spoken introductions, peaking behind the curtain to reveal how the music came to be, are nearly as riveting as the performances themselves. All in all, this CD/DVD set is a worthy showcase for a remarkably underrated musician, finally in the spotlight after decades behind the scenes. (Watch for a Progarchy interview with Berry about his next project, SiX By SiX, coming soon.)
Blasts From The Past:
Battles caught my ear opening for Primus back in May; their first two albums, 2007’s Mirrored& 2011’s Gloss Drop, turned out to be especially exciting. Glitchy electronica that defies predictability with every asymmetric loop, candy-coated melody, whipsaw rhythmic shift, and whomping backbeat, with each album meant to be experienced in one extended go. As proggy as dance music gets!
Tears For Fears’ The Tipping Pointinspired a deep dive into the lesser known corners of their catalog. Roland Orzbaal and Curtis Smith’s 2004 reunion, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending (which I never heard at the time), lives up to the same high standards as their latest; unstoppable riffs and hooks abound in killer songs like “Call me Mellow”, “Who Killed Tangerine?” and the delectable “Ladybird”.
Andy Tillison’s reflections on soul music in his recent Progarchy interview sent me back to Stevie Wonder’s masterful 1970s albums, where Wonder blended soaring melodies, sophisticated chord structures, groundbreaking synthesizer work and heaping helpings of funk rhythms for one innovative, irresistible breakthrough after another. 1976’s Songs in the Key of Liferemains Wonder’s most expansive, fascinating and welcoming classic, ranging from the swing of “Sir Duke” to the drive of “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely” to the sardonic classical gas of “Pastime Paradise”. And the songs you don’t know from this double album are just as good — or often better! Sheer genius at its peak.
Tim Bowness’ sterling new album Butterfly Mind — to be released after last-minute supply delays on August 5th — isn’t just his latest for InsideOut Music/Sony, it’s also his 40th anniversary release! Since 1982, Tim has made his mark in the music industry as a contributor to bands such as Plenty (2 albums of recently re-recorded material from their 1980s heyday) and No-Man (7 albums, including 2019’s comeback Love You to Bits), as the co-founder of the record label and online music shop Burning Shed, and as co-host of the podcast The Album Years with No-Man collaborator and long-time friend Steven Wilson. Oh, and he’s also released five of his six previous solo albums on InsideOut since 2014, all chock-full of thoughtful, provocative art-rock brought to life by the cream of today’s progressive musicians. Butterfly Mind continues Bowness’ hot streak while striking out in fresh, arresting directions.
This is also at least Tim’s fifth interview with us at Progarchy. This time around, as well as revealing how “shed envy”, George Orwell, and flavored milk drinks played into the creation of Butterfly Mind, Tim unpacks his philosophy of lyric writing, reacts to Steven Wilson’s memoir and brings us up to date on the latest challenges of running Burning Shed. A complete transcription follows the video below!
So, when last we spoke, and I think that was in 2020, you joked about doing nothing and emptying out your Hard Drive of Doom over the next couple years. But here we are, in the run-up to yet another new album. So, what was the impetus behind the songs that have become your new album, Butterfly Mind?
Well, I did actually have nine months of not writing anything; the same before Late Night Laments as well. Basically, I didn’t write for about eight and nine months, and then I suddenly felt compelled to write. Because before Late Night Laments, I’d been working on No-Man’s Love You to Bits, and that had taken us about a year. That was a case of rewriting an existing piece and adding to it. And Late Night Laments came out very much as an album in opposition to Love You to Bits, cause Love You to Bits had been this quite electronic, pummeling, beat-oriented work. And I desperately wanted to do something quieter, more reflective.
And when I’d finished Late Night Laments, I really did have no ideas! All I did for about nine months was record cover versions of songs for fun. As you say, I got my Hard Drive of Doom out, I re-recorded some very old Plenty songs, and about nine months after that, I wrote a piece called “Lost Player”. And the floodgates opened once again!
So, within about four months, I’d written four or five pieces, several of which didn’t end up on the album. Two were with Richard Barbieri, who is in Porcupine Tree, as I’m sure many of you might know. And another was a track with [Plenty member] Brian [Hulse], which is ending up on the Japanese version of the album. But it really kickstarted again, sort of October 2020, and I just suddenly felt the desire to write. And if there was any motivation, it was again to do something different from what I’d done.
So, whereas Late Night Laments as an atmospheric album and it was quite consistently quiet, with this album I wanted to surprise myself and surprise the listener.
And I think you did! Because it’s true; when I heard Butterfly Mind, it immediately seemed harder-edged – there’s experimental sonics; you’ve got some songs with multiple sections; there’s almost a sort of muted hysteria in terms of the subject matter. But we can get to that in a bit.
On this album, instead of using that variety of players that you used on Flowers at The Scene and Late Night Laments, you’re building out from this core band – Brian Hulse on guitars and keys, Nick Beggs on bass and Stick, and Richard Jupp on drums. How did that unit come together?
It came together in a variety of ways, really. With Richard Jupp, I’d long been a fan of Elbow, and with him it was a case of shed envy! I’d seen an article on him and his home studio, and he had this magnificent shed and home studio. So, I contacted him, and obviously mentioned how much I liked his drumming as well. I particularly liked it on the first couple of Elbow albums, where he’s a very versatile player who can do dynamic, and he can do quiet. And luckily his teenage son, it turned out, was a fan of No-Man, Porcupine Tree and The Album Years, so he knew my work.
So that’s how Richard got involved; I said, “would you be interested in playing with me?” The session with Richard was great, because it was the first session after all the lockdowns in the UK. And so we were in the studio together, working in real time on the music. So, it’s very exciting! And he definitely went above and beyond what I’d expected. Because originally, he was planned to be on maybe half the album. But he heard certain tracks like “Always the Stranger” and said, “I’ve got to play on this; let me play on this!” So, it was really good!
Nick Beggs came about because as much as I love the players I’d been using on my previous albums — Colin Edwin, John Jowett, they’re both incredibly gifted. And I’ll continue to work with them; in fact, I’ve worked with Colin since I completed this album. I wanted something different; I wanted a different kind of energy. I mentioned this to Steven Wilson and he said, “Nick Beggs would be my choice.” So, then I approached Nick Beggs, and luckily he agreed.
So, yeah, it comes from a core group working on the song, then finding the right solo instrumentalists. People like Ian Anderson and Dave Formula, who are on the album.
Yes, and I noticed that here are plenty of cameos – you mentioned Ian Anderson; Peter Hammill comes in on guitar and vocals for a couple of tracks again; Greg Spawton plays bass pedals that don’t sound like bass pedals, so that’s kind of fun.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s true!
But the biggest news that I saw in terms of guest shots was Ben Coleman playing some violin. What led the two of you to team up again? As I understand it, it’s the first time you’ve been in the studio together since No-Man’s initial heyday.
Yeah, it’s the first time since 1993, so 29 years! I think in the case with a lot of the players, such as Ian Anderson, it’s because I felt like it required that flute solo voice. And Ian plays on three tracks; one of them isn’t on the album, it’s on the outtakes CD, which is the second disc of the CD version.
And so really, it was finding the players I thought were appropriate for the piece. And Dave Formula is somebody whose music I’ve loved for many years. He was in a band called Magazine, who were very big when I was at school, and then he was also in a band Visage, who were also very big as well. But he’s a tremendous Hammond organ and synth player, who has been around actually since the mid-60s. He’s the same age as Ian Anderson, even though his heyday was in the early 1980s, with people like Visage and Magazine!
So generally speaking, I found people whose music I felt resonated with mine, and I felt they’d be able to bring something out of the material. And the same goes for younger artists. Like Martha Goddard, who sings backing vocals on three tracks, and Mark Tranmer, who is a wonderful guitarist who’s in a band called The Montgolfier Brothers.
And with Ben Coleman, it was because I could hear violin on two of the track; I could suddenly hear that classic No-Man sound! I just got in touch with him, and luckily, he was interested. He contributed to three or four of the tracks on the album in the end. And it was glorious – as soon as he started playing, it was that sound!
Yes, yes it is! It’s absolutely unmistakable! So let’s dig into subject matter a little bit more. The first time I heard “We Feel” and “Only A Fool” they were genuinely scary to me! And I also know that you never want to connect all the dots for us; you want us to take away our own meaning. Or our own perception of what you’re trying to say in these songs. But what clues are you leaving for us to decipher?
Six months in, 2022 is already shaping up as a banner year for new music. My own positive bias prevents me from objectively reviewing The Bardic Depths’ brand new album (though modesty doesn’t seem to prevent me mentioning it; I’m still stoked that I got to participate) — but there are still plenty of fresh releases to cover this time around! As usual, purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; where available, album playlists or samples follow each review. But first, the latest installment in what’s becoming Progarchy’s Book of the Month Club . . .
Big Big Train – Between The Lines: The Story Of A Rock Band: when Greg Spawton and Andy Poole started a band, it didn’t stand out at first; one early concert promoter called the nascent Big Big Train “fairly mediocre” in retrospect. How BBT became a prog powerhouse — through sheer bloody-mindedness, growth in their craft and a keen ear for what world class musicians like Nick D’Virgilio, David Longdon and so many others could contribute — is the tale at the core of this passionately detailed band bio/coffee table book. Standout features include lavish design, with a overflow of revelatory photos; fully rounded portraits of major and minor participants, mostly unfolded through Grant Moon’s thorough interview work; and remarkable candor, especially in a self-published effort, about the human costs of BBT’s rise to genre prominence and mainstream media attention. (Moon’s portrayal of Spawton and Poole’s gradual estrangement, even as their joint project finally gathers speed, is both sensitive and haunting.) Between The Lines covers all of Big Big Train’s great leaps forward and forced backtracks through Longdon’s untimely death, leaving the reader with Spawton and his fellow survivors determined as ever to continue. Not shy about celebrating the beauty and ambition of the music the group has made, on record and in person, it also doesn’t flinch from portraying the price paid to scale those heights.
The Pineapple Thief, Give It Back:on which Gavin Harrison gives his new band’s vintage repertoire a kick up the backside with his stylish stick work, and Bruce Soord willingly “rewires” his own songs with new sections, verses and narrative closures. The results probe further into the moody motherlode that new-era TPT mines and refines: dramatic vignettes simmering with emotional turmoil; lean, mean guitar riffs arching over roiling keyboard textures; and always, those simultaneously airy and propulsive grooves. But while Soord and Harrison take the creative lead, this is a marvelously tight unit at work; Steve Kitch (keys) and Jon Sykes (bass and backing vocals) are indispensable contributors throughout. All of which makes Give It Back another enticing entry in the Thief’s discography — deceptively low-key on first impression, it blossoms into a compelling combination of tenderness and grit. (With plenty of headroom in the mastering to pump up the volume!)
Porcupine Tree, Closure/Continuation: The big news is that this is recognizably a Porcupine Tree album — that’s why, over repeated listens, it works so well. Steven Wilson is as happy and carefree as ever, cutting loose about fraught relationships (“Harridan”), nihilism in high places (“Rats Return”, “Walk the Plank”) and, of course, the inevitability of death (“Chimera Wreck”); plus there’s a spooky take on a Lovecraftian invasion (“Herd Culling”), a compassionate portrait of a man with nothing (“Dignity”) and a drop-dead gorgeous ballad that looks forward in hope and back in regret at the same time (“Of the New Day”). Still, it’s the reconstituted band, mostly writing the music in team formation, that gives the record its core integrity and guts. Wilson’s angular guitar and bass work, seemingly effortless songcraft and vocals that often climb to a wordless falsetto (a legacy of The Future Bites?) are perfectly swaddled in Richard Barbieri’s squelchy sound design and ineffably eerie synth solos, then hurtled forward by Gavin Harrison’s consummate percussive drive — whether he’s cruising the straightaways or leaning into jaw-dropping polyrhythmic curves. Of a piece if not conceptual, Closure/Continuation is never less than well-wrought and frequently awesome, worthy to stand alongside Porcupine Tree’s catalog as either a next or a final chapter in their saga. Now floating like a butterfly, now stinging like a bee, with commitment evident in every note, it may well knock you out.
“Running Up That Hill has just gone to No 2 in the UK charts and No. 1 in Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Sweden…. How utterly brilliant! It’s hard to take in the speed at which this has all been happening since the release of the first part of the Stranger Things new series. So many young people who love the show, discovering the song for the first time. The response to Running Up That Hill is something that has had its own energy and volition. A direct relationship between the shows and their audience and one that has stood completely outside of the music business. We’ve all been astounded to watch the track explode! Thanks so much to everyone who has supported the song and a really special thank you to the Duffer Brothers for creating something with such heart . All best wishes, Kate“
In addition, “Running Up That Hill” has re-entered the Billboard Magazine Hot 100 at number 8 –Bush’s first Top 10 placement ever in the US. Slate Magazine breaks down how she got there:
All this has provided the perfect excuse for me to break out my Kate Bush box sets and revel in her breathtaking creativity. My fave albums – The Kick Inside, Hounds of Love and the 1986 compilation The Whole Story — remain the same. Though I’ve always been a fan of 2005’s Aerial, 2016’s live Before the Dawn is thoroughly stunning, and the 2018 remasters unveiled the charms of Never For Ever and the wonderfully bonkers The Dreaming for me. As summer listening projects go, this one’s a winner! (I’m also re-reading Graeme Thomson’s fine biography of Ms. Bush , Under the Ivy.)
Or, I might just check out “Running Up That Hill” one more time:
Full disclosure: I PLAY ON THE NEW BARDIC DEPTHS ALBUM!!!!!
Now that I’ve got that out of my system . . . oh, wait. You want details?
Having gotten to know Dave Bandana through this website and the Big Big Train group on Facebook, I was one of the folks who contributed spoken words (“This! Is! War!”) for The Bardic Depths’ 2020 debut. I had mentioned to Dave that, if he ever needed a church organ part for an album, he should get in touch. Which didn’t lessen my surprise when, in that strange summer of 2020, he did! And so, I wound playing not only church organ for Promises of Hope’s closing track “Imagine” (no, not that “Imagine”), but a Hammond organ solo on the opener “And She Appeared.” Being listed in the album booklet as a “special guest” has turned out to be more of a kick than I ever would have anticipated.
With all that as backstory, Dave agreed to join me for a chat about the new album, released worldwide on June 24th! We cover its genesis and the integral contributions of lyricist/conceptualizer Brad Birzer, producer Robin Armstrong, the new core band that plays on every track, and other collaborators. (And yeah, there are a few minutes devoted to a goofy volunteer keyboardist.) The video of our conversation is below, with a complete transcription following.
So, brand new Bardic Depths album! I’ve been looking forward to it, for reasons we will probably get into – but I know a lot of people are as well! But what was the initial impetus for returning to the world of The Bardic Depths?
The success of the first one, and the actual joy of recording the first one and bringing it all together. Especially as, when we originally had done the first album, we didn’t know how it was gonna finish off. It was just gonna be a little home studio thing with me and Brad [Birzer] and a few friends. But then as more friends got involved in it, and then Peter Jones got involved and Robin [Armstrong] got involved, and the thing turned into a fully-fledged proper album. And just the joy of doing that and seeing the fruition from that, we couldn’t not do a second album!
And to be honest, I was straight on writing even before the first one was released. So that was the major impetus for wanting to do a second album. And, hopefully the same thing’s gonna happen for a third one as well!
So, you were so excited that you already had material going for this?
I didn’t have material going. I knew that I wanted to write again and started writing straight away from when that first one came out. I can’t even remember how much of that initial burst of enthusiasm got used on Promises of Hope. Probably a few snippets of it, but the writing certainly started as the first one was completed.
OK. So, where did the concept that drives this album – the overall, the lyrical concept — emerge from? I’m assuming Brad Birzer had a great deal to do with that. But where did that come from?
Yeah, he had a lot to do with it! Brad had sent me a little novelette thing that he’d written, a story. I’d suggested to him a while back, “you’re a great writer. Have you ever written a novel?” He said, “well actually, I started on one, but I never got it finished.” So, he sent that to me, and I said, “this would be a great idea for a concept album.” So, he then carried on and took it — he didn’t actually complete the story; what he did was, he took it as far as he’d gone with it and elaborated around it a little bit more. So, Brad was the guy that came up with the story for the second one.
And in the publicity, you mention that Virgil and C.S. Lewis are the two bards here. And it seems to me that the Virgil, if I’m reading the story right, it’s the story of Dido and Aeneas from the Aeneid.
Got that one right! I can’t place the C.S. Lewis part of it, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out as time goes by.
Brad’s the person to speak to for this. I think the actual C.S. Lewis part is actually in the booklet. In the booklet Brad’s written a whole page, basically detailing what the story’s all about. [Searching his memory] I can’t remember the complete title of the book. [A later message from Dave stated that the book is The Horse and His Boy from The Chronicles of Narnia.] Anyway, Brad’s actually quoted from that book, so we’ll see it in there, so we’ll know which one it is.
I left the story to Brad; it’s a tricky sort of subject. But I think it’s one that we dealt with in a not-complex way, in quite a simplistic way. But it told the story that we wanted to tell; it didn’t go into too much detail, but it gives the listener something to think about.
Uh-huh. So why Promises of Hope as the title?
The original title was gonna be Hope, Not Victory. But as an album title, that was possibly a little bit more difficult to explain away. And I liked Promises of Hope; it appears a lot in the lyrics – “with promises of hope, but never of victory” is a line that comes up quite a lot. And I think to have a promise of hope is something to look forward to, rather than the other way around. So, I changed it to make it a little more joyous, for want of a better word, yeah?
Got it! So, as you were recording this, how did the core band that you wound up with at the end of this album take shape as you were making this album?