Celebr8.3, Day 1

The third, and sadly last, outing for this two-day celebration of all things prog saw it decamp from the seedier previous setting of a Kingston-Upon-Thames nightclub to the far more salubrious surroundings of Islington Assembly Hall, an elegant 1930s municipal building in a fashionable part of north London.

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Aptly, veterans Twelfth Night kicked off this final incarnation of the festival with what is supposedly their last ever performance. One can only hope that they reconsider after a barnstorming set drawn for the most part from their classic Fact & Fiction album. Clive Mitten took to the stage looking more like a retired gentleman on his way to the village cricket match than a bassist in a rock band – but looks are deceptive, as Peter Gabriel once sang, and it soon became clear that age has not dimmed the musical power and presence of these Britprog legends. Longtime friend of the band Mark Spencer, guesting as frontman before a stint on bass for Galahad the following day, did a fine job of interpreting the singular vision of the late lamented Geoff Mann.

The ranks in front of the stage thinned noticeably for second act, Thumpermonkey – which was rather a shame, as these heavy progressive modernists are true innovators. Theirs was a challenging and noisy set focusing largely on new or less familiar material, although Asymptote from 2007’s Bring Me Sun For Breakfast made a very welcome appearance, eliciting the biggest response from the audience. Some of the subtlety was lost in a mix that unduly favoured Michael Woodman’s lead guitar at the expense of Rael Jones’ keyboards, but despite these small concerns this was an engrossing performance – dense and complex to be sure, and quite different from what had preceded it, but highly rewarding for those who gave it their full attention.

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Those unsettled by the uncompromisingly tricky Thumpermonkey will presumably have found Karmakanic‘s particular brand of melodic prog to be the musical equivalent of an Alka Seltzer. Bassist Jonas Reingold was a tall, muscular presence on stage, commanding his troops with calm authority and taking every opportunity to impress with his virtuosity. The cast of musicians at his disposal included the versatile and precociously gifted Luke Machin on guitar, the stellar twin talents of Lalle Larsson and Andy Tillison on keyboards and the rich voice of Göran Edman. The marvellously full sound created by this starstudded ensemble also benefited from the best mix of the day thus far. A powerful and affecting Where Earth Meets The Sky was overshadowed somewhat by the bold decision to close the set with a stunning, previously-unheard 30-minute epic having the provocative working title of God, The Universe and Everything Else Nobody Cares About. It doesn’t get much more prog than this, folks!

Perennial favourites Anathema, in three-piece acoustic mode, occupied the evening session’s support slot. Those who’ve seen them in this form will know only too well that such downsizing barely diminishes their ability to excite and stir the emotions of an audience. Their opening salvo of the beautifully dovetailed Untouchable Parts 1 & 2, from 2012’s Weather Systems was followed by another crowd favourite, the achingly sublime Dreaming Light from We’re Here Because We’re Here. Longtime fans were catered for by the inclusion of older tracks Flying and a gorgeous, wistful A Natural Disaster, before the set closed with a world premiere of the hypnotic title track from new album Distant Satellites, heard here a week before its release. It was magical but over all too soon, leaving us with the hope that a full-band headlining tour will be coming our way before long.

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Delight was mixed with a sense of déjà vu when headliners The Tangent took to the stage, for this group of familiar faces was nothing more than a reconfigured Karmakanic, with Andy Tillison now at the helm. Evening TV from latest release Le Sacre du Travail provided an energetic start to proceedings before a short hiatus while keyboard problems were sorted out. Consummate professional that he is, Andy was able to make light of it all, name-checking Progarchy’s own Alison Henderson for her astute observation in an earlier review that it wouldn’t be a Tangent gig without some kind of technical fuck-up.

After this uncertain start, it didn’t take long for the band to settle into their groove via an impressive Perdu Dans Paris and equally strong GPS Culture, both given additional texture and depth by the sax- and flute-based contributions of guest Theo Travis, but the highlight of the set surely had to be the lengthy closing piece, a superb rendition of the In Darkest Dreams suite that included the haunting and atmospheric Tangerine Dream homage AfterRicochet.

After an encore of an up-tempo untitled new track, the band morphed back into their Karmakanic configuration for rousing anthem Turn It Up, ending proceedings on a suitably joyous note before the tired but happy revellers dispersed to the homes and hotels of London and beyond, to recuperate for Day 2…

Coming up in Part 2: Galahad, Sanguine Hum, Cosmograf, The Fierce & The Dead and Frost*

Tangent News

My great friend and hero, Andy Tillison, just posted this on Facebook:

So… Jonas Reingold promises to make the Karmakanic set as simple as possible to play for everyone. Nice Guy.

Three weeks ago we received the set, which includes a brand new piece. None of their band has played it before. It is a little ditty which clocks in at around half an hour. It has about 30 sections in it. It takes as its lyrical subject matter that oft discussed little chestnut.. THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE ITSELF.

“this is some definition of the word ‘simple’ i wasn’t previously aware of….”

CELEBR8.3 May 31 and on tour in Europe late May….The insanity goes on…

Andy Tillison and Jonas Reingold.
Andy Tillison and Jonas Reingold.

Welcome to the Dark Side. Of the Flower Kings?

The Flower Kings have been an essential part of my life for the last thirteen years.  In 2000, one of my students (now, rather happily, a colleague) lent me his copy of Flower Power.  I’d never heard of the band up to that point, though I’ve been a progger since the age of 4, way back in 1972.

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Courtesy of Insideout Music.

I’d purchased my first Spock’s Beard album (their first as well) when it first came out in the fall of 1994, and I knew that Morse had been working with a Swede (all I knew about him) in a new a “supergroup,” Transatlantic.  I remember thinking, “Wow, this phase of progressive rock truly is mighty if it can have a ‘supergroup.’”

It’s almost humorous now to think there was a time when I didn’t know the work of Roine Stolt.  Through Stolt’s work, I found out about The Tangent.  And, really, life without The Flower Kings or The Tangent?  Too weird to even contemplate.

From the opening few notes of Flower Power, I was hooked.  I loved the packaging, the music, the dreaminess.  I immediately purchased the back catalogue of The Flower Kings, and I’ve since purchased every release upon its release date.  And, I’ve done the same with all of Stolt’s projects.  I was also lead, of course, to Tom Bodin’s solo work, Agents of Mercy, Kaipa, and Karmakanic.

Be ware, gentle reader, the rabbit hole into the world of Swedish Prog is a winding but glorious one.

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A desert-island disk, Space Revolver (released July 4, 2000).

While there’s no album by The Flower Kings I dislike (quite the opposite), Space Revolver has always been my favorite.  It has a perfect flow to it, and it only grows increasingly interesting with each listen.  It served as a real life saver for me when traveling fourteen days for my job.  I’d never been away from my family that long, and it was painful.  This was back before I owned an ipod (did they exist then?; I can’t remember), and I only took about ten cds with me.  It was Space Revolver that gave me the most joy and comfort on that trip.  But, this is getting too long winded, and I’ll save this story for another time and another post.  Let me just state here, Space Revolver is a desert island disk for me.  I think it might very well be one of the top ten albums of the rock era.  If you don’t own it, you should.  In fact, you should stop reading this right now and order it now.  Yes, it’s that good.

Admittedly, I’ve listened to the band so much, I’m really not sure I could even pretend objectivity when reviewing them.  Nor at this point in my life, do I really want to be objective.  All of the Birzers love The Flower Kings.

Additionally, whatever creativity I might possess, I owe a lot to The Flower Kings.  Space Revolver served as the sound track for my first book, Unfold the Future for my second, and Paradox Hotel for my third.  The Sum of No Evil and Banks of Eden have played a major role in the one I’m currently writing.

As I’ve stated too many times before, I dislike labels, as they’re almost always used to bypass real engagement with a person, an idea, or a work of art.  But, even if I appreciated labels, I really don’t know how I’d label this band.  The Flower Kings have produced so much beauty, and in such diversity, that they’re almost fully resistant to categorization.  Well, that is, to label properly.  For me, every Flower Kings album is a mood or a state of being.

  • The Flower King: Humanity.
  • Back in the World of Adventure: Exploration.
  • Retropolis: Playfulness.
  • Star Dust We Are: Redemption.
  • Flower Power: Mythic.
  • Space Revolver: Appreciation.
  • The Rainmaker: Warning.
  • Unfold the Future: Righteousness.
  • Adam and Eve: Confidence.
  • Paradox Hotel: Tranquility.
  • The Sum of No Evil: Love.
  • Banks of Eden: Elegance.
  • Desolation Rose: ?

The most common description I’ve seen of the Flower Kings is “retro.”  But, of course, this is meaningless.  The band pays homage to those they love.  Shouldn’t we all?  I deeply admire my maternal grandfather, and I’ve tried to live my life in accord with the dignity he displayed.  Does that make me “retro”?  I speak the same language as my mother.  Does that make me “retro”?  The Flower Kings love Genesis and King Crimson.  So do most proggers.  At some point, labels become not only offensive, but absurd.  But, enough of this rant. . . .  If anything, pietist might be better than retro.  Ok, now, really, the rant is over.

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Desolation Rose

Through the good graces of Edge at Insideout Music, I was able to receive an advanced release of Desolation Rose.

The first thing to notice about this release is the darkness of the art as well as of the subject matter.  The cover art depicts three tattooed human heads resting atop a deserted (and in a desert) classical structure.  Above the heads blooms a bright red rose, surrounded by nesting birds of paradise intertwined in intricate greenery.  From a distance, the image could be an explosion, possibly atomic.  There are visual references to the cover art of Space Revolver as well as Unfold the Future.

The title could mean many things.  Desolation almost never has a positive connotation, unless one might be referring to the landscapes of the American West.  But, Rose?  Rose is almost always good, at least as a noun and a proper name.  Who couldn’t love a Rose?  It’s the middle name of two of my daughters.  And, traditionally, the rose is almost always associated with the mother of Jesus.  She’s not exactly been absent from the art of The Flower Kings.  She appears weeping in the lyrics of Space Revolver, and the devil hides from her in his playground in Unfold the Future.  It’s worth noting again, the cover art of Desolation Rose refers to the albums that already have a reference to Mary.

Unfortunately, as with Eric and Tad, I don’t have the lyrics in front of me, and I’ve had to interpret them simply through listening to them repeatedly.  I’m fairly sure that  I am probably hearing what I want to hear, and I hope any interpretation I make will be taken with this caveat.

Though ten separate tracks appear on the main disk, the music flows from one song to another without a moment of silence.  The album as a whole, however, ebbs and flows, and every track bleeds into the one following it.  This only adds to the intensity and urgency of the record.  A number of images and lyrics recur as well: revolution; false kings and false idols; mechanized man; the abuse of power; our place in the order of existence (“we’re the third from the sun”); our life as a game or a false dream; the soil of Eden; silent graveyards (where is the voice of the ages?); and, above all, the need to be individuals, unchained by the restraints of corrupt authorities and mass thinking.

TFK, live.  Photo courtesy of Roine Stolt.
TFK, live. Photo courtesy of Roine Stolt.

All of the songs build to a climax in  “Last Carnivore” and “Dark Fascist Skies.”

This has to rank as one of the darkest and most politically charged and angry (righteously so) of all Flower King’s tunes.  It’s also absolutely brilliant.  At the end of the song, the album rather quickly embraces a quiet denouement in the very short “Blood of Eden” and “Silent Graveyards.”  In the end, the Flower Kings affirm that “we are stardust/we are sunkissed/we are brothers and still we’re strangers.”

Songs: Tower One; Sleeping Bones; Desolation Road; White Tuxedos; The Resurrected Jadas; Silent Masses; Last Carnivore; Dark Fascist Skies; Blood of Eden; and Silent Graveyards.

The album, itself, is flawless.  Every instrument has a punctuated clarity to it.  Upon my first listen, it was the bass I heard most.  On the second, it was the guitar.  On the third, it was the keyboards.  On the fourth, it was the interplay of Stolt’s vocals with Frosberg’s vocals.   On, probably, my fifth listen, I realized it was everything.  Stolt has produced this album with an eye toward perfection.  This album feels, at least at this point in my listening, less symphonic than other modern prog masterpieces, such as Big Big Train’s English Electric.  In terms of urgency, it has a similarity to The Tangent’s latest studio album, Le Sacre Du Travail.

Stoic Kings.  Photo courtesy of Roine Stolt.
Stoic Kings. Photo courtesy of Roine Stolt.

The only thing I find painful in Desolation Rose is the sampling of Richard Nixon’s voice in “White Tuxedos.”  Don’t get me wrong.  The song works, and it works well.  But, having been born in 1967 and having been raised in a very politically libertarian family, Nixon was always the bad guy.   His voice, to this day, makes me wince.  And, as many times as I’ve listened to this album over the past week, I still cringe every time his voice pops up.  Equally creepy, the voice from “Bavarian Skies” returns, but so does one of the coolest guitar lines ever (think The Good/The Bad/The Ugly meets Chris Isaak). Even the song, “Silent Masses,” makes me pause a bit, as Nixon continuously attempted to appeal to those he called the “silent majority.”

I can’t end a review with THAT man’s name in my conclusion.

So, on a much happier note, this year, 2013, has been nothing short of an annus mirabilis.  When the new year hits, every prog lover will be, materially, worse off after having survived 2013.  Every prog lover will be, also and more importantly, enlivened spiritually and intellectually after having survived 2013.

In the top of this astounding year of Prog is Desolation Rose.  Empty your pockets.  Another must–absolute must–buy.