The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Four): Paul Brett

Considering his reputation as one of the greatest living twelve-string guitar players, Paul Brett is probably not among the more obscure names I have included in this series thus far. Having performed with the likes of Arthur Brown, Roy Harper, and the Strawbs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brett was by no means a stranger to the prog scene by the time he ventured forth on his own. He released several solo albums in the 1970s, Interlife being perhaps the most celebrated of the bunch. Although Brett’s acoustic and electric guitars are the stars of the show, the album also features the talents of ex-Strawbs drummer Rod Coombes and the ubiquitous Mel Collins on saxophone, who helps give the album a jazzier feel. Here are a few highlights from this hidden gem:

The opening number “Interlife” is both the longest and strongest track on the album. Although it begins as a soft folk tune with the rich sound of layered acoustic guitars, it transitions quickly and seamlessly to a unique blend of folk and jazz rock. Each member of Brett’s supporting cast is able to show off their chops, be it Coombes on drums, Collins on Sax, Derek Austin on synthesizer, or Delisle Harper on bass. Fans of Mike Oldfield’s instrumental prog masterpiece Tubular Bells – which also features several acoustic and electric guitars – will appreciate this track.

The remaining tracks, beginning with “Celebration,” are much shorter and equally enjoyable. Brett again opens with the gentle sound of acoustic guitar on “Celebration” before he’s joined by his mates. The electric guitar soars on this piece before the track finishes in a sort of jig.

“Segregation” also begins gently, but transitions suddenly to a jazzy guitar riff and a thumping bass line courtesy of Harper, who does a superb job on this piece. “Isolation,” another acoustically-driven work, follows “Segregation” before we arrive…

“Into Life,” the heaviest piece on the album. Unlike the other tracks, the closer opens with electric guitar, bass, and drums. Perhaps this is meant to represent the (somewhat) chaotic transition into life itself, but it does feel somewhat out of place on what is otherwise a rather subdued album.

Fans of the Strawbs, Mike Oldfield, and Roy Harper will not want to miss Interlife. For those less inclined toward the prog folk scene, I would still recommend this as an excellent album for a rainy or slow-paced day. Brett’s work on both acoustic and electric guitar (but especially the former) is simply superb and would be appreciated by any prog enthusiast.

Stay tuned for number twenty-five!

Mike Oldfield Man on the Rocks

I am a huge Mike Oldfield fan, and have been for over 20 years. My first exposure to Mike’s work was in 1992, when Tubular Bells II was released, and the copy of the live premiere in Edinburgh taped from the telly was an oft rewatched video. So discovering my Dad had Mike Oldfield boxed on vinyl, with the quadraphonic remixes of Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge (which is probably my favourite album by Mike) and Ommadawn, complete with a bonus 4th record of unreleased or rare material, was a revelation for me, and since then I have collected all of Mike’s releases as they have come out. In fact Mike Oldfield is the only artist whose complete back catalogue (both studio and live) I own. I can’t abide silence, wherever I am there has to be music on for me, it helps me think, keeps me motivated and there’s so much of it out there that you never have enough time to listen to all of it. Mike is a very English composer, his pastoral pieces like Hergest Ridge, Tubular Bells and the later albums like Music from the Spheres or Voyager, follow a line from Elgar or Vaughan Williams. When studying and trying to concentrate for exams, Mike’s beautiful pieces like Hergest Ridge, Incantations, and Amarok were perfect to lose yourself in. Through working backwards I have come to appreciate the work of Vaughan Williams, his Lark Ascending comes from the same idea in England that the mighty Hergest Ridge came from. When I discovered Mike he was embarking on creative resurgence and a mighty purple patch in the late ‘90’s that spawned some fantastic albums like Guitars, Tubular Bells III, The Millennium Bell, as if, freed from his shackles at Virgin he was happy to be creating again. Through his more atmospheric ambient pieces at the start of the century like Tres Lunas, and Light and Shade, Mike has never disappointed, constantly moving on and expressing himself musically. There are very few artists of Mike’s calibre and longevity who can consistently produce great albums. However it’s been a very long wait for this new album Man on the Rocks, his first complete collection of songs since 1989’s Earth Moving, and his first rock album since 2005’s Light and Shade. He’s not been quiet though, in the meantime Mike has released Music of the Spheres, a classical album, performed live at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony and has overseen the impressive remastering and reissuing of his back catalogue (currently up to 1983’s Crises, which in its 5 disc set is a beauty) with his first real vocal album Discovery (1984) due soon, which I am really looking forward to.
I mention Discovery because on first glance, Man on the Rocks has a lot in common with its illustrious predecessor, which is my favourite of all Mike’s ‘vocal’ albums.
Mike Oldfield
It has a consistent set of musicians, the same vocalists, and instead of being the man behind all the instruments, we’re getting Mike the band member, rather than Mike the ringmaster. This time however there are no instrumental tracks (unless you buy the deluxe 2 disc set, which features the whole album sans vocals, and is an interesting alternative to the original-guess which set I bought?) and instead of two vocalists alternating leads, or duetting, we have one vocalist, the singularly superb Luke Spiller, frontman with The Struts whose vocal performances are an ideal foil to Mikes music.This album has been out a while (nearly three months to be honest) but as I have been a Man in the rocks myself, instead of writing based on first impressions, this is more of a road test than a review (apt seeing as though the album has spent a lot of the time in the car with me, as I travelled between Kent and Bristol in the midst of a house and job move) and as such the album is a real grower. It also marks a return to the Virgin label for Mike, for the first time since 1991’s Heavens Open (due to his current label, Universal buying Virgin EMI & merging it with Mercury!)
Comparisons will inevitably be made between the opener, Sailing, to Mikes big hit Moonlight Shadow, mainly due to the presence of an acoustic guitar and catchy tune, with lyrics about taking the day off and going sailing, it’s a superb opener, and is reminiscent of the sentiment expressed in On Horseback from Ommadawn nearly 40 years ago, the need for freedom is still the same, the mode of transport is different.
Moonshine, (the second track in his career that’s been called Moonshine) with Davy Spillanes superb whistles, and Paul Dooleys violin, is an emotive track similar in vein to Fairport Conventions My Love is in America, all about the Irish émigrés to American looking for a new life and a taste of freedom, and again Luke’s vocals shine. We then come to the first true classic on the album, the title track, with it’s heartfelt lyrics, Lukes stunning vocals wrench every inch of emotion out of the track, whilst freed from multitracking and long compositions, Mikes guitar absolutely sings, well known for talking through his music, Man on the Rocks is one hell of a personal statement, and the power unleashed through his soloing is probably Mikes best guitar work since his Guitars album back in 1999. With little notes in the booklet about what has inspired the songwriting, I would suggest that the work Mikes been doing on his back catalogue has also given him inspiration, as I haven’t heard his music this fresh, this inspired, this involved and this contemporary since Tres Lunas from 2002.
The band Mike has assembled are also on fire, with John Robinson on drums and Lee Sklar on bass giving the music the solid base on which Mike, who only performs on guitar, keyboards and bass on this album, can build, with the help of Matt Rollings on piano and acoustic guitars from Michael Thompson and co-producer Stephen Lipson, whose deft touch works really well with Mikes music, and means the sound is uncluttered and clear. Working within a band environment is clearly beneficial for Mike’s music, as the strong musical interplay on tracks like Castaway and Dreaming in the Wind showcase the best of all involved. Nuclear, again looking at the darker side of emotions, with Lukes vocals again raging with the lyrics, and Mikes guitar cutting through the track like a scythe is superb. The rocking Chariots, with a great chorus and Lukes great vocals is a gem, and Following the Angels is a beautiful musical tribute to the spirit of the 2012 Olympics. Irene is inspired by the power of Hurricane Irene that passed over Mikes base in Nassau in the Bahamas, and has Luke giving his best Robert Plant throughout. The final track, the beautifully performed and excellently interpreted is a cover of William McDowell’s gospel track I give myself Away, which rounds off a superb collection of tracks. This will be compared to Mike’s previous musical outings, and if you are expecting some of his longer instrumental pieces then you will be disappointed, this isn’t the essence of this album. These 11 tracks are a statement that Mike wanted to make, and with one vocalist, the brilliant Luke Spiller, who is a real find, it hangs together as an album far better than it’s only comparison point in Mikes catalogue Earth Moving, which was a touch disjointed due to the different vocalists on each track. In fact you would have to go back to Discovery to find the last set of Mikes ‘vocal’ works that were this consistent, and this bloody good. This doesn’t sound like the work of a Man on the Rocks, it sounds like the work of a musician at ease with his legacy (which Mike hasn’t always been) and who has his creative juices fired up and ready to show the world what he’s capable of. Lets face it, if you can create Tubular Bells when you are 19, you can pretty much do anything you want to set your mind to doing! In conclusion then, Man on the Rocks is the best Mike Oldfield album since Guitars in 1999, and when taken in context with his entire back catalogue, will rang alongside Discovery, Hergest Ridge, Platinum,Tubular Bells and Amarok as one of the greats.

A Prog Awakening (Part 1)

I suppose it is inevitable that kids encounter music first through the filter of parents’ or siblings’ tastes. That was certainly true in my case. In the early 70s, the meagre set of records owned by my mum and stepdad was my only window onto the world of music. I remember several LPs by Elton John and Rod Stewart, the odd one or two by The Beatles and The Stones, also The Carpenters, John Denver, Mama Cass…

At some point, I began to assert my musical independence and sought out new sounds. At that time in the UK, the main channels for hearing new ‘popular music’ were Radio 1 and the TV show Top Of The Pops. Like most kids, I listened to ‘The Charts’ and had little awareness of anything else. Glam rock and disco had no appeal, but then punk and ‘New Wave’ came on the scene. Like many young people of that era, I found the energy and non-conformist attitude of these new genres incredibly exciting. For the first time in my life, I starting buying my own music: 7″ singles by The Clash, Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, Siouxsie & The Banshees…

Yet the signs were there that I would soon move on to other things. In amongst all that punk were singles by rock acts such as The Who, Queen and Nazareth. Further clues were to be found in my fascination with three albums from my stepdad’s otherwise middle-of-the-road collection. The first of these was a cassette of Pink Floyd’s seminal Dark Side Of The Moon. I forget when I first heard this, but it was before I started buying singles: probably 1975, certainly no later than 1976. I used to sit in the corner of the living room with headphones on, bewitched by the stereo sound effects as much as the epic qualities of the music. I hadn’t realised just how well-crafted music could be until that point.

The second of these intriguing albums was a Focus ‘greatest hits’ compilation – one of Polydor’s ‘Rock Flashback’ series. The cover was awful – fluorescent yellow with the band name spray-painted in green above a skewed, oddly-tinted band photo – but the music more than made up for that. There was so much to enjoy here: Jan Akkerman’s incredibly fluid and inventive guitar playing, Thijs van Leer’s unhinged, operatic performance on Hocus Pocus… In its own way, this was every bit as exciting as the punk that would very soon inspire me to start buying records. Focus remain a favourite of mine to this day, and Sylvia would almost certainly feature as one of my ‘Desert Island Discs’.

And the third of these influential albums? None other than Tangerine Dream’s Atem, completely unlike anything else in my stepdad’s collection. I suspect he saw it going cheap somewhere and bought it on the strength of the artwork. I doubt that he liked what he heard! He played the track Wahn for me, probably in the expectation that I would be shocked by its weirdness. I certainly found it challenging, but it was also strangely compelling. It was a tentative start to what would eventually become an infatuation with TD’s 1970s and 1980s material.

The transition period for me can be roughly dated as late 1978 to early 1979. Before that period, I was a chart-listening, single-buying slave to musical fashion who occasionally managed to reach beyond such superficiality and touch something deeper and more meaningful in music; after that period, I considered myself a serious music fan – album-focused, interested in seeking out new music for its own sake rather than its popularity, ready for the transcendent experiences of witnessing my favourite bands performing live.

That daunting leap from punk to prog was made via the convenient stepping stone of hard rock, principally in the form of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. The first rock album I owned was, in fact, Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same – a present from Christmas 1978, I think. I no longer recall the precise chronology of my musical discoveries, but I still remember all of the vinyl LPs that were added to my burgeoning collection over that period from Christmas ’78 to my fourteenth birthday in July ’79: the first post-Hackett Genesis album, And Then There Were Three; Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here; Paris by Supertramp; Mike Oldfield’s Exposed; and 2112 by Rush. The latter, in particular, had a profound effect on me. I think Side 1 of 2112 was probably my first encounter with a true prog epic. Rush have been one of my favourite bands ever since.

Coming up in Part 2: My own musical ‘Cambrian explosion’ of 1979-1981, and my first gigs…