A review of SAND (Sam Healy), A SLEEPER, JUST AWAKE (forthcoming, September 30, 2016). 9 tracks.
As much as I’d like to start with something artsy (the album deserves it), I’ll just be really, utterly, completely, and totally blunt. This album is extraordinary. After a summer of horrors and violence (not personally, but around the world), this album seems like the necessary art to calm the savage soul. I think this is, quite possibly, Healy’s best.
As I’ve written a number of times before when writing about Healy (solo) and about North Atlantic Oscillation, he does three things with unadulterated excellence.
Rhys Marsh, THE BLACK SUN SHINING (Autumnsong, 2015). A Song Cycle divided into seven parts: I Hear, I Know; Down to the Waves; Wondering Stars; One Step Inwards; Find Another Way; Soothe the Fear; and In the Summer Light.
So, Mark Hollis, Robert Smith, and Sam Healey walk into a bar. . . . Out comes Rhys Marsh.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the perfectionist Anglo-Norwegian beatnik, Rhys Marsh, who must never sleep, has released yet another album this year. A sequel to last year’s stunning SENTIMENT, 2015’s THE BLACK SUN SHINING follows closely after his Mandala and Kaukasus releases. I’m usually fairly impressed with my own productivity as a writer, but I’ve got nothing on Marsh’s productivity as a musician. The guy is as astounding in his output as he is immensely talented.
Much darker and less psychedelic than the first solo album, THE BLACK SUN SHINING revels in gothic gloom, steady explosions of primitive and driving percussion, as well as heart-felt lyrics. Listening to it demands immersion. Preferably with headphones and in a dark room. Impressively, Marsh has written the album as a seven-part song-cycle. Even the track listing claims only one track, divided into seven parts, separated as a-g.
As much as I hate to admit it, I’m not quite sure what the song cycle is about. It’s either about the death of a man who ends by finding the light of eternity, or it’s about severe depression that ends in finding real love and starting anew. Either of these themes fit the lyrics, and, frankly, at least at some level, they fit each other.
There’s nothing Marsh does that doesn’t impress me, but this is—to my mind—his absolute finest effort. The flow of the music is nothing short of astounding, but what impresses me most is how the music fits the words just so perfectly. The two best moments of the album:
First, at roughly 13 minutes into the album, when the percussion explodes, taking the listener from something previously mesmerizing to something ecstatic.
Second, at the beginning of the fifth part (e) of the song cycle, when Marsh brings us down again, not into the mesmerism of the first 13 minutes of the album, but into a kind of purgatorial drifting.
Each of these points make the listener realize just how completely invested he is in the music.
As I jokingly (well, my attempt at humor) mentioned above, Marsh combines the talents of numerous great musicians, but especially Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, The Cure’s Robert Smith (the dark Smith, not the bubble-gum smith), and NAO’s Sam Healey. Given its influences (or at least the ones that seem to me to be influential), the entrancing cover of the new solo album resembles an artsy and gothic rendering of New Order’s POWER CORRUPTION AND LIES.
2015 has proven to be one of the best years in the history of rock music. As the year comes to a close, do not–for a moment–bypass Marsh’s THE BLACK SUN SHINING. It is not only one of the finest albums of 2015, it’s one of the finest albums I’ve ever had the privilege to hear.
i’m going to release a brand-new studio album on the 1st of December!
‘The Black Sun Shining’ is a 42-minute song-cycle, in seven movements, intended to be listened to as one piece of music.
i wasn’t planning to make another album just yet (don’t i always say that?), but i had a bit of time in-between projects in the studio and i came up with a few ideas, so i set up some microphones and spent seven days running back and forth, recording as i was writing. it was a lot of fun, and i quite often began with the rhythms, rather than chords, which is something i haven’t tried before.
as the album writing and recording process was different, i’m also releasing it a bit differently: it will only be available on CD from Burning Shed (click here or below), and the first 100 orders will come with a signed postcard.
the first single (although it’s not really a single, as it’s part of the song-cycle) is called ‘Wondering Stars’, and will get some airplay over the coming week or so. you’ll be able to hear it here:
Saturday 21st: The Phil Meek Show on Radio Caroline (UK — 21:00, GMT)
Sunday 22nd: ProgLogg on NRK P13 (Norway — 20:00, GMT)
Sunday 29th: Xymphonia on AAFM (The Netherlands — 19:00, GMT)
all stations also broadcast online, so you can tune in from anywhere in the world.
BURNING SHED WINTER SALE
if you haven’t yet picked up a copy of my previous solo album, ‘Sentiment’, Burning Shed will be featuring it (along with a few other Autumnsongs Records titles) in their Winter Sale, which begins on the 26th November and runs for one week. be sure to grab some bargains!
if you read this far, you just put a virtual smile on my face. thank you.
What an honor to talk with the outrageously talented Rhys Marsh. Marsh is as generous with his time as he is interesting and (more than) capable. A true artist who follows his own path and makes his own way, he is armed with no small amount of integrity. He’s not only a man on the move, but he’s also a man who will continue to move the art world for decades to come.
Any typos are my fault, not Marsh’s–BjB
Progarchy (Brad):Rhys, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. I’ve known of you and admired your work for a long time now, but we’ve only recently connected.
Rhys: Thank you, Brad — that’s really nice to hear.
Progarchy: I have to admit—and I’m sorry to state this is the case—but you’re not as well known in North America as well as you should be. Let’s try to change this! So, a really basic question and probably one that will bore you to death. Can you introduce yourself to those of us in North America? Where are you from? What’s your professional background, aside from music? I know you live in Norway now, but I assume by your name that you’re not a native? How long have you been in the music business? And other such basic fundamentals.
Rhys: I was born and raised in London, and moved to Norway almost ten years ago. In the late-nineties, I went to a performing arts college in south London — the same one that people like Imogen Heap and Adele went to — which is where I met Will and Francis, and we formed Mandala. We wrote half of our recently-released debut album in this period, and the other half in our first latter period, around 2005.
During those years, we played hundreds of concerts, at anywhere and everywhere from The Marquee Club in London to The Knitting Factory in New York City. We started off as a rock trio, then we added a live string section. At one point, for a few years, I was playing live about three times a week — either with the band or solo.
However, many years of doing the same thing and not seeming to get anywhere with it got to be really draining, so I had to find a new atmosphere. I lived in New York City for a brief period, and while there were some great times there, that wasn’t the change of environment that I needed, so I headed for the mountains. I’d always been drawn to Norway, and at the time mostly listened to Norwegian music — Magnet, Jaga Jazzist, Thomas Dybdahl, Anja Garbarek, Arve Henriksen — when the chance to move suddenly appeared (which was mostly due to the brilliance of MySpace). So I packed my guitar and laptop, and arrived at the tail-end of the winter. The house I moved into had a recording studio in the basement, and I immediately began work on what was to become my debut, ‘The Fragile State Of Inbetween’.
Just before the move, I’d started working with some Japanese musicians, and that led to a project called Unit, which also included Ingrid Chavez (David Sylvian / Prince). It was as surreal as it was wonderful to be singing duets with Ingrid, after listening to her for years on ‘Dead Bees On A Cake’ and some of the Sylvian b-sides from that era.
As soon as If arrived in Norway, I was also invited to sing in a few projects with the Oslo progressive crowd, such as The Opium Cartel, Ignore and Ketil Vestrum Einarsen’s solo project. After a while, I was asked to be the new singer in White Willow, though that never turned into anything.
Seems that the change of environment was the perfect catalyst, and after a few years of working on various projects like that — as well as writing and releasing three albums as Rhys Marsh And The Autumn Ghost — I decided to build my own studio and get more into producing albums for other artists. A year or so later, the idea of having my own record label also seemed like the right thing to do, and Autumnsongs Records is going at quite a pace these days.
For me there isn’t an “aside from music”. I made the decision when I was ten or eleven years old that music was going to be the thing that I do. I never chose a second option as a safety net — I just went for it, and had the confidence within myself that I could make it work. when I was growing up, my parents would always play music, and the main album that stood out was ‘Electric Ladyland’. one of my earliest memories is crawling over to the turntable, holding on to it as I lifted myself up, and turning up the volume.
I got my first guitar when I was three, but didn’t start playing until I was seven. although I loved Hendrix’s guitar playing (in fact, I think that the solo from ‘Machine Gun’ is the greatest of all time) it wasn’t only the guitar that I was fascinated with in this album — it was the sound. the details and layers of both the guitars and vocals, and the way they fit together, the interplay between the drums and bass, the texture of the cymbals. I could already pick out the different elements that made up the complete piece of music, and it wasn’t long before I first started experimenting with a four-track machine, playing guitars, keyboards and anything I could tap or hit to make sound like percussion.
Progarchy: Well, I’m just amazed at your productivity. Just recently you’ve released a solo album, SENTIMENT; a Mandala album, MIDNIGHT TWILIGHT; and a Kaukasus album, I. How do you explain this? Did god give you 2 extra hours in the day? Are you gifted with incredible amounts of energy?
Rhys: True to say, it has been a very busy few years! I think it’s partly due to the fact that I keep things very organised, so I’m able to work on several projects at the same time, without them conflicting with each other. since ‘The Blue Hour’ came out, in the autumn of 2012, I’ve released an album every six months. the writing and recording of ‘The Blue Hour’ was very heavy, and a lot of terrible things happened during that time, so the process of it became the thing that really helped me. Once I got into the swing of things I just haven’t been able to stop.
Although the Mandala album was already written and Kaukasus was a collaboration, but still, the recording and mixing tends to take longer than the writing anyway. and, to back up my theory, the next couple of albums are in progress as we speak.
Progarchy:A first follow up—can you sustain this level of writing, production, and output?
Rhys: Good question… probably not! Then again, this is what I do, so it just happens. I can’t imagine that I’ll carry on recording and releasing two albums a year, but I never thought I’d reach this level of output anyway, so who knows?!
Progarchy: And, a second follow up—what does each band or solo project allow you to do? That is, does each speak to a different part of your artistry?
Rhys: Yes, they do. I try to define my role in every project, otherwise I’d likely just end up doing everything all the time. I love being a part of Mandala — a clearly defined trio in the old-fashioned sense. I love to write a song, then know that Will and Francis will add their own thing, and the result becomes Mandala.
I also love to write, record and play everything myself, as i can get into the details and add the idiosyncratic details that appear when the same person plays all the instruments, like you get on the albums by Jason Falkner and Jon Brion. the only downside to that is that the songs don’t naturally translate to the stage.
Progarchy: Can you tell us a bit about your influences, musically and artistically? Each of your albums is clearly in the long tradition of rock and, to a certain extent, prog, but you’re also really doing very interesting stuff that probably couldn’t be categorized. From the somewhat martial bass and drum lines on I to the eastern (mostly Persian and Indian sounding) sounds on MIDNIGHT TWILIGHT to an almost Talk Talk intensity on parts of SENTIMENT.
Rhys: I listen to a lot of music. Apart from Hendrix, my parents also listened to Joni Mitchell, The Band, James Taylor, Van Morrison, and a little-known band called Quintessence, who released one of the greatest albums of all time, ‘Dive Deep’. This album also got me into Indian music, and I started listening to Ali Akbar Khan. The college we went to had a sitar, tamboura and tabla, and quite often we’d sit in a room that had no windows, turn the lights off, and jam. I also really enjoy the modes, harmonies and rhythms of Persian music, so that also often creeps into the balance.
My dad is also into the mid/late-sixties English blues movement, so we listened to lots of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, Cream, Keef Hartley, then through to Rachmaninov and Chopin. I loved the heavier moods of Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, so when I started listening to progressive rock, I was immediately drawn to Van Der Graaf Generator and King Crimson.
But the one musician who changed everything for me was Nick Drake. When we were at college, Will and I would often take the bus into town during lunch time and go to the second-hand record shops (of which there were many). one day, in late 1997, we walked into one and they were playing ‘Cello Song’. I stopped in my tracks and was spellbound. when I found out who and what it was, I bought his three albums and listened to them constantly for months. for the next five or so years, I listened to them all, at least once, every day. He redefined everything i knew, and it was then that i started to write my own songs.
Aside from musicians, I’m inspired by Jack Kerouac and Mark Rothko. I love the way that Kerouac’s words flow, and I like to have a similar feeling within the chords and melodies I write, so they aren’t too contrived, but more instinctive reactions to the moment. with my lyrics, I like to have a Rothko-style feeling to them, so that they can mean different things to different people.
Progarchy: Given that you’re very open to new ideas and love to incorporate a variety of styles and instruments, what would you like to do next? And, with whom would you like to work.
Rhys: I feel that with every album I make, I’m refining what I do, whilst also introducing new influences. So whist I’m boiling it down to its essence, it’s also becoming more broad. This is why it’s a great help to define my role in the album before I start. I have quite a large selection of instruments in my studio now, so it would be very easy to play all of them on every album I make, but that wouldn’t work in the long run, so I limit myself as much as possible.
There are so many people I’d like to work with. The list never ends. I have so many ideas for albums that I’ll probably never have time to make. I just hope I can make a good-sized dent in the list!
Progarchy:When you’re writing your albums, how much emphasis do you place on your lyric writing? As I listen to the three most recent albums, I hear lots of personal observations. Some are about everyday experiences while several seem rather mystical. Do you just go as the muse hits you, song by song, or are you hoping to convey certain themes in your music—about society, individuality, will, belief?
Rhys: My lyrics are always written from experience, though abstracted to different degrees, and inspired by different things, but they’re always personal and meaningful. I choose the words mainly by which sounds i need. the melodies mostly appear wordless, and then the words form from that, so they’re direct extensions of the music.
I’ve read a lot of dystopian literature and the English romantic poets, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley. the Kaukasus album was the one that I tried to write as distantly as possible, but still I found myself expressing my own feelings in there.
Progarchy:Ok, a hypothetical question. It’s 20 years from now, and at age 68, I’m trying desperately to finish a masterpiece on the history of rock and prog (if only!). Where do you see yourself in that history, and what statement would you like to make with your art?
Rhys: Maybe, just maybe, I would’ve released 40 more albums by then! I’d be very happy to just be a part of that history, and hopefully I’d be known as a multi-instrumentalist and producer who’s released a series of consistent albums over the years. I rarely look back, so I don’t really think about the albums I’ve already released. once they’re finished, I move on — musically and emotionally — so I’m not really working to a template when I create something new, which makes it both very exciting and quite impossible to think that far ahead!
Progarchy: Thank you so much, Rhys. What an honor to connect finally. I hope we can keep talking as you keep writing and producing such excellence.
I’ve been following the work of Rhys Marsh for several years, but not to the extent I should have. Even a cursory examination of his website and the realization of all he’s done in the music world over the past is somewhat overwhelming. He’s a singer, a songwriter, a musician, and a producer. I’m sure he’s a million other things as well, but this is what he has listed as his main occupations and pre-occupations. He also looks like he could easily grace the cover of GQ or Esquire. I would also add: he’s a perfectionist, a quality common in the progressive music world but all-too often absent in the vast majority of earth’s citizens.
Marsh has his own solo career as well has being a member (I presume the lead member) of Mandala and Kaukasus.
As it turns out, his most recent album, made with his band Mandala, originated eighteen years ago. And, some of the songs on the album still seem haunted by the grunge of that decade. Indeed, there’s a strong Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Screaming Trees aura that lingers over about half of the album.
This isn’t a bad thing. Quite the opposite. It really adds texture to the album.
That Marsh is immensely talented is written into every single word and note of these various and varied albums, but they are especially evident on on Mandala’s Midnight Twilight. His ability to make diverse things while also maintaining his own singular integrity and injecting his unique spirit into each project reminds me of the work of Arjen Lucassen, Steven Wilson, and Sam Healy. Not that he sounds like any of them, but he shares that perfectionist, OCD, creative streak that so predominates some of our best musicians in the rock world.
As readers of Progarchy know, I’m no musician. Back when complex stereo systems were the norm, I joked that the instrument I knew how to play was the stereo receiver. The on/off switch. I’m actually trying to teach myself piano, but my wife tells me I sound more like a percussionist when playing than a pianist. Regardless. . . I know what I like, and I know what I love. I am usually most taken with the texture of the music, the flow of the album, the beauty of its resolutions, and the power of the lyrics.
When it comes to the four things I most admire in music, Mandala is aces. Totally and happily aces. No song on Midnight Twilight is like any other, and, yet, rather than feeling like a mix of singles, Midnight Twilight holds together perfectly. The flow is excellent. From the already mentioned grunge to the experimental time signatures of King Crimson to the intensity of Rush, Midnight Twilight is a thing of wonder.
And, it’s a must own for any lover of prog or rock.
Just be forewarned. Once you start following Marsh’s career, you won’t stop. I guarantee that listening to Midnight Twilight will make you grab the credit card for more. Just remember: your spouse won’t see the statement for at least a month. Time heals all wounds.