Stephen Humphries on Marillion’s BRAVE

I recently had the chance to ask my friend, Stephen Humphries (Boston Globe, Prog, Christian Science Monitor), about his thoughts on Marillion’s BRAVE.  He graciously responded with this beautiful reply.  Enjoy.

brave cover
Arguably the first album of third-wave prog.


I was a sophomore at Hillsdale college the first time I heard Marillion’s Brave. I’d been aware of the band since its 1985 breakthrough album, Misplaced Childhood, because I’d heard the hits on the radio. But I only became an ardent fan following the release of the band’s landmark release, Season’s End, with new vocalist Steve Hogarth in 1989. (Perhaps the only time in rock history that a replacement singer has bettered his excellent predecessor.)

Continue reading “Stephen Humphries on Marillion’s BRAVE”

Steven Wilson at TIC

Yesterday, I had the grand privilege of introducing the The American Conservative audience to the joys and delights of Big Big Train.  This morning, I’ve had an equal blessing in introducing Steven Wilson to The Imaginative Conservative audience.  It’s prog week in the Birzer house!  Then again, when isn’t it prog week in the Birzer house?

For this one, I focused on Wilson’s previous album, HAND.CANNOT.ERASE and explored the Christian humanist elements within it.

A huge thanks not only to Winston Elliott and Steve Klugewicz, masterful editors of The Imaginative Conservative, but to Stephen Humphries as well.  As some of you might very well know, there is no one in the world outside of Wilson himself who knows more about Wilson than Humphries does.

To read, please click here.

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Stephen Humphries Interviews Francis Dunnery

[Editor’s note: it is with no small amount of pleasure and pride that Stephen Humphries–well-known music journalist and accomplished author–interviewed Francis Dunnery for  I’m not sure what we did to deserve Stephen’s help and friendship, but I, for one, am absolutely thrilled!–Brad]

By Stephen Humphries

Francis Dunnery’s latest albums may be titled Frankenstein Monster and Vampires, but it doesn’t mean he’s going through a goth-rock phase.

At least, not yet.

The songwriter, singer, and guitarist has reveled in a variety of musical styles during his three-decade career. Since leaving the seminal British pop-prog band It Bites, his 10 solo albums have spanned progressive rock, pop, folk, jazz, and punk. That versatility accounts for why Dunnery has occasionally paused his solo career to lend his considerable guitar prowess to the likes of Robert Plant, Ian Brown of The Stone Roses, Carlos Santana, Lauryn Hill, and Chris Difford of Squeeze.

Of late, though, Dunnery has been revisiting the progressive rock sounds that inspired him to pick up a guitar when he was a young boy. Credit Dave Kerzner from Sound of Contact for renewing Dunnery’s interest in far-out, exploratory sounds. Kerzner persuaded his friend to sing on a couple of Rush cover versions by Sonic Elements, a “Fantasy Band Tribute to Rush.”

Since then, Dunnery and Kerzner’s Sonic Elements have worked up a complete rendition of Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway that hasn’t yet been released. You can, however, hear Dunnery’s spot-on vocal performance of “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” on Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited II. (A singer of note, Dunnery contributed backing vocals to the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album back in 1989.) In other recent prog-related activity, Dunnery’s fiery fret fingerwork can be heard on Kerzner’s New World album and also the title track to Big Big Train’s The Underfall Yard. Dunnery also produced and played on the 2009 album Big Sky by The Syn, the reunited progressive band that was once home to Chris Squire before he joined Yes.

In 2013, Dunnery released Frankenstein Monster, an album of re-recorded songs by the 1970s proto-prog band Necromandus that was founded by his older brother Barry. (See the video for the title track, the one original Francis Dunnery composition on the album, below.) Dunnery’s brand new album, Vampires, also looks back at another aspect of the past. It consists of 14 re-recordings of songs by It Bites, the group that he formed in Cumbria, Britain, with John Beck (keyboards), Bob Dalton (drums), and Dick Nolan (bass). This time out, Francis recorded fresh versions of the songs with his own Sensational Francis Dunnery Band.

Available January 1st from his website, Vampires includes many of the It Bites’ signature melodic shorter songs (including their top 10 UK hit “Calling all the Heroes”) as well as versions of long-form epics such as “Old Man and the Angel” and “Once around the World.”

In a Skype interview with Francis, he explained why he decided to sink his fangs into these old songs to immortalize them on Vampires.

francis dunnery from prweb

Humphries: You’ve re-recorded a massive batch of songs spanning your entire career. Why? What inspired you to do so and what did you set out to achieve?

Dunnery: The inspiration was quite similar to my last album, Frankenstein Monster, which was basically to complete the past. When your past is incomplete you cannot do anything new, because your past is taking up all your brain space. The idea of recording those songs were always in my mind and occupied a great deal of space in my head. I needed to get them recorded so I could free up space to do new things. The It Bites tracks are very much the same. Any unfinished projects or ideas floating around in your head will make you a prisoner of your past. You won’t have the energy to do anything new and fresh because all your energy will be focused on the incomplete projects from your past.

Humphries: Who are the musicians on the project and what did they bring to the table?

Dunnery: The musicians are the Sensational Francis Dunnery band. Tony Beard on drums, Michael Cassedy on keyboards and Jamie Bishop on bass. I think Tony’s drumming is a beautiful compromise between rock and “pocket.” Tony’s pocket is as close to a black drummer as you’ll get. Like me, he’s a massive fan of R&B, especially the stuff the kids are doing today. So this is It Bites note-for-note with a beautiful groove. Jamie is also very laid back in his bass playing so the tracks are very musical. Michael did a wonderful job playing John Beck’s parts.

Humphries: Which of the re-recordings are you most excited for fans to hear?

Dunnery: All of them. They sound amazing. There’s nothing to put anyone off listening to them. They are note-for-note and the sound is a million times better than the originals. The originals have the melancholy of people’s childhoods attached to them so you cannot hope to replace that, but the new versions are pretty damn cool in their own right.

Humphries: What was the criteria for selecting which It Bites songs to re-record?
320x320Dunnery: I basically picked the most important songs on the albums, the ones that I liked. The ones that I felt could be sonically updated successfully. I’m a song guy. I’m not particularly interested in how fast someone can tap an arpeggio—I’m far more interested in melody, storytelling, and lyrics. When I was 18, I was more focused on musicianship, but today’s musicians are mostly performing little tricks…which is cool but it’s not something I’m interested in today. I always loved Paul McCartney, The Beach Boys, Prefab Sprout, The Blue Nile, Laura Nyro—song people. The songs I picked were probably the best melodies.

Humphries: Were there songs that you attempted to re-record but ultimately abandoned?

Dunnery: No, we recorded all the ones I said we would record.

Humphries: Some of the original It Bites recordings sound a bit dated and very much of their time in production. Did you update them or rearrange your versions in any way? 

Dunnery: Completely updated them. Instead of brass sounds and synthesizers, we used all real stuff and it sounds killer. Sonically, it sounds a bit more like early Deep Purple during “Black Night” and “Strange Kind of Woman” —basic overdriven Hammond and electric pianos played through amps.

Humphries: John Beck’s keyboards/backing vocals and the Dalton/Nolan rhythm section had a particular sound—what was your approach to those aspects of the It Bites songs in your new recordings?

Dunnery: We copied John note for note because the parts were great, but I swapped the little tinkly bell type sounds for real meaty organ and piano. We gave the keyboards a set of balls. The drums are dry and without reverb compression or EQ. Tony Beard is an amazing drummer and he’s also amazing at tuning drums. I just put a few mics in front of him and let him do his thing.

Humphries: Can you tell me about why you chose to include It Bites B-sides such as “Vampires” and “Feels like Summertime”? In retrospect, do you wish those songs had been on the It Bites albums?

Dunnery: I liked those songs a lot. I remember when we recorded the track
“Vampires” in the Townhouse studios in London and I was going beserk with the guitar solo. It was so much fun. Incredibly intense. “Feels like Summertime” is a beautiful track. I never liked the It Bites version much because the chorus was a bit telegraphed and my vocal was too effeminate. It was great to be able to have the opportunity to fullfill that track now that I have a better knowledge of songwriting.

Humphries: How much of a challenge was it to re-record complex epics such as “Old Man and the Angel,” and “Once Around the World”? Take me into the experience of tackling those pieces again. 

Dunnery: It was pretty easy. I recently recorded some vocals for Dave Kerzner as we are re-recording the whole of the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and those vocals were incredibly easy as well. I have been singing them for so long that I know exactly how to deliver the vocals so the melodies stand out. It was the same as the Steve Hackett album. I recorded “Dancing with the Moolight Knight” for him and it was easy. The It Bites tracks are the same.

Humphries: How many discs will Vampires consist of? Is there anything notable about the packaging?

Dunnery: The Vampires album will be 2 CDs as the songs are very long. There will be a special ‘muso’ package with downloads of the instrumentals. There is nothing particularly notable about the packaging other than my crack dealer’s phone number, which will be on there for anyone who would like to hear the tracks with more white angst.

Humphries: Has the Vampires project influenced where you want to go next?

Dunnery: It has influenced my next album in the fact that I don’t want to play any more electric guitar for a while. Frankenstein Monster and Vampires make a bold electric statement that I will not be able to supersede for quite some time. I hate doing the same stuff over and over.

Humphries: You’ve been writing new songs: How far along is it and what can you tell us about the musical direction of your next album? 

Dunnery: I am auditioning three African-American backing vocalists in New York City. I want to make a quiet album with a bass, acoustic guitar, and three African-American backing vocalists. I have some great stories to tell and some great new melodies to sing. I need African Americans because European Africans have a different feeling, African Africans are not even in the ball park and white girls can’t deliver what I’m looking for on this album. There is a sweetness to African-American musicians in general that I really love. It’s not so much what comes out of their mouth, it’s more of the feeling and the sweetness of the timing of their expression that I love. It cannot be emulated. My new album will be sweet and quiet and probably not for anyone under 25 years of age.

Humphries: You perform dozens of House Concerts across the world every year. [Visit to book one.] Tell me about your recently published book House Concert Expert.

Dunnery: I wrote a book because I wanted to write a book. It hasn’t yet sold anywhere near what I thought it would but they say if you want to make God laugh, make some f***ing plans! I haven’t started promoting properly so by this time next year I may be the new Stephen King.

Vampires is available January 1, 2016, at Follow Francis on Twitter: @dunnery.



The Art of Rush, Hugh Syme: Serving a Life Sentence

Review of ART OF RUSH, HUGH SYME: SERVING A LIFE SENTENCE, written by Stephen Humphries (2112 Books, 2015), with a brief essay by Neil Peart.

The first book by Stephen Humphries.
The first book by Stephen Humphries.

In a week, my family and I move back to Michigan.  It’s been an incredible year in Colorado, and we’ll be very sad to leave this rather textured slice of heaven.  The year went by all too quickly.  As you can imagine, the house is in chaos, and, at many levels, so is my life.  Books here, cds there, my brain across the street, six kids and one cat feeling the “unsettlement” of the moment.

This is a long and convoluted way of writing. . . .

I should’ve reviewed THE ART OF RUSH a month ago.  It’s written by a truly gifted music journalist and critic, Stephen Humphries (a graduate of Hillsdale College in Michigan).  I have nothing but respect for Humphries, and the more I read him, the more I like him.  He’s opened my eyes to my own biases against certain artists, and he’s more than once made me rethink some dogma I’d already decided and locked away, presumably (at least at the moment of decision) forever.  THE ART OF RUSH, amazingly enough, is his first book, though he’s been publishing articles and reviews for almost two decades.

And, of course, it’s designed and illustrated by one of the most gifts men in the visual arts today, Hugh Syme.

I certainly don’t want to get into an us vs. them situation, but let’s say that where Roger Dean is beautiful, Syme is diverse and eclectic.  Dean has spent a lifetime exploring consistency in his art, while Syme has worked with and in every artistic endeavor and genre imaginable.  Dean is classic, and Syme is romantic.  Dean is a perfectionist, and Syme is an explorer.

Everyone recognizes a Roger Dean painting anywhere–whether it’s residing on a Yes album or stolen by a major Hollywood producer.  Probably only James Marsh (Talk Talk) is as distinctive as Dean, though Dean is better known.

THE ART OF RUSH shows exactly why Syme is not as distinctive as a Dean or a Marsh.  He’s too (damn!) interesting to be distinctive.  Whether it’s a font, an image, or an idea, Syme tries anything.  And, crazily enough, it always works!

As is well known, Syme’s first cover for Rush was 1975’s CARESS OF STEEL.  Peart liked and appreciated Syme so much, Syme has designed very album (inside and out) since.  This means he’s been a part of Rush only a year less than Peart himself.  And, the two men get along famously.  Syme possesses the wonderful and uncanny ability to make the ideas of Peart–a radical individualist, perfectionist, and explorer in his own right–visual and successfully so.

The book, produced by 2112 Books, comes in three versions: tall, grande, and venti.  Just joking–with apologies to Starbucks.  No, it did come in three versions when released in May, but the Rush Backstage website only lists the cheapest one now.  A $99/272 page hardback, coffee table style.  Believe me, it’s well worth the $99.

I could be wrong, but I think it’s ONLY available at the Rush Backstage website. comes up with nothing when I searched for it there.

THE ART OF RUSH is as beautifully crafted (and as heavy!) as you’d expect from Syme.  The binding, the pages, the design. . . all perfect.  Peart provides a short but kind introduction, and Humphries provides all the words thereafter.

My version also came with an LP size card-stock poster celebrating forty years of Rush.  Whether this is normal or not, I’m not sure.  But, I am sure that the ART OF RUSH is a glorious thing to own and to linger over.  It is a piece of perfection, in and of itself.

Me, struggling to lift this thing.  It must weigh the same as at least 4 MacBooks.
Me, struggling to lift this thing. It must weigh the same as at least 4 MacBooks.

Stephen Humphries: Clerk of the Gods

The Art of Rush.  Text by Stephen Humphries.
The Art of Rush. Text by Stephen Humphries.

This morning I had the chance to read through Stephen Humphries website:

What a treat.  Yet another reason to love the weekend.

If you don’t follow him, you should.  Humphries is not only a great writer, but he’s also a great thinker.  Not surprisingly, Rush turned to him recently to write the text for the new Hugh Syme book, The Art of Rush.

Humphries seemingly has connections to every one in the prog world.  Anyway, check out his website.  His interviews are especially good.

The Art of Rush by Hugh Syme: On Sale tomorrowush,

Art-of-Rush-slipcaseSheesh, this looks gorgeous.  And, to make it even better, the narrative is written by one of the best music journalists anywhere, Stephen Humphries.

The Art of Rush is a 272 page coffee table book that delves into the 40 year relationship with Rush and their longtime artist and illustrator Hugh Syme. The stunning book begins with a foreword penned by Neil Peart, and contains original illustrations, paintings, photography, and the incredible stories behind each album that he has designed with the band since 1975.

An Excellent Interview with Steven Wilson by Stephen Humphries

A friend of mine, Stephen Humphries, just interviewed Steven Wilson.  Well worth reading.  Humphries is a natural.

My story began to spin off other things that I wanted to talk about: nostalgia for childhood, regret, and isolation and alienation,” says Wilson. “When most people say ‘concept album,’ they think of fantasy. But for me, the quintessential concept albums are things like TommyQuadropheniaThe WallOK Computer. These albums are actually about very similar things. They are about a fear of the modern age, they are about alienation from technology and alienation from society. They are also albums about individuals becoming isolated from the rest of the world. I think there is a lineage that this album appears to be a part of.

To read the entire interview (and you should!), please click here.