(A quick note: for new releases, order links are embedded in album titles; online playlists/previews/etc. follow reviews when available. For catalog albums, playlists are linked with titles.)
Once again, I get to second a positive review from Bryan — this time of Fauna, the new release from prog-metallers Haken. Wildly creative, I found this to be the British sextet’s most appealing effort since 2016’s Affinity, stirring in flavors of fusion, postmodern pop, funk, reggae, electronica and even opera alongside one heavy yet tuneful chorus after another. Whether on the short, sharp shocks of “Taurus” and “Lovebite” or the extended journeys of “Sempiternal Beings” and “Elephants Never Forget”, Ross Jennings’ vocals soar, Charlie Griffiths and Richard Henshall’s guitars crunch, Peter Jones’ keys fill what few sonic crevices remain, and rhythm section Conner Green and Raymond Hearne thunder. Play it loud — but look out for multiple, exciting curveballs on every track!
Last month also saw the release of two live albums from veteran bands who’ve made it through the pandemic back to the stage:
Van der Graaf Generator’s The Bath Forum Concert(a CD/DVD/BluRay set) documents the venerable trio’s 2022 return to action; tackling an ambitious setlist that spans their entire career, guitarist/pianist/singer Peter Hammill is as declamatory and vehement as ever, organist Hugh Banton covers the aural spectrum between cathedral and crypt, and drummer Guy Evans locks into or disrupts the grinding soundscapes as the spirit moves him. The beautifully filmed video shows VDGG working hard and watching each other, opting for the flow as they feel it rather than relying on clinical precision; warts and all, this is refreshingly in the moment, a strong show that captures the band’s existential angst and humanistic idealism in full.
Two years after their 2020 Far Eastern tour collapsed around them, King Crimson satellite band Stick Men returned to Japan and blew away any cobwebs that might have accumulated at Osaka’s BB Live venue. The resulting album Umedashowcases avant guitarist Markus Reuter, multi-bassist Tony Levin and percussionist Pat Mastelotto at their aggressive, angular best; whether on long-standing improvisational frameworks “Cusp”, “Schattenhaft” and “Swimming in Tea”, newer compositions “Ringtone”, “Tentacles” and “Danger in the Workplace” or Crimson classics “Red”, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt. II” or “The Sheltering Sky”, these guys are frighteningly good, whether working up a hair-raising din or backing off for spacey, unexpectedly lush interludes. A great introduction for newbies and a must for fans.
Plus, in February and March the recorded music industry resumed cranking out deluxe box set reissues and compilations — apparently the market of Boomers (like me) with more money than sense isn’t tapped out yet:
As previously promised, a look at the big reissues landing in the next few months — especially those available in one or more box set formats. Ordering links are embedded in the artist/title listings below.
The Beach Boys, Feel Flows – TheSunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions, 1969-1971: between their initial impact and their imperial phase as timeless purveyors of fun fun fun, Brian Wilson and his family pursued heaviness and relevance in a market that thought it had outgrown them — at least for the moment. This slice of the Boys’ catalog features less slick, more homespun takes on their timeless concerns (the same amount of girls, less cars, more daily life), with Wilson brothers Dennis (on Sunflower) and Carl (on Surf’s Up) taking the lead. The brilliant moments — “This Whole World,” “Forever,” “Long Promised Road,” “Til I Die” for starters — outweigh the embarrassingly dated ones, and music to make you smile is never too long in coming. Available from The Beach Boys’ webstore as 2 CDs, 5 CDs, 2 LPs or 4 LPs (colored vinyl).
BeBop Deluxe, Live in the Air Age:when Bill Nelson’s avant-glam guitar heroics didn’t generate bigger record sales, a live album was the next obvious move for this sterling British quartet. Better chart positions weren’t forthcoming, but 1977’s Live in the Air Age is an exquisite slab of BBD at work — Chuck Berry updated for the Apollo era, with a bit of Bowie/Mercury panache in Nelson’s vocals and blazing solos aplenty. Available from Esoteric Recordings as 3 CDs (adding the complete 1977 London concert) or 15 CDs/1 DVD (adding all surviving recordings from the 1977 British tour and a live television special).
George Harrison, All Things Must Pass: the quiet Beatle exploded on his first album after the Fabs’ breakup, immersing his radiant devotional compositions in Phil Spector’s patented Wall of Sound and drafting Ringo, Badfinger and the embryonic Derek and the Dominoes as his rock orchestra. The new remix scales back the symphonic swirl, brings forward George’s vocals, and gives the rhythm section a kick in the pants; just right to these ears. A serious contender for the single best solo Beatle album, well worth an immersion course. Available from the Harrison webstore in Standard (2 CDs or 3 LPs — limited colored vinyl available as well), Deluxe (3 CDs or 5 LPs), Super Deluxe (5 CDs/BluRay or 8 LPs) and Uber Deluxe (5 CDs/BluRay/8 LPs/various bespoke gimcracks/”artisan wooden crate” — you don’t wanna know what it costs) editions.
The Elements of King Crimson – 2021 Tour Box: the 7th annual compilation of tidbits from the Discipline Global Mobile archives, doubling as a concert program. This year’s selection of rarities focuses on the nine drummers that have called King Crimson their musical home (sometimes two or three of them at once). Studio snippets – like the one with Fripp, John Wetton on bass and Phil Collins on drums – live tracks, oddities, previews of coming attractions, and more. Available from Burning Shed or on Crimson’s current USA tour.
Lee Morgan, The Complete Live at the Lighthouse: never a mass media superstar, Morgan was nonetheless a jazz icon — one of the finest trumpeters of his day who played with heroes of the music like Art Blakey and John Coltrane, recorded more than 20 albums as a leader for Blue Note Records, and even managed to score a Top 25 pop hit with his funky “The Sidewinder.” This box (another product of jazz archivist Zev Feldman’s boundless energy) sets forth an entire weekend’s worth of recordings by Morgan and his dedicated, powerful 1970 band. Bennie Maupin on reeds, Harold Mabern on piano, Jymie Merritt on bass and Mickey Roker on drums bring the sophisticated, challenging compositions and spirited solos and backing; Morgan takes it from there, lyrical and fiery in turn. This is a great potential entry point if you want to explore jazz as a newbie, and a serious desert island possiblility for those already into the music. Available from Blue Note’s webstore as 8 CDs or 12 LPs.
Clive Nolan and Rick Wakeman, Tales by Gaslight: keyboardists Nolan (Pendragon, Arena) and Wakeman (Yes, Strawbs) box up their out-of-print concept albums Jabberwocky (with dad Rick W. reciting Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse) and The Hound of the Baskervilles, adding a bonus disc collecting rough drafts of a 3rd album based on Frankenstein. Separate booklets and art prints for each of the 3 CDs included. Theatrical as all get out, and surprisingly good fun if you’re in the mood for Victorian-flavored melodrama. Available from Burning Shed.
Marillion, Fugazi: the band’s 1984 album, perceived as a “sophomore slump” at the time, is much more than a bridge between the feral debut Script for A Jester’s Tear and the early masterwork Misplaced Childhood, with plenty of gripping moments to recommend it. A new remix by Andy Bradfield and Avril Mackintosh compensates handily for the production nightmares recounted in this deluxe edition’s copious notes. Also includes a complete live set from Montreal; the CD/BluRay version adds bonus tracks, documentaries, and a Swiss television concert. Out September 10; pre-order from Marillion’s webstore as 4 CDs/BluRay or 4 LPs.
Van der Graaf Generator, The Charisma Years, 1970-1978: VDGG may have shared the stage with Genesis in each band’s formative years, but they were a thoroughly different beast. Peter Hammill’s desperate existential narratives and the wigged out instrumental web woven by David Jackson, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans made for a unique, highly combustible chemistry — bonkers dystopian sci-fi narrative over free jazz one moment, raggedly soaring hymns to human potential the next. This 17 CD/3 BluRay set collects the band’s 8 studio albums from the Seventies, adding extensive BBC sessions, a live show from Paris, all surviving television appearances “and more.” Now available from Burning Shed; the four newly remastered albums in this box (H to He Who Am the Only One, Pawn Hearts, Godbluffand Still Life) are available as separate CD/DVD sets for those wanting a lower priced introduction to this underrated band’s indescribably stirring music.
The Beatles, Let It Be: the Fab Four’s star-crossed attempt to return to their roots – recording live in front of movie cameras – ultimately became their first post-break-up release, drenched with Phil Spector’s orchestral overdubs to cover the rough spots. With a new 6-hour Peter Jackson documentary on the sessions hitting Disney Plus Thanksgiving weekend, Apple unleashes a fresh stereo remix (the 4th in the series that kicked off with Sgt. Pepper’s 50th anniversary). Super Deluxe versions also include 27 sessions tracks, a 4-track EP and a test mix of Get Back, the proposed original version of the album. Out October 15th; pre-order from the Fabs’ webstore in Standard (1 CD or 1 LP), Deluxe (2 CDs with selected bonus tracks) and Super Deluxe (4 CDs/1 BluRay or 4 LP/1 EP) editions. (The companion book of photos and transcribed conversations from the sessions, Get Back, is released on October 12.)
Emerson Lake and Palmer, Out of This World – Live (1970-1997): a compilation of key live shows in ELP’s history: their 1970 debut at the Isle of Wight Festival; a career peak show at the 1974 California Jam; the 1977 full-orchestra extravaganza at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium; 1992’s comeback concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall; and a previously unreleased 1997 show from Phoenix, Arizona. Out October 29; pre-order from ImportCDs as 7 CDs or 10 LPs.
Joni Mitchell, Archives , Volume 2 – The Reprise Years (1968-1971): more archival recordings from the early days of Mitchell’s recording career. Home and studio demos, outtakes, unreleased songs, her Carnegie Hall debut and much more — a complete acoustic set recorded by a enraptured Jimi Hendrix, anyone? Out October 29; pre-order from Mitchell’s webstore on 5 CDs or 10 LPs (4000 copies only), The Carnegie Hall concert is available separately on 3 LPs (black or white vinyl).
Genesis, The Last Domino? Yet another compilation of Genesis’ greatest hits, fan favorites and core album cuts, released just in time for their first US tour in 14 years. No real surprises in the track selection, but the blurbed promise of “new stereo mixes” of four Gabriel-era classics is intriguing. Out November 19; pre-order from Genesis’ webstore on 2 CDs or 4 LPs. (The UK version of this compilation, out September 17, sports a slightly different track list.)
Elvis Presley, Back in Nashville:the King’s final sessions in Music City, stripped of overdubs a la last year’s From Elvis in Nashville box, that yielded material for three years worth of albums. 82 tracks encompassing country/folk, pop, religious music and Christmas music. Out November 12; pre-order from the Presley webstore on 4 CDs or 2 LPs.
In the Works (release date forthcoming):
Robert Fripp, Exposures: another exhaustive (and potentially exhausting) set from Discipline Global Mobile. This one promises to cover Fripp’s “Drive to 1981,” including his guest-star-heavy solo debut Exposure, the ambient Frippertronics of God Save the Queen and Let the Power Fall, and the egghead dance music of Under Heavy Manners and The League of Gentlemen. Tons of live gigs promised to supplement rarities and studio outtakes.
Marillion, Holidays in Eden: the new Marillion album (now officially titled An Hour Before It’sDark) may push this further back on the release schedule, but Steve Hogarth’s second effort with the boys (an intriguing effort that tried and failed to go commercial) is next up for the deluxe reissue treatment.
Porcupine Tree, Deadwing:a promised deluxe set in the vein of 2020’s In Absentia. Internet gossip flared up when Steven Wilson, Steve Barbieri and Gavin Harrison were rumored to have reset the band’s legal partnership earlier this year; who knows how or when the Tree may blossom again?
Renaissance, Scheherezade and Other Stories: coming from Esoteric Recordings, the folk-prog quintet’s finest hour in the studio, melding orchestral grace with an Arabian Nights theme for the half-hour title track. If this is in the vein of other recent Renaissance issues, hope for a multi-disc set with a bonus live set and a surround remix.
If the album cover looks familiar to you, that’s because it was designed by the same man responsible for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery and Ridley Scott’s Alien: H. R. Giger. Island may be the strangest thing to come out of Switzerland since that eccentric creator of biomechanical horrors. That small, idyllic mountain country may not come to mind when one thinks of avant-garde, but, like Giger, Island certainly does not fit the Swiss mold – or any mold, for that matter. Pictures is easily one of the bolder, more original releases that I have ever heard. Like Van der Graaf Generator, Island relied not on bass or guitar (in fact, they feature not a single guitar on the entire album), but rather on percussion, keys, and woodwinds. Like Gentle Giant, Island’s free jazz-style approach offered the band opportunities for some incredibly complex improvisation. And like King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, Island wasn’t afraid to add a dash of black humor to their lyrics, providing the album with a (somewhat) lighter tone than is suggested by that horrifying album cover. Now to the music itself:
The album opens with the appropriately titled “Introduction,” which sounds like Ligeti’s Requiem or something out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This brief piece ends with some eerie words whispered over a cacophony of sound before it transitions rapidly to…
The dynamic “Zero,” which opens with a flourish of keyboards. The interplay between keyboardist Peter Scherer, drummer Guge Jurg Meier, and woodwind wunderkind Rene Fisch is impressive and will probably remind most listeners of King Crimson or Gentle Giant. But we do not hear the vocals of Benjamin Jager until…
The title track. Jager, who sounds a bit like Peter Gabriel, has some fun on this song (it takes a quirky fellow to sing about “gastric juices”), but the focus remains on the instruments, and Jager himself is no slouch on percussion. In the middle of this complex piece we are entertained to both a gentle clarinet solo and smooth sax work courtesy of Fisch. These mad scientists of music continue to experiment on…
“Herold and King / Dloreh,” a fitting title for such an odd piece. After some three minutes of beautiful but somewhat dark piano melodies, we get a good half minute of silence before Jager’s vocals fade in…singing the lyrics in reverse, of course (look again at the title of the song). Once again, we are treated to some fascinating interplay between keys, sax, and percussion, and at one point the ominous sound of a drone provides an additional layer of eeriness. To up the weirdness factor, the track includes some whispered vocals (reminiscent of Goblin or VDGG) and scat (or something like it) throughout. The strange brew continues to satisfy on…
“Here and Now,” the closing track. This piece features (briefly, alas) a gorgeous and textured organ sound, and the percussion and sax shine as they have throughout. The drone effect is again put to good use, adding a haunting layer to what is otherwise the most “upbeat” track on the album.
This is a challenging album that may not initially appeal to your tastes. In fact, it may take three or four spins before you can appreciate it, and it is certainly worth more than one listen: this is top-notch musicianship with a healthy dose of dark humor. Anyone who appreciates Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, or King Crimson will be impressed by this little-known avant-garde masterpiece. Just don’t let Giger’s monster scare you off.
An enormous and menacing hand looms over a graceful yet defiant swan: here is an album cover fit for a symphony orchestra. Yet Gnidrolog’s Lady Lake, despite it’s romantic artwork and title, features neither orchestra (a la Camel’s The Snow Goose) nor keyboards imitating the sound of an orchestra (a la nearly every symphonic prog band) nor even the prominent sound of a stringed instrument (guitars notwithstanding, and they are not the driving force behind this work). Instead, Gnidrolog relies on a blend of saxes, flutes, and recorders to create a full, rich sound that provides the foundation for one of the stronger obscure prog albums of the 1970s.
Lady Lake is the second of three albums produced by Gnidrolog, an English quintet consisting of identical twin brothers Colin and Stewart Goldring (lead vocals and guitar, respectively), John Earle (flute and saxophones), Peter Cowling (bass), and Nigel Pegrum (drums, flute, and oboe). Although each member is clearly talented (all of them, like the members of Gentle Giant, play several instruments), Earle is the star on this album, and he puts his woodwinds – a refreshing substitute for keys or mellotron – to good use. Here are some of the highlights from this under-appreciated gem:
Released during the Vietnam War (1972), Lady Lake opens with the idealistic epic “I Could Never Be a Soldier.” The longest piece on the album, it opens with some superb flute courtesy of Earle and the multitalented Pegrum, giving the song a Jethro Tull-like feel. Colin’s vocals, however, sound nothing like Mr. Ian Anderson’s: think Peter Hamill without the “apocalyptic” quality and grittiness. (The vocals are not bad, but neither are they the strongest element here.) Colin’s twin Stewart enjoys some time in the limelight with a brief guitar solo about ten minutes into the song, followed by some funky bass work by Cowling, before the epic finishes just shy of twelve minutes with a flourish of sax courtesy of Earle.
The title song is perhaps the best on the album. After Cowling and Pegrum lay a solid foundation with bass and percussion, respectively, Earle’s layered saxophones add a welcome richness and texture. Toward the middle of the piece the layered saxes are blended with the smooth sounds of recorder and oboe. Cowling’s ominous pounding bass reminds us, however, that the looming hand continues to threaten our (false) sense of tranquility. The frenetic ending hits with the force of Van der Graaf Generator thanks to Earle’s talent on the sax, which would impress any admirer of David Jackson.
“Social Embarrassment” may be one of the stranger finales on any album, progressive or not. Earle sings lead vocals on this one (his voice sounding a bit like Jon Anderson’s). Cowling again demonstrates his chops on bass guitar, and Stewart Goldring unleashes a furious electric guitar solo toward the end of the song before he is overwhelmed by the screams (yes, screams) of the Colney Heath Male Choir: perhaps the hand has conquered! Now that’s a memorable way to close an album.
Despite my reservations concerning the vocals, Lady Lake is nevertheless an excellent example of early progressive rock. The songwriting is above average and the musicianship top-notch. It would be a worthy addition to any serious progger’s catalogue.
As life in these United States opens up, my life finally seems to be settling down — at least for the summer. Which means it’s time to make up for the backlog of excellent albums (new and old) that I’ve heard since January, but haven’t written about here! Links to listen (to complete albums or samples) are included whenever possible.
New Albums:The Art of Losing (The Anchoress’ rich meditation on endurance) and the multi-versionadrenalin rush of Transatlantic’sThe Absolute Universenotwithstanding, most of the new albums I’ve loved so far have migrated towards jazz and classical — frequently with pianists at their center. Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy, made with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, is a state of the art piano trio effort; blues and abstraction suspended in perfect balance and caught in an intimate, tactile recording. Canadian Bach and Mozart specialist Angela Hewitt shows off her range with Love Songs, a gorgeous confection of orchestral and art song transcriptions assembled in lockdown and performed with undeniable panache. The same goes for Danny Driver’s phenomenal rendition of Gyorgy Ligeti’s hypermodern 18 Etudes — virtuoso pieces whose serene surfaces turn out to be rooted in super-knotty counterpoint and off-kilter rhythmic cells. My favorite new album of 2021 to date? Promises by electronica artist Floating Points, spiritual jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra, which manages to bring all of the above (well, except for the piano!) together in one glorious, 40-minute ambient epic.
Reissues: Big Big Train’s double-disc update of The Underfall Yardhas definitely had its share of listening time, between Rob Aubrey’s rich remix/remaster and the welcome bonus disc (featuring fresh recordings of the title track and “Victorian Brickwork” by the full band and brass quintet). With My Bloody Valentine’s catalog back in print, their masterpiece Loveless sounds as incredible as ever; crushing distortion and lush romanticism collide to channel the sublime. And Pete Townshend has masterminded a comprehensive Super Deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out, the band’s pre-Tommy high point. But my favorite reissues thus far have been It Bites’ The Tall Ships (especially the title track — what a power ballad!) and Map of the Past (a favorite of mine since its original release). With the then-unknown John Mitchell taking over from Francis Dunnery, IB sailed into the 21st century with their 1980s pomp intact, killer hooks, head-spinning riffs and all.
I began this series when I first joined Progarchy back in 2013, and my last post concerning these obscure prog bands dates back to June 8, 2014 – almost seven years ago exactly! At the time I told myself I was going to cover only ten of these bands – it’s a tidy number, and, considering how many obscure prog bands were and are currently out there, I wanted to keep the list manageable. Furthermore, after graduating from college in 2016, my taste in prog remained almost exclusively centered on the heavy hitters of the “classic” era: Yes, Genesis, ELP, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson.
But then yesterday I changed my mind. My interest in these unheralded bands was rekindled only very recently, thanks to fellow Progarchist Reyna McCain. There are far too many under-appreciated progressive rock musicians out there – so why stop at ten? I compiled a list of some thirty bands (yes, I know that is not an exhaustive number; I will probably add more), and my goal is to cover all of them. My other goal is to keep these reviews fairly brief – after all, it’s the listening that matters most. So, without further ado, let’s begin at eleven:
Alloy Now is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist David Noel, who began his prog career with the Plastic Overlords, a Georgia-based psychedelic trio. Shortly after Plastic Overlords released their eponymous album, Noel started Alloy Now, a solo project (although he does feature some guest musicians on bass guitar and drums). Despite his Southern roots, Noel sounds like a mix of David Gilmour, Dave Brock, and Peter Hamill (at his more restrained): the acid-space-psychedelic influences are clear throughoutthis album.
Twin Sister of the Milky Way was released in the year 2000, but sounds like it could have been made in the early 1970s. That being said, it is not a simple homage to its influences, which range from Pink Floyd to Van der Graaf Generator to Hawkwind. Particular highlights include the opening number, “The Butterscotch Star,” which features a rich bass guitar (think Chris Squire), trippy vocals, and gorgeous keyboard-driven melodies. The instrumental “Shoulder of Orion” opens with ominous keyboards and percussion, but gradually transforms into something like a cosmic march through the stars. “Ghostly Superhero” could have been written by a Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie – think “Starman” or “Moonage Daydream.” Finally, the title track may be the strongest on the album: Noel’s spaced-out, symphonic guitar and keys play over wordless vocals, taking you on a trip through the Milky Way galaxy.
In my humble opinion, there is not a weak song on this album. If you are inclined towards symphonic prog or the acid and space rock sound of Hawkwind and Pink Floyd, then Twin Sister of the Milky Way belongs in your galaxy.
In Part 1 of Tim Bowness’ latest Progarchy interview, Tim discussed his previous solo albums, working again with his first band Plenty, reuniting with Steven Wilson for new No-Man music, and how all this feeds into his new album Flowers At The Scene (released March 1 on Inside Out Music). We dig into the new album in depth below! Note that [brackets] below indicate editorial insertions.
Pulling it back to Flowers At The Scene, it’s interesting what you said about how really, there are some [pieces] that you’re producing, there’s some that you and Brian [Hulse] are working on, there’s some that you and Brian and Steven [Wilson] are working on. It all feels like a unity when I listen to it. Despite the variety of colors, it’s, as you say, it feeds on what you’ve done before, but it goes in really interesting, different directions. Are there any particular songs that you feel are at the core of the album?
I would say you’re right, it does feel like an album. One thing that’s important to me is, I know in this age of streaming and Spotify it’s not particularly fashionable, but I love the album. I’ve always loved the album as a statement. And in some ways, although this album is different from the other albums – I mean, the previous three albums had themes to a degree. Lost In The Ghost Light was a narrative concept album. Stupid Things That Mean The World and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams had linking lyrical themes in a way. This is different in the sense that it’s eleven very separate moods, very separate lyrics, very separate songs. And yet it fits together, I think, in a kind of classic 43-minute album format. And in some ways, I think it’s the album that flows best of all four. There’s something about it that it kind of moves from one mood to another. And yet it holds together.
I suppose the key songs would have been when “Flowers At The Scene” and “Not Married Anymore” were written. And I just felt that Brian and I had been coming up with material that had its own distinct identity. And I also had a certain idea of how I wanted them to sound – and suddenly that was it! And I guess that there’s this [Robert] Fripp line, he would always say that a new direction presented itself. And I think that it’s true, because I’d continued writing material on my own, and I’d continued writing material with Stephen Bennett while I was recording the Plenty album. And although the material was good, it felt like it was gonna be a continuation of Lost In The Ghost Light or Stupid Things That Mean The World.
And I think that it was when I’d written the fifth song with no purpose really – Brian and I just kept on writing together because we were excited by what we were doing. And I think it would have been “Flowers At The Scene”, the title track itself, and I thought, “this is the new direction; it’s presented itself.” And from that moment on, it became a very exciting and immersive project and I said to Brian, “I think this is the basis of a new solo album. And it feels like a fresh direction after the other albums.” And you’re right that, what’s kind of interesting for me is it’s fresh, it’s a reset, but perhaps because of the mood of some of the music and because of my voice, there’s also a sense of continuation.
And certainly one of the things that contributes to it being fresh is this cast of musicians that you gathered, which is really genuinely impressive. So many great names with great work that have fed into this. I was wondering if I could just toss out names and, in a few words, you could try to describe what each of these guys have brought to the music for the album. Starting with Jim Matheos.
Well, Jim’s somebody I’ve known for a few years. He asked me to guest on an OSI album [Blood], probably about nine years ago now. And I really enjoyed it. So the track, which is called “No Celebrations”, felt very different for me; it was very much in that OSI art-metal style, but it accommodated my singing as well. And after that, we carried on communicating together. So occasionally he’s asked me for advice about things, and also we had co-written a couple of tracks that had never been released.
And when I was doing this album, I thought I’d love to get him involved. Because one of the tracks I’d been developing had him on anyway, and he’s an incredibly versatile guitarist. Very, very nice guy, but what people I don’t think are aware of is how versatile his talent is. So his own music can be anything from sort of ambient experimental to metal to classical acoustic guitar. And I knew how good he was as a soloist, and so I got him – really, he was my stunt guitarist on the album on a few tracks. And he did some fantastic work on it.
Peter Hammill. What a legend!
Yeah! Well, Peter’s somebody who when I was growing up, when I was in my teens, he was one of my favorite singers. And as I’ve said to people, what’s interesting with this album is that, probably my five favorite singers when I was 13 would have been David Bowie, Peter Hammill, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Kevin Godley. And I’ve two of them on the album, and it’s an incredible thrill to have that!
Over the years, Peter’s become a friend. We ended up playing on lots of the same albums in Italy, and we got to know one another. And over the years, he’s guested on my work; and we even live in the same small town in England! And so he’s probably my sort of coffee and chat companion, where we’ve put the political and the musical world to rights once a month. And as I always say about Peter, he’s as nice, generous and decent as his music is frightening!
[Laughs] Oh, that’s a great summary!
[Laughs] Absolutely! Cause, you know, you wouldn’t want him to be as frightening as [Van der Graaf Generator’s] Pawn Hearts really, would you?
[Laughs] No, not in the slightest!
It is true; you’d be coughing your coffee up. It’s not good! [Both laugh] So yeah, lovely guy, and we’ve worked on a few things. And the thing about Peter is he is very honest about his opinion. So interestingly enough, I’d asked him to work on Lost in the Ghost Light, but he wasn’t as much a fan of that material. So basically, he works on what he likes. And he’d worked on the Stupid Things That Mean the World album, and I’d played him this album in progress. He’d mixed an album for me as well. There’s a Bowness/[Peter] Chilvers album that’s been unreleased that Peter’s mixed, which is quite an interesting project in itself.
And while I was making the new album I said, “ah, you know, a couple of Hammill-shaped holes here!” And he heard it, and he heard exactly what I wanted, and he really liked the material. One of the tracks he put a great deal into it, there’s a track on it called “It’s The World”. I’d played it to him, and initially I wanted his bite – there’s a real sort of bite in his voice, I wanted this in the chorus. And he said, “Yep, I know exactly what you want; I’ll get it to you. But I tell you what else I’ll give you; I’ll give you guitars, because the guitars on this aren’t working!” And so he completely re-recorded the chorus guitars, and almost went into sort of Rikki Nadir [from Hammill’s proto-punk solo album Nadir’s Big Chance] mode, and did a fantastic job.
So on the track “It’s The World” he’s on kind of backing and lead vocals, and also adds some really ferocious guitar parts. And he made the piece work. So that was an interesting case, where the piece I think was pretty good as it was, but he gave it an extra edge and an extra looseness.
Got it! One of the newer singers on the album is David Longdon. I know you collaborated with Big Big Train on a b-side [“Seen Better Days (the brass band’s last piece)”]. What did David bring?
Well, I suppose I asked him to be on the piece [“Borderline”] and I’d suggested a particular approach to backing vocal which he used. I almost wanted this kind of rich, Michael McDonald/Steely Dan approach. That’s something I wanted: a comfortable bed of David Longdon voice, really, and he gave that. And then he added some flute as a means of contrasting with the trumpet. And he did a beautiful job in both cases, really. So I suppose what he gave was himself, so he kind of knew the places where I wanted him to play, and where I wanted him to be, and with the backing vocal he was effectively re-singing the melody that I’d already sung on the demo.
But with the flute, he performed a really beautiful solo, and it was great! Because although the trumpet was recorded in the outback in Australia – I used a jazz musician, a guy called Ian Dixon, who’s worked with No-Man, he was on Returning Jesus, several tracks on that, and he’s a wonderful sort of jazz trumpet player. And his studio is a tin shack in the outback in Australia! And he said when he recorded it, it was in the middle of the rainy season. So he’s recording that with crashing rain on the tin roof – which I thought was very romantic! And David really beautifully worked with Ian’s trumpet. And to me, it sounds as if the two could be in the room together playing! So they worked very nicely together, and I suppose in that case, I knew what I wanted, and I got what I wanted. But it was still different, the playing, the expression that the two of them had given was entirely their own.
Following in the wake of King Crimson, ELP, Yes and early Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator were pioneers of progressive rock that never cracked mass appeal, even in their native Britain. Not that they necessarily tried; VdGG’s music (created from 1969 to 1972, 1975 to 1978 and 2005 to the present) was acerbic, obsessive and challenging from the word go. Reveling in collision and contradiction, at once sharp-edged and tender-hearted, out of control and in sync, the music Peter Hamill, David Jackson, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans made on their 2005 reunion album Present and the resulting tour was the equal of what had come before — urgent, authentic, a triumph of their unique approach and chemistry, done for all the right reasons.
Now Germany’s MiG Music has released the climax of that tour — Van der Graaf’s concert from the Leverkusen Jazz Festival, recorded for German TV’s Rockpalast, the only full length live video by the classic line up. This bargain CD/DVD set is strong stuff, with rough edges proudly on display; not for the faint of heart, yet ultimately life-affirming and absolutely essential.
Revitalised as a trio of Hugh Banton, Guy Evans & Peter Hammill since 2008’s Trisector, this is the latest (and maybe last) album from one of the most innovative, exciting and original bands from progs first wave.
This was released back in September and it has taken me a while to get round to writing this review, due to as previously mentioned life getting in the way, and of course I needed time to live with and digest this album.
With the added shadow of this potentially being their last album, the mood of regret, or closure and a sense of finality hang over the record, which for my money is one of the finest they have produced in this latter period of their mighty career.