Tag Archives: Prog magazine

Style. Over. Substance.

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One step forward and three steps back…

The slow arrival of a new Steven Wilson record has established itself as an event to be savoured: the guy set the bar high from the off; before the off, even, if one factors in his musical pedigree as bandleader – Porcupine Tree – and collaborator – numerous. The Tree‘s output has been variously rewarding, if rarely less than interesting, Bass Communion and Blackfield have mostly left me cold. Never, though, could one accuse Wilson of being lazy, unimaginative or of taking anything for granted. Each successive release has broken ground that is, at least for him as writer and performer, new.

By contrast, Hand. Cannot. Erase. shapes up as something of a throwback; a project in the same vein as PT‘s ultimate release (The Incident, back in 2009) an ugly, overwrought, heterogenous; if not entirely unrewarding collection. Much like the granddaddy of prog rock operas, Pink Floyd‘s 1979 opus, The Wall, it played as something less than the sum of its occasionally considerable parts. In both cases one might feel justified in feeling surprised and a little let down: both bands had previous for handling the form (concept album; rock opera – call it what you will) with applomb: Animals and Fear Of a Blank Planet are both masterpieces in this writers’ opinion.

Perfect Life sounded rightaway to me as close to the ghost of PT as Wilson has sailed since his solo voyage began in earnest (let’s not forget that the former began as himself-in-bedroom-studio, sans backing band). Not that it sounds quite like that band, but the mood of the track, its apparent ‘interlude’ quality harks back to the piecemeal feel of The Incident. In that sense it’s quite a departure from his recent solo and collaborative output. As far back as Grace For Drowning and Storm Corrosion, Wilson has been favouring texture and exploration over narrative. The Raven…. signposted a move back in the opposite direction…

And so it is with H.C.E. as a complete statement. The allusions to Dreams of a Life* as the seminal inspiration might lead one to believe that this is a flowing, seamless storyteller of a record: it’s none of those things.

It really doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with Vincent‘s, or any woman’s life. Whilst there are pretty (and hummable) melodies scattered thruout, and fragments of a story, the overarching juxtaposition of brooding atmospheres and jagged shards of aggression contrives to create an air of decidedly masculine indulgence.  Wilson, one feels is coolly observing the pain of Vincent and others like her without offering the listener much by way of understanding or insight. It is, to The Incident, what Queensryche‘s Operation Mindcrime II was to its antecedent, in a way: more of the same, without the heart or the commitment. Not since Michael Rutherford‘s treatment of (Peter Currell Brown‘s) Smallcreep’s Day has a musical interpretation fallen so far short of justice to the written word.

Interestingly, Wilson recently spoke of the possibility of a PT reunion with Prog magazine,

“I would have to say to the guys, ‘Look, there’s no point in me writing the material. If I were to do that I might as well do it for a solo record. Let’s try writing together, or writing in partnerships.”

…Which sounds, in a roundabout sort of a way – and factoring in also his scaling back work with NoMan and Blackfield – like he feels the well is running dry for him as a writer. His most notable work of late has been as go-to-guy for remix work for the likes of King Crimson, Jethro Tull and XTC; as interpreter of others’ work. It would be refreshing to hear the results of a more fully-collaborative incarnation of PT, if this is where following his current muse is taking him.

Offering up such a seemingly comprehensive slagging kinda behoves me, I think, to point up what is right about H.C.E. The title track is a successful detour into accessible pop-rock, rightly-compared in a Prog review to mid-period Manic Street Preachers. Adam Holzmann (keyboards) gives of his best in a sublime solo spot in Regret #9, an exceptional moment on an album where Wilson‘s crack unit rarely get a chance to bring their indisputable virtuosity to the fore. And Wilson (and KScope) shine as never before in the packaging stakes: the box-set is a beautiful thing, showcasing wonderful attention to detail with its myriad artful photographs, collages and inserts (courtesy of Lasse Hoile and Hujo Meuller). There’s a wealth of extra material for conisseur/geek; including album demos and visuals on dvd and Blu Ray.

If you’re a fan of Wilson‘s work over the last two-or-so-decades, there’s much here to enjoy – it’s as much ‘signature Wilson’ as ever – with the caveat that returns appear to be turning in the direction of diminishing, as opposed to accruing; which isn’t what one feels his departure from PT et al in favour of ‘solo’was supposed to about.

*p.s. if you live in the Brighton area, Dreams of a Life is being screened as part of the 2015 Brighton Festival.

 

 

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Cusp of release… almost.

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In case you missed the memo, Opeth are due a new album in a couple months and are now trailing it with Cusp of Eternity, track two from Pale Communion:

The full tracklist is as follows (see Prog magazine for more)

  1. Eternal Rains Will Come
  2. Cusp of Eternity
  3. Moon Above, Sun Below
  4. Elysian Woes
  5. Goblin
  6. River
  7. Voice of Treason
  8. Faith in Others

On this song alone, it’s hard to ascertain if Mikæl Åkerfeldt and co have made good on their promise of a record both, ‘more melodic’ and ‘darker and heavier’ than Heritage. In the vein of The Devil’s Orchard which trailed the latter, it purveys a slightly streamlined, sanded-down version of the classic Opeth sound – rich in characteristically-sombre melody, albeit shorn of the ‘Marmite’ growls – which walks a fine line between satisfying long-time fans and signposting a sound with broader rock appeal. On the strength of …Orchard, critics might have been forgiven for concluding Opeth had recorded their ‘Black Album‘, The reality turned out somewhat differently, as we now know: Heritage may be markedly less brutal, yet every bit as challenging for that: tracks like I Feel The Dark and Famine were never likely to trouble daytime radio listeners’ ears, never mind set fists-a-pumping in stadiums.

To my ears Cusp… would have sat quite comfortably on Heritage, had it been recorded at the time. Sure, the guitars are a little crunchier-sounding but the song is still recognisably a member of the same extended family of songs sired by Åkerfeldt and Steven Wilson during that fruitful period from 2010-12 which also includes Storm Corrosion and Grace For Drowning. One might even look back as far as 2008 and Mellotron Heart for signs that times were a-changing in camp Opeth. If that moody, idiosyncratic prog rock niche is your thing, Pale Communion is likely to be more music to your ears: Opeth fans of yore, yearning for a return to throat – and ear – shredding growls are liable to be further disappointed.

Shine on you lazy diamonds (part one…)

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If the very words ‘Progressive rock supergroup’ are enough to make your blood run cold – or indeed, boil – then, to paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, this is not the post you are looking for…

…If you’re still reading, then; there’s every chance you’re also as excited as I am at the prospect of an 80-minutes-long record, featuring just five ‘songs’; enrobed in psychedelic, sci-fi splendor and dreamed up by the cream of neo-prog talent. Transatlantic, for the uninitiated, is the collaborate efforts since 2001 of Mr Mike Portnoy (then Archduke/drummer of Dream Theater); Roine Stolt (guitarist-singer-songwriter for The Flower Kings/Kaipa); Mr Peter Trewavas (Marillion/Kino/Edison’s Children); and God-bothering prog polymath from Mars (ex-Spock’s Beard) Mr Neal Morse. In the decade-or-so since, they’ve recorded and toured three fantastic albums and the pre-order for their forth, entitled Kaleidoscope is about to open. Shine is the first ‘single’/album trailer, debuted yesterday on the Prog mag website:

Despite the ‘prog supergroup’ tag, Shine couldn’t be much further from the convoluted instrumental showboating of ELP or Mahavishnu. It’s actually a straightforward rock ballad which, if you’re a fan of other Neal Morse projects from Spock’s Beard to Flying Colors will doubtless have a familiar feel. If you’re detecting a whiff of criticism in that last, then you’re at least half right: Morse‘s skill as a writer and singer of ballads – and his melodic sensibility in general – forms a crucial part of Transatlantic‘s appeal for me. Whilst the band is a veritable heavyweight in the musical muscle-stakes, and not afraid of treating itself and fans to extended, demanding workouts – in common with their first two releases, Kaleidoscope is book-ended by two half-hour-long symphonic pieces – each album has included songs that show facility for more economical, pop-rock-oriented writing. We All Need Some Light (from SMPTe, 2001) and Rose Colored Glasses (The Whirlwind, 2009) are fine examples of this kind of vibe and both were highlights of their last tour (on which the band was complemented by ‘all-round utility guy’ Daniel Gildenlöw of Pain Of Salvation fame, upping the ‘super’ stakes). Shine is a song in a similar vein, but, frankly, not in the same league. Where those songs soared and took flight, it merely plods along, struggling for breath. Even Roine Stolt‘s second solo at 4.20 – my favourite thing about the song – sounds a little uninspired by his standards; derivative somewhat of David Gilmour (Comfortably Numb in the wrong key?) and also Trewavas‘ band-mate Steve Rothery, albeit as thrilling as neither.

The country twang that makes itself felt around the two minute mark is a slight departure for the band, though curiously-apposite given that the recordings were begun in Morse‘s adopted home of Nashville; whilst the brief interlude into Floyd-ey psychedelia at 3.47 – predictably, voiced by Portnoy – is sweetly-trippy, yet slightly out of place there. The effects processor conveniently disguises his shortcomings as a vocalist – he and Trewavas provide solid backups and harmonies, but truthfully neither cuts it on lead, Portnoy least of all – but it’s something of a mystery why the band chose to split up the vocal duties at all. The song sounds very Morse and he’s much the strongest singer, even if Stolt‘s more idiosyncratic tone remains more distinctive. And can I mention the video clip? It looks cheap – as much as I love the musty, tumbledown grandeur of the chapel – and is unlikely to either impress their select, if devoted legion of fans or win them any new ones. Maybe a fanclub competition along the lines of Marillion‘s Whatever Is Wrong With You marketing wheeze would have been the way to go. The spark of creativity therein went a long way towards mitigating the nonexistent budget.

Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to say I don’t like the song, it’s by far the least immediately-impressive tune released by the band thusfar: not since Asia‘s 1982 debut has the ‘super’ been so conspicuous for its absence in a group so deserving, talent-wise, of the appellation. The collective talent in Transatlantic is indeed an embarrassment, yet had this been my introduction to the collaboration I can’t say I’d have been won over, especially given the £40 (+ P&P) price tag on the collectors’ edition hardback set. As it happens, my Trans-virginity (fnarr, fnarr) was taken by Mystery Train (see below) which is better indicative of the band’s general sound and compositional skill, whilst remaining melodic and accessible. I will be buying said product, mind: on the strength of their previous three excellent albums I’m convinced I won’t be disappointed. On The Whirlwind in particular, they did themselves proud, making a record that harked back to the heyday of symphonic prog whilst remaining fresh and accessible. I hope this single doesn’t – ironically – prove to be an indicator that the shine is beginning to wear off.

The Prog article can be read in full here and includes the full tracklisting for the album including a bonus CD of cover versions which showcases some of the band’s diverse roster of influences:

CD1
01. Into The Blue (25:13)
02. Shine (7:28)
03. Black As the Sky (6:45)
04. Beyond The Sun (4:31)
05. Kaleidoscope (31:53)

CD2
01. And You And I (Yes cover) (10:45)
02. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head (ELO cover) (4:46)
03. Conquistador (Procol Harum cover) (4:13)
04. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John) (3:20)
05. Tin Soldier (Small Faces cover) (3:22)
06. Sylvia (Focus cover) (3:49)
07. Indiscipline (King Crimson cover) (4:45)
08. Nights In White Satin (The Moody Blues cover) (6:13)

Red alert

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Frippin’ ‘eck, just when ‘comeback’ shows on the part of artists ‘of a certain vintage’ were in danger of becoming passé…

The same year that The Strolling Bones resurrected the ghost of their famed 1969 Hyde Park gig (by way celebrating of the band’s 50th anniversary) sees the latest, unexpected call to arms for arguably the most important, celebrated support act on that bill. Crimson had yet to make their recorded debut when they joined Family, Roy Harper, Alexis Korner and others to set the stage for that legendary Woodstock-inspired festival line-up; they secured their place on the strength of a club buzz that gained the approbation of the cream of ’60s rock talent including Pete Townsend, Bowie and Hendrix.

When In The Court of The Crimson King surfaced later in ’69, it, to quote oftentimes Crimson percussionist Bill Bruford, ”…signalled the emergence of the mature progressive rock style…” and its (the album’s and the band’s) influence has been felt and appreciated ever since by several generations of aspiring art rockers including Genesis, Nick Cave, Tool, Doves, Between The Buried And Me and Dutch Uncles. Crimson has only convened to record and tour but sporadically over the intervening years and, Bob Fripp aside, the band membership has been in more-or-less constant flux and yet in spite – or perhaps because – of this, and enhanced by its membership’s extensive and diverse repertoire – there’s scant sign of its creativity becoming stale. It’s arguably retained its freshness and credibility better than any other exponent of the prog era.

The band for the upcoming shows is yet to be fully confirmed but Fripp‘s latest online diary update reveals “…[t]he Seven-Headed Beast of Crim is in Go! mode…”, and names session veteran William ‘Bill’ Rieflin – best know for his stints with Ministry and REM but also a former Fripp collaborator – and hints that oftentimes Crimson stick-man Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, Paula Cole, ABWH, Liquid Tension Experiment, Steven Wilson) is also on board.

One ostensible indicator of Rieflin‘s suitability for inclusion in the re-vamped line-up is his proven ability to lay down a tight groove in concert with a drumming partner; as evidenced by his position in an early incarnation of the Ministry touring band alongside PIL‘s Martyn Atkins (see below): for this writer, one of the most exhilarating pieces of rock concert footage ever committed to tape

But who are the other possible contenders for this according to Fripp ‘…very different reformation to what has gone before…’?

Completing the 4-strong English contingent alongside Fripp – maybe Porcupine Tree‘s Gavin Harrison (d) and Steven Wilson (g/v), and Jakko M. Jacszyk (g/v)? Harrison sparred with Pat Mastellotto (below) on the Crim‘s last stage outing and both Wilson and Jaczsyk have developed strong working relationships with Fripp thru studio projects in the last few years. There’s an outside possibility that Fripp may have tempted Bill Bruford (p) out of retirement, or John Wetton (b/v) back into the fold; or maybe decided to bring horns back into the mix: Theo Travis‘ star has certainly been rising over the last few years, considering his prolific collaborations with the likes of Wilson, Gong, the revitalized Judy Dyble and others.

On the American side, take your pick from Crimson veterans Pat Mastellotto (d), Trey Gunn (g/b) and Adrian Belew (g/v/d) plus the aforementioned Rieflin and Levin. Then again, one Michael Portnoy (d) has been busily pursuing a number of avenues since his parting of the ways with prog giants Dream Theater (unlikely, granted; but you know he’d kill for the job…) and Tool‘s Danny Carey must have a little time on his hands waiting for Maynard to write the next batch of lyrics; has been showing his Jazz rock bent of late and has previously played with Crimson on a double headline tour a few years back (the two bands being mutually-appreciative of the other’s gifts).

Buuuut… enough idle speculation already. Play mix’n’match to your heart’s content Crim-heads. Sufficed to say I’m excited about this (can you tell?). I’ve never seen this band live so here’s hoping I’m able to pick up tickets when the shows are announced.

In the meantime here’s a little reminder or several of Fripp & co.’s previous genius…

plus a couple affectionate tributes…

Charterhouse days re-revisited

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Fans of ex-Genesis guitar virtuoso Steve Hackett will be aware that he’s been revisiting the back catalogue of that band to an ever increasing extent in the last few years at his live shows. Hackett finds himself in much the same position as his old bandmate Mr Collins, insofar as he has continually enjoyed much respect from his musical peers (notably Eddie Van Halen who credits him with pioneering the tapping technique utilised to much-admired effect on Eruption) whilst being virtually ignored by the mainstream press. Unlike his former colleague, he has managed to avoid the frankly hysterical levels of media hostility and also in contrast to Collins and fellow guitarist Mike Rutherford he has continued to plow a musical furrow that prioritizes exploration, challenge and technique over singer-songwriting convention or radio airplay. For all the critical vitriol spat upon Genesis and Collins in the last two decades, their megastar status during the ’80s remains undeniable: indeed, their refusal to be swept away by the New Wave and actually grow in popular stature is undoubtedly at the heart of much of their, frankly unjustifyable vilification.

Whilst much of ex-Genesis singer, Peter Gabriel‘s solo catalogue has been defiantly progressive in spirit, and the Collins-led trio continued to dabble with long-form, complex composition right up to the end, Hackett stands apart among that band’s former membership with respect to his flying the flag for prog rock per-se; and revisiting the early Gabriel-fronted albums in particular. In 1996 he released Watcher of the Skies: Genesis Revisited which featured new studio arrangements of material from the first seven albums, plus two previously unheard recordings, to mixed but generally positive acclaim from critics and fans.

18 years later he’s doing it again, teaming up with a newer generation of musicians, along with some scene veterans. This second chapter of covers – imaginitively-titled Genesis Revisited II – features a dazzling array of contemporary prog talent, including Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth, Bloodbath), Conrad Keeley (…Trail Of Dead) and Simon Collins (son of Phil); as well as long term studio and live collaborators including Amanda Lehmann, Nick Beggs and Hackett‘s flautist brother John; and prog-loving pop veteran Nik Kershaw (further boosting his prog credentials following last year’s guest spot on DeeExpus‘s King of Number 33).

As was the case with volume one, the new arrangements are variously similar and significantly different to the original versions. In general the songs sparkle with new embellishments; Hackett‘s playing is tighter and cleaner than in days of yore and, of course, the recording, production and mix are up to a contemporary standard in contrast to the sometimes woolly  sound of the ’70s. What really impresses, though, are the songs themselves: as much as Genesis was a leading exponent of the art/prog rock movement and as such, aspired to high standards of musicianship, they were always songwriters first and foremost. Consequently, whilst some of the more outre experimentations from the ’60s and ’70s has come to sound clunky and willfully obscure, Genesis‘ output for the most part stands up really well: even signature, symphonic extravaganza Supper’s Ready still boasts enough by way of melodic hooks and hummable tunes amongst the widdly-diddly to ensure that its 23-minute duration feels much shorter.

Genesis fans will undoubtedly love this; but even if you’re not a fan this is an excellent opportunity to dip your toe into the dark and mysterious currents of an exceptionally-creative and much-maligned chapter in British rock music.

And you can try before you buy: Prog magazine are streaming the album from their site here