Saturday, 26 July 2014

Greenwall - Zappa Zippa Zuppa Zeppa!

Greenwall is the project of Italian keyboard player, multi-instrumentalist and composer Andrea Pavoni. Starting the group as far back as 1999, Andrea says the name came from a combination of his favourite colour and a reference to Pink Floyd's The Wall. Andrea used to be part of a Pink Floyd covers band, but you'd not know it listening to this album.

Filling the total time allowed on a single CD, the album takes a while to find its feet. Zappa Zippa Zuppa Zeppa! opens with the acapella Superprezzi, an angst-filled lyric welcoming in the working week, and my introduction to the band from the Progstravaganza: Timeshift compilation of last year. An atypical but intriguiing introduction too, for it led me to enquire about the album. Andrea persuaded me to take the hard copy rather than a download, and I'm glad I did, as it is lavishly presented, with lyric booklets and fine artwork, and not forgetting the DVD included in the package, more of which later.




After Superprezzi, the following three songs take in various soft-rock and pop styles, all led by Michela Botti's female crooner's sultry tones. Ma le melo no (Not the apples) puts me in mind of an Italian early Suzanne Vega, as Michela tells us she is "drinking Jasmine tea and creating new art". I know this, for although entirely sung in Italian, the sumptuous packaging includes a booklet of lyric translations into English, a helpful inclusion that other foreign language bands would be advised to follow for the aid of us linguistically challenged English speakers!

To be honest, this album so far is all very pleasant but does not do anything for me. For a man supposedly steeped in the Rock Progressivo Italiano tradition, Andrea has so far shown none of that in the music on offer...but things start to get more interesting from here on in. A smooth jazz instrumental with laid back Clapton-esque guitar precedes E' solo dopo che c'è la luce (Only after will there be light) which musically sets the tone for the rest of the album. A spoken word intro telling the tale of a dash for freedom leads into some lightly classical melancholy, and into the next track Non c'è mai tempo per niente (There's never enough time for anything), which after some drumming off the beat becomes a piano-led jazz rock instrumental, with some nice guitar work.

We have left the soft rock songs of the beginning and now the album has become more confident and assured. Always pleasant and never strident, we wend our merry way around little known parts of the Italian hinterland to a Latin rhythm, a spring in our step.



After the trad-jazz trio version of Superprezzi (scat version) we arrive at the longest track of the album proper, Prelievo ("Outflow" according to the booklet, but maybe for once Google Translate is closer, given the English lyric translation, when it came up with "withdrawal"). Venturing into a more expansive jazzier universe, the tune becomes almost avant with some dissonant guitar presaging a spoken word poem, noises off and odd time signatures as the bass and piano wind round the theme. Michela takes us over the bridge to the classical second section of the song, as Andrea's string arrangement builds to the crescendo with the returning vocal theme from Michela, musing on whether or not there is anything beyond the physical world. All in all a skilful arrangement consummately executed.

The remainder of the album offers more of the by now familiar light jazz and classical styles, replete with a few mildly quirky production flourishes including a folk hoedown and a funky guitar strut, and a nice guitar solo in the middle of the love song Due finestre, una collina (Two windows and a hill). While not necessarily the kind of thing that sets my musical pulse racing, Zappa Zippa Zuppa Zeppa! is certainly well played, arranged and produced. If I were to attempt to bracket this music it would be "Italian pastoral".

We conclude with the 16-minute bonus track Il Petalo del Fiore (The petal of the flower) a portentous epic introduced in true prog style on keys emulating a church organ. To allay any doubts that we have now entered the Land of the Concept, the three parts to this song are entitled "Birth and the solemn advances of doubt", "The Truth in all Denials", and it concludes oddly enough with "Entrance". This piece of music calls on the influence of 70s RPI and symphonic prog in general far more than the main album which maybe not surprising as it is a re-recorded version of a track from Greenwall's first album, released back in 1999.

Making the whole package real value for money is a DVD that includes the Superprezzi video, both in standard and "Director's Cut" form, documentaries, interviews with various band members, all with English subtitles, demo versions, and a video for Greenwall's intriguing medley of their own Il correspondenti c'è? Non c'è! and Crim's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Part 1) and Walking on Air.

While not necessarily all to my peculiar musical taste, this whole package is well played, composed, arranged and meticulously presented.

Tracklist:
1. Superpezzi (3:03)
2. Con precisione eterna e divina (4:28)
3. Palla di legno (4:02)
4. Ma le melo no (5:25)
5. La culla (5:04)
6. E' solo dopo che c'è la luce (2:44)
7. Non c'è mai tempo per niente (7:55)
8. Superpezzi (scat version) (1:39)
9. Prelievo (11:09)
10. Un figlio (4:05)
11. Scena di vita familiare con la piccola Jo (4:13)
12. Due finestre, una collina (4:24)
13. L'avventura del soldatino bianco (5:38)
14. Il Petalo del Fiore (part1, 2a, and 2b) (bonus track) (16:07)

Total running time - 79:53

Line up:
Andrea Pavoni - keyboards, percussion, programming, triangle, backing vocals, virtual instruments, Stick bass, trumpet, loops, string arrangement

Michela Botti - vocals
Fabio Ciliberti - electric bass, backing vocals

Alfredo De Donno - keyboards, synth strings, backing vocals

With:
Claudio Ricci - guitar
Stefano Marazzi - drums
Pierpaolo Cianca - guitars
Gabriele Gagliarini - percussion
Emanuele Colombo - spoken voice
Silvia Ceccarelli - vocals
Fabio Donna - Stick
Pier Paolo Ferroni - drums
Bruno Zoia - upright bass
Dahl Ah Lee - violins
Valeria Chiappetta - viola
Tamara Toppi - cello
Doriano Roccon - double bass
Sergio Migliorati - drum programming, synth, effects
Riccardo Sandri - guitars
Massimo Leoni - vocals
Filippo Saccucci - bass guitar
Andrea Moneta - drums & percussion
Umberto Spiniello - drums
Milena Marra - Oboe
Alessandro Tomei - tenor saxophone & flute


Greenwall website

Buy here from Electromantic Music

Interview with Andrea Pavoni on Prog Archives

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Tim Bowness - Abandoned Dancehall Dreams

Starting life as tentative ideas for a no-man album, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams morphed into Tim Bowness' second solo album, some ten years after his first, 2004's My Hotel Year. There is a big no-man connection on this new album, as the no-man live band is used on the record to great effect, along with some striking contributions from the guest musicians. The album is mixed by Steven Wilson, and mastered by Pink Floyd engineer Andy Jackson, a thoroughly professional set up that pays big dividends.

The album is a suite of loosely linked songs on the theme of loss, reminiscence, regret, resignation and longing, all set within the sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical "abandoned dancehall" of the title. It brings a smile to recall that one of the best gigs I’ve been to in recent years was the Burning Shed 10th Anniversary bash, headlined by no-man at the Leamington Spa Assembly Rooms. This grand art deco venue, then not long restored from its former dilapidated or some might say abandoned state, into one of the best live music venues in the Midlands, began life in the 1920s as, you guessed it, a dancehall. There’s a neat metaphor there; not all change, or even decay, results in an abandonment or ending, rather, embrace the change for a new beginning. A concept that a lot of the characters in these lyrics have yet to accept into their collective ground-down psyches.


Starting off at a canter, propelled along by Pat Mastelotto's tribal drumming, The Warm Up Man Forever lives in a world of 1980s big drum productions intertwined with a surreal Enoesque soundscape as the protagonist wearily accepts his fate as a second-stringer. Enlivened by a feisty and spidery guitar break from Michael Bearpark who was under instruction to "sound like a wild dog having a street fight with a conger eel", the song charges to its conclusion.

Following that we have the more familiar no-man styled sonics of Smiler At 50. If a song can be both sublime and terribly forlorn at the same time, then this is it. Smiler At 50 is a tale of a woman old before her time, living on past memories of fleeting love long lost, and fans of Tim's band will recognise the melancholy that drips out of this sad, sad song like a slowly wrung flannel. The elongated sigh of song, sung in Tim's best "David Cassidy of Prog" breathy intonation, aided by the disconsolate "aah-ahs" of the backing voices in the chorus is lengthened by a gorgeous string arrangement from Stephen Bennett, and, in complete contrast we have a power chorded noisy ending, replete with trademark Steven Wilson production touches in typical grandiose fashion. By now the lyrics are over, and the music has become a soundtrack to the turmoil in Smiler's careworn mind. More crashing drums from Pat Mastelotto give this thunderous denouement its head. 

Smiler later returns two years older; still lonely with "No ring around her finger, no chain around her neck. No seasons in her life, just damage to inspect" while staring at the empty inbox of her email account, to a melody that reminds me of The Mekons' Dickie, Chalkie And Nobby. God, this is so desperately sad. Sung in any other voice than Tim's it would sound wallowing and maudlin, but Tim manages to infuse his characters with a sympathetic humanity where other singers sometimes fail. 

Sometimes the memories are good, as the protagonist recalls the carefree abandon of youthful dancehall days on Songs Of Distant Summers, but for the most part the album is down there in the mournful room. In particular, Dancing For You has to register as one of the saddest lyrics I've heard in a long time and rarely has loss and hopelessness been so succinctly summed up in song, Tim's wistfully longing vocal perfectly conveying the heavy pathos. Complimented and in part redeemed by Michael Bearpark's soul-searching solos, this song is a perfect distillation of sadness.

Returning to Songs Of Distant Summers, it is interesting to note that this song is shorn of a nine-minute instrumental coda that Tim eventually thought superfluous. As a songwriter, Tim can see the musical wood for the trees, something more than a few prog musicians would be well advised to take on board. No "long for the sake of it" aimless noodling here! Given the undoubted high quality of the musicians involved, these instrumental sections, largely based on Steve Bingham's improvisations, are actually decent pieces of music in themselves and can be found in part on the bonus disc.

I Fought Against The South is the most no-man sounding song on the album, and indeed the liner notes tell us that it may be viewed as "an angry companion to Photographs In Black And White". The "south" of the title is a metaphor for a possible escape from a failing relationship, not Tim's one-man battle against the Chipping Norton set! With no need or desire to express this anger in the form of the generic powerchording so beloved of 101 cliched prog metal bands, the atmosphere builds and builds like a slowly heated kettle on an oven range, ending by being taken off the boil to the accompaniment of Andrew Keeling's ethereal flute. Lovely.

Abandoned Dancehall Dreams ends not with a bang, but Beaten By Love, reprising a calmer version of the tribal drums of The Warm Up Man Forever, this time supplied by Andrew Booker. This song has been around in one form or another since 1987, last appearing on no-man's 2012 superb live outing Love And Endings. After the emotional sturm und drang of what preceded it, this tune is a good and much needed surrender to the arms of love, and an unexpected but fitting full stop to the album proper. 

The three remixes add new dimensions to the original songs, Grasscut's mix being open and spacious with modernistic electronica additions. Richard Barbieri adds his trademark lush and subtle atmospherics to a song already up there in the clouds. The result is a heady swoonsome mix, and utterly gorgeous. UXB beef up Stephen Bennett's "Spontaneous UEA Vocal Ensemble" (actually a choir of two!) to great wordless effect on the final remix, removing Tim's vocal entirely, making for a completely radical overhaul.

The outtakes include the abandoned title track, which Tim thought "out of step" with the finished record...my that was puntastic, was it not? He's right, musically it doesn't really fit as its waltz time renders it maybe too optimistic, although the lyric is suitably dark; "listen to the sound of dead men singing", indeed!

The bonus disc is more than worth the time, and the whole package is presented in a sumptuous digipak, with Yellow Submarine/Python-esque artwork from Jarrod Gosling.

A contender for album of the year, I believe if you are so inclined you can vote for it in that celebration of advertising revenue that passes for a Prog Poll. Buy it anyway! Abandoned Dancehall Dreams is a triumph of progressive songwriting and a million miles from the piles of sub-par riff-drenched navel gazing or pale strivings for past glories that passes for a depressing amount of modern prog these days; but then Tim probably and rightly wouldn't see himself as "prog" anyway. And if there are any tickets left go see Tim perform some of these songs along with Henry Fool on 11th July. You would be fool, Henry or otherwise, to miss it! See link below for tickets.


Tracklist:
1. The Warm Up Man Forever (4:06)
2. Smiler at 50 (8:19)
3. Songs Of Distant Summers (5:02)
4. Waterfoot (4:14)
5. Dancing For You (5:59)
6. Smiler at 52 (4:05)
7. I Fought Against The South (8:51)
8. Beaten By Love (3:28)

Total running time - 44:09

Bonus disc:
Abandoned Dancehall Mixes
1. There Were Days (Smiler at 52, Grasscut Mix) (4:53)
2. Sounds Of Distant Summers (Songs Of Distant Summers, Richard Barbieri Mix) (5:31)
3. Singing For You (Dancing For You, UXB Mix) (4:42)
Abandoned Dancehall Outtakes
4. Abandoned Dancehall Dreams (2:25)
5. The Sweetest Bitter Pill (3:51)
6. The Warm-Up Man Forever (band version) (4:06)
7. Songs Of Distant Summers Part 1 (band version) (4:55)
8. Songs Of Distant Summers Part 2 (band version) (3:59)

Total running time - 34:37

Line up:
Tim Bowness - vocals, keyboards, drum programming
Michael Bearpark - guitars
Charlotte Dowding - violin ensemble
Andrew Keeling - string arrangements, acoustic guitars, bass, organ, percussion, flutes
Pat Mastelotto - drums
Pete Morgan - bass
Stephen Bennett - various electronica keyboards too numerous to mention, Fender Rhodes, upright piano
Colin Edwin - bass, double bass
Anna Phoebe - violin
Steve Bingham - violin
Stewart Laws - piano, synth pads, Taurus bass, atmospherics, percussion
Eliza Legzedina & Matt Ankers - The Spontaneous UEA Vocal Ensemble
Steven Wilson - drum machine, guitar

Inside Out Music
http://timbowness.co.uk/
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Tim Bowness - Live!

Interview with Tim Bowness here: http://www.innerviews.org/inner/bowness2.html

Thursday, 22 May 2014

"When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide..."

Stirring from my place on the well worn stool at the far end of the bar, where, slumped against the faded decor on the wall I have been enjoying a bit of single malt fuelled shuteye, I am wakened with the need to fulminate...Bartender my good man, make it a double...

The circling sharks in the pool otherwise known as record companies, once a licence to print money, are now not only vastly reduced in number after decades of slothful cannibalism, but also in their scope to make the big buck. Victims of the internet wars, the big players have been slow to adapt to a totally different market. Popular music, where once it was the main leisure activity of everyone from just-teens to forty-somethings, has now fallen way behind computer gaming as the main source of fun spending, particulary among the younger half of that demographic.

In the last ten years or so the few remaining big players in the music biz are blindly shambling along the road to inevitable self-destruction, despearately turning their attention to the folk who made them rich in the first place for their continued existence, rather than concentrating on new music and the way forward. The owners of the cash they are chasing has an average age of probably around the late-fities mark, and back in the day they ("we", actually, truth be said) bought all the vinyl that Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc etc could produce, and by the shedload, thereby allowing the record companies and the biggest bands their gluttonous indulgent lifestyles. This audience now has spare cash to burn and will probably be the last generation for some time to be in such a luxurious position. As such they are an easy target for that Fleetwood Mac 17-CD, 5 Bluray and DVD 5.1 extravaganza, complete with a bathmat made made from Stevie Nicks' leg shavings, and a replica of a snow mountain, out of which pokes a rolled up fake $100 bill.

Those first two Brit bands mentioned are the latest to be advertising "new" product. Floyd's version of The Emperor's New Clothes is a 20th anniversary multi-formatted splurge of The Division Bell, the band's last weary exhalation that even when it came out sounded tired and redundant. For a mere $134.98, or if you're unlucky enough to live this side of the pond, £99.99 (about $168) you can pre-order this little lot:

Remastered Double Vinyl In Gatefold Sleeve
Division Bell CD In Commemorative Sleeve 
Bluray with 5.1 Audio Mix, Surround Sound Mix, 24/96 Mix and New "Marooned" Music Video 
High Hopes clear vinyl 7” single 
High Hopes one sided blue vinyl etched 12” 
Take It Back red vinyl 7” single 
24 Page 12" x 12" Booklet 
Four 12" x 12" Art Prints

Oddly the UK Floyd website does not give an option for buying the 5.1 mix on DVD rather than Bluray, a pointless format and yet another example of the corporate hoodwinking of those who siimply MUST have the latest reproduction platform. However, back over the pond, the DVD with the 5.1 mix is available in the more expensive versions of the box set, the ultimate version of which includes, in addition to the gubbins in the standard box:

Exclusive Limited Edition Division Bell 20th Anniversary T-shirt
  • features artwork from box set
  • limited to 500 worldwide
Exclusive Limited Edition Division Bell 20th Anniversary Coaster Set
  • features all new artwork only available as part of this box set
  • high quality, cork and wood coasters in a commemorative box
  • limited to 500 worldwide
Exclusive Limited Edition Indoor Firework Set
  •  features an exploding life size Roger Waters that emits an eerie replica of the scream from Comfortably Numb as it immolates. Only available as part of this box set
  •  features a real cow that might bear a passing resemblance to the one from the cover of Atom Heart Mother complete with an internal explosive device, timed to go off 30 minutes after unpacking, disposable plastic overalls, and a DIY store $100 voucher to help with the cost of redecorating.
  • limited to 2 worldwide, individually constructed to order in your own living room by David Gilmour's butler
Oh, and lest we forget, the DVD that includes the 5.1 audio mix of The Division Bell

All yours for a mere $3500 and your left kidney...I wouldn't mind, if the album wasn't so ploddingly dull in the first place, as my left kidney has been shot for years.
...

The mighty Led Zep are back too, with yet another round of remasters of their back catalogue. One wonders what Jimmy Page has extracted from the mix that he missed last time round? And, if the much chattered about unreleased tracks are so good, why didn't they come out the last time Zep unleashed their sonic fury on a bored world? That last one is rhetorical...

It is rather ironic that the soon come reissue of Led Zep IV has prompted lawyers acting for Randy California's estate to consider suing Page over his alleged lifting of the intro of Stairway To Heaven form one of Randy's songs. What, Jimmy Page nick a riff? Shurely shome mishtake?

These are two examples of the latest major label wallet-fracking© exercises on those with more money and shelf space than sense, and if I may get serious for a moment, this is just the kind of thing that detracts attention and money away from new bands in the progressive scene. I have been told elsewhere that all this is opitional and I don't have to buy it, and I don't disagree, but if I spend £100 now on that Floyd debacle, apart from needing a search party sent out to see if I actually have a brain, it's £100 I won't be spending on Crow/Squirrel Death Match's latest fab waxing. I am in the lucky position of being sent some new bands' releases gratis anyway, for review purposes, but you still won't find me hitting pre-order for either of these excessively bloated and pointless packages.

I will admit to having bought similar boxes of largesse myself in the past, but not many, and most get played once and then sit on the shelf gathering dust. As a bit of a King Crimson fanatic, but not nearly enough of one so it seems, I bought the deluxe reissue of In The Court Of The Crimson King, an album that actually deserves that done to death adjective "iconic", as well as all of the band's 40th anniversary reissue series featuring mixmaster Steven Wilson's fab 5.1 remixes. However, there it stops, Mr Fripp and his wonderful band have seen the inside of my wallet enough for now...until the live gigs, of course!

The recent box sets of Larks' Tongues In Aspic and Road To Red contain a massive 34 (!) CDs between them, and that doesn't include the DVDs and Blurays. Add to that the upcoming and no doubt ginormous Starless box, and the choice-saturated and by now bewildered über-fan will have at their fingertips tens and tens of gigs from a much chronicled time in the band's history from which to choose to annoy the neighbours. Zappa and the Grateful Dead excepted, there cannot be many bands who have had what seems like every minute of their live appearances from a two or three year span released in one form or or another over the years. There is a magnificent live box set (a mere 4 CDs!) from this same period by the mighty Crim called The Great Deceiver (ha!), and as far as I'm concerned it is all you really need. I cannot understand the appeal of owning dozens of concerts from such a short time span by the same band. Yes, the improvs will be different and the dynamics of each concert will vary, but do I really need 27 versions of now ironically titled Easy Money?

In Crimson's favour, unlike the Floyd reissue, Starless promises a lot of previously unreleased material, and their two previous boxes also contained lots of "new" goodies, OTT as it all seems from this side of the bar. At least you can argue that Crim are good value for money, at around £100 per box. Even the Zep reissues contain some supposedly previously unheard outtakes and/or live tracks. This latest Pink Floyd box is an amazing rip off when you think about it, but as they say, a fool and his money are easily parted.

Unless you have far, far too much time on your hands, and no life outside of your hi-fi room, you cannot tell me that any of these oversized boxes of unnecessary consumerist clutter, whoever they are by, will get played more than a handful of times in their entirety. I should know, I've a few of them myself. As for reissues rather than previously unreleased archive material, the cynical ploy by record companies of getting us fools to buy the same album over and over again through the years only proves that we are as gullible as they think we are.

The biggest problem is that the majority of the prog buying audience, and let's not beat about the bush here, the sexagenarian bands themselves and a lot of the folk who scribble about them and the scene in general, are a conservative bunch. Capitalism being what capitalism is, it is inevitiable that record companies, and it now it seems cruise companies as well, will go after their nostalgia-fixated buck with gusto. It does worry me that the many decent young (and not so young) bands out there trying to do something different and away from the anodyne rock mainstream will struggle to survive as a result, as will the progressive rock scene they are pluckily trying to keep from drowning in a sea of middle class complacency, at least partly of its own making.
...

On an entirely different note, you've got to love that contrary old bugger Neil Young. No, you do, really. For ages now he's been raising mega bucks to put behind his new all-singing-all-dancing high end digital streaming system Pono, which aims to put mp3 back in the hole in the ground it came from. For those of you who know about these things, it offers "24-bit 192khz sound". Suffice to say, it will sound a whole lot better than 320kpbs mp3, the 21st century equivalent of a wavering transistor radio.

Then, right in the middle of the headlong promotional charge for Pono he releases an album of folk covers recorded in a near 70 year old "Voice-O-Graph" booth, of the kind once seen in fairgrounds, where kids could record and take home their very own vinyl record. This machine produces sound about as lo-fi as it gets, and here's some proof...



I must admit, the crackles and pops fit this particular song, the film of which was projected during last December's Bert Jansch tribute evening at London's Royal Festival Hall, and proved to be one of the evening's more poignant moments.

Still, I doubt there will be a 24-bit 192khz version of this album going out on Pono any time soon!
...

Right...Bartender...more whisky!

Monday, 19 May 2014

William Shatner - Ponder The Mystery

William Shatner is a man who has been around for my entire life; well, my TV watching life at any rate, as our house did not own a telly prior to the 1969 Moon landing, and lo, there was Bill. Not landing on the Moon you understand, although that would have been somewhat appropriate.

I'll call him Bill, as his strange acting style is part of the furniture and as familiar and as inflexible and unyielding as that massive polished oak dresser sitting in the corner of the room. Not particularly aesthetically pleasing, all the same you cannot bear to part with it, it is a family heirloom after all. The wooden monolith has taken more than a few knocks over the years, but they seem to have been absorbed into its highly polished sheen, and it carries on, unphased...

And so, on to what we are here for...

You may wonder what Zoot Horn Rollo, Mick Jones (the Foreigner one), Simon House, Steve Vai, Al DiMeola, Rick Wakeman, Joel Vandroogenbroeck (the man behind Swiss Krautrockers Brainticket), Edgar Winter, Nik Turner, Vince Gill (country music star), Edgar Froese, Robby Krieger, Dave Koz (smooth jazzer), and George Duke have in common? They all contribute to William Shatner's 2013 ersatz prog rock opus Ponder The Mystery. It would be tempting to say they are the "One Who Is Many", but I risk being phasered down by frenzied screams of "WRONG ERA!!" from the numerous sad uber-nerds who like dressing up as Klingons and going to comic conventions.

You will probably know of Bill's previous forays into what might loosely be described as music. Over the years he has treated us with his let's say, individualistic takes on such classics as Tambourine Man, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, and the so excruciating it's truly wonderful Rocket Man, and many others. These are not interpretations one can forget in a hurry, much as you might want to. Bill has put several pop classics through his portentous thespian mangle in a career that has seen him release a remarkable 4 studio "music" albums, beginning with 1968's Transformed Man, which included both Tambourine Man and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, and ending (so far) with this slab of inter-galactic whimsy. Ponder The Mystery is actually his third album in ten years, a late burst of activity for this octogenarian.

The music was written, produced and played by the ubiquitous Billy Sherwood, who seems to appear on just about every lower league American prog release these days. The "One Who Is Many"...soz, but it's too good not to use...contribute their individual solos to most tracks. I do not have a CD, only a review download, but it is fairly easy to spot where some of the guests make their appearances nonetheless.

Sherwood's music, especially when he multi-tracks his vocals, comes over in places as chicken-in-a-basket Yes, livened up by those guest solos. In no way is this progressive, and it only just ventures into prog territory. "Prog-lite" or "FM-prog" if you will, and quite forgettable. The guitar solo at the end of So Am I, which I guess might be Steve Vai* is the musical highlight of the record.

Of course, what we really want to know about is Bill's performance. Ponder The Mystery is a concept album, loosely bound around the subject of...err..pondering the great imponderables, the protagonist musing on aging and his place in the grand scheme of things, all as the sun sets slowly over the sea. Sounding in places as if it was phoned in from an alternate universe, Bill's unusual way with ENUNciation, putting emPHASES in a lot OF the wrong places is present and CORRECT. Brit readers will recognise that BBC journalist Robert PESton must either be related or went to the same stage school!

There is unintentional humour to be had here, Bill's strange inflections on Where It's Gone...I Don't Know brings a smile, as he muses "Where's the love, and what am I doing?" Well, if you don't know Bill, I sure have no clue whatsoever. With the exception of some actually rather clever wordplay on Rhythm Of The Night, unfortunately of a lot Bill's poems or lyrics are a bit dull, which only seems to confirm that this was actually meant to be taken seriously. It would have been far better and more enjoyable had he played it for laughs.




The title track meanders along to little effect, as does the rest of the album. The pace is fairly constant, at just above slothful, and a lot of the tracks are roughly the same length, which doesn't help the dynamics, and proceedings only get a bit more lively when a guest solo spot is inserted. Fair play to him, as Bill has actually performed this album live, backed by Billy's group Circa, and one wonders how all the solo sections were replicated.

In recent interviews Bill claims to have loved the original prog bands but when pressed can't recall any band names. Hmmm...but he did teach his daughter to ride her horse in a "progressive rock way". The mind boggles! Bill's most recent appearance on UK TV was as a guest presenter on long-running satire show Have I Got News For You, a performance that was far more off the wall and therefore fun, than this rather prosaic and plodding affair.

One wonders who is actually going to buy this...oh, hang on, there appear to be hordes of forty-something blokes dressed as Klingons heading in my direction shouting in what appears to be a guttural variant of Serbo-Croat. I'll bet their mums are glad to be rid of them for a day. I better get me coat...


Tracklist:
1. Red Shift (1:31)
2. Where It's Gone...I Don't Know (5:29)
3. Manhunt (2:55)
4. Ponder the Mystery (5:20)
5. So Am I (4:16)
6. Change (4:11)
7. Sunset (4:26)
8. Twilight (1:59)
9. Rhythm Of The Night (6:07)
10. Imagine Things (3:45)
11. Do You See? (4:41)
12. Deep Down (4:49)
13. I'm Alright, I Think (4:29)
14. Where Does Time Go? (6:41)
15. Alive (4:35)

Total running time - Stardate 2259.59

Line up:
William Shatner - voice
Billy Sherwood - background vocals, drums, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, keyboards

Guests:
Zoot Horn Rollo - slide guitar
Mick Jones - guitar
Simon House - violin
Steve Vai - guitar
Al DiMeola - guitar
Rick Wakeman - keyboards
Joel Vandroogenbroeck - flute
Edgar Winter - saxophone & Moog
Nik Turner - saxophone & flute
Vince Gill - mandolin & acoustic guitar
Edgar Froese - guitar
Robby Krieger - sitar & guitar
Dave Koz - saxophone
George Duke - keyboard

Blimey...I managed to get through that without saying "Please beam me up, Scotty", or "It's prog Jim, but not as we know it"... :)

* I am told it is actually by Al DiMeola!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Necromonkey - (A Glimpse Of Possible Endings)

Necromonkey, the project of drummer Mattias Olsson, formerly of Änglagård, and keyboard player David Lundberg (Gösta Berlings Saga) burst forth upon an unsuspecting audience last year with their debut waxing, the bonkers but fun Necroplex

Firstly, it has to be said that the two protagonists are much, much more than mere "drummer" and "keyboard player", for the description "musical polymaths" would probably be more appropriate.

(A Glimpse Of Possible Endings), to use the album title's rather than the track title's arrangement of parentheses, is a far more considered affair than the madcap debut, the duo having seemingly exorcised the "mad professors let loose in a musical toy shop" of Necroplex.

This new found maturity is a good thing, for it enables expansive sonic washes of sound to slowly cover the aural canvas, most evident on the epic title track, which, to be honest, would not have sounded out of place on a Gösta Berlings Saga album.

The album opens with "There Seem To Be Knifestains In Your Blood", all tribal drumming and early Cure dynamics, led along its path by that very odd thing, the theremin.

Being a big King Crimson fan, I cannot fail to notice the similarity in title of the second track to the Crim's The Sheltering Sky, from the mighty Discipline album. For me, the Crim track is one of the two lesser lights on that otherwise luminescent album, but seeing the title The Sheltering Waters made me listen again.

There is indeed a connection to the Crim track; both wend a slow stately course downstream, and both have a calming effect, and a structural similarity. The Crim connection is underlined by the presence of Rob Martino's Chapman Stick, but The Sheltering Waters is not a direct copy of a sound, but an homage, both in melody and in title. Quite nice it is, too...



The short atmospheric keyboard figure of The Counterfeit Pedestrian backed by synthesiser winds blowin' presages (A) Glimpse (Of Possible Endings). The epic track on the album slowly worms its way into your consciousness like a message from another galaxy, then the track takes off. The array of instrumentation played on this song by our two heroes takes up four lines of small print on the inner CD cover, and includes such exotica as; Glockenspiels, Persephone, Optigan, Orchestron Vocal Choir, and the imposingly named Roth Händle Pipe Organ, named after the studios where the album was recorded. A glimpse (heheh) at the video above will give you some idea of the vast array of kit used on this track. Being YouTube, the sound is not the best, but the production on the CD is top notch throughout. You will certainly enjoy this beastie on your monster of a hi-fi system, have no fear!

This smörgasbord of instrumentation combines with the traditional rock music tools of trade, and a Mellotron used as a sampler, with tape loops containing organ, 8 voice choir, and string section. As well as all that we have the additional musicians (see below), who include Gösta guitarist Einar Baldursson. The end result is grand symphonic progressive rock of anything but the usual kind.

The humorously titled The Worst Is Behind Us closes the album with a faux-Oriental widescreen soundscape. Close your eyes and you can see the credits rolling. This song needs to be nearly nine minutes long in order to fit in the vast array of musical knick-knacks used on this charming little album as they scroll past on your inner eyelids!

Yep, a really enjoyable trip, and a definite progression from the first album, (A Glimpse Of Possible Endings) is well worth a punt if you like sophisticated instrumental music that dares to be a bit different.

Reading the band's Facebook page tells me that the guys are well into recording their third album, which I look forward to with mucho anticipation. 

Tracklist:
1. "There Seem To Be Knifestains In Your Blood" (4:17)
2. The Sheltering Waters (6:30)
3. The Counterfeit Pedestrian (2:36)
4. (A) Glimpse (Of Possible Endings) (15:24)
5. The Worst Is Behind Us (8:40)

Total running time - 36:58

Line up:
David Lundberg & Mattias Olsson - Between them, these two contirbute these instruments, uncredited to either:

Mellotron, Electric sitar, piano bass, drum machines, Moog Taurus bass, Kooss pad, Walton Jami (me neither!), Flame talking synth, gong, Chamberlain solo voices (male & female), Maas-Rowe vibra chime, electric guitars, baritone guitar...and that's just the first two tracks - need I say more?

Additional musicians:
1. Kristofer Eng Radjabi - Theremin & Leo Svensson-Sander - Cello
2. Rob Martino - Chapman Stick
4. Yann LeNestour - Bass clarinet, metal clarinet; Leo Svensson-Sander - Cello, Musical saw; Martin van Bahr - Oboe; Elias Modig - Bass, Einar Baldursson - Electric guitar, slide guitar, e-bow

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Saturday, 26 April 2014

Dennis Rea - Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China & Taiwan

Most of us are born, live and die in the same country, but excluding those driven by economic circumstance, there have always been people with an innate sense of wanderlust and adventure that results in them living and working not just in different countries to those of their birth, but different continents.

Thanks to the internet, a handful of such free spirits I can now count as friends. Even though I have never physically met these people, I am sure if we did ever cross paths in the real world, I would not be able to restrain myself from interrogations about their highly interesting life choices and travels.

One such person is Seattle-based guitar adventurist Dennis Rea. Dennis and I have crossed interweb paths on several occasions; back in 2012 I published our interview and we then collaborated on his career retrospective in these very pages. It was during the process of those interactions that I became aware of Dennis' book Live at the Forbidden City, and Dennis, being a generous guy, was kind enough to send me a copy. It is a damn good read, and I think you should all be enlightened, so here goes...

In 1988 Dennis applied and was accepted for a post teaching English at Chengdu University of Science and Technology in order to join his fiancée Anne who was there on an academic exchange program. In January 1989 Dennis arrived from Seattle, USA, in Chengdu, China. Chengdu, then with a population of around three million is a central inland city, and capital of the remote Sichuan Province. According to Wikipedia, the city's population has since expanded to an alarming 14 million!

Eventually overcoming the inevitable severe culture shock, Dennis tentatively sows the seeds of his musical career in China by giving guitar lessons to university students. One thing leads to another, as we will see later.

The timing of Dennis' arrival in that mysterious land was significant, for a mere six months later China's leadership's dichotomy between the strict disciplines required for a centrally organised economy and the country's new flirtations with capitalism and its perceived so-called "freedoms" came to a head with what we in the outside world came to know as "Tiananmen Square".

Unsurprisingly, the kicking against the pricks was not restricted to the capital, although it may have seemed that way at the time to the outsider. There were few if any foreign journalists in other population centres, and the uprising in Chengdu suffered the authoritarian crackdown more than most. Dennis, his fiancée and a handful of other Westerners on the university campus were in the privileged if frightening position of witnessing the carnage firsthand. Dennis' account of those fraught times has since been quoted in numerous texts on the subject, most recently in a soon to be released book on the tumultuous events of 4th June 1989 entitled The People's Republic Of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by NPR correspondent Louisa Lim.

China's relative openness to outside influences up to that tipping point was presided over by leader Deng Xiaoping, whose reluctant acceptance of his country's new direction is neatly summed up by his quote on the first leaf: "If you open the window, some flies are bound to get in".

The crackdown apart, Dennis, as one of those "flies", seems to have enjoyed a relatively hassle-free existence on the Chinese mainland as a teacher and also as a musician, the latter occupation starting from those previously mentioned small beginnings and culminating in massive China-wide tours and guest spots with the stars of China's then infant rock scene. Below is a shaky crowd video of Dennis and his band Identity Crisis backing the most important figure in Chinese rock, Ciu Jian, a man who Dennis describes as "a one man rock'n'roll revolution".




To our jaded Western ears this sounds pleasant enough, and puts me in mind of Peter Gabriel, but Yi Wu Suo You or Nothing To My Name was Jian's totemic anthem, a song whose lyrics of alienation and and isolation, helpfully translated into English in the book, struck a reverberating chord with Chinese youth, long suffering under the twin yokes of repression and stifling conservatism. With that perspective in mind it is easy to see how Nothing To My Name and the rest of Ciu Jian's 1989 LP Rock'N'Roll on the New Long March was inflammatory stuff indeed, and landed its author in all sorts of trouble.

The video was shot in early 1991, by which time some tolerance of decadent rock music had returned. The venue was Maxim's in Beijing, a restaurant owned by Pierre Cardin in a cultural "grey zone" where China's version of rock'n'roll excess was largely left alone by the Public Security Bureau. The sound quality of that clip is not the best, but it serves as a tantalising glimpse into the world Dennis portrays so well in the book. This is what the song sounds like on the original LP:



Incidentally, two of the comments below the live video come from members of Identity Crisis. Bryce Whitwam who is invisible in the video played keyboards, and an also obscured Tom Vest was behind the drums. Dennis is the slightly bemused looking fellow on guitar to the right of Ciu Jian as we look, and the bass player to the left is Andreas Vath. The crowd in the back room of the restaurant seem to be having a whale of a time, despite having been treated to the dubious delights of the expatriate support act, whom Dennis disparagingly described as "frat rockers".

As well as Dennis' many and varied musical exploits as he blazed a cultural trail across the country, the book is full of humorous tales of derring-do, and sundry farcical episodes. Life threatening equipment set ups arising from the technical limitations of China's wiring systems, and from misunderstandings by "sound engineers" abound, along with metaphorical crossed wires from the nuances of language lost in the translation.

Also highly amusing, but insanely frustrating for Dennis and Anne at the time was the protracted tale of their attempts to overcome Chinese bureaucracy in order to marry, a tale that ends in a kind of deflated success that encapsulates Elliot's "Not with a bang, but a whimper". Orwell had nothing on the Chinese. Also, the tale of his impromptu mountain trek wearing wearing only a dressing gown and slippers is a delight. I exaggerate there, but not by much!

Dennis also had the rare distinction of being one of the first Westerners to have an album released by the State owned China Record Company. A lot of thought went into that label name, obviously. Shadow in Dreams, on the back of his growing reputation as a messenger from the land of decadence went on to sell a respectable 40000 copies, and was listed as one of the ten best releases of 1990 by the Communist Party newspaper China Youth Daily.

Dennis' writing style is engaging and easy to assimilate, and much like his music there is a directness and absence of pretence, as well as an obvious joie-de-vivre. This was no place for a misanthrope, after all! The book has some amusing chapter titles which give an indication of the author's impish sense of humour and polished wit; Anguish as a Second Language, The Great Wall of Sound, The Feelmore East and The Gang of Formosa being but four.

That last one arrives about halfway through the book. In April 1990 Dennis and Anne leave China for Taiwan (the former Portuguese colony of Formosa), following Anne's work, and the prospect of better paid employment for the both of them. Taiwan, a capitalist state then run with an iron fist, and propped up by the Yankee $ was to prove a far less satisfying place culturally for Dennis, in thrall as it was to anything Western in general and American in particular. Because of this there was a sizeable Western ex-pat community, and communications with the outside world were easier, as was the forming of bands. And so it was that from his base in the city of Tainan that Identity Crisis evolved, and  in April of 1991 a tour of China was organised, this being the jaunt that included the Ciu Jian date above.

Dennis played with a vast number of different musicians during his time in China and Taiwan, and among the bands he formed were The Vagaries, who also toured China, in September and October 1991, a mere six months after Identity Crisis. The tale of that band's formation and the jumping through bureaucratic hoops required by the event organising committee in order to get permission to play at the China International TV Festival is another highlight. Incidentally, The Vagaries included a young William Rieflin, who later went on to drum with artists as diverse as REM and Robert Fripp; indeed, Bill will occupy one of the three drum stools in the 2014 reformation of King Crimson.

Being a man with a voracious appetite for knowledge, everything in the book is put into historical, cultural and geographical context, and just the right amount of background information colours the anecdotes sufficiently for Live at the Forbidden City to be an informative as well as a fun read.

You can buy the book HERE, along with a proportion of Dennis' vast discography!

Other links:

Interview with Dennis Rea

Dennis Rea - The Discography

Dennis Rea's website There are plenty of photos on the website featuring Identity Crisis and The Vagaries

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Intravenus - Oiseau

Time and tide wait for no man; or for independent non-commercial band it seems. I was sent this album at the turn of the year, and a combination of circumstances has led to a delay in reviewing it until now. Unfortunately in that time, the band's website has disappeared into the internet void, and their Facebook page is practically empty, leaving only the Bandcamp page still online. See note at end...

What little info I could find, and the band line up was gleaned from Greek review site The Fridge, courtesy of Google Translate.

The band was formed in Athens in 2001 by Nonta Kaklamanis (drums), Akis Kaklamanis (bass) and John Anastasaki (guitar and sound effects). The others in the line up appear to have been added for this album. Doing a sterling job behind the mixing desk is sound engineer Vangelis Lappas.

The first track, Paradox Folk, shows a distinct late-period Soft Machine vibe. Led by some great sax and electric piano, the tune canters along on the back of a solid beat from the drums and bass. Later joined by some wah-funk guitar, this is the most dramatic of the four shorter songs.



A more relaxed jazz fusion style is played out on Road Closed, led by some nice piano and sax work. Arpeggio guitar introduces on Sonic Servant, which eventually develops into a psychedelic swirl of sound, pinned down by insistent on-the-one drumming, eventually returning to base. A small hint of what is to come!

Odyssey closes the first part of the album with some laid back piano and sax, eventually changing gear with some great ensemble playing. A showcase for some unusual and fine guitar work from John Anastasaki, this track is a highlight, with the band still very much in the jazz fusion vibe.

That the title track is over 26 minutes long is not the only thing that makes it stand out. Oiseau the track starts out conventionally enough, backwards guitar and piano over a languid backing. Two minutes in some avant guitar strangling imitating the bird of the title leads in to some more brief backward guitar, seagull calling. This languid and relaxed intro becomes almost Floydian, mixing Careful With That Axe Eugene and Cirrus Minor influences and is far removed from the jazz fusion of the earlier songs.

With 15 or so minutes to go there is a gap, and as if suffering the sudden onset of schizophrenia, the band return for the remainder of the song with a Kosmische excursion into the realms of Gila and the calmer side of Faust. No, really! Percussion clatter, plucked piano strings, disembodied voices, industrial synth ambience, it's all there. It is almost as if the band went for a meal, left the tape running and while they were away, the ghost of Conny Plank took up residence. Very strange and slightly unsettling, it is nonetheless a great slice of unclassifiable psychedelia.

The last quarter of an hour of this album make it a real oddity, and even had it been left out there would still remain a more than decent jazz-psych-fusion record.

Tracklist:
1. Paradox Folk (7:31)
2. Road Closed (8:22)
3. Sonic Servant (4:06)
4. Odyssey (4:49)
5. Oiseau (26:12)

Total running time - 51:02

Line up:
Nontas Kaklamanis - drums
Akis Kaklamanis - bass
John Anastasaki - guitar and sound effects
Kostis Christodoulou - piano, keys, analogue synths
Giorgos Giannopoulos - saxophone, percussion, flute
Stelios Romaliadis - flute

Stream and buy from the band's Bandcamp page
Buy from Wayside Music

Addendum: The drummer, Nontas Kaklamanis, has since contacted me and told me that the band is currently taking a break, but will be back. Good news!