Saturday, 9 August 2014

Knifeworld - The Unravelling

Knifeworld are one of those "Marmite" bands, and although I can see why the more conventionally atuned ear may be initially put off, a veritable cornucopia of modern psychedelia awaits those with the chutzpah, and indeed, the intelligence to persevere. As with any band that divides opinion, the positive and negative responses are often exaggerated beyond any reasonable point. A reviewer hiding behind the pseudonym Second Life Syndrome on Prog Archives hates it to the extent that he finds it "pretentious" and the " music is merely cutting and paste (sic) grooves and melodies from classic bands", particularly Gentle Giant. He accuses Knifeworld of ripping the "brassy bassy groove" (careful, that sounded like a compliment!) of The Skulls Have Regrown Their Eyes from GG's The Power And The Glory.

Firstly, I assume he means the opening track Proclamation? Yes there is a fleeting similarity, but the two are distinctly different. Secondly, I would point out that GG on that particular LP employed just the one saxophone, technically not a brass instrument, and they used it sparingly at that. Ultimately, Mr Syndrome is well wide of the mark, for although Knifeworld use obvious and many more not so obvious influences they are not one of those "museum curator" bands whose entire existence appears to hinge on recreating their idols' best works from 1972-73. As I've said, the reviewer in question goes by the pseudonym of "Second Life Syndrome" which indicates he is a big fan of Polish post-proggers Riverside. The irony is that Riverside based their entire sound on a certain band with whom Steven Wilson was long associated, and could not be called "original" by any stretch of the imagination. One final thing Mr Syndrome; if you actually knew what mostly unimaginative fare falls under the dreaded "prog" banner these days, you would realise Knifeworld are a million miles from the "prog-wanabees" you so wrongly claim they are. Progressive in the literal and proper sense yes, prog in the stylistic sense, absolutely not!

..and now, Ladies and Gents...the review you thought I'd never get round to!

My take on Knifeworld is that had the years 1969 to 1975 been erased entirely, then this band of musical pranksters are what Simon Dupree And The Big Sound might have sounded like, post-punk. Yes, I know that group became Gentle Giant and I do not deny that there is an element of the wilfully obtuse and brilliant Portsmouth band in the mix, but equally one can spot XTC, Cardiacs (unsurprisingly, and another reason for the Marmite, I'm sure. Even I find Cardiacs a tad beyond me), Flaming Lips, even Queen!

However, Knifeworld go beyond all these influences to become something quite unique. The aforementioned The Skulls... is a menacing thing built on that contentious - to some - circular Rhodes piano riff, and swirling bassoon and saxes, none of which are brass instruments, I hasten to add. Clever arrangements abound; the multi-layered vocals on Destroy The World We Love, hanging off the repeated refrain "You hold a secret in your hands" being especially noteworthy.

Leader of the band is one Kavus Torabi, a seemingly irrepressible force of nature who is all over this record. He has Cardiacs, Guapo, Chrome Hoof and much else on his CV, and he wrote all the music and words as well as producing and arranging The Unravelling. Reading interviews it is obvious he has an all-consuming passion for his music, for once he gets going on the subject he is hard to stop!

Kavus' lyrics have a frequently dark edge without ever descending into the self-pitying "woe is me" defeatism so popular among some bands, prog or otherwise, who would be better advised to remain instrumental in my not so humble opinion. Take this from the first verse of cinematic opener I Can Teach You How To Lose A Fight, sung in a resigned fashion by Melanie Woods:

"That halo won't have far to drop
'til it becomes a noose
And I'm not gonna break you loose"

A tale of bitterness, jealousy and bile told over a densely packed psychedelic maelstrom-symphony, Kavus chips in with "Why'd you grow those teeth in your heart?" responded to in harmony with "Has it unravelled enough for you?", setting a recurring theme for the album.

Send Him Seaworthy, a choppy trip on a rough but navigable sea, with a very XTC guitar line from Kavus, is a homage to those who set an unusual course through life, and must surely be a song written for his erstwhile and now bedridden colleague Tim Smith.

"I just can't face up to what's happening to you here
Now that you're half dead.

In a half-life my sweet captain's sailing away"

It does not get much more heartfelt than that. "Pretentious"? I don't think so!

Even a ballad of regret and doubt like Don't Land On Me is rescued from becoming maudlin by the bold and striking arrangement, and a good riff topped off with a bit of theatrical warbling. Quite mad, but it all comes together nicely.

Kavus gives reign to his avant instincts on the occasionally discordant, and for once musically minimalist ghost story for the living-yet-dead that is This Empty Room Was Once Alive, referencing once more his "sweet captain", who leaves behind an unfillable hole. All very sad and poignant, and a major part of the psyche unravelling.

My one problem with this album does not stem from the content but from the production. While the review copy mp3 I had sounded fine, well, as "fine" as that regressive music storage system can be at any rate, the CD I later bought sounds a little flat. The bottom end is nowhere near prominent enough, reproduced via "Source Direct" on my not inexpensive hi-fi amplifier. Thankfully the CD does not sound over-compressed when turned up loud, an all too common failing in this day and age, but the "no bottom" effect is a bit of a let down, particularly when one considers that the sound was mixed by go-to avant sound man Bob Drake. Steven Wilson's albums, famously produced with no compression do not suffer this problem, so feeling generous I'll put it down to a manufacturing rather than production glitch. Very few in the music industry seem to care about sound reproduction these days, especially on CDs it seems.

No amount of my pleading will change the minds of the cloth-eared, but I recommend this busy, busy bee of an album to anyone with a sense of sonic adventure. With eight people in the band it will be interesting to see how they all fit on the tiny stage of Leicester's Musician venue next month. Personally, I can't wait to be unravelled!

1. I Can Teach You How To Lose A Fight (5:14)
2. The Orphanage (1:34)
3. Send Him Seaworthy (6:37)
4. Don’t Land On Me (8:02)
5. The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes (4:45)
6. Destroy The World we Love (6:05)
7. This Empty Room Was Once Alive (3:50)
8. I’m Hiding Behind My Eyes (9:15)
Total running time 45:20
Line up:
Kavus Torabi – Guitar, vocals
Melanie Woods – Vocals
Chloe Herington – Bassoon, saxophone, vocals
Emmett Elvin – Keyboards
Charlie Cawood – Bass
Ben Woollacott – Drums
Nicki Maher – Saxophone, vocals
Josh Perl – Saxophone, vocals

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Schizo-Brainiac - A labyrinthine exploration in music

Over the years my music scribbling has led to me accumulating a disparate collection of musical associates as Farcebook "friends". Some go on to become solid acquaintances, and, Heavens forfend, I've even met some of them out there in the real world.

The majority remain largely anonymous after the initial reason for connection has been long forgotten, and now that FB in its wisdom doesn't actually let you see a lot of what even close friends put up there, nevermind those on the "Acquaintances" or "Restricted" lists, it often comes as a surprise when a name pops up in your Newsfeed you have no recollection of. Usually these random hits from "friends" removed by several degrees of separation are of no consequence and passed over and forgotten.

Occasionally a gem of a post comes along to make you sit up and take notice. One such appeared today, and it contained a link to the Soundcloud page of an American gent going by the name of Solo Goodspeed aka Schizo-Brainiac. His profile contains the following choice quotes:

"SchizoBrainiac is a source of musical alternatives, with a tangent for eclecticism...It is helpful if you bring a very open mind (and not much in the way of expectations) to the exploration of these tracks, and if you have a bit of an off-kilter sense of humor, all the better."


"...Life is too short to merely exist.
"Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist" - some guy named Picasso"

You can't argue with that, but it does not prepare you for the vast scope of the music this musical polymath has produced, all since 2009 apparently. He describes his music as falling into the "Soundtrack" genre and there are six distinctly different and thoroughly absorbing sets on offer, each with a short written intro by the composer to give the listener some idea of what to expect. We have:

...and two more that do not have embed links; An Oral Condition (original songs) and Residual Influence (cover versions). That last one includes songs by XTC, Gentle Giant, Snakefinger, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Captain Beefheart, and Pete Seeger amongst others. Those influences only go a part of the way to describing what Schizo-Brainiac is about, but anyone who has the chops, not to mention the balls to cover Beefheart, Gentle Giant and Mahavishnu is obviously harbouring no little talent. The Beefheart cover is quite mad and makes the original sound almost tame. It is quite brilliant, by the way.

Thanks to Tesla Manaf Effendi, whoever and wherever you are, for popping up in my Farcebook Newsfeed with this incredible music!

Now, where's that device for stopping the space-time warpy thing for about a month so that I may catch up with all this?...

Saturday, 2 August 2014

An open letter to Robert Fripp

Dear Mr Fripp

Firstly, as we have never met and are never likely to, I would not be so presumptuous as to address you by your first name, I trust you don't mind?

I read with interest and a near-confirmation of a growing suspicion your mini interview in this month's Uncut magazine. The forming of King Crimson Mk VIII was announced last year and inevitably provoked fevered interest among us Crimson fans. My friend and I speculated on possible weekends in London, Paris, Brussels, or anywhere on the near European continent, our partners enjoying whatever the locale had to offer while we were only really there for a night of Crimsoid menace.

As the months after the reformation announcement went by, and eventually the American tour dates were announced with no mention of Europe whatsoever, I began to realise that this, what is in all probability a final tour of a King Crimson involving your good self would most likely be a repeat of the last outing in 2008, that is a tour confining itself to the shores of the old colony.

Your comment in the Uncut interview that "touring Europe or beyond is 'not a question that has current relevance' " at least is not an unequivocal "no" but falls not far short. If I may be entirely selfish, is it beyond the bounds of possibility that King Crimson would play two or three dates at a venue in London? There must be at least one venue in the capital that doesn't resonate in middle C, or whichever note this particular Crimson may find unsettling. The band in former guises has played the Shepherds Bush Empire the last two times it was sighted briefly on these shores, and if that is now an unsatisfactory setting, I cannot believe that there is not one venue in London that does not meet your requirements at least to the extent of some those barns you are playing in America!

Is it unreasonable to ask that you and the band play one last time in the country that provided the chance set of circumstances that led to an entity called King Crimson, and gave you the opportunity to embark upon your chosen path, and provided you with the initial audience and platform to eventually make a not insubstantial living from your muse?

Finally, I was sorry to read that your professional life has been "devoid of joy", but most of us out here in the world of work and drudgery can say much the same. At least you have spent your working life following your art, something the rest of us cannot imagine, for our lives, professional or not, are spent making do to a greater or lesser extent. Take satisfaction, if not joy, for the work you have done correcting the greed-obsessed and obfuscating record industry excesses where past royalties are concerned, setting precedents for others to follow. Not to mention the hour upon hour of fabulous music you have been a significant part of over the years.

While typing this I have been listening to what many regard as the "ignored" Crimson album, the actually rather fine Lizard. The irony is not lost on me that I am a member of the "ignored" Crimson audience. For all that, I wish you and the rest of King Crimson a pleasant and enjoyable tour of the USA.

Yours sincerely
Roger Trenwith, an English audient (hopefully, but not expectantly)

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 intriguing 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.

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

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 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.

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

Tim Bowness - Live!

Interview with Tim Bowness here:

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...

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

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!