Saturday, 26 November 2011

Truthseeker - Weightless At Dawn

A truly massive sound is made by this young Bostonian band of, well I suppose post-rockers is as close a description as you'll get from me. Like Mogwai at their most animated but with more of a sense of melody, and coming from a more rock oriented direction, thunderous distorted bass and crashing Bonham style drums played by a guy who is apparently a death metal drummer playing slow beats accompany the life-affirming layered, fuzzed and densely reverbed guitars all of which are very loud but not noisy, if you get my drift.  A psychedelic swirl collides with heavy and post rock to create an uplifting tidal wave of pre-post-rock (heheh). It all comes to a joyous climax on the last song Through The Waves, and at 23 minutes this EP deserved to be longer.

Leader, bassist and songwriter Brendan James Hayter has come up with a simple but emotional and wide-angled vista for these five instrumentals on this their debut EP, originally released via Bandcamp on 25th September, and it bodes well for the debut album, which is said to take a heavier and more progressive direction. I await with bated hearing devices, being a big fan of Amplifier who are the epitome of heavy meets progressive, but without all that generic downtuning that makes a lot of bands in that style sound too similar. If Truthseeker keep up the inventiveness shown on this EP then they'll have no problems standing out from the crowd.

1. Daybreak (4:09)
2. Permafrost (7:10)
3. Storm (4:39)
4. Submerged (2:08)
5. Through The Waves (5:02)

Ranting Roger - Part Six

Somebody once said "Opinions are like assholes, everyone's got one" and this critique is wholly subjective, and no attempt has been made to reasonable. So there!

Music comes in many forms, but essentially boils down to the Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent, and what one person considers "bad" might well rock another's boat, and thereby self-defeating arguments will disappear into the cosmos.

I will freely admit to being a music snob (and a beer snob, but that's another story) with an intense dislike of lowest common denominator X-Factor type shite, epitomised by any "singer" who has not paid his or her dues and expects fame and fortune to fall into their shopping-mall-clad laps as a result of a half-baked Karaoke performance on national TV, and who has had any vestige of individuality ironed out of his or her voice by that godawful voice cleaning software, said voice then applied to a generic inspiration-free R&B backing. Ah, I remember R&B, it used to mean ballsy blues-rock like the Stones or The Yardbirds, or later the likes of Dr Feelgood, but now it's synonymous with hideous aural wallpaper played in hairdressers' salons, supermarkets and malls all over the Western World and is bought by the bucketload by the clueless.

...errm, where was I...oh yeah...Way back in the mists of time when a mobile phone meant your telephone cord was long enough to enable you to sssttttrrreeetttccch down the hallway and open the front door to a caller while still on the blower, I like most of my peers was into all the usual heavy bands of the day, your Sabs and Purps and Zeps, along with the major league prog bands, Genesis being numero uno. Pop music back then was for girls, although I had hidden liking for Wizzard and Slade.

My best friend at the time had a cousin who was a few years older than us and into all the underground sounds of the day. Albums by the likes of Man, Caravan, Hawkwind, Amon Duul II, etc would find their way to my mate and we would marvel at the weirdness therein. And there began my journey into the dark backwaters of musical adventurism which carries on to this day.

One of the musical alleyways to snobbery is that much abused and misused term "prog rock." Take the term "prog"....please, just take it..."What does the word "prog" mean?" is one of those endless circular debates I made allusions to above before the ranting took over. The term "prog" is a shortened form of the word progressive, which , to use one of many dictionary definitions, means "Moving forward; proceeding onward; advancing; evincing progress...." Unfortunately an awful lot of what many class as "prog rock" these days is an awful long way from that definition, and there are many bands that seem to have an almost slavish obsession with recreating sounds made 35 or more years ago. A website I write for coined the term "regressive rock" to describe these groups and if there is a more fitting and objective term then I cannot think what it might be.

Wobbler's new bass player revealed!
Falling into this handy little niche are bands like Wobbler, Karmakanic, Arena, Glass Hammer, and many others, who to varying degrees probably all wish it was 1973 again, apart from Arena who come from 1980. Some bands like the aforementioned Wobbler make no bones about the fact and even use phrases like "(We have) a burning desire to create or perhaps recreate some of the musical expressions of the early seventies" which is fair enough as at least you know what to expect. Their last album, Fragility At The Edge....err, hang on...Rites At Dawn does in fact sound like a missing link between two Yes albums, and if you're into a bit of musical archaeology then this will certainly get your inner Piltdown Man cutting a rug. However, like that cunning ruse, I reckon that Rites At Dawn is also a bit of a hoax. Why listen to what some musical museum curators would love to have been the album that never was between Fragile and Close To The Edge when you can play the real thing? I just don't see the appeal, or the point.

The other bands I mentioned while drawing on classic prog sounds have not gone completely down the slavish copybook route and have at least carved out their own sound, but to these well-travelled lugholes, it all seems so flat, so unadventurous. I will admit that Glass Hammer are actually very good at what they do and obviously have lavished great care on their latest waxing, but the original Yes have already done it, so why bother? As we're into missing links between ancient Yes albums, they would seem to fit between Relayer and Going For The One, and their singer falls somewhere between Jon Anderson and Chris Squire, and he's even called Jon, although I strongly suspect his real name is John. As for Arena, another highly popular act (Gawd knows why) a more unimaginitive rehashing of 80s AOR, a genre that was as dull as dishwater first time round, I have yet to hear, and judging by what I've seen on YouTube at least two of their number seem to possess egos the size of Birmingham. I would rather listen to paint drying or stick pins in my ears. If you're a fan of any of those bands then fair enough, but don't try and kid me or anyone else that they are "progressive" in any shape or form. The likes of Muse (who I cannot abide by the way) and Radiohead and Kate Bush have more progressive ideas in their pinkies than any of that lot.

Other artists like Steven Wilson, and Opeth to a lesser degree, have managed to take the 70s template on their most recent works and created something that is rooted in the now and displays progression in its true guise, but maybe Wilson is a rare talent in a sea of mediocrity? One wonders if Wilson would have dared issue something like Grace For Drowning if Porcupine Tree had not already made the breakthrough?

The problem is an awful lot of "prog" fans would rather pay to see those regressive bands and buy their albums than actually take a risk on something that does stretch boundaries and is actually trying to take music forward, like Ske or Herd Of Instinct or Memories Of Machines for instance, to name three very different bands who are all highly progressive in their own way. The fans' desire to follow the tried and tested at the expense of new and in my opinion, far more interesting bands has already lead to internecine internet wars in that hotbed of conservatism the USA, and directly resulted in the demise of one its longest running "prog" festivals. New bands and indeed even established bands who don't fit into the copyist or trad prog bag tend to find it a real struggle over there, and with the demise of one of the best live showcases it can only get worse.

Over here in the UK we have only relatively recently got into staging prog festivals, as for a long time the potential audience here simply wasn't big enough, but one look at the line up of this year's Summer's End festival left me, as a progressive rather than prog music fan, somewhat underwhelmed. Where's the advenure in that line up, Lazuli apart? Why not get Il Tempio Delle Clessidre or Ske over, they've only got to come from Italy, it ain't that far! Mind you I suppose the sheer uncommerciality of the bands I'd pay to see make the wish impossible, and the promoters definitely deserve credit for putting on any kind of prog festival, which has to be underpinned by crowd pleasers to survive. It's just not for me, that's all.

Essentially prog fans are mostly a very conservative bunch who baulk at anything too weird, or dare I say it progressive, and far too often the two "p" words are mutually exclusive!

I make no apologies for this, and today, by pure coincidence a fellow reviewer sent all his colleagues the link to the restaurant critic speech from Ratatouille, and all us "prog" critics should take on board its sentiments, especially "...but there are times when a critic truly risks something, that is in the discovery and defence of the new..." Words we should all remember methinks.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow

An album to lose yourself in when the snow makes going outdoors a trial, sit at your window and gaze at the white blanket as it slowly covers everything and eerily muffles sound and thought while Kate relates tales of melting lovers, metaphysical Yeti hunts, angels and ghosts. Kate weaves a world that is personal, sensual and mystical, in a way that is instantly recognisable and you will find yourself lost is this otherworldly place. Instrumentally sparse, Kate's thoughtful and well played piano is mostly the main instrument with occasional electronica or orchestral backing for added effect.

Opener Snowflake sets the wintry scene as over its almost ten minutes it languidly describes the life and fall of a snowflake backed by Kate's minimal but deep ivory tinkling. Narrated by Kate's son Bertie, he intones "I was born in a cloud" which has a poignancy to it that blurs the role he is playing in the song. The ultra-sad and eerie Lake Tahoe is a ghost story about a woman who drowned searching for her dog in the water. Creepy but at the same time this song is a construct of gossamer-thin beauty.

If I asked you to guess who had written a song about a love affair between a young girl and a snowman, who when she awakes after one night of passion with Mr Frosty finds that Misty has melted away leaving wet sheets and bits of twig, it probably wouldn't take you long to come up with Kate Bush, who has written songs about life from the perspective of a foetus, washing machines, doing deals with the Almighty, the number Pi, etc etc as if they were everyday subjects. The focal point and longest song of the album at over thirteen minutes, again centred around Kate's sparse but accomplished piano over Danny Thompson's and Steve Gadd's jazz infused bass and drums, this slowly evolving crystalline snow ballad builds to an understated and melancholic orchestral climax. I've already heard someone say it's too long, but to be honest I don't notice its length at all, as I can get completely lost in it's intricate reverie. Obviously a metaphor for a fleeting relationship, this is questioned by the cover shot that leads one to ponder if it was ever a metaphor at all, for this is Kate Bush we are talking about after all. Weird but lovely!

Next up, Kate breathily vocalises Wild Man, a song seemingly about a cerebral hunt for a never mentioned Yeti, but it is musically a bit tame and something of an 80s throwback, and is probably the weakest song here, and indeed the strange atmosphere that had been built up before is partly dispelled.

More conventional than Aerial's duet with Rolf Harris admittedly, but I feared that a love ballad duet with Sir Elton John might be a bit much to take after the delicate nuances that had preceded Snowed In At Wheeler Street, and although starting off reasonably restrained, with a backing that is for the most part almost ambient, John's over-cooked and portentous style stomps all over any delicacy and is unfortunately reflected by Kate at the end of the song as if she were trying to keep up, and it serves only to ruin the previous eerie atmosphere. Might make a decent single though...

The other guest appearance is on the following song and title track. English national treasure Stephen Fry gets to recite the 50 Words For Snow, the vast majority culled from Kate's limitless imagination as we Brits only have one word plus a few half-hearted adjectives for the white stuff. Fry's intonations are gentle and unobtrusive, egged on by Kate, and the song works well. The album concludes with a return to the glacial piano atmospherics with Among Angels, a place Kate probably aspires to, a gentle and fitting end to an album that grows with every listen.

In a world where many bands like to describe themselves as "prog" but in reality are anything but, it is a pleasure to return to an artist who is genuinely progressive and could teach some of those po-faced earnest triers a thing or two about experimentation.  

Releasing her second album this year, Kate Bush has been uncharacteristically prolific, for which we should all be grateful. A true and singular talent. Kate always surprises and this album is so completely different to the somewhat indulgent and disappointing Director's Cut, so different it sounds as if two opposing facets of her musical personality have been at work this year, and I certainly prefer this one! 50 Words For Snow is sensual, brave, and a touch bonkers, and we should expect nothing less from one of our more interesting current musical phenomena. All we need now is a return to the live stage.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Magazine - HMV Institute, Birmingham, 8th November 2011

After a crawl up the M6, where we spent an hour in a slow moving traffic jam, we arrive at the venue about halfway through the set of support act In Fear Of Olive. Playing a raucous rockabilly hybrid, these guys seemed an odd choice, and I have to be honest, made a horrendous racket which was at least partly due to a horrible over-loud booming mix that set one's teeth on edge.

Being a tremendous beer snob, it is a very rare occurrence these days to find anything approaching a decent drink at gig venues and this place has to be the worst I've been to this year for lack of choice. On offer were two godawful lagers, a cider, and Guinness Extra Cold, which for the uninitiated is the famous Irish brew served at a filling-shuddering freezing temperature so as to remove any semblance of its original taste. Someone tell me the point of that!

So, armed with a bottle of over-priced fruit juice each me and my esteemed fellow traveller await Magazine, now reformed for a couple of years and having recently released their first new album in nearly 30 years, and a marvellous thing No Thyself is too!

The lights dim and the band minus Howard saunter on and launch into the opening bars of Definitive Gaze, and big cheer goes up when Howard Devoto, looking like a well contented geezer ambles to the mike stand for the opening salvo of his skewed and poetic lyrics.

I have been a bit spoilt lately, attending gigs at Leamington Spa Assembly and Shepherds Bush Empire, where the sound was superb, and this place was acoustically a bit of a comedown, but the sound guys got it right for Magazine, luckily for our aging lugholes.

The band are in top form, John Doyle's unfussy drumming holding down the pulsebeat while Dave Formula delivers striking and melodic runs on his banks of keyboards, occasionally coaxing slabs of gut-rumbling noise from his synth. Noko is a great guitarist who manages to fill the hole left by the sadly departed John McGeogh with some style. Stan White on bass storms through Adamson's sinuous groove, and on Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again) the whole band kick up a well funky stew that gets even a two left footed oaf like me cutting a rug!

During A Song From Under The Floorboards the whole place was jumping, particularly a couple of 50-something blokes, arms round each other, pogoing like it was 1980 all over again. I bet they ached in the morning! The whole audience seemed to be bawling along to The Light Pours Out Of Me, a post-punk anthem of stadium proportions that brought down da house!

It didn't take long for Howard and the band to get into their stride, playing with the audience, who were mostly but not exclusively fans from the first time round. Introducing songs with phrases like "And now track two, side one of Secondhand Daylight" to a rousing reply of Rhythm Of Cruelty from the audience. In the turnaround in Parade it was the "same old" waitress at the "same old" table, and where the service was once good, it is now only "so-so". He's an arch old geezer is our Howard! They say nostalgia ain't what it used to be, but not here maties.

About half the new album was played and it fitted in very well with the older songs and got a decent reception, as it deserves to. Hello Mister Curtis (with apologies) in particular had an added edge over the recorded version.

No prizes for guessing the last song in the encore which was of course Lipstick...only kidding...a blistering version of Shot By Both Sides closed the evening on an adrenalin rush of post-punkery. A victorious return for Magazine, and let's hope they keep it going for a while yet.

A great slide show:

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Radio For The Daydreamers - Mother Superior And Her Fields Of Migraines

In which Pittsburgh experimentalists Radio For Daydreamers take a leap forward from the sometimes irritating over-zealous minimalism of 2009's Clouds Of Smoke And Poison. This new album's title may lead you to expect an hour's worth of headache-inducing noise, but you'd be wrong. No, this album is a thing of melancholic melody, if of the strangely strange but oddly normal variety. Drawing on influences as far apart as modern electronica, jazz, classical, and good old pop, Mother Superior And Her Fields Of Migraines is a somewhat misleading title.

Video for Wasted Faces In Secret Places - electric mix

The first part in a triptych, alluringly titled "Praying For The Be(a)st" Mother Superior is sub-titled Act, relating the story of the protagonist and takes place in a single room where our hero is "..indulging in misery, self-realization, seclusion, developing phobias, anxieties and a need to break out to help his own mind. Accepting negativities, even though it is clear that the consequences of those negativities would be grim. To accept evil just to get some purpose." If that sounds a bit self-indulgent then it is probably meant to. Any album that uses Voltaire in two of its track titles is telling you something about its creators is it not? I wonder what the guys and gals in the band do for fun? They probably pull the legs of spiders at the very least.

Let's give them the benefit of doubt though, and treat what they have put serious thought into as the work of art they obviously want listeners to appreciate it as. Judging by the video above, and the subtext of Wasted Faces In Secret Places..."behind this wall we stand tall", one interpretation could be that one is always sheltering beihnd a veil of isolation, a veil behind which one's real character stands "tall". It would certainly fit in with the protagonist's story. Maybe! 

Sonically a vast improvement from their first album, Crawl Into My Crawl Space references early Cure, intentionally or not I don't know. There are even moments of an almost upbeat nature, I Am Not Coming Back Home sounding like Bongwater with a hangover. God these folk are serious...too serious at an age when they should be in awe of life's many surprises instead of determinedly immersing themselves in grim-faced navel gazing. I don't suppose you can blame them really in an age when the future seems as bleak as at any time since the height of the Cold War.

The instrumental tracks can offer moments of beauty, for example the lovely but simple piano motif on Ghosts Keep Me Safe, While You Are Gone, and the cellos on No One Ever Comes Here, But Me conjuring the mournful introspective atmosphere they were obviously intended to. The unrelentingly grim lyrics of Curl Up, Time To Die where our hero is battling with self-imagined demons and losing do not exactly give you the chance to extend any sympathy to him as he seems intent on creating his own pit of depression, wallowing in it, giving the finger to the outside world. The oh-so-bleak lyrical imagery..."Curl up inside, time to die, the night sleeps and young die, close your eyes"... is cleverly counterpointed by being sung by a disinterested female voice, which actually works quite well. And, Every God Is A Monster almost rocks, albeit in a knowing way, while Freelance Dream Killing Machine sounds like The Flaming Lips in a very bad mood. Always In Hallways must get a mention as having the best song title I've seen for some time!

Not an album to play if you're already feeling down, but, like the first album, a perfect accompaniment to a comedown, Mother Superior is however interesting enough to return to in moments of introspection. What Parts two and three of the triptych bring us is anyone's guess, but can it get any more dark? Probably...

1. Black River Time Bombs (3:33)
2. With Wings, You Will Learn To Fall (3:01)
3. Wasted Faces In Secret Places (Behind This Wall acoustic version)  (3:13)
4. Crawl Into My Crawl Space (3:35)
5. Ghosts Keep Me Safe, While You Are Gone (4:00)
6. Magnetar Mephisto (3:50)
7. Goodbye Voltaire (You Gave Me Sleep) (3:44)
8. I Am Not Coming Back Home (3:07)
9. Goodbye Voltaire (And All The Rain That Made Me Smile) (3:44)
10. No One Ever Comes Here, But Me (4:36)
11. Always In Hallways (3:17)
12. Curl Up, Time To Die (3:40)
13. Praying For The Be(a)st (1:55)
14. Every god Is A Monster (4:05)
15. Freelance Dream Killing Machine (2:58)

Line up:
The mystery is maintained...I've not a clue...

3 out of 5

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Radio For The Daydreamers - Clouds Of Smoke And Poison

Pittsburgh's Radio For The Daydreamers have only been together for a couple of years and in that time have made two albums, this being the first, released independently in September 2009. Downbeat and strange, and drawing on influences from post-rock (whatever that means!) and modern ambient electronica, Clouds Of Smoke And Poison commences with Annunciation, a heavily reverbed  spoken-word treatise that may be setting out the philosophy for the band "..your job, as the radio, is to caress the people who are the poison, that works, like a Clockwork Orange, to make the dreamers believe they're smoking..." High ambition indeed, let's see what they're capable of..

Dark and gloomy, this is a murky record that for the uninitiated may at first listen seem impenetrable. Stoned mumblings mix with lo-fi minimalist and often distorted or over-recorded guitar, electronica, and synthesised as well as organic beats. Until we get to Rain on 24th Street that is, when things take a turn for the optimistic, and for the first part the song is an upbeat meandering through the scales with a driving back beat, before retreating to the previous atonal introspection. I do not yet know what to make of it downer music for the 21st century? The following Leaving On A Sunday actually has a nice tune, albeit annoyingly disturbed by the slightly out of tune bass guitar. It puts me in mind of early Felt, who pioneered this kind of melodic minimalist guitar driven music waaay back in 1981 with the sublime Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty.

Weirdly compelling nonetheless, I find myself sucked in to the enveloping soundscape of I Ran Away From Home Once wherein manipulated found sounds and swirling keyboards are later joined by flanged guitar create a thing of fragile delicacy. Sleeping On A Cloud has some female vocals that are echoed to such an extent as to make them nigh on indecipherable, but the effect is to create a stoned wooziness that floats off, well, on a cloud I suppose! My favourite moment of the album without question.

Judging by the song titles and searching through various online references, the band, if that is what they are, for it seems a deliberate tapestry of mystique is being weaved, are not above a bit of artistic pretension, coming up with phrases like "Reject the beauty, before it dare rejects you". You can make your own mind up on that one. As Annunciation also says, " is half-past cocaine now..." and that about sums this up, as the whole sounds like a long comedown.

A strange, introspective, gloomy and somewhat disjointed album that has moments of beauty and moments of odd out-thereness, and at times what seems like a deliberate ploy to de-tune the bass, or over-record the guitar, which is not art guys and gals, it's just irritating. The band seem to have dismissed this album as an irrelevance, deleting any links to reviews on their website, claiming "This page is basically a waste of time, and time only" so maybe I've wasted my own time here, who knows. It will take more than a few listens to reach the bottom of this particular swamp I can tell you!

PS - I have their latest offering to listen to, and the band have yet to kick it into touch, so, watch this space....

1. Annunciation (1:41)
2. The Mechanix Of Black Eyes (Sudden Movements Of Four) (5:54)
3. Life Standing By (1:44)
4. "Will You Write My Name In A Different Color" We Color Each Other's Walls (4:22)
5. I Dance Alone (A Silent Poem For Wes Schuit) (5:22)
6. Rain On 24th Street (8:14)
7. Leaving On A Sunday (5:22)
8. 'Til I Come Back To Sleep (4:36)
9. "When We Sleep, We Hold Hands And Breathe Into Each Other's Thoughts" (2:46)
10. I Ran Away From Home Once (7:24)
11. Nothing Is Alright In Our Lives (7:21)
12. Sleeping On A Cloud (4:49)
13. Room 110 (9:10)
14. "..The Beach Was Cold And The Bathtub Rusted", She Said (1:51)
15. White Flower Behind The Smoke Clouds (8:32)

Line up:
Absolutely no idea!

2.5 out of 5

Friday, 4 November 2011

Steven Wilson - Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 31st October 2011

Grace For Drowning was one of the most eagerly awaited albums this year, and certainly lived up to all expectations in my book, so my anticipation for this show had been building for some time, ever since my esteemed colleague PW managed to acquire the tickets some months ago.

Not knowing what time Steven was due on stage, and vaguely recalling a posting on his Facebook page asking the fans to get there early, we were seated to the right hand side of the upper tier by 7:20. The stage is shrouded by what my mate referred to jokingly as a "net curtain", and some ten minutes later the house lights dim and Lasse Hoile's trademark bleak images, changed every ten minutes or so, are projected onto the thin gauze accompanied by Bass Communion's ambient drones, which are an acquired taste at the best of times. This carried on for an hour, which was probably at least half an hour too long. One wonders why we were asked to arrive so early? Another of Steven's polite requests was no photos please, which I have adhered to, but judging by the tens of mobiles going off all through the evening it was an instruction that was largely ignored. Assuming the request was down to Steven's perhaps understandable dislike of low quality images, it is somewhat ironic that a recent slideshow on his Facebook page is comprised of amateur iPhone images taken by an audience member at the previous week's Paris gig. Ho-hum...

Come 8:30 eventually one by one the band take up their positions and begin playing the opening song. For the first 20 or so minutes of the set the "net curtain" remained in place in front of the band, occasionally used as a backdrop for more of Lasse's images, which were much better displayed later on the backdrop behind the band. I now know how a poor unfortunate suffering from cataracts must view the world. It wasn't until the veil was lowered during Sectarian, to a big cheer from the sell out crowd, that I really began to enjoy the gig.

Steven acted mainly in a conductor's capacity throughout, playing occasional keyboards or guitar, and of course singing. He said he was going to be taking a back seat and would let the band do their thing, and a splendid "thing" it was too! Nailing down the beat to thunderous effect but also displaying subtlety where needed was Marco Minneman, on bass and Chapman Stick was Nick Beggs, who is now something of a prog stalwart, being a long time member of Steve Hackett's band. He sure has come a long way since Kajagoogoo, but he still retains a slightly daft haircut! Lead guitar duties were performed with panache by Aziz Ibrahim, formerly (and briefly) with the Stone Roses, his guitar was a light show in itself. Nick and Aziz along with Steven showed their undoubted technical skills on the fast syncopated parts of the epic Raider II, Nick even got to do some guitar god posing, and they all looked to be having a jolly good time.

On keyboards was Adam Holzman, who when he got to play the jazzy piano fills showed his chops off to fine effect. Last, but by no means least was Mr Flute himself, the redoubtable Theo Travis, whose wonderful playing is all over Grace For Drowning. Unfortunately he often suffered in the louder sections particularly from being a bit buried in the mix, which was a shame.

You can see from the setlist below that a varied selection was played from both the solo albums, and the highlights for me were the ultra creepy Index, Raider II which was simply magnificent, Deform to Form A Star, which as my mate says sounds like it could have been a Porcupine Tree song from 1997, Harmony Korine was excellent, and the encore, Steven replete with gas mask, was a moment of triumph.

After an over-long introduction, and the "net curtain" overstaying its welcome, the gig eventually became a truly jaw-dropping display of musical excellence, and was certainly well worth the wait.

Steven Wilson Setlist Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, England 2011, Grace for Drowning

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning

I also write for The Dutch Progressive Rock Pages, and usually I treat my reviews for them as exclusive. However, as this is an important release in "The World Of Prog" I will make an exception. The original review can be found here and was published about a month ago.

It should have been a quiet year for The Hardest Working Man In Showbiz, aka The Man Who Never Sleeps, as his band Porcupine Tree took a well deserved break after finally cementing their rightful place amongst the rock elite with the triumphal Incident tour ending in 2010.

However, you didn’t really expect Steven Wilson to rest on his laurels, or on anything else for that matter did you? What to do for our hero? Well, let’s start with a new Blackfield album and tour, during which he had to cope with the sad loss of his father, to whom this album is dedicated, as well as remastering work for King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Caravan, and production credits on Memories Of Machines’ and Opeth’s new albums! I’ll bet he put some shelves up in SW HQ in any remaining quantum measurements of free time too. Oh, and the trifling matter of his new solo project, lest we forget!

To say Grace For Drowning was eagerly awaited may rank as understatement of the year, such is the reverence and respect Steven justly commands from his growing fanbase. Having followed Porcupine Tree since around 1994 and subsequently all things SW I count myself in that number, and yes, I too kept a close eye on the doormat on the day that this album was predicted to arrive.

Using a pool of talent that you would expect a modern day prog icon to be able to call on, including the ubiquitous Theo Travis whose exceptional playing is all over the album, as well as Nick Beggs, Jordan Rudess, The London Session Orchestra and the Synergy Vocals choir, both led by Dave Stewart, and many other prog luminaries, a full organic soundscape is crafted. Gone are the metal stylings of his group’s recent works, and instead the “heaviness” is largely atmospheric or jazz tinged rather than guitar riff based. Interviews with Steven have told us that this is an album in homage to 70s prog stylings, but before you throw up your arms in despair (or delight, depending on your particular whim), all of this is on a decidedly modernistic framework. You cannot tell me that Remainder The Black Dog, despite its obvious 70s heavy prog influence does not sound as if it was made in the 21st Century. Other nice touches are the occasional use of the orchestra and the choir, which lend a layer of sophistication to the songs on which they appear. The choir is particularly effective on Raider Prelude for example, giving it a wonderfully eerie presence.

Splitting what would have been an 80 minute epic single CD into two CDs is a sensible move, as in my opinion any single album should be no more than an hour long in order to avoid a dulling of the senses. So many bands these days, and not just prog bands at that, seem to think they have to fill a CD to near capacity regardless of their ability to craft a musical experience worthy of such a length. Steven Wilson, who doubtless does possess the required ability as evidenced here, by splitting this album into two “proper” length albums is giving the listener the chance to indulge in a metaphorical half-time orange, should he or she so desire.

So, what do we have on our stereos and blu-rays? Grace For Drowning is billed as a double album of two separate but complimentary albums, each of the classic vinyl length of around forty minutes. Part one is Deform To Form A Star, a suite of songs that lyrically would have fitted well into the Porcupine Tree canon. From concerns of entropy on Deform To Form A Star, to rampant cynicism over a relationship of convenience on No Part Of Me, to the almost suicidal despair over a broken relationship of Postcard, to the bleak dissolution of Remainder The Black Dog, there is nothing here a Porcupine Tree fan would find unusual. No, it’s the music, that is where the difference lies. The first two tracks, both instrumental set the tone, especially Sectarian with its languid reverbed electric piano break creating just the right amount of jazzy smokiness in between the heavier passages. Yes folks, as if you didn’t already know, it’s jazz-prog that informs this double album, representing a big shift from previous works.

Part two, titled Like Dust I Have Cleaned From My Eye, is less song based, dominated as it is by the 23 minute jazz-prog epic Raider II, which does all the things one would expect, again using the 70s influences but in a thoroughly modern way. The opening filmic short instrumental Belle De Jour is followed by the electronica infused and orchestral and frankly mildly disturbing Index, a lesson for the collector nerd in all of us. Things briefly get all Barrett era Floyd on Track One; perversely and typically the third track on the second disc, before descending into menace, concluding with a wistful guitar part, a bit of a mini-epic. The real epic follows, the aforementioned Raider II, whose grim subject is made clear with the opening line “A fist will make you understand intention”, the Synergy Vocals choir repeating a theme that were this early VDGG would have been played by Dave Jackson. A charming tale of serial killers, this is a tour-de-force and an obvious high point. The 70s influences are strongest on this song, and after some nice flute playing by Theo Travis in the early parts has lulled one into a false sense of security, given the nasty lyrical theme, heaviness inevitably ensues with some fast guitar led playing sending the song hurtling along at a gallop. This song has all the elements of a typical VDGG or Crimson epic sound collage, and its organic feel is no doubt the result of Wilson having close contact with the likes of Lizard and Islands in recent times, in fact in places Theo Travis does a damn fine Mel Collins impersonation, and whether deliberate or not, it is no bad thing.

Being of a certain age I know exactly where all this is coming from, the question is, what will recent converts to Porcupine Tree make of it? One hopes it will lead them to explore their dads’ (or grandads’!) record collections to discover the delights within. Not to say this work is a slavish recreation of a bygone sound, à la Wobbler’s recent museum piece, it is not, there are enough modern touches to make it a relevant work to those of us who like their progressive music to be precisely that.

Steven’s good friend, Mikael Åkerfeldt, may well have been better served to have released Heritage as a solo album, which, by so doing with Grace For Drowning, Steven has hopefully avoided alienating his hard won Porcupine Tree fanbase, who it is to be hoped, will dig it anyway. It is a brave sideways step from Insurgentes, which bore a fairly close resemblance to Porcupine Tree’s sound, sharing as it did similar influences, and is a record that poses interesting questions as to where Porcupine Tree will head next, given Steven’s declared intention to drop the metal riffing. That however is a conundrum for another day. For now, what we have here is a work of some merit which will hopefully bear repeated listens over the coming months and years, as on the first few listens it is turning out to be something of a grower, rather than the instant hit that was Insugentes. Being a work of depth and no little originality, despite wearing its influences on its sleeves, a grower like this usually lasts the course far better than something that instantly gratifies. This is a modern record that isn’t afraid to take the best elements of past prog triumphs and mould them into a fresh and new sound for a 21st Century audience.

Subjectively, is this “better” than Insurgentes? No, nor is it worse, just different. I urge those of you who prefer Steven’s more metal oriented writing and as a result may prefer the first solo album, to please give this fine work the chance it deserves, you will be grateful in the end, believe me!

Much anticipated now is the Wilson/Åkerfeldt side project, going under the title “Storm Corrosion”, which according to an Opeth press release via Metal Underground should have an album out in April 2012. Furthermore, "This album could be seen as the final part in the odd trilogy of records completed by "Heritage" and Steven Wilson's brand new solo album "Grace For Drowning". If that doesn’t get you drooling, I don’t know what will!

My one small gripe is that there is no DVD-A surround mix with all the extras this time, that luxury being afforded only to those who have invested in a blu-ray player. While I understand Steven’s fondness for new sonic and visual technological developments, surely the economies of scale are such that a DVD-A version in parallel would not have broken the bank, and would have kept happy the majority who do not own a blu-ray player, and maybe cannot afford to invest in one.

Ah well, at least I’m going to see the tour in the not so distant future, something I’m already counting down the calendar to!

Conclusion: 8 out of 10


CD 1: "Deform To Form A Star" - Grace For Drowning (2:05), Sectarian (7:41), Deform To Form A Star (7:50), No Part Of Me (5:44), Postcard (4:28), Raider Prelude (2:23), Remainder The Black Dog (9:26)

CD 2: "Like Dust I Have Cleaned From My Eye" - Belle De Jour (2:59), Index (4:48), Track One (4:15), Raider II (23:21), Like Dust I Have Cleaned From My Eye (8:01)

2019, the insanity grows...

Odd title for an annual music review, but them's the times. With these words I aim to provide you with an escape from the creeping madne...