Friday, 23 October 2015

Duncan Parsons - C:Ore

Combining faith & music (especially rock music) has proved to be a difficult and dangerous road for many to travel, particularly on this side of the Atlantic. Whereas in the States it is slightly more acceptable to invoke the name of Jesus in your songs, for the British, with our caricature of reserve and not wanting to cause offence, we tend to fight shy of it - unless it's in a purely 'religious' context.

Progressive rock, with its roots in the counter-culture of the 1960s, is more the place to find references to eastern philosophies or pagan rites, than it is orthodox Christianity. There are, of course, exceptions to this: Neal Morse, formerly of Spock's Beard and now of Transatlantic & Flying Colours, being the obvious case in point. His overt approach to singing his faith has won him a number of admirers, and also quite a few detractors, who would like him to leave the 'God-bothering' out of his music.

Song-writers, of course, write and sing about what's important to them, what fires them, what inspires them, and in this album Duncan Parsons wears his faith clearly on his sleeve (though other reviewers I've read seem to have missed this). The track titles are interesting, too, in that they are all single word titles, and they are lettered rather than numbered. That lettering actually gives the songs a subtle new meaning: King becomes Aching (A:King); Lief becomes Belief (B:Lief) etc.

The music is mostly played by Parsons, who covers a variety of guitars, basses, keyboards, alongside drums & percussion, vocals and ephemera such as stylophone, musical saw and Jaw harp. He is joined by a number of other musicians, notably John & Steve Hackett (playing harmonica), Nick Fletcher and Ton Scherpenzeel. Stylistically the tunes veer from standard rock to a more progressive feel, with odd time signatures, to a more folky edge on C:All. Duncan's vocals are not perhaps as strong as they could be, but they seem to fit the nature of the material well. Searching songs need a searching voice.

These are songs which tackle what it means to be a believer today: not primarily from a credal position, but from that of lifestyle and discipleship - how we live as people of faith. Yes, there are issues of devotion and worship, but this is seen as much in our service of others as in our piety & prayers.

For those who have no professed faith, I would still commend this collection to you. Musically it has much to commend it, drawing as it does from the depths of the English progressive tradition - the Canterbury scene, Peter Hammil, Stackridge, among others - and the instrumental passages, especially those featuring John Hackett's flute, are particularly uplifting.

You can get hold of the album through Duncan's website here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Steve Hackett - Leeds Town Hall 20 October 2015

In the week when his 14 disc retrospective collection "Premonitions" is released, spanning the early years of his solo career (1975-1983), it was good to spent last evening in the presence of Steve Hackett once again.

After a run of tours in which Steve reworked material from his time with Prog giants Genesis, it was good to come to a show where he (for the first half at least) focused on his own solo material. Indeed the title of the tour - 'Acolyte to Wolflight' - hinted at something more, and maybe, after perhaps over-playing the Genesis stuff, he could have drawn a little wider from his more recent own material. What we got was effectively 'Acolyte to Defector, and Wolflight, with more of the last tour.' Of course, Genesis = ticket sales, as his previous tours have ably demonstrated.

The content of the show wasn't much of a surprise: we knew what we were coming to; the set list for the tour has been pretty consistent throughout, and has been widely circulated, and from his solo material, there was a heavy drawing on the latest album 'Wolflight' - this is in effect the promo tour for the album after all. From his earlier solo canon, (as I've said) only the first four albums were referenced, the first set ending with a tumultuous medley from his debut, 'Voyage of the Acolyte'. Steve was joined just after the mid-point of the first set by brother John, when they played a wonderful cut-down acoustic version of 'Jacuzzi', and by Nad Sylvan, who sang on 'Icarus Ascending' and 'Star of Sirius', as well as for the Genesis material, which filled the second set.

The full set-list was:
  • Spectral Mornings (Spectral Mornings)
  • Out of the Body (Wolflight)
  • Wolflight (Wolflight)
  • Every Day (Spectral Mornings)
  • Love Song to a Vampire (Wolflight)
  • The Wheel's Turning (Wolflight)
  • Loving Sea (Wolflight)
  • Jacuzzi (Defector)
  • Icarus Ascending (Please Don't Touch)
  • Star of Sirius (Voyage of the Acolyte)
  • Ace of Wands (Voyage of the Acolyte)
  • Tower Struck Down (Voyage of the Acolyte)
The Genesis Material
  • Get 'em Out by Friday
  • Can-Utility and the Coastliners
  • After the Ordeal
  • The Cinema Show/ Aisle of Plenty
  • The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
  • The Musical Box
  • Clocks - The Angel of Mons (Spectral Mornings)
  • Firth of Fifth
The band was essentially those who have toured with Steve over the past few years: Rob Townsend (keyboards, percussion, flute, saxophone); Roger King (keyboards); Gary O'Toole (drums, percussion, vocals) and Nad Sylvan (vocals), and for this tour they have been joined by Roine Stolt (bass, guitars & vocals). As a unit, the band played wonderfully well together, and the interplay between Steve & Roine, particularly during 'After the Ordeal' was outstanding. There was energy, enjoyment, artistry and virtuosity present in bucket-loads, and the near capacity crowd picked up that vibe and ran with it.

Reflecting after the show, I realised that a large part of the music I'd heard was 35-40 years old (or more). Yet it still (to me) sounded fresh, vibrant and alive. This is timeless Progressive rock! And I couldn't help wondering: how much of today's music will still be being played live in 2050?

But maybe, just maybe, we could have heard a little more from more recently...

Monday, 19 October 2015

John Hackett - Another Life

If any of you are interested, I've written a review of John Hackett's new album, 'Another Life', for Martin Hutchinson's Progradar site. You can find it here.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Thieves' Kitchen - The Clockwork Universe

Within the world of Progressive music there are certain bands who have developed a distinctive sound all their own, and to my mind Thieves' Kitchen are one of those bands. This is why, for me, the arrival of a new collection of music from the band is always something to look forward to with anticipation.

I first stumbled across the band through their 2008 album 'The Water Road', the first of their albums to feature the core trio of Phil Mercy, Thomas Johnson and Amy Darby, and was immediately struck by their complex rhythms and unconventional melodies. I delved into their back catalogue and discovered the delights of 'Head', 'Argot' and 'Shibboleth', the latter being Amy's debut with the band. Soon after, the fifth album 'One for Sorrow, Two for Joy' was released, to much critical acclaim in the Prog world, and now their sixth - 'The Clockwork Universe' - has finally been unveiled, a kind of concept album 'exploring the human experience of a complex world' (according to their website).

Key to the band's developing sound is the interplay between the solid foundation of Thomas's keyboards, the driving flair of Phil's guitar work and the haunting lyricism of Amy's voice. All these are in evidence on the new collection. 'Library Song' is the opener, a love song that brings stuttering arpeggios from the keys into contrast with soaring work from Mercy alongside Darby's enchanting vocals. 'Railway Time' explores the response to the inexorable advance of technology and the changes which it brings to life's rhythms, seen through the lens of the coming of the railway to what I think is a Welsh valley. Whether it's the subject matter or simply the 'feel' of the song, this resonates with the work of Big Big Train for me, and left me wondering how Amy would interpret some of their canon. Evident on this track is the work of support musicians Paul Mallyon on drums, and Anglagard stalwarts Johan Brand on bass and Anna Holmgren on flute, who together add a further depth to the music.

The first of two short instrumental tracks, 'Astrolabe', follows - predominantly a gentle, reflective piano piece, with the guitar picking up the melody half way through. Then we move on to 'Prodigy', a more driving, rocky number to begin with which then picks up a lilting flute leading into the vocal section: a song which explores the pitfalls of ones star rising too soon in life.

The 'epic' on the album, 'The Scientist's Wife', has the most pronounced fusion edge to it musically of all the songs in this set, and tells the story of love struggling against the demands of a partner's career. There are some beautifully poignant lyrics here: "Oh, to be very young, his everything, his only eyes for me! Sealed in our universe, with lines of force we drew our destiny." "In this magnetic age he stands alone, a fame apart from me. Lapses of memory, the empty days, the empty harmonies. When I sing, I sing alone; I'm fading to grey." The album closes with the second instrumental, 'Orrery', another gentle, reflective work featuring piano and flute which invokes the image of the revolving spheres of this model solar system.

This is a quite stunning piece of work, which repays repeated listening, and grows in stature with each listen. I cannot commend it highly enough to those of you who like your music a little askew from the norm, but with virtuosity and inventiveness present in spades.