Levellers Static on the Airwaves On the Fiddle Recordings OTFCD006
Working hard and touring to a strong fan base over the past twenty-four years, the Levellers have consistently followed their own instincts rather than pandering to the masses. This, their tenth studio album, is arguably their strongest. Frontman Mark Chadwick (interviewed below) has said that working with producer Sean Lakeman helped the group tighten up their writing, and recording live in the studio has given this album a great sound. After the Hurricane, Forgotten Towns, Second Life and the new arrangement of the superb Recruiting Sergeant are especially strong tracks on a record which is a solid listening experience from Track 1 right through to the close. This is the album of the Levellers' career, and I for one can't wait to hear these songs performed live.
Ten Years After Hear Them Talking Talking Elephant TECD188 British Blues rockers Ten Years After, led by the superb guitarist Alvin Lee, were catapulted to stardom after performing at Woodstock, and this double disc set is a remastered edition of a compilation originally released in 1976. Featuring I'm Going Home, Hear Me Calling, a bluesy version of Three Blind Mice and the classic version of I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes, this is an excellent introduction to an underrated Blues band.
Sanguine Hum Diving Bell Esoteric Antenna EANTCD1001
Esoteric Antenna is a brand new label, and Sanguine Hum are an Oxford four piece formed from the ashes of the Joff Winks Band, who garnered praise in 2007 when they won the Zane Lowe Fresh Meat competition. Drawing on diverse influences from Zappa to Porcupine Tress and Robert Wyatt, the band has created something fresh and intelligent. With complex musical sections, great vocals, and skilled musicianship, this is neo-prog at its finest.
Two Spot Gobi The Sun will Rise Independent Records Ltd
This is the second studio album from the Brighton six piece, raved about by magazines like Q, who have performed live with artists including Bruno Mars, Newton Faulkner and Ben Howard. Recorded in California at the studio of Grammy winner Jason Mraz, the record mixes jazz and funk on laid-back summer anthems, such as the chilled-out I Remember and Tomorrow. Its relaxed groove is ideal for late summer nights.
Tin Spirits Wired to Earth Vibrola/Esoteric Antenna EANTCD1004
New progressive label Antenna from Esoteric (probably the best alternative and underground label in the UK) has been designed to release new music from some of the finest contemporary progressive bands in the UK. Tin Spirits is the brainchild of Swindon guitarist Daniel Steinhardt, who invited former XTC guitar legend Dave Gregory to join him, bassist/vocalist Mark Kilminster, and drummer Doug Mussard. What started as a covers band has become one of the most interesting progressive four pieces around today. Gregory's guitar playing is as stunning as usual, Steinhardt is just as inventive, and their sparring on this record is fantastic. The album contains four fascinating new tracks and a brilliant reinterpretation of the Genesis classic Back in NYC. As neo-prog albums go, this is excellent.
Omnia Opera Omnia Opera/Red Shift Esoteric Records/Delerium DECLEC2001
A double set of remastered space-rock from the archives of the legendary Delerium Records puts together Omnia Opera's two albums from 1993 and 1997. The Kidderminster space rockers, influenced by Hawkwind, were given scope to expand their own brand of atmospheric psychedelic space rock. Their debut album consisted of lengthy full-on pieces like Space Bastard, Floating Settee and Bright Sun, culled from their private cassette releases and honed on the road. By 1997's Red Shift the band's style was recognisable, their work becoming more epic in conception, with some amazing guitar and keyboard interplay from founder members Rob Lloyd and Ade Schofield respectively. In the mid nineties Omnia Opera (along with the IEM and Porcupine Tree) were at the forefront of the new psych. For lovers of Hawkwind and bands of that ilk, this is well worth a listen.
xPTs Parachute Reborn Esoteric/Antenna EANTCD1003
In 1970 the Pretty Things recorded Parachute, which, despite being named Rolling Stone album of the year, disappeared into obscurity. Now four-fifths of the line-up that worked on Parachute, Jon Povey (keys/vocals), Wally Waller (bass, vocals), Skip Alan (drums), and Pete Tolson (guitars) reunite under the xPT (ex Pretty Things) moniker to revitalise the album for the 21st century. The only member not present, Phil May, is touring with the current Pretty Things line-up, but did contribute extra lyrics to What's the Use.
Having never heard the original Parachute, I was tempted into buying it solely on the strength of this album, and whilst the songs remain the same, the interpretations differ enough to make this more than just a remake. From the opening Scene One right through to the closing Parachute, the band are on fire, with Tolson's guitars singing throughout, and extraordinary vocal harmonies on The Good Mr. Square and the extended What's the Use. This isn't just a tribute, this is a restoration, the aural equivalent of taking an old master and cleaning it up. With such verve and soul, this album stands as a successful piece of music in its own right, and is a worthy successor to a long-lost classic. I do hope that as a band the xPT's stay together to make more music, as the magic and chemistry on here are too strong to waste.
Decameron Mammoth Special Esoteric ECLEC2327
Released in 1974, this is the follow-up to Decameron's debut Say Hello To the Band, and is a huge leap forward in terms of songwriting, production and arrangements. Comparing the two is almost like imagining that the Beatles went straight from Please, Please Me to Revolver. Expanding their sound from the folk clubs to the rock bars, the songwriting team of Johnny Coppin and Dave Bell worked with the band's strongest feature --the amazing vocal harmonies of all five members, which send shivers down the spine-- and developed their repertoire with the hard rocking, almost country-ish title track (a rollicking cover of Steven Stills' Rock and Roll Woman), the fantastic Just a Glimpse of Me, the cynical and knowing Breakdown of the Song, and the epic lush beauty of the closing The Empty Space(This Side of Innocence). Mammoth Special has been described by others as Decameron's best album, and with the addition of the bonus track Twinset and Pearls, there is no bad song on this fantastic record, which still stands up today.
Robert Wyatt The End of An Ear Esoteric Records ECLEC2324
In 1970, with Soft Machine at their peak, CBS allowed drummer Robert Wyatt time and space to work on this, his first solo album. Robert was slowly drifting away from Soft Machine as his improvisational vocal techniques and avant garde jazz tendencies were clashing with Hugh Hooper, Mike Ratledge and Elton Dean's vision of Soft Machine as an instrumental complex jazz unit. This led to his sacking in 1971. Here, however, he could express his own creative powers to startling effect, along with old friends from the Canterbury scene like Mark Charig and Dave Sinclar from Caravan, while Elton Dean guested on saxes and clarinets. With tape loops, vocal improvisation and sax grooves, and the first recording of Wyatt's piano playing, this marks the points where Wyatt's career as a drummer ends and his path as an idiosyncratic solo performer begins.
Ken Hensley Love and Other Mysteries Esoteric Antenna EANTCD1005
Erstwhile Uriah Heep keyboard player and songwriter, Ken Hensley, has kept himself very busy since he left Heep in 1980. This, his latest album, is a highly personal collection of songs about where he is now, with heartfelt lyrics, superb performances, and an array of multi-talented guest vocalists like Glenn Hughes, Sarah Rope, Irene Formichiari and Ken himself, whose vocals are sounding better than ever. Giving each song to a different performer to interpret is a clever move, as they breathe life into each story, including the opening Bleeding Heart, the wonderful This House and the heartbreaking Little Guy. This is Hensley's greatest album yet, a mature, magnificent collection, a master class in songwriting, and an album that rewards with each listen. Beautiful.
Squackett A Life Within a Day Esoteric Antenna EANTCD1002
Two prog rock legends, Chris Squire (bassist, founder member, and the only person to play on every Yes album) and Steve Hackett (singer, songwriter, one of the finest guitarists in the UK, and former member of Genesis), combine their not inconsiderable talents on this collaboration, working with talented producer Roger King to produce an assured album of great material. While both Hackett and Squire are busy men with successful careers, this is no mere side project but a worthy addition to their back catalogues. With Roger King's keyboard work and Jeremy Stacey's drums providing an anchor, Squire's distinctive bass sound and Hackett's melodious guitar compliment each other. Tracks like the sublime Stormchaser, A Life Within a Day and Perfect Love Song make this album one to treasure.
Gary Boyle: The Dancer Electric Glide Esoteric Records ECLEC2307/ECLEC2308
Gary Boyle's first two solo albums, both from 1978, now appear on CD for the first time, and follow Esoteric's remastering of Boyle's work with the jazz rock band Isotope. When Isotope collapsed, Boyle went back into the studio with artists as diverse as Rod Argent (keys), Simon Phillips (drums/percussion), and Zoe Kronberger (piano), who also contributes the fine tracks The Dancer and Now That We're Alone to the mix. Boyle's guitar/keyboard fusion, which started on Deep End by Isotope, comes to its logical conclusion on tracks like Cowshed Shuffle, Pendle Mist and the sublime cover of Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage.
Electric Glide (a winner of a 1978 Montreaux Jazz/Pop award) sees Boyle's guitar firmly at the front, with a movement away from the earlier jazz rock fusion to something like a jazz funk sound with much more soul, on the opening track Snap Crackle and the title track. The combination of guitar work with Phillips' drumming gives tracks like Hayabusa and Gaz a harder edge, whilst, in sharp contrast, the two acoustic guitar pieces with Nucleus guitarist Ken Shaw (Morning Father Joys and Brat No 2) showcase a different side to Boyle's versatile talent.
Dave Brock Memos and Demos Esoteric/Atomhenge ATOMCD1033
Founder member of Hawkwind, and the one constant throughout the band's turbulent 45 or so years, Dave Brock originally released this low key collection of studio session demos, sketches and off the cuff performances in 1997. Some of these song sketches ended up on the following Hawkwind album Distant Horizons, and Clouded Vision, Morpheus and Love in Space highlighht the difference between the original demo and what happened when the band got hold of it. Other tracks are, as Brock himself puts it, works in progress. Part of the record's low fi appeal derives from the fact that he produced and performed all the instruments himself. This is not a coherent album and was never intended to be, instead showing how a talented songwriter shapes ideas and fragments into an eventual finished product.
Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman Hidden People Navigator072
July saw the release of this, the debut album of husband and wife duo Lakeman and Roberts, famous for their work with folk contemporaries including Kate Rusby and Equation. Roberts was the inaugural winner of the BBC Young Folk Award, and Lakeman has produced for his brother Seth. Here they step out from the shadows of their better-known collaborators to put their considerable talents to work on this majestic debut. Sean's superb guitar work and atmospheric production give the songs room to breathe, whilst Kathryn's vocals enchant on a diverse range of tracks with topics including gothic Scandinavian folk tales (Huldra), love (Money or Jewels), the miners' strike (The Ballad of Andy Jacobs)--a song which hits home nearly 30 years on--and bawdry (Lusty Smith). All are performed with a panache and surety honed by years of performing. Finishing with the anti war Jackie's Song, this is the best folk album of 2012. If it doesn't win awards I'll eat my hat.
Gnidrolog: In Spite of Harry's Toe-nail Lady Lake Esoteric Records ECLEC2325/ECLEC2326
Originally released in 1972, these two albums showcase the talents of London brothers Stuart and Colin Goldring and their friends Nigel Pegrum (a drummer, later to join Steeleye Span) and Peter Cowling (bass). For Lady Lake the band was expanded by the addition of John Earle on saxophones and flutes. Having built up a massive live following for their epic performances, the band recorded a debut album of music from their stage act, with a dense sax driven sound that can be compared to Van Der Graaf Generator. Epic pieces like Long Live Man Dead and Time and Space are good reasons why this album is widely regarded as a classic of the prog rock genre. With the follow-up Lady Lake, which added John Earle, the songwriting hit a rich vein: the eleven minutes-plus anti war song to end all anti war songs, I Could Never Be a Soldier, is reminiscent of Wishbone Ash in parts, and is worth the price of admission alone. The album also contains the title track Social Embarrassment and Same Dreams, and is as assured as Close to the Edge by Yes, or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Gnidrolog deserve to be counted amongst the likes of Van Der Graaf Generator or Comus as true prog innovators, and these excellent reissues from Esoteric should go some way to establishing that reputation.
Chris Helme The Rookery Little Num Num Music LNNM10
For those of you old enough to remember the dying days of the Britpop empire, you may recall the Seahorses, the first musical project by legendary guitar hero John Squire, post-Stone Roses. Chris Helme was the Seahorses frontman, contributing his fantastic vocals to strong tracks such as Love is the Law and Blinded By the Sun. The Rookery is a fantastic contemporary English album, as far removed from Britpop as can be imagined, with a bluesy folk influence and ravishing use of strings and mellotrons on Darkest Days, Summer Girl, Set in Stone, and the great Daddy's Farm. This is a gold medal record from a superb musical talent.
The Albion Band The Vice of the People Powered Flight Music
Here is a new, rebooted sound from a well-known traditional name. The current incarnation of the Albion Band was formed when talented singer/songwriter Blair Dunlop took the reins of the family business from his father Ashley Hutchings--indeed, this is the first Albion Band line-up not to feature Hutchings.
This is an impressively strong group, with many fine folk musicians. There are five vocalists (Dunlop, guitarist Gavin Davenport, drummer and producer Tom Wright, fiddler and mandolinist Katriona Gilmore, and bassist Tom Yates), producing splendid vocal harmonies. Benjamin Trott proves himself a worthy successor to Richard Thompson and Graeme Taylor, with lead guitar playing that cuts swathes through the material here, particularly on incendiary new versions of One More Day and the classic Thompson track Roll Over Vaughan Williams. This new Albion Band iteration is not simply about a continuation of the name, however--it is a strong team of talented songwriters, as demonstrated on Coalville, Vice of the People, How Many Miles to Babylon and the brilliant closing Wake a Little Wiser, which questions hero worship, and resonated strongly with this reviewer. The album juxtaposes a folk background with rockier material, and is exactly what the folk-rock scene has needed for a long time. It is my candidate for record of the year. --James R. Turner
Interview with Mark Chadwick of the Levellers
For nearly twenty-five years, and over the course of nine studio albums, the Levellers have become one of the biggest draws on the live circuit, with an uncompromising attitude to which they have remained loyal, and a huge army of fans who are drawn by the band's ethos. Now they have released their tenth, and some would say finest, work yet: Static on the Airwaves.
I spoke to Levellers frontman and mainstay Mark Chadwick recently about the new record, their first for three years.
We wrote quite a lot about two years ago--in fact we ended up with around thirty songs. We were initially going to make it a double album, and then we decided to whittle the songs down to make a really strong single album.
How was recording with respected producer and performer Sean Lakeman?
We've worked with Sean for a very long time. He produced our last album, and understands what we're about. During this recording process he really helped us to think about how we write, and there was a real enthusiasm in putting the album together. The intention is for the album to be a body of work, rather than a collection of songs to keep people's interest. We specifically wanted an acoustic sound to this album. The last one we made was very aggressive and punky, and this one we wanted to be more thoughtful, retrospective and optimistic.
Even in these times?
There's a general feel of optimism and hope, because there's always hope, and I think that's reflected in the songwriting. The only traditional tune is The Recruiting Sergeant, which we have rewritten slightly to fit well within the themes of the album. Then there's The Tale of the Medusa, a good old-fashioned tale of mutiny.
As an album it's one of those now rare beasts which you have to listen to all the way through, rather than as discrete downloadable tracks.
It will be on iTunes, as those are the hoops you have to jump through these days, and the fact is that people will just download one or two tracks, and then hopefully if they like them they will download the whole album. I find that people don't have the concentration factor for music these days. That's why I like the whole vinyl revival and the experience of listening to music.
There's also a special 12" boxed set being released of the album as well.
[A vinyl release] makes the album more of an event, makes you want to own the album. We recorded it in the Czech Republic with legendary mixer Victor Van Vugt, and recorded it on classic analogue equipment It was mixed as we recorded it, with very little overdubs. We deliberately recorded it the way classic 50's/60's records were recorded.
You are, of course, touring to promote the new album?
We're doing around thirty or forty festivals this year, as well as our own Beautiful Days festival, which is now in its tenth year. This year we've got some fantastic guests, including Jethro Tull, Billy Bragg, Frank Turner, and Richard Thompson. We're touring the UK throughout October and November, and we'll be playing the new album, as well as playing abroad for a few festivals.
As your tenth album, is this a celebration?
There is a bit of that, yes. We are relieved to have made it this far after twenty-four years, and never thought we'd get to the stage where we have made our tenth album. Over the twenty-four years we have improved so much musically, and we love what we are doing. We're really enjoying bringing something to people. The advantage we have with our fans is that we have a close relationship with them, and that makes for a good atmosphere.
Interview conducted by James R. Turner. Many thanks to Mark Chadwick for his time.
The Albion Band Reborn
Back in the early part of this century, folk-rock icon Ashley Hutchings--a founder member of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span-- retired the band that he had been guiding since 1973. Now the Albion Band is back, taken over by a new generation. I recently spoke to both Blair Dunlop and Tom Wright about the new Albions and the album. Dunlop is not just the Albion frontman but also a talented solo performer, and was just about to leave for Italy when we spoke: "I've spent the day recording rough mixes for my solo album. Then for the next five days I'm off to Italy supporting Fairport Convention at three gigs."
I asked him how the new version of the Albion Band came about. "I was on a train with my Dad and we were talking. He was saying how he kept getting asked to do the old Albion Band stuff but for him it was a chapter closed. He had the idea of rebooting it with me--he feels strongly about carrying on the tradition. The old Albion Band had over 160 members over time, and we're now starting again with a new generation. At the moment no-one's doing the classic folk-rock vibe, so we've taken that on, with a modern sound and contemporary ideas. We started putting feelers out before we settled on a line-up, and got a demo through from Gav and Tom. We knew Kat, and added both Ben and Tim. It helped that we were all based in or around Sheffield, which has a fantastic scene. With venues like the Greystone and artists like Martin Simpson, Sheffield is a great place."
The process of making the album wasn't easy, however: "It was almost like the difficult second album. We really had to think about it, to get the right balance of new stuff, rebooted stuff and trad material rearranged in the Albion Band style. We had a long look at the old back catalogue to do so. It was a very organic process, because I'm a songwriter, Gav and Kat are both songwriters, Tom's an arranger and we all come from different places: Tom and Gav are classically trad whilst Kat and I like Americana, so there's a lot of directions we can go in-- which keeps the band and the sound fresh."
When asked whether there was pressure in taking on the name, Dunlop admits that there was "huge pressure, but life's about risks. We can understand why people might not see it as a proper Albion Band but we love the opportunity to show them what we can do. I've only just turned twenty, and this is an opportunity to prove ourselves; the pressure makes us want to make better music, and it's almost as if we have a point to prove."
As for Hutchings' contribution, "He likes supporting me and I've grown up with his influences. He's always a man who'll speak his mind. The Albion Band has a massive back catalogue and this band we have is good enough to tackle anything from there. I'm excited for the future, because anything can happen."
I then interviewed Tom Wright. Since Dunlop had said that Wright and Davenport got involved via a demo sent by their agent, I asked Wright how this came about. "I play in a Ceilidh band with Gavin, and have worked on Gav's solo stuff, and we're represented by the same agent as Blair and Ashley. The agent heard about the new Albion Band, and we wanted a folk-rock project in a similar vein, so our agent presented a demo to Blair and Ashley and it formed the base of Fighting Room, which was the first EP."
Dunlop had mentioned that the group had bedded in the music on the road, and Wright concurred. "The test comes from playing it live, and the majority of people love it--it's had the best reviews of anything that I've ever produced, and the best reviews of my career. It's broken the three star curse!"
How does the group deal with the old Albion Band's legacy? "Kat is hugely influenced by Joe Broughton and Roger Swallow, and I'm influenced by the Dave Mattacks, Martin Carthy, and John Kirkpatrick era. Two records in particular stand out for me: Rise up Like the Sun (1978) and Battle of the Field (1973)."
Finally, I asked Wright for his take on life in the Sheffield region: "Sheffield has an amazing folk scene. Some interesting people gravitate towards the area, like Nancy Kerr and James Fagan. It's a real social hub for professional folk musicians who are keen on pushing folk music forward as a valid concern."
With thanks to Blair Dunlop, Tom Wright and Ashley Hutchings.