Van Der Graaf Generator Merlin Atmos (live performances, 2013) Esoteric Recordings EANTCD21045
Always one of the most exciting and innovative progressive bands in the 1970s, Van Der Graaf Generator have continued to build on their reputation since their reforming back in 2005, rather than relying on old glories, and have released interesting and intelligent new albums fairly regularly. Since 2008’s Trisector, the band has been a trio of Peter Hammill (piano, guitar, vocals), Guy Evans (percussion) and Hugh Banton (organ and bass pedals).
This double disc set captures the highlights of the trio’s exciting European tour in 2013. The band were well known for their intricate music, particularly the deft time switches and key changes, so the question was, how well could they integrate the older and the new material in the context of a live show?
Taking as their starting point Peter Hammill’s complex epic Flight (from his underrated A Black Box solo opus), they answered: brilliantly. Hammill’s vocals have only matured with age, adding new resonance to his superb lyrics, whilst the complex musicianship is brilliantly handled as the prog power trio soar and fly, breathing new life into an undoubted classic.
Then, if you didn’t think they could beat that, they perform their magnificent A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers as a trio, making it sound as fresh, innovative and out there as it did on release back in 1971 on their astonishing Pawn Hearts album.
The wonderful Trisector album is well represented with Interference Patterns, Lifetime, All That Before and the lyrically astute and musically perfect Over the Hill all working superbly in the live setting. The mixture of Hammill’s piano and Banton’s organ sound is perfect throughout, and Guy Evans is as solid as ever, providing the bedrock on which Hammill and Banton can construct their otherworldly musical collages. With tracks like Gog, Meurglys III, The Songwriters’ Guild and Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End all getting the extended trio work-out, this is a masterclass in how to rearrange your back catalogue to sound fresh and relevant, and VdGG prove that they are still far ahead of the game. In short, Merlin Atmos is everything a live album should be, and much, much more.
Hawkwind Coded Languages, Live at Hammersmith Odeon, November 1982 Atomhenge ATOMCD21040
The Atomhenge project to reissue the vast and vibrant Hawkwind back catalogue continues with this superb double album set recorded on the 1982 Choose Your Masques tour. This tour featured a big surprise for Hawkwind fans: the line-up of Dave Brock (vocals, guitars, synthesisers), Harvey Bainbridge (vocals, bass), Huw Lloyd Langton (vocals, lead guitar), and Martin Griffin (percussion) were joined by the huge stage presence of Nik Turner (vocals, sax, flute) returning to Hawkwind for the first time since he left in 1976. With guest vocals from Michael Moorcock at the Hammersmith gigs recorded here, this truly is a magical set for Hawkwind fans.
The release runs the gamut of the band’s mighty back catalogue, with the fantastic opener Warriors At the Edge of Time/Choose Your Masks, but the focus is clearly on more recent material like Magnu/Dust of Time and Ghost Dance, here presented in a superb version, whilst the older material (Psychedelic Warlords, Sonic Attack and Brainstorm) fits neatly into this taut and electric set. Hawkwind are an ever-evolving musical entity--no two live performances are quite the same-- and it is wonderful to see concerts of this calibre being released.
Kestrel Kestrel Esoteric Recordings ECLEC22481
Originally released in 1975, the self-titled Kestrel was this fine band’s one and only album. This magnificent slice of mid-seventies prog sank without trace, but the nice people at Esoteric have remastered and reissued it for our pleasure. This double disc set (Disc 1 is the original album, while Disc 2 consists of single edits, B-sides and alternative versions) is the definitive edition of this unjustly neglected album, which shimmers and sparkles with some fantastic songwriting and real shiver-down-the-spine moments, particularly on the amazing epic opener The Acrobat, showcasing some mighty fine guitar work from Dave Black. The lengthy In The War has superb lyrics, and great vocals from Tom Knowles (aided on the harmonies by both Black and keyboard player John Cook). It can rightly be called a classic of the genre. The wistful and dreamy Wind Cloud changes the mood from the straightforward prog sound, with an almost jazzy vibe (it is here in two different recordings, the album version on Disc 1 and the edited single on Disc 2). The album ebbs and flows in atmosphere and style, most effectively when The End of the Affair leads into the closing track August Carol, with stunning vocals and some fantastic guitar work. The duo of Fenwick Moir and David Whittaker (formerly of prog power trio Ginhouse, again a band who were neglected in their time) round out this inventive and adept quintet. This is another lost gem rediscovered by Esoteric (I would love to know where they keep finding these treasures), and is proof, if proof were needed, that not all kestrels fly in the dark.
Chris Thompson Jukebox: 1975-2015 The Ultimate Collection Esoteric ECLEC22478
Known primarily as the vocalist for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Chris Thompson has drawn together two discs of his favourite tracks from thirty years’ hard work in the music industry. Chris has collaborated with some big names, contributing performances to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (a stunning version of Thunderchild is included here) as well as working with producers such as Harald Faltermeyer and Brian May --the brilliant A Shift in the Wind is also included. We are also treated to some great reworked Manfred Mann/Earth Band songs here, including the iconic Mighty Quinn, Davy’s On the Road Again, and Father of Day, whilst Thompson’s cover version of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song shows what a great interpreter he is. There are also a few gems from his latest studio album, the superb Toys & Dishes (including the fantastic Dark Side and the satirical Million Dollar Wonder Hit), proving that age has not dimmed his talent and vitality. This is a fine introduction to a performer whom you already knew very well --you just hadn’t realised it.
Joan Armatrading Whatever’s For Us Esoteric ECLEC2491
Joan Armatrading is one of England’s finest singer-songwriters, and this, her captivating and beautiful debut album from 1972 originally released on the Cube label now gets its much anticipated reissue on CD.
Armatrading’s writing partnership with Pam Nestor was highly acclaimed, and this collection of perfectly-crafted, mature and intelligent songs was produced by Gus Dudgeon, featuring a cast of talented luminaries like Gerry Conway (Fairport Convention) and Davey Johnstone. All of this demonstrates the label’s faith in Armatrading’s talent, trust which was well-placed: each song here is superbly arranged, and the Armatrading/Nestor dynamic clearly flourished in the studio. Despite the acrimonious end to their collaboration, as Nestor was effectively sidelined, the work that the two put into songs like City Girl, the wonderful title track, the fantastic Visionary Mountains (later covered by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band) and the brilliantly funky Lonely Lady shines through: there is no line wasted, no filler anywhere on this album. Armatrading’s fantastically soulful voice and Dudgeon’s sensitive production pull the songs together to create an album of depth and power. Lushly orchestrated and with an aesthetic rooted in contemporary folk, this is an overlooked work of art, a collection of timeless songs that deserves the reappraisal it is going to get with this reissue.
Ashley Wreakes Before Koresh ww.ashleywreakes.com
London-based experimental musician Ashley Wreakes, a name new to me, recently made contact via Twitter and sent me a copy of his seventh album. I was more than happy to give this genre-defying musical kaleidoscope houseroom. Working with Hull writer Joe Hakim and Huddersfield poet Kevin Boniface, as well as Leonard Phillips of the legendary punk band The Dickies, Wreakes has produced an album that is impossible to pigeonhole. Mixing prog, psych, rock and many more styles on a ten-track album is difficult: get ahead of yourself and it sounds disjointed, while excessive mixing gives the impression that you are trying too hard.
Here, Wreakes gets the balance just right, with a large chunk of brass (courtesy of Dave Kemp) and some fantastic harmonies on tracks like The Dustman, an adaptation of a children’s poem. It features excellent guitar work and odd musicbox time signatures --it’s over before it has started. Wearside Jack tells the story of the notorious Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer, and has haunting sax and dub sound and collaborative vocals from Maria Jardardottir. It’s fair to say, what with the title track and other songs such as Hell and Back, that Wreakes focuses on the darker side of life. This is perfectly encapsulated by the Joe Hakim collaboration Crystal, with its drifting, lilting musical sound and its bleak lyrics about drug addiction. It is one of the standout tracks on the album, with a Dan Le Sac-meets-The-Streets sound to it, set to a wonderful musical accompaniment. Uncategorizable and absolutely astonishing, Ashley Wreakes is a one-off, and deserves more recognition for his remarkable music.
Mr Love and Justice News From Nowhere Homeground Records HRCD015
The fourth release from Swindon-based musical collective Mr Love and Justice, headed up by Albion’s own Steve Cox (vocals and guitars) and ably accompanied by Marcus De ’Freitas (sax, bass, backing vocals), Rob Beckinsale (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), and Brendan Hamley (percussion) has been honed over the last two years during their Lazy Sunday Afternoon acoustic showcase. As a result, the songs have been nicely bedded in, and here they are fine-tuned to perfection (my independent critical opinion, separate from the fact that Steve and I are colleagues).
As a songwriter and performer Steve is very much in the English protest tradition, as shown by Hollow Crown and Red and Green. You know that not only has he written these songs, he believes every word he sings. This comes across in his vocal delivery and the musical intensity that the whole band bring to the work, particularly on the poignant Leaving Imber and the impassioned This England. As with Billy Bragg, the Levellers or Show of Hands --this band’s natural shelfmates -- the personal and political are inseparable, but there is also plenty of beauty here in the form of Strawberry Thief’s instrumental magic. This record of finely-crafted and well-observed songs elevates protest to an art form. A superb release on every level.
Formed in the late seventies by legendary acoustic guitarist John Williams, session musicians de jour Herbie Flowers and Kevin Peek, Curved air keyboard player and composer Francis Monkman, and orchestral percussionist Tristan Fry, Sky successfully fused classical pretensions with progressive and mainstream rock styles and were an absolute phenomenon in the early 1980s, yet their legacy seems to have been forgotten. It probably didn’t help that these albums were unavailable on CD for many years. Now, however, Esoteric records are putting together the comprehensive Sky remastered package. To begin with, I must admit to having a massive personal connection to these albums, since my Dad used to play them regularly when I was a child. As I drifted off to sleep I could hear the bass of Flowers or the percussion of Fry creeping through the wall. I have lived with this music all my life, it is wonderful to hear it remastered in such clarity.
Sky, the debut album originally released in 1979, showcases the band’s distinctive style, with the driving power of tracks like Francis Monkman’s Westway, the brilliant Carillion and the powerful closing Where Opposites Meet Again by Monkman. The five members brought a wide range of styles to the band: Williams’ classical acoustic mixed with Monkman’s progressive keyboards and the dynamite rhythm section of Flowers and Fry, and was perfectly complemented by Kevin Peek’s electric guitar.
As part of the package, this reissue includes a fantastic collection of the band’s live sets at the BBC. Seeing them perform really highlights the power of the unique Sky sound.
Sky 2 was an ambitious follow-up, a sign of growing strength and confidence in the form of a massive double album. Herbie Flowers (who had been the bassist on the Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground song Walk On the Wild Side) displays his tuba skills on the brilliant Tuba Smarties, which never fails to raise a smile, while Tristan’s Magic Garden showcases Fry’s superb percussion.
Traditional progressive rock bands from the first wave (Yes, The Nice, Genesis) were always trying to compose and perform in a rock-classical crossover, and whilst some were more successful than others, Sky, with their mixture of rock and classical musicians and composers, managed to blend the two genres in the most successful way possible. This explains why their albums always hit the top ten (Sky 2 even reached Number 1) despite containing complicated, intricate and intelligent instrumental music, with, in the case of Sky 2, a side-long composition called FIFO, the pinnacle of Monkman’s compositional output in Sky. There is no bad track on this album.
The second disc is a BBC-recorded live performance at the Hammersmith Odeon. Once again the music is phenomenal, with all five performers playing their hearts out. Their interaction, musical empathy and obvious enjoyment bring the music to life.
Sky 3 saw a change in the band, as Francis Monkman moved on to be replaced by another session musician, Steve Gray, who brought a different compositional style and focus to the group. Losing a member of Monkman’s calibre could end some bands, but Gray slotted in perfectly. Sky 3 is therefore not really the sound of a band in transition, as it could have been --in fact, of the first three albums it is probably my favourite, with some amazing group work on tracks like Westwind, Connecting Rooms, and the band classic Meheeco. Indeed, the work on here represents a logical progression from the previous two albums, with every member giving their all. It is very difficult for instrumental bands to ensure that they do not keep making the same album over and over again, but the members of Sky had enough musical skill, songwriting expertise and ease in working together to ensure that each album was fresh and musically exciting. Sky 3’s DVD is another corker, a live concert recorded in Westminster Abbey and shown on the BBC back in 1981. The sound is superb, and the atmosphere of the Abbey transcends the broadcast medium and the decades. It’s such a shame that the BBC doesn’t put bands like this on TV now.
Sky 4: Forthcoming was a slight change of direction for the band, containing interpretations of classical pieces, each rearranged and reimagined by the band members. Highlights include the wonderful reworking by Steve Gray of the Ride of the Valkyries, John Williams’ trademark dexterous sound on Bach’s Fantasy, and a fabulous version of Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark. Kevin Peek’s My Giselle is the only original track on the album. Live on the BBC in July 1982 is the DVD in this package, and tracks like Westwind, a brilliant version of Listen With Mother, a Sky rendition of The Fool on the Hill and Flowers’ showstopper Tuba Smarties make for a terrific live concert.
Sky 5 Live is, as the name suggests, a collection of live performances. This double-disc set reinstates the opening track The Animals (originally omitted from the first CD release) and was Sky’s second double album in three years. Some artists, and indeed record labels, see live albums as holding efforts, something to keep the band in the public eye and make a few quid whilst the artists recuperate and start work on new material. This, however, is more a snapshot of where the band were at the time: whilst it includes blistering versions of studio favourites like Meheeco, Hotta and Dance of the Little Fairies, it also features a number of tracks that were never committed to record. The Side One beginning suite The Animals, which moves through different moods and modes, is a classic Sky piece, a very successful crossover track. The Swan, again, was a live favourite but never recorded on a studio album. Kevin Peek’s imaginative tracks KPI, KPII and Antigua are all superbly performed and produced.
Sky continued to record, and released three more albums, all of which are out on Esoteric, but their reputation was made here on the first five records, as musically important in their own way as anything that Mike Oldfield or Yes did.
Jh Morning Sun Bad Elephant Music
A recent signee to one of the most exciting independent labels around at the moment, London based singer-songwriter Jon Hunt has put together this impressive fourteen-track compilation of material from his three previous albums (Truth & Bullshit, Wanderlust and So Much Promise), mixing styles, crossing genres and writing with honesty and intelligence. This is a fine introduction to one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Highlights include the beautiful Angels, which suddenly builds to a climax, and the story-telling of Lucy’s Party and I Wanna Spend My Summer With a Rich Girl. Jh’s lyrics are full of biting wit, well-observed vignettes, and smart couplets.
Not only that, of course, he is also no mean multi-instrumentalist, as demonstrated by The Sky is Breaking and I’ll See You Tomorrow In a Different Light. This is a great collection, but the stand-out track is the astonishing 18-minutes-plus epic majesty that is Making Tea is Freedom, which is about as English a sentiment as you can possibly get.
Originally formed over 18 years ago by highly regarded prog musicians Rhys Marsh (guitar and vocals), Francis Booth (bass), and Will Spurling (drums), Mandala have finally reunited to release, surprisingly, their debut album. In the time apart Marsh formed part of the highly successful Kaukausus and The Autumn Ghost. Then the band obviously felt that the time was right to revisit the Mandala sound, to deal with unfinished business, if you like. Marsh’s trademark musical intensity is on show here, and there are haunting guest performances on violin by Anna Gidney and cello by Natalia Rozario (particularly on The Dark Waltz, but their musicianship is never less than wonderful throughout). As Booth and Spurling drive the tracks forward, Marsh’s vocals soar, and the overall effect is an almost post-prog denseness of sound, sometimes reminiscent of the late lamented Dark Star, or Explosions in the Sky during their more exciting instrumental sections. This absorbing, atmospheric music draws you in with every listen. They may have taken a while to get this release out there, but it’s certainly worth the wait!
Originally formed back in 1966 by the two founder members Chris Bayley (guitar, vocals) and Bob Hagger (drums), this band’s original line-up also included the vocalist Jon Anderson, and bassist Chris Squire. It eventually evolved into the progressive behemoth that is Yes. Mabel Greer’s Toyshop could have remained a footnote in musical history, a mere curio in the backstory of Yes, were it not for Bayley and Hagger’s detemination. Thus the Toyshop in its 2015 incarnation now features two different ex-Yes men, keyboard maestro Tony Kaye and multi-instrumentalist Billy Sherwood, both of whom flesh out the band’s sound. Several tracks on here also appear on Yes’s debut album (Beyond and Before and Sweetness). Bayley’s interpretation is as diffierent from Jon Anderson’s as it is possible to get, although both sound great. Also featuring old Toyshop tracks like Jeanetta, New Way of Life and the superb opening Electric Funeral (which has nothing to do with the Black Sabbath track of the same name), this is a fantastic collection of material, well worth investigation whether you’re a Yes fan or simply interested in English psychedelia. It also shows that it’s never too late to finish what you started: Mabel Greer’s Toyshop now holds the world record for the longest period between a band’s formation and their debut album release!
A companion piece, follow-up, or collection of off-cuts depending on how you look at it, Neither Use Nor Ornament is the second release from Sheffield composer Jarrod Gosling (I Monster, The Skywatchers) and like his debut (Use and Ornament) it showcases his compositional skills and love of progressive textures. However, it’s not just prog that informs and influences Jarrod’s style: the opening 18-minutes-plus epic Odillon Escapes From the Charcoal Oblivion But Endeavours to Return and Rescue the Cactus Men throws everything and anything into the pot, including lush harmonies, some amazing mellotron sounds, and haunting melodies that remind the listener of the music from TheWicker Man soundtrack. The influences are, in fact, so wide-ranging that it is nigh on impossible to slot Regal Worm into one category. There are five tracks here, including the shorter but no less inspired Animal Attic and TomblandGorilla, with its sinister undertones, and Sovereign of the Skies, which has elements of the I Monster sound and a great funky riff running through it. The closing track The King of Sleep (again clocking in at over 18 minutes) features beautiful harmonies and some more of that wonderfully dark early seventies horror soundtrack sound. Slowly but surely Jarrod is redefining what prog music is, and it is exhilarating and exciting, as a music lover, to hear such abandon.
We Are Kin Pandora Bad Elephant Music
Every so often a record drops through the door from a band you have never heard of. With no idea what to expect from the album, you put it on with a sense of anticipation and excitement. If you’re lucky, as you immerse yourself in the music, you come to realise that you’ve found a record that will stay with you forever. This is one of those records. I listened to it once, then again and again, getting more out of it with every play. Manchester-based band We Are Kin (Dan Zambas and Gary Boast, now augmented by newer members Lee Braddock, Lauren Smith and Adam McCann) specialise in the sort of atmospheric prog rock that grows layer on layer, subtly and intelligently, like the work of Pink Floyd or Pineapple Thief. However, they are no mere copyists. Pandora has a very specific sound and style; the overall concept is artificial intelligence and its uses, and it ties the tracks together very well. The music here has space to breathe and grow, with nothing forced or jarring. Original vocalist Hannah Cotterill is in fine form on opener Home Sweet Home. Soul builds to a stunning climax, and then we head deep into concept territory as Scottish poet Alex Dunedin guests on the impassioned and exceptional The Speech, leading into the magnificent The Hard Decision. Zambas’ vocals shine throughout the album, especially on The Weight of the World, whilst the closing Breathe Out is as fine a piece of music as you are likely to hear anywhere this year.
From start to finish and from concept to execution, this record is close to perfection. The music, lyrics and story all coalesce brilliantly, and the album transcends genre and sound to become something timeless, original and new. Receiving unexpected records like this is one reason why I love this reviewing lark. Once you have heard this record, you cannot help but be changed by it and take it with you wherever you go.
Tom Slatter Fit the Fourth Bad Elephant Music
When writing about albums it is always handy to have comparisons, like pegs, on which to hang them, so that readers can infer that if they like the similar-sounding x, then they will also enjoy the record under review. However, Tom Slatter is a unique beast in the world of contemporary music, since he does not sound like anyone else or fit neatly into a pre-determined genre. This makes my job a little harder, but his music a lot more exciting.
This is Tom’s fourth full-length release, and his first under the aegis of eclectic and visionary Bad Elephant. Tom is apparently considered ‘steampunk prog,’ a genre of which he is probably the sole representative. Not just a multi-instrumentalist but also a conjuror of other worlds and peculiar tales, Tom is inspired by ghost stories told around the campfire. Fit the Fourth sees the return of Seven Bells John, a character who dates back to Tom’s first album and whose story is concluded in the 27-minutes-long Seven Bells Redeemed, an almighty masterpiece of narrative and music. (If Seven Bells John were ever to escape from the studio, his story would work superbly as a somewhat sinister musical.) The brilliant opener Some of the Creatures Have Broken the Locks on the Door to Lab 558 sets the listener’s imagination racing with just the title, and the post-apocalyptic science fiction yarn that it relates is reminiscent of early Doctor Who or Quatermass, setting the tone for the rest of this darkly compelling album. Seven Bells John features again on The Steam Engine Murders and the Trial of Seven Bells, which is Gothic noir mixed up with music-hall and Penny Dreadfuls. With its mix of Victoriana, steampunk, prog and narrative drive, this wonderful record is unlike any other that I have ever heard.
The eleventh full-length album from Richard Wileman’s Karda Estra collective features, amongst other luminaries, Knifeworld’s Kavus Torabi, who adds his unique sound to this endeavour. Sitting in the atmospheric ambient prog camp, Karda Estra have ploughed their own furrow for many a year. Their music has never been less than otherworldly and beguiling, and this latest set is no different. From the six-part title track, with its differing tones and moods --laid-back jazz, menacing motifs, and funk--via Yilla with its evocative Philip Glass-like minimalism to The Wanton Subtlety of Monna Tessa, the seven-minute mediaeval- and baroque-tinged track that closes the album, Karda Estra deliver another beautiful record while following their own highly specific muse.--James R. Turner