Thursday, 1 September 2011

80s Electro is Prog?

I bought two sets of gig tickets today - for Yes in Cambridge in November, and for Thomas Dolby in Leamington Spa the day after. At first sight, two acts could barely be more different, right?

But think about it - there's plenty of links between 80s Electronic pioneers like Dolby and prog rock through the decades. As a direct link, Thomas played the schoolmaster in Roger Water's Berlin concert of "The Wall" some years ago, that's pretty prog. And then there's the recently re-established Yes-Buggles partnership, plus the fact that Trevor Horn's other band (or should that be other other band?) The Art of Noise got together as the studio engineers/arrangers/session musos working on 90125 (and subsequently named one of the electronic masterpieces "Close (to the Edit)" in honour of the band.

More evidence? Well, the presence in Porcupine Tree of ex-Japan keyboard player Richard Barbieri is another strong connection, wouldn't you say?

Looking back, the real electronic pioneers in the 80s were doing what the 70s proggers had done before, in pushing at the boundaries and trying to do something beyond the norm - the best of them were doing something more than just pop, something with depth. Thomas Dolby's willingness and ability to move around musical genres and make interesting fusions between different styles and sounds makes him a genuinely progressive performer, and with a new album coming out soon with connecting themes and subdivided into sections makes him seem even proggier! I'm really looking forward to both gigs.

Now wish me luck getting tickets for Kasabian tomorrow morning - it's not prog but by crikey they rule the live stage! In fact, despite being a serious hard core prog fan, most of my favourite gigs are not strictly prog at all - Kasabian, David Bowie,  Electric Six  and Depeche Mode leaves room for just one Marillion gig in my all time top five (so far). Maybe it's because prog bands are so proficient musically that you get to hear faithful recreations of their albums, which is very nice but not necessarily adrenalin fuelling! Marillion's Garden Party gets in due to nostalgia as my first big gig, the others were all energetic, sweaty and noisy, and you don't really get that with prog that often! Maybe I'll be surprised in Cambridge, I have got standing tickets after all...

Monday, 11 July 2011

Fly From Here takes wing - Yes!

So, a new Yes album. Time was they came thick and fast - in the early 70's at least annually, and even in the 90's they managed one on average every two years. The longest gap between albums up to now was four years between "Big Generator" and "Union", and that was interrupted by the in-all-but-name Yes album "Anderson-Wakeman-Bruford-Howe". But the gap between the underrated (or at least under-sold) "Magnification" and "Fly From Here" has been a comparatively huge ten years (though that's nothing for a Kate Bush fan). It's been a long wait. Worth it?

My copy arrived on Saturday, and has barely been out of my ears since then. It's been an exciting time, because despite being a Yes fan of many years standing, this is probably only the fourth time that I've heard a new Yes album when it's actually been brand new.

To explain (and further delay giving my opinion on the new opus), I didn't get "into" Yes until just before I went to college in the 80s, and at the time was more interested in the back catalogue than what they were doing at the time - Close To The Edge meant more to me than "90125", which I didn't really listen to much at the time it came out, despite loving "Owner Of A Lonely Heart". Ironically, at the time I met the woman who's now my wife (in 1989) I didn't own my own copy of "90125", but she did. Ironic, because she basically hates prog rock!
My first (nearly) brand new Yes album was "Big Generator", released in September 1987, and which I was given as a Christmas present that year, on cassette at a time when a personal stereo meant a cassette player, and mine was in almost constant use. I can still remember listening to the album for the first time on that very personal stereo, sat at our dining room table (still groaning under the weight of leftover turkey and mince pies - me and the table) on Christmas night. It's a weird time, Christmas night - all the excitement is over and you may be left feeling contented after a good time or disappointed if the day didn't quite live up to expectations. I think on balance I was probably feeling more of the latter that year, still (just) in my teens, unsure about how college was going, trying to recapture the excitement of childhood christmases and failing. But the music on that album was not a disappointment. It's not considered a classic these days by the Yes cogniscenti (whoever they are) but I love it - a nice fusion of the "new" sound of 90125 with a more old fashioned Yes songwriting style - "Shoot High, Aim Low" is a great mix of the two for me, and the three "love" titles were all excellent prog-pop numbers. It's still one of my favourites, and good for the gym!

I suppose ABWH was also a new Yes album, really, and that also came on cassette, one of the last I bought in that format, and the energy on that album was phenomenal. It felt like getting a brand new "classic" Yes album - why I never went to see the tour I don't know, but I didn't go to many gigs back then - probably a case of nobody to go with (by this time I'd met my future wife and she went to one prog gig with me and swore never again - until Steve Hogarth joined Marillion, but that's another story!) - that, and a lack of money too!

Then came "Onion", so called by Rick Wakeman because it brings tears to the eyes! The first new Yes album I got on CD (yes, I remember when they were new-fangled, kids), and my major reaction was "hmmmm". It felt like there was a decent album (or two!) in there trying to get out but failing, smothered as it was in session musicians and a lack of general creative drive. The concept was a union, but there was no unifying vision. There are songs on there I like, but nothing really special. And that was, basically, when I stopped buying new Yes albums, at least for a while. When they came out I was not inspired by the covers of Talk or Open Your Eyes, they looked too poppy for my tastes at the time, although I've since bought them and am growing to appreciate them on their own merits.

In the middle came the two "Keys to Ascension" CDs, and although the covers looked good I'm not a big fan of live albums and wasn't shelling out that much money for live music with what looked like a couple of token studio tracks thrown in as bait. Of course, I've since found out what an idiot I was for thinking that, as I bought the studio tracks when they were re-released as "KeyStudio" and discovered the best Yes music since, well, "Going For The One", probably. Rick's right, they should have released them as one studio album at the time and properly promoted it, it's the great "lost" Yes album and had I found that as a brand new album I'd have wet myself with excitement at how good it was!
"The Ladder" in 1999 looked right, Roger cover, almost the right line-up, but still I couldnt be tempted to buy it when it first came out. Not sure why - was it because I'd heard the line about each new album being their return to form too often before, when it wasn't really? The second hand copy I bought a couple of years later proved it actually was, and I'd missed another opportunity to enjoy new Yes music when it was still fresh!

Although by the time of 2001's "Magnification" I'd started to catch up with the back catalogue and becoming a serious Yes fan at last, I think I was still late in getting that album - probably because at the time my internet access was rare and I had no idea the album was out! Once I'd spotted it in a shop some time later, it was almost as good as getting it fresh, as it was great new music that to me sprang out of nowhere. I then saw the "classic" line-up live several times in the early part of the 2000s, and my eagerness for a new album from them built up and built up and built up until... nothing. They didn't record. Then when they announced plans for a 2008 tour AND recording after that, I was so excited. Then Jon Anderson's near death experience put paid to that, and since then all the shenanigans and controversy over replacing Jon with Benoit David from a Yes covers band, and then announcing the were recording an album with Benoit and not Jon. What a stupid idea, I thought.

I was wrong.

I've blogged before about how much more interested I became when I heard Trevor Horn was involved, and that Fly From Here was finally going to get the proper studio treatment it deserved, and that got more interesting when poor Oliver Wakeman was basically fired in order to get Geoff Downes back into the band. I'm a big Buggles fan, and I loved the "Drama" album, so much as I would have loved a new Jon-led Yes album, this was almost as good.

SO - enough stalling, I've had the new album three days, what do I think? I think it's going to be several weeks before I listen to anything else, that's what. I think it's excellent, and to be listening to it the day before it's even released in the US (and as it sits at number 18 in the UK midweek album charts) sends a lovely shiver down my spine.

The huge "Fly From Here" suite is all I could have hoped for, and more - I'm even growing to love the originally jarring "bumpy ride" section which felt like an escapee from "Relayer" on first hearing. Benoit's voice is beautiful, and weirdly sometimes sound as much like Trevor Horn as it does like Jon (on some tracks you'd swear it was Jon, really) but is also showing some signs of finding his own voice too. I loved the demo versions on the re-release of The Buggles second LP, but the full Yes version is just so much more... more! Big, dramatic, tense, non-specifically nostalgic, it's a heady brew. I wasn't sure about seeing them live but I just have to be in a concert hall to see and hear them play this live. Steve Howe in particular seems to have added the magic touch to these tracks. Brilliant.

The rest of the album has taken longer to appreciate after such a big "opener", but there's good stuff to be found. The Squire-led "Man You Always Wanted Me To Be" could be a track on "Open Your Eyes" but it would be one of the better ones, and Chris and Benoit's voices do blend so well, like Chris and Jon's always did. The way Jon was dropped was fairly shitty, but just listening to Benoit's voice on its own merits, there's still magic there. Really.

"Life On A Film Set" surprised me because it's another song that was in demo form on The Buggles "Adventures..." CD, there called "Riding A Tide" and much sketchier than this startling new version. Again I think it's Steve Howe who adds the missing ingredient (that and the world's best rhythm section, of course).

"Hour of Need" is one of the few tracks to feature any contribution from Oliver W, and unsurprisingly sounds the most (Rick) Wakeman-ish in terms of keyboards, despite being a Steve Howe composition. This and the closing "Into The Storm" appear to be the main survivors of the album they might have made with Oliver, and they suggest that such an album would have been equally rewarding. The last track in particular, being one composed by all the members of Yes (at that stage), is perhaps the most tantalising, and one can't help wondering what else was discarded from those first sessions that might be worth digging up. The "Armies of angels" section in particular is stunning, and here Benoit seems to have his own voice at last.

Funnily enough, despite my praise of Steve Howe on the rest of the album, my least favourite track is his (apparently obligatory) solo acoustic guitar number, but I was never a big fan of them. It could grow on me though.

And now, I'm much more excited about (a) seeing this version of Yes live and (b) the possibility of them making more albums, and much more frequently, please!

Of course, if Jon and Rick were ever tempted back into the fold, that would be great too, but then they're busy working with Trevor Rabin. Now that's a mouth watering idea - never a dull moment as a Yes fan!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

US Yes We Can - sound like Yes!

Listening to the latest CD from American proggers Glass Hammer (the succinctly titled "If") I was struck by just how much some bands from the other side of the pond want to be Yes. They're not content to just be influenced by them, they really really want to be Yes.

It's not all US Prog Bands, I know, but perversely they seem to be the ones I like, even while having a wry smile on my face at just how much they really want to be Yes. They do!

The prime example are semi-contemporaries from the 1970's, Starcastle. I first heard them via AOL radio's prog station (which I thought was defunct, but appears to be alive and well here, which is good as I heard a lot of things on there for the first time). Back to Starcastle - when I first heard them I thought it was a previously unknown Yes track, so close an approximation was the sound (and most of all the voice). It's funny, Jon Anderson has one of the most distinctive voices in prog rock but so many other singers sound like him. Go figure, as our American cousins would say. Even Yes have twice managed to find a soundalike when Jon has either quit or been edged out, first with Trevor Horn and more recently with Benoit David, who started in a Yes tribute act!

Although their first album from 1976 (the self-titled "Starcastle") might as well be by Yes, that's not necessarily a bad thing - because a lot of the time it's as good as Yes. Opener "The Lady of the Lake" is a classic, and leads to an album of lively wide-eyed rock with lots of keyboard trills and guitar runs, and lyrics about fire winds and stargates, all very cosmic, and a very innocent pleasure. I usually distrust recommendations of the "if you like this you'll like..." variety, but I challenge any fan of 70s Yes not to be charmed by this album. Unfortunately their follow ups "Fountains of Light" and "Citadel" from '77 and '78 respectively, while perfectly adequate, are just not as memorable, and there their story ended, at least for a few years. In recent years some of the original members picked up the baton again, and have played live intermittently and I believe have also released a new album, which I have yet to hear - and they've even had Rick Wakeman's son Oliver (also now a Yes alumni) on keys, bringing it all back to the original inspiration. 
A less obvious homage, partly because the Yes influence is tempered by almost equal parts of Genesis mellotron worship, is 1998's "Ad Infinitum" by the band of the same name. They were musicians that were obsessed with 70s (largely British) prog rock, and decided to use authentic instruments of the period (sort of like a baroque orchestra using proper harpsichords, I suppose) and write songs in the style of the bands they loved. You wouldn't find a British group doing this, they'd be too embarrassed, but the Americans seem much less fettered by such concerns, and are happy to expose themselves as prog-lovers of the old school. The vocals (by several singers, I believe) are less obviously Jon-a-likes, and the music is decent prog-fayre when you require the scratching of the mellotron (as Porcupine Tree put it). Worth searching out. And it is a Roger Dean cover, by the way!

In some ways the best and worst culprits are Glass Hammer - best because on some of their albums they have come closest to being Yes, and worst because on other albums they have shown their own equally excellent individual sound, and I do wish they'd do more like that. They've done a lot, starting out with Tolkien influenced songs that probably owed more to early Marillion or Pentangle than to Yes, but after a while the Yes-fest kicked in. Chronometree from 2000 is a good example, leaning heavily on the sounds of "Relayer", and a very Anderson-y lyrical tendency, especially when it comes to titles - "Empty Space - Revealer" and "An Eldritch Wind" open the album, none-more-Yessy, I'd say.

Even more so was the recent "Culture of Ascent" album from 2007 which featured not just a Yes cover ("South Side of the Sky") but also "vocalizations" (as opposed to just singing!) from JA himself. At least this album took Yes as a start point and then went off in a different direction, albeit one that never strayed too far from the spirit of the origin - maybe how "Fragile" would have sounded if they'd made it now with modern technology.

After a brave stab at being different with "Three Cheers For The Broken Hearted" their most recent album "If" might as well be titled "If We Were Yes" - they've ditched their previous male and female singers in favour of someone new who sounds more like Jon than Jon does these days, and with long tracks titled "Behold, The Ziddle", "Beyond, Within" and "At Last We Are" it's all gone just a bit too far. It may grow on me, but I'm struggling to get over the giggles at the moment because it all seems just too much. They've studied gene-splicing and come up with Dolly-the-Sheep in album form, a perfect Yes-clone that leaves one not quite sure if it's a glorious new dawn or a scary Frankenstein creation. As I say, it might grow on me.

It's all the sadder, though, because back in 2005 they produced a very fine album indeed, that was all their own - influenced, yes, but definitely Glass Hammer being themselves, not a photocopy of the bands they loved. "The Inconsolable Secret" (okay, dodgy title) is a double CD with just under 100 minutes of beautiful and stirring music, with a pseudo-Arthurian theme involving knights, kings, princesses and crowns that somehow manages to escape being twee or fey. The opening 15-minute "A Maker of Crowns" is a big favourite of mine, and I love the repeated lyric of "One stands - watching his king", it has so much undercurrent to it. I couldn't tell you what the story behind it is, something to do with the king's daughter and a rebellious knight, but it's moving in a way that the best legends are, even when you don't completely understand why they touch you. "If"? "If" only they would write more like this. It does have a cover by Roger Dean, though - you can't completely escape Yes!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Pendragon pull the sword out of the stone at last

A couple of weeks ago I got the brand new Pendragon CD, "Passion", and have been listening to it a lot, as well as their earlier work for an interesting comparison. I do have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the band - I love some of their early work, despite misgivings about the lead singer/guitarist Nick Barrett's voice, and I really like their previous album, 2008's "Pure"... but in between are some not-so-good albums that in a less charitable mood I would describe as dire! Maybe they're not that bad, and I haven't actually heard them all, but for me they're a band who have only recently lived up to (and at long last actually exceeded) their early promise.

In the early 80's I was a big Marillion fan (still am, but that's another story) and as well as discovering all the 70's prog giants that had inspired them, I also searched out and listened to their contemporaries in the "prog revival" scene of the time: IQ became big favourites and vie with Marillion as my favourite active proggers; Pallas were not quite my cup of tea although I still love "Arrive Alive" from their debut album; and then there was Pendragon. My local library had a copy of their debut "The Jewel", and I must confess to having mixed feelings about what I heard - lively Marillion-ish keyboards, great guitar work.. and these odd vocals.

Sorry to harp on about it, but he has a very... distinctive voice, and not always in a good way. How to describe it? It's a little weak, thin-sounding, occasionally too forced. At it's worst you could imagine it to be the singing voice of squeaky comedian Joe Pasquale! And yet... there's something honest about it, it could easily be considered as the voice of a bedroom incarcerated teenager desperately yearning for something more, something mythical and magical. At least that's how it works on their debut, which despite my early doubts is one I return to again and again, and is certainly in my top ten favourite prog albums. It's got some odd lyrics, to be sure (about socks and kippers!) and a slightly dodgy cover that was replaced when they reissued it some years later, but there's something upbeat and hopeful about most of the songs, a sense of excitement, a sense of reaching out for something bright - in fact, the "jewel" of the title. Funnily enough their song "Chase The Jewel" wasn't actually on this album, but was on a later EP (and subsequently on the compilation "The Rest of Pendragon" which is well worth hunting out). Looking at a few other people's reviews of "The Jewel" it seems there's more than just me who feel like Mr Darcy when he first proposes to Elizabeth Bennett (in Pride & Prejudice, lit-fans), we love it against our better judgement!

In the end I liked it so much that as soon as I saw something else by them on CD (their early live CD "9:15 Live") I snapped it up despite my general aversion to live albums (there are exceptions, such as Dire Straits' "Alchemy Live", but they generally prove the rule). It wasn't bad - and it had extra tracks on that whetted my appetite for more (which turned out to also be on "The Jewel" when I finally found that on CD).

I'm more confirmed and less confused in my favourable opinion of their studio follow-up "Kowtow" which went in a completely different direction - a little more commercial, maybe, at a time when Marillion, IQ and Pallas were all doing the same thing after big label signings, and it's more Dire Straits than Genesis, but it's a good solid album. "2am", "The Haunting", "Total Recall", they're all very atmospheric, polished and classy, a nice touch of saxophone here and there, and Nick reigns in his tendency to wordiness in the lyrics. And the title track itself is superb, totally unexpected oriental sounds from such a previously old-fashioned sounding prog band. Not sure about all the poppier tracks ("Red Shoes" and "Saved By You" are a bit too bouncy!) but a good strong album.

Then, unfortunately, it all went a bit twee even for my tastes, with next album "The World" suffering from trying to squeeze too many long words into too short lines, too many po-faced sentiments and long meaningful guitar solos, and it all felt forced and, yes, twee. A few decent moments here and there but that was, at the time, where my interest in Pendragon stopped. I'd see ads for their albums every so often, always with the same sort of over-busy and over-polished covers that were just too self-consciously "proggy" , and maybe hear a track from time to time, all of which sounded like "The World", only worse.

And then... I saw the cover of "Pure" in 2008, and something told me this was different. There was energy, violence, blurred lines and shades, it was more akin to Porcupine Tree than faux-Genesis, and I wondered and hoped if the music would match. Still not willing to risk a tenner on a band who'd let me down before, I must confess to using naughty internet methods to acquire the album (I don't like doing it and have sworn never to again) and was absolutely blown away by it. And yes, I have since paid for a legitimate copy, because it was so worth the money. Suddenly Nick's voice has a darker edge to it, there's anger and passion and genuine emotion behind the songs, and superb and inventive guitar and keyboard sounds. And yes, musically it is closer to Porcupine Tree, but even if that was a cynical marketing move to try to get new listeners, it worked superbly. Opener "Indigo" is a tour-de-force, and the album that follows is stunning. "Comatose II: Space Cadet" (he really loves multi-part song suites) is one of their finest pieces, even my prog-hating wife was impressed - and I love the whispered end ("On Monday I'm taking in a gun").

So when I got my hands on a pre-ordered "Passion" recently my biggest worry was that "Pure" was a one-off, and it was all going to go horribly wrong again, but I'm glad to say it's continuing in the right direction, whilst not trying to be a slavish copy of the earlier success. The opening title track is a little bit in the old twee style for a few bars (albeit after an expectation undercutting introduction with electronic drum patterns) but this is a mischievous misleading that wrong foots the listener with some lyrics about juggling, and then the sudden deep throated roar of "I-DROP-MY-BALLS" and off we go into rockier and spikier territory.

Not all the album is as hard-edged as that, but although there is a tendency towards the potentially maudlin on "This Green and Pleasant Land" with the roll-call of his various uncles' contribution to the war effort, it's so clearly genuine emotion, with pride and disgust mixed in the lyric about the England he loves and despairs for that it works without becoming too much, and without straying too close to the bad old days. It's also got a very catchy chorus ("Take only what you need and be on your way"). I like this so much I may even buy the album before "Pure", 2005's "Believe", in the hope that actually the revival started there, as it's an album I've never heard. I'll still avoid anything they did from the 90's like the plague, though!

To hear clips from their songs, visit their official site here and you might be impressed. Or not, depending on which tracks you select!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Remember the Jester that showed you tears?

It's funny what can remind you of a certain song - yesterday it was coming home from watching my rugby team, Northampton Saints, beat Ulster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final in Milton Keynes. Travelling home by coach we passed one of Milton Keynes few distinguished landmarks (as opposed to all those bloody roundabouts!), that odd red and white structure that looks like a circus tent. Do you know, I have no idea what it actually is? But it reminded me of the tent on the poster for Marillion's 1986 "Garden Party" concert, held at Milton Keynes Bowl, the first gig I ever attended (shortly before my 18th birthday, bit of a late developer as far as live gigs go!). Checking out the posters on Google Images the tent looks nothing like that red and white structure, but I've always associated the two, maybe I saw it on the coach going to the gig?

Anyway, the song I was reminded of was of course "Garden Party" itself, and luckily I had my MP3 player with me (an ancient iRiver iHP140 in case you're interested, still works very well) and found the song. What would my nearly 18-year-old self have made of such a piece of technology back then? We were amazed by cassette playing walkmans (walkmen?), I think, so I suspect a small plastic box that could potentially hold your entire record collection would have blown our minds. I say potentially because my personal record collection is too big for this one 40Gb player, so it's lucky I have two! If your record collection was smaller you could fit it all on one OR you could buy a player with a bigger memory, one of these days I might give in and get an iPod as there's one that holds 160Gb, might just be big enough... I digress.

Anyway, 20-plus years disappeared the instant I had the song in my ears, it's still fresh and alive today. Some of that first album, "Script For A Jester's Tear", can sound a little plodding now, possibly due to the soon-to-be-sacked founder drummer Mick Pointer's limited skills on the kit (although for me the nostalgia value usually helps me ignore that), but Garden Party is such a good song, and the memory of how that huge crowd reacted as the band struck it up at that concert gives it a big boost as well. It was bizarrely the second Marillion album I heard but the first I owned - I'd got a naughty tape of a friend's copy of Fugazi, but having remembered Garden Party from Top of the Pops and being disappointed that it wasn't on that album, I went out and spent my limited cash at the time (1984, probably just started as a Saturday boy at the town library) on the only other available album, "Script...". This was a time when you still bought albums on vinyl, although pre-recorded cassettes were taking over, hand in hand with the rise of the aforementioned walkman, I guess. My previous LPs had been largely New Romantic pop (Duran Duran's debut, The Human League's Dare) with minimalist covers and lots of white space. This was a revelation, a densely detailed painted gatefold sleeve, full of symbolism and tiny clues to the music and lyrics within. I'd just got into Genesis at around the same time, as detailed in a previous blog, but at this stage I'd not really seen their painted gatefold sleeves so Marillion's was a first for me. This suggested a lot of care and attention had gone into this record, and I was right! The title track starts very quietly, slightly mysteriously, like a secret being whispered to you, and opens into a lovely and at the time unexpected mix of piano/acoustic guitar passages and full on rock sounds. Fish, their original singer and lyricist used long words, complicated imagery, and angst-ridden poetry just perfect for a pretentious about-to-be sixth-former. Although looking back some of it is a tad, shall we say, overdone and ornate, there was more emotional content in one verse of that song than I'd heard in 16 years of pop music up to that point.

At the time they were constantly being accused of slavishly copying Genesis, but I can't really hear much on that debut album to justify the comparison, really. Yes, Fish used facepaint like Peter Gabriel had, but the only similarity to my ears was that they were both working outside the constraints of convention, and had much more musical skill and imagination than most of their contemporaries! When I later heard Grendel from their first 12-inch single I had to admit a little more similarity there, but what's on this album is pure Marillion. Just listening again as I type, and He Knows You Know has started, Fish sings with so much bite and aggression - and my first (recognised) drug references in a song, I think. I love the time-changes in this song, the pauses for breath, the dynamics and contrasts throughout this LP. So well structured too, something missed by the download generation, I suspect. Each song is subtly linked to the next, and there's a flow to the whole thing akin to a classical symphony's contrasting movements.

Reading the history and recollections of the band and their associates I know that the follow up "Fugazi" was the clich├ęd  "difficult second album" writ large (basically a nightmare to write and record) but it's my favourite of the Fish-era albums, a superb audio experience when heard through the headphones of my shiny new walkman, usually during a solitary teenage-angst fuelled walk through the country lanes near my home. I seem to remember listening to it a lot during warm evenings in summer, it all seemed so meaningful at the time! "Script..." had some clever use of sound effects and studio trickery, but this was so much richer, lots of subliminal sounds and effects that couldn't be identified as any particular musical instrument. Fish's lyrics seemed sharper, more targeted, less opaque, and sung with so much venom and righteous anger (or heart-rending anguish, as on the beautiful Jigsaw). The eventual arrival of Ian Mosley on the drum stool (again, a complicated tale I didn't know at the time) led to much more exciting and interesting rhythms, and everything seemed clean and bright, much like the pristine hotel room of the cover. And She-Chameleon said the F-word much more clearly than Garden Party had on "Script...", and talked about sex, quite exciting for an inexperienced teenage boy!

Genesis were my first prog-love, but their best albums were in the past (much as I enjoyed their poppier later albums, and went to see their gigs, they weren't as special as their early days), whilst Marillion were very much happening before my eyes (ears?). The expectations for their third album were massive, and built up even more by hearing an unfinished version of half of the album performed live on a Radio One broadcast concert (wonder if I still have a copy of the tape I made?). I'd read an interview with Fish that suggested the album would be called "Year of the Cicada" after the insect that lives in larval form underground for 17 years and then emerges as an adult for a brief time before laying the eggs that will repeat the 17 year cycle. Sounded fascinating, but apparently the idea was abandoned as the new album ended up as "Misplaced Childhood", a semi-psychoanalytical exploration of the singer's past, with some rather meaty and slightly less contrived lyrics with real-world concerns and experiences. Musically even more adventurous than before, they really spread their wings on this one, and were brave enough to revisit a format that was mocked long before, the Concept Album. Tracks rolled up together in mini-suites, lyrical and musical motifs repeated throughout, and yet also their most accessible album for the general public courtesy of the simple but brilliant guitar riff on Kayleigh, a great 80's rock song only kept off the number one slot by a charity single (You'll Never Walk Alone) in May 1985. Suddenly my favourite underground alternative band were popular, it was extraordinary, even the girls I knew liked it! When the album itself came out it was the first I ever bought on the day of release, or at least the week of release, anyway. Apparently it was released on a Monday, the 17th of June 1985, when I would probably have been at school, so I guess I bought it on the following Saturday (during my lunch break from the library job), and then I listened to it over and over for the rest of the weekend. It's still a special album, but parts of it don't completely work for me - Lavender is a little too rocky and simplistic, and I've never really liked the end song "White Feather", partly in contrast to the superb "Childhood's End?" that immediately precedes it. It's just too, well, obvious - bombast and pat where the rest is subtle and poetic. But if you hear nothing else from this album, the "Mylo" section of "Blind Curve" is a must, Fish and the band at a lyrical and musical peak - try the youtube extract here.

The summer afterwards they held their famous Garden Party show at Milton Keynes, the memory of which started me off on this particular blog. I'd never actually been to a gig before, venues in Northampton at the time rarely hosted the bands I wanted to see and in the pre-internet days the first a clueless teenager like me heard about a gig was when it was too late to get tickets. However, our local independent record shop (the sadly missed Spinadisc) had ads by the counter for coach trips they organised to various concerts, and one of them was for what promised to be a major Marillion show with loads of support bands. Actually managing to buy tickets for me and my friend Scott (hi Scott!) was a real buzz, never mind the excitement boarding a double decker bus for what seemed like a long ride (half an hour at most!) to the Bowl, an open air venue that rarely seems to get used these days. It was a day of blazing sunshine and more people than I had ever seen in one place - something like 35,000! At the time I had no idea who most of the support acts were and wasn't really bothered. I'd seen and liked Jethro Tull on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and Gary Moore was kind of familiar, but I wasn't really a fan of either, and had never heard of Magnum or Mama's Boys (in fact I never heard of the latter ever again!). I really enjoyed Jethro Tull and that started another life-long love affair with their music, Gary Moore was impressive but not quite my cup of tea for more than a few songs, and any way by the time he was on I was desperate for Marillion to come on stage! They didn't disappoint, it was one of those magical moments when everything comes together, the band at their peak (at least with that line-up), the weather perfect, the crowd receptive and enthusiastic, a very special introduction to live music. Since then there have been other great gigs (Bowie at Wembley, or at the other end of the scale Electric Six at Northampton's tiny sweaty Roadmender) but the Garden Party was that special one that stays with you all your life.

From what I've heard and read since, it was probably not long after that when things started going wrong for the band, at least from a personal relations and "musical differences" point of view, due to excessive gigging and lack of breaks to recuperate. Their last album with Fish, "Clutching At Straws", was a masterpiece, but more or less destroyed them. I was about to start at University by the time it came out in 1987, and by that time our family had invested in a new-fangled CD player, and it was the first Marillion album I got on CD when first released. (The first CDs I ever bought as new albums, by the way, were Peter Gabriel's "So" and Genesis's "Invisible Touch" the year before, but they were so comparatively expensive at the time I didn't buy many CDs for a few years). I still wonder what they would have done after this if they had stayed together, for a band in the process of breaking up it's such an accomplished and assured album, much more adult and intelligent than the three before. A serious examination of relationships, creativity, politics and addiction, it runs "Fugazi" a very close second as my favourite from the Fish era - is it bizarre of me to say that "Fugazi" is my favourite but that "Clutching..." is a better album? I think nostalgia probably wins it for the earlier album.

Steve Rothery had always been a good guitarist, but I think this is the album when he learns real subtlety and technique, and comes up with some of his finest fretwork up to that point. The only relatively weak point is "Sugar Mice", still a strong song but a little plodding compared to the rest of the album, and with a slightly silly image in those "sugar mice in the rain". Highlight of the album has to be "Warm Wet Circles/That Time Of The Night", in particular the linking passage between the two joined songs. It's no coincidence, I think, that this is the Fish-era piece that Steve Hogarth has sung most often, or at least with most conviction. Just beautiful. The album even got critical acclaim, making new hip music magazine Q's albums of the year list, with the telling phrase "their next effort will be crucial". Scott and I were also influenced into drinking White Russians by the song of the same name - mmm, can taste them now! We went with another friend from university, Jim (hi Jim!) to see them play at the Birmingham NEC, felt like a massive gig, I assumed they could only get bigger. I didn't realise it would be the last time I'd see the band in that lineup.

As I've said, these were pre-internet days, and I also didn't read the music papers that often while I was at uni (St Edmund Hall, Oxford, since you ask), too busy reading the books on my English course, so it was a bit of a surprise to learn about the Fish-Marillion split via a comedy gig! I was friends with several budding comics at college, including Stewart Lee and Al Murray (a very good drummer), both of whom were also at SEH (or Teddy Hall as we knew it, laughably), and I went to support a lot of student comedy revues. At one of these a sketch consisted of a man doing bizarre ritualistic things with twigs for no apparent reason, ending with someone commenting that "he hasn't been the same since Fish left Marillion". My ears pricked up - what did he just say? By this time the 80s prog-revival backlash had started, and despite continued popularity Marillion were getting mocked more and more often as 70s throwbacks just at the time when they were escaping such links and moving firmly into modern times. Neil the Hippy from The Young Ones (watch here from about 5:40 in) was a fictional fan, showing the comedy world's unfair opinion of the band. Was it just another joke, I thought? But no, I confirmed afterwards (and I can't for the life of me remember how) that it was true.

Was that it for my musical heroes? MY band? Turns out it was actually just the prelude to something wonderful, but that's another story...

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

YES, I am excited about the new album

I've been a fan of Yes for many years, and have enjoyed their work in many different incarnations, including the (up to now) sole album not fronted by the legend that is Jon Anderson, the controversial "Drama" fronted by Buggles-man and producer extraordinaire Trevor Horn (as mentioned in an earlier post). But when they started touring more recently without Jon due to his health problems, using a singer from a Yes tribute act to take his place, I wasn't so impressed. Don't get me wrong, the sound is fine, his voice is very good, but it's the politics and lack of artistic input from Jon that upset me. As I understood the state of affairs before Jon's health problems, there were plans to write and record a new album with more or less my favourite line-up (Jon, Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Alan White and either Rick Wakeman himself or at least his son Oliver deputising for him as he now does live). Since the last results of such a collaboration were the brilliant studio tracks released on "The Keys to Ascension" (parts 1 and 2), also collected on the now deleted "Keystudio" CD, I was really looking forward to new music from the same group. Even without Rick, the last proper studio album with the other four, "Magnification", was excellent. I wanted more.

But then having replaced Jon live (which was questionable enough) it then emerged that Benoit David was also to replace him in the recording studio too, which was far worse as far as I was concerned. Jon's artistic input, I felt, was going to be sorely missed.

But then I read details recently (via that made me pause and reconsider. Trevor Horn (he of Drama fame) was going to be involved, as was his fellow Buggles/Drama keyboardist Geoff Downes (now in Asia), and the centrepiece was a track they'd played live on the Drama tour but never recorded, "We Can Fly From Here". Now, I don't really know the live version from the time, but the two parts of it released as extra tracks on the remastered CD of The Buggles "Adventures In Modern Recording" are highlights of that album for me, I've had them both on endless repeat on my media-player more than once. So to hear they've taken those demos and reworked the song into a twenty-minute four-part piece, well, that might send some non-prog fans screaming towards the exits but it makes me jump up and down with childish excitement. There's a certain amount of trepidation, will they ruin something I love, will it be self-indulgent rubbish, will Benoit's voice sound okay on record? But mostly there's hope - hope that once again Yes will pull a rabbit out of the hat and wow us all once more.

Of course, there's no saying that Jon will never record with them again - if this new CD (due out July 2011) isn't a success then there's more chance that pressure will be put on them to record as the "classic" line-up. Me, I'm going to ask for the moon on a stick - that the new "Fly From Here" is a great album, and that there's also more to come from Yes with Jon on board as well. Stranger things have happened with this band...

p.s. you can hear the Drama era Yes perform We Can Fly From Here live below - with some artistic visuals from a Youtube poster:

And this is The Buggles version:

Monday, 21 March 2011

In the beginning...

As a new discovery (to me at least) I'd been listening to a lot of Big Big Train at the start of the year, and they're not afraid to wear their influences on their sleeves, and a big influence on them is obviously early Genesis (and especially Anthony Phillips) - and just lately they've inspired me to re-listen to the originals, and I've been soundtracking my short drive into work and the working day itself with the substantial Genesis back catalogue.

Although Marillion have their claims, Genesis must be the strongest contender for My First Prog Love. True, I heard Marillion first, but I didn't know they were prog at the time (to be fair, I didn't know what prog was) and I didn't get into them quite so deeply until a little later. To start from the beginning...

It was the summer of 1984, aged 16, and a friend and I had decided we liked Marillion, after seeing Garden Party on Top of the Pops, and hearing another friend's copy of the album Fugazi (still remember this as being more or less at the same time, but can't have been as Fugazi was a year after Garden Party!). They were different from any of the pop around at the time, and we fancied ourselves as poets (didn't all sixth fomers, as we were about to become?). The intricacy and, lets be honest, pretentiousness of their music and lyrics appealed to us. We hadn't heard much but we liked what we had.

My friend's uncle was a full blown 70s vintage prog-fan, and hearing that we liked Marillion suggested we should listen to Genesis, and lent us a couple of albums - Selling England By The Pound, and Trick Of The Tail, and thinking about it these remain my favourites. Is that just because they were the first I heard, or because the uncle had chosen wisely? I like to think it's the latter.

We did also have access to more, as at the time I was a saturday boy at the library in town, which had a record section, where loans were free to members of staff. In addition to the two LPs from Uncle, I borrowed Trespass (because I liked the cover) and what I now know to be a compilation called "Rock Theatre", which included one track from Selling England (I Know What I Like), three from Nursery Cryme (Harlequin, Harold The Barrel, and Fountain of Salmacis, and two from Foxtrot (Watcher of the Skies and the mighty Supper's Ready). Although by this time I was "into" Mike Oldfield and my first LP of his, Crises (from 1983) had shown you could have a piece of music that took up the whole of one side of an LP, Supper's Ready was the first exposure to a proper prog 20-minuter. Epic stuff, quite mind expanding for a teenage
 boy brought up on glam rock singles, the New Romantics and 80's electro-pop.

Of course, these were the days (God I sound old) before internet file sharing, when you bought vinyl LPs and cassettes (CDs were new and rare) and home taping was "killing music". It's true, I did my share of taping, but you had to find someone with the original to lend you, or hope it was in the record library before you could tape it, so it took a good couple of years before I'd heard everything by Genesis. Nowadays a few mouse clicks and you could hear just about everything they'd done in a few days, or download it (legally or not) to listen to later. Back then, I couldn't afford to buy all their albums, if they were even in the shops, and the record library didn't have them all either. I think I was half way through university when I'd finally heard everything they'd released (up to that point, at least), and had at least a cassett copy of them all. I should stress that although I was a home-taper, I've since bought at least one copy of everything Genesis released, in some cases two or more copies as they release re-mastered versions every few years!

Nothing quite touches the magic that surrounded those early explorations into their music, there was (and is) something special, very English, very folk-tale (in a slightly sinister wasy) about their earlier work, up to the point where Steve Hackett left. They made good pop and rock music after that, some of it like "Home By The Sea" has a special charm of its own, but never quite as other-worldly as those first albums. Eventually, thanks to a Genesis discography book (again, remember these were pre-internet days) I discovered the previously unknown pre-Trespass debut in a German record shop (before it was massively re-released in the UK in many forms) and the existence of solo albums by mysterious original guitarist Anthony Phillips...

...but that's another story.