Saturday, 16 October 2021

Patterns understood by you, reaching out beyond and before.

 Yes The Quest 

Fanfare for the common band and then we are off. If there is one thing Yes have brought to my life is you do not have to accept the routine the already established you can reach out beyond alter the pattern and  listen to music that you have always wanted but never dreamed of. 

"The Ice Bridge" is beautifully produced and has momentum and whereas Yes music originally found its orthodoxy in the vocal melody this one operates the other way round, the instrumentals are taking care of the business and the vocal melody is atypical. 

Some clanging Bass, the kind which "Long ago a tall man told a tale of yesterday," lovely fluid lines from the Howemeister but the repeating synthesiser is reaching out to before and sounds very eighties even seventies, the greek wrestler springs to mind, though I know all about FM. 

"Dare To Know" is languid, beautifully recorded and then moves into an ascending riff with Brass Punctuation which is all "Remedy" maybe even "Beginnings." Then a rotation and a new element the Howe/Davison voice very attractive. Oddly when Davison sings the word 're arranging' he sounds like Benoit on the Howe duet on FFH. Then zee orchestra and it sounds like the sound track for the new Downton Abbey movie ! Its followed be all sorts of lovely little flourishes on the guitar. A good deal of work has gone into this Steve producing has released passion into the music... but I am not sure even this piece could be called adventurous in the way I would describe "The Prophet" from Time and A Word but then thats me I need adventure! Mind you I love the ride out on the acoustic very warm, sweet and beautiful. 

"Minus the Man" again languid, stately it almost gets into a nice Japanese Motive echoing the Beach Boys "Sumahama" but then this is one of Billy's Songs and so you feel the Before of Billy's writing style with the Beyond of Steve adding. The lyrics its a "double edged sword." Jon does tend to offer truisms and pat statements I like his singing here more from the chest than throwing his voice into the top of his head as he does on the opener. The real problem for me is this is just not exciting and given I listened to the very first project before I wrote this despite its naivety its got ENERGY and attack in abundance compared to this.

The next two pieces are another Howe then Sherwood and again I much prefer the formers to the latter. 

"Leave Well Alone" starts with Koto and then goes into one of those Homebrew demo riffs which sound right out of the 80's. I could imagine this on the "Grand Scheme of Things." But it is an interesting piece the riffs disappear for a few seconds the double vocals communicate some evocative mystery and then up again more "Remedy."  On head phones you can hear all the hard work but that ascending riff wth Billy chasing him sounds so OLD FASHIONED so "I have heard this a very long time ago." Late on it sounds like an update of the Association vocals which oddly evoke something of "I'm Running." from 1987. Then we go for a folksy version of the Wurm to finish. 

"The Western Edge" some nice strings from Geoff and steel from Steve and then at 2.42 we are into a trade mark Billy shuffle some nice hesitation mid way but each of these very deliberate hallmarks have me thinking before rather than beyond. 

Then the very best track on the album full on commitment and entirely new for Jon. "Future Memories" is beautiful, a great performance with a "Classic Yes" understated arrangement with everyone highly complementary, no pyrotechnics just profoundly right. It sounds vaguely early CSN or maybe Graham in his own but this is great. 

 "Music To My Ears" the intro echoed the shapes of VKTRS and I was convinced we were going to go full on Abba and then any excitement dissipates with a plodding verse but wait they get back there "Its Music To My Ears" ignition we are off but no! The plodding restarts and then back again the ascending chorus and I am bopping around great counterpoint from Geoff and the Counter Melody Vocals and then again the musical traffic lights hit amber. Finally though they ride out and this gets as good as Downes Braide Association. "It's a blessing in disguise." Love that bit. 

"A Living Island" ends the formal CD download thingy. Jon's singing is great more chest and head singing rather than that high swooping. If you sing about the consequences of the break out of the Virus last year at a time when you are trying to drag people back to normalcy having terrified the life out of them it might sound to some a tad canned. This would be a great track to end a Jon Davison solo album, its got a very traditional structure, nice guitar solo, but those lyrics dedicating the song to the front line heroes what about I will not go there. 

Nice album, no clunkers (That must be a relief to the stalwarts), good production but it certainly goes before rather than beyond. 





Friday, 9 April 2021

John Holden - Casting the Net Wider

 Circles In Time 

At 65 is music, indeed everything, nostalgia, merely a rerun of the familiar? Do we travel to the same location on holiday as we have for the last twenty years, do we simply listen to music that we did forty years ago? Is the objective simply to be reminded of the past?

If I listen to music from 1971 "John Barleycorn Must Die," my first LP, I am testing both Stevie and myself, do we still speak to each other? In that instance, the offering of blue eyed soul, jazz and folk does speak to me now we are still "in a relationship." The 'getting it together in the country,' walking the Berkshire Downs still happens it still means something.

As with everything I do not want more of the same, to simply go through the motions, I want to pass through an experience that says something unique, adds to the journey and then stays with me adding a layer or two.

John Holden makes music for himself and on the evidence of this third project he has retained his sense of inquiry his desire to move forward. He has discovered  different musical valleys and dipped his fingers in different rivers and streams and then challenged himself to see how "Holden Music" comes out out of this altered landscape.

To the music then, we begin with something a little familiar, a move along from past glories.


It begins with what sounds like a mellotron stab some fizzing electronics before a furiously fast technical guitar riff and then opens up into a mid paced anthem almost Trevor Rabin, all bare chests and macho posturing of yesteryear but that is a false trail and it quickly changes again an ascending descending solo which maybe echoes Brian May's calculated outbreaks of 'metal' on Queens most aggressive music.

The heart of the piece emerges and Jean Pageau, the perfect vocalist for a power song, offers a verse of sardonic observation before he storms in with the multi tracked chorus. The music is robust aggressive and the lyrics sound angry. Misunderstandings in amongst the more general onslaught but it finishes with a determination to hold on to not lose our head. 

Is this about armchair warriors and there determination to brow beat one? Governments pretending to persuade one with fakery? Governments that make the autocrats who make no bones about it 'do as your told!' seem more honest and probably more successful in their brutal honesty.

Libby has stood back from being too personal so the lyrics can work on several levels. 

Personally, although I have failed miserably to disengage on occasions in the last fifteen months, stories like the withdrawal of Rider Haggard's 'Ayesha' from Thebes to Kor for a life of contemplation seem very enticing so as to avoid the avalanche of noise and half truths spun in the recent past. I can see how the anger in this song works, if not for the same reasons.  

A robust entertaining start well executed, John Holden cementing the approach he adopted for "Dark Arts." on his previous work.

High Line

So how do you follow a big aggressive track, an acoustic juxtaposition? No!

The next piece moves into, well it presents the same problem as Steely Dan it cannot be pigeoned holed, it is full of soul, clever lyrics and gorgeous melodies and it extols that sense of style and sophistication that is particular, peculiar to New York. Glamorous, sexy and sophisticated. It's just great music which reflects its subject matter perfectly.

Towards the end it rides out with wonderful vibing from the Sax and Violin/Viola which are thrust along by the drums, you could be forgiven for believing they are all together in the studio it sounds so organic so connected. It is sophisticated, it's sexy and it's joyous. It is also a reminder John is a consummate mixer and producer.          

The Secret of Chapel Field

Once again we dive off in an entirely different direction. This is upmarket Fairport Convention indeed the story of murder and the uncertainties which John and Libby emphasise reminds me of the way "John Babbacbombe Lee" works lyrically. Fascinating story telling set inside an exquisite musical landscape. The forces are relaxed but on point, lovely acoustic guitar and the violin returns for this piece to conjure up pathos and beauty in equal measure. 

The two vocalists are crackajack, Sally Minnear offers wide eyed respectful love (but of whom) and Marc Atkinson achingly misunderstood perfectly mines the male narrative. This music touches one and conjures up Chapel Field and the story perfectly. 

Dreams of Cadiz

And now wonderful Spanishry. Oliver Day shows what an accomplished guitarist he has become, getting inside the infectious spirit of the music. But I also love the use of piano with its slightly distant projection.As if we are sat in bar in Barcelona watching flamenco dancing accompanied by a duo.

A minute before the end there is a transition, which reminds me of Brian Wilson, and allows for a more traditional anglicised play out. "I am from the English tradition looking in on this beautiful music from Spain." We are the visitors soaking up the atmosphere. It takes me way back to a night of outdoor opera, not in Spain as I recall but Portugal, which elicited the same feeling.


Sally Minnear returns to offer the narrative which describes a recurring battle to fend off illness. The lyrics are auto biographical and remind me (my mother has been battling cancer and its affects for 36 years, winning half the battle and losing half the battle) of the constant ever present ebb and flow of joy and despair that goes with it. The rotating riff on which the vocal is built is the perfect musical metaphor in a sense you are trapped inside this narrow construction and occasionally John, through the arrangement, adds dark ominous stabs into the landscape interrupting that sense of being boxed in only to be threatened by dark uncontrollable forces. That is not entirely true at 3.04 an instrumental interlude that conjures up sublime precious heart felt love of its subject. Has there ever been a more beautiful synthesiser solo?

Nevertheless the mood is uplifting and inspirational rather than melancholic and downcast. 

I am sure its not deliberate but for Libby to write about her experiences when everyone is transfixed by the consequences of a contagious respiratory illness is timely. Since May 2020 800 excess deaths have occurred in England every week at home and only 2% are connected to the Virus. Life must go on but death certainly is, in all its various forms.


I often say that the turning points in my musical listening journey had one simple commonality. "My god this is music I have been waiting for all my life." I will not burden these observations with examples but what is clear is John's view of what he wants to do with music as a creator is entirely the same view I take as a listener and none more so than KV62. 

As soon as the stripped down libretto really gets underway I am reminded of Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love." Piano and voices telling a story. But before that we have a wonderful cinematic entrance narrated by Jeremy Irons. We are caste back in to the deep past of Egyptian mysticism two subjects which when entwined are of profound interest to me. It combines a feeling of Rider Haggard and Science Fiction perfectly. The adventurous aristocrats discovering/rediscovering ancient truths. The transition from past contemplation to present day exploring is beautifully executed by Nick Virgilio who offers perfectly judged percussive pattering. 

Then Carter and Carnarvon begin their beautiful "Aspects of Insistence, of perseverance." You can feel their determination in the vocal delivery and the central tune is completely engaging. 

The wordless orchestrated search takes us finally to the revelation of discovery but not before it offers all kinds of musical delights arabic motives, soulful searching and orchestral drum sounds before the next delightful tune which is presaged by a mysterious tension building cinematic entrance both musically and narratively . 

And we are in! "Wonderful, wonderful things" another big tune piano ascending climbing with guitar and then a highly original synth solo and its not a solo for a solo's sake its taking us somewhere. The musical forces retreat and then great playing on the vibes (nice and dry sounding, like BIll Bruford) leads us to the response to their find. 

We are now solidly in "Musical" Territory. A clever libretto, stripped down musical forces which mix vaudeville, ballad, orchestral, choral even church music flourishes, magnificent I have goosebumps, eventually the music reduces to a prayer which rebuilds and then finally collapses tender, heartfelt and profoundly moving. 

This piece is not a rockaphonic, nor a musical, indeed  it cannot be pigeon holed it is its own thing. Its music which provides the listener with a new experience, a new landscape to cross, in two words, a progression.        



Saturday, 6 March 2021

Brave The Storm whilst your Apart.

 John Holden & Friends

The matter we are least prepared for is death. Ours, someone we love how do you unbundle watching someone die and then deal without them. Modern life, state sponsored, is about avoiding death putting it off endlessly ... without considering whether the life we have the 'epilogue age' is of value. 

Some find energy in knowing they are close to death, that life is especially precious that time is limited and when we have that sense of hurtling towards it a special kind of energy is produced.

This CD/project is intended to raise awareness of death from a particular condition but I suspect the personalities involved entire lives are propelled by the fragility of life of looking into the abyss of death and loss and setting it aside and climbing more 'mountains'. That seems to me a good reason why we would skip around our end. 

This CD is a simple thing."I am not beaten I have more to say."

When I put this collection 'on' I expected something like a sampler of one of those prog rock magazines. I was astonished.

This music is full of old fashioned passion, it exudes grace, heart felt sentiment, Tiger Moth Tales offering might be from a musical, "Love Not The Same" from "The Other Joe Payne." is reminiscent of Michael Bubble or George Michaels more sophisticated offerings. Mystery, a Band which holds a special place in my heart, because Benoit David graced them with his presence on a wonderful album ten years ago. Now Jean Pageau does the same on the utterly 'big', "How Do You Feel." Glorious big drum sound and lots of echo on the guitar which seers upwards through the heavens but its still tight and in control.

Mark Atkinson's "Brave The Storm," is one of a million responses to the human experiment, we are living through. He is right we must hold on and come through and when we do there must be CHANGE or the destruction we have wrought will be for nothing. But to weep and feel the pain of millions of children, of men and woman who have lost their livelihoods and business's, of the tens of millions waiting for life to come back normal so they can crawl out of the poverty they have been thrown into; to have a sound track for our emotions to all that, is RIGHT. 

Oliver's (Oliver Day) contribution is charming subtle with those declining picked lines. He shows us life is about a restless search onward imbedded with humour. 

Epilogue : Fly begins with some serious halting phrases from a piano before the voice comes in. One of many voices on thi CD that are a million miles away from that hairy rock tenor thing but controlled expressive thoughtful. "I need the strength to be alone." "to turn the darkness into light." "I will chose Life." The playing and arrangement on this piece are exquisite, the strings entirely right and the brass fits inside the music perfectly. 

But to return to the architect at the centre of this we circle around the next project from John Holden. John really is a wolf in sheeps clothing. Steady, unassuming, northern (whats with Lancashire and Cheshire et al Anderson, Emerson and Holden) and yet his offering here is PERFECTLY judged and oozes musical skill. 

After a big sound thundering around (death calling?) a rotating phrase, a beautiful female voice floats in, there is something vaguely Japanese in that repeating riff before it quietens down and then it returns again. "I am drawing circles in the sand with you." a beautiful image and the voice communicate the moment perfectly as well as a sense of determination to plough on when the  darkness threatens to overwhelm. Then something musically extra ordinary happens a kind of bowed synthesiser or guitar improvises over that haunting Japanese vibe and its utterly BEAUTIFUL.   

The haunting guitar comes back after a section with a nice loose drum accompaniment and then plays out. Utterly charming. 

This is much more than a charity CD its a delightful collection of highly sympathetic music which emphasises grace, charm, beauty and the deft application of original and skilled talent.  

That it begins with "Northern Lights" by "Renaissance" is entirely right and fantastic fun with that high ascending Bass Figure but its the body of this project which I will return to again and again. Buy it anyway its GREAT!   




Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Gryphon - Get Out of My Father's Car.

The Spirit of the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band Lives On...and others

Get Out of My Father's Car

After a furious intro, we settle into a wild zany piece which puts me in mind of Zappa's 'Mothers of Invention.' It's the wind instruments, in particular, that echo those offbeat sounds and shapes. But every so often the wistful elegance of Brian's Horning or is that Crumming emerge. 

However, its the madcap vocal which takes me back to those Mothers Albums of the late '60s. Great Fun.

A Bit of Music By Me

Is entirely different a beautiful piece of flute playing leads into some very musical acoustic guitar and lovely sympathetic shuffling drums. This is where the Bonzo Dog influence comes in one minute a piece is mad, offbeat with tons of unorthodoxy and the next minute respectful beautiful.  As it moves on there is a little of that furious third album contrapuntal play but it is juxtaposed with humour and more bubbling from Brian. What always strikes me about Gryphon is there is so music in what they do and we finish with a real 'Lark Ascending' feel, exquisitely beautiful dense interesting music.

Percy the Defective Perspective Detective

This is classic Gryphon Riffing, punctuating with gone in the blink of eye aires. That Mother's feel returns with the staccato wind playing. 

Christina's Song    

This could almost be a 'Fairport' intro plaintive flute and violin. When the vocal from Clare comes in it reminds me of Simon Nicols folk voice of 1971 vaguely nasally. Charming 'old sounding.' The piece picks up the pace with a few minutes of piano riffing before falling away with some atypical flute. 

Suite For '68

Vaudeville, this really is in Viv Stanshall territory for me. Full of humour and curiosities. I could imagine this as a soundtrack for a silent movie. Once again it shows that special quality of Gryphon the ability to mix the unorthodox with straightforward charm as the melody is played out on an exotic wind before those rapid-fire staccato elements return. Some lovely organ stabs as it winds its way along to a conclusion which still manages to surprise.

The Brief History of A Bassoon

Brian's amusing whimsical vocal style dominates. Constantly making fun of styles, accents. The central message it offers is offbeat humorous.   

Forth Sahara 

Unsurprisingly we move to an entirely different mood elegiac gorgeous violin playing, other forces join in respectful more linear rather than the jumpy juxtaposition of the 'other' style of the project. If some of the work is offbeat zany this is beautiful in a more traditional way and by contrast, it shows up more easily. Toward the end, new accents, musical interruptions but the traditional approach dominates to the end.      

Krum Dancing

Fast-paced contrapuntal work then those classic Elizabethan accents and references (early G). I could imagine this as part of the soundtrack of "Shakespeare In Love." Everyone is playing the tune the wind (delightful). Up next I am reminded of Jethro Tull circa"Benefit" era. The intro is a dark moody bass line and more traditional playing and finally a fanfare some ROCK guitar followed by duelling. 

A Stranger Kiss. 

Another mood change, communicating plaintive regret. Everyone quiet respectful and then Clare enters. I love her vocal on this and it's a beautiful tune. This highlights Gryphon's ability to give a fabulous tune the 'G' treatment in a highly sympathetic way. 

Norman Wisdom from the Swamp

Off we go with a rolling tin pan alley piano introduction but then it begins to surprise in its seriousness as if the arranger has put the humour on a leash always rolling it back in. Lovely soundscapes emerge before the vocal narrative emerges which itself is a revelation a kind of communal call and response across at least three singers and after that, we play out with the musical ideas of the fast-paced intro, a hilarious famous quote and then we are done.

A Parting Shot

A beautiful ending a gorgeous heartfelt vocal with superb accompaniment. The vocal by Dave Oberle reminds me of Peggy in Fairport. The instrumental interludes completely on point. I am sure I heard Dave sing at the Stables in 2019 and somehow this piece has an air of familiarity to it, whatever it is a profoundly moving and satisfying end to a project that continues to see Gryphon growing, changing and evolving. 


Most bands would not dare to move around styles idioms and approaches as much as Gryphon for fear of losing a part of their audience for part of the time. But this project which is more disparate and focused (if that's possible) reminds me if we put humour next to beauty, the linear progression against the staccato, the irreverent with the very serious all win out.  


Monday, 8 February 2021

Downes Braide Association - Halcyon Hymns

 A Paean To A Lost Life

21 years in to the new century, almost fifty years since "Close To The Edge." is it not ridiculous to expect new triumphs, envelopes to be genuinely pushed, great new dawns?

And yet "Skyscraper Souls," Downes Braide Association previous work emerged out of my lap top in amongst the sky scrapers of Abu Dhabi and did just that. The title track offered four beautiful impressions welded together into a glorious whole and took you on a journey and finally  opened out into a beautiful elegiac finale. I really did feel we had some thing greater than the past and principally because it spoke to me then, now. 

So would Christopher and Geoffrey follow their suite length rockophonic with a double CD exploring the mysteries of life?  Breath easy this music is progress but in its soundscapes, its performances and not merely ..longer.

Love Among The Ruins. 

The spoken narrative sets the scene we are going to go backwards and find the myths and heroes that were the back cloth of the memories expressed here and gave those memories their colour, their patination. 

Musically we have an uplifting strumming guitar, then some lesliefied keyboard sounds and someone plucks a string or two on the Bass. Oh Yes. 

Then a nagging arpeggio aiding the statuesque triumphant march we have begun and Mr Braide comes sailing in over the top. This music is in no hurry, it's not edgy frenetic, their is a lovely slowed down section where he is waiting for his lover and she storms in with the most beautiful sky reaching guitar solo full of passion and emotion, one sheds a tear or two. To find love in amongst all this dysfunction what hope!

The nagging riff the crooning guitar and the voice teasing the musical forces around it, beautiful. However as it fades away one realises in one sense it is deceptively simple.

King of the Sunset

A curious percussive entry and then the scene setting of the physical beauty of the location. "Vast open sky, pink clouds hang heavily sun lays low..." Once established it celebrates echoes of the past, asks questions and Mr Braide is joined by what I thought to begin with was Marc Almond but its David Langdon, the latter's Baritone flirting with Chris's Tenor. Geoff's repeating chords here, using something which sounds like a violin, are gorgeous. This is the right side of mawkishness and in comes that man on the banjo great great emotional guitar solo not macho but full of passion. The piece eases back and then a massive surprise it sounds like Jimmy Page brought back from the "Battle of Evermore" a lovely Mandolin interlude and gorgeous strings from G.D. Now this is what I call music which progress's. Some one winds up a Who like smash on the guitar and again and then lots of exquisite screaming on an electric and then stop. Brilliant.

Your Heart Will Find The Way 

Typical DBA intro big open voice and then a great piece of funk emerges I dance to this across the Beach, up the Hillside over the mountains of Paradise. "Your heart will find away." Lovely rapid fire chorus's from the ladies. "Over the mountains and over the waves... then onwards great dancing bass and then the Guitarist, give the man a Oscar. "A Person of Guitar Greatness, colour unknown." Some lovely things shoot from one side of the mix to the other, a harpsichord tinkle and then we just get down and party. Someone hits the top of the kit (Tom Toms?) and then we slow down again and the ghost of Anthony Phillips on something which might be a 12 string. Wow DBA do early Genesis.

Holding the Heavens 

Starts where the previous song finished off lovely pastoral sub Genesis intro that Leslie Keyboard and then another switch to anthem mode. "Now we are here holding the heavens," indeed. I love Chris's nuanced performance here anthemic and big but also capable of controlling the upward flourishes. Again propelled by some nice rotating guitar. "So where will you go from here when your holding the heavens?" A good question. Again the return of that Genesis string feel before we ride through the march. Love the narrative as it emerges over the top giving context and then finally a gorgeous worldless chorus. 


Less introspective more fun almost Manhattan Transfer with the block unison vocal and that Bass gets plucked in the grand tradition of random but not random at all. The ideas are repeated and then our guitarist sweeps in and ascends leaving the densely packed harmonies to play out. 

Warm Summer Sun.

Begins full of pathos, On this piece Chris reminds me of Colin Blunstone. Lovely late Beach Boys call and response from his lead vocal. Then Marc comes in. I have never really appreciated how good a singer he is this is a great duet. This is a piece which also emphasis's another of Geoff's great attributes he is a wonderful orchestrator without having to offer any distractions. The consummate team player. 


A simple ballad and when the chorus comes in I am reminded of Reg Dwight. Indeed the guitar inserts are a dead ringer and then a narrative coda before a nice traditional guitar solo pushed by vocal flourishes. The ending giving it that extra gravitas and sense of band width and takes it away from being someone else song.   

Hymn To Darkness 

This piece is invested in so much emotion and even as I write I know its the perfect narrative for what the world is living through. "We'll sing a hymn to darkness and put the past to sleep." Beautiful Man Tran chorus which Chris works over. This is sophisticated late night music which very quickly fades, the message to me is this is unfinished business which indeed it is. 

She'll be Riding Horses.

After the tentative questioning of the previous piece this is much more certain, up beat, celebratory lovely echoing vocal. Great repetition with all kinds of forces used to give it extra layers finishing with a tiny acoustic guitar cadenza.

Late Summer

"The sun descends with such cruel ease." "Why can't it last oh what a day don't let it end, promise you won't forget." A paean to love of place, of person, of experiences. Enchanting.      


It opens with a summarising account of blessed summer and then musically shuffles, acoustic guitar playful spreading itself over the beat. Chris evoking the memory of all and wanting more, more than three score year and ten. Is that wise?

With the narrator constantly returning in one sense this is a Pop Tone Poem. The music languid drifting through time as the narrators, both spoken and sung, tell the story. The grown man sings about childhood distant lost. "We love we love, we love this dirty old ground and our hearts were racing." Musically the strummed string instrument begins to sound like a Balalaika/Bouzouki (ED apparently the Guitarist has played an Irish  Bouzouki in the past). The piece becomes hypnotic almost a raga. The narration now digs deep, articulating and observing the quintessential English Summer and all it yields but one senses that within this is the remembrance of something more personal of someone who made these memories possible and will not be forgotten. I like "Remembrance" because this is not an attempt to offer a big prog rock track to end but more a dreamlike tone poem which mines a more subtle but equally powerful experience. 

For me though the central musical/vocal message of this wonderful work is "Hymn to Darkness." It begins with a plaintive cry to banish the past heads into a highly sophisticated late night feel which epitomises/celebrates all the wonderful qualities of civilisation of society. its sophisticated, exciting and aspirational but it withers, fades like so much sand passing through our fingers a distant memory of a past.  





Monday, 3 August 2020

Fragile - Purveyors of a Golden Age

Golden States - Fragile 

Fragile is a Band in the tradition of Yes. They know the language, how to form the words, construct the sentences, organise the paragraphs tell the story. What happens if you start with a blank sheet of paper do you create something new or merely a facsimile, a copy?                       

When Are Wars Won

It begins with a brief swift acoustic unison run from guitar and piano, great production, lots of energy and excitement. There is a light playfulness to the music, in the blink of an eye it switches to electric and the drums swing propelling the music. Then a switch back to a wonderful acoustic guitar shuffle vaguely Spanish and the keys hint at the next melody and bring it right down, contemplative. 

I recognise the language, the methodology the construction so is it a neat copy? No, and for several reasons. 

The drummer is his own man I am reminded more of Mike Hough of Flash than either Bill or Alan. Lots of rolls, marching, top kit but no attempt to self consciously drop beats or play the melody. When the battle sequence starts deep into the piece you can here some Gates riffs but it's more self-disciplined and those marching drums suit it perfectly. 

There is no Bass Guitarist the Keyboard player Max Hunt wisely plays the Bass more in a Mike Rutherford style. The odd forward phrase, the support to the battle sequence but the base of the music is more often taken by the Keys. This decision avoids pastiche with a vengeance. 

What of the top line. Oliver for me like Billy is actually playing better than his hero. He has a great sound, the projection of the guitar in the music is firm concise but has a real attack. But like Steve, he has something else a broad palette and when he plays acoustic or pedal steel it's for the piece not "equipment utilisation." The Guitar is mixed a la Eddie on Fragile. 

Keyboards are the poisoned chalice of the genre. Fripp never used them and whenever bands wanted to deny their past they were barely present. Musicians must feel they are wedded to not only a genre but a time. However, there is a timeless non-generic element in all of this which was criminally underused by all of them in the seventies the Grand Piano. Oliver Wakeman has proved with John Holden that rhapsodic Piano playing of the themes within a well-disciplined format has ageless charm and Max applies the same approach. As for the electric work, the sound isn't spell bounding unique but as Chris used to say about Geoff Max listens to the music and plays for the piece. But there is also audacity and cheek in the playing he throws in curved balls and draws you in you cannot guess where he goes next unlike a certain other Wakeman who has been offering stock responses for years. 

The other big plus which Max has real skill with is in defining the emotional fabric of the music. The soundscapes and atmospherics are superb creating moments of wonder and magic in a way that no other genre ever has. 

The real terror for an arrogant and opinionated Yes fan like myself is the Vocals. Jon and Chris took the 5th Dimension and Association and layered it into the most demanding arrangements imaginable and no one came close to it. They were the perfect foil for each other and had a unique British Sound. Unless you simply want to pay tribute to that and end up in the shadow of the past you have to do something different particularly with new music, that was my real fear with this project. 

The answer is they knock it out of the park. The trump card of this project is to give the Lead Vocals to Claire Hamill. The moment she enters you know you have a unique and singular voice speaking for the music which is absolutely a thing of its own bravo! 

As regards the lyrics once again Flash rather than Yes come to mind. Uplifting positive but the voice is another instrument and the precise meaning of the lyrics is less important than the mood they create. The lyrics ask questions, invoke exotic images and just occasionally offer down to earth humanistic concerns metaphorically. 

So what of the other six pieces?

Blessed By The Sun

It begins with great atmospherics from Max, before Claire offers a gorgeous hypnotic contralto and then moves into one of those complicated chorus structures where all the forces join in. A little more Bass on this piece even some wah wah but nothing derivative. Nice changes of pace and slightly phased vocals and throughout the drummer sticks to his plan, rolls, keeping the beat for Oliver and one or two statements to lift it through an ascending section a little like Wurm but not wurm. The synthesiser gets a ride out not to short not too long and then a sprint a nice surprise to end with.

Five Senses

Bursts into life with a lovely melodious musical male voice, some lovely dancing synthesiser and Claire flirting around it. Wow, it's Clive Bailey great vocals and as the piece goes nuclear he glides over the top. There is so much music he could have sung on, Patricks "I" for one. Then we move onto the language of Yes Claire and Clive chant "Starlight' and "Universe." One element I really enjoy is that the vocals are inside the music and often leave the instrumentalists to do their thing. That is reminiscent of the methodology of "The Yes Album."  
Heavens Care

An echo of a 90125 intro "It Can Happen" then some great in the tradition of Association Unison/Multi tracked vocals from Clive with counterpoint from Claire. Max thwacks the Bass for an ascending run a la late period "alright squire." Then a lovely acoustic piano over a shuffle. This is light airy uplifting music and reminds one of Yes, TAAW and Magnification. Very musical but far better execution and stronger more sophisticated musical ideas than the aforementioned and the vocals are so self-disciplined, nothing wearing or fatiguing. Clive and Claire are mustard on this and of course, it all sounds like something else about the seventies Yes...English. This is a lovely slow burner with repeated listens and like the best Progressive Rock, it gets better and better.   

Open Space

The Acoustic Piece. Say no more lyrical full of pathos grace and beauty. The man from Devon would approve. I have always loved these miniatures on those seventies L.P.'s. There is one at the beginning of Side 2 of Foxtrot. Every album should have had one short.

Time to Dream

"Reaching a beauty deep inside" isn't that what we all did with the third movement of Close To The Edge. This is a wonderful inversion. If all of the project was this close it would have not worked for me. But this is exquisite and of course, what follows is quite different actually the super-fast quote puts me in mind of "That That Is" but fully realised. Then a wonderful lopping beat some solid organ sounds and great robust spindly guitar but the stamp of authority comes with Clive's "Time to Dream." He, they own this, it's them not them being someone else, and to finish.

Old Worlds and Kingdoms

By this stage, they are a Band with their own personality. A dancing rhythm lot of syncopation everyone is playing the melody and everyone is harmonising. The bass pops up, then the guitar, a drum roll and then Claire. This is entirely different from Siberian Khatrue but works in the same way. The instruments rush on chasing each other down. A fantastic never before heard guitar sound from Oliver, drums prodding, then a lovely out of time support from the keys before a brief solo and then quiet thoughtfulness a gorgeous mandoline sound, I am almost in tears its so beautiful and moving and then a surging church organ sound this is so good full of emotion, mystery, its provocative, searching and then Claire returns a roll on the drums and the music recapitulates but there is more. It twists it turns high energy runs but all this convolution never undermines or confuses. It always enlarges the singular coordinated experience of the piece.

Then one final hectic run as the music beckons us to change before its too late. Somehow that desperate rush to the end of the piece with questions abounding feels so appropriate particular these last counterpoint lines. "I can hear the wind of change blowing at my window pane." The CD was completed in February how prophetic. 

So we know the language but this lives in its own space and has its own thrilling separate unique voice. 


Friday, 21 February 2020

Rise and Fall - Making Deeper Connections

John Holden 

"Capture Light" was one of those projects which were so complete so perfectly executed that like "Close To The Edge" when you played it, it deserved unadulterated attention. Each listen was an event I felt as if I needed to "dress up" to experience it. It was a summit moment.

So how do you follow the perfectly executed, bring in an orchestra, jam more and write longer pieces? Fans of what was called progressive music in 1972 have experienced those choices from their bands down the years. 

John has the advantage of not being a precocious mid-twenties artist under pressure; instead, he can call on a lifetime of reflection and experience for the answer.

"Leap of Faith" begins with a nagging repeating piano figure evoking, mystery, questing all underpinned with a yearning emotionalism. You are drawn in immediately but to where? After this insistent beginning, there is no prog-rock transition instead there is beautiful maneuvering and mature musical repositioning and we receive our answer. The lyrical narrative reveals all, it is a quest of the spirit. 

As the piece evolves and develops I am put in mind of Ken Follett's Kingsbridge saga a tale of religiosity spanning centuries into which Noblemen Monks, Abbotts, and ordinary folk are woven but the central metaphor like this piece is the Cathedral and the Monks. I am not listening to clever arrangements, a tasteful production, guest artists I am taking an emotional journey through revelation, hitting the highs before ending where such a journey has to end. “We can all fly until we hit the ground" The music is exquisitely judged always supporting the lyrical narrative solo's add color and take it higher and higher but they are never "breaks". Everything serves the journey.

"Rise and Fall" John and Libby's lyrics are so well realized you cannot avoid having a view about them. So I understand the sentiment of this piece perfectly but do not agree with the third person! But that only goes to show how much is being communicated here. The vocal from Jean Pageau is "heartfelt" and a special mention for the wonderful sound capture of the guitar solo toward the end, a million miles from those L.A. guitar solos with their hackneyed balls to the wall attitude bravo!

"The Golden Thread" is the lyrical anthesis of "Rise and Fall." Every time I hear this song I well up. It's a beautiful tune, the piano-vocal entry is delicate and a charming dance. This is about love as graciousness as timelessness as everlasting. The string arrangements are gorgeous the performances perfectly judged, it's not maudlin or overwrought because it retains its dance and lightness of touch and the trick of bringing the two voices together works an absolute treat. As Chris Squire sang. "It's a perfect love song." or is it a song reflecting perfect love? So this is prog rock?

"Dark Arts" When I realized Nick D"Virgilio was to drum on this piece I was intrigued would this be Mystery Nick or BBT Nick. The former is energized open and inside the music the latter because the drums are often recorded "last" can sound as if it has rather self consciously been added into an existing musical narrative. So what would we get?  

Dark Arts is a departure for John. It is much more Mystery, robust ballsy and vaguely gothic and Nick knocks it out of the park.  Musically it works perfectly the programming reminds me of "Kashmir" with its exotic eastern figures, the bass from B. Sherwood has that "playing the other notes" feel. The guitar is hard-hitting but given just the right amount of space. It's a more musical less hysterical "Machine Messiah." or "Achilles Last Stand." This hard-hitting ballsy music plays out against a vocal narrative that reflects the anger and disconnection felt by many that they are being 'taken' by the political establishment and those that support it. The music and the lyrics are entirely Sympatico. The perception that self-serving forces drive the world in which we live is perfectly communicated. 

It shows John moving out of the comfort zone of "Capture Light' and adding to his repertoire of communication one should not underestimate such an achievement my bands from the seventies created some howlers trying to do the same thing.  

"Heretic" Of all the pieces on the project none communicate their subject matter better. The introduction communicates the alien, forbidding, uncomfortable, unknown terror of Jihadi's and extremism which is beyond the West's comprehension. But before we run for the hills a song of hope emerges that we (mankind) can regain our love of all that is righteous and worthy of retaining. The vocal is achingly prayerfully sombre and then switches to the chorus of hope utterly gorgeous. Back and forth the angst and release play out. "But there was a time when we lived here and loved here we sang our song" such hope!!!  The playing here is perfectly apposite the strings, guitar, piano runs all entirely on point supporting the narrative. At 5.43 the song evokes its subject with perfect stylistic ingenuity your out there in the sand-colored desert towns and villages with the unforgiving sun beating down on you. By 7.41 the instrumental narrative is the theme of hope everyone chimes in some acoustic guitar and then the final vocal a delicate statement of the hope theme. Outstanding everything I could want in a piece of music as I move through my sixties but with my desire for challenges to make journeys intact! 

In a sense, because John Holden is framed within the prog-rock universe it would seem entirely natural for me to wonder how it works compared to other prog-rock rather than Miles Davis, Sibelius or Holly Cole. I went back to some prog rock to see why John's music is such a joy and in one sense for me, it's not prog rock at all. It has none of that ersatz, ponderous mid-paced repetition that I listened to. Choruses and motifs don't beat you to death, there is none of that oh well we all have to be playing, one of the advantages of not being a band. Most importantly the music breathes and dances it communicates joy, grace, and charm. Oddly enough considering there is no "band" there is no wall of noise where instruments stream alongside each other without any real contrapuntal activity or connection instead it sounds like the players are really listening to each other working off each other. This witness's John's great skill as the director and pilot of the elements he is using. He has organized all the forces so that they are more than the sum of their parts and there is no fatigue whatsoever no sub Iron Butterfly intros with endless repeating staccato riffs. So this is prog rock?       

"After the Storm" is this projects "No Mans Land" slightly atypical in style, more relaxed a gentle folk feel to it and lovely guitar strumming this reminds me of some of Mark Knopfler's work, it's not a million miles from some of Chris Leslie's modern compositions with Fairport. Lovely dribbling guitar figures contribute to an intelligent organic arrangement. It flows beautifully propelled naturally by unfussy momentum from the 'batterie' who is this guy? He is showing the most empathy I have ever heard. His swing is more relaxed and he doesn't sound like he is hitting the skins as self-consciously hard as with one of his other projects. When the keyboard solo comes in its highly complementary and like so much of the lead work fresh-sounding neither too short nor too long exactly the right length. It's the kind of song that could go on forever the perfect car song. 

"Ancestors and Satellites" begins with Koto like sound reverberating 'out there.' Before a lovely questing vocal which moves into a 'coming home' chorus. It stops for some exquisite string sounds. I really love the accompaniment of the shuffling drums to this piece, which effortlessly propels a wonderful keyboard solo. It’s official I love Nick as much with John as Mystery.  But we keep coming back to that chorus. "Light the fire words are spoken incantations stories..." and then step higher through superb vocals and 'important' piano accompaniment. What really strikes me over and over again as this piece crescendo is how perfectly judged the arrangements are. They are not histrionic, fatiguing they offer EXACTLY what is needed. From 5.08 the music steps down and the vocal reflects before the final assault. Nick gives us a brief calling to arms at 6.28, elegant long notes on the guitar and then we climb urged on by perfectly judged propulsion from the drums but the musical expansion doesn't come from the pace it's from the width, we have arrived all is before us. The perfect ending.

So John has found a way to ascend beyond perfection to fly higher, by being more emotionally communicative. Each piece tells us more takes us further and opens us to journeys that are more profound, sadder, joyous well more everything. Thank you, John and Libby thank you, everybody and a special mention to Nick D'virgilio who for whatever reason offers as satisfying performance as I have heard of his recorded performances.