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.


Saturday, 28 September 2019

New Frontier - Three of a Perfect Pair.

The Steve Howe Trio

When the Trio toured in the UK in September 2013 it was clear the band were on the move. Their performance of Heart of Sunrise showed the band playing with more focus and attack and not afraid to pick up the more strident vibe of Steve's parent band rather than the shuffle employed previously. But what was most exciting is they played three new pieces which reflected a greater determination to move in on a more Progressive Rock feel and they showed the Trio coming into its own, developing its own musical personality. The titles of the pieces they played do not appear on this CD but I recognise the musical ideas and how they have blossomed. 


A nagging insistent organ phrase opens proceedings and the first thing I noted was the superb way Dylan has captured Ross. Its a warm and full "old fashioned" organ sound rather than the thinner modern electronic facsimile that is now de rigour. The piece relies on the repeating nagging phrase, Dylan keeps time in that beautiful understated way which is his trademark and Steve weaves in and out improvising the melody with a Gibson Acoustic but also switches to electric to achieve some beautiful dream like "backward" statements, which remind me of Jan Ackerman and therefore Peter. Overall though the piece is the perfect opener building excitement in a very tight musical framework, a great atmospheric start. 

Left To Chance.

Opens up the mood, there are still intense moments of close unison work, playing off each  other but then the music becomes more expansive with Steve playing more colourful solo's. At the five minute mark the music stops and restarts and for some reason the jaunty playfulness takes me back to 1971 and Traffic's excursions into Jazz on their greatest achievement Barcleycorn. Its Ross's funky playing and Steve big thick guitar phrases that provide the echo. 

Fair Weather Friend 

This feels more sophisticated, the playing more nuanced and the tune more involved as they grove against each other. The Co writer Mr William Bruford ! That explains it. Some wonderful drumming from Dylan shuffling the rolls forward without getting over excited or distracting. The main melody is lovely and Mr Howe obliges on the Fender bass. These little additions give the music more bandwidth. Then a signature rotation on guitar and we are finished. 


Sounds like a piece that Kenny Burrell might have written and would have fitted in perfectly with the vibe of their first CD. It comes across as a musical statement about influences. 

Gilded Splinter 

Is Back to the Future the wonderful intense opening unison playing which echoes in my mind as something they played live in 2013. After the intro it opens out and Steve begins playing some very elegant guitar work, then gone in the blink of an eye unison playing before more adventures. This again highlights how well integrated the Band have become offering a new sense of musical purpose and focus. With its "Classical Gas" construction is one of the highlights. 


Echoes of Traffic again, shuffling Capaldi, nice sweet guitar licks and warm and punching Hammond Organ.This piece like the first reminds me of the excellent capture of Ross's instrument. Its particularly noticeable when there is a brief point when Ross is exposed before Dylan comes in and Steve has a lovely monologue. 

Missing Link

Returns to that intensity I remember from the live shows. Steve plays an insistent rotating figure before the piece becomes more open. Indeed my sense when listening all of the music is it is very closely mic'd and the instruments sound "in the room"(that may not be the case as I am not a technician but thats how it feels, intimate). By the time we reach the seventh offering the band have built a very clear musical identity with their own signature sound. This I am sure is in part due to them writing all the material, to coin a phrase, they own it. 

Outer Terrain

Feels entirely Steve Howe Trio and yet some of the guitar work might suggest this could transfer to Yes and given Steve's dominate role here that shows how compartmentalised this music is. In reality, if it fits anywhere within the Lexicon of Yes it would be very early, the Unison Uplifting Rotating Riffs and Keys Studio with the clever and constantly evolving solo offerings. It is frankly the only time I am reminded of the association.  

Western Sun. 

In terms of colour with Fender Bass and Gibson Acoustic Western Sun is the most atmospheric and colourful track and Dylan is very sophisticated and on the money as he rides out the quiet parts and propels others. Ross on Organ and Steve on the Gibson Acoustic works really well as a combination. Nice change of pace on this piece which enables Ross to feature and build the music. A false ending gives the chance for the build to be repeated this is great music making, they are digging in and so am I. Voila!

The Changing Same. 

The final number written with Bill has a blues feel to it, lovely lyrical guitar playing, a sort of latter day take on the area they mined with "He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother." As the music progress's you can hear more and more of Bill's tune which is very stately and grown up. Great atmospheric way to end the programme. 

After the excitement of 2013 I am pleased to say my patience has been rewarded and I can see this CD being a regular play in the years to come, part of my core listening experience. 

Thanks to Steve, Ross and Dylan for what I am sure is for them a labour of love. Nice appropriate cover based on Dylan's photos.   




Friday, 11 January 2019

Chris Squire Tribute - A conspiracy of love.

I was sat directly in front of Billy Sherwood on the opening night of their UK in 2016. I remember vividly his reaction to his first public performance of "The Fish." It was a clear demonstration of his love for the big man.

This collection though is not overwhelmed by sentiment it is a very interesting insight into Squire's contribution to Yes outside of the famous "pieces" which have been their staple 'go to' selection for the majority of the years since 1972. As Billy is intimately acquainted with the music he also has chosen to offer a fresh narrative almost a musical commentary on the pieces in question. For me the project divides between :-

1) The first seven pieces concluding with Parallels.

2) The final five which are a mixture of extras and obligations with a further piece which fits the mould of the first seven. Track by Track then.

On the Silent Wings of Freedom  

The performance is built around Billy's Bass Guitar which storms, caress's and then drives the music to a conclusion. Billy repositions the Bass firmly in the era of 71/72. High grinding churning sounds but 'clean' a strong presence full of power but never bloated something which Chris was concerned about when they were recording the piece in 1978. There is nothing stogy about Billy's playing it flies. Jay offers a powerful orthodoxy on the drums supporting the Lead Bass work and the guitar is also highly sympathetic seemingly finding more of the top line melody. This evokes more accurately the energised spirituality of the piece which brings me to the most interesting additions, Jon Davison and Patrick Moraz. Jon like the guitar work captures the mystical energised pulse of the piece and in the middle syncopated section and wordless vocal, retains gravitas better than the original recording. Pat shows precisely why no other keyboard player is better at Yes doing Jazz. His insertions early on add enormously to the atmosphere of the music and his solo at the play out is unsurprisingly far more serious than the original and surprisingly in no way trade mark Moraz. Its not a screeching bending solo much more naturally rhythmic. A great start. 

Hold Out your Hand 

The two pieces which start Chris's solo album are great lost Yes performances. So offering something meaningful was a real challenge but in Steve Hogarth's vocal delivery and Larry Fasts Keys one has the answer. Steve makes you listen carefully to the piece again because of that curious way in which he intones a lyric and Larry's Key's are not only special in themselves but are mixed much higher giving the music a broader feel. Oddly the Cathedral Organ intro is not missed. Billy offers a huge dose of love at the end with the Close to The Edge quote that finished Safe and became part of the Close To The Edge played on the three albums tour. 

As someone who thoroughly enjoys classical and easy listening music I cannot relate to the angst in Prog Rock circles when non originals play or sing. Onward is a standard and it is perfectly suited to any good singer taking the piece and making it their own and Annie does just that. She reminds us this isn't a good piece of prog rock its a hugely communicative piece of music period and very moving. In the years ahead I can see all sorts of artists covering this and I am sure it would bring a smile to his face. 

South Side of the Sky  

When I noted the inclusion of this piece from the "Big Three" I was initially disappointed this has gone from being much neglected to much played live. Most of the live performances in the cold light of day don't match the revival from 2004. However I was pleasantly surprised because after a very precise rendition of the opening rock section David Sancious steps in and gives an object lesson in how to grab a piece of music by the scruff of the neck and own it. You could argue he saves it from being 'by the numbers' but that doesn't matter its great and reminds us of how Yes could sound when they mix the orthodox with the off the wall without going off into orbit and losing the plot. Nice rock vocal from Mr Sherwood. 

The Fish

This is an endlessly fascinating piece of music which his Bassness played around with for years so its entirely right that Billy should do the same. I love Sonya Christina's opening  vocal quote before Billy gets down to the Bass Guitar played a la 71/72 before a wonderful return of the vocal section. Billy has less three dimensional majesty in his playing than Chris but he has more playfulness in the shapes and figures. He sounds a little like the naughty boy playing with his favourite toy and bending it into odd but really clever shapes. 

The More We Live - Let Go 

This was a great left field choice. It is a kind of new yes old yes that they could have become but wisely Billy avoided given their anchored tribal fan base but its great to hear Steve Porcaro move the Yes field just a little toward the centre with a really nice guitar contribution from Steve Hackett. This is a great addition and far better than yet more revivals from 71/72. 


Unlike 'Hold Out Your Hand' the organ intro sounds trivial compared to the magnificent intro played by Rick in Vevey but once thats out the way we get the characteristic Bass Sounds of 71/72 applied to this '77 piece, great simpatico playing from the Guitar leaving more space and less toppy than the original but there is also another interesting narrative here. We get to listen to Davison/Sherwood in a controlled setting on a Yes  Song.

Billy's warmer voice shadows Jon's sweeter but narrow voice perfectly. I would not spill my coffee on the floor or have palpitations if these guys sang on new Yes music with this outcome. Technically the Unison Singing has a richer broader feel than the original. Please note that is not a comment about performance but production. 

Summary to date.

For me this piece ends the interesting part of the CD before we move into obligations and extras. 

Owner and Roundabout 

This could have had me heading for the move on button but for two things.

1) The completely bonkers mad cap performances from Nikki and Dweezil on Owner which remind us rock and roll should be fun. I just love Nikki's rasping energised delivery and Mr Zappa is as madly fluid and inventive as his father would have been.

2) Roundabout is a studio recording of the live arrangement with the middle section in, so its a romp and Ricks trade mark rolling keyboard inserts are wisely....just left out. Listening to I can see Chris curling his finger in the air in that curious way he developed and fans mimicked during the acapella section.

The Technical Divide and Comfortably Numb

A couple of extras from Billy's library showcasing the late sometimes very late Chris Squire. 

Don't Kill the Whale 

To be honest I hate this song and I have never understood any formation of the band playing it. However with Candice Night and Brian Auger involved its a nice exercise in a vaguely R & B feel but that Cetacei chant doesn't get any better for me.  

Billy and the players take the music entirely seriously and offer many new insights so one can form a new relationship with the familiar and also one or two surprises. 

The project also reminds us that after Relayer Chris, as he talked in interviews in 1976, wanted Yes to progress but not necessarily by making longer and longer pieces of music. Parallels, Freedom, Onward were potentially the beginning of a new kind of Yes more direct more rock and you could argue they did lead naturally to Drama and 90125 however odd that might sound.

So Billy has displayed his great affection for his mentor, the players have offered us fresh insights and in some cases improved on the originals, what more could one ask for? The fun of Owner took me by surprise but sends out an important message into the angst ridden community of Yes relax laugh a little more, we only come this way once as Chris and Peter would observe.

In listening terms if you are past Christmas and have put Swiss Choir away break out Fish Out of Water, A Day in the Life and this CD and remind yourself of an important part of Chris's legacy beyond Yes's most well known work.    

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Gryphon - Reinvention

When a Band records its first new collection of new music in 41 years it poses questions for both the musicians and the audience.

To make it personal I am not the same person I was when I was 22 in 1977, when the Band last made what we used to call an album. I have similar thematic qualities but transactionally I am different. To keep it simple I still like music to be thought provoking and expansive but I do not need it to be precocious or clever. At our ages neither the musician or the listener has to make points to themselves about their extra ordinary wisdom and good taste as either player or listener. Cleverness was a big part of the 1970's post Beatles music and sometimes it paid off and sometimes it did not. 

So what do I want from music now. Charm, grace, humour, intelligence, emotion rather than cleverness, the latter sated my precocious youth, oh and something that clearly communicates a shared love of the band and its music rather than themselves. 

Re invention begins with one of four compositions from Brian Guilland. "Pipeup..." opens with a beautiful airy motif played on a wind instrument and takes flight in a vaguely Andalusian way, the band come in and interject with chops and licks before a delightful Mandolin (Harp like) phrase, nothing overstays its welcome and words like delicate and subtle come to mind. Then a jaunty section which gives way to more picking and just when you think the music might just be a rather charming instrumental it stops and in comes a vocalisation which interestingly takes me back to the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band, delightfully whimsical. 

The next piece is by new comer Graham Preskett who has a furiously heavyweight pedigree in amongst other things film music. Bringing in Graham after Brian is very clever. His pieces are more straightforwardly memorable, still Gryphon but a more direct set of arrangements. These first two works are a blue print for the the rest of their music, both having clearly defined writing styles.

Graeme Taylor's first "tune" (Haddocks Eyes) is a kind of Gryphon signature piece. The longest work on the album but to these ears much more musical and atmospheric than several of the heavily convoluted pieces of "Red Queen." That's probably because its rooted in a simple literary device, its the Song the White Night sings in "Alice Through the Looking Glass" full of the quaintness of English Whimsy (sorry that word again) and the perfect antidote to the auto tuned cynicism of today's music, a minor masterpiece of music making and not because its clever but because of its charm and grace. 

The Preskett/Guilland compositional story continues before we arrive at Rory McFarlane's one contribution." Bathsheba." This is the tune with its repeating nagging introduction that gets you immediately, very straight forward as all the bands forces join in then stops for a delightful violin statement, then the two weave together creating simple musical magic. 

The final Prescott tune begins with the feel of a Scottish Aire, I go all "Braveheart" when I hear this piece and start walking the Munro's, and shed a tear or to. The piece evolves the tempo accelerates and the players all chip in. I love the sounds  of all the medieval instruments. It is beautifully orchestrated and it has a different kind of momentum to Brian's work giving the project a stylistic bandwidth.

Graeme's second piece "Ashes" mines the kind of territory that Genesis did at their beginning, a piece like "For Absent Friends" springs to mind celebrating Englishness on a Sunday and from the point of 1971 not 2018.

The CD completes with Brian's best work. A wonderful plaintiff introduction a delightful wistful vocal and then gorgeous stately wind playing. The second section is much heavier and a bit like Big Big Train, but in moderation, before taking off in all sorts of sparklingly interesting directions. For the third theme everything is reduced to a completely exposed keyboard figure very slowly, very deliberately (Yes you Yes fans you got it I Get Up I Get down) as various players flirt round the edges of the stabbing keyboard before it disappears, into the far distance, the whole enterprise having charmed us for a precious hour. 

The Gryphon returns to the cover and looks to the left its head held proudly and rightly so. A perfectly judged re invention.





Sunday, 29 July 2018

Yes Featuring Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman - Fragile

With the Yes family the only relationship that matters to me is the one with the music I am thrilled to observe that the very first new music from Trevor, Jon and Rick hits the mark for me. 

Fragile opens with a lovely nagging rotating guitar figure full of pathos which propels the music through its five minute journey. A lovely expressive vocal from Trevor "Goodbyes and Endings" (a perfect homage to Christopher Squire indeed many of the lyrics seem to  lead to the extra ordinary Bass Player) uplifting and emotional with some nice sympathetic steel like guitar in the background. Choral vocals come in support and gradually Jon weaves his way into the narrative as Jon and Trevor trade their way through the piece. They sound like a band.

Some clever key changes and some beautiful rhapsodic on the money playing from Rick. But mercifully this is a song played well not a "vehicle for players"

Another change "touch be the touch such a sacred life we live" perfect uplifting Anderson vocal triple tracked, at last after all these years we hear Jon's voice recorded in the most sympathetic way possible given it HAS changed. But importantly he is inside the song and singing with support rather than pushed out front and overexposed. 

This is very much a Rabin Song you can find earlier versions of it online but this recording shows they can get past the name grab and all the politics and record something which has life and moves one. Bring on an album or an EP !


Friday, 13 April 2018

John Holden - Capture Light

The Age of Enlightenment - Is not lost.

This project singlehandedly speaks of a simple truth, that if we seek something more, which speaks of beauty and intelligence in equal measure, that celebrates the questing spirit of mankind whilst celebrating its past, we are not alone. 

"Tears from the Sun" begins full of atmosphere with a nagging rotating pulse played on the piano. The tunes it will encompass are suggested and as the piece begins to evolve I am reminded of the care that Brian Wilson applies to his most ambitious work. Endless small additions are made to build a a gorgeous fabric in which the ideas can thrive. But music needs personalities as well as personality, the twin Oliver's (Wakeman and Day) are quite superb providing a sophisticated beautiful palette, in the case of Mr Day, and wonderful appropriate rhapsodic playing from Wakeman on the piano.

One quality that this piece shares with half of the project is the tunes are strong enough to bring the music right down to a plaintive story telling vocal, Joe Payne is perfectly capable of carrying the piece, his vocal is vaguely Operatic Tenor and like everyone else exudes class. So rather than self conscious loud soft contrasts, where there is thunder and then quiet, the pieces evolve and add a sense of journey and attachment that one experiences with symphonic structures. There are verses and choruses but within a mosaic of an interlocking arrangement and the tunes are good enough for you to sing along to. But like "One Race" its a cohesive journey.


This music knows what it is, orchestrated rock and the arrangements match the ideas. There is no self conscious attempt here to grow the music beyond its natural potential. 

"Crimson Sky" begins with a beautiful figure repeated on guitar and then appears to enter a quite standard four to the floor back beat over which Julie Gater sings, she has a beautiful warm voice and a good range but just when you think this is where ambition ends the tune twists, a heavy guitar interjection (wah wah) and then the pace comes off and the music is allowed to breath before returning to the more traditional element and young William on Gee-tar. But once again twists and turns abound, a wordless vocal takes the interjection, then the wah wah again, then a ravishing drum fill before that chorus returns. In  other words the arrangement is playful, indeed the one quality that has knocked me side ways with this "album" are the arrangements, their inventive and audacious but matched with such appropriate good taste.

"Capture Light" opens with a plaintiff reading from Joe and the beautiful balladry, piano and quiet guitar choices (acoustic) perfectly channel the beauty and vulnerability of Venice. I have sat in St Mark's when the sun has leapt from behind the clouds and dazzled the nave with sun light, captured light indeed. One element which I really enjoy is what is euphemistically called programming, which means conjuring up string and orchestral arrangements and more vaguely soundscapes. It has always puzzled me why brilliant programmers will work in concert to the great benefit of say Barbara Streisand but are absent from Progressive Rock (in the main). This CD shines a light on the advantages of programming adding endless additional insights into the musical tableau, creating atmosphere, supporting the themes behind a ticking percussion or bass guitar figure or a flourishing of chordal organ. 

"Ancient of Days" is arguably a straight song with a chorus which immediately had me weeping " Speak to the mountain, talk to the forest, starlight and sunlight leading the way, call to the valley, sing to the heavens, The Ancient of days" This chorus is EVERYTHING I have been talking about on my winter sojourn and mines the same narrative . If I can wrench myself to think about this piece intellectually what I adore about it is the musical patience displayed. A wonderfully spacey section (programming, drum fills, easing off, ticking along percussively, the bass and then the guitar threading an intense rock chorus before finally after so much musical teasing, emerging in a glorious finale this piece is "RIGHT THERE" for me.           

And there is so much more !!

"One Race" is invested in all the qualities of the first piece the atmosphere of the instrumentals feed directly into the subject. The atmospheric athletic beginning, the exposed vocal reflecting the subjects emotional state and then we are off the starting gun is fired and the music goes with it this is pure Brian Wilson ("Who Ran The Iron Horse" or "Mrs O'Leary's Cow") where the music describes the lyrical narrative. Again this is preceded by a beautiful slowed section where the tune does not need noise to bury or shield it, its strong enough to shine unadulterated and after the "result" descends through the pathos of Jesse's Story.

CD's need curved balls to offer variety and "Dream Catching" with its spoken media intervention (something Trevor Horn uses to great effect) is odd ball so when the gorgeous tune comes in (and out) it is so much more appreciated. Throughout the CD snippets spring to mind of how other bands operated in their glory days and some of the cinematic elements remind me of Mr E. O.Papathanass√≠ou but on this track the uplifting acoustic guitar strumming reminds me of Gordon Giltrap. 

"No Man's Land" is attached to the ideas of  "Ancient of Days" except we are in the City, an intense repeating echoed guitar sound starts this piece communicating an unsentimental environment from which the vocal narrative allows us to escape from. This like "Crimson Sky" is a sophisticated "song" rather than a piece like "Tears","One Race" and 'Dream Catching". It has an urban jazz feel to it and rather than an "arrangement" it feels vibed up and self propelled but halts for some left field interjections. Great smokey vocals and a very nice authentic jazz feel on piano from a Wakeman (!!!) followed by some programmed brass hinting at Harry South territory.

"Seaglass Hearts" is a beautiful lollipop to end with, twin lead vocals, we are now firmly in Brian Wilson territory circa "Imagination" or "Lucky Old Sun" The listener is relaxed we are saying good bye laying back and just listening to beautiful warm music. One senses this is not "Lets Pretend" its for real and it completes with a nice musical joke which reminds me of "The Old Master Painter" from "Smile". 

Frankly I am stunned, join me in being stunned and make the journey.