Review – Opeth

Friday 18 November

Eventim Apollo, London

****

Swedish prog metal band celebrate three decades of music with audience choices

A work colleague was bemused when I told her I was going to London on Friday to see a prog metal band, ‘didn’t you do that last week?’ she said. I explained that I had been to see Porcupine Tree, who are prog rock rather than prog metal. But both bands transcend their genre labels, as demonstrated in this concert by opener Ghost of Perdition which begins with death metal vocals and guitars but soon embraces pastoral folk. Both bands also feature leaders who are endlessly restless, refusing to repeat themselves. As Opeth’s leader Mikael Åkerfeldt said during the gig, he could easily have rewritten the band’s classic album Blackwater Park (2001) for every subsequent album, just as Steven Wilson could have carried on writing new versions of Porcupine Tree’s classic Fear of a Blank Planet (2007). But both men have refused to compromise, sometimes alienating fans but also gaining new ones by constantly changing. The two men have also been close friends since Wilson worked on Blackwater Park and more recently their Storm Corrosion album (2012).

Åkerfeldt did please fans however by allowing them to choose the setlist by picking one song from each of the band’s 13 studio albums to celebrate Opeth’s 30th anniversary. This led to the slightly strange choice of Black Rose Immortal from the 1996 album Morningrise. Åkerfeldt admitted that his aim was to write a song for the first album which was over twenty minutes long. It wasn’t ready in time so he put it on the second album. He conceded that he built the track by stitching together short sections. The resulting song is episodic almost to the point of being disjointed, but the band made a good effort at playing it live for the first time.

Elsewhere, long-form structures worked much better, as on The Moor (from 1999’s Still Life) with its dreamy opening followed by driving metal riffs, and closing number Deliverance (from the 2002 album of the same name) with its mesmerising syncopated final section. And throughout the concert Åkerfeldt’s endlessly inventive songwriting was illustrated by songs that – remarkably – he began writing at the age of 19, obtaining the band’s first record deal by sending a cassette to a record company with 15 seconds of rehearsal footage on it. His amazing ear for unusual chord progressions and rich harmonies was evident throughout, particularly in the beautiful harmony vocals for Eternal Rains will Come (from Pale Communion 2014).

Åkerfeldt has worked very hard to get Opeth to its current level of success, and he is obviously enjoying it; his onstage persona was relaxed, taking time to tune his guitar and chat amiably to the audience between songs. His singing voice was equally relaxed, his death metal growls rich and evocative and his clean vocals searing and potent, often within the same song. The audience were in good voice too, joyfully singing along when Åkerfeldt played a short excerpt from a song by another great singer – George Michael’s Faith. New drummer Waltteri Väyrynen (Paradise Lost, Bodom After Midnight and Bloodbath) was equally relaxed, and seems to have fitted into his new band really well already, happily embracing Opeth’s prog metal, blues, jazz and folk with equal aplomb.

The video screens were vertically split into three, meaning that from the balcony seats it looked at times as if Väyrynen and keyboard player Joakim Svalberg were swimming in a sea of fire or water. The images occasionally felt slightly generic but there was a stunning video for The Devil’s Orchard (from Heritage 2011) with a terrifying opening image of a woman falling from a high building into the abyss, matching the existential despair of the Nietzschean cry, ‘God is Dead.’

Like so many gigs, this one was delayed due to Covid, so the band are now in their 32nd year. Let’s hope that Åkerfeldt and friends continue to record and perform great music for many years to come.

Review – Porcupine Tree

Friday 11 November 2022

Wembley Arena, London

Triumphant return of the band to London after 12 year hiatus

*****

Image credit: Mike Holmes

Last time Porcupine Tree played in London was just over 12 years ago, in October 2010. As band leader and main songwriter Steven Wilson recounts in detail in his new book Limited Edition of One, what should have been a career highlight performing in front of a sold-out Royal Albert Hall left him feeling empty. He walked away to pursue an increasingly successful solo career, leaving fans and critics wondering whether the band would ever record together or play live again. Then in June 2022 a new album appeared, Closure/Continuation followed by a tour that ended, appropriately in London again, at a packed Wembley Arena.

It would be presumptuous to assume any intimate knowledge of Wilson’s inner psyche, but he seemed to be in a very different mood this time. The fact that the band have already announced they are playing more dates at summer festivals next year suggests that he’s enjoying himself again. He seemed relaxed and happy to be onstage. He had every right to be. The sound was very good, the video back projections were varied and interesting, the lighting impressive, and the audience attentive. Most importantly, Wilson was in excellent voice, and the band at times were so locked in with each other they felt like the limbs of a single creature rather than individuals.

During Collapse the Light into Earth, mobile phone torches were raised by the audience, gently swaying in a sea of lights. Wilson, playing keyboards in this gentle, melancholy ballad was distracted by such a moving sight, saying that he forgot the words as a result. Some audience members turned away from the stage to survey the communal emotion. Near the end, Wilson tried to introduce a song and the persistent applause stopped him from speaking. He has been on a 30 year journey, always carving his out own path but sometimes wondering why his exceptional songwriting ability, fine musicianship, stunning work as a producer and re-mixer and surround-sound guru, deep insights into the contemporary condition and ability to attract virtuoso musicians to work with him have not resulted in the commercial success he deserves. So it was poignant that he chose to play Buying New Soul, one of Porcupine Tree’s hidden treasures, which describes Wilson’s continuing fight against the music industry – ‘I still rage and wage my little war’. The song ends with the depressing concept of selling out, of buying a ‘new soul at the start of every year’. Wilson no longer needs to worry about compromising his artistic integrity – his last two solo albums and the new Porcupine Tree album all made the top five in the UK. And he played to over 12,000 fans tonight, despite mostly being ignored by the media, television and radio.

The new album represents the first time Wilson collaborated with other band members in writing songs, and the concert felt like a true band effort rather than Wilson with a backing band. Richard Barbieri on keyboards provided his usual atmospheric synth washes but also some prominent solos, worthy of Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright. Gavin Harrison on drums was subtle and loose-limbed, organic and human, never showy but always virtuosic. Wilson jovially announced the two new members of the touring band, American musicians Randy McStine and Nate Navarro as coming from New York and Texas (which apparently are now part of the British Isles … who knew?) McStine was a revelation, a superb guitarist who provided distinctive solos. He not only contributed backing vocals but at times shared lead vocal duties with Wilson, testament to the quality of his singing, and the deserved confidence Wilson placed in him. Navarro brought tasteful bass playing, successfully filling the gap left by the band’s previous bass player Colin Edwin. The performances were excellent throughout, but highlights included Sleep Together and Halo when the band locked tightly into Harrison’s drumming to create rhythmic perfection. And it was a joy to hear the long prog rock anthem Anesthetize played live in full, just as Nick Mason recently toured the Pink Floyd epic Echoes .

The new album was well-represented and the tracks stood up well in comparison with older classics from Fear of a Blank Planet and In Absentia. It might have been better to have grouped together more of the tracks from different albums for the sake of stylistic consistency but that was a very minor issue. The backing videos added a greater emotional depth to many of the songs. Herd Culling showed a wolf drenched in blood-red light, a miniature horror film.

The official video for Herd Culling

The video for Sleep Together depicted multiple robotic creatures like the monster in Alien. The title track from Fear of a Blank Planet illustrated the song as an anthem for doomed youth. Perhaps the most moving of all was a new black and white video for Dignity based on the lyrics ‘Lost soul/Camped at the side of the road’ reminding us that rough sleepers still live on the street in the twenty-first century.

Wilson said the band would end the concert with a medley of rock classics including Sweet Home Alabama, Free Bird and Purple Rain. Before the audience recovered from its surprise at this, Wilson announced that the band would instead play the nearest that any of his ‘failures’ has been to being a hit, Trains, which has now been streamed over 27 million times on Spotify. Wilson has proved that he no longer needs to worry about ‘buying a new soul’ every year; his refusal to compromise has finally led to chart success, a loyal and devoted following, a reputation as one of the best re-mixers … and one of the best live experiences around.

Nick Holmes is the author of On Track … Porcupine Tree (2021) described by DPRP as ‘an essential purchase for fans of the band.’

Review – Porcupine Tree Closure/Continuation

*****

Porcupine Tree return after 12 years’ hiatus with their new album which reached number 2 in the UK charts

Pink Floyd once satirised the music industry executive who said, ‘You gotta get an album out/You owe it to the people’ (Have a Cigar from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here). When Porcupine Tree went on an extended hiatus after their last concert in 2010, there was no pressure on them from a record company to ‘get an album out’. Band leader Steven Wilson had already launched what became an increasingly successful solo career. The other members of what is now known in copyright terms as ‘Porcupine Three’ were also pursuing their own careers. Keyboard player Richard Barbieri released a series of solo albums, most recently the troubled lockdown masterpiece Under a Spell. Drummer Gavin Harrison toured with King Crimson and became a member of The Pineapple Thief, and recorded a superb jazz fusion album Chemical Reactions with bass player Antoine Fafard.

In the meantime, another bass player was writing new material with Gavin Harrison – Steven Wilson himself. As long ago as 2012, Steven went round to Gavin’s house for a cup of tea and a chat. Gavin suggested that they should jam together, and the only instrument in Gavin’s home studio that resembled a lead guitar was a bass guitar. Pragmatism is the mother of creativity, so Steven picked up the bass and played it like a guitar player. Many years later, when promoting his most recent solo album, last year’s The Future Bites he said that he had fallen out of love with the guitar as the main source of his creativity, preferring to write on keyboards, particularly analogue synthesisers. When asked about the possible return of Porcupine Tree, he naturally always deflected the interviewer towards the solo work that he was promoting at the time, although a careful re-reading of some of those interviews now reveals that he was sometimes dropping hints that Porcupine Tree might come back at some stage, perhaps as a side-project to his solo career.

So, without any pressure or expectation, the three band members quietly wrote an album, now released under the intriguing title Closure/Continuation, suggesting that this could be the final chapter of the Porcupine Tree saga, or it could be the start of a new chapter. The lack of commercial or artistic pressure meant that the band were able to work in a completely new way. Previously, Steven Wilson had delivered songs to the band as fully completed demos which the band rerecorded. For the latest album, for the first time Steven wrote songs with the other band members, and all the instruments and vocals were performed by the three of them without any external collaborators. When their work was complete, they then offered it to several record companies, eventually going with the independent label Music for Nations who describe themselves as the ‘naughty corner of Sony Music UK, proving people wrong since 1983.’

The album has seven tracks, which are reviewed in more detail below, although streaming versions add another three tracks, Population Three, Never Have and Love in the Past Tense that are taken from the Deluxe Edition Box Set. The album is unusual in the band’s catalogue in the there is no over-arching concept as there is with many of their previous albums such as Fear of a Blank Planet. Steven Wilson’s own solo albums to date are based on a strong concept, except for the first album Insurgentes released in 2008. Perhaps the fact that songs were written piecemeal over a long period of time, and by all three band members rather than Steven Wilson on his own, meant that a concept was not appropriate this time, although the lyrics are all written by Steven Wilson and express some of the concerns he has visited on previous albums. To use a literary analogy, each song can be viewed as a self-contained short story rather than a chapter from a novel.

01 Harridan (Harrison, Wilson)

The title of this song has caused some online commentators to reach for their dictionary to discover that it means a haggard old woman. It’s an insult, or as the Oxford English Dictionary politely puts it, ‘usually a term of vituperation.’ Perhaps it leads listeners to expect a misogynistic rant, but instead the song is addressed to a man, making the term neutral. The man in question is a ‘gold man’, perhaps like the mythical King Midas whose every touch turned objects into gold, with a ‘silver tongue’ suggesting a powerful man who uses his eloquence to hide the truth which he keeps to himself. The truth in this case is that ‘you can only save yourself’. The chorus refers to hiding our cuts and our hurt from the world, appearing strong even at the point of death, ‘when we bite the dust’. The central character of the song could be a politician of the like that is dismantled in the third song on the album ‘Rats Return’, but it’s not made clear.

But the song is not completely bleak. The bridge section is much more tender, a gorgeous depiction of the ‘time of the almost rain’ which the next song Of the New Day reveals to be dawn. The beauty of the scene is poignantly combined with an expression of deep loss and regret; having ‘gone to earth’ to find love, the protagonist laments lost love, ‘and what is left without you?’ Wilson sings with a remarkable tenderness here, expressing a new vulnerability in his voice which seems to have begun on his previous solo album The Future Bites, showing a new confidence in his ability to use his voice as an expressive instrument.

The song was chosen as the first single from the album, and it was a good choice to relaunch the band on an unsuspecting world. It contains all the elements that became associated with the later Porcupine Tree, metal riffs, rich sound design, a wide range of dynamics, strong melodies, evocative lyrics and a sense of development as the track progresses. But there’s a new simplicity on this album, with pared-down production that bears a close relationship to the production style on The Future Bites. There’s less in the way of overt musical virtuosity than on previous Porcupine Tree albums, except unsurprisingly from Gavin Harrison on drums. At a recent Q&A session with the band in Leeds, Wilson and Barbieri amusingly recounted the arguments they had about who was the worst musician in the band, each trying to claim the crown and both (rightly) agreeing that Harrison is definitely the best musician in the band.

The track starts with Wilson playing perhaps the funkiest bass line ever heard on a Porcupine Tree record, with lovely ambient keyboards from Barbieri and fierce vocals from Wilson. In common with some of the other tracks on the album, the chorus is very short, giving a real sense of urgency. There’s also a yearning quality in the chords that lead up to the chorus. The song seems to have reached its end only about three minutes in after the contemplative bridge section, but it gathers itself again with fizzing guitar and a thunderous metal riff with driving guitar chords. The sound drops out with bubbling synths flying across the stereo picture, followed by a whimsical jazz section with Wilson almost scat singing in falsetto above. Another driving chromatic section follows with a triumphant return of the chorus and its matching riff. The coda to the song is a repeat of the bridge section, ending on an unresolved chord which disappears into noise. An inspiring ending to a superb opening song, announcing the group’s exultant return as if In Absentia was released only a year or two ago rather than 20 years ago.

02 Of The New Day (Wilson)

After the onslaught of the previous song, there follows a gentle ballad which expresses hope and optimism at the breaking of dawn, described by the Greek poet Homer as ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, a memorable image of a time here described by Wilson as ‘the hour of almost rain/When night becomes the day.’ It’s an image of rebirth, but as this is a Porcupine Tree song there are ‘tinges of darkness around the edges’ as Wilson admitted in a Twitter Listening Party with Tim Burgess of The Charlatans on 29 June. The darkness here seems to be the protagonist’s old life, which is still there despite the breaking dawn, ‘the old days that line up behind/The monolith of the new day.’

Although it’s superficially a simple song, behind the balladry lies the rhythmic genius of Gavin Harrison. Apparently Wilson told the band’s drummer that he wanted to write a song that had multiple time changes. This means that the song has a slightly stop-start feel but it’s so well executed that after the initial slight shock of the time changes it soon resides in the brain as a classic Steven Wilson ballad.

03 Rats Return (Harrison, Wilson)

This song is about politicians who ‘leave their principles at the door’ who ‘purge [their] guilt for nameless hoards’ (pedants will note that the correct spelling of the word is ‘hordes’). The idea of rats returning ties in with the more common image of rats leaving a sinking ship; in the song the rats are presumably returning to celebrate their complete control over the places they have laid waste by their policies. The hint of a nautical image becomes more of a theme as the album progresses.

The idea of psychopaths running society is something that preoccupies Wilson; in the video for the track Eminent Sleaze on The Future Bites he plays a character who represents the ultimate extremes of Capitalism as he watches the world end, leaving him as the sole survivor.

In Rats Return, the line ‘a conscience won’t help you win the war’ perfectly encapsulates the level of psychopathy that politicians often appear to need in order to be leaders. It’s a concept explored by journalist and broadcaster Jon Ronson in his fascinating book, The Psychopath Test, which looks at the lack of empathy in public figures,

“Serial killers ruin families,’ shrugged Bob. ‘Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (Picador 2012)

Wilson makes it clear that he is referring to real political and military leaders when he lists ‘Genghis K’ (Genghis Kahn, the military leader who was responsible for the deaths of millions), ‘Pinochet’ (the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet) and ‘Mao Tse Tung’ (Chairman Mao, responsible for countless Chinese deaths during the Cultural Revolution).

The song is another exercise in rhythmic mastery from Harrison. On Twitter he pointed out that the rhythmic pattern is so complex it takes, ‘at least half the song before people realise that there is a repeat of a four-bar syncopation, in which every bar is different.’ As a result, the rhythm is ‘spiky’, which suits the song’s sentiments perfectly. The main guitar riff could have come from the progressive metal style of some of the songs on the previous three Porcupine Tree albums, but the song also has a contemporary feel due to the sparse production. It feels like another classic Porcupine Tree song in the making.

04 Dignity (Barbieri, Wilson)

This song addresses one of Wilson’s favourite themes, the role of ambition in our lives and the failure to achieve our dreams – the ‘stupid dream’ described in the album of the same name in 1999. On the Twitter Listening Party he said that Dignity describes a guy who ‘really used to be someone’, a film star or a CEO who is now living on the street, and ‘all the pathos that goes with that downfall.’ But there is also hope – the central character retains his dignity despite his downfall, ‘your dignity will never go and your mind is pretty sound’

The song includes a reference to the final section of T. S. Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land, What the thunder said, in the line ‘Tell yourself it’s just what the thunder said.’ The first part of that section of the poem refers to the aridity and sterility of life in the 20th century (the poem was written in 1922, so is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year). The poem ends with the Sanskrit word ‘Shantih’ repeated three times. The word Shantih, used at the end of Hindu religious texts the Upanishads, means peace. Eliot himself in his Notes to the poem described it as the equivalent of the Christian concept of ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ or the Peace that God brings. In the context of the song, which has no overt religious message, the fact that the poem ends on an ineffably positive note could suggest that if the protagonist in the song ignores what the thunder said, and instead follows the final message of the poem, this could provide hope despite his downfall. Whether Wilson had the poem in mind when he wrote the song is unclear, although the final section also has a reference to hooded hordes swarming over endless plains, which could relate to the anonymous ‘nameless hordes’ referred to in Rats Return.

The song starts with the sound of children playing, rather like opening of First Regret from Wilson’s fourth solo album Hand.Cannot.Erase, a brief evocation of the nostalgic theme that has often appeared in his work. A haunting wordless vocal, pure in tone, is provided by the Swedish singer and multi-instrumentalist Lisen Rylander Löve who has worked with Richard Barbieri. A cascading rock guitar line leads to a syncopated vocal line with folky backing vocals provided by Wilson himself. The chorus has a soaring lead synth line which rises in gentle euphoria. The chord structure uses a classic songwriting technique beloved of The Beatles and others, the change from major to minor on the words ‘you stare at the sun’, here describing a moment of hope as the sun breaks through, followed by a return to melancholy on the final word ‘done’. These chord progressions give the song an instant feeling of warm nostalgia, as if the song had already been heard many times before in a dream.

05 Herd Culling (Harrison, Barbieri, Wilson)

The track opens with the visceral lines, ‘Son, go fetch the rifle now/There’s something in the yard’, throwing us immediately into a compelling psychodrama. As a lyricist, Steven has a poet or script writer’s ability to enter a story in medias res, half way through a story, the nature of which is gradually revealed as the song progresses, teasing the listener to extract the meaning of the song. In a fascinating and very detailed interview by the ever-perceptive Anil Prasad of Innerviews.org, Steven Wilson revealed the meaning of this song. He later retracted, saying he would prefer listeners to make up their own minds, so those who prefer their views not to be influenced by the lyric writer’s thoughts should skip to the next paragraph now. Wilson told Prasad that the song was inspired by the story of Skinwalker Ranch, near Ballard, Utah. Several accounts suggest that the ranch has been plagued by paranormal activities and UFOs, and a slew of books, films and documentaries have been published about it. The song describes the family’s attempts to defend themselves against aliens, ‘strange gods above the earth’ who may have landed to ‘cull a herd’ of cattle on the ranch. He told Prasad, ‘I remain skeptical [sic] when it comes to the UFO stuff and government coverups. But I love the stories.’ His fascination with ghost stories led him to write a collection of them that made up his third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) released in 2013. On that album he used the stories to illustrate his thoughts about the human condition, and emotions such as regret and feelings of loss, rather than a scientific exploration of the existence or otherwise of ghosts. His scepticism is echoed in the chorus of the song, which consists of the single word ‘liar’, resentfully muttered at first then viciously spat out as his venom increases.

06 Walk the Plank (Barbieri, Wilson)

Another song about the corruption of power in the 21st century. On the Twitter Listening Party, Richard Barbieri described the song as being about ‘the sort of characters that are causing global trouble, a sign-of-the times commentary’. The nautical imagery is much more overt than on Rats Return; this time the rats have abandoned the sunken ship and ‘will never find their way back again.’

The song is very unusual in the Porcupine Tree canon in that it features almost entirely keyboards and drums, with very little if any guitar. To an extent, it shares the fiercely electronic sound of some of the songs on The Future Bites, particularly Eminent Sleaze although ironically much of that song was recorded using real instruments. If some of the songs on this new album feel like closure, finishing a chapter in the band’s previous history, this one feels forward-looking to new territories the band might explore in future if they carry on writing and recording together. Interestingly, on Twitter Richard Barbieri described the track as ‘the joker in the pack… if it went further it wouldn’t be Porcupine Tree.’ Steven Wilson said that if the band did work together again they would probably push towards a more keyboard-based sound with less prominence given to the guitar.

07 Chimera’s Wreck (Harrison, Wilson)

On Twitter, Wilson described this as ‘perhaps the most personal song on the album.’ It addresses a subject that has often troubled him, the nature of success and what we imagine that would look like when we are young. The ‘chimera’ described here is the illusion of the future, ‘what we imagine we want from life when we’re young probably wouldn’t have made us happy anyway.’ As mentioned above this was the theme of the Stupid Dream album, and it was also the theme of one of the hidden treasures of the Porcupine Tree back catalogue, ‘Buying New Soul’ which was recorded during the sessions for Lightbulb Sun which was released in 2000. In that song, Wilson describes his battle with the recording industry and his attempt to retain artistic integrity, ‘I still rage and wage my little war’ – but it ends with the depressing concept of selling out, of buying a ‘new soul at the start of every year’.

The personal nature of the song is emphasised by the reference to Wilson’s father, who passed away in 2011, and to whom he dedicated his second solo album Grace for Drowning, which was released later that year. Wilson began working on Chimera’s Wreck shortly after that, and the image of his father smiling at a child encapsulates their relationship in one short line. The reference to ‘A new town in the 60s’ is presumably Wilson’s home town of Hemel Hempstead, England. The new part of the existing town was completed in 1962, ‘out of concrete a design made for tomorrow’, and Wilson himself was born five years later in 1967.

The song uses sea imagery as on other parts of the album. It’s interesting that some of the imagery and language is quite archaic, almost arcane at times. This contrasts with the use of language on Wilson’s last two solo albums, which is much more direct. The final verse of this song refers to slipping the ‘wreck’ into a bottle, which presumably refers to the old practice of putting a model ship into a bottle. In this case the wrecked ship that has washed up on a shore is perhaps sealed in a bottle to because it’s no longer needed – a hopeful note on which to end the album. The robust backing vocals that appear at just over two minutes into the track have the feel of a sea shanty, and giving the song a nautical feel, a curious throwback to the 19th century. Musically, a strange but perhaps valid comparison is the music of Van der Graaf Generator, and in particular another epic track with a nautical theme, A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers from the 1971 album Pawn Hearts. Chimera’s Wreck shares the driving, repeated riffs of many of the Van der Graaf Generator songs, and their episodic nature, making it the most prog-rock song on the album.

Wilson has said that this is the best Porcupine Tree album, along with Fear of a Blank Planet and In Absentia. He also admits that ‘time will tell.’ It’s certainly by far the most collaborative album the band have ever released. The lack of an over-arching concept perhaps makes it more difficult to grasp initially than many of the previous albums, but individual tracks are very strong and as with most of Steven Wilson’s work it takes a while to give up its secrets, so repeated listens are recommended. It also maintains the consistently excellent levels of production that have characterised Wilson’s work for decades now, both as a producer and as an expert remixer of classic albums. Let’s hope that the new album, to quote one of the band’s own song titles, is the ‘Start of Something Beautiful’ rather than a final coda to their work.

For a detailed, track-by-track analysis of the previous 10 studio albums, bonus tracks, live albums and compilations see Porcupine Tree On Track by Nick Holmes, published in September 2021 by Sonicbond.

Interview – Ms Amy Birks

Ms Amy Birks is an award-winning vocalist and songwriter, and also produces and arranges her own music. She previously sang with the acclaimed band Beatrix Players, and she released her first solo album All That I am & All That I Was in 2020. Now she returns with her new album In Our Souls. In an in-depth interview with Nick Holmes Music, she talks about how she writes and records her music and the inspiration for songs on her album, including the Brontë sisters and their home at the Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire.

PART I Writing and Recording

I think I know who I am and what I want to do with my life and what my purpose is. So maybe that comes through.

Nick Holmes Music: To someone who doesn’t know your music, how would you describe the style?

Ms Amy Birks: I would say it was a mixture of classical meets songwriter and it has a kind of haunting and theatrical presence. And I definitely don’t get stuck in one genre. You know it’s whatever comes naturally, but definitely the theatrics, drama, songwriter, classical with a dash of rock in there.

Nick Holmes Music: There’s something quite theatrical about some of the spoken word introductions to some of the songs on the album.

Maybe it was lockdown that sent me very internal … It wasn’t a planned thing. I would just come up into my studio, really working and reworking the tracks and with Brothers and The Woman in White it just felt natural to add an extra layer of drama on there, so it was just me locked in a room with, ‘How can I really put myself into it?’ I remember from my last album with Jamaica Inn when I did the video, I really enjoyed a bit of acting for the video, so I think that’s in me and the performer in me came out.

Nick Holmes Music: How would you describe your voice? It’s quite distinctive, isn’t it? Have you had any formal training?

Ms Amy Birks: Oh no, I was only speaking to John Hackett [flautist on the album and younger brother of Steve Hackett] about that the other day and he said, ‘of course you’ve had training haven’t you’ and I said, ‘no, not one hour, one day, nothing.’ I’ve always sang since I can remember …  I was in the church choir, just up from the family house. As soon as I could sing in front of the school audience, I was up there and then I did Music Tech at university, so all the way through my life I’ve had opportunities to sing, but no formal training – piano, yes, but not vocals.

Nick Holmes Music: So it just came out naturally, that really rich sort of mezzo soprano?

Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, it’s maybe because of the people that I’ve listened to in the past. I would religiously listen to Eddi Reader of Fairground Attraction when I was in my younger teens, and I can hear sometimes in my pronunciation that you can tell certain artists that I’ve listened to. So it was like Eddi Reader, Alanis Morissette, and Tori Amos. Those sorts of guys. Never really Kate Bush to be honest, even though that tends to come up quite a bit, I was more into Joni Mitchell, Natalie Merchant and Suzanne Vega, very much. It’s that world and the storytelling.

Nick Holmes Music: How and when do you actually write?

Ms Amy Birks: This might sound odd, but I don’t plan it. I feel like something comes to me and I have to very quickly go up to my room or grab some paper and the song comes very quickly, or the idea. Sometimes the piano riff comes first, but I generally feel like someone’s going, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get this down now’, if that doesn’t sound weird. I never say, ‘Right, this weekend, on Saturday and Sunday, I’m going to go and sit and just wait and see what happens. It doesn’t work like that. I have to wait for it to come to me and then I disappear for a while.

Nick Holmes Music: And which comes first, the words or the music?

Ms Amy Birks: A lot of the time it’s all at the same time. So I can kind of hear a finished piece, but then have to decipher, break it down, ‘Okay, my lyrics are coming.’ I’m writing it down and the melody and the structures are all coming at the same time, unless I’m sat at my piano, I think, ‘Well, actually I like this piece, I’ve got a good idea coming here.’ And then I’ll write lyrics. But the main vocal melody and the lyric tends to come at the same time, and sometimes cello, piano, and bass and everything all at the same time.

Nick Holmes Music: Do you write at the piano, or does it come into your head?

Ms Amy Birks: It comes into my head and then I have to find it on the piano because I’m not a naturally gifted pianist. Not at all. I would find it very daunting playing in front of anybody.  I’m very different when it comes to my voice, I can sing in front of anybody but piano, totally opposite. I see it very much as a vehicle to get my ideas out, rather than me being a pianist. So, it comes into my head and then I have to work through and work out, ‘What is that, what note is that?’

Nick Holmes Music: Is it fair to say that in some ways In Our Souls is a less personal album than your first album All That I am and All That I was?

Ms Amy Birks: Yes. I think so, but there are a couple of songs that are deeply personal on this, Brothers being one of them, I needed to just get that off my chest and out there. The Woman in White is definitely about me and my past marriage. But the rest, I kind of just wanted to have more fun with the music. And I suppose I’m in a better place. So, not so many horrendously charged songs. Hopefully it feels a little bit more uplifting this time.

Nick Holmes Music: You recorded, produced and mixed the album. How did you find that? Did you find it difficult to be objective and step back from it all?

Ms Amy Birks: I suppose it was actually but, Tom Manning [guitarist] listened to the mixes towards the end and also my manager Ian Blackaby. So, I had those guys to just tell me, ‘Is this okay or tell me to stop now!’ But I felt like I was in a much better position to understand what I was doing this time compared to the last album. I spent hours and hours on really understanding sound and the soundscape and positioning. I try if I can to structure a lot of my music based on an orchestra. You know where they would sit naturally within the orchestra, which is I suppose natural for my music because it always seems to have cello or violin or viola in. And so that kind of creates my base. But I did find it easier this time. It was hard, the first album. I was really quite worried, I didn’t know whether it was going to be good enough, how people were going to react to it, but for this one I felt more confident and I’m proud of it, even before it went out the door so that was a good test for me, I think.

Nick Holmes Music: You did all the arrangements yourself? They feel quite a lot more complex than the previous album.

Ms Amy Birks: That’s probably just my brain becoming more complex, but arranging is one of my favourite things to do. I love layering and working out how to build the tracks. I spent a hell of a lot more time on arranging than I did actually writing the songs, that’s for sure. Definitely a favourite part of the whole process.

Nick Holmes Music: It feels that there’s a new kind of maturity and richness both about your singing and your song writing compared with the first album, which was excellent by the way …

Ms Amy Birks: Thank you!

Nick Holmes Music: What’s changed? How did that come about?

Ms Amy Birks:  I’m less stressed about everything, I think because I’ve just matured and realised what life is about a bit more. And I have a really solid partner in crime in my now husband, Simon, so I just have the headspace that I never had before. And now I think – I know this sounds a bit deep – but I think I know who I am and what I want to do with my life and what my purpose is. So maybe that comes through.

Nick Holmes Music: So does your husband contribute creatively?

Ms Amy Birks: No, he’s just got a really good way of looking at life. He’s a crazy passionate ultrarunner and he’s really wonderful to talk through ideas with. Actually he’s got a really good voice, and he introduced me to bands like Depeche Mode that I never really listened to before, so maybe that had some sort of influence …. there were some electronic sounds actually that came through, and that’s probably off the of the back of me listening to some of the Depeche Mode records, but no creative input. It’s just good to chat through ideas at the end of the day.

Nick Holmes Music: You did virtually all the backing vocals yourself; how important was it to you that that you had this multi layered approach to the backing vocals?

Ms Amy Birks: It’s something I do naturally. I love harmonising off the cuff. I would never write a melody down or really take that much time. I just press record and see what happens. So there’s a lot of that on my record where it’s just of the moment. I put down what comes into my head and see what happens. There’s quite a bit of that on the album and I just enjoy it. I enjoy the build-up of layers of vocals. Maybe it comes back to my roots singing in choirs, and growing up in a house where my dad could sing. My mum can, but she would never admit it. So there’s always voices around. But for me, I kind of challenge myself, ‘Let’s see how obscure I can make this next vocal line’, and then see if I can interweave it; I like clashes, but it’s still got to make sense when it’s there.

Nick Holmes Music: Steven Wilson has said that he was very strongly influenced by The Beach Boys in terms of layering vocals, and he does most of his backing vocals. Was there any particular band that influenced you?

Ms Amy Birks: I think if you listen to some of Eddi Reader’s records, I always loved her atmospheric sort of vocals, and it was always her. So I assume it’s probably come from that. I used to, from 13 or 14 years old, put her records on; this is how I taught myself that how to be able to harmonise with anything on the spot is to listen to records, like the stuff from Eddi Reader and just never hit her main note, and just train my brain to very quickly snap into what that chord could be. So I should imagine it’s from that.

Nick Holmes Music: And there’s a male voice that creeps in occasionally; is that your dad?

Ms Amy Birks: That’s my dad, yes. He got up on Saturday actually and sang at the album launch which was beautiful and I cried a little bit at the end. He sang Say Something [from the first album] with me, which is really poignant because the lyrics kind of point to my dad saying that to me, ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ So it was a real moment that we caught, but yeah I love his voice. Say Something was about two things that happened in my childhood. One, I was attacked by a boy in my music class when I was 14 and he got expelled; and the next was I used to do quite a bit of modelling and at the age of 17, I worked with a photographer, and he was horrendous to be around, and the sort of stuff that he was encouraging me to try and do was just… no one should be faced with that sort of behaviour at the age of 17. There was a lot of nude photography around me, and just things that happened and were said to me and done around me that I should never have experienced. But for some reason at the time, because he was kind of trying to be my manager, music wise, I didn’t say anything because I was scared of losing out on something. And I opened up to my parents later on and said, you know, he was a horrible man and the things that he said and did should never have been allowed to happen. I know it’s pretty hard and awful for my dad to hear, so then I wrote the chorus of Say Something from his perspective. So then to get up and sing together was emotional, to say the least.

Nick Holmes Music: Are you happy to talk about this?

Ms Amy Birks: I think you have to be open. If I’ve written a song about it then I’ve got to talk about it.

Nick Holmes Music: It’s in the public domain isn’t it?

Ms Amy Birks: Yes.

PART II Individual Songs on In our Souls

The less control you have I think from external sources the more creative you can be

Nick Holmes Music:  So let’s talk about individual tracks on the new album, starting with Brothers. It has really anguished opening spoken words, ‘Do you do you know why?’ And it’s about the relationship with your estranged brothers…

Ms Amy Birks: My twin and my younger brother. We’ve just had a very, very difficult relationship. I think maybe with my twin it probably started … I was never competitive with him, but I think it was the other way around. I even think it probably started when we were children in school. We were very good at sport so teachers would put us up against each other in things like swimming races, so that competition emerged. So maybe it started there. But really very sad, really, because you think twins are going to be close, but I’ve just had the most difficult relationship; it’s the most difficult one I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve had a few difficult ones, and it’s upsetting. And really, I can’t put my finger on what it is, which is why I say, ‘do you know? Do you know why?’ Because I really don’t, and I don’t know why … There’s a lot of hatred between us and it is hate. I wouldn’t say it’s a dislike, and the same with my younger brother. We were very, very close until maybe six or seven years ago, something like that. And then relationships happen and people go off and meet partners and form their own opinion of life and how things should happen and – so yes, two very, very difficult relationships – heart breaking up to the point where a couple of years ago I thought it was going to break me … Probably why there was a lot coming through on my last album, I thought I was going to have a breakdown. It was that hard for me. But in the last three years I’ve realised that when things like this happen, you send them love and you send them on their way because certain people are not supposed to be in your life, whether they’re family or not. So if you can recognise that, you’re in a much better position then to enjoy your own life.

Nick Holmes Music: So do you feel to an extent that writing tracks like this and some of the more personal tracks on your previous album is almost a form of therapy for you?

Ms Amy Birks: Massively, yes! It’s cheaper too! Yes it’s a way of just almost putting something to bed, too. It’s like, ‘Yes, okay that’s out of my system now.’ I hope even with Brothers … it could come across as harsh, yes, because it’s been a hard relationship. However, there’s a lot of sadness in there too, so I try with all my lyrics not to … you know they can be quite close to the bone, but hopefully never go over that line because a lot of my songs are actually written about people, actual people. So I have to be careful.

Nick Holmes Music: And talking of that, who is Elsa? Is that a real person?

Ms Amy Birks: No, no. So I wrote that song when I was about 19, so I’ve got a couple of songs on this album that are really quite old now, well sort of old! It’s fictitious, just a lady that was very aware of her needs. I was 19 or 20 when I wrote that. Maybe it was a little of me in there. I don’t know. But some songs are very deeply personal; others, I suppose like The Beatles did, right – they just made things up and they just turned them into songs. So no, I don’t know an Elsa – I never met an Elsa!

Nick Holmes Music: There are three songs on the album which use words by the Brontës; why did you choose to go for their poetry rather than their perhaps more famous novels?

Ms Amy Birks: I suppose because the natural one was Wuthering Heights being, you know, Kate Bush, she’s kind of conquered that one. So don’t go near that. Actually Jane Eyre is my favourite, but I think when I read their poetry, I just thought, well, this fits so easily into pieces of music because there’s so much structure there already. There’s so much rhythm and I just remember seeing Evening Solace, which is In Our Souls and straight away I was getting a melody to it. So it’s a natural thing that I never really thought to tackle a Jane Eyre. I don’t know, it’s a natural thing to go towards. Maybe I was being lazy! It’s much easier to say the poems than to come to try and capture such incredible stories, but who knows, I might just do that next. I almost think it could be a concept album, you know the bigger pieces.

Nick Holmes Music: Let’s just talk through the individual songs, starting with In Our Souls by Charlotte Brontë.

Ms Amy Birks: So with this there was a lot of the just singular lines that resonated with me, and to me it just sounded like the sunshine, something like a real spring morning. I do a lot of gardening, I’m in an allotment a lot, and I tried to capture something that sounded like a celebration of something beautiful, something full of life. So when that piano part came to me, the big piano riff, it was like, ‘Yes! This has to be for that track.’ So that came separately, the piece of piano, but knowing that I was already looking at poems from the Brontës. So I think it’s more about bringing out the words and trying to bring out some of the character as well of each of the Brontë sisters. And so hopefully In Our Souls does sound like a kind of celebration and something that feels really fresh, uplifting and very English.

Nick Holmes Music: Then the next one is A Death Scene, which is Emily Brontë?

Ms Amy Birks: With what Emily’s written in terms of …  well, the only novel … but her poetry was dark. And from what I’ve read she seemed a feisty character, so I wanted that to come through, I think, in A Death Scene. I love the instrumentation on A Death Scene. Some of that track is definitely up there with my favourite parts of the album, normally when I’m not singing to be honest – I can sit back and listen to John Hackett, with the flute and Tom Manning with the guitar. I didn’t actually write that guitar part. I said to Tom, ‘Make people weak with this section.’ And then he sent that through, ‘Wow! That really is beautiful. You’ve hit the brief.’ And so where I could I have just said to the musicians on the album, ‘Really listen’. This is telling them what it is, what the song’s about, and then they’ve had freedom to express themselves. I think Tom Manning especially really comes through strong on this album. I can hear Tom in the music, which is great.

Nick Holmes Music: And finally, there’s The Dream, with words by Anne Brontë?

I wanted this to sound intimate and personal, just like your dreams. Through reading about the sisters I saw that Anne preferred vocal music, so this has more of a traditional singer-songwriter feel to it than the other two Brontë poems on the album. But it’s not without its drama, where she awakes in the middle eight,

But then to wake and find it flown, The dream of happiness destroyed.

Anne Brontë

Nick Holmes Music: And for the Brontës you actually went to Haworth to do some research. How did those visits go what? What did you find out that inspired you?

Ms Amy Birks: To be honest, I’ve been going to Haworth since I was a young girl. My mum and dad took me there when I was probably seven or eight years old. I’ve always been drawn to it and there’s such a darkness around their house – the sound of black crows all around sends shiver down my spine. But I always love to just go and be still. I’m very much into the energies of the place and the House [the Brontë Parsonage Museum] and I think you can absorb so much from just being in a place where they would write and create and go through turmoil and have happy memories. So I visited there, and I did my research to try and work out what sort of music and what sort of classical music they were all like listening to, like Liszt for example. But for me it’s about feeling the energies in that house, and I think it’s full of them. I’ve been there probably six or seven times and will keep going back. And it’s amazing that you know if you’ve seen some of the clothes they wore and how tiny they were, and Charlotte was absolutely minute. It’s fascinating to see some of their miniatures. I resonate a lot with them in lots of different ways. I have a doll’s house which is filled with antique miniatures and so there are lots of different reasons why I’m drawn to the Brontës.

Nick Holmes Music: And so striking that they lived in a small village, in a parsonage, and yet their imaginations were so vivid.

Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, absolutely wild. But then again, you go to the back of the House, and you step foot into the Moors. And it’s barren up there and you can imagine what … you have to dig deep and find happiness in a different way.  I don’t really watch the TV so I tend to go inwards and do a lot, and the less control you have I think from external sources the more creative you can be. So I get it – once you’re there, I think you can understand where they did get those ideas from and the fact that there were three of them bouncing ideas and encouraging I think that’s incredible.  

Nick Holmes Music: Is there a link between your musical influences and Iamthemorning, and the solo work of their vocalist Marjana Semkina?

Ms Amy Birks: I’m aware of their work, yeah. I’m not sure if I’m aware of the sort of music that they would listen to you, but I know of those guys yeah and I’ve got their albums.

Nick Holmes Music: I was more thinking in terms of the fact that they have quite a Victorian sensibility. And I wonder if that that relates to what we’ve been talking about in terms of the Brontës and looking back in time to that era.

Ms Amy Birks: There’s a romance there, isn’t there, looking back through history. Maybe it’s because of the simpleness of it – complicated for other reasons, and hardships. But we lose ourselves in silly things these days and I think they didn’t, so everything was said because it needed to be said. I think we’re too soft these days and we would get distracted and controlled too easily. So I think if there is a romance, I’ve always been drawn to that era. I’ve collected Victorian clothes since I was at university, where I’d go to Manchester, to Affleck’s palace. The Victorian cape I have on the front cover of In Our Souls, that was something I bought when I about 18. So I always had a fascination with that era.

Nick Holmes Music: Mariana on her Twitter feed describes herself as a ‘dead Victorian girl.’

Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, and her artwork’s beautiful and the whole vibe is wonderful.

Nick Holmes Music: The Woman in White – is there a literary connection? Or did you just take the title from the Wilkie Collins novel?

Ms Amy Birks: I think I read it around the time of actually writing Woman in White but that’s literally where the connection stops, because The Woman in White was definitely about me and my kind of split life of, ‘Who the hell is that woman over there. Oh, that’s me!’ So it’s that, but I do remember reading The Woman in White at that same moment. Actually I found that hard work. I found that book really hard work. It just jumps around so much, but I got to the end of it!

Nick Holmes Music: So just looking now at Hold On, which is another real highlight of the album…

Ms Amy Birks: Thank you.

Nick Holmes Music: … It shows a kind of new sophistication in writing and arranging – the way it starts with a gentle piano and a very sweet violin, and then rises to this huge epic guitar climax. Is that something you’re aiming at now, that kind of development within a song?

Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, more dynamics, so you really feel the quiet moments because again, that middle eight and the way that it drops, and you’ve got the guitar that’s really present, but it’s a quiet presence. Playing with those dynamics, is absolutely what I’ll do in the future. I want to really go for that. I wrote that song when I was sat by the lake in Coniston. And my husband was in the fells doing one of his runs, so it’s written about him. So this song is for Simon. So it was quite a personal song. He had … not the easiest start in life, but he’s found and channels a lot of his energy into running and he was up there in the fells when I wrote this. Again, a song that came very quickly and written on the back of a bookmark. I think I will play more and more with dynamics because I think you feel the words, you feel the presence in the song much more.

Nick Holmes Music: And why did you choose to end the album, to bookend it with an instrumental version of the title track?

Ms Amy Birks: I think it’s me growing as an artist in terms of confidence to be able to not sing on a track and believe that the music that I write is as strong as the lyric. And I love that piece of music without me on it, so I thought it would be a nice way of ending the album with the bookend.

PART III Musical Collaborations

There’s been a lot of natural input from the musicians on this album, and maybe that’s because there’s flexibility there, but I’m like, ‘Come on, inject your personality in there’, and they have.

Nick Holmes Music: Tell me a little bit about the collaborators you worked with on In Our Souls

Ms Amy Birks: John Hackett [flute] of course, he was on the last record. Everything I send to him, the stuff that you get back, I just think he’s a beautiful player. He’s very much melody and song first and he wants to complement and doesn’t want to get in the way. He’s very much that and I’m like, ‘Please get in the way sometimes, John, it’s fine.’ I could listen to him all day. But it’s an absolute pleasure to work with someone like John, he’s great and I spent a bit of time with him with the gigs just lately. So finally after all the lockdown, it’s nice to get to know these people, but you kind of get a sense of who they are through working together with the music.

Tom Manning [guitar] I met when I was 19. I think Tom was just 18. We both did music tech together at Staffordshire University. We formed the Beatrix Players together with Helena Dove. I’ve always loved Tom’s writing and playing, and Tom and I wrote Goodnight for Now when we were 19 or 20. So there are a couple of songs on that album that were right back from our university days.

Then there’s Kyle Welch, bass player. I think Kyle is 19 or 20. He’s so young and an absolutely beautiful energy, full of beans, and an incredible player. He’s so melodic and I love that fretless sound. He was recommended to me through another bass player that was my first ever bass player in my first band when I was about 16 or 17 and I said, ‘Hey, I really want a fretless bass on this record.’ He’s still playing, and he said, ‘I’m nowhere near as good as this guy.’ He’s young, keen, but my God is he good and I just think he is wonderful.

And then Andrew Booker, the drummer and percussionist. I met him when I supported Tim Bowness a couple of years ago in Camden. And I remember thinking then because I got up on stage with him, ‘Wow, this guy can really make me move’ and I’ve spent quite a few holidays and trips to South America, so I really love that sort of vibe and Andrew just gets it. He gets my direction and I love what he does. He’s so creative and absolutely magnetic to watch on stage, he really is. He’s a beautifully creative player.

Cellist Clare O’Connell, she’s lovely. I love to write for strings, so a lot of it is just sending scores, tweaking them and the guys record what I’ve played and written. She’s a beautifully sensitive player, very different to Caroline Lavelle [who played on the first album] who was really rock and roll in her playing. which I absolutely loved too!

And then, Frank van Essen, violin. Wow, he’s a powerhouse. So I sent ideas for Hold On. He messaged me saying, ‘ I’ve just put an idea down for Hold On, have a listen and see what you think.’ I cried when I heard it because I thought, ‘Wow, you’ve just taken this to another level’, so there’s been a lot of natural input from the musicians on this album, and maybe that’s because there’s flexibility there, but I’m like, ‘Come on, inject your personality in there’, and they have. There’s a lot of collaboration on this record.

Ms Amy Birks onstage with guitarist Tom Manning

I’ve basically written all the piano parts and then sent the majority to Moray Macdonald to rerecord properly. Because, like I say, I can play the piano, but I don’t wish to say that I’m a pianist. But I do love to write piano. And Nicole Reynolds, who has quite different style actually, she played on Hold On and In our Souls. But she’s a busy lady and also for the for the live tracks now I’ve decided to move away from the piano, because I really enjoy what the guitar brings to the sound, so all of the live gigs we’ll be doing are two guitars instead of piano. And so all the live stuff I’ve rewritten, rearranged, added, taken away things. So basically I had to rewrite the album again, so that’s tested me. But yes, a big group of wonderful musicians on this record here.

Ms Amy Birks will be performing at the Green Note on July 19 and at The Forum, Darlington (opening for John Hackett) on October 21. In Our Souls is out now.

Review – The Smile

Thursday 3 June 2022

Manchester Academy

Radiohead members bring new band The Smile to Manchester

*****

Last time Radiohead played in Manchester was five years ago, when the Manchester Bombing forced the Arena to close and the gig was moved to Old Trafford Cricket Ground. It was an emotional evening, with the crowd singing Karma Police, ‘For a minute there I lost myself’, which became even more poignant in that context. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood returned with their new band The Smile, and again there was a change of venue, from The Albert Hall to The Academy, but this time for a more benign reason, described as ‘production issues’.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Radiohead’s seminal album OK Computer, and many bands would have marked it with a world tour, promising to ‘play the whole classic album in full.’ It would be hard to criticise them if they had decided to do so, and many fans would certainly have appreciated it. Instead, Yorke and Greenwood decided to do something radically different, to form a new band with drummer Tom Skinner from the jazz group Sons of Kemet. Thom Yorke’s distinctive falsetto vocals and Jonny Greenwood’s intense guitar playing provide a strong link to Radiohead, but The Smile are far from being a slimmed-down version of the famous band. The most obvious musical link appears in the song You Will Never Work in Television Again which looks back to the post-punk of the early Radiohead era of The Bends.

But both men have moved on; it seems unlikely that they will ever write a song like Creep again. Thom Yorke has released some excellent solo albums, in particular Anima from 2019, and Jonny Greenwood has written Oscar-nominated film scores Phantom Thread and The Power of the Dog. So it’s no surprise that The Smile’s new album A Light for Attracting Attention has moved on from Radiohead in style. And to stress that they aren’t Radiohead, the new band didn’t play any songs from the band’s rich back catalogue, restricting themselves to playing only one song not written by The Smile, a compelling version of Thom Yorke’s solo single Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses in the encore.

The role that Tom Skinner plays in the band shouldn’t be underestimated. He brought a more loose-limbed, jazz style to many of the songs, and the rhythmic complexity and precision of the intertwining instrumental and vocal lines was a highlight of the evening, starting with the pulsating synths of The Same which opened the gig. Thom Yorke’s voice was a strong and emotive as it has ever been; sometimes it felt as he if was an ascetic solo troubadour in troubled times. Elsewhere he was nearly drowned out in a maelstrom of psychedelic sound that was reminiscent of early Pink Floyd instrumentals. Jonny Greenwood brought a funky swagger to some of his basslines, as well as his more familiar introspective guitar-playing. Sequenced synth lines wrapped around the band, weaving in and out like vines around a tree. The band have created their own style, making them hard to categorise, a mesmerizing mix of post-rock, math rock, contemplative balladry, and the complex time signatures of prog rock. The audience listened intensely, with some members gently swaying to the hypnotic beats. 30 years since Radiohead released Creep as their first single, members of the band continue to innovate, and to bring their audience with them as their musical journey continues.

Review – Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets

Friday 6 May 2022

O₂ Apollo Manchester

Nick Mason’s band are more than just an echo of the past

*****

Pink Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason announced that the band shared a stage in Manchester with Jimi Hendrix 55 years ago in 1967. It seems unlikely that the original band will ever tour again, not least because the band would no longer be complete – keyboard player Rick Wright went to the great gig in the sky in 2008. After curating the exhibition Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains at the V&A in 2017, Mason was worried that he would spend the rest of life as a branch of English Heritage, lovingly tending to a past that had happened decades before. Instead, he started a new band, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, to play some of Pink Floyd’s music. He deliberately avoided playing any music from the band’s classic run of albums that began with Dark Side of the Moon in 1973. Instead, he decided only to play songs from the early Syd Barrett era, and some material from the later albums after David Gilmour joined the band. The most recent album the band now perform is Meddle from 1971, including for the first time on this tour the epic 20-minute track Echoes which provides the title of the tour.

Mason is the only member of Pink Floyd to play in his Saucerful of Secrets band, although bass player Guy Pratt did play with the band in the 1990s after original bass player Roger Waters left. Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet sings and plays guitar – at one point Mason joked that Kemp had expected to play with Roger Waters and that Mason himself had expected to play with Tony Hadley. Lee Harris, previously of Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads plays guitar and composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Dom Beken is on keyboards.

It would have been tempting for the band to be a high quality tribute band, like The Australian Pink Floyd who last played at the Apollo in November 2021. They give audiences the chance to hear classic Pink Floyd songs live, played to a very high standard. But Mason’s band offer something different and fresh, bringing new life to music that is over 50 years old. The songs are delivered with propulsive enthusiasm, sometimes approaching joy. None of the band members attempt to recreate the exact sound of the original band – except Mason himself who is playing his own parts. Whilst they are respectful to the original songs, the other band members add their own touches, often subtle but always inspiring. Guy Pratt provides lovely, melodic basslines and can also drive the band to be deliciously funky at times. He also provides heartfelt vocals. Gary Kemp brings his acting skills to his vocals, colouring the sound to match each song. He’s also a fine guitarist. Lee Harris on guitar is a superb player, bringing his own style rather than merely copying David Gilmour’s soulful string-bending or Syd Barrett’s eccentric playing. Dom Beken contributes excellent keyboard solos that are more blues-tinged than the jazz stylings of Rick Wright.

The highlight of the first set was a tightly-constructed series extracts from the Atom Heart Mother suite from the 1970 album of the same name. It was bookended by If from the same album, a beautifully delicate ballad on which Kemp and Pratt shared vocals, which includes the incredibly moving line ‘If I go insane, please don’t put your wires in my brain.’ The highlight of the second set was Echoes, which forms side two of Meddle. This is a fascinating track in the original Pink Floyd catalogue, the first time they had successfully created a long-form prog track after the departure of Syd Barrett, pointing forward to the new style that would mature of the next album Dark Side of the Moon. Nick Mason’s band at times turned it into a psychedelic track so that fitted perfectly with the other songs in the gig. There was a wonderfully funky swagger to the passage around six minutes in, and near the end a lovely, spacious guitar jam. Another second-set highlight was the instrumental Interstellar Overdrive, which the original band played in Manchester in 1969. Guy Pratt said Manchester is his favourite city – his son is at university here – and for a brief moment he and Lee Harris improvised around another song associated with Manchester, Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart.

The Encore began with a lively version of See Emily Play, and a melodic Saucerful of Secrets. The final track was Bike which ends with the words,

I know a room of musical tunes…

Let’s go into the other room and make them work

Rather than sitting at home curating his past, Nick Mason has decided to go into the other room, and make early Pink Floyd songs work again.

How I found Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson is known as ‘The most successful British musician most people have never heard of’. So how did I find him? (updated April 2022)

Steven Wilson and Nick Holmes at a book signing in Manchester in April 2022

In February 2009, Steven Wilson did something uncharacteristically violent; he destroyed five iPods. He shot the first one, smiling ‘wow’ when he hit it first time, but sensibly wearing ear defenders. He took a blow torch to the next one, wearing a mask that might be worn by a member of a heavy metal band (a new look for Slipknot?) or perhaps by a professional welder. The third iPod was murdered by Steven wielding a hammer; walking away from the scene of the crime in a smart black suit, he could be a star of a Scandinavian drama. In the fourth crime scene, Steven drives over the ipod in a small blue sensibly-priced car; to make sure it’s dead he stamps on it.  In the fifth crime scene, Steven takes a sledge hammer to his final victim.

These crimes against technology didn’t lead to an appearance on Crimewatch; no reconstruction was necessary as all the incidents had been filmed for YouTube. The first video did attract nearly 58,000 views (as at October 2019). Each video ended with a reference to an album called Insurgentes. Maybe he was just promoting the album? 

In 2015, I found out about Steven’s activities when I was researching a radio programme I was making. I was looking for a musician who was passionate about high quality sound. Neil Young was a possibility as he was developing a new device called a Pono (yes, without an r in the middle) to play back high-quality music files. I reached out to Neil (or his people) but presumably he was washing his hair (there is quite a lot of it). After a bit more searching, I found another hirsute musician called Steven Wilson. I had never heard of him, but I was intrigued by his crimes against iPods and also the things he was saying in interviews then, 

Unfortunately for me, I live in a world where download and streaming culture are here to stay; iPods are the dominant form in which people listen to music. I can no longer kid myself that people are listening to vinyl records at home or 5.1. There is a small group of audiophiles that have always listened to those things, and of which I am a part, but the majority of people listen to music streaming on their laptops or on MP3s on their iPods; I have to accept that, I can’t cut myself off to it, but I don’t have to like it, and I still think that it’s a very poor substitute for a high quality experience. 

I have never smashed any iPods but I shared Steven’s passion for high quality music reproduction. My Presenter and I duly went to Steven’s house to interview Steven. My Presenter had never heard of him either, but then my Presenter hasn’t heard of most of the people we interview. 

Steven opened the door of his house. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. I found out later that this was A Thing for Steven but at the time I didn’t think it odd that he asked us to remove our shoes – we had walked through the garden to get to the house and obviously he didn’t want us to get mud on his carpet. 

Steven was charming and articulate, and spoke passionately about his love of high-quality sound. He used a striking analogy; listening to a low-quality MP3 file compared to listening to a high-quality file was like looking at a work of art reproduced as a jpeg compared to going to an art gallery to see the original painting. He was quietly persuasive, firm in his views but gentle and thoughtful in delivery. 

I went back to the studio to edit and mix the programme which involved listening over and over again to the same bits of audio; and then listening to them again. I wanted to put in some of Steven’s music to illustrate the style. His most recent album then was the intriguingly titled The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories (true fans call the album simply The Raven). It sounded like a concept album from the 1970s such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, or Tales from Topographic Oceans.  I found out later that Steven had set out to write a 1970s-style concept album, which was fine with me…not only did I buy Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl, then cd, then on cd again for the 30th anniversary, then on remastered cd, but I also bought a triple live album by Yes called Yessongs. The latter sounded if it was recorded on wet socks (which is maybe why Steven doesn’t wear any) but the musicianship is amazing and it introduced me to long form rock music, otherwise known as Progressive Rock. 

Back in the radio studio, I was listening again and again to the title track of The Raven That Refused to Sing; there was something really haunting about Steven’s delicate vocals, and the repeating piano motif which kept switching from major to minor and back again. One of the joys of working in radio is that sometimes you can just sit in the studio and listen to good music on decent loudspeakers just for the pleasure of it and nobody can tell you off as it’s part of the Day Job. So I did…and realised that I found the piece very moving. Something about the sparse lyrics and the repeating piano chords spoke to me, 

Sing for me, 
Sing for me.
You can come with meYou can live with me. 
Heal my soul, 
Make me whole.

As the poet William Wordsworth once wrote, it felt like ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. There was something of the Romantic Poet in Steven’s music. 

On the table in the smart little waiting room in Steven’s house there was a coffee table with a single item on it – a copy of the latest issue of Prog magazine. It’s possible that it had a picture of Steven on the front; I can’t remember now but I found out later that he has been on the cover a few times. Sometimes, reading Prog magazine every month as I now do, it seems to me that he is seen as the saviour of  prog rock, preventing it from becoming a comfortable branch of the nostalgia industry through all the remasters and reissues; why buy one remastered cd when you can buy a box with 12 cds of slightly different versions and multiple out-takes and live recordings? Why buy any new music at all? (I confess I am as guilty of this as anyone else of my generation; I admit that I turn first to the re-issues pages in the music magazines I read, but I have never spent £400 on a Pink Floyd box set). 

Before meeting Steven, I discovered that he had a healthy side-line in remixing classic prog albums. I bought one of these and was relieved to discover that he had made excellent work on an album that I had always enjoyed musically but could barely listen to because the sound was so piercing. As were leaving his house, I thanked him for making a great album so good to listen to at last. I should point out that I tend to avoid letting interviewees know that I am a fan of their work; the objective journalist in me tells me that I should keep a professional distance. Also, I have never forgotten a line from the Peter Hammill song, Energy Vampires about the extreme view some fans have of their heroes 

Excuse me while I suck your blood,
Excuse me when I phone you,
I’ve got every one of your records, man, 
Doesn’t that mean that I own you? 

I'm not selling you my soul
Try to put it in the records
But I've got to keep my life my own

When fans suck all the energy from their heroes, it can lead to the kind of extreme alienation that Roger Waters experienced, leading him to spit at a fan and build a wall (and write a Wall). I can confirm that Steven Wilson didn’t spit at me. 

While in his home studio (not like your average home studio – it had high quality speakers, an original Mellotron and the a guitar pedal board the size of a small car) I was intrigued to see that the record that Steven was remixing on the day we met him was not by some Prog Hero, but by Tears for Fears. When his last album To the Bone came out later that suddenly made a lot of sense. He said 

My fifth [solo] record is in many ways inspired by the hugely ambitious progressive pop records that I loved in my youth. I grew up listening to a lot of very smart pop records by artists like Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, The The. 

So at that time he saw himself as a progressive artist, but was he the King of Prog Rock as some people have viewed him? When I asked him if he saw himself as a Prog Rocker, his answer was more interesting than the question. He said he saw himself as a story teller, whose records were not a collection of 10 three-minute songs, but long form narratives, like a film or a novel. 

That was a good answer. It’s sometimes helpful to put music into a neat little box (like the little instructions to record shop staff on the back of records that used to say File under Progressive Thrash Metal etc.) But I was pleased that Steven didn’t want to be categorised. All he wanted to do was re-invent himself with every record he made, an ambition that is rarer than it should be, although no doubt David Bowie would have approved. 

It’s strange how music can find you sometimes, rather than you actively seeking it out. I found Steven Wilson’s music by accident, too. You could say it was Fate, but I wouldn’t believe you. I could put in one of my favourite quotes about Fate from John Lennon here 

Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans 

It turns out that the original quote is attributed to someone else who may have been called Allen Saunders. I may never Google anything again, to save future disappointment. 

In any case, I was making other plans when Steven Wilson (or at least his music) came to find me, 

Heal my soul
Make me whole 

Now, you should stop reading this for the next 10 minutes or so, to give you time to listen to The Raven that Refused to Sing. It’s on all the major streaming services, and also there’s a beautiful animated video on YouTube, made by Jess Cope from Owl House Studios.

I have started listening to the song on Spotify to as I write this, but I will stop now to listen properly. See you shortly… 

The comments about the song on YouTube suggest that it has created a river of tears in its listeners and viewers. I will pick only one, followed by an extract for the lyrics of the song 

My older sister died few years ago, so I can’t describe how it felt when I listened this masterpiece for the very first time, at some point it felt like the song was written for me.

Sister, I lost you, 
When you were still a child,
But I need you now,
And I need our former life.
I'm afraid to wake,
I'm afraid to love. 

The song ends with a very simple line on the piano. I can reach my piano keyboard from here to pick out the notes. They are easy to play, but also profoundly moving. 

That was a slight diversion; I hadn’t intended to stop and listen at this point, or to reveal the effect that Steven Wilson’s music can have, but I don’t feel embarrassed. Otherwise, as somebody once said (and you can spend an hour researching it if you want to find out who, and still not be sure who said it) 

writing about music is like dancing about architecture 

See you next time. 

Review – Van der Graaf Generator

The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Tuesday 22 February 2022

Prog rock band still generating sparks in Manchester over 50 years on

****

In one of those lovely disambiguations on Wikipedia, Van der Graaf Generator the rock band are not to be confused with the electrostatic machine the Van der Graaff Generator. Both are capable of creating electric sparks.

Founded 55 years ago in Manchester, the rock band fronted by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Peter Hammill returned to Manchester – where they were formed in 1967 – with a mixture of more recent songs and some classics. The band were on hiatus for many years and at different times while Hammill pursued his solo career. Hammill’s back catalogue is massive – he has recorded around 50 studio albums as a solo artist and with the band. In the world of prog rock, perhaps only Steven Wilson has been as prolific, has maintained such a high standard of songwriting, and has remained as true to his own unique vision.

The latest line-up of the band features Hammill himself on guitar, keyboards and vocals and two members of the band who first joined in 1968, Guy Evans on drums and Hugh Banton on keyboards. Material was drawn mostly from the 60s and 70s and from this century, both from Hammill’s solo albums and the band’s records. When the band returned for an encore an audience member shouted ‘1976’ and Hammill smiled ‘earlier, actually’, going on to sing a sweet-voiced version of the anthemic Refugees from the 1970 album The Least we can do is Wave to Each Other.

Hammill came on stage wearing a loose-fitting white suit, looking like an avuncular housemaster from a minor public school who had just come off the cricket pitch. The capacious stage of the Bridgewater Hall, which can accommodate a full symphony orchestra, looked a little bare with only three performers and their equipment, and there was no light-show or video screens. All the drama was concentrated in the musical performances and the formidable but strangely moving songwriting.

Hammill’s voice is still a remarkable instrument, coloured by his phenomenal ability to act out a song. Sometimes it was conversational, sounding like the singer of a French chanson, at other times half-spoken like the sprechstimme used in German classical music in the early part of the twentieth century. At times it was pensive as in Do Not Disturb, at other times terrifying as in the cry that opened Nutter Alert; it was clear that Hammill has no intention of going gentle into that good night. Sometimes it was an instrumental texture, as in parts of Childhood Faith in Childhood’s End, going from a whisper to a roar in very short space of time.

Strong support to Hammill’s vocal was provided by drummer Guy Evans whose work was subtle, fierce, jazzy, military, busy, simple as required. Hugh Banton’s organ playing was bluesy, dreamy, contemplative, jazzy, funky, hymn-like. There was a remarkable range of tone, texture and dynamics from just three players. If there was the odd slip, absence from touring due to Covid was a good reason. Hammill announced Masks by saying that they had decided to play the song during the Covid lockdowns but were not sure if they could pull it off; spoiler alert – they could. The song took flight with a full prog instrumental passage and a wailing guitar. Poignantly, Hammill announced at the end of the concert that the band would not be able to meet the fans and do signings afterwards as they had to remain in a Covid bubble with crew. But despite the enforced lack of contact with the audience, the band had communicated through the music which was challenging, disturbing, cinematic, horrifying, intimate, dramatic, reflective, endlessly twisting and restless, always fascinating. And ultimately uplifting.

Review – The Australian Pink Floyd Show

The Apollo, Manchester

Saturday 27 November 2021

Classic Pink Floyd songs brought to life with an Australian twist

****

The last time Pink Floyd played an indoor concert venue in Manchester was nearly 50 years ago at the Palace Theatre on 10 December 1974. It seems unlikely that the three surviving members will ever play live together again, although Nick Mason has already played the Apollo with his band Saucerful of Secrets and is returning next year to play more of the band’s early material. In the meantime, fans of the band can enjoy the Australian Pink Floyd Show, a chance to hear live versions of songs that are too good never to be heard live again.

The potential problem with a tribute band is that they can earnestly replicate the exact notes that the original band played without really capturing the spirit of that band. This can sometimes happen with the Australian Pink Floyd Show, but at their best they take flight and their passion and energy lift the songs so they become less of a high quality reproduction of an Old Master and more like the original, with all the depth of the brushstrokes and the subtlety of the colour intact. Guitarist David Domminney Fowler in particular is able to lift a song, both with his soulful vocals and the fluid grace of his soloing. And the vocals throughout were excellent – lead vocalist Chris Barnes (a Salford University graduate) was always passionate and polished, and Ricky Howard brought the rougher edge of Dave Gilmour’s vocals to life. And a special mention for Lorelei McBroom, Emily Lynn and Lara Smiles who provided warm and energetic backing vocals throughout and all shone in their solos in The Great Gig in the Sky.

The other dilemma faced by a tribute band is whether they should faithfully play every note of the original songs from the albums, or whether they should allow themselves to improvise when playing the songs live. Pink Floyd themselves, particularly in later years, added extended guitar solos and Money had a breakdown jam section that was absent from the Australian Floyd’s version and would perhaps have lifted it. So it was great to hear Another Brick in the Wall Part II in a longer version, with added guitar parts at the end, while the grotesque inflatable teacher nodded along menacingly. Another highlight was a modified version of One of These Days, which made great use of the guitars appearing at either side of the stereo picture. It also featured an inflatable, a pink kangaroo with a disturbingly rat like smile. There were several other witty references to the band’s Australian origin, including the famous image from Wish You Were Here of the man on fire shaking now shaking hands with a kangaroo, and the radio station browsing at the start of that song being replaced by TV channel-hopping shows including Neighbours. But there was more poignant imagery on the circular screen behind the band too, early pictures of the original band with the haunted face of Syd Barrett providing a moving backdrop to an excellent rendition of Shine on You Crazy Diamond.

Amongst all the ‘hits’, it was good to hear some slightly lesser-known songs. The second half opened with a superb version of Astronomy Domine which featured on ‘Ummagumma’ in a live version recorded over 50 years ago in 1969. And there was a blistering version of Sheep from the 1977 album ‘Animals’, featuring the bizarre mangling of spoken words from Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, He converteth me to lamb cutlets.’

The show ended with two encores, a powerful version of Run Like Hell and a rousing Comfortably Numb for which the audience was on its feet, a thrilling ending to a very good evening.