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 Gilmore’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.

Review – Disillusioned by Mariana Semkina

Haunting new EP from an exceptional talent

*****

Mariana Semkina, the vocalist from iamthemorning (her duo with pianist Gleb Kolyadin) released her debut solo album Sleepwalking last year. Previously based in St Petersburg, she now lives in England but unlike many artists she felt unable to take advantage of Covid restrictions to write new material, ‘I flew to Russia for a week and got stuck there when borders shut for half a year due to lockdown’. She describes how the depression she suffered as a result of feeling trapped only lifted on her return to England, where she was able to start writing again. The result is her new solo EP, Disillusioned, with three new songs and two traditional folk songs from Hungary and Iceland.

The opening track Friend has a sound world that is a departure from Mariana’s previous work. It begins with disturbing electronic drones and frenetic strings, with phased drums that contrast with the fragile vocals. The evocative video suggests that the protagonist of the song has lost her ‘only friend’. She drags her friend’s body through the woods, and when the music suddenly drops out there is an ethereal, distant wordless melody as she starts to bury him. A chillingly melodramatic and profoundly beautiful start to the EP, thematically it continues Mariana’s preoccupation with death, describing herself on Twitter as a ‘dead Victorian girl’.

Ne Hagyj Itt is the first of two tracks on the EP which reflect Mariana’s love of different languages and cultures. She says, ‘There is a Czech proverb that says “learn a new language and get a new soul”, and I certainly feel this way’. The song was written by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók and published in 1935 as part of his 27 Two and Three Part Choruses based on traditional Hungarian folk songs. The title means ‘Don’t leave me here’, and the words describe the protagonist’s plea to the addressee to reveal the road she is taking so that he can plough it with a golden plough, sow the land with pearls and water it with tears. Mariana’s gorgeous, yearning multi-tracked vocals and beautiful harmonies sit on a bed of subtle electronics.

The title song Disillusioned refers partly to Mariana’s disillusionment with the music industry which has led her to release this EP herself via the bandcamp website. She says ‘having full control over your creations is quite precious and beautiful’. The song is superbly arranged, with warm strings and a gentle electronic wash bringing a bittersweet quality to Mariana’s subtle but heartfelt anguish.

Land Míns Föður is the second song on the EP to feature another language and culture. As Mariana says, ‘each language is special and works differently and beautifully with music’. This Icelandic folk song is a patriotic and imaginative celebration of the land of the poet’s father. The melancholy yearning of the song is captured in the multi-tracked vocals, drenched in echo. At only 90 seconds long, this is a little gem.

With a bass line that provides a gently-beating heart An End provides an uplifting end to the EP, moving from introspection to an epic chorus. The song concludes with an unresolved chord that fades into nothingness, perhaps casting doubt on the hope that it had raised. Throughout the EP, Mariana’s songwriter and abilities as an arranger show an even greater depth of maturity than on previous releases. Her voice continues to develop and grow, ranging from crystalline beauty to a more robust tone when required. The addition of electronics makes the sound world even richer and more evocative than before, creating a haunting listen from an exceptional talent.

Personnel

Marjana Semkina – vocals, backing vocals, lyrics

Vlad Avy – guitar
Grigoriy Losenkov – piano, keyboards, bass guitar
Svetlana Shumkova – drums, percussion

String Quartet:
1st Violin Semen Promoe
2nd Violin Marina Ryabova
Viola Alexander Shtabkin
Cello Anatoli Vorontsov

Porcupine Tree – Hidden Treasures

Excellent songs that didn’t make the final cut

Some very strong songs were left off Porcupine Tree’s ten studio albums for reasons of space, changes of style … or in at least one case due to what the band’s leader Steven Wilson now regards as a mistake on his part.

I discovered some of these while writing my new book On Track … Porcupine Tree, a detailed analysis of the band’s songs. Many fans will already know them all, but to others I hope they will provide unexpected moments of joy.

The Sound of No-One Listening

This song starts with ominous soundscaping and sound effects, including the sound of an ice cream van, which has become a common horror film trope, though it may have a sense of nostalgia for some listeners. Although the band may have changed style by the time it was recorded, it’s an excellent track that stands up very well in retrospect, with a simple compelling bass riff and a lovely flute motif. Synth arpeggios provide a glittering, hopeful backdrop, as the song reaches a climax with very energetic drumming before falling back into a darkly disturbing noise-scape again.

Men of Wood

Steven Wilson said he found it difficult to find a home for this track. It was considered for two albums and as a single, but didn’t quite fit the band’s changing style, ‘It was almost a throwback to (the band’s) psychedelic pop, and that just wasn’t quite right – it was a context thing.’ The theme is the vacuity of modern society, sharing a sentiment with T. S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Hollow Men’. The song begins with a dirty-sounding guitar, then heads for a memorable chorus with a nicely psychedelic key-change, giving it a rather wistful feel.

Buying New Soul

This track was recorded in writing sessions at Foel Studios, Wales, in March 2000, just after Porcupine Tree’s sixth studio album Lightbulb Sun was completed. It’s a gorgeous, poignant song with a haunting chorus. It follows the theme of the band’s fifth album Stupid Dream, the difficulty of balancing artistic integrity and commercial success. A highly personal song, it reflects Steven Wilson’s continuing fight against the music industry – ‘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 circling synthesizer motif that opens and closes the song perfectly matches the melancholy lyric and jazz-like upright bass. There is one moment of rage, but the feeling is generally one of resignation.

Cure for Optimism

This is a Steven Wilson solo performance at his home studio, No Man’s Land. The meaning of the song is just out of reach, but the track is still very evocative, with ghostly echoed piano motifs and subtle acoustic guitars. Mental health appears to be a theme here. The reference to a ‘serpent on a mobile phone’ could suggest a record company executive.

Drown With Me

In an interview in 2020, Steven Wilson told Lasse Hoile that he thought this song was going to be ‘one of the highlights’ of In Absentia, the band’s seventh studio album. He replaced it with ‘Prodigal’, ‘which I think is one of the weaker songs’, although he stressed this was a very personal opinion that others might disagree with. The reason for the substitution was that he felt ‘Prodigal’ was a better recording, although he regretted the decision later. ‘Drown With Me’ is a gorgeous, upbeat song in which the music contrasts sharply with the lyrics. The protagonist’s plan to drown the song’s addressee and her family seems to refer to the world of serial killers, one of the main themes of In Absentia.

Futile

This is the strongest example of the band’s interest in the music of Swedish heavy metal band, Meshuggah. The band’s drummer Gavin Harrison told Lasse Hoile that he wanted to write a Meshuggah-inspired track, that he could use as a challenge at his drum clinics, as he was finding it hard to play heavy metal. Gavin invited Steven Wilson to add guitar parts to the demo, resulting in ‘one of the heaviest pieces we ever recorded’. Lyrically, we may be back in the world of the serial killer that is so strong on In Absentia, ‘You were the one that made her cry … the world went black … lost my head.’ The chorus is fiercely dark, the metallic guitars almost burying the vocals. What makes the song remarkable is the contrast between the main guitar riff’s ferocity and the yearning delicacy of the backing vocals.

Nil Recurring

This and the next song were recorded during the sessions for Porcupine Tree’s ninth studio album Fear of a Blank Planet, which many fans consider to be their best. Both tracks feature on the band’s 2007 EP Nil Recurring. The title track of the EP is an instrumental featuring King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on lead guitar. After two minutes of guitar tapping and heavy riffing, a lovely, spacious breakdown highlights Colin Edwin’s bass and Richard Barbieri’s keyboards. Then, at around 3:20, the track gathers momentum, and a lovely riff cuts across a punchy one-note bass section. At around five minutes in, the opening echoed tapped-guitar theme returns, with a manic guitar solo and further heavy riffing, until the track suddenly dissolves.

What Happens Now?

This song’s protagonist seems to be suffering an existential crisis, rather like the main character in Fear of a Blank Planet. Material possessions mean nothing to him and they bore him, ‘So I got all these things, but so what?’ As he says, ‘You can’t take them with you’, and instead he seeks meaning through religion, asking the song’s mystery addressee, ‘You think you can save my soul?’ The answer – given in verse 2 – seems to be that he could die as a result of a suicide bombing, although the link between verses one and two is oblique. He boards a plane, in which somebody has concealed a bomb in a briefcase, as a result of which, ‘My body will spread through the heavens, across the sky/And my ashes will fall through the cloudburst.’ It’s a surprising and poetic image, despite its bleak suggestion that the answer is oblivion. Instrumentally, the track is very strong. Of particular note is the rhythmic illusion: beginning at about five minutes in, becoming much clearer at around six minutes, when the drums appear to move at half the speed of the other instruments, before the whole track slows down to an epic feeling of finality.

On Track: Porcupine Tree…every album, every song, published by Sonicbond, is out at the end of September and is available to order now at Burning Shed and other good bookshops.

Sources:

Sleeve notes to Stars Die: The Delerium Years 1991-1997 (2002)

Interviews with Steven Wilson and Gavin Harrison filmed for the In Absentia Deluxe Edition of 2020 by Lasse Hoile

Album Review – Fragments by Trifecta

*****

New Prog supergroup bring joy in fragmented times

Drummer Craig Blundell, keyboard player Adam Holzman and bass player Nick Beggs began playing together on Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase tour in 2015. They also joined Steven on his To the Bone tour in 2018 and 2019. When Steven went off for a cup of tea after a brief soundcheck, the three others would remain on stage to jam together, creating what they described as a ‘jazz club’. They recorded each other on their phones as they played, and decided to use these recordings as the basis of some of the songs for the new Trifecta project. The result is a version of jazz rock fusion, almost entirely instrumental, in a style described by Nick Beggs as ‘Fission! It’s like Fusion but less efficient and more dangerous … with fall out.’ The outcome is an explosion of joyful, melodic virtuosity.

Beggs and Holzman were due to tour with Steven Wilson again but tours due in 2020 and again in 2021 were cancelled due to Covid-19. Like many artists, the three members of Trifecta collaborated remotely during lockdown – Beggs and Blundell in England and Holzman in New York. But whereas the work of another Steven Wilson alumnus Richard Barbieri Under a Spell described darkly trouble dreams in lockdown, Trifecta cast a genial spell on tracks that they each completed at home before Holzman mixed the heady brew in his home studio. Further magic was sprinkled by expert mastering engineer Andy VanDette (who also worked on some of the Porcupine Tree albums). The light-hearted nature of the collaboration is shown by some of the tiles of the 15 ‘fragments’ that make up the album, such as ‘Clean Up On Aisle Five’ and ‘Nightmare In Shining Armour’. But don’t let that distract you from the serious levels of musicianship on display here.

Nick Beggs’ dry humour is evident on the only track that features vocals, the gently enticing Pavlov’s Dog Killed Schrodinger’s Cat, the lyrics of which he describes as ‘written from the perspective of a layman trying to understand quantum mechanics … and failing’. They include such memorable lines as ‘Wrestled to the ground by your quantum theory/ I’ve listened to your talk until my eyes grew weary’.

Despite the consistently high level of inventiveness and virtuosity shown by all three players, planting them firmly in prog rock territory, none of the songs are prog epics in terms of length; all of the 15 tracks are beautifully-crafted miniatures of around 3 minutes. The whole album is only 45 minutes long. Steven Wilson has recently called for a return to the shorter-form album, and his latest release The Future Bites lasts 42 minutes.

Opening track Clean Up On Aisle Five with its swirling keyboards, strong melody and powerful drumming is reminiscent of another prog rock supergroup, U.K. (John Wetton, Bill Bruford, Eddie Jobson and Alan Holdsworth) on their track ‘In the Dead of Night’, although without the impassioned vocals.

Other highlights include Proto Molecule with its amazingly funky bassline – worthy of Jaco Pastorius – evocative keyboard lines, syncopated jazz-funk riffing, and a delightful interplay between both instruments. There is more Jaco-style bass at the start of Nightmare in Shining Armor.

The Enigma of Mr Fripp cheerfully acknowledges its debt to Robert Fripp of King Crimson. It encapsulates all that is great about that band in less than three minutes. Nick Beggs plays Chapman Stick with Fripp-like intensity, the lines spiralling around each other. There are dystopian drums, sudden key changes, warm mellotron washes and rhythmic illusions. A complete King Crimson album in miniature. The track suddenly stops, delightfully segueing into the ultra-cool jazz keyboards of the next track Sally Doo-Dally.

Have You Seen What the Neighbours are Doing refers to the house next to Adam Holzman’s in the North Bronx, left empty when the man living there disappeared. It could easily have come from the soundtrack to a 1970s movie like Shaft. It begins with a disturbing film-noir scenario, with a looping funky bassline and luminous synths. There’s dirty distortion on the Fender Rhodes-like solo, adding to the sleaze. Holzman uses a similar sound on his recent live album The Last Gig.

The whole album is an unexpected lockdown delight that reveals its deep treasures with repeated listening. Two important questions remain. Are Trifecta working on new material, and will they ever tour? Hopefully the answer to both questions is yes!

Album Review – Departure Tapes by Giancarlo Erra

Music inspired by a ‘hard but healing’ experience

****

Requiems in music come in many forms, from the operatic grandeur of Giuseppe Verdi, to the serenity of Gabriel Fauré, and the fiercely anti-war War Requiem of Benjamin Britten. These all use Latin words from the Requiem Mass, but a wordless requiem can also be effective. The Italian composer, multi-instrumentalist and visual artist, Giancarlo Erra has now released Departure Tapes, an instrumental album which is not a formal requiem but is dedicated to his father, who passed away from cancer recently. Perhaps the nearest musical comparison is not the formal requiems of Verdi, Mozart and Fauré but The Disintegration Loops by the American composer William Basinski, dedicated to the victims of 9/11. Basinski’s music was created using tape loops that gradually deteriorated as they passed over the tape heads. Erra’s music shares some of that rich analogue sound world. As he charmingly notes on the CD sleeve, ‘Please note, unusual loud vinyl noise, skips and distortions, are part of the samples I created for this album and are not audio problems.’

Giancarlo Erra began the band Nosound as a solo studio project and later expanded it into a full band to play his music live (exactly as Steven Wilson did with Porcupine Tree). He released his first solo album Ends in 2019. He had already started thinking about his second solo album, which he was planning to make more experimental, when, ‘my father suddenly got ill…and everything changed.’ His father had left the family when Giancarlo was 14. The two of them spent more time together during the final few months than they had done for years. Giancarlo found the experience, ‘hard but at the same time healing’, bringing a sense of closure. This is reflected in the music, which is uncompromising, deeply personal but also strangely uplifting. The album was written when Giancarlo was travelling between his home in England and his father in Italy. Most of the material was improvised live in the studio, with Giancarlo playing all the instruments.

The opening track, Dawn Tape, features a melancholy repeated piano figure, with vinyl static, a long synth pad and a slowly evolving bass drone. Shimmering strings describe the sun rising slowly as the dawn creeps in.

The short Previous Tape is a simple, evocative, slow-moving melody over gentle arpeggios. The track has a nostalgic feel, with the sound of a horn heard from a distant mountain top.

169th Tape features cinematic strings which distort and decay sadly, like Basinki’s Disintegration Loops, the number of the tape perhaps suggesting that it has been through several iterations which have gradually worn it out. The key change in the chords around half way through suggests a moment of hope in the weary feeling of resignation.

Departure Tape

By far the longest track on the album (the video is an extract). Like the album itself, the video is dedicated to Giancarlo’s father. He recorded the song after his first visit to his father in Italy, after finding out about his father’s illness. He describes how he was ‘exhausted and down.’ He began playing live, experimental music in his studio as he tried to face his conflicted feelings which came out as a, ‘free subconscious stream of thoughts.’

The song begins with a haunting solo voice, sounding rather like Jónsi from Icelandic band Sigur Rós. It feels like an incantation, a wordless prayer, or a plainsong chant. It is soon accompanied by the sound of a harmonium, the closest we get on the album to the sound of a requiem sung in a church. The voice is gradually overwhelmed by a sea of ambient strings.

The piano then takes on the central role, filling a cathedral-like space with resolute chords. The piano melody then searches for meaning, gradually finding hope as it accelerates until it begins to lose confidence; eventually it falls over itself in a tumult of grief.

The solo voice returns, appearing out of a haze of buzzing strings, before the track ends in ambiguity with uncertain piano motifs, fading into obscurity.

The closing track, A Blues for my Father, finally pays direct tribute to Giancarlo’s father. The video for the song features nostalgic, happy family scenes, shot mostly in black and white, interspersed with contemporary autumn leaves which seem to be sodden with tears. The music gradually resolves into another haunting theme, melancholy and contemplative, a bittersweet and moving tribute to a lost father.

Review – The Last Gig by Adam Holzman and Brave New World

Impeccable live jazz-rock from former Miles Davis music director and Steven Wilson’s keyboard player

*****

On 12 March 2020, keyboard player Adam Holzman and his band Brave New World drove to the Nublu club to soundcheck for a gig that night. The global pandemic was about to close New York City. Broadway had just shut down, but as Adam said later, ‘we decided to play anyway. Something big was coming, and who knew when we’d be able to perform again?… Only about 18 hardcore fans showed up.’

Adam Holzman has been Steven Wilson’s regular keyboard player since he joined the Grace for Drowning tour in late 2011 in support of Steven’s second solo album.

But Adam’s musical pedigree goes back much further than that; most notably he was with Miles Davis’ band for nearly five years, eventually becoming Miles’ musical director. And going back further still, Adam’s father is Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records (who signed The Doors) and Nonesuch Records (who began by specialising in European Early Music, but also commissioned the pioneering electronic album Silver Apples of the Moon, by the American composer Morton Subotnick in 1967). Adam tells stories of when he was a boy and Jim Morrison came to the house, and Adam showed Jim his toy keyboard and tape recorder; quiet moments when Jim was far from his rebellious and controversial public persona. Young Adam was also hugely influenced by The Doors’ keyboard player Ray Manzarek.

The album opens with Intro – The Age of Fear with dystopian synth noises, and ominous voices intoning, ‘The age of fear; the creative spirit must fight to stay alive’, words that take on a poignant significance in this context. But since the 1980s, Adam has made music under the title ‘Optimistic music in the time of fear’, so perhaps there is hope, and the vigorous drum solo from Gene Lake, with bubbling analogue synth sounds suggest that there is still life in music.

On the tour to support Steven Wilson’s third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing,  Adam began to do piano improvisations each night at the start of Deform to Form a Star, a song from Steven’s second solo album Grace for Drowning. He collected them together on The Deform Variations in 2015. The second track Pianodemic is another in that tradition, a moment of optimism despite the reference to the Pandemic in the title.

The next three tracks are taken from Adam’s 2018 album Truth Decay. As is often the case with jazz, the live versions have more power and energy than the studio versions, good though they are. The first of these, Ectoplasm, bursts into life with fierce drumming and cool Fender Rhodes keyboards. On the NewEars Prog Show podcast Adam described the Fender as ‘the electric guitar of jazz’, and it plays an important role on this album (although the instrument Adam plays is a Korg SV1 Stage Vintage piano). Throughout the album, Adam gives space to the other players in the band rather than just showing off his keyboard skills, virtuosic as they are, so the album feels like a true band album.

The next track, Phobia has a lovely, spacey, open feel with an atmospheric main theme with evocative harmonies. It gives all the band their chance to shine above the backbeat – first Adam with some distorted Fender Rhodes sounds, then Ofer Assaf, with evocative saxophone, then Jane Getter on heavily echoed guitar. An excellent track.

Growing up as the son of a record company executive, Adam could easily have had a very cynical view of the music industry, the kind of view expressed by a relative who might have said, Good Luck with your Music, in the way that we might say, ‘good luck with that.’ But Adam’s father has been supportive of his son, and it seems that Adam has retained his joy in music making. This is a seriously funky track with an earworm for a chorus, featuring excellent rumbling bass playing from Freddy Cash jr.

Adam originally recorded Maze, a Miles Davis song in 1985, live in the studio just before the sessions for Miles’ 1986 album Tutu. The track finally appeared on the Rubberband album released in 2019. Adam described the track as having, ‘a killer groove…with a flat-out burning solo.’

The final song, Abandoner is a cover of a track from Steven Wilson’s first solo album Insurgentes. The original track begins with a lovely, introspective quality, and Steven’s plaintive vocals are replaced here with soulful saxophone playing from Ofer Assaf. As the title suggests, the song is about loss and abandonment, and Adam’s version perfectly captures this. Steven’s song descends into terrifying noise, perhaps reflecting bitterness and anger at being abandoned. Adam’s version takes a slightly quieter, but equally effective approach.

This is a stunning live album, although it often sounds like a studio album both because of the quality of the playing and the recording, and the fact that the audience is small due to the Pandemic. Holzman says, ‘As of now, it’s still the last gig’. Let’s hope it’s not too long before he is able to tour again.