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. 

Album Review – Ms Amy Birks: All That I Am and All That I Was

****

Achingly beautiful music in troubled times

In those distant days before the world was gripped by the hands of a virus that forced us all into lockdown, I was on my way back home on a train from London. I was doing some research on my laptop into the Prog Rock band Porcupine Tree (as you do). The woman sitting next to me asked me if I liked that genre of music. Guilty as charged. She introduced herself as Ms Amy Birks (Winner of “Best Female Vocalist” in the 2018 PROG Magazine poll). She told me that she was about to release her debut solo album, having split with her former band Beatrix Players. I promised to review the album when it was released. So, dear reader, here is my review.

The first thing that strikes you is Amy’s voice, which is honey-rich, sometimes heavy with emotional vibrato, urgently rhythmic in its phrasing and in its need to communicate these quietly vital songs.

Ms Birks has been compared to Kate Bush, and it’s a valid comparison, but the singer that came to mind in terms of emotional truth is a very different performer, Peter Hammill. Listen to his 1977 album Over, written at the end of long relationship. Some of the songs on All That I Am & All That I Was are about a painful divorce, and are as intensely raw and personal as those on the earlier album. And the comparison continues with the close-micing of the vocals on each album; the singer is in the room with you. Compare these lines from Peter Hammill

For pain and love go hand in hand...
And hand in hand go you and my friend

from Time Heals

With these from Amy Birks

Tell me who is, who is she
You owe me that at least

from With All that I am

Other, slow, reflective, tracks on the new album such as Unlike The Heart, More and Not Every Night also deal with Amy’s painful past relationships.

But the most powerful song on the album Say Something describes her time as a teenage model and an older man who took advantage of her. Accompanied by gentle, delicate falling mournful harmonies she describes her regret that she didn’t say anything at the time about behaviour that was just as wrong then as it is now

And it was okay was it 
For me to take off my clothes
So much beauty 
And only seventeen years old

She now says “It’s not just about my experience, but also other people’s. These songs help to take me through very difficult parts of my life. I’ve realised I’m much stronger than I thought I was, now I’ve had time to explore those feelings. ˆ

What’s very effective is that this very autobiographical song segues into another song in the same key, and also in the unusual rhythm (for a pop song) of 3/4 or waltz time. The track is about another woman who is hated and mistreated by a man, Catherine of Aragon

He woke up today
With a hate for Catherine

Like several of the other songs, Catherine displays a lovely use of instrumental harmonies juxtaposed with the vocal line. Here, the melody seems to be in a major key at one point where the harmony is in the minor. It feels like a false relation, appropriately enough a musical technique that was popular during the reign of Henry VIII.

Amy’s evident love for history continues with another song with a Baroque dance feel to it, All the Fault of Lady Anne, and about another of Henry’s wives Anne Boleyn. Gentler than its predecessor, the song still reminds us of her fate when she was sent to the Tower.

Amy Birks’ love of history extends to historic literature. The track I Wish features Steve Hackett on acoustic guitar and lyrics based on the words of Christina Rossetti in her poem I wish I were a little bird – poet, activist and the subject of some of the most famous paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Portrait of Christina Rossetti by her brother Dante Gabriel

As Amy says, The Rossetti poem works perfectly as this is a dark lyric about the fragility of the mind and how the past can so very easily come back to tease and torment.

I wish I were a little bird
That out of sight doth soar,
I wish I were a song once heard
But often pondered o'er,
Or shadow of a lily stirred
By wind upon the floor,
Or echo of a loving word
Worth all that went before,
Or memory of a hope deferred
That springs again no more.

I wish I were a little bird, by Christina Rossetti

The guitar and percussion add a lively flamenco feel to the track, and a subtle highlight of the album is the quote from Rossetti which includes a gorgeous chord change around 2 minutes 15 seconds into the song (under the words hope deferred) which melts in the mind.

The literary theme is also found in Jamaica Inn which refers to the book by Daphne du Maurier. Although it was published in the 1930s it was set in 200 years ago in Cornwall, which allows Amy to have fun on Cornish beaches and in a horde-driven carriage in the video:

The song, which opens the album, begins with a gentle, confessional melody, leading to an ear-worm of a chorus which haunts the mind for days.

The album is largely self-produced, no doubt drawing on skills Amy acquired from her degree in Music Technology at Staffordshire University. The production is beautifully simple, the song writing and arrangements accomplished and mature.

It’s always a good sign when an album leaves you wanting more, as this one did when it finished. It was also a consoling, richly-felt companion on a solitary coronavirus walk through a nearby sunlit industrial estate.

Review – Manchester Collective: Cries and Whispers

Manchester Collective

The White Hotel, Salford

Saturday 14 March 2020

Everything they touch turns to musical gold

*****

Dmitri Shostakovich

This was a concert for troubled times. Manchester Collective’s Managing Director, Adam Szabo thanked us for braving the weather and the virus. He said that this performance, the end of a short tour, would be the end of Collective concerts for a little while. He asked us to share our thoughts with freelance musicians. For those who work in the gig economy, everything is uncertain.

We had been promised dark music, unsettling art for unsettling times. We began with the deep dark twisted fantasy of a madrigal by Carlo Gesualdo, set for string quartet, Moro Lasso whose original words began,

I die, alas, in my suffering,
And she who could give me life,
Alas, kills me and will not help me.

The chromatic harmonies of the piece are as warped as the character of the composer, whose depraved history was mentioned in the introduction by violinist Caroline Pether. It would not be until the dark days of twentieth century when such harmonies be used regularly in western music again.

Caroline introduced the next piece, Benjamin Britten’s First String Quartet, as dark but also magical and human. Written in America during WWII, it began with sparkling partials from the upper strings, before the main theme appeared. At another point, the notes fell like gentle rain.

Throughout the piece, the variety of sound produced by just four string players was remarkable. Sometimes quiet and ethereal, at other times gutsy and grainy, always visceral. The playing was always passionately rhythmic, driven by a fierce musical intelligence. As the Collective themselves put it,

Our string quartet concerts are some of the most personal shows that we build. There’s something about that particular lineup which feels terrifyingly intimate – like there’s a direct connection between each of the four players, and every listener in the room.

This being the White Hotel, the venue itself provided its own soundtrack to the music. The garage door behind me rattled – was it just the wind, or spirits trying to get in, or out? Snatches of chatter, a ring pull on can snapping open, a police siren, a car rumbling past. In the middle of it all, the players sat undisturbed, watching each other with undivided concentration, external distractions somehow making the emotional power of the music even more focused.

The final piece was Shostakovich’s deeply personal eighth string quartet. It began with a doleful melody, then the sound of a wounded creature crying in the night. Painful sweetness led to stuttering, manic dance. Fierce sawing of bows, a lumbering rhythm, then eerie high strings. A nostalgic melody, then shimmering, aching beauty. Then a bitter calm. The performance was spellbinding, drawing us deep into Shostakovich’s dark and anguished world. It seemed to be over very quickly, as if we had stepped outside time for a while.

Having heard the Collective performing several times recently, I can now safely say that everything they touch turns to musical gold. Please come back soon!

Gesualdo Moro, lasso
Britten String Quartet No. 1
Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8

Caroline Pether Violin
Doriane Gable Violin
Ruth Gibson Viola
Jack Bailey Cello

Review – Britten The Turn of the Screw

Opera North

The Lowry, Salford

Wednesday 11 March 2020

A superbly creepy staging of Britten’s masterpiece

*****

Sarah Tynan as the Governess and Nicholas Watts as Peter Quint ©Tristram Kenton

The small scale of the forces involved in Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera was evident when the whole cast came on stage at the end to take their well-deserved applause; rather than the usual choruses of flower girls, matadors and several principal roles there were just six people. The orchestra was equally small, just 13 players. This creates a peculiar intimacy, ideally suited to this intensely claustrophobic and atmospheric ghost story. Every singer and musician was exposed, and they were all equal to the task.

The set played a vital part in creating the unsettling atmosphere, dominated by a huge bed which cleverly doubled as a puppet-theatre, and a stage coach, perspectives and images distorted and exaggerated like terrifying visions from a child’s nightmare of a fairy tale. Even inanimate objects took on a sinister aspect – the rocking horse in Act I became animated on its own; the gramophone in Act II crouched malevolently.

Image ©Tristram Kenton 02/20

The nightmarish quality of the sets was enhanced by some surreal touches. The opening image of the Governess, seen from behind as she travelled in a stage coach to the country house could have come from a painting by René Magritte. The wallpaper on the vast wall at the back of the set could have been by William Morris but on a surreally large scale. When the wall disappeared to reveal the garden behind, the flowers unnaturally bright colourful as if from a painting by Henri Rousseau. The windows through which Miles stared, looking for Peter Quint, were like the windows of a pagan cathedral. Sometimes the characters cast huge shadows behind them, and even the floor sloped unsettlingly, like images from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

This production worked like the best horror films where the viewer’s imagination weds powerful visual imagery to unsettling music to create a sense of the uncanny. The two apparitions, the dead Miss Jessel and Peter Quint appeared suddenly at the window or at the door; combined with evocative lighting, a little dry ice and sinister music the two human figures take on a menacingly eerie aspect. An analogy from the world of cinema is the 2014 psychological drama and supernatural horror film It Follows, in which the disturbing score by Disasterpeace (Richard Vreeland) inspired by John Cage, John Carpenter and Penderecki, and Goblin (who wrote the score for the original 1977 version of Suspiria) makes the ordinary human form seem extraordinary and terrifying.

It Follows Original Sound Track by Disasterpeace

All this would have been for nothing if the cast hadn’t made the impressive set their own. Sarah Tynan was on stage for virtually the whole opera, and we saw much of the action through her increasingly anxious eyes. Heather Shipp was a suitably caring Mrs Grose. The children were superb – Tim Gasiorek’s movement as young Miles was outstanding, particularly when he danced to the gramophone in the second Act. Jennifer Clark as Flora had a memorable moment as she climbed on top of the four poster bed and dropped puppets down, an eerie puppeteer. They both moved convincingly like sometimes naughty children; another highlight was when a ghostly hand pulled back the curtain at the back of the bed, and it was revealed as a child’s hand, a delicious jump scare. All the singers were in fine voice, despite very occasionally being slightly overwhelmed by the orchestra. Nicholas Watts as Quint relished his melismatic melodic lines addressed to Miles, and Eleanor Dennis as Miss Jessel was suitably ghostly. Their line (from The Second Coming by WB Yeats) ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’ lives long in the memory. And conductor Leo McFall brought out the taut instrumental lines from his skilled ensemble with great clarity.

And so out into the real world, where appropriately, it was a dark and stormy night but without the raw emotional storms we had just witnessed inside the Lowry.

Review – Red (1974) by King Crimson

John Wetton, Bill Bruford and Robert Fripp

Part III of How I learned to listen to King Crimson

King Crimson’s 1974 album Red is a challenging listen, partly because it refuses to be categorised. It’s progressive rock, heavy rock, proto-metal, jazz, contemporary classical, full of terrible beauty and actual beauty. The musicianship is of the highest order, but that makes it sound cerebral. Although it’s always driven by Robert Fripp’s fierce intelligence, and by Bill Bruford’s stunningly technical drumming and percussion, it’s topped off by John Wetton’s achingly raw vocals, and underpinned by his gorgeously melodic bass lines.

This review isn’t going to concentrate too much on the technical aspects of the music and the performances; I would rather try to convey some of its visceral and emotional impact. John Lennon said in his 1971 Rolling Stone interview, in response to the criticism that his lyrics to I Want You (She’s so Heavy) were too simple because they basically repeated the title of the song over and over again, said this

When you’re drowning you don’t say ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream.

So I will just scream; an appropriate reaction to King Crimson. As Robert Fripp himself said

My own response to King Crimson is one of quiet terror 

The opening instrumental track Red begins with an ascending figure on guitar, which sounds like a whole-half diminished scale.  This immediately tells us that this isn’t going to be a predictable album; in fact a short, conventional bridging chord sequence from one section of the song to another comes almost as a disappointment.

The crunching, dense double-guitar riff that follows continuously winds back in on itself, like the steps on an Escher staircase. Yet despite its dense atonality, this riff has a stark simplicity that makes it a surprising ear-worm, albeit a worm with sharp teeth (a safer way of clearing earwax than cotton buds; can it also clear brain wax?)There follows a dystopian, bass-led riff, reminding me of  Bill Bruford’s comment about King Crimson I mentioned in the first blog in this series.

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

The keening, probing instrumental riff at the start of Fallen Angel shatters apart suddenly, leading to a lovely vocal from John Wetton, with mellow acoustic guitar, mellotron and oboe accompaniment.

A heavy riff enters, suspended in slow motion as the chorus begins, a cornet playing jazz stylings above.

A double guitar solo with oboe, baroque with heavy drums, then a moment of daylight.

The heavy riff returns with distorted guitar above. Morse code guitar, with jazz cornet.

The track ends with a magisterial instrumental fade, a slow procession disappearing into the distance.

One More Red Nightmare is an epic journey, another red nightmare following the opening disturbing instrumental track Red. This has led to speculation online that King Crimson were frightened of Reds Under their Beds, but this song is about a dream of a plane crash, a ‘Pan-American nightmare ‘ (unless that’s the fear of Communism taking over the whole of the States?)

The track begins with a stop-start syncopated heavy riff, an ungainly broken animal limping through a desolate landscape, like the creature in WB Yeats’ poem The Second Coming,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born

This riff is a precursor of what later became Progressive Metal, as practised by Dream Theater (see concert review here) and others such as Tool, the spawn of heavy metal and prog rock.

The whole song is unsettled and unsettling; the open vocal phrase seems to come in half way through a thought, breaking into a dream. The chorus suddenly appears like an unexpected guest at a wedding. John Wetton sings at the top of his range, at the top of his lungs and at the top of his emotions.

At one point, Bill Bruford’s off-beat drumming gives a sense of moving forwards and backwards at same time – just as in the song Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, as mentioned in my review of Thrak, the previous blog in this series.

A rapid series of key changes and an endlessly questing bass line mean the song is tightly structured while still sounding free-form.

The track disappears suddenly like an old TV shutting down into a white dot – the Creator with the Remote Control shuts it off, just as the Beatles’ I Want You (She’s So Heavy) ends with white noise that suddenly becomes a white dot.

In the next track Providence we leave rock music behind; we are in the world of avant-garde classical music. A solo violin duets with and fights against ominous electronic and percussive noises.

A heavy bass line begins to assert control then drifts away again, jazz drumming takes a hold. A distorted introspective guitar line joins the fray.

John Wetton’s bass guitar tone is beautifully heavy, reminiscent of Chris Squire of Yes.

Constantly struggling to find a clear groove, the track never quite becomes funky in the way that some King Crimson tracks can. Then, without ever reaching any resolution, the music has gone. If it sounds improvised, that’s because it was recorded live, with the applause removed; or did the audience remain in stunned silence at the restless virtuosity they had just witnessed?

The lyrics for Starless contain the opening words of Dylan Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood, commissioned by the BBC and written twenty years earlier,

To begin at the beginning: It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.

Strangely, the track didn’t appear in its natural home, the band’s previous album Starless and Bible Black.

After the the fretful avant-gardism of the previous song, Starless brings a real sense of musical release – like final major chords that appear like sparkling sunlight the end of sections of Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi, such as the c major chord at the end of Act One of the opera.

The end of Act One of Saint Francois D’Assisse by Olivier Messiaen.

The opening section of the song has a true sense of inevitability, something very hard to create in any genre of music. This occurs when a melody and chord progression work together so well that it’s impossible for them to be conceived of in any other way. Think of Paul McCartney’s Yesterday, John Lennon’s Imagine or Bach’s Air on a G String.

The album version is excellent, but the much more recent YouTube version is absolutely gorgeous at the start, the guitar is more prominent and Jakko Jakszyk almost matches the raw emotion of of John Wetton’s original vocal

Starless (2016 version)

Of course this is King Crimson so the four-minute opening ballad is followed by section of equal length featuring a searching, intensely chromatic repeated guitar line above with a louche, syncopated bass line. It feels like being circled by a sleek wild animal, exciting and terrifying in equal measure. The guitar gets completely stuck at one point. Then suddenly, at nine minutes in the tension is released when the track flies off into a joyously jazzy flight of fancy. Nice. The once-louche bass line becomes more urgent.

The track ends with main theme restated briefly but less tranquil than before, almost cathartic. Another band would have repeated the whole of the opening section, but this being King Crimson you will have to seek your catharsis elsewhere.

See you next time.

Review – Dream Theater

Celebrating 20 Years of Scenes from a Memory

Dream Theater

SEC Armadillo, Glasgow

Sunday 23 February 2020

A stunning stage show with virtuosic guitar playing

****

The Armadillo in Glasgow somehow seemed appropriate for a stage set that began with futuristic images of robots on the big screen, revealing some of their innards just as the hall itself does, looking like the inside of the space craft from Alien.

My companion joked that the images of robots looked like the members of the band before they put on their human skin for the show. But the level of instrumental virtuosity from the members of the band was so high, and the depth of emotion was so great, that it was clear that these were exceptionally musical human beings rather than androids.

The stage show was stunning; two staircases at either side allowed the singer James LaBrie to climb up onto a long platform behind the drummer Mike Mangini and prowl around like a restless Big Cat. At one point he slouched menacingly above the drummer and moved his arms around as if controlling him like a puppet master.

The big screen behind the band displayed videos throughout the show, including a moving story in Pale Blue Dot about Earth seen from a space station. Refreshingly, although the Armadillo is a large venue there were no images of the band on screen as they played live, which can make an arena gig seem like an expensive pop video. The lighting was crisp, dazzling, constantly inventive, beautifully choreographed and often very evocative. The sound was clear and well-balanced, although occasionally the double kick drums were slightly dominant, but this is progressive metal after all. And John Petrucci’s guitar sound was possibly the best live guitar sound I have ever heard, ranging from guttural thrashing riffs to sweet, aching Floydian melodies that would have made Dave Gilmour proud. The whole show felt like a huge step up from the last Dream Theater show I saw at Manchester Apollo.

Wolfgang ‘too many notes’ Mozart

It’s said that Emperor Joseph II once told Mozart that one of his operas was too beautiful for his ears, and had ‘an awful lot of notes’. Mozart supposedly replied ‘exactly as many as are necessary, Your Majesty.’ The comment could also apply to Dream Theater, particularly to John Petrucci’s guitar playing; is there a more virtuosic live guitarist than him right now? He was matched note-for-note and length of hair by John Myung on bass. On keyboard Jordan Rudess had no hair but what he lacked follicly he compensated for digitally with amazing keyboard runs. A highlight was when he came to centre of the stage to play a solo on his Keytar, flanked by the two guitarists. Reader, my heart sang! Head of Percussion Mike Mangini was equally virtuosic, and had helpfully brought along all his pots and pans to hang above in case in case he fancied some flash cooking.

James LaBrie on vocals had a great metal stage presence, his long black locks matching those of the guitarists. He also had the sense to leave the stage when he wasn’t singing, leaving his colleagues to delight us with long and incredibly complex instrumental passages like naughty mice who had come out to play while the cat was away. It has to be said though that he was vocally tired – not surprising as this was the final gig of a seven-week European tour. As he admitted in an engaging aside, he was almost ready to kill his fellow band members by this stage of the tour. Sometimes he and the melody of a song seemed to be inhabiting different Continents, but he was sweet-voiced in the ballads and was relentlessly committed in his delivery wielding his mic stand like a warrior.

The first half of the concert was mostly taken from the latest album, Distance Over Time, and it proved a worthy opener, an overture to the rock opera that is Metropolis Pt 2 – Scenes from a Memory. This was the main event, the twentieth anniversary of the ‘conceptual album’ as the vocalist described it, that proved so popular on its first release that the band toured it for two years on its first release. I’m not sure what the conceptual aspect of the album is, but it seems to involve a murder which took place in the 1920s. There was a lot of blood on the screen and the words Murder and Police Line Do Not Cross, with images of a woman with a Flapper dress and bob . And – No Spoiler Alert! – there is a New Ending but as I wasn’t following the story I can’t tell you what it means.

But even for those not following the story the sense of the 1920s period was clearly evoked, partly by the comic book images from the story that dominated the screen, and also by the occasional bar-room piano sounds. And there was a real sense of dynamics in the music, light and shade that lifted this beyond the progressive metal genre to something more subtle but as emotionally visceral. The first five Scenes of the rock opera from Regression to Through her Eyes were one of the most musically satisfying sections of a concert I have ever seen. And the quality of the live sound was so good that it sounded better than the original album, which although a classic now feels in need of a little remixing and remastering (is Steven Wilson free?)

Strangely enough, after the epic performance of Scenes, the encore that ended the concert felt unnecessary, like a dessert in an Indian restaurant. But it was a great evening a Night(mare) to Remember even, a constant joy that makes me smile again as I write this.

Review – Thrak (1995) by King Crimson

Part II of How I learned to listen to King Crimson

My own response to King Crimson is one of quiet terror 

Robert Fripp, Die Zeit, May 1995 

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

Bill Bruford, Auditory Illusions, BBC Radio 4 2019

In 2019, I heard that King Crimson had released an album called Thrak in 1995. The title reminded me of another great progressive rock band, the mighty Thotch who recorded their classic song Land of the Crab in 1975.

Thotch perform Land of The Crab in 1975

But Seriously © Phil Collins, despite its opaque title and equally impenetrable cover art this is a great album.

The music itself can also be opaque and impenetrable at times, partly because there are two bands playing at the same time. In different time signatures. The two bands are in fact a double trio:

Robert Fripp        

Guitar, Soundscapes, Mellotron 

Trey Gunn 

Stick, Backing Vocals 

Pat Mastelotto 

Acoustic and Electric Percussions 

Adrian Belew 

Guitar, Voice, Words 

Tony Levin 

Basses, Backing Vocals 

Bill Bruford 

Acoustic and Electric Percussions 

But, as Tom Johnson wrote in 2015 it was difficult to sustain for a whole album

In theory, it sounds fascinating, and is a real challenge to the way rock music can be approached. In practice, however, the band, well, didn’t. The only real example of this approach to be found is VROOOM: Pan your speakers left or right and you’ll hear two separate trios playing, you guessed it, slightly different versions of the same song. They merge back together as Coda: Marine 475 begins. As promising as the idea had been, it proved too much to accomplish an entire album that way at the time. 

Tom Johnson Something Else Review

VROOM is the opening track. The first minute is King Crimson in a microcosm, a universe in a grain of sand. It begins with a lovely, nostalgic-sounding theme on Mellotron strings which soon drifts uneasily down in pitch before we are briefly thrown through countless galaxies in Space and the grinding industrial prog-funk-metal of the double trio kicks in.

VROOM segues into Coda Marine 475, which according to Robert Fripp takes its title and spoken words from the Marine 475 Syndicate at Lloyd’s Insurance. Musically, something very interesting is going on. This sounds like an example of an auditory illusion called the Shepard Tone, in which a tone seems continually to ascend or descend in pitch but in fact gets no higher or lower, trapped like a brown paper bag blown by the wind against a rusty gate. The music appears to be constantly descending here; the great Hans Zimmer used the same effect, only with an ascending tone, in his score for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.




‘Shepard Tones are what anxiety sounds like ‘ (YouTube comment)

Dinosaur begins with short Mellotron intro, sounding like a Mahler symphony beamed from a distant planet, then dystopian guitars crunch and grind; the same thing happens again after a lovely pastoral interlude at around 3.36. But there is humour in the lyrics, which seem to acknowledge that the once hip young Crims [sic] of the 1960’s have been left behind,

When I look back on the past
It's a wonder I'm not yet extinct...

I'm a dinosaur, somebody is digging my bones  

(The term ‘dinosaur rock’ itself now seems to be largely extinct; a quick image search mostly reveals rocks shaped like dinosaurs…)

Walking on air is a lovely ballad, similar to Matte Kudasai from the 1981 Discipline. Even in the midst of all this Thrakking, King Crimson can surprise us with beauty.

But don’t get too comfortable. We go briefly spinning into the galaxies again before we land at B’boom. It’s a drum solo. For two drummers. What can I tell you? Well, since you asked, it does sound rather like The Flowers of Romance by Public Image.

Gentle reader, I recently re-discovered my hand-written notes about each track on the album. Under the heading Thrak I wrote one word:

HELP!

A visceral reaction to a visceral song. It’s time to Unleash the Frogs (well, one frog and seven fridges). You may remember (you won’t, but I’m being polite) that I began my opening blog in this series, How I learned to listen to King Crimson with a quote from an Amazon review of the album.

A huge compression of grinding guitar riffs and stupefying bass, only upstaged on occasion by drumming that reminds me of the time my pet frog was squashed by seven falling refrigerators.

Paul Ferguson, Amazon Review of Thrak by King Crimson, February 2003 

It’s a compelling image. And the song would make an excellent soundtrack to a dystopian movie, perhaps about a Plague of Frogs (or fridges?)

But now I need to explain how I came across the album Thrak, and why I have chosen it as the first of the albums to feature in this series rather than some of the more famous ones. I admit I hadn’t heard of it until I emailed Bill Bruford about to ask him about auditory illusions in music – particularly rhythmic illusions. He suggested, modestly, that I should listen to a track from this album called Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream as I might find it interesting. I did. There’s one extraordinary section where the two drummers play in completely different time signatures. Listening to the track on the train when I was on my way to meet Bill I happened to be facing backwards and I became disorientated. It felt as if I was moving backwards and forwards at the same time. I felt as if I were moving in two different, but related dimensions at the same time, like the passenger and the person on the platform in Einstein’s thought experiment about the train being struck by bolts of lightning. This was a musical bolt of lightning, one of those rare moments when the musical landscape is briefly illuminated and its contours reveal themselves. The reason I felt so disorientated was that the two drummers, Bill himself and Pat Mastelotto were playing in two different time signatures at the same time.

Another moment of revelation came when I met Bill himself and he explained the key to King Crimson’s music,

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

Suddenly, I understood. (Italics added for emphasis and a little bit of pretension). As far as King Crimson were concerned I now had a key to enable me to unlock the doors of perception © A Huxley and Wm Blake. And no Mescaline or sitting naked in my front garden seeing visions of flights of angels had been necessary. Although that would have been nice.

So my journey through King Crimson’s dystopian delights begins. It would be great if you could join me on my travels.

See you next time.

How I learned to listen to King Crimson

A huge compression of grinding guitar riffs and stupefying bass, only upstaged on occasion by drumming that reminds me of the time my pet frog was squashed by seven falling refrigerators.

Paul Ferguson, Amazon Review of Thrak by King Crimson, February 2003 

I hope Paul’s frog survived. In case you are wondering whether Paul liked the album, his review begins 

Wow. I was simply astounded when I first heard this

Paul gives the album five stars (not seven, one for each fridge…..?) 

To continue with the pet frog analogy, one of my friends describes some contemporary classical music as sounding like ‘a fire in a pet shop’, and the music of King Crimson can sometimes seem similarly difficult.

But another ‘difficult’ composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote not just the atonal horrorshow (and I mean that in a good way) of Erwartung but also the moon-drenched Romantic lyricism of Verklärte Nacht: 

Erwartung and Verklärte Nacht

King Crimson’s first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, now 50 years old, is still a difficult listen. The first two tracks perfectly demonstrate the two different styles, beginning with 21st Century Schizoid Man.

Cat's foot iron claw    
           
Neurosurgeons scream for more  

At paranoia's poison door
    
21st century schizoid man. 

Greg Lake’s anguished, distorted cry ‘21st century schizoid man’ has become a cultural touchstone in the 21st century; sampled by Kanye West in Power 

And used by Paco Rabanne to advertise Invictus 

The song also features Tony Blair’s favourite guitar solo; and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song PRS Guitars have put the album artwork on a signature guitar 

Image © PRS Guitars 

But 21st  Century Schizoid Man, the first song on In the Court of the Crimson King is followed by the gentle pastoral musings of I Talk to the Wind.

21st Century Schizoid Man and I Talk to the Wind

And King Crimson can also write songs that are as Romantic and melodic as Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – listen to the opening melody of Starless 

For many years, In the Court of the Crimson King was the only album of theirs that I knew. I was reluctant to buy any more of their albums on cd without hearing them first.

Then I saw a video of them playing Frame by Frame from their album Discipline on the Old Grey Whistle Test. This was very different from the prog glory of The Crimson King. The track reminded me of part III of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint – Fast, with its virtuoso playing, use of phasing and chorus effects (but not a chorus of Frogs). In both cases harmonic shifts turn a glittering surface into something deeper, more moving and engaging. I bought Discipline on cd and often returned to its post-punk discipline, sometimes edgy and occasionally slightly manic. But this didn’t really help me appreciate the whole of the King Crimson catalogue of 13 studio albums and about 457 live albums, as the two albums I now owned felt so different. This was partly because the two albums were over ten years apart, with only one member in both line-ups, a gentleman by the name of Robert Fripp esq.

Then in April 2019 a revelation. It was announced that King Crimson’s complete back catalogue of studio albums would be available to stream

At last, I could listen to the albums without buying them. (In case you are worried, I have since bought six more of them on cd).

At about this time, I began working on a radio documentary about auditory illusions in music. The Presenter asked me to find a drummer who could talk about rhythmic illusions, so we went to interview Bill Bruford who I knew from his work with Yes, and also with King Crimson on Discipline. To prepare for the interview, I spent a whole weekend listening to the King Crimson albums that Bill had played on. They were dense, a difficult listen, but there was something that made me want to hear them again.

Bill had e-mailed me to suggest a couple of tracks that would illustrate the creation of rhythmic illusions. One of them was Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream from King Crimson’s 1995 album Thrak. This is how he described the track,

The purpose here was to create an illusion of imminent chaos, something about to fall off the edge of the world, but in fact it’s not going to at all. It’s entirely precise…and it’s entirely notate-able if you wanted to.

Finally, it all made sense to me – the key to understanding King Crimson seems to be to view their music as precision-tooled dystopia.

Bill went on to say,

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

I can see that music with a sense of impending doom isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But there is something visceral about the industrial funk of King Crimson of an album like Thrak. If you surrender to it, like the frog watching seven fridges falling towards it, the experience can be exhilarating, cathartic even.

My plan now is to review some of the King Crimson albums I have discovered in my next few blogs, starting with Thrak.

See you next time.

Review – Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites

RNCM soloists, chorus and orchestra

RNCM Manchester

Saturday 14 December 2019

A stunning staging of Poulenc’s emotional opera

****

This was the final performance of the RNCM’s staging of Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, set in a Carmelite monastery during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. It’s a deeply religious work appearing towards the end of his life in the 1950s, a couple of decades after the sparkling frivolity of his early works was wrenched in a new direction by the violent death of a close friend and a visit to the sanctuary at Rocamadour,

A few days earlier I’d just heard of the tragic death of my colleague … As I meditated on the fragility of our human frame, I was drawn once more to the life of the spirit. Rocamadour had the effect of restoring me to the faith of my childhood.

The staging was superb, beautifully designed and evocatively lit. The main set was split into two levels, both painted a pristine white, the lower level sometimes looking like a Dutch painting drained of all colour by the stark white light. This was desecrated in Act III by the brief incursion of the Revolutionaries who had ripped the religious symbols off the walls, sprayed the lower walls with the slogan “god is dead”, the staircase with the word ‘liars’, and the upper wall with an anarchist symbol.

RNCM’s Dialogues des Carmélites (c) Robert Workman

And in Act III the stark, timeless simplicity of the nuns’ costumes contrasted shockingly with the brutal black leather of the riot police with their plastic shields and the garish colour of the revolutionaries’ costumes. The nuns remained at the still centre of the violently turning world.

But impressive and dramatic as the staging is, the opera is about the inner drama of the characters and the terrible beauty of the decision to nuns sacrifice themselves to the guillotine at the end of the opera. This was effectively staged, each nun throwing her head back and dropping her cloak to the floor to represent her execution, the human soul then leaving the body as each nun slowly left the stage. Poulenc’s music does most of the emotional work, the chorus of nuns becoming smaller and smaller as each nun disappears with the swift metallic sound of the guillotine. There were some tears in the audience.

The Soprano Yuliya Shkvarko was fresh-voiced and impressive as Blanche, youthful and convincing as Blanche de la Force courageously facing her moral dilemmas. A moment of horror was well-expressed when she dropped a figurine of the Christ Child from the upper part of the set and it smashed. Her young companion, the soprano Pasquale Orchard was equally good as Sister Constance. The older women impressed too – Molly Barker was moving as Madame de Croissy, sitting in anguished pain writhing in her wheelchair before she fell to the floor in a bathetic death that was too small for her, like an ill-fitting coat as the libretto says. Georgia Ellis as Mother Marie and Mariya Sevdanska as Madam Lidoine led the Sisters impressively, contrasting well with Blanche and Constance.

There were a couple of minor problems – the surtitles failed to fire up during the first Act, making it a little hard to follow, and there were some early tuning issues in the orchestra which gradually blossomed under Andrew Greenwood.

RNCM’s Dialogues des Carmélites (c) Robert Workman

But the final word belonged to Blanche, joining Constance at the very last minute to be guillotined, with a beatific smile.

Kent Nagano’s classic recording of the final scene of the opera

Review – Devin Townsend and Haken

IMG-20191212-WA0000

Devin Townsend

Haken (support)

Albert Hall, Manchester

Tuesday 10 December 2010

Devin Townsend *****

Haken ****

A deluge of Biblical proportions hit central Manchester in the early evening on Tuesday. Devin Townsend promised us a brief escape from torrential rain and the torrent of political uncertainty outside.

Haken stood proud, two of them poised like medieval warriors about to draw their bows and fire a torrent of arrows. To their right stood their bass player, nodding his head benevolently. The drummer never played a simple beat when a more complex offbeat, syncopated groove could be used instead. I had been warned that they would be proggy. They were.

I remember interviewing another prog hero, Peter Hammill, about his hit records. His response was ‘What hits?!’ Haken, equally modest and equally talented, announced Cockroach King as the nearest they have had to a proper hit. It’s actually an amazingly inventive song, a worm that crawls though from one ear to the other and leaves a trace for days. They sang and played it beautifully, the highlight of a short but accomplished set. Next time they should headline – they humbly said that they thought nobody had heard of them, but the fact that the hall was almost full for a support band shows that many of us have.

A regal cockroach and an earworm

Devin Townsend told us that he was going to take us on a vacation and he and his band began wearing Hawaiian shirts and drinking cocktails. And he began with a jolly, jaunty ditty, Borderlands to get us in the party mood

I desire a good life/Gotta have a good good life

Got a little doggie and he’s full of the woof woof!

In fact, feline rather than canine cartoon characters dominated the video screen behind him, cheerfully kitch images to match the music.

But don’t underestimate him – behind the party image lurks a restless, unsettled, highly intelligent musician. The music was constantly moving, themes intertwined like the live snakes that writhe in Medusa’s hair.

The gig was more like a stage musical or a theatrical experience than just a concert; each of the four Acts was clearly marked by costume changes of the superb backing singers Samantha and Anne Preis, and Arabella Packford. They began wearing colourful skirts, then all back tops and trousers, then floaty evening dresses and finally long evening black evening dresses. Each costume change marked a new musical chapter. The dark, twisted metal of Gato and Heaven Send transformed into the most moving song of the gig – a lovely, quietly contemplative version of Spirits will Collide, one of the highlights of the evening.

A beautiful, gentle version

Singer and guitarist Ché Aimee Dorval, matched the outfit changes of the backing singers, at one point appearing dressed like the fairy on the top of a Christmas tree. Before you accuse Devin of sexism, he himself appeared wearing a diaphanous skirt and voguing about the stage.

The ten piece band were superb – Devin himself, the four singers, two guitarists, a bass player, a drummer and a keyboard player who looked remarkably like the keyboard player from Haken. Before the gig, I was worried that they wouldn’t be able to recreate the epic bombast of the studio albums. I was wrong.

So what about Devin himself? Sometimes with his wild eyes and shaven head, he looked like the Hungarian conductor Sir Georg Solti , who was known as the screaming skull; both passionate, committed music-makers.

Devin Townsend
Sir Georg Solti – image copyright BBC 4

But however scary Devin may look at times his warmth, humour and empathy was always evident. He spoke movingly about depression and the humanity that inspired his latest album, Empath. And his description of that album applied to the whole concert,

EMPATH, true to the name, is about allowing the audience a feeling for a variety of musical emotions. The musical dynamics represented on this single album are broad, challenging, and immense.

Perhaps that why Devin isn’t better known. He doesn’t squeeze himself into a tiny box with a convenient label that says ‘heavy’ or ‘metal’ or both or ‘prog’, despite what you may read. Louder Sound have a better description,

Devin has created and disbanded death/thrash/industrial/absolutely perfect metal outfit Strapping Young Lad; he’s done prog, pop, country, ambient and every other style of music under various guises

An example of his joyously eclectic approach was the 3-song encore

  1. A cover of The Trammps’ Disco Inferno
  2. A cover of Frank Zappa’s The Black Page number 1
  3. Kingdom by Devin Townsend – an epic to end all epics
I stood up to dance but was poked politely in the back and asked to sit down…
Well it’s Frank Zappa…what can I tell you?

Over the top doesn’t begin to describe it…

So ended one of the best gigs I have attended for a long time; to my left a headbanger threw himself recklessly about; to my right an enthusiast drummed on his knees and sang lustily, while I just sat there and smiled. And smiled again.

So back out again into the Manchester night. Miraculously, the rain had cleared. Thank you, Devin.