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.

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.

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 – Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree

The 2007 classic album finally appears on streaming services

*****

Lasse Hoile’s striking cover image for Fear of a Blank Planet

Within Porcupine Tree’s canon of ten studio albums, their 2007 album Fear of a Blank Planet has a similar status to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon within the Pink Floyd catalogue, a cohesive and deeply-satisfying concept album about alienation in modern life. So it has been a source of surprise and frustration to fans of Porcupine Tree that arguably their best album has been unavailable to stream, despite the fact that most of their albums have been on Spotify and other services for some time. Hopefully its availability will bring new listeners to a record which was Classic Rock Magazine’s Album of the Year in 2007.

Fear of a Blank Planet is now on Spotify and other streaming services

The album takes its title from Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, a hip-hop album greatly admired by Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree’s band leader and principal song-writer until the band ceased to exist following their final album The Incident in 2009.

The fear of a ‘blank planet’ expressed in the album’s title reflects Steven Wilson’s deep concern about the effect that technology was having, particularity on teenagers who he felt were failing to connect with the real world as a result of their obsession with their computers, their iPods, mobile phones and gaming platforms. Writing the lyrics for the album in 2006, Steven may have been unaware that smartphones and social media were about to become ubiquitous. His fears seem prescient, bearing in mind for instance the recent Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma in which former employees of major tech companies make serious allegations about the monetization of social networks, and the dopamine hits that engaging with them can apparently bring.

Steven Wilson said that the album’s theme of alienated teenagers was strongly influenced by the novel Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho. The novel features a character called Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho, and is a strange but weirdly compelling amalgam of partial autobiography, satire, fantasy, horror and satire. Steven was intrigued by the central character’s son Robby, who spends his time in his room playing games and watching TV, or hanging out at the shopping mall with his equally vacuous friends. According to Steven Wilson’s website,

The lyrics deal with two typical neurobehavioural developmental disorders affecting teenagers in the 21st century: bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder, and also with other common behaviour tendencies of youth like escapism through prescription drugs, social alienation caused by technology, and a feeling of vacuity—a product of information overload by the mass media. 

In Lunar Park, the over-reliance of parents on prescription drugs to control their children (and themselves) is satirised mercilessly in a scene in which a birthday party features six-year-olds who are so over-medicated that they move lethargically and speak monotonously, chewing their fingernails until they bleed. A paediatrician stands by in case further medical intervention is needed.

Steven’s lyrics for the album are largely quite earnest rather than satirical, although the odd turn of phrase expressing teenage angst can be witty:

Your mouth should be boarded up
Talking all day 
With nothing to say

Fear of a Blank Planet

And…

I'm trying to forget you
And I know that I will
In a thousand years, or maybe a week

Way Out of Here

In interviews around the time of the album’s release, Steven Wilson expressed deep disquiet about the effect of teenagers’ access not just to drugs but to guns, which he related to the massacres at Columbine and Virginia. He also referred to the links between violence and obsession with fame fostered by reality TV, and the shootings at the Westroads Mall in Omaha where the protagonist apparently left a suicide note to say this would make him famous.

All this makes the album seem very serious and heavy, and in some ways it is. But as with many great rock albums the lyrics serve the music, which is a perfect example of Porcupine Tree’s mature style. Steven Wilson has said that at that time he was strongly influenced by the Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah, who inspired him to write heavy riffs. But in an interview with Dutch Prog Rock headed Fear of a Dull Band there is an amusing discussion involving all four band members trying to decide exactly how heavy they had become. Steven decides that even he isn’t sure,

I think Fear Of A Blank Planet gives the impression that it is heavy because it starts with a long heavy song, and then there is Anesthetize which has this long heavy section. But I don’t know, you’d have to analyse it. ‘My Ashes’ [track two] is pretty mellow as is the last section of ‘Anesthetize‘ [track three]…

You can sense the frustration he feels in his music being categorised, something he has always resisted as his musical taste and influences have always been very wide. The fact that the whole album consists of only six songs, made into one continuous suite of around 50 minutes sounds suspiciously like Prog rock, a label which Steven has often resisted with some degree of irritation both for his work with Porcupine Tree and his later work as a solo artist.

Perhaps the best way to describe the music is a unique combination of heavy rock, melodic pop and art rock and metal with classical strings and gorgeous vocal harmonies. Progressive rock doesn’t really do it justice, except to the extent that it gives some idea of the scope of ambition…and the length of some of the songs.

The first track Fear Of A Blank Planet immediately establishes the album’s theme, beginning with the sound of keys on a vintage computer keyboard. The opening riff, on acoustic guitar, begins with a repeating octave interspersed with a tritone – an interval known as the ‘devil in music’ often used in heavy metal as in the song Black Sabbath.

Gavin Harrison, one of the finest rock drummers in the world (now with King Crimson and the Pineapple Thief) enters with a syncopated rhythm which sets up the dystopian mood of the song.

But this being a Porcupine Tree song, the heavy suddenly morphs into a beautiful moment of introspection, an instrumental at around four minutes in, still using the opening guitar riff but with atmospheric synth playing from Richard Barbieri and languid drumming from Gavin Harrison.

The driving urgency of much the song is paradoxically at odds with the lyrics that often express the torpor of the teenage boy’s life

I'm stoned in the mall again
Terminally bored
Shuffling round the stores...

The sense of boredom is felt so keenly felt that it bursts out into the burning rage that perfectly captures the hormonal maelstrom of a teenage boy. This is combined with a sense of cynical detachment and the sedative effect that prescription drugs have on him ‘my face is mogadon…I’m tuning out desires’. The effect is heightened by the heavy compression applied to Steven’s vocals in the verse, creating a sense of detachment.

Most of the music for My Ashes was written by the band’s keyboard player, Richard Barbieri, who was previously a member of Japan and its spin-off project Rain Tree Crow.

 In keeping with the theme of the album, the song is shot through with melancholy resignation but also with a degree of bitterness; the central character is presumably the teenage boy who is the protagonist in the opening track, based on the character in Lunar Park. In the novel, the relationship between the narrator (who happens to be called Brett Easton Ellis) and his son Bobby is very strained, and in the song the boy blames his problems on his parents 

When a mother and father 
Gave me their problems 
I accepted them all 

Anesthetize

After the simplicity of the previous song, this track is of epic proportions and length. Various YouTubers, who have usually not heard of Porcupine Tree, can be seen reacting with genuine surprise and delight when hearing the song for the first time, and for those who are new to the band it could be a good place to start. To fans of the band it has become a classic.

The first section of the song features a guitar solo from Alex Lifeson of Rush (around four minutes in). Steven Wilson told Prog Archives that that he read a magazine article that mentioned that Lifeson was a fan of Porcupine Tree, causing him almost to fall off his chair as he had grown up listening to Rush. Steven got in touch with him via the journalist who had written the article and asked him to contribute the solo to the album.

The second section features astounding drumming from Gavin Harrison, which is isolated in the video below.

Gavin Harrison plays the drum parts on the second section of Anesthetize, The Pills I’m Taking 

Most bands would have ended the song at this point, perhaps with a metallic flourish or a faded final chorus repeating itself as it disappears into the ether, but Steven Wilson takes us in to a completely different world in the final section, with lovely vocal harmonies and a gorgeous melancholic feel.

Sentimental

On 4 June 2007, NPR (National Public Radio) in America picked this track as their Song of the Day, which means that it was picked up by over 1000 public radio stations in the US. Cecile Clouthier reviewed the song under the heading Progressive Rock Gets Mordantly Witty and her description is not only pleasingly witty but very accurate. 

The wit arises mainly from tension between the charmingly calm atmosphere of the chorus, particularly the third time with smooth backing vocals from John Wesley, and the words which describe the ‘sullen and bored’ kids who are ‘stoned in the mall’ again, returning to the theme of teenage alienation.

Way Out Of Here

This song perfectly demonstrates two of Steven Wilson’s favourite and most successful vocal techniques. It begins with one of his most beautiful vocal lines, intimate, delicately poised between speech and melody, creating a great sense of empathy with the subject of the song, dreaming of escape. The chorus then changes focus completely with a full-voiced, almost epic delivery, to express the main character’s desperate need for escape, to find a way out of here’.

Sleep Together

The final song on the album remains one of Steven Wilson’s favourites, as shown by the fact that he played it on his huge tour to support the release of his 2017 solo album To the Bone. It appears on the Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall live DVD released in 2018 (track 17). 

Generally, Steven Wilson unconsciously absorbs his musical influences but as he told Roy Povarchik of Alternative Zine ‘there is one exception, which is that I wanted the track Sleep Together to sound like Nine Inch Nails, with John Bonham [of Led Zeppelin] on drums, and produced by Massive Attack!’

So ends a classic album, with six very strong but very different tracks; you are in for a treat if you haven’t heard it before. And if you want more of the same, also try Nil Recurring, the companion EP of material recorded during the Fear of a Blank Planet Sessions.

See you next time.

Personnel

Steven Wilson: vocals, guitars, piano, keyboards 

Richard Barbieri: keyboards and synthesizers 

Colin Edwin: bass guitars 

Gavin Harrison: drums 

Alex Lifeson (Rush): guitar solo on ‘Anesthetize’ 

Robert Fripp (King Crimson): soundscapes on ‘Way Out of Here’ 

John Wesley: backing vocals 

London Session Orchestra: strings

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.