Polar Bear, XOYO London

Polar Bear at XOYOPolar Bear have garnered a lot of critical acclaim over the past decade with their distinctly 21st century take on jazz with considerable crossover appeal. Their appearance at XOYO in north London on April 2nd attracted a big and varied crowd, with older bearded real ale drinkers rubbing shoulders with the younger and more fashionable.

Support act Shiver were an electric power-trio, with an energetic rhythm section and effects-laden guitar. There was even a guitar passage recalling Rush’s “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” at one point. There was a moment where the whole thing sounded like electronic dance music; the drummer playing electronic drums, the bassist using effects that made his playing sound like an electronic rhythms, and the guitar swamped in effects. They are a band wouldn’t have seemed out of place on a more experimental progressive rock bill, but nevertheless made an interesting and entertaining sound.

Polar Bear aren’t quite your traditional jazz combo either. They have a frontline of two tenor saxes, and a rhythm section that includes not just bandleader Sebastian Roachford’s drums and Tom Herbert’s upright double bass, but the fifth member of the band, Leafcutter John, producing beats and effects from a laptop and an array of electronics. Not only that, Tom Herbert played his acoustic bass through the sort of pedal board you normally associate with prog-rock guitarists, and saxophonist Pete Wareham also treated his sound with a battery of electronic effects.

Polar Bear at XOYOThe bulk of the set came from their new album “In Each And Every One”, the opening number with its mournful sax melody set against a synthesiser backwash recalled none other than the opening section of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. From then on things built in intensity. The blending of electronic beats and live percussion worked remarkably well, and the Latin rhythms late in the set got parts of the audience dancing.

Their kaleidoscopic set shifted through many musical moods. There were moments where the combination of abrasive saxophone and electronic effects recalled early Hawkwind. There were eerie sonic soundscapes with bowed bass through lots of effects producing sounds that resembled whale songs. There were classical sounding melodic sections with intertwining sax lines, where the contrasting styles of Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart’s tenor saxes complemented one another in the same manner as the twin guitars of a classic rock band. Then there were passages of atonal avant-garde noise with squalling sax and storms of percussion, the whole thing finally ending with howls of feedback from a sax against the monitor.

Polar Bear are billed as a crossover act with rock and electronic dance influences rather than a traditional jazz band, and what the packed XOYO saw was a performance that lived up to that billing. This was jazz, but it was jazz with the raw energy and ferocious intensity of a rock show.

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Record Store Day

Today is Record Store Day. You could of course spend the day buying the albums you loved on vinyl but never owned on CD, or fill in the gaps in the 70s Jethro Tull back catalogue. Or even waste your money on cynical cash-in box sets.

Or instead you could buy some exciting new music released in 2014. At least some of these albums have been seen on the shelves of my local HMV.

  • Panic Room, Incarnate – A little more stripped-back, intimate and confessional than the wide-screen rock of its predecessor, their fourth album is a beautiful work which may take a few listens to fully appreciate its subtleties.
  • Gazpatcho, Demon – Dark and sinister folk-prog from Norway. At times it sounds like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis fronting The Decemberists, at times there are strong echoes of Marillion. This is another of those records that will reward after many listens.
  • Matt Stevens, Lucid – An ambitious and varied instrumental album that defies easy pigeonholing. The London-based guitarist has been one of the more interesting, innovative and genre-busting artists in the contemporary progressive scene for a while now, and this album sees him raise his game to a new level.
  • Halo Blind, Occupying Forces – Combines indie-rock guitars with progressive rock atmospherics. Shimmering summery pop numbers with a hint of darkness and melancholy flow into one another to build into something more than the sum of the parts.
  • Bigelf, Into the Maelstrom – Imagine the melodic ear of The Beatles, the sense of doom of Black Sabbath, the theatricality of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the musical ambition of King Crimson, and the lack of restraint of early Queen. That’s what this album sounds like.
  • Morpheus Rising, Exmimus Humanus – Classic old-school twin-guitar hard rock given a modern makeover.
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Does “Geek culture” really have a massive sexism problem, or does it, as Gareth M,  Skarka suggested on Twitter, an “unwillingness to ostracise toxic assholes” problem, which is compounded by the internet’s serious troll problem?

Posted on by Tim Hall | 2 Comments

A Wedding in Scotland

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When my brother asked me to be best nan at his wedding, the biggest challenge aside from remembering not to lose the rings was deciding what to say in the best man’s speech. It had include some stories the groom would recognise, but it couldn’t contain too many in-jokes and references that would go over the heads of most of other guests.

Anyway, after many revisions, and one or two anecdotes getting vetoed, this was what I said. It seemed to go down well.

I could tell spend the next ten minutes telling you all what a wonderful person Christopher is, but I am pretty sure all of you know that already. Katrina wouldn’t have agreed to marry him otherwise.

Being his elder brother I’ve known him all his life, which is more than he can say about me. That was even a sore point when we were little; events from before October 5th 1964 could not be talked about.

Let me share one story from when Christopher and I lived under the same roof.

This is about Saturday morning lie-ins.

Whenever I was still in bed for longer that Christopher thought was appropriate for a weekend, I would be rudely awoken by the sound of his record player turned up to Eleven. It was always the same record. It began with the words “Time for you medication”, followed by maniacal laughter, then a monstrous guitar riff.

When you get home, search for “Madhouse” by Anthrax on YouTube. That was my Saturday morning.

There were the occasional Saturdays when I was the first up, when my response to Anthrax was the “Furry alarm clock”. There is nothing quite like putting the cat under the duvet to get someone up in the morning.

So, if you ever find yourself repeatedly awoken by 1980s thrash metal at Far Too Early O’clock on a Saturday morning, you will have to get a cat. Though if you do, never, even confuse him with the cat. “Christopher get down off the table!” really doesn’t go down well.

Chris’ professional life has taken him to many different places, from Poland to Oxford and eventually Swansea, where it always rains. Well, it does whenever I go there. And all the time he had to brave the fierce pigs.

I suppose I had better explain the fierce pigs…

This goes right back to when our ages were still in single digits, I had read a book about wildlife, and it had mentioned wild boar were still found in some parts of Europe. This was just before a family camping holiday in Denmark, and I warned my five year old brother to watch out for the Fierce Pigs.

He spent the whole holiday in fear of the things.

Little did either of us know that Denmark was actually the only country in the whole of Europe that has no native wild boar. There are herds of them in Wales, and they’ve been known to take over entire towns in Poland.

Older brothers can be unintentionally cruel at times.

So, since Chris is a loyal Arsenal fan, I have to include an Arsenal joke…

“Why are Arsenal fans attracted to intelligent women?”
“Because opposites always attract”

Chris is a musician, who is no longer allowed to buy any more keyboards unless the new household also acquires a horse.

But he now has somebody else other than me to ask “Can you listen to this” for each new piece of music he’s recorded. He’s been asking me this since he led a band back in the 1980s who sounded like a cross between Magnum and Hawkwind. It’s just the same now he’s doing industrial metal trumpet and accordion duos.

If in doubt, just say “Oh, it’s deeply symbolic of man’s struggle against his social-political environment” or even “I like the way the bridge resolves the rising chromatic pattern”.

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The Reasoning tour in the Autumn

The Reasoning have announced a short tour in late October and early November, which represents their first live shows apart from a couple of one-off appearances at festivals since their “Adventures in the City” co-headline tour with Touchstone back in 2012

Six dates are announced so far, with the possibility of further dates to be announced.

  • Talking Heads in Southampton in Friday 24th October
  • Venue 2 in London on Saturday 25th October
  • The Duchess in York on Thursday 30th October
  • The Railway in Bolton on Friday 31st October
  • The CFM in Cardiff on Saturday 1st November
  • The Robin 2 in Bilston on Sunday 2nd November

Support for all these dates will be Hekz.

The Reasoning will also be playing a support for Lifesigns on Sunday May 11th at The Robin in Bilston, as well as their previously announced slot at Trinity Live at Leamington Spa a week later on 18th May.

Sebastien Flynn-Goze

The band will be augmented on stage by vocalist Sebastien Flynn-Goze, which answers the question “How will they do the older material justice” since the departure of Tony Turrell who had handled the male vocals originally recorded by Dylan Thompson and Gareth Jones on stage.

Though their email newsletters speak excitedly of activity behind the scenes, The Reasoning have kept a low profile of late compared to some of their peers, with just a single gig in the whole of 2013. This tour, and the forthcoming as-yet-untitled fifth album ought to go some way towards regaining forward momentum.

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Ayrshire 380s

First Scotrail class 380 arrives at Ayr with a service from Glasgow

A few photos of the recently-delivered class 380 EMUs running on the South Clyde network. Here’s four-car 380 111 arriving at Ayr. It’s notable that the interiors of this outer suburban stock are more spacious and comfortable that those of Virgin Trains’ Pendolinos.

First Scotrail 380 crossing the river at Ayr.

The fleet is a mix of three and four-car sets, which often form six or seven car trains at peak times. Here three-car 380 018 crosses the river bridge just outside of Ayr station.

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The folding gangways on these units are near-unique, extending outwards when two units are coupled, and certainly present a strange appearance.

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Fred Clark on The Satanic Panic

Great post by Fred Clark on the 1980s fundamentalist moral panic about D&D and Satanism. It all reads like ancient history now, like something out of the Salem witch trials.

Newitz’s account details one tangential battle of the Satanic Panic that arose in the 1980s — a moral panic that resulted in students being expelled from schools, young people being bullied by their peers or institutionalized by their parents, and dozens of innocent people spending years in prison for crimes that never even occurred.

The astonishing thing, as Newitz says, is that today, a few decades later, “D&D-influenced stories” are a noncontroversial part of mainstream American pop culture. That’s not what anyone would have predicted back during the Reagan years, when Satanic baby-killer politics first arose, bringing with it a whole host of demonizing delusions — a diabolical conspiracy of black-robed ritual abusers, fears of backward-masking messages in rock music, the presumption of a suicide epidemic among RPG enthusiasts. If you remember the 1980s, it’s jarring to step back today and realize how much of that has simply faded away and lost its power. The same folks who were able to bully D&D to the sidelines in the 1980s found themselves steamrolled when they later tried the same tactics against Harry Potter and his fans.

But, as Fred Clark explains, Dungeons and Dragons really was a threat to the world-view of a certain kind of authoritarian fundamentalism. It wasn’t the magic, or the monsters, or the made-up pantheons of gods.

It was the alignment system.

As I’ve explained before, D&D’s alignments have two axes forming a three-by-three matrix of ethical stances. One axis is Good vs. Evil, the other is Law vs. Chaos more or less as defined by Michael Moorcock in his Eternal Champion saga. Law is all about following the rules and obeying authority, and it’s easy to see why some fundamentalists might have a problem with making that independent of Good and Evil. Despite it actually being true, as evidenced by every totalitarian regime in history.

But, as Fred Clark correctly points out, denying the existence of Lawful Evil or Chaotic Good isn’t actually very good theology.

It says something about the sorry state of biblical understanding among biblical “inerrantists” that we were left to learn this from Gary Gygax rather than from Galatians, Isaiah, Amos or the Gospels. But once we learned it — once we came to see the possibility of it — then the whole ideology we’d been taught came into question.

But when the fundamentalist faith is as fragile as a soap-bubble, just about anything can not only be seen as a thread, but can actually be a threat.

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Uriah Heep announce new album Outsider

Uriah Heep Outsider Uriah Heep have announced the tracklisting for their new album “Outsider”, their first release since the death of long time bassist Trevor Bolder.

It’s released on June 6th in Europe. The album will be available in both CD and vinyl, both with the same track listing though the running order will be slighly different.

The eleven songs are as follows:

Speed Of Sound
One Minute
The Law
The Outsider
Rock The Foundation
Is Anybody Gonna Help Me?
Looking At You
Can’t Take That Away
Kiss The Rainbow
Say Goodbye

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Riverside – Islington O2 Academy

Riverside at The O2 Academy Islington

Poland’s Riverside came to Islington O2 Academy as part of their brief UK tour. having established a strong reputation in prog-metal circles. Their highly-acclaimed fifth album “Shrine of the New Generation Slaves”, appeared on a great many people’s album-of-the-year lists, making their tour a highly anticipated event.

Fellow Poles Votum began their support set at the ridiculously early time of 6:40pm, a consequence of the venue turning into a nightclub after the gig. Unfortunately this resulted in a sparse crowd at the beginning. The six-piece played a short but very entertaining set of highly melodic prog-metal, complete with a small amount of cookie-monster vocals.

But by the time Riverside came on the O2 Academy was heaving.

Riverside have sometimes been compared to Porcupine Tree, and seeing them on stage the comparisons don’t end with the sound. There’s a lot of Steve Wilson in Mariusz Duda’s appearance and stage manner. And just like Porcupine Tree, their often complex and atmospheric music comes across very powerfully live.

Not that Riverside could be described as any kind of derivative copyists, they’re a band with their own sound, built around spiralling bass riffs and swirling keyboards. Mariusz Duda’s bass came across the main lead instrument with Piotr Grudziński’s guitar in a supporting role providing textures and colour when he’s not soloing. Michał Łapaj’s keyboards were prominent in the mix, with big walls of Hammond with the occasional spectacular moog solo. Some of the heavier moments featuring a lot of Hammond were more that a little reminiscent of Deep Purple in their pomp.

Riverside at The O2 Academy Islington

With the sort of complex bass parts typical in modern prog-metal, it’s rare to see someone combine the roles of bassist and lead vocalist, and it’s even rarer to see someone combine them as well as Mariusz Duda does. His melancholy but melodic vocals have a lot in common with the clean vocals of Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt’s.

The lengthy set drew heavily from their newest and strongest album “Shrine of the New Generation Slaves”, opening with “New Generation Slave” and ending with the epic “Elevator Shrine”. Songs from “Second Life Syndrome” also featured heavily with the title track making a strong final encore. You could tell this was a prog gig by the way an extended bass solo in only the second song earned a round of applause.

With their combination of dense, swirling sound, great musicianship, and very strong songwriting, they’re a band who manage to combine being very prog yet remain powerfully rock’n'roll at the same time. They are indeed an ideal band for the many people still missing Porcupine Tree, but on the basis of performances like this, they’re far, far more than that.

Poland’s best band? Quite possibly.

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Foss Patterson leaves Fish

Fish at HRH Prog 2

Fish announced today that keyboard player Foss Patterson, who has been part of his band for many years, is leaving. He made his last appearances with Fish at a couple of festival appearances in Wales and Mexico in March and April this year.

His replacement will be Mike Varty, best known as the keyboard player for Credo, and ironically also depping for Fish’s one-time Marillion colleague Mark Kelly in DeeExpus. He makes his live debut with Fish on the UK tour in May.

Credo at the 2011 Cambridge Rock Festival

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