Music Blog

All the music-related posts gathered together in one place.

Violet Hour

A couple of songs, “The River” and the single “Could Have Been” from The Violet Hour’s album “The Fire Sermon”. The album had been out of print for many years, but is now available again via former singer Doris Brendel’s website.

Doris and her band played the  Cambridge Rock Festival and were one of the highlight. They didn’t play any Violet Hour songs, but after finding out Violet Hour were an early influence on Mostly Autumn made the album worth getting hold of.

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Metallica’s new single: What’s the verdict?

Return to form after the awful “Lulu”, or a warmed-up pastiche of their glory days? And are those drums really Lars, or a machine?

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2016 Cambridge Rock Festival – Part Three

This is the third and final part of my review of the five-day festival. The first two parts are here and here.

Sunday was something of a Ladies’ Day, with six out of the eight main stage acts featuring female lead singers. First of these were the seven-piece T Clemente band, who’s flown all the way from San Francisco at their own expense to play the festival. Their tight and polished West Coast AOR sound made a very strong impression for an opening act, and left the impression we’ll be hearing more of this band in the future.

Space Elevator

With a catsuited singer who goes under the name of “The Duchess”, Space Elevator had a very dramatic visual appeal, and had the music to back it up too, with a great hard rock AOR sound. Alongside original numbers about obsessive-compulsive disorder, being dumped, and love letters to Doctor Who, they threw in excellent covers of Thin Lizzy’s “Don’t Believe a Word” and Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator”. Perhaps their only flaw was their use of too much programmed keys rather than having a flesh-and-blood keyboard player in the band.

Making a welcome return after their superb performance on the same stage in 2014, Norway’s The Windmill were the most Prog band of the day; with a flute and a steampunk-dressed keyboard player their music is soaring, melodic and epic with the focus on symphonic composition rather than instrumental virtuosity. Alongside a lengthy new number their set drew heavily from “Continuum”, although sadly there wasn’t time for the 24-minute “The Gamer”. All heady stuff and ticks all the right boxes for the hardcore prog fans.

Heather Findlay

The Heather Findlay Band were eagerly anticipated. They’ve gone through some changes from the band that toured in April, with former Cloud Atlas man Martin Ledger taking over on lead guitar, Touchstone’s Henry Rogers taking over on drums, and the band slimmed down to a six-piece without a rhythm guitarist. From the performance they delivered you’d never have guessed this was the first live appearance of this full lineup. They combined highlights from Mantra Vega’s “The Illusion’s Reckoning” with older Mostly Autumn standards and a couple of rocked-up Odin Dragonfly numbers. Losing the rhythm guitar didn’t seem to leave holes in the sound; Angela Gordon’s keys took a bigger role, and Heather played acoustic guitar on some songs. On “Caught in a Fold” Sarah Dean took over on keys while Angela played the flute parts. One thing that’s notable about the various incarnations of Heather’s band is the way they totally reinvent the songs to fit the instrumentation of the current band. Martin Ledger proved an inspired choice as guitarist, nailing the guitar parts on both the Mantra Vega songs and the older Mostly Autumn material. One surprise was a very powerful “Unoriginal Sin”, which didn’t feature in the April tour, with Heather playing keys. An epic Carpe Diem and the spiralling title track of The Illusion’s Reckoning bought the very strong set to a close.

Purson seem on the cusp of far bigger things. Their take on late sixties psychedelic rock has long been embraced by the underground prog scene, but they’ve been making waves of late in more mainstream waters. They’ve a band with a look that exactly matches their sound, as if they’ve all stepped out of a time machine from 1969, complete with the right vintage guitars. Rosalie Cunningham on lead vocals and lead guitar is the focus, playing raw and dirty riffs and reeling off solos with heavy use of the wah-wah pedal. Despite the brief interruption of a collapsing keyboard stand, they delivered a very powerful set. It does leave you wondering how much longer we’ll still be able to see this band on stages like this.

It’s been a long, long time since Odin Dragonfly have played anything other than the occasional very short support set, so their appearance on Stage Three was a rare chance to see Heather and Angela together as an acoustic duo., the two of them playing their second set of the day. Compared to the rock dynamics on the main stage this was beautiful chill-out stuff with minimal instrumentation, and the emphasis on the vocal harmonies. There were moments when they came over a little under-rehearsed, especially the stripped-down take on Mostly Autumn’s “Evergreen”, but it was still an enjoyable set, with songs from the 2007 album “Offerings” alongside stripped-down versions of Mostly Autumn’s “Eyes of the Forest” and “Bitterness Burnt”, and a new song which might even end up on a long-awaited follow-up to “Offerings”.

Sonya Kristina

The clash with Odin Dragonfly meant I only caught the end of Curved Air’s set, but from what I saw it seemed like the tail end of a barnstorming set, with two of the biggest hits right at the end, “Back Street Luv” as the closer. With so many progressive-leaning bands with female lead singers on the bill over the course of the weekend it’s fitting Curved Air were one of them. Sonya Kristina is an absolute legend and still in fine voice. And they’re yet another reminder that progressive rock needs more violins.

Mostly Autumn are a fixture in this festival, having played every year since at least 2008, and the weekend somehow wouldn’t be the sane without them. Despite having seen the band more than a hundred times, they still retain the capacity to astound. They began as on their spring tour, with the instrumental “Out of the Inn” which starts as a celtic-folk jig centred on Angela Gordon’s flute, and develops into a hard rock workout, before Olivia Sparnenn made her customary dramatic entrance for “In for the Bite”, a song from the recently-released Josh & Co album. Much of the early part of the set was hard-rocking numbers from the recent albums since Olivia took over as lead singer, with “Skin on Skin” showcasing Alex Cromaty’s remarkable drumming. In contrast, the beautiful stripped-back balled “Silhouette of Stolen Ghosts” was a change of pace. The came a truly epic version of “Mother Nature” performed with an exceptional intensity even by their standards. The obligatory closer “Heroes Never Die” ought to have been worn smooth by over-exposure by now, but even that packed a powerful emotional punch.

Alext Cromarty with Mostly Autumn

It wasn’t easy for headliners Focus to follow that. Like Curved Air they’re a legendary band who are regulars on the festival circuit, but with their two biggest hits quite unlike the rest of their material they can come over as marking time until the hits at the end. But Focus do what they do, and the chilled-out jazz-rock workouts like the lengthy “Eruption” deserved to be appreciated on their own merits. But after the slow start, “Sylvia” and “Hocus Pocus” came as expected at the end, and the festival finished in a frenzy of air-guitar and yodelling, and so it should.

This weekend turned out to a good candidate for the best CRF yet. The bill was a great mix of old favourites and new discoveries. The old favourites showed everyone why they keep getting invited back, and newer bands rose to the big occasion. The main stage bill across Saturday and Sunday was remarkable in its consistent quality this year; there are plenty of acts who’d played earlier years who would have seemed out of place this year.

While some higher profile festivals this year had bills heavy with heritage acts (HRH Prog and Ramblin’ Man, I’m looking at you), it was good to see representatives of the current generation of bands making up the bulk of the bill. It was also good to see so many women on the bill; can you imagine Glastonbury or Reading featuring six female frontwomen out of eight acts?

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2016 Cambridge Rock Festival – Part Two

Jo Ash of Derecho

This is the second part of my review of the weekend. The first part is here.

Saturday began with four-piece Derecho on the main stage. Singer and pianist Jo Ash’s punky attitude had shades of Holly from Crimson Sky, which meant the day’s bill opened with something lively enough to wake everyone up. She’s quite a remarkable singer with a voice that goes from Siouxie Sioux to Kate Bush. The music was a mix of singer-songwriter style piano numbers and rockier numbers with the occasional burst of space-rock guitar.

4th Labyrinth are one of those bands who are next to impossible to pigeonhole, highlighted by the way they’ve named their album “Quattro Staggioni”. They played an eclectic mix of styles from funk to organ-driven psychedelic rock, with a top-hatted keyboard-playing singer who bore more than a passing resemblance to Bigelf’s Damon Fox, and a bassist who dances as plays at the same time. Alongside their own material they threw in covers of Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath with a Hammond organ solo replacing the flute, and a bonkers version of Wings’ Live and Let Die

Pearl Handled Revolver have become festival regulars with their distinctive blend of blues and psychedelia evoking Uriah Heep and The Doors. Without a bassist they rely on keys for the basslines, and they combine flourishes of bluesy guitar with classic 70s keyboard sounds of Hammond organ, electric piano and at one point, Mellotron. While they had the same instrumental lineup as The Mentulls the day before, in this case it was the keyboard player who was the real star, ending the set with an epic Jon Lord style wig-out.

Hekz

After the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin hard rock of Walkway came one of the highlights of the day, the epic prog-metal of Hekz. Like other bands before them Hekz rose to the big occasion and delivered one of the performances of their lives. More metal that anything else on this year’s bill yet also powerfully melodic, they delivered a razor-sharp and intense set, ending with the twelve-minute epic “The Black Hand”.

Hazel O’Connor seemed out of place, her 80s pop a long way from the classic rock and blues of the rest of the bill. But she’s played this festival several times before and has always gone down well. With a band including Claire Hirst on Sax and Sarah Fisher on piano they were one act on the main stage without a guitarist, and made a great change of pace, including a celtic-flavoured song with all three of them on bhodran. Unfortunately I only got to see the first half of the set and missed the big hits because there was no way a big fan could miss the overlapping act on Stage Three.

Anne-Marie Helder

Anne-Marie Helder doesn’t do many solo acoustic gigs nowadays. There was a time between the dissolution of the first incarnation of Karnataka and the rise of Panic Room when Anne-Marie gigged very heavily as a solo act, playing 200 shows in a year at one point. Nowadays Panic Room and Luna Rossa are the focus of her songwriting, and solo shows are restricted to the occasional support spot, usually at very short notice at gigs which were sold out before her fans get to hear of them. She’s one of the few solo acts who can fill a room with sound using just one voice and an acoustic guitar. Her set included some decade-old favourites like “Hadditfeel” and “Dominoes” as well as Luna Rossa’s “Secrets and Lies”. There was one completely new song about messages to future generations, with partially-crowdsourced lyrics; though the like “Don’t eat the yellow snow” may well not survive in the final version. She ended with the first few lines of Panic Room’s “Promises” before switching to another oldie, “Wheels Within Wheels”. Despite the sound spillover from the other two stages, it was a beautiful set.

Carl Palmer

And then it was back to the main stage for the grand finale of Carl Palmer’s ELP Experience. On paper, instrumental shred-metal versions on ELP songs ought not to work as a festival headliner. In practice, the levels of virtuosity and showmanship said otherwise. The set covered ELP standards including Knife Edge, Fanfare for the Common Man and a lengthy Pictures of an Exhibition, and a bonkers take on Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. It wasn’t all over the top bombast either; the guitarist’s tapped solo spot was a thing of delicate beauty. And the bassist playing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in full on solo bass was something else entirely, and may have been the best-received bass solo ever. Naturally the set climaxed with an epic drum solo; there are only a handful of drummers who should be allowed to play long drum solos, and Carl Palmer is one of them. At the very end Carl dedicated the set to the late Keith Emerson, and asked the audience to film the final number on their phones and upload it in his memory, before launching into the encore, Nutrocker.

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2016 Cambridge Rock Festival – Part One

Voodd Vegas

The Cambridge Rock Festival is a great little festival specialising in blues, classic rock and progressive rock. It’s always had a reputation as a friendly intimate event, and with all three stages under cover the music takes place in the dry even if the great British summer does its worst. Though it missed a year in 2015, it was back in 2016 for its twelfth event, held again at its usual site at Haggis Farm Polo Club just outside Cambridge. And it promised a strong bill, with a good balance of regular favourites and intriguing-sounding new names. Continue reading

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There are far worse things to have as an earworm than Mostly Autumn’s “Mother Nature”.

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Cambridge Rock Festival on Friday, in pictures

Doris Brende

There will be a full review, but in the meantime here’s a few photos from Friday, starting with Doris Brendel, opening act on the main stage

Laura Holland

Laura Holland fronting her 40s-style big band on the Blues stage

Polish singer-songwriter Agnieszka Swita on the Classic Rock Socierty stage.

Rebecca Downes

Rebecca Downes doing an impression of Gene Simmons on the Blues stage.

Meryl Hamilton of Voodoo Vegas

Meryl Hamilton rocks out with Voodoo Vegas on the CRS stage.

Haze headlining the CRS stage

And finally, in an image that perhaps epitomises Prog, Haze headlining the CRS stage.

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Rob Cottingham announces Cairo

CairoFormer Touchstone keyboardist and songwriter Rob Cottingham has formally announced his new band Cairo:

After what I can only describe as amazing support from the industry, I am proud and delighted to announce my new band, CAIRO.

The band comprises Rachel Hill on vocals; James Hards on guitars; Paul Stocker on bass, Graham Brown on drums and myself on vocals and keys.

I was after a new sound with the same sensibilities as in my previous writing but with heavier passages, as well as more ambient, electronic soundscapes – plus more time spent on crafting the blend of male and female vocals within the overall production of the music.

We have just recorded our debut album “Say” at Outhouse Studios, with the mighty John Mitchell (It Bites, Frost*, Lonely Robot, Arena) at the helm, and we will be releasing the album in October. Album launch shows are scheduled in the UK for November with our special guests, Luna Rossa.”

The band have announced three live dates in November, in London, at the CRS in Rotherham, and in Leicester.

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Opeth release lyric video for Sorceress

The title track of the new album, probably the heaviest thing they’ve done since their move away from death metal after “Watershed”.

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Blue Öyster Cult, The Forum

A little over a decade ago the once-mighty Blue Öyster Cult were playing a half-empty Astoria when they visited London. So it’s great to see them sell able to sell out the far larger Forum in Kentish Town. Maybe it was their barnstorming set at last year’s Ramblin’ Man Fair in Maidstone that reminded people they still existed. Maybe the one-off performance of Agents of Fortune with Albert Bouchard guesting was a draw. Or maybe it was the nostalgia factor, like so many classic rock acts on the final laps of their careers, this might be a last chance to see.

Classic album in full shows have become increasingly common in recent years as an alternative to the standard greatest hits package, and Agents of Fortune makes an interesting choice. While it’s highly-regarded and contains their biggest hit it’s not a record that the band have tended to feature much in their live shows. Aside from The Hit, “ETI” and “This Ain’t The Summer of Love” are the only songs to have appeared in setlists for years, and then only infrequently.

BÖC began the show with the album, played in the original running order, opening with “This Ain’t The Summer of Love” followed by one of the band’s strangest songs, “True Confessions”, with Buck Dharma singing lead in place of the late Allen Lanier. Then came the big hit, Don’t Fear the Reaper, a song normally saved until the end of the set, greeted with huge cheers from the crowd. Even bigger cheers greeted the entrance of Albert Bouchard to sing “The Revenge of Vera Gemini”.

If anything, it was the second side of the original LP that proved the highlight. Albert sang lead on two further songs but remained on stage adding rhythm guitar and backing vocals to the rest, the multilayered songs benefiting from a sixth musician on stage. Two standouts were “Morning Final” with Richie Castellano singing lead and both he and Eric Bloom doubling up on keys, and the strange and sinister “Tenderloin”, perhaps Allen Lanier’s finest contribution to the songbook. After the strains of “Debbie Denise” died away, Eric Bloom announced a ten minute interval, after which they’d be back for more.

When they came back, “Dominance and Submission” was the start of a greatest hits set that at times made the first half look like a warm-up, full of songs about flying saucer cults, motorcycles and B-movie monsters. “The Golden Age of Leather” was a delight, and “Harvest Moon” from their 1998 comeback album “Heaven Forbid” was an unexpected surprise. One real highlight was a splendid “The Vigil” with some incredible fluid guitar work. “Last Days of May”, always a guitar showcase, featured extended solos from both Richie Castellano and Buck Dharma. Richie Castellano sang lead again on “Hot Rails to Hell”, and “Godzilla” was as monstrous as it’s ever been, for once not broken up with solos.

A storming “Me262″ led into Kasim Sulton’s bass solo (Oh no! The drumming has stopped!) which in turn led into something that BÖC haven’t done for years, when Albert Bouchard rejoined them on stage for the Five Guitars instrumental. Then a second drumkit was wheeled on stage from the grand finale, the band’s version of the Steppenwolf standard “Born to be Wild” with Albert on drums and Eric and Buck doing that famous crossed guitars thing from the early days.

When they returned for the encore. Eric said they were dedicating the show to Allen Lanier and Sandy Pearlman. First encore was another of Allen’s songs, the ballad “In Thee”. With Albert present, there were no prizes for guessing the final encore, his signature tune “Cities of Flame”, sung from behind the kit.

Apart from a disappointing lack of “Astronomy” it was a great set, though we could possibly have done without the hoary “Buck’s Boogie”. Taken as a whole it was a very long show, the second set alone was the length of a normal headline set. Albert Bouchard was on great form vocally, and on cowbell, and it’s good to see him back even it’s just a one-off guest appearance. But the real star was Buck Dharma, who’s effortless fluid guitar work has always been their secret weapon.

The combination of seldom-heard songs from a classic album and live favourites from right across their long career made for a gig that was memorable for all the right reasons.

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