Music Blog

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

Rebecca Downes – Believe

Bebecca Downes BelieveAlong with the likes of Chantel McGregor and Jodie Marie, Rebecca Downes is a female blues-rock artist revitalising a traditional form for the 21st century, in her case turning down offers from X-Factor producers because she’d rather make real music of her own than someone else’s formulaic product.

Her second album “Believe” shows she means business, and demonstrates a vocal talent that would indeed have been wasted on sausage-factory pop. With a tight six-piece band including co-writer Steve Birkett on rhythm and slide guitars and Rik Sandford on lead guitar, she plays the blues through a prism of classic rock with nods to soul and funk. Rebecca has a great voice, with range and power as well as emotional depth, equally at home with soulful ballads as belting out hard rockers.

What impresses is not only the strength of the material but the variety; this is not one of those albums where nearly every song is a variation on the same basic template. Highlights include the impassioned funk-rock of “Night Train”, the guitar-shredding ballad “Sailing on a Pool of Tears” and the seductive smoky jazz of “Could Not Say No”. Just occasionally the quality dips, with the middle-of-the-road “Come With Me Baby” and one or two rather ordinary boogie numbers on the second half of the record, but the album ends in rousing form with the hard rock workout of the title track.

In some respects this is an old-fashioned record with little or no concession towards the contemporary commercial mainstream. But a record this good deserves to be heard well beyond niche audiences of ageing classic rock and blues fans. The performance and production manages to combine a rich and sophisticated sound with a crackling energy, which leaves the impression the music is built to be performed live.

The album is released on March 4th, with a pre-released launch party at the 100 Club in London on February 23rd.

Posted in Record Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“The Big Snub Dept” on Genji Press is well worth a read. Can someone really be an artist unless their art manages to resonate with an audience?

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

Of Genres and Canons

If you divide music into “Classical” and “Pop”, but don’t make any distinction between “Pop” from “Rock”, a record like King Crimson’s “Red” gives a divide-by-zero error.

It’s one of the high points  of the progressive rock movement, an ambitious and powerful collection of music far removed from simple top-40 pop songs. Yet it’s performed by a rock band with electric guitar as the main instrument rather than a symphony orchestra.

If you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly know all that. But this post isn’t really about Red, but about the wider divide between “high” and “low” art, and whether such a divide is still meaningful, or even if it ever was.

It reminds me a bit of my old school music teacher, Mr Macey. He was an old-school traditionalist for whom only orchestral music in the Western classical tradition qualified as real music. Anything played on electric instruments was ephemeral nonsense. I suspect he genuinely believed rock’n'roll was a passing fad and none of it would pass the test of time.

He was wrong, of course, but back in the mid-1970s it was still possible for someone to hold that position without looking like a ridiculous old reactionary. Much of what we now consider as the rock canon was either less than a decade old, or had yet to be written. The fact we’re still listening to some of that music forty years on shows that it has stood the test of time rather better than the so-called “squeaky hinge” work that some classical composers were writing at the same time. But it’s also notable that the way rock fans dismiss music made from samples and computer-generated rhythms sounds a lot like the arguments used against rock by my old music teacher.

The whole high art vs. low art thing is really about social class. In past centuries, “classical” was the music of the rich, and “folk” was the music of the poor, and the former was put on a pedestal at the expense of the latter because the people with the money wrote the histories. The rise of the middle classes and the development of amplified electric music disrupted that hierarchy, but old prejudices die hard.

I wonder how the music of the past fifty years will be regarded in a hundred years time? What will pass the test of time, and will today’s genres of classical, folk, jazz or rock still make any sense to listeners who encounter the music in a completely different cultural context?

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged | 2 Comments

John Mitchell releases The Nostalgia Factory

The Nostalgia FactoryJohn Michell of Lonely Robot, It Bites, Arena, Frost* and The Heather Findlay Band fame has somehow found the time to record a four track EP of covers, “The Nostalgia Factory”.

The title track is a very early Porcupine Tree song. The EP also includes Justin Hayward’s ‘It Won’t Be Easy’ and Phil Collins ‘Take Me Home’, the latter of which featured as the encore at the Lonely Robot showcase show at The Scala last December. The final song is ELP’s ‘C’Est La Vie’, which shares the same origins as Panic Room’s “Bitches Crystal”, recorded for the ill-fated Prog Magazine cover disk of ELP covers.

The EP< which also features Kim Seviour on backing vocals is released on 26th February, but can be pre-ordered now from White Star Records.

Posted in Music News | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Why It’s a Critic’s Duty to Be Wrong

Interesting post on Criticwire; A.O. Scott and Why It’s a Critic’s Duty to Be Wrong. It’s really about film criticism, but it’s the sort of thing that’s more widely applicable, including music criticism.

Criticism isn’t meant to be the final word but an opening statement, or, increasingly, a volley in the potentially unending ping-pong match between writers and readers — to the extent that distinction is even meaningful anymore. Critics should try to be right, of course, whatever that means in the context of a largely subjective medium. (My definition: Passionate but controlled; true to the aesthetic and moral principles you’ve articulated and evolved over the course of your critical career. Also, try to spell the names right.) But there’s nothing more dangerous to a critic than the ironclad belief in their own rightness.

A couple of things resonate quite strongly here. The first is that anyone who’s too afraid of being wrong will be less effective as a critic. We’ve all seen reviews where the reviewer won’t commit to saying whether the record is good, bad or indifferent, and instead dances around the subject with a load of anodyne waffle. Worst still is groupthink, when the reviewer is afraid to be the one who’s out of step with everyone else. It’s the reason I  never read other reviews of a record before I’ve written my own.

The second is that reviews are ephemeral compared to their subjects. For new releases a review is only relevent during a record’s release window. Once a critical mass of people have had the chance to hear it for themselves, anything you write is old news. In the case of a high-profile major act that window is measured in days. For a small independent release that relies on word-of-mouth for promotion it’s more like months, and reviews are an important part of that word-of-mouth process. In many cases the most significant thing is the fact that you’ve chosen to review it at all.

Eventually the record will either become part of the canon, for some given value of canon, or it will sink into obscurity. Either way, subsequent writing about them will read in a very different context, even if the writer or reader is discovering the actual music for the first time.

To give an example, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” now has an assured status in the rock canon, with Dave Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” recognised as a rock standard. Few remember or care about Sounds’ Dave McCulloch’s one-star review that complained that there were too many guitar solos.

I’ve just written a strongly negative review of a record by one of the biggest names in progressive rock. Judging by subsequent conversations a lot of others share my opinion. But there are some strongly positive reviews out there of the same record that declare it a masterpiece. And here’s the important thing; none of these reviews are wrong. They’re all part of the conversation. Eventually a consensus will emerge, even if that consensus is that it’s a Marmite record that divides opinion.

And yes, sometimes you will look back at a record you praised or damned, and realise you were completely wrong about it.

Posted in Music Opinion | Leave a comment

Elkie Returns!

As reported by Prog magazine, former Touchstone singer Kim “Elkie” Seviour reveals album plans.

She plans to release a solo album to be produced by and co-written with John Mitchell of Lonely Robot, Frost*, Arena and It Bites fame, a man who’s in so many bands because he’s so prolific that nobody else can keep up.

There is to be a single “Fantasise To Realise” released next month, a standalone track that will not feature on the album.

Posted in Music News | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dream Theater – The Astonishing

DreamTheater - The AstonishingDream Theater are a band who strongly divide opinions. For some they’re the epitome of progressive metal, with levels of instrumental virtuosity that render them without peers. For others, they’re all emotionless technical showboating, too many notes and not enough soul. The truth is probably somewhere between the two, but there’s no denying they’re one of the genre-defining bands of their generation.

They’ve been coasting a little in recent years, releasing albums that have their moments but don’t quite reach the heights of the 1990s work that made their reputation. Their last great record was 2002′s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”, and their thirteenth studio effort, like that one, is also a double album.

The Astonishing is a sprawling ambitious concept album with a science-fantasy storyline that includes The Map and a vast cast of character with names like Emperor Nafarys and Faythe. The concept and music owe as much to musical theatre as to progressive rock. Unfortunately what could have been their 2112 turns out a lot more like their version of Kiss’ “The Elder”. Except The Elder didn’t go on for two and a quarter hours.

It starts strongly with the instrumental Dystopian Overture, but it soon becomes clear that they’ve spread themselves far too thin, and there just isn’t enough worthwhile music here to fill a double album. There is very little that stands out strongly, and there’s too much mediocre filler, often with melodies Graham Kendrick would have rejected as too banal.

The problem with this record isn’t too much unrestrained instrumental virtuosity. If anything, the opposite is true; a few tasteless irruptions of widdly-woo might have livened up some of the dull bits. The biggest problem with this album, aside from the sheer amount of filler, is that there’s far too much of James LaBrie, and he’s never been one of the world’s most expressive singers. Not only that, the sheer portentousness of the whole thing gets wearing after a while, eventually leaving you with the feeling that only metal bands with enough of a sense of humour to include undead unicorms should be making science-fantasy concept albums.

It does have its moments, such as “A New Beginning” towards the end of disk one with its inventive spiralling solo from John Petrucci. The album does leave the impression that there might be a worthwhile 50-minute album in there struggling to get out. But the listener has to wade through a lot of forgettable dross to find enough diamonds in the rough.

Dream Theater remain a hugely important band in the history of progressive rock, but sadly this record adds little to their legacy. Anyone new to the band would do better to give this album a miss and instead go for one of the classic earlier ones instead.

Posted in Record Reviews | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Now that Terry Wogan is up there, Heaven can hold a Eurovision Song Contest with Lemmy as the British entry. Something that should have happened when the two of them were still on Earth.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 1 Comment

“If only they  realised that their favourite genre didn’t just stop when fashion moved on” – Comment from Paul E in this thread.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 1 Comment

Myrkur – M

Myrkur MAt the end of the 1970s, three village idiots from the north-east of England began meddling with forces they didn’t understand, and unleashed an entity into the world which they could not control.

Black Metal, it came to be called. It took root in Scandinavia,where it developed a reputation for arsonous things which might have made some Methodist Church property stewards wish it had caught on in parts of the south-west of England.

Over more than thirty years, Black Metal has evolved out of all recognition, giving us the gloriously ridiculous Dimmu Borgir and the fiendishly innovative Ihsahn. Myrkur’s “M” doesn’t sound much like either of those bands, but like them it still sounds like something well beyond the limited imaginations of that notorious original trio.

Myrkur is a solo project from Danish singer and multi-insrumentalist Amalie Bruun. Opening number “Skøgen Skulle Dø” begins with a ghostly vocal leading into dark medieval soundscapes that come over like Blackmore’s Night’s evil twin, blood-curdling screaming, and ending with the sound of a church choir backed by walls of distorted guitar. That combination of beauty and menace sets the tone for the album.

It’s difficult to believe all the lead vocals are the work of the same singer; Myrkur can do deeply scary black metal screaming, but there’s as much layered ethereal folk-inflected vocals, and the contrast is remarkably effective. Sometimes the guitars give way to classical piano accompaniments, their fragile beauty contrasting and complimenting the heavier numbers. Like a lot of contemporary metal there are no solos, but with lyrics sung entirely in Danish Myrkur’s remarkable voice frequently comes over as a lead instrument. She’s an accomplished pianist as well, ending the album with the melancholy instrumental piano piece “Norn”.

With elements of folk and classical music as well as metal, this is a remarkable piece of work, quite unlike much of what gets released under the banner of Black Metal. If it’s ultimately descended from the music of Venom, then it’s the missing link between them and something like Enya.

Posted in Record Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment