Music Blog

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

Bob Lefsetz, One Direction, and American Psycho

I’m not sure that there are many people who still take Bob Lefsetz seriously; after all, this is the music industry pundit who told David Bowie he needed to be more like Mumford and Sons. He’s got to become a good music pundit litmus test, in that anyone who takes him seriously cannot themselves be taken seriously.

His blustering patronising style and detemindedly anti-hipster stance leads him to praise the most vacuous examples of corporate rock as works of artistic genius; he’e even claimed that anyone who doesn’t think Nickelback are the world’s greatest rock band is a pathetic loser. Some of his more ridiculous rants remind me of those often-quoted monologues about Huey Lewis and Phil Collins from Brett Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho”.

But this piece about One Direction goes beyond patronising and descends into the disturbingly creepy.

It was incomprehensible.

Furthermore, if you weren’t there you probably didn’t know it happened, despite the act selling out two dates and nearly a third, on a Thursday, a school night.

And that was who were there. Students. Girls. Wanna get laid? Go to a 1D show. You won’t see odds this good at the prison of “Orange Is The New Black.” An endless sea of barely pubescent girls, screaming their heads off. You’d think it was the new Beatles.

Only it wasn’t.

Maybe these kids know the Beatles. But they’ve got no idea who U2 is, never mind want to hear their music. And U2 didn’t sell as many tickets in Pasadena. Because the generations have changed and those in charge don’t want to admit it.

You’re done. History. Kaput. Your children have replaced you. Because they’ve got one thing you do not, PASSION!

What’s scary is that if you read those first few paragraphs side-by-side with Patrick Bateman’s infamous Phil Collins monologue , his One Direction piece is actually creepier.

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What is the purpose of music awards?

The announcement of the nominations for the Mercury Music prize along with the press coverage for the Prog Awards begs the question; exactly what is the point of these awards and their associated ceremonies? Are they really about celebrating the best music in all its diversity, or is the whole thing just a PR exercise to sell records? Or just an excuse for a party?

I am more and more of the opinion that it’s the latter. The Mercury, voted on by secretive panel of expects, does seem to have as its prime purpose selling records to the people who buy two or three records a year but like to think they’re far edgier than they really are. Even when I find that for once I actually own one of the nominations. Perhaps that explains why their gig was so full of hipsters?

As for the Prog awards, with half the awards chosen by a committee, and the other half voted by readers who were forced to choose from a seemingly arbitrary shortlist chosen in an opaque manner by the same committee, does winning an award actually mean anything?

But given the way the awards ceremony has gained a lot of favourable press coverage including being reported by the BBC, is quibbling over who did or didn’t get nominated simply is missing the point? Does it matter who the awards went to if it gets progressive music in the press?

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The context was actually Manga, but the advice from a convention panel goes broader than that. “Be thick-skinned. you need to be able to take both good and bad reviews“. Because, to quote Serdar Yegalulp, “Sometimes praise can be as damaging as insult, and the damage is not always as palpable“. This is just as true with music, especially in this social media age. I’ve seen artists surround themselves with sycophants, and it’s all too easy for them to lose their edge as a result.

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The Reasoning cancel October tour

After postponing their long-awaited album into the new year, The Reasoning have now cancelled their upcoming tour, and the release of the album may be postponed further.

The band will be spending more time working on their next album, which currently has the working title of Horrorscopic. They say, “We’ve decided to take some time away from the music, in order to allow it to grow and develop more naturally. This will also enable us to think carefully about how best to produce, record and promote it.

“There’s no finite limit to said breather: whether it takes us six months or two years to create an album that we’re genuinely proud of, then it will have been more than worth the wait. We hope that you will agree and understand. In the interim, of course, you’ll still see many of us out and about at other gigs, pontificating online and (if you’re really lucky) doing the weekly shopping [insert supermarket of your choosing].”

Despite the ostensibly upbeat tone of the announcement, you can’t help wondering about the long-tem future of the band with news like this.

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When Empires Fall

When Empires FallWhen Empires Fall is the latest addition to the incestuous York-based progressive rock scene. It’s the new project from former Stolen Earth and Breathing Space bassist Paul Teasdale. A sample track, “Call To The Night Watch” with vocalist Aleksandra Koziol appeared something like a year ago, but since then we’ve had a long wait for the album.

When Empires Fall consists of guitarists Stew King and Dave Hunt, and Paul Teasdale on everything else. Paul handles the majority of the lead vocals himself, with Aleksandra Koziol and Joanne Wallis appearing as guest vocalists, each singing lead vocals on one song. There is also an appearance from Paul Teasdale’s one time Breathing Space bandmate, guitarist Mark Rowen.

The two opening tracks set the tone. “Intro” with it’s birdsong, doomladen keys and Floydian guitar flourishes leads into the bass groove-driven rocker “Hurt”. The album is an interesting and very varied mix of indie-rock and progressive rock, uptempo rockers with trebly guitars sit alongside atmospheric keyboard-led ballads. There are certainly a few songs that would not have sounded out of place on a Stolen Earth album had the original lineup of that band stayed together. But other material, especially on the first half of the album have a strong Britpop flavour. A strong sense of melody that owes a debt to The Beatles is the glue holding it all together, and the album as a whole has something of the feel of mid-period Porcupine Tree.

Highlights include the Hammond-drenched ballad “Barricade”, the angry psychedelic rocker “14 Bullets” and “Under No Illusion” with a superb extended solo from Mark Rowan. “Call To The Night Watch” is the nearest thing on the album to a prog epic, with it’s pastoral opening and a spine-tingling vocal from Aleksandra Koziol. A few of the songs carry a strong political charge,

Never any more than a backing singer in Breathing Space or Stolen Earth, the soaring melodies prove Paul Teasdale more than up to the task of singing lead. His bass playing is as dependably solid as expected, but he also impresses on keys, especially the Hammond organ on “Barricade” and the electric piano on “Sinking Deeper”.

Much like another recent record from the York scene, Halo Blind’s “Occupying Forces” this is a record that has feet in more than camp. It has the depth, atmospherics and musicianship to appeal to progressive rock fans, but the straightforward and direct songwriting should also make this record accessible to more mainstream indie-rock audiences.

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Dave Kerzner – Stranded

“Stranded” from Dave Kerzner’s forthcoming album “New World”, featuring guest appearances from Steve Hackett and Durga McBroom.

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The Pros and Cons of Classic Album In Full Sets

A Guardian piece claims that  the ‘classic’ album set is ruining festivals. It actually makes some good points, but those points are so clumsily-made that the whole piece reads far more like provocative clickbait than perhaps it should. The last sentence on this quote is a self-evident load of tripe.

This week, there’s even an entire festival in Chicago and Denver dedicated to artists too lazy to write a proper setlist. Weezer, Slayer, Jane’s Addiction and seven more will plough through their biggest albums front-to-back at Riot Fest, so if you want to hear a band you used to like perform a track they wrote as filler 20 years ago, knock yourself out. Be honest: when was the last time you actually played an album, including all those rubbish “skits” artists are so keen on, all the way through?

The “Play a classic album in full” thing got started because fans were getting bored of older bands playing the same standards tour after tour as if they were their own tribute act, and it was an opportunity to shake things up and perform the odd rarely-played song live.

This was a fine approach for bands who have made albums as consistently great as “Moving Pictures” or “Blackwater Park”, but once the trend caught on too many bands who hadn’t actually made a flawless classic jumped on the bandwagon. For them, some of those rarely-played songs were rarely-played for a reason.

There were two such sets on the Prog stage at High Voltage in 2011, Uriah Heep playing “Demons and Wizards” and Martyn Turner’s Wishbone Ash playing “Argus”.  The latter worked really well, it’s an album that’s stood the test of time, and it made for a more enjoyable set that the blues-rock workouts you get from Andy Powell’s official Wishbone Ash nowadays.  The Heep set was far less effective,  much like every 70s Uriah Heep album there was a lot of filler and some of the album had dated very badly. A greatest hits set cherry-picking the best songs from their 40 year career would have been so much better.

Which all goes to show that album-in-full sets are neither a good thing or a bad thing in themselves, but they depend on the band, and on the album.

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enkElination – Tears of Lust

enkElination - Tears of LustJust when it seemed that Valkyrie-fronted metal has reached saturation point, along comes Anglo-Finnish outfit enkElination to suggest that there’s life in the genre yet.

enkElination take their name from the Finnish word for “Angel”, and began in London back at the end of 2011 as a collaboration between opera-trained singer Elina Siirala and guitarist Shadow Venger. With a support for Van Canto and a slot at the prestigious Bloodstock metal festival in August under their belts, 2014 sees the release of their début album.

Although their music contains more than enough pomp enkElination steer away from the wall of sound approach taken by some of the more symphonic European bands, using even keys relatively sparingly. Instead the emphasis is on the guitars and Elina Siirala’s remarkable soprano voice. It’s all crunching riffs and big soaring choruses, and the songs are short and punchy, nothing longer than five minutes. Comparisons with Within Temptation and early Nightwish are inevitable, and there occasional moments that sound like Tarja fronting an early incarnation of The Reasoning.

Highlights include the dramatic title track that opens the album, the over the top melodrama of “Chimeras”, “Changeling” with echoes of Polish goth-metallers Closterkeller, and the closing ballad “Last Time Together”. But there’s no real filler on this album; the songwriting is both consistently strong throughout and displays plenty of variety. But it’s Finnish-born Elina Siirala who emerges as the real star. Displaying similarities to fellow-Finn Tarja Turunen, the power and range of her voice completely dominates the whole record. In an age where there are now plenty of metal bands fronted by opera-trained sopranos, she still manages to stand out in what has become a crowded field.

Even if enkElination aren’t really doing anything spectacularly new, the combination of some very strong songwriting, immaculate production and stunning vocals makes “Tears of Lust” a highly enjoyable album.

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Opeth – Pale Communion

Opeth Pale CommunionOpeth’s eleventh studio album, “Pale Communion” has been one of the most anticipated releases of the year. Their last album, 2011′s “Heritage” ended up strongly dividing opinion. For every fan who applauded their exploration of new sonic territories there seemed to be another who bemoaned their move away from the metal roots.

If there is still anyone hoping for a return to the growly death metal of Deliverance, they are probably going to disappointed. For Pale Communion is a development and refinement of the direction expressed on Heritage. Only it is a far stronger album.

Like Heritage, it’s a swirling maelstrom of classic 70s sounds given a modern sensibility, Åkerfeldt’s evocative lead guitar style shares space with Mellotron and Hammond organ; there are bits of hard rock, jazz, pastoral folk-prog and what sounds like horror-movie soundtrack, sometimes in the same song. There is even one brief moment that evokes a darker and more sinister version of The Eagles.

But ultimately it still sounds quintessentially Opeth; Åkerfeldt’s very distinctive approach to melody and harmony shines through even though the instrumentation has a different emphasis compared to their metal past; more keys and layered vocals and less emphasis on guitar. There is a heaviness there, but it’s not so much the heaviness of walls of guitars as it is a kind of dark intensity. And it’s balanced by moments of delicate beauty; Åkerfeldt is still an absolute master of dynamics.

Pale Communion is best described as combination of the best elements of Heritage and their previous non-metal Damnation with a bit of Storm Corrosion thrown in for good measure. There is certainly something of the same feel as Steve Wilson’s recent solo work; since Steve Wilson’s and Mikael Åkerfeldt’s careers have been joined at the hip for well over a decade this shouldn’t really be any surprise. If Heritage was something of an experimental album, then Pale Communion is the results of those experiments. In some ways it is to Heritage what Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” was to the earlier “Atom Heart Mother”.

This is not only one of the best albums of 2014, but is every bit as good as anything Opeth have released in their career.

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Resonance Festival, Balham

Resonance Festival

The Resonance Festival held at the very beginning of August was a four-day charity event held in The Bedford in Balham, featuring bands from all aspects of the contemporary progressive rock scene, everything from the traditional and the neo to the avant garde. I couldn’t get to the first two days, the evening only events featuring Mostly Autumn, Also Eden and Lifesigns. But I did attend the all-day events of Saturday and Sunday where the three rooms played host to a wide variety of bands.

The biggest room, the magnificent circular Globe was booked for a comedy night on the Saturday, but it was still available during the afternoon. So that became the acoustic stage for the day. First up was looping guitar maestro Matt Stevens, conjuring tapestries of sound from a battered acoustic guitar and an array of looping pedals. He’s a familiar sight on the prog circuit having opened for just about everyone, but he’s still an entertaining performer no matter how many times you’ve seen him.

After The Far Meadow, whose competent neo-prog was spoiled by terrible sound, it was back to The Globe for a beautiful set from Luna Rossa, the acoustic duo of Anne-Marie Helder and Jon Edwards of Panic Room. They’re not “Panic Room unplugged”, but a completely separate side-project playing their own material rather than Panic Room songs. With Jon on piano and Anne-Marie adding some acoustic guitar and flute, their beautiful set featured songs from the album “Sleeping Pills and Lullabies”, a couple of interestingly-reworked covers, and one new number offering a tantalising glimpse of their second album that they’re currently part-way through recording.

Anna Phoebe and her band were the first all-instrumental act of the weekend. With lead instruments of violin and acoustic guitar for much of the set, they were the missing link between rock and gypsy jazz. Anne Phoebe is a stunning virtuoso musician with a dramatic stage presence to match.

Matt Stevens celebrated his birthday by returning to the stage a second time, this time in electric mode with a full band in the shape of The Fierce and The Dead. They’re not an easy band to describe, but their instrumental sound driven by interlocking guitars with a raw sound comes over as a kind of punk version of King Crimson. It was intense and Earth-shatteringly loud, and the audience staggered out of the room wondering exactly what had hit them.

Saturday ended with the symphonic majesty of The Enid. Much like their performance at HRH Prog back in March, the set mixed older favourites with newer material from “Invictia”, ending with a mesmerising “Dark Hydraulic” and a version of Barclay James Harvest’s “Mockingbird”. There is nobody else remotely like The Enid, and they, perhaps more than any other band embody the spirit of everything progressive rock is about.

So ended the first day, and that was just the highlights; there are also honourable mentions to Unto Us, who bravely playing their set with a laptop replacing their ailing drummer, and the avant-noise of Trojan Horse, a band with feet in enough different camps they do supports for the likes of post-punk veterans The Fall.

Sunday’s bill was a day of clashes between the various stages, made worse by timings going awry which made it easier to wander from stage to stage seeing what sounded interesting rather than planning things too much in advance. Early bands included Rat Face Lewey, a very young power trio, at times verging on punk, at others playing some more melodic guitar lines, and Hekz with their strongly song-focussed prog-metal. Vocals are often the weak link in prog-metal, but Hekz’ Matt Young had quite a remarkable voice.

Maschine were the first band on the main stage, now in its rightful place in The Globe, and started late because of technical problems. Although to some extent they’re a vehicle for Luke Machin’s virtuoso guitar playing, there’s some solid composition behind all the flash. They’re the missing link between prog-metal and jazz-fusion. Quite a bit of their entertaining set was new, as yet unrecorded material alongside highlights from their début “Rubidium”. They’re not quite the same without Georgia, though.

King Bathmat were actually three-quarters of King Bathmat, since they were without their keyboard player and played as a power trio. In such a stripped-down form they sounded like a completely different band than they do on record, but nevertheless did make a strong impression, dominated by John Bassett’s psychedelic lead guitar. Because the two sets clashed I only caught the end of Synaesthesia’s set, but what little I heard it seemed like their set was something special indeed, a remarkable combination of youthful enthusiasm and compositional maturity well beyond their years.

Mr So and So turned out to be one of the unexpected highlights of the weekend, with a really powerful performance. They’re a band representing the song-centric side of things with distinctive use of dual male-female lead vocals. Their set was tight and intense with both guitar crunch and soaring melodies, with Charlotte Evans giving a very strong vocal performance, and some tremendous shredding from Dave Foster.

Former Enid guitarist Frances Lickerish threw a complete curveball and had to be the strangest act of the weekend. He started out playing some solo instrumental pieces on, of all things a lute, before being joined by vocalist Hilary Palmer for some genuine medieval songs. It seemed like folk’s revenge for Prog taking over Cropredy this year, and made Blackmore’s Night look like the Dungeons and Dragons parody it is. He even played a few bars of Smoke on the Water. On a lute.

At this point things started to go really pear-shaped. Swedish proggers Änglagård, making a very rare UK appearance were due on the main stage at 6:30. But despite already being allocated a two-hour setup time, they were nowhere near being ready to go at the scheduled time, and were ultimately well over an hour late, throwing the rest of the timings into disarray. I appreciate that a band relying so much on temperemental vintage gear (including two Mellotrons) might suffer from technical problems. But I was told the exact same thing happened last year at Night of the Prog at Loreley, which makes we wonder if a band like this should really be playing festivals at all.

The delay did give the chance to check out the other two stages, with some in-your-face metal from Jupiter Falls, and an entertaining unplugged set from 70s veterans Gnidrolog. Änglagård finally did hit the stage very, very late with their largely instrumental and very retro classic prog sound. It was a swirling mix of flute, Hammond, Mellotron, Fender Rhodes, saxes and an array of percussion instruments including a massive gong. All very heady stuff, although there was always the nagging doubt at the back of the mind that this was all a Spinal Tap style parody of prog excess.

Headliners Bigelf came on very late, and played a truncated set despite the hastily extended curfew. But it all proved worth the wait, and they blew everyone away, sounding like a cross between The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and early Queen. Few people in the prog world have such a magnetic stage presence as frontman and keyboard player Damon Fox. He completely dominates the stage, playing a Hammond B3 with one hand and a Mellotron with the other while singing lead at the same time. With a setlist drawn heavily from “Cheat the Gallows” and “Into the Maelstrom” they bought the festival to a spectacular if somewhat belated close.

Resonance was an entertaining festival, and the variety of acts covered almost all corners of progressive rock’s increasingly large tent. The only failing was that the whole thing was probably a little over-ambitious with three stages and far too many bands to be able to see everyone. One thing that amused me was the way the bar kept running out of real ale; did nobody tell them what prog fans drink?

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