Tag Archives: Chris Johnson

Halo Blind – Occupying Forces

Halo Blind Occupying Forces sm“Occupying Forces” is the second album from the progressive rock project led by singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Chris Johnson. It follows on from “The Fabric”, released under the band name “Parade” before a heavily promoted girl band with the same name forced a name change. That girl band rapidly crashed and burned after their album flopped, but that’s another story. Still, “Halo Blind” is a far better name.

It’s also a rather different band from the lineup that recorded “The Fabric”, although four out of the five from Halo Blind’s last live appearances in 2011 are still on board, Gavin Griffiths on drums, Stu Fletcher on bass, Stuart Farell on lead guitar and of course Chris himself, with new recruit, multi-instrumentalist Andy Knights, completing the band.

It’s got a similar combination of indie-rock guitars and progressive rock atmospherics. But while “The Fabric” was by Chris’ own admission a collection of songs originally written with different projects in mind, in contrast “Occupying Forces” has a far more coherent feel as an album.

One highlight is the sequence of songs on the first half of the album “Mirage”, “Saturate”, “Torrential” and “Downpour”, shimmering summery pop numbers with a hint of darkness and melancholy that flow into one another to build into something more than the sum of the parts. The whole thing shows Chris Johnson’s ear for memorable but unconventional melodies, and some great use of atmospheric instrumental passages in place of conventional solos. The final song of that sequence in particular is a thing of breathtaking beauty.

After the short jazz instrumental “The End of the First Side” featuring Jonny Enright’s trombone, the second half gets more eclectic. “Brain Dog” combines dance thythms with some Tom Morello-style guitars. It continues with the stripped down balled “The Puppet” with just piano and Jennifer Chubb’s cello, the burbling electronica of “Analogue”, and ending with the soaring ballads “Coma” and “Control”.

The way this record combines elements of progressive rock and indie-rock ought to appeal a broad audience. There are echoes of Anathema, Pineapple Thief, mid-period Radiohead and late-period Marillion. It’s not too dense or twiddly to frighten off indie fans, but it’s still got enough depth for all but the most narrow-minded of prog fans.

It’s been a long wait for this album; “The Fabric” came out as long ago as 2009. But an album of this quality is well worth the wait.

You can buy the album from haloblind.com

Posted in Record Reviews | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Halo Blind announce new album

Halo Blind Occupying Forces smHalo Blind, Chris Johnson’s interestingly quirky prog/indie crossover project, have emerged from an extended hiatus with the announcement of a new album entitled Occupying Forces, a follow-up to their début album “The Fabric”.

In their own words:

With Occupying Forces Halo Blind build layer upon layer of textured guitar-driven soundworlds to forge condensed epics that are truly mesmerising. The songs are imbued with a true emotional depth and range, from introspection and angst, to excitement, anger and venting socio-political frustration. Whether through the direct, fearless songwriting, or the nuanced, inventive musicianship, Halo Blind explore creeping paranoia, soul-searching spirituality and everything in between.

With tripwire lead guitars, twisting bass lines and innovative beat work, there’s a lot going on both above and below the surface in their music. Powerful and complex, yet completely accessible, Halo Blind make cerebral music that rocks.

The band have another new lineup, and now consists of Chris Johnson, Gavin Griffiths, Stu Fletcher, Andy Knights and Chris Farrell.

Posted in Music News | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Heather Findlay and Chris Johnson – Live at the Café 68

Heather Findlay & Chris Johnson - Live at the Cafe 68“Live at the Café 68″ is York singer-songwriter Heather Findlay’s second release since leaving as lead singer of Mostly Autumn in 2010. Recorded before an intimate audience of just thirty people, it’s a stripped-down acoustic album featuring fellow singer-songwriter Chris Johnson on guitar and vocals.

It’s explicitly billed as a duo rather than a Heather Findlay solo project, and includes as many Chris Johnson-penned songs as it does Heather’s, drawn both from Chris’ time in Mostly Autumn and from a couple of his myriad other projects.

The album captures the atmosphere of the evening with a lot of between songs banter and the audience very prominent in the mix. If anything, the audience is perhaps a little too prominent, in that it reminds those of us who weren’t able to be there what we missed.

Opener “Phoenix” is the sole song taken from Heather’s début solo EP, with Heather singing the instrumental parts in the intro. It works so well in simplified acoustic form it feels as if that was the way the song was originally intended to be performed.

Without the power and energy of a full band, there’s nowhere for anyone to hide, and the whole thing stands on the quality of the songs and the performance. Heather has always been a class act as a vocalist, hitting that sweet spot balancing precision with emotional depth, whether it’s fronting the full-blown wall of sound of Mostly Autumn, or the more mellow and delicate acoustic vibes of Odin Dragonfly. The feel here is much closer to the latter. Chris Johnson also deserves a lot of credit for his guitar playing, adding far more richness and depth than you often get from a single acoustic guitar. It’s also interesting hearing Heather using wordless vocals to replace instrumental parts, such as the original clarinet line on “Blue Light”.

Apart from a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Dear Someone”, which is perhaps the weakest song on the entire album, the rest of the set is made up of reworkings of older songs from Heather’s and Chris’ respective songbooks. There are a couple of Mostly Autumn standards in “Caught in a Fold” and “Evergreen”, the latter working especially well acoustically. “Gaze”, a song originally hidden away on the bonus disk of Mostly Autumn’s “Heart Full of Sky” is sublime, as is the Odin Dragonfly number “Magpie”. The latter is a great example of Chris’ subtle but effective guitar playing, effortlessly combining the flute and guitar lines of the original into a single guitar part.

Although the focus is on Heather’s vocals with Chris Johnson adding harmonies, he does get to sing lead on a couple of songs, one being the jaunty “Out of Season”, originally by his band The Evernauts. The other, the dark and intense take on “The Dogs” from Chris’s project Halo Blind (née Parade) is one of the highlights, performed as a duet with Heather taking the lines originally sung by Anne-Marie Helder on the record, and ending with a few bars of Heather’s own “Red Dust”.

The Mostly Autumn number “Silver Glass” closes the album. The original version from “Heart Full of Sky” had been a piano-led number with Chris Johnson singing lead. Transposed from piano to guitar, and with Heather taking on the lead vocal, it turns into a spine-tingling performance that makes you wonder why Heather never sung lead on the original. Not that there’s anything wrong with Chris’ original vocal, but hearing Heather sing it lifts the song to another level.

Although I was unable to be there for the recording, people I’ve spoken to tell me it was a quite remarkable experience, and his record manages to capture a lot of that magic. There’s certainly something of the chill-out vibe of Odin Dragonfly’s “Offerings” on display here, and I think it’s fair to say that if you liked that album, you’ll probably like this. But there’s also a far greater emphasis here on Heather’s and Chris’ talents as songwriters, both with keen ears for very strong and memorable melodies.

“Live at the Café 68″ will be available for order from www.heatherfindlay.net from November 14th

Posted in Music, Record Reviews | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Touchstone / Heather Findlay, Bilston Robin 2

I love Bilston Robin 2 as a venue. With great sound, and some seriously professional promotion that means just about everyone who plays there draws a bigger crowd than anywhere else they play, it doesn’t have a reputation as one of Britain’s best rock clubs for nothing. The length of the queue just before the doors opened showed that yet again they’d pulled in the crowds even on a Sunday night.

Though Heather Findlay & Chris Johnson were “only” the support, with an hour-long slot the gig had feel of a something approaching a double headliner. There was certainly a buzz of anticipation before she came on stage, with an awful lot of familiar faces in the front row. Just as at The Borderline two days earlier, Heather had the audience’s rapt attention from the very beginning, and you could have heard a pin drop throughout the performance.

Apart from a few numbers from The Phoenix Suite, much of the set came from the Mostly Autumn and Odin Dragonfly back catalogue, including several Chris Johnson-penned songs. “Gaze” was lovely, and “Magpie” worked well too, with Chris somehow managing to play both the guitar and flute lines on his acoustic. The songs from The Phoenix Suite came over well in acoustic form, so much so that I’ve wondered if that was how they were originally meant to be performed. “The Dogs” from Halo Blind’s album “The Fabric” was an interesting choice; with a reworked ending incorporating a few bars of Heather’s “Red Dust”. But perhaps the highlight was a sublime Silver Glass, transposed from piano to guitar, with Heather singing lead, a performance which left me wondering why she didn’t sing lead on the original studio version.

Even without the power of a full band behind her, Heather came over as a class act; a superb vocalist and charismatic performer, and there’s more than a little of the vibe of her earlier acoustic side-project Odin Dragonfly about these shows. Chris Johnson, while never a flashy lead guitarist, deserves a lot of credit for the richness of sound he gets out of that battered acoustic guitar.

Having Heather touring with Touchstone seems to work well for both bands. Heather’s own fans certainly helped swell the crowds, and she went down well with Touchstone’s audience, such that the merch stand ran out of copies of both “The Phoenix Suite” and Odin Dragonfly’s “Offerings”. Indeed, the latter is now completely sold out and is to be remastered and reprinted. I think this success of this tour shows that she was wise not to follow the advice of those who claimed that supporting a band labelled as “prog” would damage her career because of the alleged stigma associated with the genre.

Touchstone themselves proceeded to awe the crowd with 90 minutes of full-on prog-rock. They’ve come an awful long way since I first saw them support The Reasoning way back in 2007 at the now-defunct Crewe Limelight. I’ve previously described them as prog-rock with the emphasis very much on rock, and rock they did. Their set was tight and full of energy, driven by the sort of enthusiasm of a band who are clearly enjoying every minute on stage.

On this tour they took the brave move of playing a set drawing very heavily from their latest album “The City Sleeps”, released just days earlier, which meant that something like two thirds of the show was brand new material. Much of the new music is epic and symphonic, huge wall-of-sound stuff with soaring melodies, although there are still plenty of places where they rock out. Moo Bass and Henry Rogers have always been one of the best rhythm sections in the scene, Adam Hodgson was on particularly fine form with some spectacular shredding guitar, and Rob Cottingham added swathes of colour on keys. As always, Kim Seviour makes an enthusiastic frontwoman with a tremendous stage presence. But it’s the undoubted chemistry of the five of them together on stage which makes them such a great live band.

On the strength of performances like that, with a record deal in their pocket, and an album that’s made the UK Rock chart to their name, Touchstone seem poised for a major breakthrough. And I’m sure that will be a good thing for all other bands in the “scene”.

Posted in Live Reviews, Music | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Halo Blind/Heather Findlay, Kennedy’s Basement York, 8th June 2011

A round trip of well over four hundred miles seems a long way go for a midweek gig that’s a fiver on the door, but when it’s Halo Blind supported by Heather Findlay, it’s worth making the journey. The headliners were playing a low-key warm-up for their appearance two days later at the prestigious Isle of Wight Festival, and the late addition of Heather to the bill gave fans an added incentive to turn out.

Halo Blind, put together by Chris Johnson, were originally called Parade. They had to change their name to avoid confusion with the reportedly awful but much-hyped girl band who stole their name. As Parade they’ve always been a great live band. And as for Heather, after more than a year since that emotional night in Leamington, it’s been far too long since I last saw her perform. It’s not the first time she’s played live since leaving Mostly Autumn, but it was the first of her low-key acoustic gigs I’ve been able to get to.

The basement bar at Kennedy’s was tiny; the capacity can’t have been much more than a hundred or so. It was one of those gigs where I recognised probably three-quarters of the audience by sight, if not by name. I’ve always loved this sort of gig.

It was great to see Heather back on stage again. Even though this was “only” an acoustic gig, she’s lost none of that magic, and was on fine form vocally. Without the backing of a full band there’s nowhere to hide, and the whole thing depends on the strength of the vocalist and the quality of the songs. Not that there were really any doubts in this case.

Her set was a mix of new material from her debut EP “The Phoenix Suite” and a few older Mostly Autumn and Odin Dragonfly songs. The songs from The Phoenix Suite came over very well live, and didn’t seem to lose anything when pared down to acoustic duo format. If anything, they came over more strongly, and  I was more aware of the absence of the flute in the Odin Dragonfly songs than the lack of an electric rhythm section in the new songs. Some of this was down to Chris Johnson’s talent as a rhythm guitarist; even on a battered acoustic his playing has a lot of power, particularly evident on songs like “Red Dust”.

Interestingly both Mostly Autumn songs were Chris Johnson compositions from “Heart Full of Sky” rather than Heather’s own. “Gaze”, a song I’d never heard performed live before, was beautiful, and I loved the way Heather sang the clarinet line on “Blue Light”.

Headliners Halo Blind are difficult to categorise musically; Chris Johnson has played in indie, prog and even country & western bands over the years, and elements of all of these have found their way to the band’s music. Tonight was their first gig under the new name, as well as marking the debut of their new bassist, ex-Seahorse Stuart Fletcher.

Their set was a run-through of the setlist for the festival, drawn entirely from “The Fabric“. Short but sweet, and they simply rocked. The technical problems when the keyboard went wibbly couldn’t take the edge off things. Stuart Fletcher and the powerhouse drumming of Gavin Griffiths make for an impressive rhythm section, Chris Farrell plays some ferocious lead guitar, and Chris Johnson and Anne-Marie Helder’s voices combine to produce some sublime harmonies. At the time of writing this I haven’t heard how well they went down at the Isle of Wight Festival, but on the strength of a performance like this, they deserved to go down a storm.

Only complaint about the whole evening that it was all over too quickly – I’d have loved both bands to have played all night.

Posted in Live Reviews, Music | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments