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Desert Island Disks

The long-running BBC radio series “Desert Island Disks” asks the guest celebrity of the week to choose eight of their favourite records. The premise is that if you were marooned on a desert island, and you had just eight records to listen to, what would they be?

I’m treating “records” as albums, and for this exercise, I’ve imposed a rule of no compilations, and no live albums. So with no further ado…

pink-floyd-meddlePink Floyd – Meddle

The first album I ever bought was Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. But although that album means a lot to me, there’s only room in this list for one dark angst-ridden concept album, and that’s coming up further down. And though “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here” are undisputed classics. they’re so overexposed that they’ve just been worn smooth. If I’m in the mood for some Pink Floyd nowadays it’s most often either “Meddle” or “Animals” that gets played. If forced to choose, we’ll go for Meddle. It’s worth it for the extended dreamy atmospherics of “Echoes” alone, but there’s more to the album that that.

blue-oyster-cult-secret-treatiesBlue Öyster Cult – Secret Treaties

Blue Öyster Cult have been one of my top bands ever since a college friend played me the live version of “Astronomy” from Some Enchanted Evening when that live disk was still almost a current album. But since live albums are against my self-imposed rules, so we’ll go for their classic third album. Fan consensus is their Secret Treaties is their best, and fan consensus isn’t wrong. It’s the final album of the so-called “Black and White trilogy” combining richly layered music with a raw garage-like sound, with high weirdness lyrics hinting at the magical origins of World War Two. Blue Öyster Cult were always far more that just a metal band, and this album is proof of that.

Rainbow RisingRainbow – Rising

Hearing “Eyes of the World” on Nicky Horne’s show on Capital Radio radio changed my life. Ever since then Ritchie Blackmore’s music has been part of the soundtrack of my life, either with Deep Purple or with Rainbow. He was at the peak of his powers when he made this record along with the greatest hard rock singer of all time in the shape of the late Ronnie James Dio, and a sheer force of nature in Cozy Powell on drums. With just six tracks and a running time of less that forty minutes it’s all-killer-no-filler, with the monumental “Stargazer” as the centrepiece of the record.

220px-MarillionBraveMarillion – Brave

The three previous bands had been long-established by the time their music first appeared on my radar, but with Marillion I was there from the start. Not quite to the extent that I was seeing them play to thirty people in pubs before they were signed, but I did see them at the 1982 Reading Festival and bought their first album of the day of release. Since then they have released many great albums both with Fish and later with Steve Hogarth, but the favourite has to be their dark and intense 1994 concept album. As the sleeve notes say, play it loud with the lights out.

mostly-autumn-the-last-bright-lightMostly Autumn – The Last Bright Light

Anyone who knows me knows that Mostly Autumn are one of my favourite bands. I’ve seen them something like a hundred times live now. Which doesn’t make it easy to choose just one album, especially when their music has evolved of the years along with changes in the make-up of the band. But if forced to choose just one, it will be their third, the high point of their celtic-folk-prog era on Cyclops records. It’s now sadly out of print, though many of the best songs appear on the retrospective compilation “Pass the Clock”.

porcupine-tree-in-absentiaPorcupine Tree – In Absentia

It’s not easy to choose one Porcupine Tree record. Sometimes it seems as if their best album is whichever one I’ve just listened to. But if forced to keep just one, it would be have to be this album, because it’s sheer variety covers many of the bases of their sound. In just the first three numbers it goes from the Zepellinesque riffery of “Blackest Eyes”, the song-focused pop-rock of “Trains” and the psychedelic atmospherics of “Lips of Ashes”.

opeth-waershedOpeth – Watershed

Perhaps more than any other band, Opeth have redefined what a metal or progressive rock band can be, with deep roots in the classic rock of the 1970s on one hand and a contemporary attitude and desire to avoid repeating their own past on the other. Few other bands can match their sense of dynamics and compositional skills. All their albums are good, but Watershed is the best, seamlessly combining intense heaviness with mellow atmospherics, often in the same song, and would be the last time Mikael Åkerfeldt would use his death-metal growling vocals on record.

Panic Room - SKINPanic Room – S K I N

Along with Mostly Autumn, Panic Room are my other favourite club-level band, and I’ve seen them live almost as many times. Indeed, the two bands were joined at the hip at one point with Anne-Marie Helder and Gavin Griffiths doing double duty in both. All their albums have their fans; there are even people who think the first was the best, but for me the favourite has to be their third, which goes from hard rock to jazz-tinged adult pop to epic soaring ballads while still adding up to a coherent work. It may well be that their best is yet to come, but for now this album is their masterpiece.

Over to you. What eight records could you not live without?

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Mostly Autumn – Leamington Assembly

Last December’s Mostly Autumn mini-convention in Leamington Spa was such a success that the band decided to do it again. Like last year the show was billed to feature some special one-off performances, and again included violinist Anna Phoebe both guesting with the band and playing a set of her own material. With doors at 3pm and a curfew at 10, it promised to be a long day with a lot of music.

Things started with what had been billed as a Mostly Autumn acoustic set, but with Bryan playing Stratocaster from the very beginning it was to be more semi- than completely unplugged, opening with a slowed-down piano-driven arrangement of “Never The Rainbow”. Much of the set was solo spots for individual band members, with no fewer than five of the band taking turns at singing lead; Alex Cromarty reprised his superhero song, Chris Johnson sang “Gaze”, and Angela Gordon sang both her own “Given Time” accompanied by Chris and Bryan, and her cover Christy’s Moore’s “Ride On” fronting the entire band. They ended with full electric versions of two standards that haven’t featured in this year’s touring setlist, “The Last Climb” and “Evergreen”.

Next up was Papillon, the duo of Anna Phoebe on violin and Nicholas Rizzi on acoustic guitar. Playing as a stripped back duo made for a different experience to Anna Phoebe’s full band, less rock and jazz, more classical with a hint of folk. As expected, Anna Phoebe’s sometimes fiery virtuosity was the focus with Nicholas Rizzi, himself an accomplished player acting as a foil. What was notable was the way something which was a long way from rock had a rock audience completely enthralled; you could have heard a pin drop during the set. This year there was time for a decent-length set, ending with a folk number that strongly recalled the early days of Mostly Autumn when Bob Faulds with with the band.

Last year Mostly Autumn played a set of Pink Floyd covers, which was a little controversial when announced, but silenced the doubters in the end. Rather than repeat the same thing a second time they decided to play a set of covers by different artists that had inspired the band. And what an eclectic set it turned out to be. They started out with the Floyd standard, “Us and Them” following with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” with Olivia singing lead, which some might remember from the Josh and Co gigs from many years ago. Then things took off in unexpected directions; Angela Gordon singing an emotive “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”, with Anna Phoebe on violin, Chris Johnson singing Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” and Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”, and Olivia singing Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself”. Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” with Chris Backhouse guesting on sax was more predictable, and they ended as they began with a couple of obvious Floyd standards, “The Great Gig In The Sky” and “Comfortably Numb”.

After a short interval they were back with this year’s usual set opener, the folky instrumental “Out of the Inn”, then the Blackmore-like lead runs of “In for the Bite”. With the length of time they’d already been on stage we could have expected a shorter festival length set, but no, they proceeded to play the full two hours plus touring set from the early part of the year, played without a further break. Less frequently played classics like “Silver Glass”, “Wild Eyed Skies” and the epic “Mother Nature” sat alongside regular standards like “Spirit of Autumn Past”, “Passengers”, “Deep in Borrowdale” and “Questioning Eyes”. Even though it didn’t quite have the fire and intensity of the best headline shows earlier in the year, probably because of the sheer length of time they’d been on stage, it was still a hugely enjoyable set, and a reminder of just how good a songbook Mostly Autumn have built up over the years.

Anna Phoebe again joined the band for the first encore, the welcome if predictable “The Night Sky”, after which Bryan told us they’d run out of time and they could only do one more, which of course was “Heroes Never Die”. It was seven hours since the doors opened.

It all made for a great day, and like the Panic Room weekend earlier in the year was an event that amounted to far more than just another regular gig. The acoustic and covers sets were a reminder that there’s a lot of musical talent in the current incarnation on the band beyond the two front-people; in particular hearing Angela Gordon singing lead was a revelation. Let’s hope there’s another similar event in future years.

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Marillion – 10 of the best

marillion

I’ve got another Ten of the Best features in The Guardian, this time for Marillion.

Attempting to condense thirty-five years and sixteen album’s worth of music into just ten songs is next to impossible, and the the list went through a lot of permutations before settling on the final ten.

As people ought to have realised by now, I always avoid the Big Hit that everbody knows, because what’s the point? There are so many other riches in the back catalogue. There’s nothing from their biggest-selling album, “Misplaced Childhood”, which is an obvious omission, but so much of it only works in the context of the whole album. “Bitter Suite”, a candidate on the initial longlist didn’t make the cut because it doesn’t work as a standalone song, ending abruptly when it seques into “Heart of Lothian”.

It was also a decision right from the beginning for the split between Fish -era and H-era songs to reflect the number of albums, which was always going to mean Fish-era songs would be in the minority. Some people will not like that.

And, just as predicted, the very first comment mentions Grendel…

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Duski

duski-cover-artDuski are a band from Cardiff playing music on the blurred boundary between contemporary jazz and the experimental fringe of progressive rock. Led by bassist Aiden Thorne, they’re a five piece featuring sax, guitar and electric piano who have been making an impression on the jazz scene in South Wales over the past couple of years.

Their self-titled début begins with and eerie discordant soundscapes before it morphs into “Spare Part” which gradually builds from a laid-back beginning through an extended solo from the band’s guitarist. The uptempo “Simple Song” is more rhythmic and melodic, with sax bought to the fore. Interlude sees the avant-garde noise make a brief return, leading into the mellow “Lakeside”, built up from a chordal bass figure, with haunting sax lead underlaid by guitar textures.

By the languid “Two Hours Long” with it’s serpentine sax solo, we’re into the late-night chill-out zone. Then “Another Simple Song” takes things in the opposite direction. It opens with a shimmering guitar figure before building into an jazz-rocker in a similar vein to its earlier namesake, with an incessant bass groove from Aiden Thorne himself, and an impressive jazz-fusion piano workout at one point. The brief “Outtro” ends the album as it begins, with avant-noise, playing out with the whole band on one single sustained abrasive chord.

If the band’s intention is to blend jazz with elements of progressive rock and ambient soundscapes, they have largely succeeded in their aim with this record. Much of the music is still recognisably jazz, especially when the saxophone is dominant. But there’s also much in the melodies and textures for a more adventurous rock fan to appreciate. It’s a very varied record, sometimes very mellow, sometimes times rocking out. Though there is still plenty of soloing, the emphasis is always on composition rather than numbers being vehicles for the solos. An impressive début.

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The Windmill – The Continuation

the-windmill-the-continuationNorwegian symphonic proggers The Wimdmill made quite an impression as the opening act of the final day of the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival. The six piece featuring flute and sax alongside twin guitars and vintage keyboard noises went down well enough to be invited back again in 2016, where they again went down a storm.

To date, the band have recorded two albums, the second of which, “The Continuation” became part of the festival merch desk haul following their 2014 appearance. It’s an album that’s received regular plays ever since.

The short instrumental title track sets the mood, a melodic number with the main theme alternating between flute and lead guitar. The lengthy “The Masque” is a song of two parts, a pastoral opening section then an extended instrumental workout in which every member bar the rhythm section takes multiple solos. After an opening in a similar vein to the title track, “Not Alone” builds into a big soaring ballad. The cod-reggae of “Giant Prize is perhaps the only dud, but at just over three minutes it’s mercifully short. Then we’re into the grand finale of “The Gamer”, a sometimes completely bonkers 24 minute epic which mercilessly takes the piss out of obsessive video game players who never go outside.

This is old-school retro-prog with little concession to contemporary sounds, going from flute-led pastoral passages to occasional irruptions of big band jazz. What they do have is a strong sense of melody, which if anything is most prominent in some of the flute and guitar lines rather than the vocals. This a band who are not shy about embracing the odd cliché; we’ve even got a minimoog solo consisting of minor-key arpeggios in 9/8 time at one point. But they’re also a band who do it well enough to be able to get away with it. There is something about them that rises above generic Euro-prog.

Both albums are listed on sale on the band’s website, though it doesn’t look as if it’s been updated recently, though their facebook page is still active. The band are currently working on a third album.

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Mostly Autumn announce new album

sight-of-dayMostly Autumn announce their forthcoming album, to be titled “Sight of Day”, with a planned shipping date of January 2017 and a general retail release for February.

Like every album since 2007, it will again be crowdfunded, using pre-orders to fund the recording, and they’re taking orders right now from Mostly Autumn Records

As has been the case with most of their other recent albums, the pre-order edition will be a limited edition double album with additional songs that won’t be on the single-disk retail edition. And it’s usually a good bet that some of the songs on the bonus disk will be every bit as good as anything on retaul edition. And it’s limited to 2000 copies, so get your order in now!

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Unearthed Elf – Into the Catacomb Abyss

unearthed-elf-into-the-catacomb-abyssYou are in a 20′ by 20′ room.

You see a metal band. They are singing about finding a vial of holy water in an ancient, cobweb-laden mausoleum.

What do you do?

Visigoth had one song called “The Dungeon Master”. Scottish power-metal heroes Gloryhammer released a concept album about an evil wizard and his army of undead unicorns. Bryan Josh of Mostly Autumn made a solo album with a narrative that included an end-of-level monster. But with song titles like “Vial of Holy Water Found in an Ancient, Cobweb-Laden Mausoleum”, “Lighting the Mummy on Fire” and “Lair of the Beholder” has anyone released an album which sounds like an entire dungeon set to music?

Unearthed Elf is actually a solo project from Keith D of progressive doom metallers Arctic Sleep, largely written while he was incapacitated with a knee injury. As well as all the vocals and guitars, he plays all instruments, including the drums. As a concept album about the aforementioned Elf, the imagery in the lyrics and song titles would be little more than a gimmick if the music wasn’t up to scratch, but this is also a record with plenty to say musically.

It kicks off with the monstrous old-school metal riff of the title track, the densely layered, almost symphonic “Never See The Sun Again” and the atmospheric progressive-tinged “Eternal Night”, and those first three numbers set the tone for the record. What we have is a skilful mix of the textures of melodic death metal and old-school classic metal, with a dash of modern progressive rock adding sonic variety. The record eschews death-growls in favour of clean vocals throughout, with a couple of moments of Gregorian chant thrown in for good measure. There’s more than a hint of Mikael Akerfeldt about Keith D’s vocals, and the resulting sound has echoes of Opeth, Paradise Lost and Amorphis. It’s got a huge sound with multiple layers of guitars and vocals, and it manages to sound epic without being overblown.

Far more that just the soundtrack to a dungeon crawl, “Into the Catacomb Abyss” is an ambitious and impressive metal album. The album is released on October 31st, Halloween night.

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Arriva’s Cross-Country Franchise Extended

The franchise extension promises better journeys for passengers on the cross country network.

Rail passengers across Britain are set to benefit from quicker journeys, thousands of extra seats and free Wi-Fi, after the government agreed a new deal for services for the Cross Country franchise. Under the contract, which will deliver improved connections, a better customer experience and set tough new targets, Arriva Cross Country (AXC) will continue to run services which stretch from Aberdeen to Penzance, Bournemouth to Manchester and from Stansted to Cardiff until October 2019.

It’s not at all clear where these extra seats are going to come from. Cross Country will be adding two coaches (Yes, two whole coaches) to their fleet, taking on a pair of spare Voyager driving cars from Virgin Trains and reforming them with two five-car sets to make three four-car sets. There is no suggestion that Virgin Trains wiill be giving up any more of their Voyager sets even though many of them spend all the time working under the wires. Perhaps in the medium term they might take on some former Great Western HSTs once they become available, to add to Croxx-Country’s existing small HST fleet. But such 40 year old trains would only be a stopgap.

As someone who uses Cross Country a lot, with many trips between Reading and places like Wolverhampton, Manchester and York, their sevices suffer from severe overcrowding at busy times, especially at weekends. It’s common to find people standing not just in the vestibules but along the aisles as well making a claustrophobic experience even for passengers lucky enough to find a seat.

Add to that the fact that the Voyager fleet originally specified by Virgin Trains isn’t really suitable for long-distance travel. Though they make some very long runs, for example from Dundee to Penzance, they’re really a glorified commuter train, with cramped seating and inadequate luggage space. They were designed on the assumption that their journeys are really several regional routes joined together end-to-end, with most passengers making short hops of two or three stops rather than travelling the whole way.

What the North-East to South West really needs is new trains, preferably loco and coaches rather than DMUs. Would the 68+CAF Mk5s similar to the recent order for Trans Pennine be a solution?

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What is Criticism For?

Thiis comment left on Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog resonated very strongly with me

Being a good critic takes a lot of courage of a certain kind, I think. Perhaps this is why I don’t write a lot of reviews of more contemporary media. Especially for critics who fraternize with the writers they’re charged with reviewing (of course they same applies with video games or what have you), I think it can be difficult to write honest criticism and there is the temptation to inflate positives. Hell, these pressures are even present when you don’t personally know the creator. I’ve reviewed or wanted to review games I’ve played where it pained me to list negatives because I really liked or sympathized with the developers.

I’m reminded of that line in the film “Almost Famous”, when Lester Bangs tells the novice music journalist “These people are not your friends”.

When you’re on first name terms with some of the people you’re reviewing, there’s always the potential for conflicts of interest. No matter how much you try to be objective, once you know the people involved it does change the way you perceive their music.

When you’re writing enthusiastic positive reviews, they’ll always love you, but if you say something critical you can sometimes find out how professionally they handle it the hard way. Nowadays I’ve got a self-imposed rule that I’ll restrict strongly negative reviews to artists I don’t know personally and am unlikely to meet, and will decline to review albums or gigs by people I know if I think they’re sub-standard. I haven’t always followed that rule in the past, but the damage it can do to relationships just isn’t worth it.

The linked blog post raises wider questions, which it doesn’t really answer, over what criticism is supposed to be for. I’m a strong believer in critic-as-curator, someone who sifts through the dross and tells the world about the good stuff that might otherwise have flown beneath people’s radar.

There’s a place for criticism highlighting where artists can improve, but I’ve not got much time for critic-as-gatekeeper, or worse, critic-as-would-be-censor. The most obnoxious failure mode of rock criticism is the sneering dismissive review by someone with no love or understanding of what the artist is trying to do, that challenges their work’s right to exist. Too much mainstream music press coverage of progressive rock by people steeped in the thirty year old revisionist punk narrative falls into that trap.

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Panic Room – Ten of the Best

Panic Room at South Street, Reading

Regular readers of this blog (all four of you) will know I’ve written a few “Ten of the Best” features for The Guardian Music Blog. I’ve done entries in the series for Yes, Black Sabbath and Ritchie Blackmore, amongst others, and pitched quite a few more suggestions (And no, I’m not going to say who they’re of, in case the editor comes back and accepts more of those pitches).

These things are fun to write. They’re explicitly “Ten of the best”, rather than “The Ten Best” which leave scope to include the odd personal favourite or overlooked gem at the expense of one or two of the all-too-obvious standards that everyone ought to know anyway.

So how about a Ten of the Best for a band a little closer to home? I’ve chosen an obvious favourite of this blog, Panic Room. Even though they’ve only recorded four albums so far, just about the minimum body of work to qualify for this sort of feature, it’s still a hard choice. They have so many great songs.

So, with no further ado…

Apocalypstick

Panic Room’s début album “Visionary Position” was the sound of a collective of musicians who’d survived the implosion of another band casting around for a new musical direction. It contained an eclectic mix of styles from stripped-down singer-songwriter material to sprawling prog epics. One standout was “Apocalypstick”, with lyrics about Helen of Troy and swirling eastern motifs in the music, featuring spiralling electric violin from guest musician Liz Prendergast. Anne-Marie Helder sounds both seductive and scary at the same time on vocals, which fits the song title perfectly. This was the song, more than any other, that pointed the way forward for the band.

Picking Up Knives

Panic Room’s second album “Satellite” was a far more coherent statement of intent, marking the point where the band found their musical identity, and this song was one of many highlights. Anne-Marie’s lyric takes the perspective of a mother seeing her son getting caught up in knife culture and fearing the worst, with music driven by Alun Vaughan’s propulsive bass riff and Jon Edward’s evocative shimmering electric piano with more than a hint of Ray Manzarek about it.

Dark Star

Panic Room’s music has always contained elements of pop, jazz, folk and metal, and this song, opening with a monstrously sinister organ riff, and with Alun Vaughan channelling Geezer Bulter on bass, represents the band at their most metal. It’s a big, dense wall of sound of a song, and shows the power of Anne-Marie’s voice, in absolutely no danger of being swamped by the instrumentation.

I Am A Cat

The strangest, quirkiest song in the Panic Room songbook, and one that seems to divide opinion. The ode to the archetypal mad cat lady is both humorous and tragic at the same time. Even if not everyone appreciated it, if you’ve ever seen the band include this song in their set, it’s obvious just how much they enjoy playing it live. There is an actual cat credited for additional backing vocals.

Song for Tomorrow

If the band found their voice with “Satellite”, their third album “Skin” took things to the next level. The album’s dramatic opener is a kaleidoscopic journey through much of what makes Panic Room such a great band. It begins with atmospheric keyboard washes, and when played live saw Anne-Marie playing guitar with a violin bow. Then it explodes into spiralling prog-metal guitars, before the guitars drop out for Anne-Marie’s emotive verse. Every member of the band is firing on all cylinders here, including new bassist Yatim Halimi.

Chameleon

Chameleon represents the opposite face of Panic Room’s music, that of sophisticated jazz-tinged adult pop. It demonstrates their versatility as musicians, and it’s a form that suits Anne-Marie’s vocal style especially well. The short solo section at the end features some delightful jazz guitar from Paul Davies. When they play it live nowadays Anne-Marie also throws in a flute solo, though we’ll have to wait for their upcoming live album before we can hear that on record.

Promises

The album “Skin” included a string quartet on several numbers, and they used the strings not just for additional colour but as an extra instrument in the band. The result is powerful arrangement for a very emotive song. Although on record it’s a big cinematic number, but the song works just as well as a stripped-down solo acoustic song, as seen when Anne-Marie supported Steve Hackett a few years back.

Nocturnal

This list contains now fewer than four songs from “Skin”, and to be honest the album is so consistently strong that just about anything from the record could easily have been included. We’ll leave this album with the slow-burning epic ballad that closes the record, starting with Jon’s delicate piano intro and ending with Paul’s evocative slide guitar outtro.

Bitches Crystal

Panic Room have played quite a few covers over the years. In the early days of the band before they’d built up such an extensive songbook of their own material they’d encore with things like Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” or a groove-based arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”. But the only cover they’ve actually recorded was this ELP number, which appears on their “Altitude” EP. It’s one of the rare cases where a cover vastly surpasses the original, rebuilding the song from the ground up and making it their own, reinterpreting it in swamp-blues style.

Dust

Panic Room’s fourth album “Incarnate” saw a change in direction. With Paul Davies leaving the band and new guitarist Adam O’Sullivan coming from a jazz background, the band moved away from wall of sound rock approach of “Skin” in favour of a lighter singer-songwriter style. One highlight is the evocative closing number, quite unlike both the rest of the album and equally unlike anything the band had done before, based around a simple repeating motif that gradually builds in intensity over the song’s seven minutes, and carries on playing in your head even after the last piano notes have faded away.

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