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The Heather Findlay Band – Bilston Robin 2

Heather Findlay at Bilston Robin 2

Although she’s played the odd acoustic gig and made guest appearances with other artists, Heather Findlay’s short run of gigs promoting the excellent album “The Illusion’s Reckoning” is her first tour fronting a full band for three and a half years. So naturally there was a fair bit of excited anticipation, and the Sunday night show at Bilston Robin 2 at the mid-point of the tour drew a sizeable and appreciative crowd.

The evening began with a short but sweet solo set from harpist and singer Sarah Dean, including her spaghetti western interpretation of Dylan’s “Man in a Long Black Coat”, and ending with the stunning a capella “The Traveller’s Prayer”.

The special guests were Halo Blind, led by Chris Johnson. They’re a band with feet in both the progressive and indie-rock camps; the shimmering soundscapes, fragile melodies and spiralling psychedelic guitars having echoes of Radiohead and Anathema. The entire set came from their excellent second album “Occupying Forces”, a record Chris Johnson describe as being about being pissed off but trying to do something about it. The whole set was impressive, with the evocative “Downpour” a particular highlight.

Heather Findlay’s previous solo tours featured a slimmed-down all-guitar band, but “The Illusion’s Reckoning” needed an expanded band to do its layers and harmonies justice. So the core of rhythm section of Alex Cromarty and Stuart Fletcher and multi-instrumentalist Chris Johnson, all of whom were doing double duty with Halo Blind, were joined by Mostly Autumn’s Angela Gordon on keys, flute and backing vocals. Sarah Dean on vocals, harp and recorder, and progressive rock legend John Mitchell on lead guitar.

The set began with “The Illusion’s Reckoning” played in its entirety, and the new songs came over very powerfully live. “Veil of Ghosts” and “Mountain Spring” built from gentle beginnings into big walls of sound, “In a Dream” and “I’ve Seen Your Star” were dreamy and atmospheric, the Fleetwood Mac-like “Learning to be Light” featured some excellent lead playing from Chris Johnson, and the title track made an epic conclusion to the first half of the show.

It all had a very different feel to previous incarnations of The Heather Findlay band; with the keys and woodwinds there was something of the spirit of Mostly Autumn past about it, although the vibe was quite different from the current incarnation of that band. John Mitchell proved himself the ideal choice as lead guitarist from the way he nailed the solo in the opening number “Island” which Dave Kilminster had played on the record. And Alex Cromarty proved himself a man of many talents by taking the lead vocals on a couple of duets, and even playing harmonium at the front of the stage on “I’ve Seen Your Star”.

John Mitchell

The closing part of the set comprised a selection of well-chosen older songs, beginning with a superb “Carpe Diem” with Angela Gordon playing the intro on flute and that spectacular climax with Heather’s wordless vocal intertwining with John Michell’s guitar line. There was a splendidly rocked-up version of Odin Dragonfly’s “Magpie”, and a stunning “Why Do We Stay”, a duet taken from John Mitchell’s Lonely Robot. Perhaps the only moment that didn’t quite work was a rather flat version of “Mona Lisa” which didn’t take off and soar in the way the newer songs in the first half had done. The night ended with a spellbinding “Shrinking Violet”, with a musical box playing “Swan Lake” at the close. No encore, because anything following that would have been an anticlimax.

Heather Findlay has been away for a long time, but this tour represents a triumphant return. The bulk of the set was new material, with just a handful of standards from her days in Mostly Autumn. For those oldies this band kept far closer to the originals rather than the radical reworkings on earlier tours, but they were really a victory lap on a tour that looked forward rather than back.

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Record Store Day

Today is Record Store Day. You could of course spend the day buying the albums you loved on vinyl but never owned on CD, or fill in the gaps in the 70s Jethro Tull back catalogue. Or even waste your money on cynical cash-in box sets.

Or instead you could buy some exciting new music released in 2014. At least some of these albums have been seen on the shelves of my local HMV.

  • Panic Room, Incarnate – A little more stripped-back, intimate and confessional than the wide-screen rock of its predecessor, their fourth album is a beautiful work which may take a few listens to fully appreciate its subtleties.
  • Gazpatcho, Demon – Dark and sinister folk-prog from Norway. At times it sounds like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis fronting The Decemberists, at times there are strong echoes of Marillion. This is another of those records that will reward after many listens.
  • Matt Stevens, Lucid – An ambitious and varied instrumental album that defies easy pigeonholing. The London-based guitarist has been one of the more interesting, innovative and genre-busting artists in the contemporary progressive scene for a while now, and this album sees him raise his game to a new level.
  • Halo Blind, Occupying Forces – Combines indie-rock guitars with progressive rock atmospherics. Shimmering summery pop numbers with a hint of darkness and melancholy flow into one another to build into something more than the sum of the parts.
  • Bigelf, Into the Maelstrom – Imagine the melodic ear of The Beatles, the sense of doom of Black Sabbath, the theatricality of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the musical ambition of King Crimson, and the lack of restraint of early Queen. That’s what this album sounds like.
  • Morpheus Rising, Exmimus Humanus – Classic old-school twin-guitar hard rock given a modern makeover.
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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

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