Tag Archives: Therion

A Year in Live Music

My musical year has been defined more by live music than by albums, with something like 40 gigs this year. It’s almost impossible to chose the best of these, but here are a dozen of the most memorable, in chronological order.

Mostly Autumn at Leamington Assembly

This gig on Good Friday was Heather Findlay’s farewell performance with the band she’d fronted for twelve years, the whole thing superbly captured on the DVD “That Night In Leamington”. It was a very emotional night for those of us who were there, but also one of the best performances I’ve seen by the band to date; certainly a fitting close for an era of the band.

Breathing Space at Bilston Robin 2

Two days later, on Easter Sunday, Olivia Sparnenn played her last gig with her old band Breathing Space before leaving to replace Heather in Mostly Autumn. The Robin is always a great gig and this was no exception; Olivia certainly ended her time with the band on a high. The whole thing had a great vibe and I can remember how positive everyone was after the gig.

Protect the Beat at the Mumbles Jazz Festival

When a gig is billed as jazz-fusion played by top rock and pop session musicians, one could be excused for fearing the worst. But the energy and enthusiasm of the five musicians made this instrumental set one of the gigs of the year. The key factor was that it was abundantly clear that they were enjoying every minute on stage, and that enthusiasm was infectious. This is what live music is all about.

Transatlantic at Manchester Academy 1

The prog-rock supergroup proved every bit as enthusiastic about being on stage as had Protect The Beat a couple of weeks earlier. The three and a half hour set comprised just seven songs of grandiose swirling epic prog, including their 70-minute “The Whirlwind”. The word “progtastic” is the only way to describe an evening like this, even if the song to set length ratio is enough to give Guardian music journalists the vapours.

Mostly Autumn and Panic Room at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

Just a week after those two farewell gigs Mostly Autumn took to the stage with Olivia Sparnenn fronting the band. I saw them a number of times on that tour; the best of the lot was when they and Panic Room supported Wishbone Ash in London in mid-May. Panic Room played a short and sweet opening set, then Mostly Autumn went absolutely full-tilt for a special guest spot of just under an hour. The headline act just could not follow that; the consensus was that they ended up the third-best band of the night.

Fish at The Band on the Wall, Manchester

After taking the best part of a year out, the former Marillion frontman has been touring with a stripped-down acoustic show in small intimate venues backed by just Frank Usher on guitar and Foss Patterson on keys. Despite having suffered from throat problems in recent years, Fish proved that he’s very much still got it as a live performer both as a singer and a charismatic frontman. Most memorable moment was when he looked me in the eye when he mentioned an earlier gig in York, and didn’t make any mention of his ex.

High Voltage festival at Victoria Park, London

While this big commercial festival had it’s downsides of long queues to get in, overpriced beer, and a yawn-inducing Saturday headliner, the upsides were some superb bands, of whom Touchstone, The Reasoning, Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash, BigElf, Zappa Plays Zappa, Opeth and Transatlantic stood out. The whole thing ended with a gloriously ridiculous show by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which was probably the only way to end such a festival.

Cambridge Rock Festival

This small friendly festival was a complete contrast to the commercialism of High Voltage. No big name headliners, but the vibe of the festival was such that it didn’t really need it. The best day was undoubtedly the Sunday, headlined by Mostly Autumn (them again!) and also featured great sets from Panic Room and Breathing Space, the latter being the début for their new singer Heidi Widdop. But it was the special guests The Enid who stole the show with an utterly mesmerising set.

Therion at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

I went to this gig having heard a couple of their albums, not really knowing what to expect. Seeing a band whose lyricist apparently heads a magickal order on Halloween night makes you wonder if they would attempt to summon Great Cthulhu at some point in the show, but what we got was epic symphonic metal with elaborate but hugely melodic multi-part vocal arrangements from four classically-trained singers. An amazing gig, quite unlike anything else I’ve heard all year

Steve Hackett at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

The Godfather of prog guitar gave us one of the most prog gigs of the year, mixing material from his excellent recent album with 70s Genesis classics like “Watcher of the Skies” and “Firth of Fifth”. Nick Beggs (of Kajagoogoo fame) on bass and Chapman stick managed to make himself the centre of attention as a cross-dressing steampunk Gandalf, but it was Hackett’s distinctive liquid guitar playing that reminded us just how influential his guitar sound has been in the progressive rock world.

Mostly Autumn at The Fleece and Firkin, Bristol

I got to see Mostly Autumn several times on their Autumn tour, when they laid to rest many of their old standards to play a set drawing very heavily from their superb new album “Go Well Diamond Heart”. Of the shows I saw, their return to Bristol after an absence of several years was the best; good sound, spirited and enthusiastic performance, and a lengthy set ending with some Christmas standards. I do love their rockier take of Greg Lake’s “I believe in Father Christmas” in particular.

Panic Room and Touchstone at Bilston Robin 2

Some people don’t like the idea of double headliners where both bands play 70-80 minute sets instead of a full-length headline set, but this one pulled a vastly bigger crowd than I’ve ever seen either band draw on their own. And they got their money’s worth; both bands pulled out all the stops and gave as good a performance as I’ve ever seen them play. High spot, if there was any single one, was Anne-Marie Helder’s spine-tingling rendition of “O Holy Night”.

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Top Ten Albums of 2010

It’s that time of the year again. 2010 doesn’t seem to have been quite as strong a year as 2009, when I did a top 15 – this year I struggled to name ten. On the other hand, my top four are absolutely superb. A couple of 2010 releases are missing (most notably the excellent Satellite by Panic Room) because I included the pre-release editions in my 2009 list, and it doesn’t seem right to list them twice.

10: Tarja – What Lies Beneath

The second solo album from the former Nightwish lead singer has a massive production including orchestras and kitchen sinks as well as metal guitars, but never quite comes alive. There are some good songs in the mix of big rock numbers and power-ballads, but Tarja’s soprano vocals, while technically superb throughout, lack emotion too much of the time.

9: Rhapsody of Fire – The Frozen Tears of Angels

More Dungeons and Dragons operatic pomp-metal from the Italian quintet, again featuring narration from Sir Christopher Lee and a corny plot featuring a Dark Lord called “Necron”. All good fun in a cheesy sort of way, even if it doesn’t really break any new ground for the band. Twenty-sided dice are not included.

8: New Dance Orchestra – Electronica

An unexpectedly good album from Geoff Downes (the instrumental half of The Buggles) with the superb Anne-Marie Helder on vocals. Billed as “dance-pop”, it’s more 80s pop than Ibiza-style dance anthems, a great collection of well-crafted songs. This one’s a pre-order, currently available direct from the band, but won’t have a retail release until the new year.

7: Anathema – We’re Here Because We’re Here

The former doom-metallers return after a lengthy absence and drop just about all traces of metal from their sound in favour of atmospheric soundscapes. It’s a musical journey that works far far better as one continuous listen than as a collection of individual songs.

6: The Reasoning – Adverse Camber

The Cardiff band’s third album continues in a similar prog-metal vein as 2008′s “Dark Angel”, albeit with Rachel Cohen handling the majority of the lead vocals. A solid piece of work with some great songs, even if it doesn’t (for me at least) quite reach the heights of their first two albums.

5: Pure Reason Revolution – Hammer and Anvil

PRR describe their third album as “Disco-prog”, meaning they’ve put electronic dance, prog and metal into a blender. At times atmospheric, at times sounding like The Prodigy at their most mental, it puts the progressive back into prog.

4: Therion – Sitra Ahra

Not quite as bonkers as their last album “Gothic Kabballah”, this one is the slightly more accessible side of Therion’s choral metal. It’s still filled with complex multi-part vocal arrangements using multiple classically-trained singers, which when combined with twin lead guitars makes for a very rich sound indeed.

3: Black Country Communion

The combination of Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham and Derek Sherinian is in danger of giving supergroups a good name with this album of classic 70s-style hard rock. Hughes, despite his age is on fine form vocally, Bonamassa shows he can do hard rock as well as blues, and Jason Bonham is in the same league as his famous father. Sherinian really only has a supporting role given that cast, but still delivers some great Hammond playing. The best album Led Zeppelin never recorded in the 70s? Maybe.

2: Karnataka – The Gathering Light

Five years in the making, the second incarnation of Karnataka finally deliver an album of old-school symphonic prog on a truly epic scale. Features heartfelt female vocals from the now-departed Lisa Fury and some fantastic guitar playing from Enrico Pinna, as well as guest appearances from Troy Donockley on Uilleann pipes, and Hugh McDowell, formerly of ELO, on cello.

1: Mostly Autumn – Go Well Diamond Heart

OK, so you all know I’m a huge fan of this band. But this is the first time since I’ve been blogging that they’ve come up with my album of the year. It’s an immensely varied album containing atmospheric celtic moments, belting hard rockers, shimmering four-minute pop songs, and soaring ballads. They’ve managed to take the spirit of 70s classic rock and made it sound relevant for the 21st century with great songwriting, singing and musicianship. And they’ve done it straight after the departure of a much-loved lead singer too.

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Therion, Shepherds Bush Empire, 31 October 2010

I blame my parents for this. Before I discovered rock’n'roll in my teens I was exposed to a lot of classical music, including many, many choral concerts at an age when I was probably too young to really appreciate them. Some of this must have rubbed off, because decades later I find myself listening to Scandinavian operatic metal bands while finding most mainstream indie music to shallow and tuneless to hold much interest.

So when Swedish symphonic metal band Therion came to Shepherd’s Bush Empire for a rare UK appearance. the chance to see them live on Halloween night was too good to miss. I’ve only heard a couple of their albums, the recent double album “Gothic Kaballah” and a superb earlier live album “Live in Midgard”. The albums are huge in scope, with multiple singers, choirs, and many guest musicians. I wondered how music of this complexity would translate live.

Before Therion there was not one but two supports. I always make a point of getting there in time to see the support; you never know when you’re going to see a great band you might otherwise never have heard of, and you can always retreat to the bar if they turn out to be rubbish. Tonight both supports were good. Openers Loch Vostok were an entertaining progressive-tinged metal band with a hairy frontman I could imagine crewing a Viking longship ready to loot and pillage some innocent Northumbrian village. Second support was Norway’s “Leprous”. With a name like that I expected grunty death metal – in fact the band, fronted by a dreadlocked keyboard player, were nothing of the sort, fairly melodic, a bit bonkers but great fun. Both bands are well worth checking out.

Having never seen Therion live before, I wasn’t at all sure what to expect. The show began with just four instrumentalists on stage, progressively joined by two male and two female vocalists, both opera-trained sopranos, until there were eight people on stage.

The music they played can only be described as epic, and hugely melodic. While they’re not touring with the full choir that sing on the most recent album, the combination of four powerful lead vocalists still made for a immensely rich sound, whether it was alternating leads or four-part harmonies. While the focus was on the elaborate vocal arrangements, with the twin guitars of Christofer Johnsson and Christian Vidal the metal side of things wasn’t neglected either. One guitar solo in particular was simply jaw-dropping. The only thing I didn’t like was their reliance on programmed keys; I’d much rather they’d employed a flesh-and-blood keyboard player alongside the guitars and vocals. Saying that, one of the female singers did play keys for a couple of songs. We also had vocalist Thomas Vikström playing flute on a couple of songs. I really wasn’t expecting to hear any flute at this gig.

I recognised relatively few of the songs they played, I’m guessing songs from the new album Sitra Ahra, which I’m yet to hear, featured very heavily. But it didn’t seem to matter. Their whole two-hour set was hugely enjoyable, and I can see this is going to be band I’ll be seeing again next time they come to these shores.

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Albums of the year 2007

Everyone else seems to be doing their annual ‘best of’ list, so it would be remiss of me if I didn’t do one as well. I’m not going to try and rank everything in order.

Album of the Year

  • Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet. It feels as if the whole of their 15 year career has been working up to this album. It combines metal influences of their recent work with the soaring atmospheric soundscapes of earlier albums to produce the most consistently good album they’ve ever recorded. Just six songs, the longest clocking in at 17 minutes, with not a weak moment among them.

Runners-up

  • Fish – 13th Star. A major return to form by an artist too many have written off as a has-been who can’t sing any more. This emotionally-charged album seems him singing in a lower register, half-spoken in places, that suits his present-day vocal range, backed by a hard-edged guitar-driven groove-orientated sound. His best album since at least “Sunsets on Empire”.
  • Odin Dragonfly – Offerings. Not a prog album, or even really a rock album, but an acoustic work with guitar, piano, flute and two voices. The result is a stunningly beautiful album that perfectly captures their live sound. Yes, they really do create those harmonies on stage with just two people.
  • The Reasoning – Awakening. Remarkable debut album marking the welcome return of Karnataka’s Rachel Jones. Best described as prog-tinged hard rock, with some remarkable harmonies from their three lead vocalists, and full of melodies that get permanently stuck in your head.

Strong Contenders

  • Breathing Space – Coming Up For Air. Effectively the debut for the lineup of the band that’s been playing live over the past year, it’s a well-crafted mix of 80s pop/rock numbers and the sort of sweeping rock ballads Iain Jennings used to write when he was with Mostly Autumn.
  • Dream Theater – Systematic Chaos. Complex, epic prog metal by the band that really defined the genre, and a rather more consistently strong album that their previous couple.
  • Joe Bonamassa – Sloe Gin. Part acoustic, and part guitar-shredding electric blues. The title track has to be one of my songs of the year.
  • Epica – The Divine Conspiracy. The European rock scene is awash with female-fronted symphonic metal bands, and this album is perhaps the best out of a whole bunch of good ones.
  • Therion – Gothic Kabbalah. Scandinavian choral death metal, totally bonkers but compellingly brilliant. Because a lot of the arrangements are a bit off-the-wall it does take repeated listenings to really get in to.
  • Apocalyptica – Worlds Collide. One of the most metal albums of the year, except it’s all played on cellos rather than guitars. 50/50 mix of manic instrumentals and songs featuring a variety of guest vocalists.
  • Rush – Snakes and Arrows. Return to form after the disappointing “Vapor Trails”. I find my enjoyment of any Rush album is directly proportional to how prominent Alex Lifeson is in the mix. He’s to the fore on this one.
  • Marillion – Somewhere Else. The album that’s really divided the fanbase. While this is no ‘Marbles’, it’s still a good album once you get into it, simpler songs with more straightforward arrangements rather than the multi-layered epic approach some might have expected.

And there were plenty of other great ones, making 2007 such a great year for music. And then there are a few albums people have raved about although I have yet to hear them, such as the new ones by The Pineapple Thief and Riverside.

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