What’s in my ears right now…

20 05 2012

My prolificacy has waned somewhat. I haven’t blogged for almost seven weeks, and even then my last offering was a rather inane, woeful rant about the state of the music industry and the sham that is The Voice. Rest assured I’ve not been entirely inactive. I’ve been writing three 5,000 word essays for my MA (on immortality, political interpretation of Revelation, and subordination in the Trinity), and preparing a six week series of talks on the book of Revelation. Sadly I’ve published no books, submitted no film scripts, and written no hit TV shows, but I need to keep some projects for the summer!

I often find that good music helps me through times when I need to write profusely. (In fact I have some rather bizarre predilections when it comes to music for writing, which maybe one day I’ll share if I manage to summon the strength of character to be comfortable with admitting to my quirkiness!) And I just thought I’d take a moment or two to distract me from writing things that matter, in order to share a couple of thoughts on the five albums that have helped me through the past few months of writing:

Flying Colors by Flying Colors

I decided to forgive the bastardised spelling because of the sheer quality of the music on this album. This self-titled album is the first offering from an American supergroup of some of my favourite musicians. Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic) is one of my absolute favourite songwriters, Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater, Transatlantic) is a powerhouse of a drummer who can do everything from blistering metal to complex prog and now, it would appear, pop! Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple) is an astonishing guitarist who I saw a few years ago with Deep Purple and whose solo albums and side-projects span a whole range of styles: folk, jazz, rock – School of the Arts is one of my favourite modern jazz instrumental albums. Dave LaRue is a monster on the bass. I’m not sure I’d been conscious of his work before, but have come to discover that he’s been ‘the guy’ who I’ve heard on a dozen tracks and thought ‘I’ve no idea who that is, but he’s brilliant.’ And Casey McPherson (Alpha Rev)… well I’d never heard of him before, but I shall have more to say on him later.

This album is a brilliant fusion of styles. The progressive rock influences are kept to a minimum and the more poppy, straight-forward rocky elements come to the fore, making this a great album for those who like world-class musicianship but find progressive music just a little too cheesy, overblown or self indulgent.

Highlights include The Storm, a powerful, perfectly crafted 4:44 pop-rock song, Love is What I’m Waiting For, which sounds very Beatles-esque and will undoubtedly bring a smile to your face, and my personal favourite Forever in a Daze, which has one of the most amazing bass solos you’re ever likely to hear. The entire album is a tour de force, full of brilliant song-writing, virtuoso soloing, and infectious melodies. The only thing I would change about it to be honest is that I would make Casey the only lead vocalist. Perhaps it’s just because I’m over-familiar with Neal’s voice (which I generally love), but I found some of the moments where the vocals switched from Casey to Neal to be a little disappointing. It just felt like a slightly jarring switch, and I think Casey’s voice was so strong that it wasn’t necessary.

Each of the musicians on this album has an insanely packed schedule, so I’m amazed they’ve found time to squeeze in a brief European tour in August and September. I cannot wait. Rarely will you hear such a talented collection of musicians putting together such a well-rounded sound that draws out elements of each of their individual styles but still manages to remain cogent.

And Casey McPherson… well…      

New Morning by Alpha Rev

…Casey is the lead singer of a group from Texas called Alpha Rev. I’d never heard of them to be honest, but as soon as I heard about Flying Colors I decided to check them out. And I think I started in the wrong place. First of all I listened to their album The Greatest Thing I’ve Ever Learned, which was ok but had a bit of a moody indie vibe that didn’t particularly grip me. So it was only a few months later that I bothered to check out any of their other music. I’m glad I did.

New Morning is a fantastic album. The songs are perfectly crafted and beautifully textured. This is not progressive at all – it’s just powerful, well written, pop-rock with beautiful melodies that stick in your head, great instrumentation and a real feel good vibe. Casey’s song-writing is some of the best I’ve heard in a long time, and his voice suits the music perfectly. It’s got that soaring Chris Martin kind of feeling, and in places their music does sound like how Coldplay might be if they were… well… you know… interesting!

The music is not complex in the sense of being overblown, but it is deep and many layered. The guitar tone of the solo in New Morning rips at your ears beautifully if you crank it up (2:30-2:53). Get Out really reminds me of Elbow, with soaring strings. Alone With You is a brilliant song, with a slightly lingering off beat vocal line over a driving rhythm that keeps you longing for the next line. Colder Months and Goodbye from the Start are brilliant slower numbers that bring the album to a mellow close.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Alpha Rev, which is a real shame. That should change. And if you need another reason to check them out…

New Morning B-Sides by Alpha Rev

…normally I expect a B-Sides album to be a collection of half-baked, distinctly average songs, thrown together with little attention to detail. Off cuts that should not only have been cut off, but cut up and thrown away never to see the light of day. A treat for collectors who value rarity over quality. Not so with this. There are tracks of the New Morning B-Sides album that really should have been on the main disc. The majority of tracks here are better than the hit songs most bands put out! Not one of the offerings feels half-finished, or like it’s had less time or attention than any of those on the actual album. I downloaded it for about £3 and it’s the best £3 I’ve spent in ages!

The funny breathed vocals of the opening track are a bit odd, but the song itself is great. Don’t Seem Right displays some beautifully controlled falsetto over an otherwise powerful song. Fade opens with haunting strings that give way to an anthemic chorus, with the odd bit of stripped down bass and drum work and growly bursts of guitar here and there. Upside Down has some fun programming, and builds to an infectious, funky outro. I love the aggressive passion in Give it Up, especially with the guitar riff at the end of the song and the fun, feel-good track Labor Day along with disco beats and female gospel vocals. Stand Around is a hazard to listen to, because it sticks in my head for ages.

The only disappointment on the entire disc is one tiny editing error in Shelf Life, where a small electronic beep is left in by accident. It’s one of those things that, once you’ve spotted it you can’t stop seeing it, and it slightly takes the edge off an otherwise brilliant track.

If you’re after something new but don’t want to splash out too much money, this is a great place to start. Download it from iTunes or http://alpharev.spinshop.com/ and I will be very surprised if you don’t end up moving on to listen to the main album, or Flying Colors.

LoveBlood by King Charles

This is an eclectic, fun, feel-good album from the eccentric-looking, flamboyant King Charles. It’s not really my usual style, but I’m enjoying this album. The lyrics are whimsical and the melodies are simple and catchy. Hearing someone singing over and over about riding around on bicycles in the rain could very easily grow dull, but there’s a kind of childish playfulness that keeps it entertaining.

The genius of the songs is the combination of simple melodies with incredibly varied, multi-layered instrumentation. All the usual instruments, plus steel drums, bagpipes and the odd banjo. Mississippi Isabel is a simple infectious track that will stick in your mind. Polar Bear alternates a kind of Boublil and Schonberg French feel and trancier synths, which makes for an eclectic mix that weirdly works, though I can’t fathom why. Lady Percy is amusing and enjoyable with its use of steel drums, and the addition of Mumford and Sons makes The Brightest Lights a decent modern-folk anthem. Despite starting out as a fairly unremarkable track, Coco Chitty has one of my favourite moments of the album, with the strings building to a powerful and catchy guitar hook.

I have mixed feelings about the lyrics. I can’t decide whether I think the constant juxtaposition of love, lust and blood in almost every song is an endearing continuity trait or an irritating repetition that belies a lack of creative breadth. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Neither do I know how I would feel about seeing him live… reviews seem to be positive, but I wonder if the live show, presumably with vastly stripped down arrangements, will be able to keep the interest that comes from the diversity of instrumentation on the album? All in all though, a fun, upbeat, quirky, feel-good album.

Blunderbuss – Jack White

I never got on with The White Stripes, primarily because of the drumming, which made me feel somewhat like I was on an aeroplane with a bored child kicking repeatedly and aimlessly into the back of my chair…

But this solo album is great! There’s no doubt that Jack White is a great songwriter, and I love that he has surrounded himself with some great musicians for this album including, yes, decent drummers. As a result, the music is rich and well crafted, with jazzy elements here and there. Yet it still hasn’t given up its rawness. This is no highly polished album – the drums echo like they were recorded in a tunnel, the cymbal work seems a bit haphazard, and the vocals aren’t autotuned to hell. So it’s still got a kind of raw, in your face feel to it, which I appreciate.

I was surprised at how much the piano comes to the fore above the guitar work, and how varied the instrumentation was; some songs being incredibly stripped down, and others packed with layers: double bass, pedal steel, mandolin and clarinets all make an appearance.

That said, there are some strong guitar driven tracks and some of the solos have a gut-wrenching crunchiness to them, which is enjoyable. Sixteen Saltines oozes angst – the music video is thoroughly depressing, but fascinating, I love the solo in Take Me With Me When You Go, I Guess I Should Go To Sleep could have come straight off a Beatles album, and Weep Themselves to Sleep is, for me, the standout track of the album, with the catchy piano motif, the sung-spoken vocals and the brilliant tone of the guitar solo.

All in all, a great album that’s a bit more rocky and raw than the other offerings, and better when I’m in need of something a bit more miserable… Which I occasionally do.


My Progressive Education Plan

15 12 2011

I dread the question: “What kind of music are you into?” I tend to dawdle for a moment before doing that non-committal thing that people do… “Uh… Oh… you know, a bit of everything. A pretty eclectic mix” which tends to mean they’re embarrassed by the contents of their CD collection. And embarrassed I am; not because I think there is anything intrinsically wrong with my taste in music, but because I know that the moment I say I like progressive rock, people’s heads will be filled with images of aging rockers in capes, singing about pixies, with hair and voices more befitting of 1970s women!

I love This Is Spinal Tap, but it has a lot to answer for.

Truth is, progressive music is one side of my musical taste. The last ten albums I listened to were by Peter Gabriel, Adele, Alter Bridge, U2, Paul Simon, John Coltrane, Regina Spektor, John Mayer, Dream Theater and The Beatles. Only one of those bands is really progressive (I’ll give you a clue, it’s the one you’ve never heard of) but if I did have to nail down one genre of preference, progressive rock would be my choice… sans mythological lyrics, general weirdness and Stonehenge replicas.

So this week a colleague (with a discerning musical taste and an open mind) happened to mention that he didn’t really know anything about progressive rock, and I leapt on the opportunity. I took it upon myself to educate the poor chap, whether he wanted education or not, in the finer details of progressive rock. I made up a playlist, jotted down some listening notes, and inflicted them on him…

The initial results were better than expected, with him enjoying not only the first recommended song, but a couple of albums by the first band too. I’m not sure how deep into the education he’s got yet: I like to think he’s savouring it… And so I decided, why not road test my Progressive Education Plan on a wider audience?

Here are some initial thoughts and recommendations on how to get into progressive rock. It’s not exhaustive. I steered clear of things I knew I had no chance of selling!! I didn’t go too far back in time; though I did include one Rush track and one from Yes. I didn’t bother with any of those so called classic bands like Jethro Tull, or Caravan or Gentle Giant, partly because I find their names embarrassing (reminding me of cornish comedians, mobile homes and the green sweetcorn man) and because I find their music a little embarrassing too! I’ve even left off some of the real classics who I do very much enjoy: Pink Floyd for example, and to a lesser extend Rush and Yes. My aim was not a complete education in all things progressive, just a window into the contents of my ears… if you know what I mean!

I’ve left it more or less as I wrote to him, with just a couple of tweaks, hence some of the personal references. Load up the playlist, Give it a go… let me know how you get on:

My Progressive Education Plan

What draws me to progressive music is the intricacy of it. I love listening to stuff that is complex, which really shows off all the instruments, and which does stuff I could have no hope of playing myself. I tire quickly of listening to music that is predictable, unremarkable, and which the average busker on the street could replicate without breaking into a sweat.

I love the long songs, and the complex changing of time-signatures, but (and this is key), I love it when it’s done so naturally that you barely notice. That’s a real skill, and that’s why I like each of these bands here, and dislike many others. As well as being highly skilled musicians, most of the guys on this list are great songwriters too and have a feel for how to write a well-crafted track that doesn’t sound too jarring.

So here are some suggestions for a first foray into progressive music:

I’d suggest starting with a kind of quasi-progressive group like Porcupine Tree. Weird name, but by progressive standards it’s remarkably tame! There are some obvious progressive elements to their music: long songs, concept albums, odd time signatures, atmospheric sections, but also a lot of their music is just straightforward good song-writing. I imagine their style will not feel a million miles away from many of the bands you tend to listen to.

Start off with the track The Sound of Muzak, which is a great song in a weird time signature (also – the subject matter is the commercialisation of music, so I thought you’d appreciate that!) If you like this, I’d recommend checking out their album In Absentia, and then Deadwing, which is a bit more progressive and a little heavier.

Second, I’d suggest trying Dream Theater who are the leading progressive metal band of the moment. Each musician is absolutely top of their game, and their music is very complex, often revolving around a lot of intricate soloing sections. I’ve suggested two songs, which demonstrate various elements of their style. The first is Breaking All Illusions from their latest album. It’s not too heavy, but is quite complex musically, with some amazing riffs, some quirky fun parts and an absolutely beautiful guitar solo. Then secondly I’ve gone for Blind Faith for no other reason than because it contains my all-time favourite keyboard solo from 6:12-8:22.

To follow up on Dream Theater I’d recommend their latest album A Dramatic Turn of Events which is relatively heavy, but fresh and modern, or one of their older albums like Scenes from a Memory, which is a concept album or Images and Words which was their breakthrough album – note, it’s a bit dated, so sounds a little cheesy in places, but still is quite amazing, and less heavy than their more recent work.

Next up, completely, unapologetically self-indulgent showing off: Liquid Tension Experiment. This is an instrumental super group made up of a few members of Dream Theater, plus a keyboard player (who wasn’t in Dream Theater at the time, but now is) and bassist Tony Levin.

I’d suggest trying Paradigm Shift, which is a relentless and ridiculously fast masterclass in showing off! It’s their first track from their first album, it’s very technical, but as a musician it makes me smile because it’s just so intricate and fun. Then I’d recommend their first album Liquid Tension Experiment. To be honest, once you’ve listened to one or two tracks you’ll have a pretty good idea of what their music is like since it’s all pretty self-indulgent.

Fourthly, a band which is less about showing off and more about crafting strong songs in the style of some of the more retro progressive bands: Spock’s Beard. Their music is typically more keyboard led, which is due to the fact that their (now ex) lead singer plays keyboards primarily, and other instruments as and when required. There’s a lot of Hammond organ, long songs, still complex, but more based around well-written song structures. There’s a clear Beatles influence to a fair amount of their song-writing, which I love.

I recommend starting with one of their longest tracks At the End of the Day. In some ways it’s not typical of all their stuff, since they tend to have plenty of short tracks on their albums, but most of the elements are there: lots of organ, quirky bass work, Beatles-esque writing, a range of music styles, some brilliant keyboard soloing, and a little bit of brass for good measure. If you want more from Spock’s Beard I’d recommend their album V, followed by Snow (for a longer concept album made of shorter songs) or Beware of Darkness (if you want something a little more retro).

Fifthly, a band called Transatlantic. These guys are a super group made up of the singer/keyboardist from Spock’s Beard, the drummer from Dream Theater, a guitarist from a progressive fusion band, and a bassist from a British group called Marillion.

Their style is a mixture of Spock’s Beard and some elements of each of the other bands represented, and is characterised by (very) long songs, lots of Hammond and keyboards, lots of jazzy guitar work, very-beatles-esque lyrics. I recommend starting with Stranger in your Soul – don’t let the 30 minute song length put you off! These guys are expert song-writers as well as technical musicians, so if you think of it like an album rather than a song, it’s full of catchy sections, and holds together brilliantly. Then if you can stomach it, one of my all-time favourite albums is called The Whirlwind, which is an approximately 76 minute song… it’s better than it sounds! Complex, brilliantly written, and I could listen to it over and over. If you want something with a few more tracks, then check out Bridge Across Forever.

Once you’re done listening to those 6 songs, you will have spent the best part of a day listening to progressive music!! And you’ll have a pretty good picture of the landscape of modern progressive music.

Good luck, and enjoy,