the making of an epic prog rock “monsterpiece” – part one

on may 31, 2015, I sat down at my computer, and built an empty folder set for a new music project.  at first, it was named something like “20150531-01-komplete-unknown”, meaning, to work on a piece within the komplete application, content, unknown – but within a few days, it had grown to the point where I amended the name, because it seemed like such an obvious answer to a question that so far, no one had asked, namely, “what is the name of this song?” – obviously, it was – “the complete unknown”.

so the folder got renamed, and now it bears the name “20150531-01-komplete-unknown-thecompleteunknown” and that was it – I was away.

I loaded up komplete with four vintage keyboards – and I officially began my journey – a journey I am still very much on today – into the complete unknown – via “the complete unknown”.

I spent a few days, working out a piece for keyboards, that would work well as a “keys-only” intro to the song, I wanted it to have a fantastical, classically-based and with a serious feel to it, and then, after say, after a minute or two, the bass and drums would enter…I could just about imagine it all.  I could just about hear the song in my head…

I struggled mightily with my serious keyboard intro, overdubbing many different takes of many different keyboard voices playing the notes that I had chosen.  the entire piece was done manually – no sequencers were used, and it meant that I had to play a pretty tricky part, manually, over and over and over again, until it was just right.

Eventually though, I was happy with my little intro composition, and musically – it set the stage for the “song proper” – I was very happy with the way this short piece of quasi-classical keyboard music turned out, and I was extremely thrilled with the sounds of the vintage keyboards, which were all of course, courtesy of komplete.  the intro was complete – and I was thrilled!

note/the details: for the record, there were just four instruments (not six as I erroneously remembered and stated elsewhere – four, not six) used in the creation of the keyboard “intro”, which were:

dave stafford, vintage keyboards quartet:

soniccouture bowed piano X

soniccouture broken wurli – init (my own settings)

soniccouture novachord – novasynth init (my own settings)

soniccouture ondes martenot – poly ondes init (my own settings)

these four tracks were then mixed and mastered, with just reverb added to give it a big room sound – a completely “finished” piece of music which could then just be “dropped in” in front of where the bass and the drums make their grand entrance.

so, with the intro safely under my belt, it was now time for the active “core” of the song to be built, and as tradition has it, it started like all structured pieces in the rock world start – with a drum track, and a bass overdub of that drum track.  but I didn’t want just any rhythm section, I wanted a section with the skill of a powerful but wild drummer, I needed my own Andy Ward on drums, or maybe I’d borrow Marillion’s rhythm section…I wasn’t sure.

then – Chris Squire passed away, during the first few weeks of work on the song, so I thought a lot about Chris, and how Chris played the bass (and what a huge influence his playing had on me as a 15 year old guitarist who loved progressive music in 1973!), and it had a huge influence on the bass part in the song.  so the drums came from me – my own vision of a series of prog beats that run nearly continuously for 14 minutes or so…but when it came time to do the second overdub, the bass, it was all about emulating the God of Prog Bass Playing, the late, great Chris Squire.

If I was very lucky, I could get a sound like Chris’ and maybe “play” as well as Marillion‘s bassist 🙂 because no one, except perhaps Wetton or Lake, can emulate Chris – Chris has an incredible and very unique bass tone and style.

I also spent a lot of time on the drum part, I fleshed it out in the very first session, but it took many more sessions, to really get it into shape, to feel happy with the sounds, to add interesting fills, to use different variations of the beat, and there are even some special sections that I did by hand rather than by sequencer – and by the way, the drums (or drum machine, I should say – komplete again) is the only sequenced instrument in the piece – all others were really played by me – with one odd exception – the bass part, was played by me, but on the keyboard. It was not sequenced, I played every riff, every fill, two different bass solos – I really played those.

The same goes for all of the keyboard parts in the main part of the song, as well as the guitars – all of those are real as well.  I’ve never learned to play the drums, so, the best quality sampled drums in the world, will have to do!

The drum track took a few weeks to perfect, but the bass part – well, I laid down something to begin with, a bit at a time, a section at a time – but then, I was never satisfied, it sounded good, but it didn’t yet sound amazing – so I started doing a lot of work on the bass – I fashioned a quite wild bass solo near the end of the first half of the song, in the key of C major no less, but an awesomely fun solo to write and play.

I worked on the bass for quite a long, long time, and eventually, I felt completely happy with it – and I still do.  Now that I am laying guitars on top of drums, bass, organ, and mellotron – when I add a guitar part, and I hear the bass come up “in between” – I just have to smile, because it’s as if the “bass player” is responding to the guitarist, or, the other way around – and that’s an awesome thing for a piece that isn’t actually played live.

I am extremely pleased with the rhythm section, I spent far too much time on it, but, it was worth it, and the keyboard parts practically played themselves, because the bass and drums were so together.

 

So this is where it began – at least, the active part of the song, back during June and July this year. The first mixes then, were of nothing but the intro, plus the bass and drums – with no other ornamentation whatsoever.  I must have listened to this song, with just intro, bass and drums, dozens of times, whilst first, trying to perfect the drum track, and then later, trying to perfect the bass part.  That took even longer than the drums to perfect – but in the end, I feel truly happy with the results – and I am actually, especially proud of the bass part – it rocks.  It’s full of surprises, and I love where it takes the song – and, later, how it interacts with both the keyboards and the lead guitars – it’s excellent.

note/the details: the rhythm section looks like this:

drums: dave stafford – drum programming and manual playing of drum samples

abbey road modern drummer, alternative rock, “rage” setting changed from 98 bpm – sped up to 140 bpm

bass: dave stafford – performed on keyboard, inspired by the late Chris Squire

scarbee rickenbacker bass – neck pickup DI – direct injection

as the Scottish summer drew quickly to an end, at the end of july, I had a brainstorm – I would bring the introductory keyboard quartet, back in at the VERY END of the piece, to bring complete closure to the piece – no matter where it went during the 14 minutes in the middle, the sound and the melodies at the beginning and the end, were now tied together perfectly – and I was really glad of this decision, because some really good musical events came out of that decision, later.

I faded up the intro “in progress”, during the last long rock section of the drums and bass track, and I managed, after a couple of tries, to sync it up completely with the drum track – and eventually, unintentionally, I played a leslie’d organ solo over the top of it – and soon, it just sounded like it had been there the whole time.

then the time came, to work on the main body of the song, and add in a lot of supporting musical information – bearing in mind, that the drums and bass were complete, including a lot of very in your face, bright, Rickenbacker bass riffs, and, one very avant garde bass solo, and another quasi-solo later on – so those were now reduced, frozen and “carved in stone”.

so atop my finished drum and bass part, I began to add keyboards, beginning with the oldest progressive rock standby, the Hammond organ.  I really felt it was essential, to have chords and melodies on the Hammond, and, solos from the Hammond, because it’s such a very, very “prog” sound – it really cuts through the mix, and when playing chords, it’s so supportive with basses and guitars aloft on top of it.

So I worked on Hammond parts, using just one basic, straight sound, but varying it, by using the mod wheel on my M-Audio keyboard, to “speed up” and “slow down” the leslie effect – which is one of the finest things about sampled organs, done Komplete style – you get truly perfect sounding leslie effects, and I played every part as live as possible, using the mod wheel while I played, to speed up and slow down the effect – I had a blast.  There is one epic solo in the first half, and another accidental one at the end, with the leslie set to “fast” – a sound not usually used that much, but it sounds great, as the song proper fades away, to have this final organ solo with the “fast leslie” sound going – it’s really nice.

after I had added all of the organ parts, where I followed whatever key signature was stated by what the bass player was doing (I had injected several key changes when creating the bass part), and I was happy with both the organ sound, and the content – and the solos – I then moved on to the mellotron parts, which I used sparingly to try and give them more mystique.  I felt that using them throughout would be too obvious, and where the Hammond does sound great playing right through, you really want the occasional swath of a mellotron wandering in when you least expect it – that’s prog to me!

so – two separate mellotron tracks, using very simple, very pure mellotron sounds (nothing fancy, just the very basic strings and flute sounds) most of the time, it’s just mellotron strings, or, just mellotron flute and very, very occasionally – I allowed both – so you get a really full sound there, with drums, bass, Hammond organ, string mellotron and flute mellotron.  The string mellotrons became the backdrop for some really cool guitar sections later on, while the flute mellotrons were more taking on the melody, or in one case, as harmony, so they worked out very, very well indeed.

the mellotron parts went more quickly than the Hammond parts had, in part, because by this time, I knew how the chords went, and I just “knew” what the mellotrons should do – and they did it, beautifully.  Here I sit, several months later, and I am now marvelling at how they sound in support of some of the new guitar overdubs – they provide the perfect backdrop for lead guitars!

note/the details – the keyboard “section”

dave stafford, hammond B3 emulation

Komplete Vintage Organs – classic rock, Hammond B3 tonewheel emulation – preset  “j’taime” – leslie effect applied in real time with mod wheel during performances

dave stafford, mellotron strings

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Mark II Vintage Violins Basic

dave stafford, mellotron flutes

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Flutes Basic

so at this stage, after several months, of slow, patient work, I had a fairly complete song (no pun intended) with a full drum part, a full bass part, organ chords, organ solos, mellotron strings, mellotron flutes, plus the four vintage keyboards that inhabit both the intro and the outro…so, the time had come to deal with the “middle eight”.

the next idea I had, really, really changed things – I decided to cut the piece in half, and create an acoustic guitar interlude – in my mind, something like the live acoustic guitar interludes that Gentle Giant used to have during their concerts in support of the “Octopus” album – but in practice, what I came up with is much more dave stafford / guitar craft than gentle giant.

so – I split the track at a place where the drums were silent anyway (I had intentionally left a blank space in the song, with no bass or drums, knowing ahead of time that I wanted to split it in half), so it was easy to do – and I created an un-timed gap between the end of Part A and the resumption of Part B – with absolutely no idea what was to “go there” except I knew I wanted acoustic guitars.  what eventually ended up there – exceeded my wildest expectations of that time.

I managed to transition from the full song by bringing in two acoustic guitar leads almost simultaneously, playing two melodies which transition the song from “full band” to acoustic guitar duo / trio, and then the acoustic guitar section is off – the whole thing was played on my Ovation Balladeer, which is a not-quite-satisfactory replacement for my ailing Ovation Legend, which is no longer made.  In any case, the Balladeer did well enough, and I managed to get some very nice tones out of it’s pickup – it sounds good on recordings, in any case.

I had just a few notions about what the acoustic guitars should play, I had a little melody that I sub-consciously “borrowed” from Tales From Topographic Oceans, I play that melody a few times, and then suddenly, the rhythm of the piece changes, and there is another tiny section – and then, the magic happens – the third section, completely unrehearsed, came from nowhere – a slow, beautiful, simple chord progression, with a stately, played with the fingers-rather-than-the-plectrum lead part that just surprised the holy shirt out of me.  I am so, so pleased with this little piece of music, it doesn’t last long, but, it’s one of the loveliest melodies I’ve come up with to date, and I am really pleased and proud of this little miniature acoustic suite.

But then – then, a few weeks later, I had an idea – I would add bird songs into the piece, in stereo – during the most moving parts of the guitar solo.  I added several different species, recorded directly from an app on my ipad, some on the right channel, some in mono / centre, and some on the left – little bursts of different birds including the iconic british blackbird (because you know from the Beatles / White Album that they will sound good!)

The end result was astonishing – it made this already excellent part so relaxing, so natural – it just was the perfect little addition to the piece – I was so surprised and so amazed at what something like that can do to a piece of music – it naturalises it – if you know what I mean.

Then – for contrast, I followed the three acoustic guitar sections with some strange TC-11 synth sounds on the iPad – a solo and a looped piece, which worked very nicely as a contrast to the guitars, and leading back towards the song proper.  Several weeks later, I acquired a new synth on my ipad, the Poseidon Synth, and it had this really amazing sound that included the sound of human voices, so I tried replacing my original TC-11 parts with the Poseidon Synth, playing two stereo takes.

It was good, but, even better, when I added the original back in, and I realised that they both sounded good, and they sounded good together – so I left the old parts in, and added in the new synth part care of the Poseidon Synth – a really nice ios synth.

For quite a while, that was then tied to a drum riff, that led back into the second half of the song.  But then, I decided just a few days ago, that I was not happy with that transition, and I wanted something else.  After trying a very thrashy, sort of Steve Howe at his most dissonant Koass Guitar part, I discarded that, and set about making the exact opposite of that – something very, very melodic and beautiful…

This final part of the “middle section” is known as the “Hackett Guitars” section, which was made entirely with one electric guitar and the Eventide H9, two takes of guitar chords strummed finger-style, in a classical or flamenco fashion, but more reminiscent of a piece from the final sections of Genesis‘ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” (the bit just before “The Light Dies Down On Broadway”, I think) so two gently but forcefully finger-strummed “Hackett” guitars, plus one reverse guitar solo – all of them drenched in luscious Eventide reverb. It turned out beyond my wildest dreams, a simple, beautiful section of music. Prog should be a mix of some dissonant and more melodic parts (or so it seems to me).

And with that, that brings us to what I consider to be “Part Two” of the song, which I will (eventually) describe in my next blog, in the New Year.  The “Hackett Guitars” section was the perfect vehicle to bring the middle section to a satisfactory completion, and a perfect way to merge back with the main part of the song – the resumption of the second part where I’d originally cut the piece in half.

Thats where we’ll go next time, then.  I will see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I had a notion…

on August 3rd this year, I went from having Notion for IPad as my main compositional tool and constant companion, to sitting here once again, rebuilding the instrument database yet again,  and after a full ELEVEN DAYS of having no working Notion, and the score I was working on, which was truncated and horribly damaged, has now been “repaired” three times by Presonus themselves…I’m now walking muttering to myself “well, I had a Notion…”.

I hadn’t realised how very under my skin this handy little app had gotten, I was locked into a happy routine of working on a score almost every day (for something like two years now!) and truly looking forward to that time, too.  To suddenly be without it, and, to have a two month old score ripped into pieces by the app that gave birth to it…I was nearly traumatised by that, to be honest.

Why did this happen?

I can answer that with just two words:
Untested Update.

Presonus rolled out a massive, sweeping update to Notion for IPad, at a point in time that for me, was and still is, utterly disastrous.  A two month old score, more than 90 percent complete…

Woke up one day, turned on Notion…and 90 percent of my score just disappeared.  Like magic, but not the good kind of magic.  The bad kind.  The kind where you push “play”, and the first eight bars roll by as usual, you hear the familiar glockenspiel and timpani introduction with the crashing, distorted guitar chord…and then, while the music is still playing…

the screen goes blank.  Bars 9 thru 200 and something, are now just a big, white, empty, probably scrolling sheet of nothing.

Panic.  I never made a single audio mix of the track.  Not one.  Why would I? … When it wasn’t finished.
Right now, I am really wishing I had,  because I will consider it to be a minor miracle if I do fully recover this piece of alternative jazz-rock-something genre music…which still remains unknown.

Several very unhappy email exchanges with Presonus later, I just received the “fixed” file from their support guy.  I just played it back now.
There’s good news and other news.   The good news is, they did manage to rebuild the score’s notation, the frightening empty white pages are gone, and the piece is complete again.  Huge relief there, the piece may survive…

However…almost all of the sounds, have defaulted back to pianos.  Both guitars, became pianos.  The jazz trumpet part…became a piano.  Both of the Jazz trumpets, I should say, 1 and 2…now pianos.  The solo trumpet,whose unmistakably voice was critical to one part of the song…is now a piano.   The really good news?  Hmmm.  The English Horn still works, and, it even still sounds good.  Unlike the rest.  

The drums seem ok.  The bass guitar is absent, so I guess that it, too, is now…a piano

I re-installed the app a couple days ago, while the guy was “fixing” my score.

I had tried to re-download or restore / re-load the instruments a couple times, you have to leave your iPad on and open until it completes, which, when you have the “all” bundle…takes a few hours.  I left it on all night as usual…

Then the fun part comes.  You get a message saying: “All your sounds have successfully downloaded”.  Ha ha ha ha ha!!! VERY funny.  Not even true, either, usually.  Not reliable.

So you try your broken score again…but the glockenspiel is missing.  And you then find that in reality, NOT all your sounds have downloaded.  So you have to restart the process…again.  And sometimes, again.  Before you can even try to save your piece.
Why is the glockenspiel missing? Why because, it’s not part of the “all” package, it’s a separate download, because it’s “free”.  Only in this case, “free” means, you can have this instrument, but you need to “register” with your full name and email address.  So that’s a cost, you have to give up your personal info, if you want the “free’ glockenspiel.  That’s actually, more like mild extortion.

Truth be told, right now, the way I feel…I’d rather I’d just paid too much for it, than get it for “free”.  Jumping through Presonus’ hoops once, mildly annoying.  Twice, quite annoying.  Thrice, very, very effing annoying.  And when you have to enter your details that fourth or fifth time….you’d rather eat your own hair by then.

They don’t think about that,about what an annoyance and what a waste of precious time, it is, to type in your email address over and over and over and over and OVER again.  When you are already, maybe, the most unhappy customer a vendor could really possibly have.  Why would you put a good customer through that?

Haste makes waste.  It’s not like I am using one of my old IPad 2s, here.  I’m running this app on state of the art hardware.  It should be perfect in this clean environment.  Instead, it’s not just messed up, it’s majorly messed up.

They’ve done one update…the one that wiped out my score, and they are doing another one “soon” to fix these issues.  In my humble, unsolicited opinion…that app was FAR FROM READY to see the light of day.   Not even close!! Clearly, it cannot have been tested properly? I expect better from my vendors, and I am feeling mightily disappointed right now.

To their credit, they are trying to make it right.  But the disruption it’s caused me, the trauma of my nearly complete breakthrough-new-genre-defying piece of music being so damaged, but worst of all, my daily compositional time is taken away, for almost two weeks.

And now, I am waiting for instruments to download…waiting.  Still waiting…

I had a Notion.

Yet…I love this product.  It enabled me to (re)learn notation, which I did understand, but had never written.  My first half a year with it, I wrote notation, and in that first full year, I learned that I could write classical music, I could write jazz, I could write alternative music…with notation, much was possible than was not possible in my pre-Notion pre-IPad days.

I’ve gained skill as a serious composer of serious work, I am now on my fifth piece of classical music, thanks to Notion, so until they broke it, it had been a real game-changer for me…a brilliant piece of kit.

The beauty of the IPad version, was that portability.  Work on your pieces anywhere, anytime, thru headphones, thru Bluetooth speaker…fantastic.  Hear your changes instantly.  Compose on the fly…truly brilliant.  I am really missing that, and I hope I can go back to it, soon,

However. I have not been idle during the unfolding of this great Notional drama.
Some good things have been happening, too.  Believe it or not.

A new song in Gadget, which utilises the new Korg iM1, their beautiful emulation of the classic M1 synthesiser, heavily.  It’s only perhaps, a minute or so in length so far, but it’s really coming along nicely.  I can’t really describe it, except to say it has a quasi classical / jazzy fender Rhodes intro, and from there, breaks into M1 drum kits, mellotron emulation and nothing quite sure what else is happening, but it’s definitely going to be a song,,,I can just tell!  Watch for that eventually, “from hero to zero” it’s called,  on the Gadget eternal album.

Work continues apace on “the complete unknown”, my first long form piece of progressive rock, made with mostly real instruments.  It’s currently at stereo reduction version 8; which means in lay terms, that the acoustic guitar duo-then-trio, has been built (including a final eight hour acoustic recording session last Saturday, ouch), and, along with an extemporaneous live iPad improv using the remarkable TC-11 touch controlled synth, those two pieces have bridged the second intentionally silent section, meaning that this is the first version to play continuously (i.e. no silences) ; the first version featuring the acoustic guitar / TC-11 synth bridging piece; and the first version to be at the extended current running time of 15:57.   The previously tested mix, Version 5, was a minute or so shorter.

What does it sound like…well, it’s still early days in some respects, but there are Rickenbacker basses (dedicated to the late, great Chris Squire, who was a huge inspiration to me as a guitarist, I thought of him constantly whilst composing the bass guitar parts of this song) – so maybe, at a stretch, you could say, “Yes-like basses”…at a stretch,

Powerful drum parts, in the Dave Stafford style, with two silent sections that were back filled later on…and lots and lots of vintage keyboards…Hammond organ, mellotrons, and featuring a keyboard quartet of vintage keys, a one minute-14 second “intro” to the piece proper…but, no electric guitars yet, or guitar synths.

That’s next; wish me luck!!

Best of all, as of a few days ago, Phase One of a Very Large Ambient Music Project is now complete.

Because of that, I’ve now increased the number of scapes available on the scape eternal album, to a nice round 100 !!    So please, go and have a listen…always free to listen.

So until I can change “I had a Notion” back into “I have a Notion”, and my composing ritual can be safely re-established, you will have to make do with reports of other projects, of which, as always, there are many, and, a rather large number of new Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers samples to delight in, contained with the last 30 or 40 scapes uploaded…happy ambient Eno/DNA/ambient dreaming…

Dave

“under the influence” (beatlesque)

I wanted to take a little time to try to give some indication of the vast scope and reach of the influence of the Beatles, and in particular, their influence on other musicians.  This has inspired everything from direct Beatle parodies such as “The Rutles” (featuring Neil Innes and Eric Idle) to tracks that sound very Beatle-like (such as any number of Raspberries, Badfinger, Todd Rundgren, The Move, Roy Wood, Knickerbockers, songs – and many, many others – see lists below) to whole albums of Beatles tribute (such as Utopia’s brilliant and very musical Beatles spoof album, “Deface The Music”, from 1980).

Even the world of jazz was invaded by the music of the Beatles, from Wes Montgomery and other guitarists of the day, inventing their own jazz versions of Beatles tracks, or someone of the stature of Ramsey Lewis, making, in 1968, an entire album of Beatles covers, all taken, amazingly, from the Beatles then-current 1968 “White Album” – in a completely unique and extremely jazz way.

Awesome inspiration, across all genres of music – the music of the Beatles actually can be called “universal” in its appeal, given the strange and disparate characters who breathe new life into a huge, huge range of covers and tributes and sound-alikes, from the very ordinary covers, to the truly bizarre spoofs, jokes and odd variations that abound the world over – everybody under the sun has had a crack at covering a Beatles song – and some go much, much further, either creating amazing near-carbon copies of Beatles songs (such as 1976’s “Faithful” album by Todd Rundgren – his “faithful” version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is exquisite) or creating music that sounds so much like the Beatles, that it is actually thought to be by the Beatles (for some unknown reason, “Klaatu” was one such band, where folk thought that it was actually the Beatles, performing anonymously six or seven years after they had broken up…but, it was not).

For my money, there are other artists who create original music that is much, much closer in content and feel than the music of “Klaatu” (but, don’t get me wrong, “Klaatu” are a remarkable, very capable, and very interesting band to listen to – and, little-known fact, they are the actual authors and creators of the original version of the Carpenters’ hit single, “Calling Occupants (Of Interplanetary Craft)” – not too many people know that in that case, the Carpenters were doing a cover of…“Klaatu” !

I think, though, that in many ways, that the Beatles, and to a somewhat lesser extent, The Beach Boys, had a huge influence on musicians all over the world.  From Apples In Stereo to XTC, there are so many musicians, including some pretty unlikely characters, that have either covered Beatles songs faithfully (or unfaithfully in some cases), or have created either songs and/or albums of songs that mirror, mimic or even mock, the sound of the Fab Four.

I think that it’s very true what they say, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, if that is true, then the Beatles have been flattered until they are completely flat, because so, so many musicians have cited them as a major influence, and have unashamedly copied their songs, their sound, their harmonies, their guitar playing, their bass playing, their song structures and so on – and the list of people who do cite the Beatles as a musical influence is just simply too long to print in this forum.

What always surprises me is the number of extremely progressive musicians who claim a serious Beatle influence, when you listen to the music of a band like Yes, or King Crimson – you wouldn’t necessarily immediately think “Beatles” – but Yes were obviously fans of the band, in the early days, they covered the Beatles “Yes It Is”, and I believe that both Steve Howe and Chris Squire have said they are fans of the Beatles music.  Robert Fripp has also acknowledged the influence of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” band on him upon hearing the whole album on his car radio one fateful evening, and Beatles references are embedded, sometimes deeply, into the music of King Crimson – “Happy Family” from the third Crimson album, “Lizard” is an unconcealed tale of the Beatles breakup, penned by then-Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield.

So sometimes, there are Beatle-influenced bands and musicians, where the music made by those musicians, music sounds nothing like the Beatles to our ears – but for them, the Beatles still loom larger than life, buried deep in their internal, musical DNA – just waiting to get out, in the form of new songs that are about the Beatles, influenced by the Beatles, or simply sound like the Beatles, intentionally (usually) or not (occasionally).  Perhaps yet another splinter-list should be “Songs That Sound Like The Beatles But Their Composers / Performers Did Not Intentionally Try To Sound Like The Beatles – It’s By Complete Accident” but I feel that my already non-legendary non-skills as a list producer have already fallen flat, and that’s too complicated for me to work out who did or did not “intend” to sound like the Beatles!  I don’t think I can write that list – but if you can – please do, and please send it in, and if it’s complete enough, I will post it here.

Speaking now as a guitarist, I don’t think I’ve ever met a guitarist who did not care for the guitar playing of  John Lennon or George Harrison, nor have I ever met a bassist who did not respect the massive skills of Paul McCartney on the bass guitar – the absolute, indisputable master of melodic bass playing – and when I listen to Chris Squire play, I do hear echoes of Paul McCartney’s style in his playing – especially the “high register” bass work.  This famed skill at playing beautifully in the higher and highest pitch ranges of the bass guitar has been imitated by many, but for me, well, it’s Todd Rundgren’s “Determination” that showcases this technique in an incredible way (see below for more on “Determination” ).

The same can absolutely be said for drummers admiring Ringo Starr, everyone knows that Ringo is not a “flashy” drummer, he doesn’t often “show off” but what Ringo has that many, many drummers do not have, is the steadiest tempo imaginable, and, a sense of when to play, and when not to – he always provides just the right amount of percussion to any given song, never overplays – just what is required.  This is borne out when you hear live sessions by the Beatles, while John, Paul and George make error after error in the earliest takes of any given song, it’s rare indeed to hear the almost metronome-like Starr make an error.

Even guitarists who also play bass get the whole “Paul McCartney high-register bass playing” concept, as can be evidenced by the multi-talented Todd Rundgren, from his 1978 solo album “Hermit Of Mink Hollow”, there is a brilliant track called “Determination” , which not only features pitched up, trebled up, “jangly guitars” but a beautiful, beautiful, McCartney-esque bass line, that just pulls the heartstrings as it flies beneath the open chords, beginning in the high register, and then sweeping down to become a bass again – McCartney’s early adoption of unusual styles such as playing bass melodically, playing bass in the very high registers, or playing bass in any number of innovative ways, not always melodic – playing with his low E string slightly detuned (as in the song “Baby, You’re A Rich Man”) or, playing the low E string so hard that it detunes as he plays (as can be heard in parts of the song “Helter Skelter”)  – has not gone unnoticed by Todd, and any number of other McCartney imitators.  Speaking of McCartney imitators, Eric Carmen and the Raspberries also recognise the genius of the Beatles front line which is evidenced by songs that closely resemble Beatles songs in form and content, lyric and guitar styles.

I wish more drummers were like Ringo, well, there is one that immediately comes to mind – Zak Starkey, Ringo’s eldest son.  Zak is a remarkably talented drummer in his own right (I was fortunate to see him perform with an early incarnation of “Ringo Starr’s All Stars” (a show which also happened to feature the above-mentioned Todd Rundgren) and, hearing Zak and Ringo Starkey nail the complex drum part of Todd’s “Black Maria” live was absolutely fantastic – Zak made it his own, but carried the band of mostly older musicians, through the set with his unshakeable rhythm, and he has certainly inherited Ringo’s steady hand – but Zak is also a thoroughly modern drummer, and in some ways, he goes far beyond his famous dad – which is what you might expect – I mean look at Jason Bonham, it’s the same thing, drummer with a famous drummer dad, and with that burden of being the son of a legend, they try that much harder to sound unique, and go beyond the “oh, he’s the son of Ringo…” or “oh, he’s the son of Jason” – and I am justifiably proud of both of them, for carving their own musical paths, and not relying on “dad” for their fame or ability, but making it on their own laurels.

witnessing one of the variations of “Ringo Starr‘s All-Starr Band”, on the 1989 tour featuring Todd Rundgren, it was remarkable to see Zak take sole control of the drums when Ringo went front and centre to sing, so for some of the classic Beatles songs that the band played, it was Zak on the drums rather than Ringo himself, but it absolutely mattered not, Zak did an amazing job on tracks like “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “It Don’t Come Easy” – and at other times, father and son played together, and that was truly a joy to see – amazing !

Two generations of Starkey’s, doing what they do best – playing the drums, and playing the music of the Beatles too – among other items from the various band members such as the aforementioned Todd cover – and “Black Maria” live  with Zak AND Ritchie Starkey is not something I shall forget any time soon – fantastic”!

And, because it was Todd’s big moment, Ringo was free to join Zak on drums, so it was the pair of them behind Todd – and you could see in Ringo’s face how much he enjoyed playing the song (I believe it was included in the set list, because Ringo always had liked the song, so much so that he insisted that it be the “Rundgren” moment in the concert – it being his favourite track off of Todd Rundgren’s seminal 1972 album, “Something / Anything”) and Zak was just head down getting on with the drum part – and that is the only time I’ve ever seen the song performed with two drummers – and if those drummers are Ringo and Zak Starkey, you know it’s going to go well – and it was an excellent cover, absolutely spot-on, and a real highlight of the show.

I don’t think anyone can argue that the Beatles had a very, very significant influence on musicians of many generations, and new generations of players are discovering the Beatles anew even now, in 2014, and are translating their experience of hearing Beatles material into their own new “musics” – so the process continues, of hearing songs influenced by the Beatles, even in new music created by young musicians – because, in 2014, maybe they just heard “Revolver” for the first time, and it absolutely blew their minds – just like it blew our minds back in 1966 when we (now, unbelievably, now we’re the “older generation”!) first heard it.

And – it’s undeniable – this is unforgettable music, genius music from the writing to the playing to the singing and even to the packaging – Beatle imagery is also something that has been oft-copied, and some of their most famous album cover designs have been copied again and again by so many bands.

Some of those copies are more on the side of parody, for example, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention classic Beatles parody, made not that long after the original came out, “We’re Only In It For The Money” is directly made to look like a bizarre “version” of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and in some ways, the cover is the biggest part of the joke – the music on the album (which is brilliant, by the way – one of my favourite early Zappa / Mothers records) is not nearly as important to the parody as the album design was.  But the whole effect is…kind of hilarious 🙂

In particular, some of the most famous Beatles album covers, such as the “bendy” photographs of the band that graces the cover of their innovative “Rubber Soul” album have been imitated by many other bands, time and time again.  Even in the earliest days, the unusual photographs of photographer Robert Freeman (as in, the classic shot of the Beatles silhouetted against a dark background) as on “With The Beatles” (UK) or it’s US counterpart, “Meet The Beatles” has been copied many times over the last few decades.  But revolutionary cover art is difficult to come up with, so bands just borrow from the best…The Beatles.

No article about Beatles’ influence would be complete without mentioning two gentlemen from different eras of pop music, firstly, the ridiculously talented eric stewart of 10cc, who has performed Beatles songs live in concert with 10cc, and also has an undeniable streak of “beatlesque” harmony and sound on various tracks throughout the long career of 10cc – the best example is probably part 1 and part 3 of 10cc’s pop opus, “feel the benefit” – very “dear prudence” if I don’t mind saying so myself :-).  the other gentleman in question is from a couple of decades later, from the 1990s and beyond, and that is Jason Falkner; unwilling conscript into pop genius band “jellyfish”, after he escaped their clutches, went off on a very successful if low-key solo career – and again, the sound of his vocal harmonies, the beautiful chord progressions in his music tell me one thing: he, like Eric Stewart before him, is under the influence of the Beatles.  Personally – I cannot get enough of the music of 10cc or Jason Falkner, two generations apart, perhaps, but, united in their love for Beatle harmonies, jangly Beatle guitars, beautiful Beatle chord progressions, and even Beatle-like lyrics.

I started out writing this edition of the Beatles’ story by trying to create various lists of bands that sound like the Beatles, and then, albums inspired by the Beatles, and I was really only able to touch upon a very few – I know that I have missed out so, so many – and everyone has a different “take” on what bands sound like the Beatles, what albums are directly or indirectly inspired by the Beatles and so on.

Regarding my attempts at filling in these lists – I am ultimately not satisfied by my primitive attempts at “list-making”, and in searching the Internet for valid lists of bands that sound like the Beatles, I kept finding lists that made no sense to me, personally – that would always include every big rock band of the day, so it would always be “Pink Floyd”, “The Who”, “Jimi Hendrix” – and I don’t think any of those bands sound like the Beatles at all !  Yet, site after site would cite (ha ha, get it – site – cite) Hendrix or Pink Floyd as a Beatle sound-alike – but I cannot bring myself to agree with this, yes, Hendrix loved the Beatles, he played bit of Beatle melody in the middle of his own songs, he covered many Beatles songs – but, he doesn’t really SOUND like the Beatles, does he?  Maybe very vaguely, on a song like “Crosstown Traffic” perhaps – but, I’d say, if anything, that Hendrix influenced the Beatles, as much or more than the Beatles influenced Hendrix.

Jimi Hendrix sounds like…Jimi Hendrix, and no other, really – he is utterly unique.  Hendrix did absolutely love the Beatles, and would indeed, often insert a perfect bar of George Harrison lead guitar, into one of his own original songs, in live performance – and then give a little laugh, like it’s an “in-joke”  – “here’s a cool melody that I nicked off of the new Beatles disc, it’s called “Revolver…”.

As for Pink Floyd, it would take some real convincing for me to add them into the list –  I love a bit of early Floyd as much as anyone, but I do not hear echoes of the Fab Four in their music (you saw what I did there….”Echoes”…Pink Floyd – and, it was completely unintentional!) I am afraid I just don’t get it, these constant references to Pink Floyd sounding like the Beatles – maybe they are talking about the odd Syd Barrett track, I don’t know, but it just doesn’t seem right to me….so I did not add them in :-).  Yes, the Beatles and Pink Floyd did both play psychedelic music, but it was very different in nature – so, no, I don’t see the connection, musically.

So – please send in your additions and corrections to any of the lists, and I will update them periodically to reflect world opinion – I am not a Beatle expert (although I have read extensively about them, in particular, I started out years ago with Hunter Davies’ remarkable biography of the Beatles;  in later years,  I’ve studied the remarkable works of Mark Lewissohn, whose “The Beatles Recording Sessions” is like the Bible, to me, one of my most cherished and most often re-read Beatles information sources).

I will read anything and everything written about the Beatles, even now – and I cannot possibly compile complete lists of the type I am presenting here, so any and all input from readers would be much appreciated – please comment, and in your comments, submit corrections or additions to any of the lists, and every few months, I will compile all of the comments and update the lists – so over time, maybe, these lists will become relatively complete – which would be great, because we would be creating a useful, accurate, and complete Beatle resource – or rather, a resource of bands and albums that SOUND like the Beatles, anyway – why not?

Meanwhile, on the subject of the Beatles music, I’ve been very happily really enjoying my two latest Beatle purchases: from 2013, the two-double-CD “Live At The BBC” – volume 1 (from 1994) completely remastered, and a new volume 2 entitled “On Air” which is a fantastic addition to this wonderful series – four CDs chock full of radio performances, studio out-takes, and the Beatles chattering – a fantastic Beatles music resource, of early live tracks and one demo, and at this point I say, thank God for the BBC !  Luckily, they kept all of these Beatle recordings, so now they have been compiled for future generations to enjoy.

My other purchase, “The U.S. Albums” is a 13 disc monstrosity, but hearing the albums in the U.S. running orders for the first time since I was a child, is just remarkable – even though John Lennon condemned Capitol for messing with the Beatles’ carefully considered running orders, the odd, arbitrary, Capitol-created running orders are unfortunately for we Americans, what we grew up hearing, so even now, I am still startled by the UK releases – because the songs don’t arrive in the order my brain expects they will.  So now I have complete choice – if I want the real thing, I consult the Stereo and Mono boxes from 2009.  If I want the Capitol versions – I consult the US Albums from 2014 – very exciting stuff for Beatle-maniacs such as myself 🙂

The last time I bought this many Beatles CDs all at one go, was in 2009, when the long-awaited stereo and mono re-masters appeared – and of course, that was an essential purchase. Following that, though, I am truly amazed, and at the same time, very grateful indeed, that in 2014, I can almost casually pick up 17 “new” Beatles albums – four from the BBC, and 13 from Capitol – and that just makes my Beatles catalogue so much more complete and containing even more variations on their remarkable catalogue of music – beautiful, rockin’ Beatle music.

So we’ve gone down an alternative path this time, a path taken by the many, many musicians who revere the Beatles, and admire their music enough to copy it exactly, partially, or, some aspect of Beatle music has entered into their own songs, anything from a guitar riff to some high register bass work of a melodic nature, or a steady Ringo Starr back beat – so sometimes, you may have a completely unique song, but there is a section of it that REALLY recalls the Beatles very strongly – so, five percent of the song is 98 percent Beatle-like – but, the REST of the song is not !

As a musician and a guitarist, I do hear a lot of these “stand-alone” Beatle moments, it might be a few bars of music in a Jason Falkner or Michael Penn pop song that strongly remind one of the Beatles, or just a 10 second passage in a song on the radio – you hear “Beatlesque” bits of music almost every day, and I am often fascinated by them, sometimes, you work in your mind to try and figure out which Beatles song or songs is being referenced – sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes, it’s impossible to determine – but you do know, just by hearing, when something has the quality of being “Beatlesque”.

 

Lists Of Bands That Sound Suspiciously Like The Beatles

 

Bands Or Artists That Always Sound Like The Beatles:

The Rutles

Bands Or Artists That Often Sound Like The Beatles:

Badfinger – an Apple band

The Knickerbockers

James McCartney – son of Paul McCartney

The Move – featuring Roy Wood

Raspberries – featuring Eric Carmen

The Swinging Blue Jeans

 

Bands Or Artists That Occasionally Sound Like The Beatle

10cc

Apples In Stereo

The Bears – featuring Adrian Belew

Adrian Belew (ex-King Crimson) – solo artist

Electric Light Orchestra – featuring Jeff Lynne

Jason Falkner (ex-Jellyfish) – solo artist

Dhani Harrison – son of George Harrison

Jellyfish – featuring Jason Falkner

The Kinks

Klaatu

Julian Lennon – son of John Lennon

Jeff Lynne – Electric Light Orchestra – Harrison’s producer /  member of Traveling Wilburys

Aimee Mann – solo artist

Bob Mould (ex-Husker Du) – solo artist

Nazz – featuring Todd Rundgren

The New Number 2 – featuring Dhani Harrison – son of George Harrison

Andy Partridge (ex-XTC)

Michael Penn – solo artist

Michael Penn & Aimee Mann – couple (they did an incredibly lovely cover of “two of us” – gorgeous track)

Todd Rundgren – solo artist

Teenage Fanclub –  Scottish pop band

Utopia – featuring Todd Rundgren

Roy Wood (ex-Move) – solo artist

XTC – featuring Andy Partridge

 

Bands That Sound Suspiciously Sort Of Like The Beatles

Oasis – (in their dreams, anyway!)

Tame Impala

 

Albums That Are Directly Inspired By The Beatles

Fresh – Raspberries – 1974

Faithful – Todd Rundgren – 1976 (all covers album, including Beatles covers)

The Rutles – The Rutles – 1978

Archaeology – The Rutles – 1996

Deface The Music – Utopia – featuring Todd Rundgren – 1980

We’re Only In It For The Money – Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention – 1968

– visual parody of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

 

Well-Known Known Admirers Of The Beatles – Musicians

Jon Anderson (ex-Yes)

Adrian Belew (ex-King Crimson)

Eric Carmen (ex-Raspberries)

Robert Fripp (King Crimson)

Liam Gallagher (ex-Oasis)

Noel Gallagher (ex-Oasis)

Steve Howe (Yes)

Eric Idle (ex-Rutles)

Graham Gouldman (10cc)

Jimi Hendrix (may he rest in peace)

Neil Innes (Rutles)

Aimee Mann (solo artist)

Andy Partridge (ex-XTC)

Michael Penn (solo artist) – brother of Sean Penn

Todd Rundgren (solo artist) – w/Nazz, Utopia

Chris Squire (Yes)

Eric Stewart (10cc)

Alan White (Yes)

 

Please – agree or disagree with my choices; send in additions, recommend deletions, recommend changes – and if there is enough input, I will periodically re-published updated versions of any Beatles lists that have appear in this blog series based on your input.

Meanwhile, maybe there are some artists noted here that you were not aware of, that have obviously studied the music of the Beatles and learned from it, and I am always happy to listen to any musician or band that sounds like the Beatles – so, if I have missed any truly obvious ones – please let me know, and again, I will update the list, too.

Happy listening – the influence of the Fab Four runs deep, traverses the entire globe, and only seems to be on the increase over time, as successive generations re-discover their music (often prompted by their parents, but still…) and then integrate parts of it into their own new kinds of music – a process that I hope goes on forever.

Nothing would make me happier, “in the year 2025” (another 60s pop joke for the older folk in the audience!!), let’s say, to hear a brand new song on the radio that sounds very original, but, completely Beatlesque at the same time – that would please me no end, because we then will know – young people are still listening to the greatest rock band that ever was – the fabulous Beatles – and they rock!!

I don’t know about you, but I am definitely under the influence of the Beatles – always have been, always will be – my favourite band from childhood, the first band I truly appreciated, and in actual fact, I literally “grew up” with them and their music, it’s a joy to still be listening to them now, in the year 2014, and feeling just as happy about it as I first did back in 1963, when I must have heard them on the TV, on the Ed Sullivan show – being only five then, I don’t directly recall it, but as it was repeated on TV every year or more often every year thereafter, I feel like I do remember it – and I do remember their later TV appearances directly.

What a remarkable group, and what a remarkable influence they’ve had on a remarkably talented group of very respectful and creative musicians – my peers I am proud to say, who also “grew up” with the Beatles.  There’s no better way to end up “under the influence…”

universe of sound (the komplete world)

after forty-odd years in the music business, we decided at the start of this new year, that we would acquire a software suite called komplete 9 ultimate for use at the pureambient studio. the software comes from a remarkable german company called “native instruments”, who are truly the masters of sampling technology – and a few other things, too –

 

KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – OVERVIEW & PRE-APOLOGY

 

this acquisition was intended to fill a few glaring omissions in our capabilities, such as proper strings, horns, basses, percussion, and so on, as well as providing the main elements for extending the classical music that we began releasing last year on the eternal album “classical”. this tool will allow for a speedier construction of classical pieces, rather than relying on the more piecemeal approach used on my first piece of classical music, “concerto no. 1 in e minor for oboe and guitar” – which was constructed almost line by line, using nothing but a guitar synthesizer.

 

as well as supporting classical music over the coming years, komplete 9 ultimate is also a natural for, and is eminently suited for, the production of music for films, which is another area that we hope to expand into over the coming years. this acquisition also bolsters the worlds of ambient music, as well as pop, rock, funk, jazz, and countless others – it’s hugely supporting in all genres, especially ambient.

 

we’ve only been using it for a short while, but already, we can see the enormous potential that this software suite has for adding quality sounds to the pieces that we create here.   and, it’s infinitely expandable, too, native instruments have purchased third party sound libraries and bundled them into komplete 9 ultimate, but you can also purchase other third party programs which you can play using komplete 9 ultimate “kontakt” sample player. so we will also be looking to acquire some of the best ambient libraries, which will also greatly expand our capability.

 

before I speak more specifically about what komplete 9 ultimate can do musically, I’d like to apologise to all early adopters and those who own komplete 9 ultimate or “kontakt” or both, I freely admit I am an absolute novice, I’ve been studying the suite in detail, learning the processes, slowly, over the past few weeks, and I do have a basic understanding in principle for most of what can be done with komplete 9 ultimate.   forgive me in advance if I say anything that shows just what a rookie I am at this, or I otherwise put my foot in my mouth – learning something like this can be a somewhat slow and painful process, even more painful when you are no longer young as I am. and – komplete 9 ultimate users – feel free to jump in and correct me, or offer advice or expand on anything I mention here – we are all of us learning at all times…and it’s best to share such knowledge freely.

 

my friend and collaborator ken mistove, my partner in saffron matted voids (the band), is a long time “komplete” user (I am talking about really long time – ten years! – and he has been doing electronic / digital music for longer still), and he warned me that I would be overwhelmed by this program – and, he could not have been more correct. in fact, weeks after it’s arrival, I continue to find more and more incredibly well-thought-out functionality, as well as becoming familiar with the synthesizers and the sample content. and it is almost totally overwhelming – it seems, almost, as if there is nothing this device cannot do…everywhere I turn, everywhere I look, I find something else that makes my jaw drop…

 

 

 

KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – THOSE AMAZING SYNTHESIZERS

 

[ULTIMATE INDEED!]

 

 

so – where do I begin?   well, when it came down to it, even though I was incredibly excited about the sample library, and the sample player (which allows multiple instances of many, many instruments in one session – I had fourteen instruments loaded into a session yesterday, and the software coped beautifully) – it was the synthesizers that I gravitated to initially – because, perhaps, I knew they would be easy to set up and use – familiar. before we purchased komplete 9 ultimate, I had read in detail about the synths, so I couldn’t wait to hear them in person – and I was right about the ease of set up and ease of use: within seconds, I was up and running with “absynth”, a personal favourite synth that seems to favour ambient and atmospheric sounds.

 

but “absynth” is a drop in the bucket, a handful of stars in this incredible universe of sound, and while it features hundreds and hundreds of truly beautiful preset sounds, it’s just one of nine synthesizer models built into komplete. the entire list of available synths looks like this:

 

  • absynth
  • fm8
  • massive
  • monark
  • razor
  • skanner xt
  • reaktor (modular synth system – containing many synths)
  • reaktor prism
  • reaktor spark
  • retro machines (which contains no less than 20 classic synthesizer instruments within)

 

so far, I’ve only truly managed to hear and use five of these synths, absynth, fm8, massive, reaktor prism, and retro machines, but even so, I’ve been utterly impressed with the build quality and the amazing attention to detail – this is precision german engineering like we used to have back in the 60s and 70s!

 

I have created a few test pieces in absynth (consequentially falling in love with it); I created an entire suite of 23 pieces using the fm8 synthesizer dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths”, I’ve created one very complex ambient piece (which is incredibly atmospheric) using massive “wanders down to the sea”, and for fun, I’ve played some of the classic organs, electric pianos, etc. in “retro machines” – “synths within a synth” which is a strange way of working, but I am getting used to it 🙂

 

in every case, the attention to detail, and the extremely fine level of control over sound in every one of these synths, has been overwhelming and most, most welcome. I have a lot of soft synths, but this collection of nine software synths kind of…blows away the competition, and as my friend ken mistove also said: “you will never need to buy another instrument” – and I can already see the truth in that.

 

while I might not “need” to, of course, there will still be some cases where I will “want” to – I am especially interested in some of the available third party ambient sample libraries, but that will have to wait – in the meantime, I have an awful lot to learn and trial just with the komplete 9 ultimate package itself.

 

after my initial very positive experience of playing and using “absynth”, I moved on to “massive”, and I decided to lay out and record a track using four instances of “massive”, each set to a different sound – and I then did a somewhat clever arrangement where I muted sections of each track, to allow other parts to shine through, creating a sort of ever-changing mood – a dark mood, with the sound of wind and seagulls crying and a vision of a bleak, grey storm-tossed day – again, I was amazed at how quickly and easily I could set up four instances in my host (my somewhat antiquated SONAR 8.5) and it coped beautifully – no problem.

 

I also created a short ambient piece within “reaktor”, using the “reaktor prism” synth; a portion of this track remains, entitled “fragment of a lonely molecule” – a truly beautiful sounding synth, which I plan to revisit often and use much, much more…

 

encouraged by the success of “wanders down to the sea” in “massive”, I then turned my attention to “fm8”, in which I created a whole series of tracks (“the rings of saturn”) from “dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths”, as well as some arranged “suites” where I took a set of smaller files and mixed them into long, linear sequences – providing a blended view of the basic tracks, as opposed to the individual view of each piece.

 

a few hours later, I realised I had created no less than 23 tracks using “fm8”, and I am so enamoured of this synth, it has a lot of great, visceral sounds, and a lot of charming, melodic, or dissonant, or strangely jazzy, arpeggiators, and the sheer range of voices available within fm8 is mind-boggling. It was a fun session, and as such, I made the decision to create two eternal albums for komplete: one for “komplete synths” (LINK) and one for komplete samples (LINK).   These have both been up and running for a couple of months now, and while the “komplete synths” album has a reasonable number of tracks, I’ve been very slow to create using the “samples” – but, I will get there, I will – I just need time! 🙂

 

the 23 tracks made with “fm8” and the one piece made with “massive” “wanders down to the sea”, are all uploaded to the “dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths” eternal album. I plan on working with each of the synths in turn, and uploading the results, so you can hear what each one of these remarkable sound creation tools can do. If I have my way, by the end of this year, the “komplete synths” eternal album, will have dozens of tracks made with a myriad number of available synths – and I hope I can just keep creating and creating – those are 9 amazing synths, each a master of the domain it covers, and I can’t wait to create more music with all of them – the synthesizers built-in to komplete 9 ultimate are absolutely brilliant!

 

THE HIDDEN GEM WITHIN KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – GUITAR RIG 5

before I continue on to the samples section, I must not forget to mention one of the biggest selling points of komplete 9 ultimate, for me, which is the presence of “guitar rig 5 pro” – I had been underwhelmed by an earlier version of guitar rig, which I got bundled with SONAR, “guitar rig 3”, so I’ve now uninstalled that and I am using “guitar rig 5 pro” instead.

 

what a difference. the preset library is vastly improved, and the range of effects, and the flexibility provided in setting them up in the rack, are simply astonishing – to me, this is one of the most important pieces of guitar software to come along. so after working with the synths, purely for fun, I recorded a handful of pieces using “guitar rig 5 pro” – and I am more than impressed with the sound quality and the presets – it’s an awesome and powerful guitar amp and speaker cabinet emulator, and it has a huge range of high quality guitar effects as well. a couple of these pieces may see the light of day, but they were mostly for reference, and just a way of trialling certain patches and sounds.

 

this is now to the point, since “guitar rig 5 pro” is clearly superior to many guitar processing devices in both the hardware AND the software arena – I am at the point, where I can now happily retire my ailing “line 6 x3 live” hardware pedalboard guitar effects processor, which is now basically redundant (it has served me very well since 2008, but it’s now time to be retired at long last).

 

because I can pretty much re-create every sound in the line 6 using “guitar rig 5 pro” instead, and more – so that’s actually a blessing – no more effects on the floor (although I will always have my faithful “output chain” of hardware effects, harmonizer, delay, reverb at the end of my signal chain) I believe I will now use “guitar rig 5” for most of my guitar sounds, and anything it can’t handle, I can program into my gr-55 guitar synth – so guitars, and guitar signal processing – are covered! and I mean…covered.

 

it’s always very difficult, because over time, you have various tools that you use to record guitar or synths with, and eventually, better tools come along. and, you can run both old and new, that’s not an issue, if you want to – but my preference is to keep effects units down to a dull roar – so I am going to TRY to retire the line 6 x3 live – I mean, it is six years old, which in dog years, is, I don’t know, 70 years or something – and technology has moved along SO FAR since the X3 Live was designed…

 

so for the first week of my fledgling native instruments life, I learned about the synthesizers and I learned how to run “guitar rig 5 pro” – and that was a huge amount to learn, but, I have the basics down, and I can rely on both the set of nine included synthesizers (plus 20 more vintage instruments within “retro machines mk II”) and the extremely impressive “guitar rig 5 pro” interface. I could have gone on working with the synths and guitar rig for weeks and weeks, but I wanted then to shift gears and look at the sampling capabilities of “komplete”.

 

SAMPLING – THE HEART AND SOUL OF KOMPLETE ULTRA

[REAL INSTRUMENT SOUNDS – AT LAST!]

 

the list of sample-based instruments is even more impressive than the list of synthesizers:

 

  • kontakt – the main user interface / sample player for all sampled instruments:

 

kontakt is a very powerful environment, that allows you to load multiple instruments (built by native instruments, and many other vendors as well), which can then be routed either each to their own output (for maximum recording flexibility) or they can be routed to various stereo or mono sub-mixes – really, whatever your heart desires. you can save overall “presets” in kontakt itself, so if you hit upon a winning combination, say, “abbey road drums 1960s” and “scar-bee rickenbacker bass” and “guitar rig 5” you can save that configuration, including whatever output configurations you have, as well as the specific settings of each device – to a kontakt “preset” – for easy recall / re-use..

 

another positive aspect of the kontakt sample player is it’s ability to play not just native instrument plug-in instruments, but also, instruments made by third party vendors such as soniccouture, waves, scar-bee, g-force, and many, many others.

 

each instrument that is loaded into your kontakt session, also has a page for it’s settings, where you can choose instrument presets, adjusting the sound of the instrument until you are happy with it – then, you save your changes – then, you save your kontakt preset – and all of the instrument settings are saved as part of your “overall” kontakt saved preset – fantastic. so you can create very complex presets, that contain your favourite instruments, set just the way you want them, which can be recalled instantly in any combination – it’s absolutely outstanding.

 

here is the seemingly never-ending list of sampled instruments that come with komplete 9 ultimate.

 

  • action strings
  • session horns
  • damage (industrial and orchestral, cinematic drums and percussion)
  • evolve
  • session strings pro
  • evolve mutations
  • evolve mutations 2
  • battery 4
  • abbey road vintage drummer
  • abbey road 60s drummer
  • abbey road 70s drummer
  • abbey road 80s drummer
  • abbey road modern drummer
  • studio drummer
  • west africa (a personal favourite)
  • balinese gamelan (another personal favourite)
  • maschine drum selection
  • scarbee rickenbacker bass
  • guitar rig 5 pro
  • scarbee funk guitarist
  • scarbee mm-bass and mm-bass amped
  • scarbee pre-bass and pre-bass amped
  • rammfire
  • scarbee jay-bass
  • the giant
  • vintage organs
  • alicia’s keys
  • george duke soul treasures
  • scarbee a-200 electric piano
  • scarbee mark I electric piano
  • scarbee clavinet/pianet
  • berlin concert grand piano
  • new york concert grand piano
  • vienna concert grand piano
  • upright piano

 

bear in mind that each one of the above instruments, has a broad range of “presets” giving you as many different optional sounds for each instrument as is possible, “muted”, “picked”, “fingered”, and so on – so it’s not just a “rickenbacker bass” – it’s a rickenbacker bass that can be configured from anything such as a very timid, high pitched highly eq’d clean bass sound, to various much louder presets that emulate different sounds that this bass is capable of, and that includes both DI and “amped” sounds, so you get an enormous range of flexibility with every instrument listed above!

 

as explained elsewhere, those settings can be saved as part of a kontakt “preset”, so you could have one set up with a super clean, thin sounding Ricky bass, and another with a very distorted Ricky played through an emulated British amp – two EXTREMELY different “bass guitar” sounds from the same instrument.

 

In the classical world, the options are of course, much different to the options for a rock instrument, so for violins, you would have a huge range of various playing styles or articulations, legato, staccato, pizzicato, and so on – and just about any kind of articulation you can imagine, including some rather obscure ones, and also, it’s incredible to get these precision articulations, and of course, as with all quality samplers, there are also extreme velocity choices, so that you can emulate the velocity that you would apply to the real instrument, on the keys of your keyboard instead. all of these options are on every instrument where they exist, although some instruments may have just a handful of possible presets or articulations, others may have dozens – maximum real-life playability issues have been addressed as much as humanly possible.

 

 

…not to mention a massive range of high quality software effects and audio processing tools included in komplete 9 ultimate:

 

  • solid EQ
  • solid bus compressor
  • solid dynamincs stereo compressor
  • rc-48 reverb
  • rc-24 reverb
  • vari comp compressor
  • enhanced EQ Equaliser
  • passive EQ Equaliser
  • transient master Equaliser
  • driver distortion unit
  • VC76 FET compressor/limiter
  • VC2A electro-optical compressor/limiter
  • VC160 drum compressor
  • the finger – live performance and remix tool
  • the mouth – generates melodies and harmonies from any audio input
  • reflecktor high performance reverb effect

 

 

for full details, have a look at the product page on the native instruments site:

and here is the effects page on the native instruments site:

 

 

my first foray into the world of sampled instruments was a piece I created using various sampled elements, entitled “the giant’s causeway”, which contains three sections:

 

1)     “the giant prelude” features “the giant” cinematic instrument (a cinematic / orchestrator / ambient piano kind of sample set) – I played one take, which was best, and that became “the giant prelude” – perfection.

 

2)     “allegro in a minor” features “action strings” (which include moving passages of strings created with an “animator” function – which is truly awe inspiring)

 

3)     “giants on the causeway” following, the third and final section of the piece; features a manually played drum part;/ the scarbee “rickenbacker bass”; and a truly beautiful flute and strings mellotron sample, plus a short solo on a vintage organ.

 

“the giant” instrument just blew me away, I did a take one take of a sort of reverse piano strings/unknown kind of sample, and it came out totally usable – in one take!!! I will absolutely be revisiting this instrument, and I could see creating large, ambient compositions using JUST this instrument.

 

once “the giant” section was recorded, I added in the “action strings” instrument, and spent quite some time writing and laying out a short violin quartet piece in the key of a minor. note: this is where the “staff” view in SONAR becomes invaluable!) while short in duration, the SOUND is amazing, it sounds so incredibly real (because, let’s face it – it IS real!) because of the use of the strings animator – which gives you real “sections” or “passages” of bowed strings – in a significant number of styles, legato, staccato, pizzicato and more. this section took me a while to complete, but eventually, I did finish it to my satisfaction.

 

the third part of this unfinished piece was a rickenbacker bass line, set against some manually played drums, finished off with a live mellotron take, flutes and strings – plus a short solo on a vintage organ – and I have to say, the scarbee rickenbacker samples are out of this world – there’s even a “british” setting which gives you a roaring live distorted chris squire sound that just blows you away. even on the clean settings, this instrument screams “I am an authentic ricky bass” – and the distorted scarbee bass part just SOUNDS amazing…

 

this piece remains unfinished, but I always considered it as a test piece, a learning curve, a learning tool, a learning experience. I did rough mixes, and kept the three sections separately as demos, but I don’t believe that this piece will be published, but if it does, it would definitely be “the giant” piece, possibly the string quartet, and doubtful, probably NOT the rickenbacker section…which SOUNDS great (especially the distorted ricky bass line!), but wasn’t (necessarily) a great piece of music…

 

so “the giant’s causeway” went onto the shelf, however, since it was my very first piece (beyond playing a few synths) – proper piece – done with komplete – I was happy enough with it. I learned…

 

I will very, very probably attempt the piece again; I would retain the original part one, since it’s a live, take one, that is basically flawless, I would rebuild and expand the string section, and completely revamp the “prog trio” of drums, bass and mellotron/organ at the end. so – I am keeping the shelved demo as a reference…for now.

 

I then turned to an instrument that I was very, very curious about, “west africa” – I lived in east africa for four years, and learned to appreciate african music back then (especially congolese music) so having high quality samples of african instruments was a very exciting prospect to me.

 

I first constructed a “duet” of two koras; one, playing midi patterns emulating a rhythmic picking cycle, and another kora, where I played melodies “free hand” on top of the moving background. I did two takes, both of which I enjoy, but since I am not entirely happy with the melodic content on either (although the second take is actually quite good) I have also shelved those – and since then, much more recently, I sat down again with the kora duet template, and create a third piece, another kora duet, entitled “the heart of africa” – and this take, I think is quite decent – and I thoroughly enjoyed working with these amazing sounds.

 

I plan to practice on all of the west african instruments, and I hope to arrange more complex pieces of music involving west african drums, flutes and stringed instruments…a side project that will keep me busy for years! I would never have dreamed that I would have a sideline in african music one day – but I will, because I love african music, and the more I work on it, the better I will get at emulating it…

 

after the two shelved kora duets, which were followed very recently by the successful kora duet, I then turned to my first use of “multi” instruments, and, with the invaluable assistance of ken mistove, I eventually learned and understood how to create multiple instruments within a single instance of kontakt – and once I “got” that, I could sit down and attempt a full on piece of sampled music.

 

I randomly selected a preset “multi” instrument from the evolve mutations instrument, and it proceeded to load 12 instruments that created one of the most atmospheric, eerie “drum kits” I have ever heard.

 

it took a couple of tries, but eventually, I got a good quality drum track, and then I turned to the other instruments. a proper bass part was in order, so I loaded up the scarbee pre-bass (amped version) and got a nice, full bass sound – recorded a bass part to go with the drum part – and again, very impressed with the scarbee instruments, they seem to do a very good job of getting the authentic sound of classic instruments sampled to perfection – the “pre” bass (i.e. based on the classic fender precision bass guitar) is another one that is of the highest quality, as the scarbee rickenbacker bass samples are as well – Native Instruments has scooped up two fantastic bass instruments from scarbee, and it’s a great acquisition – I hope they adopt more scar-bee products, I really do.

 

finally, I worked at overlaying a section of grand piano, courtesy of the “george duke soul treasures” instrument, an absolutely stunning set of riffs recorded on grand piano, electric piano, organ and other keyboards – and all simply classic – great sounding samples!

 

in this case, I actually reached the maximum possible number of instrument that can be crammed into one “kontakt” session – so once again, familiar theme emerging…I abandoned the piece unfinished – again. in order to complete it, I will need to mix down the drums and bass together from the unfinished session, and move to a new session to overdub many george duke piano samples atop the pre-mixed (bounced) bass and drums – and at that moment, I didn’t feel like going through that process.

 

instead, I set it aside, and I moved on to my next test piece, my next “komplete” learning experience.   I wanted very much to try the “session horns”, so I built a short introductory piece, entitled “softly, softly we go”, which featured a group of horns, in a nice reverb room, with a “soft” instrument setting, playing a mock classical theme – a lovely sound, and as far as it goes – a good intro or lead-in piece to some larger production.

 

to follow the horn intro, I wanted a drum track, using the abbey road 60s drummer (because I wanted to learn how to compose drum tracks) so using this instrument, I built a nice long drum part, with various sections, and some fancy fills, and I have to say, although completely unadorned, it’s one of my best pieces yet.

 

finally, I sat down and re-made my kora duet, creating a much better backing track, and, hopefully, performing better melodic lead parts atop the pattern generator rhythms.   that, “the heart of africa”, and my unadorned abbey road 1960s drum part, is where I am right now with sampled instruments – and using kontakt to create drum parts, using the abbey road 60s drummer – could not have been easier – in short order, I had the process down, to where I could build an intelligent, varied and interesting drum part quite quickly – the whole thing took less than an hour.

 

but – the piece remains unfinished, again, I have kept two separate demos, one of “softly, softly we go” – my gentle, quiet horn intro – and another of the untitled-so- it’s-called “abbey road drums 1960s” aka “run into town – run 1” for reference, I hope to probably re-make the horn part, make it more concise, and create more space in it, and of course, I then need to decide what goes on top of my beautiful, recorded in abbey road studio no. 2 drums. sigh… (note: eventually, of course, a Rickenbacker bass part went on top of the drum part – and then, a host of live energy bow guitars…),

I also had an absolute blast doing a bass solo with the scarbee Rickenbacker bass instrument, “amber waves of grain” – over 10 minutes of sheer Rickenbacker tone.

another aspect of komplete 9 ultimate is the undeniable fact that it is making certain instruments and software, no longer useful, it is literally making them redundant – as komplete can do the job more easily, with better samples, with a mature GUI (kontakt) than earlier third party apps can, or, better than older hardware effects can L.

 

so in this case, for example, while I will probably install my old drum machine software, which is called “BFD2” (this was utilised heavily during the making of “gone native”), I will only do so, so I can see and use the drum kits / samples it contains – which I would use via kontakt within komplete – NOT through the much more difficult to learn, and use, BFD GUI.

 

in a way, I really don’t NEED BFD any more, because I have several sampled kits from abbey road studios, plus, I have “battery 4” and a few other percussion based instruments – there is functionality and samples far beyond what BFD offers. so as I say, I would still use their kits (which sound great) but not their interface J.

 

so, if I am honest, komplete has made the following software and hardware items redundant:

 

redundant software:

 

bfd2 drum machine software + sonar’s session drummer 3 drum machine software – replaced by:

 

  • damage (industrial and orchestral, cinematic drums and percussion)
  • battery 4 (massive drum machine / sample player, with many, many drum kits)
  • abbey road vintage drummer
  • abbey road 60s drummer
  • abbey road 70s drummer
  • abbey road 80s drummer
  • abbey road modern drummer
  • studio drummer
  • west africa
  • balinese gamelan
  • maschine drum selection

 

note: both bfd2 and session drummer 3 are still available to use, either by using their kits from komplete / kontact, or by using their own GUIs if desired – but, not sure I would ever use either again given the list above.

 

redundant hardware:

 

 

line 6 “x3 live” guitar effects pedalboard – replaced by: guitar rig 5 pro, plus, sampled guitars and basses:

 

  • guitar rig 5 pro
  • rammfire
  • scarbee rickenbacker bass
  • scarbee funk guitarist
  • scarbee mm-bass and mm-bass amped
  • scarbee pre-bass and pre-bass amped
  • scarbee jay-bass

 

 

 

“digitech” TSR24-S hardware 24 bit reverb unit – replaced by:

 

  • rc-48 reverb
  • rc-24 reverb
  • reflecktor high performance reverb effect
  • galbarnum breeze 2C reverb (reverb plug-in for SONAR) – additional reverb choice “outside” of komplete itself
  • all four of these reverbs can be “called” from within SONAR, so it’s very, very useful to have access to these high quality effects, even for improving content that was not created in komplete 🙂

 

plus

 

  • eventide “space” hardware reverb – this is part of a permanent installation of three hardware four hardware effects that sit at the “end” of my mixer output chain – so, the final stereo output of the mixer, goes directly to these four hardware plug ins, and THEN to the sound card.

 

I’ve learned over time, that certain effects sound best in “front” (so just after the guitar, as part of your mix, occupying two or three stereo pairs on the mixer) while other effects work best “after” the mixer (such as pitch units, delay units, and absolutely, reverb units).

 

so, reluctant as I am to do so, it’s probably time to retire the “digitech”, and rely on the three high quality reverb units within komplete 9 ultimate – as well as galbanum’s 2c “breeze” reverb software – which in itself, was and is probably a replacement for the ancient tired “digitech” rack mount 24 bit reverb, not to mention the eventide “space”, which again, in itself, is probably a replacement / improvement over the digitech.

 

In a perfect world, I’d love to just run everything, and in some respects, I have been doing so, I’ve certainly kept a number of hardware devices running that I have replaced several times over – so I have to bite the bullet now, and actually remove the older, noisier technology, and whether I will or not, it seems that software synths and software effects are gradually taking over my set up, which is actually not unwelcome, and I hope that this summer, when the studio is moving, I can re-arrange the studio to support a less-hardware dependent sonic environment.

 

Purchasing komplete 9 ultimate gives us a lot of that software, bleeding edge software synths and effects, awesome high quality samples, and other factors, such as the emergence of very sophisticated applications for the ipad tablet and also, for the PC. In future, I will probably end up using a very hybrid system, were some tracks are created on the ipad (and eventually, too, mastered and mixed – tools have emerged…), and then moved into komplete, and then mastered and mixed in SONAR and/or komplete and/or Adobe Audition (where I do a lot of my simpler mastering now). The fact that I can do these processes in multiple “places” gives us an enormous amount of choice, it’s absolutely fantastic what can be accomplished.

 

Other tracks would be created wholly on the PC, using PC software only to create, master, and mix them.   Still others would involve the use of “real” instruments, guitar, synthesizer, keyboard, kaoss pad, percussion, etc. which can be processed through software packages such as “guitar rig 5” and also, the studio quality effects within komplete 9 ultimate. The RC-24 and RC-48 reverb units are especially absolutely lovely, they sound great, and I am really enjoying them.

 

The appearance of a massive army of music applications on the apple ipad, has changed forever the way I make music. Over the past few months, I’ve been scoring classical, acoustic guitar, and alternative music using a notation application called “notion” – and I can see myself exporting tracks from notion, and then importing them into komplete, to add the highest quality sampled instruments to the basic instrumentation created by my original score on the ipad.

 

I will absolutely be using a combination of pieces:

 

  • music created wholly on the iPad (which WILL include guitar and loop work, not just synthesizers – thanks to some truly quality guitar applications such as BIAS, Ampkit+, and GuitarTone)

 

  • music created using the ipad and my guitar or guitar synth

 

 

  • music created entirely on the PC, not utilising any ipad applications, the kaoss pad, or any “physical instruments” such as guitar or bass

 

  • music created using the ipad, the korg kaossilator, my guitar or guitar synth, bass guitar, live keyboards courtesy of various software synths, and anything else I can throw into the mix

 

(I call this last one the “all instruments” set up – it allows me to use, in a completely live setting, guitar, keyboards, kaoss pad, ipad, and of course, a lot of effects units, including loopers). The looper captures the live performance, and the output of the looper is optionally run through the pitch pedal, the delay, and the reverb (my standard set of output live hardware effects pedals), and finally recorded in SONAR.

 

The arrival of application-based music meant that my record-keeping was really thrown askew, because you can create so much amazing music so quickly with applications, I realised early on, I would need a special forum to create them in, so before things got out of hand, I split my recorded music collection into two distinct areas:

 

Music Dave Stafford – the traditional home of most traditional recordings, anything involving real guitars, real basses, real keyboards, and looping thereof – which may also include the occasional ipad or kaoss pad in a guest starring role – they are not banned, it’s just this is the home of more traditional instrumentation.

 

App-Based Dave Stafford – there is a folder for each app, containing both sessions and finished product, I am so glad I did this now, because now whenever I complete any piece in an app, I have a specific place to store it, from which to upload to Bandcamp, or Soundcloud, or to my website – or for whatever purpose I need it for.

 

This means that any very hybrid music, that crosses over between these two broad categories, I’ve chosen to move that kind of music into the “Music Dave Stafford” folder, because it contains the real instruments, which is really the main characteristic of the music in this folder – the presence of real instruments, played in real time or looped.

 

The arrangement is working well so far, I am not surprised by how many app folders I already have, and as time goes on, there will just be more and more, but I think that’s brilliant – and the emergence of more and more sophisticated application music creation tools, is almost irreversibly moving me more towards app-based music – my next eternal album is focussed on one of my more recent app acquisitions – the iVCS3 , a perfect replica of the 1969 beast of a synth that powered the sound of early roxy music and early king crimson – one of the first truly sophisticated modular synths, and the application version is uncanny for it’s realism – it’s a fantastic, primitive, visceral, wonderful device that spits and fires, drones and warbles, and has a fantastic set of pre-sets, too – including the famous never-ending synth pattern of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” – and it’s very, very odd to hear that playing on your ipad, from an emulation of the device it was originally created on!   The makers have included the Who session as a preset – amazing!

 

I’ve been playing the iVCS3 recently, and I have recorded a number of tracks, which while not quite ambient, I am happy enough to give them the name “drones” – so, some elements of ambient, then, but, some other, harsher elements too.

 

I believe I recorded about a dozen tracks, a few of which turned out to be somewhat substandard (clearly a beginner with the device, you can’t win them all!) but I believe that about eight tracks have survived and are some cracking representations of what this amazing synthesizer is capable of. I’ve mastered three of the tracks, and I hope to work on the rest this weekend, with a view to get the album posted before Monday – that’s my hope, difficult to say if I really will make that date – I shall try.

 

The pieces recorded are simply remarkable, no thanks to me, my involvement is minimal, but, I did need to be involved, it’s strange, in that when you “play” the iVCS3, you don’t often really use the keys, you more often use the knobs to create variation of a running theme. I was very intent on getting some excellent tracks out of the device, so I very, very carefully and very gingerly turned knobs, until I understood what each one did…and then I felt free enough to really experiment, so I really branched out on the last few numbers, which were all longer-running pieces, one of them extending to over ten minutes.

 

So I have momentarily, turned away from working with komplete, but that’ not to say I have stopped, in any way – it’s my intent to work with komplete as much as my schedule with allow me – and my first goal, is to take a complete bass and drum track, that I did a lot of work on, and see if I can create a proggy version of it, complete with precision prog guitaring – that is my goal for this piece. So komplete is waiting for me, and as soon as I get back to it, you can expect a slow but constant stream of music, of many, many kinds and styles, to be built with the remarkable toolset available within komplete 9 ultimate – an awe-inspiring piece of music software that if you had told me about it 20 years ago, I would not have believed you, I would have said it was impossible for such a thing to exist, on a computer…

 

But – exist it does – and we really wanted to step up a bit, and have the capacity and ability to create a much, much broader range of sounds than we previously had available – and the nine synths and the many, many sampled instruments within Komplete, gives us just that! And – the future – there are many amazing instruments available that will run in Kontakt, so we do plan to pick up some of them over time – the first acquisition will be a very special tool, meant to bolster the ambient sampling capability of the studio – soniccouture’s remarkable “geosonics” instrument.

 

This remarkable third-party instrument, which runs in kontakt without issue, manufactured by soniccouture, is comprised of four different musical “sections”, each one representing a season, and many of the sounds have been sampled from nature, all over the world, and compiled into this unique instrument – and some of the “combinations” of sounds they have created are truly remarkable. So I have “geosonics” on my wish list…and I also have a large number of other third party instruments that I would love to add to my sample player set up 🙂

 

In any case, I cannot recommend native instruments highly enough; who have patiently worked on kontakt, reaktor, and all the instruments that plug into them; and Guitar Rig, one of the most amazing software guitar processing packages I have ever seen –and their choice of subcontractors, i.e. companies that have created unique and very special instruments, which native instruments have added to their product offering to make it more attractive. That includes but is not necessarily limited to Soniccouture (whose “gamelan” instrument is included in komplete 9 ultimate – one of my favourite instruments so far – have a listen to my gamelan-created track “bird of paradise”), Scarbee, who make the amazing “rickenbacker bass” instrument (and several other bass and guitar emulations, too!) – which you can hear on “run into town – run 1” or “run into town – run 2”– that thing is just so amazing sounding, completely authentic, and when you couple it with a high quality sampled drum track, it sounds completely real – because of course, it IS completely real.

 

That…is the beauty of sampled instruments. They are real ! Therefore…they SOUND real.   Which is a good thing 🙂

 

the worst band in the world

a few months ago, I tidied up a portion of my music collection that had lain dormant for a long time; I completed the partially complete task of loading the entire 10cc catalogue onto my mobile device.

thus prepared to re-engage with one of the most interesting bands of the 1970s (were they art rock? were they pop? were they prog?), yesterday, I put on a record that I haven’t listened to a lot since 1977, when it came out, but I am stunned just now, hearing it in headphones for a start, but just hearing how good it is…”live and let LIVE” by 10cc.  this album…is an absolute corker.

despite the absence of the uh, stoned geniuses, kevin godley & lol creme, this newly-reinforced and revitalised version of 10cc, led by the very straight eric stewart and graham gouldman, the two remaining original members…is astonishingly capable, the set list is amazing, considering that godley & creme aren’t there…and what a performance !! stunning musicianship, and the vocals are so, so perfect it’s difficult to believe it’s live.

I myself was fortunate enough, to see 10cc live in 1978, so, the tour after this one; at the san diego civic theatre, this was the “bloody tourists” tour, and while it was a slightly different band (I got to see them with the amazing duncan mackay on keyboards, whilst “live and let LIVE” features tony o’malley on keys) it was essentially the same group as you hear on this official live album…

there is a live album made by the original 10cc; the quartet version, featuring eric stewart, graham gouldmanlol creme and kevin godley – which is available under different titles, but it’s basically “king biscuit live 1975” and it was in support of “the original sound track”, so quite “early”, recorded at the stage where they have just three records out – and while it’s a great album, because it’s the original band…it does not have the production values that 10cc – ”live and let LIVE” does.

of course, ”live and let LIVE” was recorded a full two years later, with a revitalised eric stewart in charge – and the difference is noticeable.  two great live albums, but the difference was something like, well, we’ll record this 1975 santa monica gig for fm radio – and maybe release it some day; whereas with ”live and let LIVE” was intentional, more “let’s go out and play these songs really well, really professionally, and record the whole tour until we get a perfect version of every song, or one perfect show” kind of thing;  the planning and execution is something akin to the invasion at normandy – planned to musical perfection by eric stewart, executed to near perfection, live on stage, by the “new 10cc“.

and yes, if you go onto you tube (or if you buy the “tenology” box set) you can see fantastic live videos of the original four piece, playing deep album tracks such as “oh effendi” or “old wild men” – and, it is a bit sad, that those kinds of ultra creative / proggy tracks are long gone from the repertoire by 1977.  the original quartet was unbeatable, studio or live, their four studio albums are all top-notch, so when eric stewart sat down to build “deceptive bends” without godley & creme, he knew he was facing a challenge.  but, he stuck with what he knew best: songs.  and, he penned the undeniably catchy “the things we do for love”, which meant that “deceptive bends” was going to be a big success.

so what does this “brave new 10cc” play, then?  first of all, you need to remember that this is the stewart-gouldman 10cc, therefore, the “poppier” 10cc, not the darker, stranger 10cc featuring godley & creme, so it does tend towards pop, and towards the “hits” – but there are a lot of surprises, and a lot of great tracks from all different phases of the band’s long career.  and, a few performances of classic original 10cc tracks – in particular, the show opener, a hard rocking version of a stand-out track from the band’s third album, “the original soundtrack” – an absolutely kick-ass version of “the second sitting for the last supper” that is shocking in it’s musical prowess.

also from that original series of four albums (10cc, sheet music, the original sound track, “how dare you!” – that was all they did before godley & creme split – well, five if you count “king biscuit 1975” I suppose) a very cool version of “art for art’s sake” plus eric stewart’s best contribution to “how dare you!”, the overlooked pop classic “I’m mandy, fly me”.  an unavoidable choice, also from “the original soundtrack” album, is the fm radio classic “I’m not in love” – also a stewart track.

but, here’s the full set list for this double live album:

the second sitting for the last supper                  [dave – (!! – a storming way to begin the show !!)]

you’ve got a cold

honeymoon with b troop

art for art’s sake

people in love

wall street shuffle

ships don’t disappear in the night (do they?)                    [dave – (listen to eric stewart on slide – harrison and allman, look out)]

I’m mandy, fly me

marriage bureau rendezvous

good morning judge

feel the benefit                        [dave – beatlesque perfection, stonking dual lead guitar outro…)]

the things we do for love

waterfall

I’m not in love

modern man blues

before I look at the show itself, I should explain the difference between the bands:  the original 10cc line-up of stewart / gouldman / godley / creme was nominally a quartet, but often, because drummer godley had so many lead vocal duties, they had a second drummer in paul burgess – so the “original” live quartet was actually a quintet:

eric stewart – lead guitar, acoustic and electric piano, lead vocals

graham gouldman – bass guitar, electric guitar, lead vocals

kevin godley – drums, lead vocals

lol creme – electric guitar, gizmo, piano, lead vocals

paul burgess – drums & percussion

with the departure of godley & creme in 1977, who went of to concoct their triple album, progressive rock masterpiece “consequences”, which utilised their invention, the “gizmo”, throughout – a “gizmo” orchestral work, if you will (which includes performances from the late sarah vaughan and the late peter cook) – stewart and gouldman had to then rethink the band – and enable it to play both the very complex (and often quite strange) back catalogue, as well as the current material (at this point, the new 10cc only had one “new album” – the very respectable “deceptive bends”) – and I think that eric stewart now, ironically, faced the same problem that kevin godley did back in the original band – he played so many different parts on the album, multiple lead and rhythm guitars notably, as well as now being the main keyboardist in the studio band, so he needed to have a band with enough capability to free him from trying to play all those complex parts himself – and let him concentrate on either lead vocals, lead guitar, or occasionally electric piano or real piano as required.

so – faced with this problem, the solution seemed obvious – hire an extra guitarist who can also play bass (in the person of rick fenn); hire a second keyboard player so that they can replicate tracks where there are more than one keyboard (in the person of tony o’malley); and for some reason, hire an extra drummer (in the person of stuart tosh) (maybe because they were accustomed to having two drummers on stage?) – not really sure why – but that is what they did.  the new, expanded 10cc looked like this, then:

eric stewart– lead guitar, acoustic and electric piano, lead vocals

graham gouldman – bass guitar, electric guitar, lead vocals

rick fenn – lead guitar, bass guitar, vocals

tony o’malley – keyboards, acoustic and electric piano, vocals

paul burgess – drums & percussion

stuart tosh – drums & percussion                 [dave – formerly of the pop band “pilot” – oh they of the one hit “magic”…]

(It is interesting to note, and perhaps a comment on how difficult they were to replace, that basically, it took four people – fenn, o’malley, burgess and tosh – to replace two departed original members – so four people to replace two very talented, capable people – that’s kind of “telling”, isn’t it??).

this band, with duncan mackay replacing tony o’malley, was the 10cc that I was fortunate enough to see in 1978 playing the live version of “bloody tourists” – and I would say, it was one of the most incredible concerts I’ve ever seen, they played all the really excellent deep tracks from the new album (including some real beauties, “tokyo”, “old mister time” and others), and also including a very proggy number called “everything you’ve always wanted to know about !!! (exclamation marks)” (my personal favourite track from the album) which features an amazing end section of duncan mackay and eric stewart playing more like members of yes or gentle giant, than a “pop” band – serious chops – I kid you not – it was musically stupendous.

and…clearly, without a doubt, this was the band with the best live vocal sound I’ve ever, ever heard, incredible six part harmonies (when needed) and the most perfectly arranged, and in tune, and in time, background vocals imaginable.  just…stunning.  only the beach boys or the beatles in the studio are better.  hearing them sing like this, live, in 1978, was something that left a strong impression on me – and made me realise just how important having properly arranged vocal harmonies is to the live sound of every band.  if you are going to do harmonies – do them right.  hit the notes.  be in tune… !!

it’s fortunate for 10cc that the technology of 1977 and 1978 allowed them to re-create six part harmonies and complex background vocals on stage in a way that in 1966, the beatles, then the world champions of rock vocal harmony, could not (not due to any shortcomings on their part as vocalists, but totally because the technology just wasn’t there in ’66).  I think that eric stewart secretly wanted his band to be like the band that the beatles could have been live, had 1966 technology allowed them to hear what they were singing.

I watch the film of the beatles playing “nowhere man” in munich, germany in 1966, and it’s the closest thing we get to them singing their perfect LP harmonies, live; whereas on ”live and let LIVE” – stewart manages to recreate the studio vocals on every single track, beautifully and damn near perfectly – on stage.  If only the beatles had arrived ten years later…but then, that wouldn’t have worked out for other reasons, so I shouldn’t wish such things really…

and on ”live and let LIVE” – it’s pretty much the same as what I saw a year later with the 1978 version of the band – the vocals are unbelievably perfect.  just like the record – only – live.  this perfectionism is obviously the work of eric stewart, who was always the guy who arranged, recorded, and mixed all of the original 10cc albums; with godley & creme gone, stewart took over as de facto leader with gouldman as his willing lieutenant…and together, they forged a new, better, more in tune, less unpredictable live version of the band.

one of the stand-out tracks on the record is the 13 minute rendition of  “feel the benefit”, the long suite in three parts from the then-new “deceptive bends” album – this is a very beatlesque song to begin with, having a “dear prudence” like guitar intro (and coda) that evolves into a very string-laden ballad, which features the incredibly beautiful lead voice of eric stewart, clearly the “heir apparent” to paul mccartney (and strangely, later on, he joined mccartney’s band for a while, appeared in mccartney videos, and on a few mcartney tracks here and there – appearing on a few different mccartney albums over time) – what an incredible lead vocal on this track!

and then, when the background voices join in, it’s literally goose-bump inducing; it’s so perfectly like the album, but with the added excitement of being live – and stewart is the star throughout (thirteen minutes on his very best game) – sitting at the piano, singing the lead vocals, and then at the end, jumping up to play his half of the dual lead guitars, a beautifully distorted guitar duo – complete with graham gouldman doing his very best bright, chris squire imitation behind them – that chime their way out through the end of the song – a totally beatlesque and very very beautiful song, rendered with incredibly precision – even the silly centre section, the second of three parts, entitled “a latin break” meaning – “latin break in A major”, very punny indeed, is perfectly performed, including a live fade out of part two with simultaneous fade in of part three (something I have NEVER heard on anyone’s live album, EVER – amazing performance!!!), which is a return to the coda version of the “dear prudence” guitars…fantastic.

the album is worth it just to hear this one 13 minute pop masterpiece – the vocals are astonishingly in tune and in time, almost to the point where it seems impossible that any band could sing that well live. but – my experience in 1978 proves it, this live album, ”live and let LIVE” proves it – one band could – 10cc.

“feel the benefit” also reveals something that few people know – well, people who have seen 10cc play live probably know it – that graham gouldman is a world-class bassist.  he takes an extended and incredibly virtuoso bass solo during “feel the benefit” that sounds more like chris squire than something you’d expect from a “lightweight pop band” like 10cc.  gouldman wields his rickenbacker bass with an almost careless charm, a sort of, “oh, yeah, I’m actually pretty damn good with this thing” attitude – and I believe that he shares the perfectionism that stewart is known for.

I think that stewart felt a little frustrated with the godley & creme “version” – or “vision”, perhaps, of 10cc, he could see the potential – on the records, he could make the vocals sound perfect – but on stage, he could not control godley and creme, and it’s well known that while godley & creme were / are more than a little fond of a little ganja…while we also know stewart is not, stewart wanted to play straight, it was all about the music for him, and nothing else – so with them out of the picture, we could now have the “vocal perfect” version of 10cc live – and this album shows that not only did he succeed in this desire, he excelled – the band excelled.

I think too, that the public’s perception of what kind of band 10cc was flawed – the “hits” made them seem very, very poppy – “I’m not in love” being a very atypical track, the rest of “the original soundtrack” sounds NOTHING LIKE “I’m not in love” – which of course was then swiftly followed with the REALLY poppy “the things we do for love” (not to mention, also, the even smarmier, but wonderful, ballad “people in love”….) – and this gave a somewhat skewed impression of what the band really were.

I thought of them as progressive, but more along the lines of a very poppy / prog / beatlesque / strange kind of band, I thought they were maybe competing a bit with queen (“un nuit a paris”  – from “the original soundtrack”– a godley & creme track, of course – pretty much out-queens queen themselves – in a good way, I promise you!) while if you listen to “sheet music”, “the original soundtrack”, and “how dare you!” – these are deep records, with songs embracing many, many styles, pop, rock, prog, r&b, blues even, indescribable genres…) that cannot really be pigeon-holed even as prog, definitely not as pop (despite the obvious pop “hits”) – you really have to just listen to those three albums to understand what 10cc were – and a huge part of that legacy still spills over into 1977, and into this new band, especially on stage – stewart and gouldman carrying on the 10cc name and tradition by adding “deceptive bends” as the poppier follow-up to “how dare you!” – and it still flows, sure, the magic of godley and crème is gone, but stewart and gouldman are no slouches as musicians, writers or performers – and I think “deceptive bends” proudly belongs right where it is – the next album after “how dare you! despite the serious and life-changing personnel changes.

sure, as with almost all live albums, there are the very, very occasional gaffes, which stewart has wilfully left in the mix – a missed chord in the outro of the otherwise impeccable rendition of one of the very best songs from the final “original 10cc” album, “how dare you!” – stewart’s wonderful ode to an air hostess, “I’m mandy, fly me” – another extremely difficult, extremely beatlesque track, once again, rendered to perfection vocally and musically – leaving that one slipped chord in to perhaps say “look, we are human after all…”- it’s hard to say.

but it isn’t easy to find mistakes on this record, you have to look really hard – because really, it’s a flawless live snapshot of their current record, “deceptive bends”, peppered with a range of hits (from “wall street shuffle” to “I’m not in love” to “the things we do for love”) and the occasional surprise track from the distant past (“waterfall” and “ships don’t disappear in the night (do they)” – from the first album era) – as well as tracks from all four of the original 10cc albums.

still – it seems quite odd to hear the words coming from the stage… ‘here’s one from “how dare you!”’ when the band that made “how dare you! never played a note from that album live that I know of.  however – I am still appreciative that at least, we get to hear a track from “how dare you! done live – even if it is by this strange new sextet version of 10cc.

for me, even though I understand the necessity, I found it a bit frustrating that in a number of instances, because eric was very busy playing electric piano or real piano, and singing lead vocal, that signature guitar solos that are very, very much “eric stewart guitar solos” – were of course, played live by the very capable and enigmatic rick fenn  I had to console myself with the tracks where eric did play lead guitar – and those were smokin’ hot.  note to all guitarists out there:  if you think eric stewart is that wimpy guy who wrote and sang “the things we do for love” – sure, you are right, but if you heard and saw him play slide guitar on “ships don’t disappear in the night”, or if you saw him switch from piano and vocal to lead guitar at the end of the impossibly cool “feel the benefit” – this guy can play lead guitar, and he’s also an amazingly good slide player – trust me.

so it would be “the wall street shuffle” – one of my all-time favourite 10cc tracks, and in fact, the track that got me into the band – and eric would be singing and playing the piano – so when it came time for the lead solo, that beautiful, concise, perfect eric stewart-channelling-george-harrison guitar solo…there came rick fenn to play it.   and, to his credit – he played that solo, and almost every other eric stewart guitar solo that he was called upon to play – with care, with precision, with beauty – but – it wasn’t eric playing it!  that, I found a little difficult to get used to…but, technically, I suppose it just had to be that way – no one can swap instruments that often on stage (except steve howe perhaps, but he takes it to a ridiculous extreme – and, he doesn’t have lead vocalist duties while he’s swapping guitars repeatedly…), so I applaud this decision – play the song well, play the electric piano part perfectly, sing the hell out of it – and trust your new guitar stand-in to play that amazing little solo just right.

but then I would forget all about that, when I saw and heard eric himself, during the thunderous ending of “feel the benefit” or witness the precision slide guitar-fest that is “ships don’t disappear in the night (do they?)” – eric stewart letting go and showing us how being in the best pop band in the world doesn’t hold you back from having prog-rock like chops – I swear, stewart and gouldman are both far better players than their recorded catalogue would indicate – which is why this live album is so important – for example, a rare early b-side, called “waterfall” is an opportunity for the band to stretch out on a three chord jam, and play the song in a million different ways, as vocal blues, as total reggae, but more importantly, as total three chord jam with fantastic guitar solo interplay between fenn and stewart – including an amazing extended “burn out” where o’malley leads the two guitarists into the final chords of the song – just brilliant.  this track just rocks – and I think we often forget that 10cc really could, and can, rock when they wanted to.

and you should hear the audience response to “waterfall” – they are louder than the band.

sure, there are so many songs from the back catalogue that I wish were on this live record, and of course, there are a few slight missteps (like the somewhat uninspired gouldman tune “marriage bureau rendezvous” or the somewhat plodding and predictable “modern man blues” which is the encore – both from “deceptive bends”) – other than that, the choices are solid, and the pieces are really well performed…and it’s a very even mix of hits, oldies, and a decent chunk of the “new” album – “deceptive bends”.

every single fan of every band has their own wish list of songs that they wish their favourite band would play when they do a live show or album, and with 10cc it’s very difficult, because with half of the band gone, and, the half that was considered to be the very creative, “arty” half – that immediately makes it very, very difficult to recreate the repertoire from those original albums, without the unique voices of godley & creme, and their unique musical contributions, too…there are not too many “gizmo” players out there from which you could find a replacement for “gizmo” inventor lol creme – who is also an accomplished pianist.

I think given the cataclysmic personnel change that the band had just endured, that this new stewart / gouldman led sextet did really well.  first of all, the recovered in the studio, with “deceptive bends” (personnel: eric stewart, graham gouldman, and the redoubtable paul burgess) – and finally, expanding that studio trio to a sextet for a wildly successful tour for that album.

note: additional players on “deceptive bends” – little known fact, a very young “terry bozzio” is on “drums” – it doesn’t say on which track or tracks unfortunately – source – wikipedia (what else?).

  • del newman — string arrangement
  • jean roussel — organ, keyboards, electric piano
  • tony spath — piano, oboe
  • terry bozzio — drums

the wiki page goes on to explain that this album was actually begun while godley & creme were still in the band; at one of their last UK concerts, at knebworth on 21 august 1976, they debuted an early live version of “good morning judge” and there was also an “awful” studio version of “people in love” (strangely, known as “voodoo boogie” – which was included on the recently released – and apparently, already out of print !! – “tenology” box set) – so at least two of the songs actually date back to the original band – something I did not know until I researched this blog!

apparently, the rough mix of “voodoo boogie” was so awful, that godley & creme left shortly thereafter, leaving it to stewart to pick up the pieces and try to build an album that did justice to the name 10cc.  I for one, think he not only succeeded, but he took the band into a new era, a short-lived era, but a very successful and high profile era – and the three late 70s albums – “deceptive bends” and ”live and let LIVE”, both from 1977, and “bloody tourists” from 1978 (which features the massive worldwide hit “dreadlock holiday” – plus a bunch of great album tracks that were the last great batch of stewart / gouldman compositions) – all three of these records are outstanding, excellent examples of quality musicianship.

for me, 1980’s “look hear”, and it’s follow-up, “ten out of 10 – as we moved further into the 1980s…it just wasn’t the same – it became formulaic, and it was also the beginning of the end for one of the best bands that the 1970s produced – everything changed in 1980, and it was hard for 1970s bands to thrive in the synth / robotic era of the 1980s.  gouldman as much as admitted that the last time they had been “hot” was 1978, and he has expressed his displeasure with the 1980s output – and the fans seem to agree, since the 1980s albums did not chart…whereas 1978’s “bloody tourists”, did – the last 10cc album to do so, I believe (I could be wrong about that!).

but for one shining moment, 1977 / 1978, the band re-grouped and went out there and showed them how to do it right…with brilliant tours supporting both studio albums, and luckily, the first one was recorded intentionally for a live album – the oft-overlooked but absolutely brilliant ”live and let LIVE”…pronounce the title however you like, but listen carefully to what is perhaps one of the most meticulously performed and produced live albums of all time – created by the master: mr. eric stewart – long may he sing, play that slide guitar, lead guitar, acoustic guitar, acoustic piano, electric piano, record, arrange, engineer, produce and mix… 🙂

the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂