studio diary 20150214

I had thought that “fair play”, my new “korg gadget” piece, was finished, I did make the odd adjustment here and there, but I thought it had reached its final form, until I sat down to listen to it a few days ago.

 

the listening session was fine, I am happy enough with the song, “fair play”, as it stands – but, I felt like I wanted to hear more of the “middle section”, which, as it happens, is a key change up to C major, there were only a few bars, so I copied those three bars, inserted them before the existing three bars, and then set about modifying just the Chicago bass / synth (which I am mainly using as a lead synth, not a bass – the hammond has taken the role of the bass for the majority of this track) part so that I had, effectively, three “new” lead lines, and the third, was sort of a very monotonous, circular sort of riff, so I instructed the device to play that bar twice, which gave us this:

Chicago 1 Modified Chicago 4 X 1
Chicago 2 Modified Chicago 5 X 1
Chicago 3 Modified Chicago 6 X 2
Chicago 4 Originally Chicago 1 X 1
Chicago 5 Originally Chicago 2 X 1
Chicago 6 Originally Chicago 3 X 1

so, wonderfully, that means that the “middle eight”, which is a whole tone above the basic song (which appears to be in F or Bb, I am not exactly sure!) is…seven measures long ! I love stuff like that – it makes it odd – but musically, you would probably never notice, it just sounds like a synth “solo”, which is in a different key to the bulk of the song – and it brings musical relief because it jumps up a whole tone – it’s very exciting, it builds tension beautifully…and hopefully, no one is counting bars, and the fact that my middle eight is not, in fact, a middle eight, but a middle seven – will go unnoticed by everyone except; everyone who just read this paragraph. 🙂

we have then, a whole piece of music, at last, that begins (and continues for most of the song, to be honest) in the staggered, drum-driven rhythmic world of gentle giant, moves to some beautiful acoustic v electric piano sections, with a solid and wonderful hammond bass underpinning everything – it then, finally mutates to a seven measure long “middle eight” – (perhaps, I have invented the world’s first “middle seven” – who knows? I’d love to take that credit) and then, via a reprise of the opening segment, moves onto a spectacular ending featuring a four-measure version of the “middle seven” – why not?
So at no point does the “middle eight” ever equal eight bars, it’s seven in the middle of the song (and four when I re-use it at the end) – and I think that is just fine.

 

“fair play” to me, is a proof positive that the newly-enhanced “korg gadget”, which to be fair, they only added a few instruments, but, the instruments they added are so awesome, that it makes creation with them easy, in fact, with the 15 original synths, you could do a lot, already, but having the core electronic keyboards – well, one is acoustic, I suppose, so having one acoustic and the rest of the core electronic keyboards, to hand – gives us CONTROL…it means you can build songs using those more familiar, more comforting keyboards, and then bring in the 15 original korg synths – the “gadget” originals – to add colour and shade and light and dark…

 

I basically started this piece out with organ, acoustic piano, drums and electric piano – and that IS the core of the song, and all of those are instruments that are made available in “korg gadget” from “korg module” – which, right away, shows us the real value of “korg gadget” – and that’s just the start – what will it be like when you can access ANY instrument via “korg module”, in high quality samples??

I vote for mellotron, sitar, and anything else they fancy sampling…go for it. I want to see “korg module” become the premier sample based app on ios – unless native instruments jumps in – then, I would have to wait and see what THEY come up with 🙂

I was eager to try “korg gadget” now that it’s been “upgraded” – simply by the existence of “korg module”, that gives “korg gadget” a whole new face, and transforms it into a player of high quality instrument samples – directly parallel (in its basic function, anyway) to kontakt in komplete – we have our world class sample player now – the ubiquitous “korg gadget”.
this is a really clever idea from korg (they seem to be having a lot of really good ideas lately – witness the Ibanez RGKP6 guitar and bass, which feature a korg kaoss pad 2S built right into the guitar’s body – a fantastic idea whose time has finally come – a very clever idea). korg makes really interesting synths and other products, too, and the more I get into their stuff, the more I enjoy it – they have been around the block, they obviously listen to their customers, and, their stuff is well built and long lasting – korg is a name that says “quality” to me.

 

they seem too, to be able to compete in the world of ios, in the app world, at the same level and with the same commitment to quality that they show in the virtual world, the bricks and mortar world. I like that about a company, and I think that they are handling themselves well in both arenas – not something a lot of companies can probably boast about.

 

I have listened again now, to the playback of “fair play”, and I am now fairly certain, that it is indeed, complete. I hope I will not change my mind about that again! It’s ended up just about four minutes in length, which for this type of piece, is ideal. I hope to master it and upload it as soon as possible….(update: now done! “fair play” can be found here).

 

and then…well, things happen 🙂

I was and am totally happy with the completed track, “fair play”…but, while I was doing some final tweaks to levels and stereo placement, it struck me that I’d really like to do two things: I already have finished and mastered “fair play” as it stands, in it’s complete form, but also, I’d like to take it from the point it is at, and do some further work on it, make it an alternate version of itself – so I did a “save as” of the completed “gadget” track, and named it “fair play – advanced version” – and immediately began work on transforming the by-now familiar “fair play” towards new musical areas, I have removed some of the sparser parts, I’ve added more drums, there is far less “space” in this new version, it just rocks straight through rather than having dynamic sections as the original does, and so on.

I’ve also been doing some serious “randomisation” – this is a process that I tend to get into in “korg gadget” especially – where I will lift one melodic pattern, and randomly copy it over a different pattern in a different instrument, so, organ bass part becomes electric piano riff, or acoustic piano now doubles with electric, synth solo becomes hammond solo, and so on…taking existing themes, melodies, and solos and moving them to different places within the composition – it’s huge fun.

I might also decide to just remove four bars of music here, and then, copy two others into their place, remove five bars here, and not replace them, add some of my favourite bars from the first half into the second half, and so on – endless possibility, and it’s very quick, very easy, to edit in korg gadget, too – add extra snare drum hits, add extra bass drum hits, change single hits into double hits – it can all be done so, so quickly – and probably, within the first fifteen minutes of editing, I had radically altered the basic DNA of “fair play” into a completely oddball variation of itself – “fair play – advanced version” – which I plan to work on for a few weeks, to give it roughly as much gestation time as the original got – and then master and upload it as well.

I am very, very glad that korg has jumped into the area of high quality samples for ios, with the beautiful “korg module” app, and I am extremely glad that by chance, they made those samples available to the “korg gadget” app – that, prompted me to re-visit “korg gadget”, and create a song that utilised some of those amazing samples – and I find that it makes a HUGE difference to me, to have hammond organ, acoustic piano, and electric piano as three of the most important samples in my new piece(s) “fair play” and “fair play – advanced version” – which might get re-titled “unfair play” or “fair work” or some such – I don’t know.  or…it might just stay as “advanced version” – this remains to be seen.

I have a lot of work to get on with now, I’ve recently recorded a lot of guitar sessions which should hopefully yield some new videos (down the road a piece, probably, but, maybe some interesting takes in this last batch of videos…) as well as a lot of audio mixing to do before I even think about the video side of things – this is always the challenge for me – I am now able to record a lot of material very quickly, but with only myself to handle post-processing, it takes me weeks, or in some cases, years, or in some case, never, to create video content – or sometimes, even process the audio and create master audio mixes.

the backlog is not getting any smaller at the moment, which is actually OK, and what I’ve finally decided is that I will abandon utterly my original intention of trying to present my video work chronologically, I will master and upload what videos I feel are the most important, what videos are the most interesting or unusual, and then, as time permits, I will go back and continue work on the “old” video backlog.  controlling this, will be playlists.  I’ve already created video playlists, by date, for many of my legacy video sessions so I would suggest that whenever you visit the pureambientHD channel or indeed, any of my video channels on youtube, that you always go to the Playlists section, rather than the Uploads – because as of 2015, uploads will no longer be chronological, but completely random – so you will find instead, that in the Playlists section, you will find “dated” dave stafford live music video session in chronological order – and this then frees me to pick and choose between the now, and the historical-that-haven’t-yet-been-processed – so I am recommending that you stick to the chronology as imposed by my “dated” session Playlists – or else, complete and utter confusion may be the main result 🙂  as for me – well, I am chronically chronologically challenged anyway – and confusion, well, it might be my epitaph 🙂   but playlists will get you the unconfused view of dave stafford live music videos.

I really enjoy creating these music videos, and trying out new instruments and techniques, I have never gone in for the “here is my demo of the roland gr-55 guitar synth” and then sit there, and play you ten seconds of each of it’s voices – instead, when I acquired the synth – I just started making videos with it, I just started using it, so you can learn along with me – and I hope that this can, will and might inspire others to pick up some of these interesting instruments, and have a go yourselves – I reckon that it’s easier to learn about something just by trying it – so, for my first ever video, “st. alia of the knife”, I selected the “oboe” voice, set up a nice reverb, ran an existing reverse loop – and did a live oboe solo / improv on video.  from there – I just kept working with the synth, until I eventually used it to create my first classical composition, my “concerto no. 1 in em for oboe and guitar” and also, I’ve continued to use it on improvs, as well as part of multi-track recordings such as “this is a test”, as well as the title track, from the “gone native” album, and in fact, I used it on several of the tracks on “gone native” – I really think that the roland gr-55 guitar synth is a great instrument – and I find that all of us who use the device can compare notes and share what we’ve learned via video, audio, and other modes of communication – indeed, why not?

but I digress, this is mainly a report of the now split-into-two “fair play” – and I hope you enjoy the original version while I continue to develop the second version, “fair play – advanced version” 🙂

 

until then I remain

your faithful servant

yours truly, etc.

 

 

dave

pureambient HQ – 20150214

 

 

 

 

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studio diary 20150202

it’s a new year, and since during the past two months, I have completed not one but two major works, first, “concerto no. 3 in D major for piano & strings”, and more recently “concerto no. 4 in F major for harpsichord & strings”, I thought it was high time I turn to some of the other very neglected, and very excellent apps – I am not ashamed to admit that I have allowed Notion to dominate my musical life in the area of applications, for pretty much all of 2014 – and, that’s fine, because out of that, I’ve created two very interesting bodies of work: “music for apps: notion – an eternal album” and “classical – an eternal album” – and the quantity and quality of the pieces in those two albums meets with my wholehearted approval – I think these are strong works using an excellent application, and I know that over the years, both Notion the iPad app and Notion for the PC, will be my go-to apps for classical composition, and for alternative works involving a lot of orchestral instrumentation.

that is for the future though, right now, in the here and now, I have embarked on a new composition, entitled (at the moment, anyway) “fair play” – and this is my first piece created (this year) using the most excellent “korg gadget” application, which, in a sense, is like a new app – because of the presence now of “korg module”, which, interestingly, directly interacts with korg gadget” – in practical terms, this means that I now have available high quality grand piano and high quality electric piano samples available within gadget, via module – which is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, the original 15 synths supplied with the original gadget were and are, they remain, very functional and some of them, like the beautiful ambient synth, are both unique and very pleasing to the ear – and, very useful when composing for 15 synths, too!

so, I had downloaded “korg module” several weeks ago, and I had played through most of the extremely high quality samples available, and, really, as someone observed, that if you have this, and “neo-soul keys” (which I have but haven’t used much so far), and maybe, what is it, “sample tank” (which I don’t have) – that is “all you need” for sample-based jamming fun. I agree, but at the same time, I would actually welcome any number of products similar to “korg module” – basically, world-class samples, available for use on ios. Not just the ordinary ones, either, sure, those are great to have, but I’d welcome a sort of “komplete” for ios, obviously, it couldn’t have the many GB of content that “komplete” does, but, in a very scaled down version, with only the best and most essential samples – it would, it will, be brilliant !! come on native instruments – build for ios! teach korg how to do it right lol !  🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

another example of this type of thinking, in new applications, is “ruckers 1628” a high quality harpsichord sample that I was very happy to obtain, so there are more and more of these apps out there based on quality samples – quite a lot of them already, really.

 

knowing that I now had the high quality keyboard samples available to me within “korg gadget” from “korg module”, I decided to create a new piece of music in honour of that. however, the song itself, had a strange genesis; when I first got “korg module”, I went through whatever process there was, and I was testing within “korg gadget”, to verify that I could indeed access and record with, say, the electric piano sample from “korg module”. I opened up a new, empty file, and randomly stabbed at the keyboard, just to make a noise, and recorded two bars of “music” – and there I left it. “fair play” for the first week or so of its existence, consisted of a sort of vaguely-gentle-giant-sounding electric and acoustic piano “riff” – so that was how it started. and when I say vaguely…I mean…vaguely :-). the riff was just about nothing, just a feeling…

 

a few weeks went by, and finally, I found some time, and I went in to create this new song – and I decided that its intro, at least, and possibly, part of the actual song, would be based on these random events that I had stabbed carelessly into the app weeks ago – so, I made a couple of very minor changes, and away I went. within a day or two, I had a lovely, 17 bar tune, with two decent themes, one of them based on that accidental intro.

 

The accidental intro worked beautifully, in fact, I ended up using it as one of my main themes, with various modifications, and it sounds as if it were planned into the song – when it absolutely was not – a complete and utter accident.

 

In the next incarnation, now at 34 bars, a third theme was added, which included some lovely parts done with the electric piano v. salzburg, one of the existing solo synths – a nice lead sound – I had them trading melodies back and forth, and it was really a lot of fun. I did also use acoustic grand piano, but not in a solo capacity, more in a supporting role, it’s time will come, but immediately, I was really enjoying the fantastic and very realistic electric piano sound – and I even took the opportunity, in the next incarnation of the song, to have a couple of bars of it “solo”, playing a lovely circular once-again-a-bit-like-gentle-giant riff – and it sounds great, when the drums stop, and then, when they start up again, it just rocks – really nice effect, having JUST that beautifully-sampled electric piano playing on its own out there for a moment, into a nice bit of reverb – fantastic!

 

the final session to date, added yet another 17 measures, bringing the total up to the current 51 bars, and this was really just further development of the existing themes, some different juxtaposing of electric piano v. salzburg riffs, and other refinements and improvements. when I do a play back now, I can’t believe this started with just two stunted, inaccurate bars of non-music riffage – it’s really sounding quite, quite good already.

 

It’s odd, when I read back the above description, it sounds like a really long song, so I should probably say, that the entire piece right now, in its unfinished state, waiting for a resolution to bar 51, which is just hanging in space, in the middle of a song, clocks in at a modest 2:15 !!! so I am thinking that I am perhaps, half way through the piece, compositionally speaking – I can’t see it being a lot more than four or five minutes – maybe, but it depends what happens next. I like the activity of the piece, I love that there are a number of themes and changes that really grab the listener’s attention; but I am far from finished with the piece.

 

so now I am just in a period of reflection – what will happen next? – add more instruments? carry on with additional content?, more refinements?, repetitions of themes? – or, make it short, end it sooner? – I have no idea (!?!?!?!!!!!) – what will happen next.

 

 

I will say, though, I have REALLY enjoyed working with “korg gadget” this time, moreso than ever before, and that is simply because the app has grown up, instead of those 15 synths of varying usefulness, there is now a core of truly great sounding important, core, sampled instruments, with the 15 synths providing a bit of variety and spice to those central samples. It’s amazing how going from 15 to 17 or 18 synths (depending on what you get in terms of in-app purchases) makes all the difference, but, it really does.

 

the weak spot: users of “korg gadget” will already know what I am going to say: drums. yes, there is a choice of drum machines, and some pretty decent and some pretty interesting choices of instruments within those drum machines. but…they all sound a bit wimpy, when I mentally compare them say to the drum samples in “nanostudio”” – well, then, I long for the powerful sounding drum kits of “nanostudio”. ok, sure, for a lot of modern styles (which I have almost no interest in) such as I don’t really know, dance music or whatever today’s version of “hip-hop” is) – the drum machines provided with “gadget” are probably sufficient.

 

I can (almost) make them sound like rock drums if I really work at it, but that’s really my only “gripe” about “gadget” – and I would have said so from the very beginning. I should be a bit clearer here: the drum synths are not BAD, they are just not in the Dave Stafford style, and they don’t have a lot of big, loud, rock and roll drums like some other devices do have – “nanostudio among them.

 

I think in time, with a few more high-powered, well-sampled sounds inserted, that “korg gadget” will be top of the heap, at least in terms of a sort of “studio” where you have a lot of good instruments from which to create whole songs. It’s already one of the top (MIDI) studios, along with “nanostudio and a few others – there are a lot of these, and some are better than others – but “korg gadget” is one of the good ones – and, it’s made better now through its marriage to “korg module”, which gives you more powerful sampled keyboards – which has taken a great app and pushed it towards the fantastic – well done to korg for that.

 

It still surprises me sometimes, after being away in the wilderness for many months using mostly “Notion” for everything, occasionally dabbling with other apps just to learn more about them, that I can return to an app like “korg gadget” or “nanostudio” after many, many months of not working with it – and (much to my surprise!) I can set up and build a new song as if I’d been using the app every day for a year! I think apps are like this – once you learn them, you don’t forget – unless it’s really, really tricky, in which case, you will need a written procedure ANYWAY – so for “korg gadget” or for “nanostudio” – I just sit down, and I build a drum track, and then some bass, and then some synths…and then I’ve got a song. they are equally easy to use, and I actually really love working with both of them.
there are others, like, “synergy” – I’ve done exactly one piece in “synergy”, which came out ok, but I’ve never “finished” it; same for “isequence” – one song, never finished; same for “cubasis” – one song or part of a song, never finished; same for “impc” – well, that’s a sampler, really, but again, I have started a song in it – and it’s an interesting process; never finished – but not nearly as easy to use and not as easy to get going in, as “korg gadget” or “nanostudio” are – those are the two most user-friendly, almost without a doubt.

 

then there is “auria”, which is audio only, and works well enough, it took me a long time to really get going with “auria”, and actually, it was through de-constructing that amazing james mccartney song that I learned about editing in “auria”, and it’s extremely useful for throwing tracks together quickly, just to see if they “work” together, or for editing audio which isn’t easy to do elsewhere on the iPad, I am glad I have “auria”, although my tendency is to master tracks in their original app, and then take them to the DAW on the PC for proper mastering, EQ and reverb – I have a LOT of tools for those processes on the iPad, but I just don’t trust them, and it’s just a bit tricky getting around on the iPad – I can do it SO fast, on the PC, that usually, my goal is, get the piece done, mixed as well as possible, and then, get it exported – get it OFF the iPad ASAP – and then take it to the DAW for all processing.

 

when I have time on my hands (almost never) I promise myself, that I will spend time working more in “auria”, using my various stereo placement and mastering tools, using my beautiful reverb units (and, I cannot fault the quality EFFECTS available on the iPad – I have a lot of those, and I do use those on tracks), in Audiobus, when I want a beautiful atmosphere for a track – I will use ipad reverb units – the best of which, strangely is probably AUFX: Space.

 

but it really depends, most songs, I tend to get to a certain point, where the playing is all done, and the mix is OK, and all I want to do is get it off the ipad! And hence to the PC for some PROPER processing! Master it, reverb it, etc. using the superior PC tools available in SONAR – I have an audio mastering template that is fantastic, where I can add appropriate amounts of compression, EQ and reverb – at will, whenever I finish a track – I tend to finish it here.

 

so somehow, I am not able to commit fully to the idea of making music FULLY on the ipad – I am happy enough to create in the apps, and mix in the apps, and even sometimes, use reverb to treat whole tracks – but then, it ends, and I want it off the device and onto the PC, so I can master and eq and compress and reverb to my heart’s content, the old-fashioned way.

 

I am completely set up for making music on the ipad, the WHOLE process, so I could carry on, add EQ as necessary, work on stereo placement, add reverb, etc. – and create FINISHED tracks that would not require a trip through the DAW mastering stage. I will try to start doing this in 2015, to see if I can “let go” of this desire to do things half and half – I want to create ipad music on the ipad, from start to finish, and PC music on the PC, from start to finish, and maybe even some pieces that combine the best of both worlds – who knows???

 

So that is what I will attempt to do, for one of my many resolutions I suppose…see if I can resist the temptation to do it the “easy way”, in SONAR, and instead, develop high quality, quick way of mimicking the PC process on the ipad – thousands of musicians are doing that every day, and I am avoiding it! I guess I am more old-fashioned than I had realised…

 

However – I am sure I can do this, there are already a few tracks of mine that were created without the PC process, so I know it’s possible. I can do it – it just takes time 🙂 :-). The challenge will be to create a mastering process that is just as quick and easy as it is on the PC (and, more importantly – just as good) – and I think that now, in 2015, that is actually possible. There are some nice mastering tools available now, for the iPad, and I am sure with time, they will just get better and better.

 

As time goes on, too, there seems to be more and more a “merging of church and state” – i.e. PC and ios ideas and processes are often duplicated (for example, “Notion for Ipad” and “Notion 5 for PC”) ok, that’s a bad example, because they are not duplicated, but, they are essentially the same, it’s just that the iPad version is less capable. So I believe that often, the processes on PC and ios are becoming more similar, although ios has lagged, and because of Apple’s desire to be a bit of a CONTROL FREAK, for example, Apple makes the “what SHOULD be the simple act of moving a WAV file”, into a ridiculous production – a little thing called “iTunes file sharing”. It took me a long, long time to accept that this is actually the way I have to move files in most cases (thank you, “nanostudio” and a few others, for your Nanosync or equivalent…bliss) but now, I am used to it, so I just hook up, attached to iTunes, download all my files, and distribute them to the correct folders on the PC for processing.

 

So Apple wants to control you, it wants to make things difficult to accomplish, and that is annoying and that is partially why everything takes so much longer on ios than it does on PC – it’s just SLOW!!! Annoying! Too slow…PC is a million times faster, for every process. But – the gap is closing, slowly.
Audiobus, was a huge gap-closer, a great workaround, and I love it, especially now the turbo-charged version where you can have multiple chains – wow – that is amazing! I love you Audiobus, – long may you reign.

 

OK, I have bent your collective ears long enough, I really just wanted to say that I am very happy to be working in “korg gadget” again, and I am looking forward to working in a LOT of different applications this year, to try and keep up the good work – please wish me luck – I really want to add many, many tracks to all of the existing eternal albums, while at the same time, I’d like to ADD as many NEW eternal albums as is humanly possible.

 

So we move from the notion year, to the everything else year – that’s my plan, and I hope I can stick to it. Am I missing “Notion”, am I craving lines and notes on the staff?

 

You bet I am.

 

But I will resist, and I will work in many, many other apps – without a doubt – and I will present the results somewhere on a Dave Stafford eternal album; existing or new – that’s my 2015.

 

Oh – and, I will also be doing guitar work, and guitar songs, and guitar improvs – including some new things which I will talk about next time around…can’t wait till then !!!

 

peace love apps and guitars

 

dave

🙂 🙂

on the road to red…

Impressions, feelings, memories. a journey made by my favourite band of all time – King Crimson – across the USA and Canada – ending in some professionally recorded gigs and ultimately, to that final gig, on July 1, 1974, in New York’s Central Park – the end of an era – the end of the original King Crimson which had existed in one form or another since 1969.

Ten very diverse albums, embracing prog, jazz, rock and musics in between; countless tours, one of the most road-tested bands of all time – and in many cases, Fripp, the band leader, would work in reverse: instead of recording an album and then going out and playing it, he would “rehearse” the band by going on the road, and then once the songs were worked in, then it’s time to record them – a wonderful way of working, a method which gave us “Starless and Bible Black” – a studio album that is mostly live.

The Road To Red” if you haven’t heard, is Fripp’s latest “attack on culture”: simply, it’s as many of the 1974 live shows, from the US/Canadian tour, that could be eked out of whatever tapes existed, brought together on 21 CDs for your listening pleasure (yes, I said 21) – if you have a few days free to listen!  It’s an impressive feat, and actually, given that some of the source tapes are dodgy bootleg cassettes, the set as a whole is extremely listenable, because, the occasional lapse in sound quality aside, this band was on fire – they went out each night to try and change the world, just a little bit – and every night, they were rewarded with something memorable.

now, we are reaping that same reward, but with the added time, these performances seem even more extraordinary – this was a band with a particular musical vision, and they stuck to that vision – night after night.

It’s not all perfect – things happen, as Robert once said “a foot slips on a volume pedal…” but it’s pretty damn consistent, and given that they were using not one but two of that most temperamental of instruments, the mellotron, it’s amazing that things didn’t break down more than they do.

There are no surprises here in terms of musicianship, except perhaps how very effective David Cross could be with his extremely distorted electric piano, or in occasional quiet moments, on the violin, there is almost no need to describe just how incredibly well the rhythm section play on this set, it’s an object lesson in power and precision, the Bill Bruford / John Wetton team, topped with the amazing guitar histrionics of Mr. Robert Fripp himself – soloing with passion, power and even humour – there is one moment during “Easy Money” where Fripp tries to get Wetton to laugh, and it’s there in almost every take of the track, Wetton trying to sing but instead, listening to and laughing out loud at whatever silly riff Robert has inserted into “Easy Money” on this particular night.

I said there were no surprises here, but what I mean by that is that there are no surprises that these four players play so, so well, individually, and as a unit, but, there ARE surprises, sometimes, something will happen one night that doesn’t happen on any other night.  Perhaps it’s the guitar solo in “Lament”, which may sound much the same from night to night until one night, when Fripp decides it’s time to try something completely different, and holds one note for ages as the start of his “solo” – and then plays a blinder that is nothing like previous “Lament” solos. The next night – back to the “normal” solo.

Or, Robert might decide that tonight, the guitar solo for “Easy Money” is going to be done double time, and when he comes in with said solo, the ferocity, the determination, is truly awe-inspiring – the band are very comfortable with these tracks, and they don’t mind deviating from the script – in fact, it’s positively encouraged – and from night to night, each of the four will change up their parts, just for the sheer joy of seeing what might happen…

And sometimes, what happens is remarkable.  There are some truly beautiful renditions of King Crimson classics here, and it’s especially gratifying to have so many versions of “Fracture” and “Starless” to luxuriate in – personally, I can’t get enough of either track.

For me, too, often, it’s the “Improvs” that make these shows truly interesting, where the band goes completely off-script, and sometimes, the results are truly inspirational – stunning, loud, fast, amazing, slow, beautiful, peaceful – these improvs can be almost anything, and it’s fantastic that the band includes them in every show – they break up the sets beautifully, often providing a springboard in or out of one of the pieces in the set list.

Maybe the best anecdote that sums up the professionalism, the camaraderie, the teamwork, of King Crimson Mark 3, as Fripp calls this band – is the story of the “John Wetton Save”.  This occurs early on in the set, near the end of one of the versions of “The Night Watch”.  The piece is nearly done, Fripp is on his own, playing the short, repeating mellotron chordal section that leads up to the final violin melody, which then leads to the song’s end.

Fripp is playing away, the revolving mellotron part, when the band all seem to realise that there is no violin coming in (apparently, it had broken down completely) so what happens next is astonishing: Fripp decides to play the part a second time, so another few bars of music go by, when once again, the moment has come for when the violin solo should come in.

But what happens instead is, we hear John Wetton playing the violin melody as a bass solo, with feeling, playing it note perfect, slowly, deliberately, as if it were MEANT to be a bass solo (even though it’s NOT a part he is required to know – somehow, he knows it!) which then brought the band to the end of the piece perfectly – without missing a beat – and a successful conclusion, sans violin, to a beautiful piece of music. 

And – it’s a bonus, it’s the ONLY time you will hear Wetton playing that particular melody anywhere on record – it was a demand of the moment, an equipment failure causing an unscheduled bass solo emulating a missing violin solo…brilliant !!  It could only happen in King Crimson, and it’s to Wetton’s credit that he picked up that melody so quickly and perfectly – saving the day and rescuing our distressed violinist.

I could sit here and write about each disc of this set, exhaustively, pointing out certain gems and certain gaffes (not too many of those, actually) but I think it’s best if I just keep this concise and say, if you like King Crimson live, you could do a lot worse than to pick up this beautiful box set, which comes with all kinds of goodies, a huge booklet featuring the good Sid Smith; excerpts from Fripp’s diary, photographs, and various facsimile lyric sheets and so on – a really, really nice package, which also includes a treasure-trove of DVD and blu-ray material.

Another nice feature of this set is the fact that five of the shows were recorded professionally, multi-track, so that means those five shows can be presented in extra pristine sound quality versions.  You even get two different mixes of one of those shows – the Asbury Park show – one mix from Robert Fripp, Tony Arnold and David Singleton, the other, from Ronan Chris Murphy.

The presence of the high quality recordings near the end of the set nicely balances out some of the less high fidelity moments earlier on, so you actually end up with increasingly better sound quality as the set goes along (with the exception of the final Central Park concert, where we sadly, must return to a cassette source).

That’s a bonus you don’t get in most live series, professionally recorded shows – but this was intentional, and all of the material for the official live King Crimson record of the day, “USA”, is culled from those shows.  So really, this record might have been called “The Road To Red And USA” but I guess that doesn’t really have the same ring to it!

Disc 21 is the culmination of the “road” – a new 2013 mix of the studio album “Red” which followed this tour – mixed by the unstoppable Steven Wilson. So you get to hear the live shows that lead up to the recording of “Red”, so you can feel the energy that was in the band when they went to make that record.  It’s no wonder that the studio version of “Starless” is so incredible, being built on the back of these live performances – that is proof that the rehearse-on-the-road method really works when it needs to.

For a fan like me, ordering this was an absolute no-brainer, yes, I did have a few of these shows already, but this brings them all together in perfect chronological order, so it’s nice to have them all in one set.  Some of this material was released on the most excellent “Great Deceiver” set (but, only in part) and others were variously, DGM CDs or DGM downloads – but, to be fair, there is also a fair amount of previously unreleased material, which makes it an absolute “must have” for the voracious King Crimson fans – of which, I am admittedly one.

This set rocks, I’ve sat for the last two days, playing disc after disc, hearing the band get better and better at the tunes, and hearing the improvs develop – and I can tell you, the conclusion of “Starless” night after night, does not get ANY less beautiful or inspiring, it’s just incredibly beautiful, and Fripp’s final lead solo at the very end of the song, is soaring, searing and intensely, intensely beautiful – that one note just rings and rings…and then fades away as the mellotrons also fade.  it’s starless…and bible black.

I am surprised, I would have thought that after about ten discs, I would be getting tired of hearing “Lament” or “The Talking Drum” over and over and over again, but I absolutely do not, because interesting things happen – different things happen from night to night, show to show, venue to venue, and it’s fabulous hearing the band experimenting, trying out new ideas, as they tour across North America.

Then, finally, July 1, 1974, live in Central Park – the great Crimson beast of 1969-1974 was finally laid to rest – the last live show ever by this line-up, and the continuous series of various “King Crimson’s” finally brought to an end – and at that time, of course, we didn’t know that Crimson would indeed re-emerge, re-built from the ground up, in 1981 – but for us, suddenly in 1974 to find that Crimson was no more! – this final line-up was probably the best line-up, it’s arguable either way, many cite the 1969 line-up that only existed for 11 months as the “best”, or, this final quartet that worked for about 18 months (from 1973 through half of 1974) – I am not counting the 1972 – 1973 period when they were a quintet with Jamie Muir.

I think that this band had a better chance to really work out their repertoire, and they actually had material that stretched from Larks’ Tongues through “Starless and Bible Black” – two full albums (and, two of their most adventurous, complex, mature works from which to draw on) – plus, they played old worlde Crimson pieces such as “Cat Food”, “Peace – A Theme” or “21st Century Schizoid Man” – and, also, odd unreleased tracks such as the illustrious “Doctor Diamond” which was never recorded in the studio (I think).

It was great fun, for example, hearing Wetton tackle the vocal to “Cat Food” – that is really something (not found on “The Road To Red”, but available on earlier live recordings) – and this band’s take on “Schizoid Man” is not to be taken lightly.  “Schizoid Man” isn’t played at every gig on “The Road To Red” but when it is – you notice 🙂

I am staggered, though, just listening to a randomly selected version of Fracture, first, at the complexity and maturity of Fripp’s biggest challenge to himself (of the time) – and second, at the world class, incredible fuzz bass and loud distorted bass and beautiful soft bass that John Wetton plays during “Fracture”.  Yes, what Bruford and Cross do in “Fracture” is very important, I am not downplaying that – but what Wetton does with this piece, you can hear him, hanging on for dear life, trying to follow Fripp on his cosmic guitar journey – and then that bass solo at the end – it’s fracking impossible – he rips it off like it’s nothing – and then right back into that climbing coda.

All four players have their moments, and all of them can solo like four houses on fire, but for me, this set gives you John Wetton, one of the most powerful bassists in rock music, in all his glory – loud, belligerent, confident, capable, subtle, and always, always present, always in the moment.

I don’t feel like I can really critique the guitar playing of Robert Fripp, occasionally, equipment gets the better of him, there’s one awkward silence where something goes wrong and he actually stops playing for a few seconds – but then, consummate professional, comes back in as if nothing had happened.  Some guitarists have criticised his tone, his endless distortion through wah pedals and so on – but I really put any such problems down to the equipment of the time – and really, with Fripp, you aren’t there to hear a bitchin’ tone, you are there to hear him play.  And play – he does.  With blinding speed, with innovative ideas, with surprising and strange note selections – always questing, always pushing the limits, and it’s a joy to hear him work his way through this amazing catalogue of music on the live stage – absolute genius at work.

Not meaning to ignore the good drummer – to me, this tour just shows what an incredibly good decision it was to quit Yes and join King Crimson – to me, Bruford was BORN to play drums with John Wetton – and there has never, ever to my mind, been a better pairing.  They just work perfectly together, and no need for more than that.  The perfect rhythm section, which made things much easier for Cross and Fripp, the two soloists – because they know they can depend on the Wetton-Bruford powerhouse – which can also transform into the most delicate, beautiful sounding accompanying bass and percussionist imaginable, and on some of the very pastoral, violin-led improvs, where Wetton and Bruford are both playing so carefully and gently – you can’t really believe it’s the same band that had just been belting out “21st Century Schizoid Man” at full volume four minutes beforehand !

But there it is – a band capable of great dynamic range, from a whisper to a scream – and I love both of those bands – the quiet, gentle melodic King Crimson, and the hard rocking, jamming, improvising King Crimson.

You will find both aplenty on The Road To Red.

Available in fine music shops everywhere.

van der graaf generator – live at the abc theatre, glasgow, scotland, june 27th, 2013

first things first: here is the set list from thursday night’s van der graaf generator concert at the abc theatre in glasgow, scotland (june 27, 2013):

[encore:]

peter hammill announced early on in the show that the band would be playing seven songs during the evening – which from any other group, would have brought cries of dismay, because it might well mean a pretty short set.

but, in true van der graafian form, those “seven songs” contained two very, very long pieces, “flight”(which they began playing live for the first time ever on the last US tour), and “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (which van der graaf began playing on the current european tour – and, that being the first airings of the tune save a very few live versions performed in 1972 – so, a long, long waiting to hear that tune!)…and – between those two songs alone, you have something around forty minutes or more of music.

“over the hill” (what a bizarre and wonderful song to begin with – I could not believe my ears) – is over twelve minutes in length; and “childlike faith in childhood’s end” is certainly over ten minutes in length, so those four tracks give you an easy one hour of fantastic progressive rock music.

add in the “shorter” songs, none of which are that short – and it’s quite a decent length show, despite only eight songs being played in total !!!

the venue itself was tiny (this isn’t the big hall at the abc, it’s the ancillary hall, the smaller one – and I mean it’s pretty tiny – but, packed full of happy scots folk on this occasion), it was incredibly hot in there, but the fans were so astonishing – staying dead quiet in the silent sections of the music, then yelling their heads off and singing along when the music returned after a silence – a really respectful audience, and they really made the band feel welcome and appreciated, I don’t think I’ve ever seen peter hammill smile so much as he did during the applause for “gog” – he seemed positively chuffed, I would say…

now that I’ve described the mood and the venue, I will return to the beginning, and try to give my impressions of the show in terms of the music and the musicianship.  let me first say, that I only very rarely attend live concerts any more, and usually only when I feel that I will be witness to truly great musicianship.  very few players in this day and age meet my exacting standards.  for example, so far, this year, I am only planning on two concerts for the whole year – this one, van der graaf generator (who are, after all, one of my favourite bands of all time) and in november, because I love them, a “modern” band – queens of the stone age (who are my current favourite “modern band”).

that is it – so far.  sure, if robert fripp or king crimson or someone of that calibre was touring, and played in scotland – I would make it three concerts.  but having seen many of the best bands over the years (bear in mind that I’ve been going to rock concerts since 1973, so that”s actually forty years worth of live shows, and amongst those shows, I’ve been fortunate to see some of the best musicians of the day – very fortunate indeed) I just don’t often get the urge to put up with all the negative aspects of live shows.  to see a show as good as this one was – was worth the minor hardships of tiny venue, high temperature, and cramped seating arrangements – well worth it.

so – the aforementioned “over the hill” was the opening piece, and, having seen the trio twice previously, on both of those previous occasions, they had opened with the very, very tricky “interference patterns ” from trisector – so I knew that they would have to break that pattern (pun not intended, but, accepted 🙂 ), and sure enough, they did – but what a choice – with it’s odd stop / start arrangement, and it’s wonderfully dissonant piano riffs, all of which gradually resolves into one of the most glorious pieces of music ever created – the piece becomes less dissonant, more glorious, more beautiful, as it progresses to it’s regal ending.  the fact that they replaced the nearly impossible to perform “interference patterns” with one of the most complex, difficult and beautiful tracks from the same amazing studio album, “trisector” (2008) – well, to me, that choice just oozes class.  you mustn’t be predictable; the last two tours, you usually open with “interference patterns” – so how can you top that?  by substituting an even better track from the same album (your strongest post-quartet album, surely).

a fantastic choice, and I thought it was a great way to start the show.  the organ parts, the amazing distorted signature hugh banton solos in this piece are truly spine-tingling in their beauty, and the band played the piece well as they always do – a fantastic starting point for an amazing evening of live music!

next, comes the enigmatic and wonderful “mr. sands”, from the very surprising follow-up to “trisector”, “a grounding in numbers” (2011)– so – two songs from the current van der graaf catalogue, one from each of the first two “trio” albums – to me, a statement, a reminder, that we are here now, and this is the music we are writing and playing – it’s not all about our seventies output.  and what better two songs?  “mr. sands” means a lot more to me now that I understand what it is about, it’s one of those songs that it really, really does help to understand what it means, lyrically, for you to truly enjoy it.  a rocking little number, and the band knocked through it with the confidence and the knowledge of a band playing a current catalogue item – no problem – we know this one 🙂

then, without any ado whatsoever, the third song of the night, the band launches confidently into “flight” – which they had not played previously outside of the last US tour, so we are seeing and hearing this performed live for the first time ever here in europe – “flight” being a peter hammill solo song (from his tenth solo album, “a black box” from 1980) rather than a van der graaf song – so it’s unique in that this is van der graaf generator, 2013 trio version, playing a peter hammill song – and not just any peter hammill song; one of the most convoluted, challenging, and simply remarkable pieces of progressive music ever composed by anyone.  I love this song; I was fortunate enough to have seen peter hammill, solo at the piano, play this piece back in 1981, at the roxy theatre in los angeles, california – and here I was, suddenly, thirty three years later, seeing peter hammill playing “flight” again – but this time, with the best backing band in the world; and, with good technology and reliable instruments – and while both the 1981 and the 2013 performances were amazing…the 2013 really was something to behold.

not perfect – at one point, just one time, someone missed a cue, and they shifted uncomfortably from one impossible section to another impossible section with a bit of a “bump”, but, always professional, carried on as if nothing had happened.  that you could play this 20 minute sequence of music “perfectly” is in doubt anyway – I spent ages just learning the first three minutes of it (the section known as “flying blind”), which I can just about play after 30 years plus of trying – and I never could learn any of the rest of the 20 minute piece!! it is difficult.  I watched with my mouth hanging open, while peter hammill‘s hands played the impossible riff that is “nothing is nothing” while his voice sang in a completely different time signature, and it makes you realise what an amazing performer he really is – he can completely disconnect his voice and his hands – the hands are on automatic, and the vocal is what he concentrates on.  and – somehow – both come out sounding amazing – “I say – NOTHING IS NOTHING!” and another crazed section of impossible prog is launched (the piece is broken into several sections, each which bear a sub-title on the album) – but they are collectively, “flight” – and I am so, so happy, that I can add seeing “van der graaf trio” flight in 2013 to seeing peter hammill “solo” flight in 1981….brilliant!  I am very, very lucky.

peter and hugh handle all of the melodic and harmonic information: on a song like “flight”, the piano is the basis (hammill) the voice is the message and the lyrics delivered (hammill) and then there is the bass player (hugh’s feet) and the organ player/synthesist (hugh’s hands).  and guy…is the glue, the percussive glue, that drags and fits and forces and slams and makes it all stick together as music.  you’d see guy staring up at hammill, waiting for the visual cue, and then going into an impossible, high-speed drum fill that can’t possibly fit in the two seconds available before he has to do yet another impossible drum fill…but somehow, he makes it happen – and it’s really something else watching the three of them, all working to that singular purpose, to deliver “flight” to an unbelieving audience.  the applause was thunderous, and the performance was absolutely unforgettable.  sigh.

“bunsho” is song four, and for me, slightly spoiled by a not quite-in-tune electric guitar (of course, the 100 degree heat in the room wasn’t helping any guitar’s tuning, in all fairness to hammill) but they soldiered on, I like this song, but it’s not something that really rocks my world personally – and it had the difficult task of following “flight” – an unenviable role, we might say!  but still, another great “new” song, and I love seeing hammill play guitar – surely, he’s one of those guitarists that is constantly being underrated, because, we are always talking about his piano playing, his voice, his songs, his lyrics…but not his guitar playing.  I shall rectify that shortly.  “bunsho” passes unobtrusively,  making it three out of four for “new songs” – three new, one old (and that one, not even a van der graaf song!).

the fifth piece of the evening, “lifetime”, is a track from the first “reunion” album, 2005’s “present” and it’s a real favourite of mine, a great organ sound and riff, and hammill playing some wonderful guitar – and the last time I saw them play this, it was a bit of a row, hammill could not seem to come to grips with the guitar solo (which occurs twice in the song) and I was a bit disappointed with it at the time (felt bad for him, it was just not his night!) – but this time, it was right, it was as it should be, and in fact, in my opinion, the solos he played here, are better than what was on the original record.

he’s at home with the song now, he sings it’s beautiful verses with a lovely, quiet passion, and then settles down to play those beautifully chorused, clean lead solos as perfectly as humanly possible – and he nailed them; both of them – much to my everlasting satisfaction.  those earlier awkward performances are redeemed, and he has the guitar parts perfected – great – guy just supports this one, so gently, while hugh plays really, really beautiful hammond-like and other gorgeous organ sounds and bass – really well done.

and with the conclusion of song five, we now leave the present, and the recent, and move back to the classic van der graaf 1970s repertoire that we all love so much – we go to that place, and we stay there until the concert is finished.  probably a calculated move when creating the set list – blow them away with amazing renditions of songs from across our back catalogue – and that’s what they proceeded to do…

song six, “childlike faith in childhood’s end” – an absolute classic from “still life”, which is perhaps my favourite mid-70s van der graaf generator album (from 1976) I think this has the most uplifting, challenging and beautiful lyrics ever written, it asks all the questions, it poses those questions to us, the audience, and then it fills us with joy with it’s thoughts of infinity and how, with the death of mere human….life shall start.  when this song started, I was transfixed, yes, I’d seen them play it before, in fact, three times before, and now, I was going to see it a fourth time – but this time – again – the lead guitars were far exceeding any earlier version I’d seen or heard.

hammill sings this with great, great passion, and on more than one occasion, I could feel myself welling up, at certain lines, certain lyrics – it’s just one of those songs that has always affected me emotionally, and this time, for some reason, I found it more hard-hitting than usual – I don’t know why.  but one thing raised this performance up in my esteem and in my mind – peter’s lead guitar playing.  when it comes time for him to play his beautiful, melodic solos on this track – I always cringe a bit, because as often as not, he struggles a bit, and I want those lead solos to sound perfect. he usually does pretty well, but there’s always a bit I wish could have been…somehow…”better”.

this time, they did not disappoint – in fact, they excelled, they were BETTER than they would normally be – he was so, so “on” – and he played the solos with renewed strength, vigour and excitement – and that absolutely blew me away.  really good, really excellent guitar playing – and all in between singing that impossibly difficult vocal – no problem.  this is one piece too, where you really hear and see the power of guy and hugh working as a team – basically, they take the place of a four man band, but there are just two of them – while peter is either silent, is singing, or is singing and playing lead guitar.  they carry the song – peter is the soloist, and the vocalist, and the lead guitarist, too – what a great arrangement of a fantastic song.  peter’s two supporting musicians pack a sonic wallop that sounds more like four or five sidemen – not two.

from strength to strength we go – no sooner had the band ended the remarkable, powerful, positive universal hymn that is “childlike faith”…than they launched immediately into the never-before heard on a UK stage “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – so – from a 12 minute masterpiece straight into a 22 minute masterpiece.  newly arranged for the trio, newly adjusted for the realities of being played by the trio in 2013 as opposed to being played by the quartet (once or twice, only) in long-ago 1971 – and the new arrangement is absolutely amazing – I was transfixed.  those lyrics, so dark, so astonishing, just giving me the chills, setting the stage for this long, sad tale of loneliness and grief –

“still waiting for my saviour, storms tear me limb from limb;

my fingers feel like seaweed…I’m so far out I’m too far in.” **

 

** [that last line famously plagiarised by fish, when working on an early marillion masterpiece – borrowing from the best, I suppose].

the beautiful vibrato on the electric piano was reproduced flawlessly, but sounding a million times better than the original (advances in technology, I love you) and hugh providing some wild sound effects when required – the band played steadily, like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off – moving through the familiar sections, “the presence of the night” with it’s almost ambient, eerie feeling…all building and building to those vocal storms that we all knew were coming (and a word about that in a  moment):

“where is the God that guides my hand?

how can the hands of others reach me?3

when will I find what I grope for?

who is going to teach me? I am me / me are we / we can’t see any way out of here.

crashing sea, a trophied history: chance has lost my guinevere…”

I think everyone was a bit…worried about what hammill would do when it came time to re-create the highest pitched, most insane “screaming” vocals that are part and parcel of “lighthouse keepers” – but I wasn’t worried; he did exactly what I would expect – he adapted the melodies to the current range of his voice.  he still did some of the build ups, but, pitched a bit lower – he hit what notes he could – but it didn’t matter, it’ just sounded perfect – they did an absolutely fantastic job.  his vocals were absolutely wonderful, very tasteful, very, very well executed – I really respect hammill’s ability to sing these songs now, when his voice does not have the range it once did – yet, you would hardly know that from listening.  he just makes the vocals work, and works around the tricky parts professionally, tastefully, and beautifully.

for me, it wasn’t so much the “insane” parts or the wild, screaming vocals, but instead, the peaceful resolution at the end – after all of the tumult, including one section where I couldn’t tell if it was a really, really loud and long bass note, or maybe even, feedback – a sound so loud it rattled your very bones – and the swirling instrumental sections that we all know and love from the original album, not just faithfully reproduced, but, improved with this new arrangement – but all the wonderful, crazy sections are all really just leading to… “land’s end (sineline) / we go now” – I realise, this is what I have been waiting to hear …

“cceans drifting sideways, I am pulled into the spell,

I feel you around me, I know you well.

stars slice horizons where the lines stand much too stark;

I feel I am drowning – hands stretch in the dark.

camps of panoply and majesty, what is freedom of choice?

where do I stand in the pageantry, whose is my voice?

it doesn’t feel so very bad now, I think the end is the start, begin to feel very glad now:

all things are a part

all things are apart

all things are a part”.

this was the section that I realised I was waiting for, how the song resolves itself in an incredibly melodic and beautiful and harmonious section comprised of glorious organs and pianos, crashing cymbals, and the oddly phrased coda of “all things are a part / all things are apart / all things are a part”, beautiful vocals, made even more beautiful in the now calmer, more mature 2013 voice of peter hammill…a lovely outro to one of the most tumultuous, strange yet wonderfully reborn pieces of music ever created, and I am so pleased to have been able to hear and see the band play this song – really pleased.  a once in a lifetime experience that I will not soon forget.

so with the words “oceans drifting sideways” I was suddenly there, at that moment, “land”s end” – I’d finally reached that amazing place of peace and beauty after the terrific maelstrom of the first 18 minutes of “plague” – I had reached the place of peace – “land’s end” – and it was just the most wonderful resolution, a great journey through a long and difficult terrain – but ending up in such a good, good place.  sigh.

I am so glad that they undertook the decision to do this, I think that the success and the positive reactions to “flight” from the last tour, lead them to this idea, of adding an even more unlikely candidate into the set list – so for that, I am so, so, grateful, and I feel even more fortunate, because of this, I am doubly lucky, as we got to hear and see both songs in one amazing concert!!! two impossible things before breakfast, as it were…

before we could catch our breaths…while the loud, loud, wild applause for “a plague of lighthouse keepers” was still resounding, not yet finished – the encore began. a moment of sheer shock, as I realised – “this is gog” – “oh my dear god, it’s gog…”

the most chilling hammill lyric yet, with it’s nihilistic denial of all labels, some who would have him as satan, some as god – and when he delivers the edict “I AM NONE” it’s just the most chilling moment in any song, anywhere – the creepy church organs-meet-freestyle-jazz cymbals, with potent, throbbing organ bass threatening – and then suddenly it’s hammill’s voice “some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of france….” – god, there’s just nothing like it, a fantastic lyric, a great piece of free-form prog…an astonishing choice of encore, too – a second peter hammill song (this time, from 1974’s “in camera” – an absolute classic, but, a solo album, not a van der graaf album) – although in this particular case, it does so happen that van der graaf performed on the original – which is probably what made it possible for them to resurrect it for one of the earlier trio tours.

and I was careful to watch what hammill played on the electric guitar during this tune, it’s not evident on the studio recording, but there is an absolutely stonking guitar and organ precision riff, that hammill and banton play at speed, in perfect time, repeatedly during one of the verses of this song, so, they are playing this convoluted, impossible descending guitar and organ riff while hammill is singing the song – and it’s another one of those sleight-of-hand things, if you blink, you might miss it, but it’s that disconnected my hands are doing one thing in one time signature while at the same time, my voice is singing in a different time signature…and together, that makes “gog” what “gog” is – a fantastic piece of progressive music, especially in these live “trio” versions – they play it really, really well – better than the record.

I was lucky enough to see them play it once, but to see it again, now, in 2013, following immediately on the heels of none other than “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – and, as the bloody encore – gog – take no prisoners; no happy, positive tune of hope, no “refugees” or other audience placation – instead, the dark side, the darkest of the dark lyrics, and, the fantastic denial of the labels that were applied to hammill all encapsulated in this song’s lyric; the audience’s reaction was to scream even louder than they did after “lighthouse keepers” – if such a thing is even possible – a fantastic reception – but it did, in the end, have to end – so, as they left us with last night, I leave you know with the full lyric of the remarkable “gog”:

some call me SATAN others have me GOD some name me NEMO…

I am unborn.

some speak of me in anagrams, some grieve upon my wrath… the ones who give me service

I grant my scorn.

my words are ‘Too late’, ‘Never’, ‘Impossible’, and ‘Gone’;

my home is in the sunset and the dawn.

my name is locked in silence, sometimes it’s whispered out of spite.

all gates are locked, all doors are barred and bolted, there is no place for flight.

Will you not come to me and love me for one more night?

some see me shining, others have me dull; gun-metal and cut diamond –

I am ALL.

some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of France…

in the tumbling of the dice see them fall!

Some laugh and see me laughing down the corridors of power: some see my sign on Caesar and his pall.

My face is robed in darkness, sometimes you glimpse me in the shade,

All friends have gone, all calls are weak and wasted, there is no more to say.

will you not crawl to me and love me for one more day?

Some wish me empty, others will me full, some crave of me infinity –

I am NONE.

Some look for me in symbols, some trace my line in stars, some count my ways in numbers:

I am No One.

Some chronicle my movements, my colours and my clothes, some trace the work in progress –

it is done.

My soul is cast in crystal yet unrevealed beneath the knife.

All wells are dry, all bread is masked in fungus and now disease is rife.

Will you not run from this and love me for one more life?

now that’s how the encore of a progressive rock concert should go!! – with drama, with darkness, with a tinge of hopelessness mixed with a tinge of hope…

that’s gog.

what a way to follow “lighthouse keepers” too – totally a grand slam – the impossible 22 minute saga of a “lonely man” followed by the ultimate denial of any labels at all being applied to that same man a few years later…I AM NO ONE !

for those of us who were lucky enough to see a show from this current european tour, those of us who won the “double van der graaf generator lottery” and got to see and hear the band play “flight” anda plague of lighthouse keepers” in the same show…it was an unforgettable experience, and I am so, so glad that the band decided to return to scotland again this year, and that we were lucky enough to get to see them play again – highly recommended if you want the real deal, a real progressive rock band playing at the height of their skill, their musicianship is untarnished by the years that have passed – and we are left with…the music.

and, it stands the test of time as no other classic seventies prog band’s catalogue does – van der graaf generator, could easily be voted “least negatively changed” over time, or better still, “most amazing after all these years” – because they truly are, and no other reunion or reformed prog band that started in the late sixties as van der graaf did, can boast a current musical quality like the one we witnessed at the abc theatre on june 27, 2013 – no other prog band can touch them, now.  seriously.

a remarkable experience. you should see them if you have the chance.

the sound of the sea

written somewhere in the ionian sea, may 19, 2013: 

well, it doesn’t happen very often, but once in a blue moon, even pureambient gets “away from it all” as every family must try to do now and then. and I would be the very first to admit, being somewhere new, somewhere unfamiliar, puts a whole new perspective on the familiar.

just to set the scene then, we are sitting on our balcony aboard the cruise ship norwegian jade, steaming from venice to our first greek island destination, corfu – where we arrive tomorrow morning. sitting here typing this, on our own private balcony, with the sound and the sight of the sea – is absolutely blissful.

corfu is a place I’ve long wanted to visit, ever since reading ‘my family and other animals’ by naturalist gerald durrell.  I must have been about twelve years old when I read that book, and the colourful, indeed vivid picture durrell paints of this sleepy greek island, with it’s quaint and kind inhabitants, has stuck in my mind all this time. part of me still can’t quite believe that tomorrow morning, I will actually set foot on corfu after wanting to for more than forty years…that is amazing!!

for myself, this getaway is actually a return, when I was a young person, I went on a short cruise of the mediterranean, and ever since then, I have wanted to go again.  for the last five years, the work has pretty much taken up all of our time; we did manage to get away for a few days in london back in 2011, but beyond that, this ten-day trip is the first real ‘vacation’ we’ve managed within that five year period.  five years, two holidays – I think we need to get away more often!

so it feels pretty damn good to just stop, and have no responsibilities or cares in the world, and just enjoy your surroundings. I would also be the very first to acknowledge that I am not very good at relaxing, I am a bit…driven, and I always feel like I have to be working, creating, mixing, recording, filming…

must…keep…busy.

this is the curse of the artist, of the musician, of the sculptor, of the creator of any kind of art, the relentless, unstoppable desire to create…so it’s very nice to stop, and to spend time not creating, but instead, just enjoying the little things in life.  with the regular schedule, that’s pretty hard to do, but outwith that schedule, I am finding it’s very, very easy to do.  so now, my priority is not getting an album done, or a video made…but, deciding if I want another amazing italian cappuccino, or maybe something like a rum runner tropical cocktail…or two – this is a much easier choice to make – the answer is, both, please 🙂

back to the very beginning of our cruise, which was prefaced by time spent in venice, italy:

the first thing I would say is, if you are disabled, or if you are in a wheelchair, that venice is NOT the most wheelchair-friendly place on earth.  our trip started with three days in venice (although really just two days, because of the travelling) and while we managed to get around, this was very difficult for myself, but even more difficult for my partner, who spent a good deal of her time lifting the wheelchair up and down many unavoidable sets of stairs – mostly in museums! museum staff were mostly not helpful, and it was hard work for both of us.

we stayed in nearby mestre, and travelled into venice both days, with most of our activities centred around the famous san marco square.  the first day was very nearly an unmitigated disaster:  a horrific storm descending on venice, alternately soaking us with rain or lashing us with rain-filled wind – it was some of the worst weather imaginable.  somehow, with wheelchair and gear, we managed to get onto the bus, to the bus station, picked up our tickets, got to the vaporetto (water taxis) and began our travels into venice. we were both soaked through, before the day even began…not an auspicious start.

day one had the worst weather, and our first stop was the gallerie dell’ accademia, which, after struggling with the torrential downpour and water taxis, we very nearly did not get into…and once the staff relented and deigned to allow us entry, well, I have to be honest, we were very disappointed – both with the gallery itself (containing almost exclusively, paintings, and, almost exclusively, paintings depicting the more horrific side of christianity) – not a pleasant place, but a dark, gloomy place full of stairs and nothing but religious objects.

so, back out into the rain, we boarded the vaporetto again, and made our way to the giardini reali stop at san marcos square (I loved the small garden area by the water) and then we made our way over to the square.  by this time, we were even wetter, our paperwork was soaked, we were just unbelievably wet, cold and miserable.  my partner parked me, in the wheelchair, into a sheltered spot, and went in search of sustenance.  this day was utterly unforgettable if only for the worst imaginable weather, very similar to a pretty bad day at home in scotland !! two lovely small cheese pizzas later, we were ready to re-commence our battle with the elements…

at this point, we were really just trying to get to 2:30 p.m. because we had booked a tour of murano, torcello, and burano – of course, a tour on the water, when the weather is at it’s very worst – how lucky were we?  but, we were determined, so, after some window shopping, photography and general hanging  about, we set off to the pick up point, and boarded yet another sort of water taxi for the special tour of the islands.

it’s really such a shame that the weather was so, so horrific this day, because under normal circumstances, this would have been a really lovely tour.  murano was the first stop, with it’s world-famous glass blowing and glass artisans, and it really was truly remarkable, but first, we had to deal with the task of getting off the boat, which was not made easy by the heaving seas and lashing winds.  this feat accomplished, we visited one of the glass factories, where we witnessed an age-old family tradition – using furnaces and manual glass-blowing techniques, and two different artists created two different objects in front of our eyes, including a delicate, rearing-on-it’s-hind-legs glass horse – really beautiful work.

the shop on the island was full of amazing glass objects, absolutely astonishing  glass artefacts of every possible description.  in fact, all over venice you could find murano glass, including in the buildings and museums – often, the chandeliers would be murano, and it is ever-present in this region – and its world-famous for a reason, it’s simply a thing of real beauty, manufactured basically by hand, which is something you do not see much of in this world any more.

I admire the skill that it takes to create something like this, because it’s really a similar process to one person making music using the tools that they have, the only difference being that glass-blowing is the manufacture of a tangible physical object, while the musician creates something slightly more abstract…but no less “real”.

we saw little else of murano, the weather was so awful, that we unanimously wanted to get back onto the boat and move on to our next stop, torcello. now, torcello is completely different, much less sparsely populated than many other italian islands, it’s much greener, and we had a lovely walk along a canal towards the centre of the island.  we stopped off for coffee and tea, and “cake”, which in this instance was simply the most incredible, massive portion of tiramisu I’ve ever seen or eaten…which was absolutely delicious.

strangely, despite the fact that we didn’t actually “do” or “see” anything on torcello, it was perhaps my favourite part of the islands tour, I just liked the island and we really enjoyed the walk along the canal, with it’s curved bridges (such as the ponte del diavolo)  and lovely greenery – a really nice, relaxing island spot.

the weather at this point was still pretty bad, although it had relented a little bit during our time on torcello, it was still working hard to make us all miserable.

our final stop, burano, was another yet-again different environment, a much larger village square with a church / steeple (whose bells rung obligingly while we were there – a lovely sound) – we both spent time happily snapping photos, including panoramic views of the square, and shopping in the local shops…

and then it was time for the long return journey to venice, 45 minutes of backtracking, the way we had just come; which was a bit dreary given that the weather was still horrible and the seas were still stormy and the wind was still blasting – the wind so strong that it was pushing lots of water underneath the glass doors of the boat’s main cabin – there was simply water *everywhere* !!!

but, as I said, if the weather had been nice – this would have been an absolutely fantastic tour, and I do recommend it highly – the tour guides were really polite and helpful, and the amount of history and culture to be absorbed is extremely high, a really good experience, and a great way to spend an afternoon in venice.  beware – the murano, torcello and burano tour is four and a half hours long, but, totally worth it given what you get to see and experience.

at this point, we then had to disembark from the island tour boat, and return to the vaporetto water taxi; make our way back to the bus station; find the right bus back to mestre…the whole outbound journey, wheelchair still in tow, in reverse.

back to the hotel, we then went to check out a restaurant that we had read about, called “hostaria”, which was literally two streets away from the hotel, but as we could see what seemed to be a massive queue, we decided that there would be too long of a wait, so we decided to give it a miss.  little did we realise – we found out the next night, that it wasn’t a queue – it was simply the overspill from the bar!!  and you had 20 or 30 people out on the sidewalk, drinking and smoking and laughing – which from a distance, appeared to be a queue. but what a relaxed and happy atmosphere as the patrons spilled out into the streets with their drinks…

in any case, we found a small restaurant also quite close by, where we had a lovely meal, followed by a couple of cappuccinos to go, which we took back to our hotel.

day two: the storm starts to recede.  still not completely gone, the weather nonetheless begins to improve on our second day in venice.  starting out again from our hotel in mestre, we by now had mastered the bus and vaporetto systems, so getting around, even with the wheelchair, was considerably easier (although still not easy!) on the second day – we had it all worked out now.

we returned again via bus, then vaporetto, to the lovely gardens at the square of san marco, this time to explore the museums in and around the square itself, beginning with the palazzo ducale. I would say that once again, as with the gallerie dell’ accademia, we were underwhelmed both by what was on offer, which was once again, almost solely devoted to painting, and once again, almost solely devoted to the darker side of christianity, and by the “ease” with which we could get around. another impossible venture…

while there was a lift, we spent a long, long time finding it, having to wait for various people with various sets of keys to open various doors to find this tiny, backstage service lift, and even then, once up on the museum floor, we still ended up being confronted again and again by stairs, stairs and more stairs.

I would say that this is possibly the most un-wheelchair friendly museum we have ever visited anywhere, in one of the most un-wheelchair friendly cities in the world.  it’s a shame to have to say that, but it’s true.  we even got temporarily trapped in an endless series of unending hallways, with, of course, stairs, stairs and more stairs, until we eventually escaped. a more physically exhausting and emotionally draining than culturally profitable experience, I don’t recommend a visit to the palazzo ducale unless you are ready for a very physically challenging experience!

our second day was now half over, and it took some detective work, but we finally worked out that the archaeological museum that we had planned to visit, had been absorbed and moved inside of another museum, the “museo correr” which is actually first, the private collection of one teodoro correr, and two, the archaeological museum, and three, a library – all  merged into one museum.

this, out of all of the museum visits, was by far and away the best.  instead of endless dreary paintings of strictly religious subjects – we went into the real world, with real objects from history ranging from whole libraries of ancient books, to statues, to weapons, to day to day objects, everything – and it was an absolutely fascinating journey.

from the very beginning of the museum, you could tell it was going to be something special: massive ancient globes of the world, some depicting what was recognisably our modern world, others with fanciful drawings of animals with the sort of “lions be here” motif – but what globes they were, some of them perhaps six feet in diameter!

rooms full of the most remarkable coin collections, coins dating back to hundreds of years before christ, made from every imaginable material; the tools and tooling used to stamp out the coins…

each room contained a different treasure, and one set of the rooms tried to capture all of the most important art of the time (correr was an obsessive collector) in a sort of themed way, so some rooms contained a fantastic array of truly beautiful and unique items that I cannot describe with mere words.

a gentleman named “grimani” donated his collection of over 150 statues to the collection, and some of these statues were impressive indeed, and most of the rooms boasted a few or many “grimani”-donated statues.

this just adds still more to this amazing collection of art objects, and beyond all other museums in the square, I recommend the museo correr – what a fantastic place.  it was also the most wheelchair-friendly of the museums, although we still had to go through the arcane tiny-service-elevator behind locked doors scene to get us onto the museum floor.  but, compared to our experience at the palazzo ducale, the staff at museo correr did a spectacular job taking care of us – which also made a pleasant change to the indifference or even downright rudeness of some of the other staff at some of the other museums.

we were both so, so glad that we had made the extra effort to determine where this particular museum was, and the very positive experience we had there helped to erase some of the frustration and disappointment we’d felt with our first three museum visits in venice – it was so good, that it almost “made up” for the more negative experiences in the other museums. almost…but not quite.

so – when in venice – visit the museo correr, without fail – it’s very, very much worth it, and, it’s more wheelchair/disabled friendly than most.

day three – well, that brings us up to the moment – may 19th, 2013, on the balcony at the palazzo dell’ pureambient aboard the norwegian jade, steaming towards corfu – the first of four greek islands we will be visiting over the next four days…

sitting here with only the sound of the waves to accompany my typing (via bluetooth keyboard, the height of luxury!) – you want to talk about ambient music?  I could listen to this sound, the sound of the sea (and nothing else) for the whole week, and feel incredibly happy.  it’s both a joyous sound and a soothing sound, a restless, questing sound and a peaceful, sleepy sound.  it’s the best ambient music there is, it’s why the sound of the waves have appeared on every cheesy, crappy “new age” album ever made – because it is such a great sound, it really is.  and while it’s often been used badly, I still think there is hope for it’s use in ambient music. it’s possible, that someone could make really beautiful ambient music using the sound of the sea as it’s basis.

but it depends, like all sounds, on what you do with it.  if you blend it, windham hill style, with quiet, jazz-based with mellow-synth-pad, obvious “new age” music – then it’s going to sound pretty bad.  my thought would be that if I was going to use the sound of waves (which I have done in short form, back in 1994 – with my unreleased CD “the sea, the sea”), that I would need to do it in a very different way, to avoid the cliche that unfortunately, like another area of sonic new age crime, bird song used badly in new age music, that ocean sounds used in new age music, have become.

like the very real experience I am having of this sound right now, hours on end of unbroken sound of ocean waves, I would think it best that art imitate life, and any composition I might try would and should involve long, long stretches of ocean sound with no added music, with short sections of very ambient, ethereal music added – in real moderation – and, with not a single electric piano or muted windham hill trumpet or smooth synth pad in sight.  mostly just the sea, with very lightly mixed in music that very closely merges with the natural sound.  I think it can be done…and maybe one day, I will give it a try.

I am sure it can be done tastefully, and it really should be, because it’s one of the most amazing ambient sounds that I’ve ever heard – because its directly from nature, not man-made in any way – and I heartily recommend it – get yourself out onto the ocean, and plug into endless hours of the most beautiful “ambient record” there is (better than anything eno ever did!!) – the pure sound of the pure waves of the pure ocean, filling your ears and your consciousness with their never-ending sound of pulsing waves – it’s pure bliss.

it’s all around us, and it permeates everything – the sound of the sea.