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

So – the stage is literally set, I’ve at this point, got the majority of seven months’ of work behind me…

My last blog, recounted the first seven months of the project in a fair amount of detail – that was part one – but here in part two, we are looking at the final few days of work – the last four or five days in December, 2015 – that’s our “part two”:

 

The drums and bass have been locked down (except for final level setting, of course) for many months.

The keyboards are all locked down, and the intricate middle section has been completed, encompassing acoustic guitars, birdsong, ipad, and ambient electric guitars (the infamous “Hackett Guitars” – courtesy of the new Eventide H9 multi effects unit – that occur just before the second half of the song re-enters).

All that is left is – more work (on the second half only, after the new “middle section”) with the guitars, a few needing solos, and a few, needing some rhythm guitars.

I decided to use some of the extraordinary sounds from the Eventide H9 multi-effects unit, which only arrived in the final days of work on the song, so using it as my main guitar effects unit, that enabled me to do, for example, the ambient “Hackett Guitars”, as well as some of the rhythm and lead guitar work in the final section during “part two” – so I would characterise “part one” as being the main build of the song, plus, the first part of the guitar overdubs; while “part two” is two things, finishing touches – all done on guitar – and mixing, mixing, and more mixing.

I had originally thought that I would play a series of different guitar solos over the second half of the mix, but things happen…plans change.  And in this case, it was one of those weird accidents that you just can’t deny, that you have to go with – because you hear it, and the sound of it just says to you, you know it in your heart: “you know this is the right thing”.

I sat down to play the first of many solos, which, by my cunning plan, would have filled the end of the main track from the end of the middle section to the end of the song, bit by bit, a short burst of one guitar sound, a short burst of the next, and so on. The first solo, was to be an ebow solo.  So I got a nice sound for the ebow from the H9, and started making takes.

But what happened was something I never expected, as the track kept playing, after the section I was overdubbing – I kept going, I kept playing after the first section went past…and then the next, and then the next…and suddenly, I could hear the very end of the song approaching – so I went for a crazy, major key ascending scale that could not possibly fit at the very end of a really, really LONG ebow solo – and of course, almost as if it had planned that way – it fit just right, ending right alongside the existing “fast-Leslie” organ solo…

I listened back, astonished – because I never meant to play right through, I hadn’t imagined finishing the entire track with one very long, multi-key energy bow guitar solo – but that is exactly what happened.  At first, I thought, well, this creates a problem – what do I do?  How can I play different sections of lead guitar now, with this really nice solo filling up the entire second half of the track?

The answer, of course, was “you no longer need to”.  So instead of doing piecemeal solos, using different guitar sounds, etc. (as I did in the first half, as planned…) the second half now features one long, long ebow solo (which, to be fair, is actually in five sections, edited down from the best three takes – but if I had not told you that, you would not have known – it sounds like one solo – well, it is one solo, just, from the best three takes!) – it was quite a feat of editing, but editing ebow solos is one of the most amazing procedures out there, because – well, because a recorded ebow sounds, looks and acts like a pure sine wave, fading it in and out is never an issue, at a microscopic level (zoomed) or even at a normal level (not zoomed) and “switching” from one solo to another, from one take to another rather, at any point, is almost always very easy, because the notes are usually quite long, and, whether they are long or short, they have distinct silences in between – the perfect space to switch between take 1 and take 3, for example.

The editing task then was not that difficult, but I did spend quite a lot of time on it, as I wanted this final solo to really bring the whole piece together, and once I got used to it – I realised that it was the best idea all along – because it’s the only opportunity, really, for a nice long guitar solo – and there is nothing on earth like a nice long ebow solo – it’s the best! – so…I took that opportunity.  Accidentally “on purpose” 🙂

So while unintentional – that “accident”, of me just carrying on playing that ebow solo, not stopping when I should have – going on and on to the very end of the song – changed the whole planned character of the second half of the song, and gave me a glorious, long and lovely ebow solo to take us out to the final moments of the song.

I did some work with panning towards the end of the piece – I boosted the level of the existing “fast Leslie” organ solo to match the ebow solo better, and I gradually moved it from the centre to one side of the stereo image, while at the same time, in the opposite direction, I gradually moved the ebow solo to the opposite side of the stereo image, so it moves from being a homogeneous centralised pair of instruments at the beginning of the second half, to two distinct instruments, one on either side of you – and I love that slow, slow stereo spread of the two solos – it works for me.  In headphones, it’s very nice indeed.  On speakers, you might not really notice it as much, but it’s an important point – I wanted the solos to end, with them split, one hard left, the other hard right – and that is indeed, what I ended up with.

I think at that point, I breathed a huge, huge sigh of relief – because, except for a very few finishing touches – this long ebow solo meant that the song was “DONE”!!  At long, long last, and just before the year ended, too – it had always been my goal to complete the song in 2015, to allow it to then become, pureambient’s first release in 2016.  So I am happy to report that I did indeed, with just hours to spare, meet that goal.

So – what finishing touches? Well, I added in a few rhythm guitars, where I felt that solos needed some chord-based support, but overall, there is not a lot of rhythm playing in this song – being a prog song, all of the players (i.e., me, lol) love to play solos, they all think that they are master of their own instrument – so you have a whole band full of soloists!

But the lead guitarist (again, that’s Dave Stafford, lead guitar), can be, and did indeed, allow himself to be persuaded that some rhythm guitars (well, more than he had originally done or planned for, anyway!) would not go amiss.  One of those rhythm guitar parts, a simple chord played once and left to ring, for four bars, sounds nothing like a guitar, but rather, some mellifluous dream electric piano from the stars…a beautiful H9-produced sound.

I added some lovely chords in the second half of the piece, using the H9 to get some beautiful new clean sounds (and the modulation section of the H9 is simply the best – better than any effects unit or software I have ever owned – it is the best, for those of us who cannot possibly, ever, afford an “Axe-FXII” – this is just as good or better!) so I am really pleased with the last few guitar contributions – because the H9 makes them sound really, really good!

I also realised that so far, I had not woven any reverse guitar into the fabric of the song, and I love reverse guitar – I’d always meant to do a reverse solo – but I hadn’t done any so far in the song (a huge oversight, surely!) – I mean, come on, this is prog – so in the style of King Crimson circa 1970, I thought of “Prince Rupert’s Lament” (or rather, the “Lizard” suite) I decided I would add some reverse guitars in that style, clean and nice – so – how could I now incorporate it?  Where there is a will, there is a way – I recorded a few different takes of reverse guitar (again, courtesy of the remarkable H9 pedal) and then mixed them into the closing section of the song.

That took some getting used to, in fact, all of the changes to the second half took me some time to acclimate to, because for so long, it had just been, you know, drums, bass, keyboards, mellotron.  No guitars.  No rhythm guitar.  No reverse guitars.  So the second half evolved, and the more I worked on it, the happier I felt – I really felt good about this piece of music, and despite how long it took, and the many, many long hours and long days I had to put in to get it there (the weeks spent on the drums and bass alone ate up the first two months!!!) and there were times when I thought – “I am never going to get to play the guitars on this song….never!” – but, the day finally did come, at the end of November actually, and I really went into it with a happy heart – finally, I am working out guitar parts, to go with the long, long-existing bass, organ and mellotron parts.

Playing guitar along to the finished backing track was an absolute joy, and I could just jam along to almost any of the sections, because I know them so, so well by this point – I could just about have played the guitar parts LIVE really, once I’d rehearsed them.

I did go back, too, and “try again” on some of the toughest solos – I spent one entire day, “seeing if I could do better” – and in almost every case, I found that I could, so I ended up with some very natural sounding, very “live” guitar solos – where previously, in the initial final mixes (I know, that sounds odd, but, it’s the only way to describe it) I had kinda, pieced together some of the more difficult guitar parts.  No more, though – now, they are played live, as are most of the solos – the final ebow being the one exception to that – but, it’s very, very long, and it’s not likely that anyone could play for that long, without some imperfections – so I did have to fix a few touchy moments in the long solo.

Mostly, the guitar parts kinda “wrote themselves”: there were areas where they simply join the bass for a ride-along; and other areas where they do not, but instead, they mesh or interact with the bass – and there are some spectacular bass v. guitar “battles” in the first half of the song that could not have come out better had they been planned (and, they were NOT planned – it just worked out that way – when I added the guitar parts, the bassist was RIGHT THERE, answering me – it was amazing! – the guitar would play a riff, and suddenly, there was the bass, ripping off a super quick “tiny-space”-filling-run, at impossible speed (that’s our bass player, Dave Stafford, again!) – and it sounded like both the guitar and the bass had always been there, that the interaction was totally planned and totally natural…when in fact, it was yet another “happy accident” – but the joy that it brought me the first time I heard it play back – wow! Listen to THAT, was well worth it – the guitars and the basses are totally working together, playing off each other as if it’s a live track!

Sometimes, you are very, very fortunate.  I was really fortunate with the way that the final overdubs, the lead guitars worked with the drums, worked with the bass, worked with the organ, and worked with the mellotron – and in fact, the mellotron came and went with the eeriest perfection – perfect timing every time, arriving right when I needed it.  As if they knew what the guitar parts would be (when I clearly, did not!).

I think then, that the reverse guitars were the last significant thing that was actually played on the track; after that, the last two or three days of December, 2015, were spent on the final mix, which I sorted of re-built from scratch – I’d had a “working mix” the entire time, but rather than just carry that forward and build in the new parts, I decided to create a brand new, fresh mix, which gave me the opportunity for example, to ensure that the bass and the drums, could compete with the masses of guitars, and the intense keyboard and mellotron washes – I wanted to be able to hear everything as clearly as possible (obviously!).

Getting a nice clean mix when there are this many instruments can be tricky, but I just approached each one, first, separately, and then, in relation to the other instruments, until I reached a point where I felt happy with everything.

I also stripped out a lot of “individual” reverbs and other effects that I had quickly thrown on during production, and consolidated them in the output section – I created a full set of additional stereo bus outputs, so that every set of instruments had an overall level control, and, consistent, high quality, reverbs and effects – made at the output stage rather than connected directly to the track.

Certain tracks that were created early on, were just too complex to move to a bus, so I left them alone with their track-specific sounds – in one case, a complex arrangement of Waves GTR and Waves Stereo ADT – used for an extremely strange “guitar” track that slowly, slowly fades in during the first quarter of the song.  That was left alone, along with the bass which was sent out directly without any effects whatsoever – I wanted it to be dead clean.

I didn’t mess with the drums too much, either, I probably would have (I do love adding phase shifters to hi-hat and cymbal hits and similar…), but I didn’t want to add another two months to an already somewhat overly long-production schedule!  So I kept it to some bespoke panned sections (which I really, really like, because they appear so seldom!), and just little touches – the drum track is pretty basic, and the bass is just bass – in this case, the tone of the Scar-bee Rickenbacker is so perfect, I couldn’t see putting any effects whatsoever on it – so – it’s dry and clean!

So really, mixing was quite easy, mainly because I was so, so familiar with all of the component tracks, and with the individual stereo buses for guitars, organ, mellotron, bass, drums – getting relative levels was easy!  I had expected an agony of mixing hell – and the song surprised me – maybe because to some extent, I kept it simple (well, simple when compared to something like “wettonizer” (taken from the newest eternal album, the first of 2016, “progressive rock” by Dave Stafford), I suppose!).

Note: “wettonizer” was originally included on the gone native CD (which is still available) and download, but is now also available on the brand new 2016 eternal album collection “progressive rock” – alongside the brand new track “the complete unknown”.  This is comprised of a set of prog songs taken from gone native, along with  “the complete unknown”.

The very last part of the song, after that energy bow climbs up to the top of that unlikely major scale, and then SLAMS down into reverb with an odd but lovely sound of wonderful completion, the song then almost comes to a halt, the keyboards are pretty much all that is playing, until suddenly, the Rickenbacker bass and the Hammond organ, join the drums for their final flourish – and then, a long, pure bass note is held, to remind us I think, of purity, of the beauty of just one note – and then, the drummer plays a few bars of precision military snare roll, and the long bass note and the snare drum, disappear forever into the complete unknown…the song is over.

I really, really enjoyed myself on this project, my only regret is that by becoming so involved in it, I was really unable to work on much of anything else, so other areas of my music suffered.  But that will change in 2016, I have an enormous amount of new music in the planning stages, including still more eternal albums on Bandcamp, and I hope to present more musical material, both old and new, in various formats, including hopefully, a return to video as well as audio only work.

We shall see!  But in the meantime, if you fancy a bit of old-style progressive rock, this could be the 17 minute long song for you – “the complete unknown”.  Give it a listen – it will take you right back to 1974…

 

Peace, Love and Groovy Mellotrons,

 

 

dave

pureambient hq

january 17th, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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what we’re listening to – the innocence mission (a guilty pleasure)

in the 1990s, since joni mitchell was already in semi if not full retirement, there was only one female singer that filled that gap (for my money, anyway) – big shoes to fill – and that was the innocence mission’s karen peris.

I discovered this band in a really strange way, I used to videotape mtv’s 120 minutes, which ran from midnight to two am, I would go off to bed and watch the tape the next day, on the off chance that an interesting or good video would be shown (and usually, I was disappointed) but on one of the tapes one night, there was this strange video for an even stranger song called “black sheep wall”, by a group I had never heard of – the innocence mission.

the singer was a shy looking girl with long brown hair, with a lovely soprano voice, but what got to me was the song itself – it was strangely compelling, and I liked the arrangement, which has some sort of reverse reverb backing vocals, and I really liked the instrumentation and the guitarist.

I did something completely uncharacteristic – the next day, I went out, and bought the album on the strength of that one song.  and this was an accident, I never did that – but for some reason, I did.  and I loved the album – it’s an absolute classic, and “black sheep wall” is just one of many great songs on that debut record.

I didn’t know it then, but this was the start of a long love affair with this band, this singer…these SONGS – delicate, fragile, beautiful, sensitive (all the things that most music of the 90s was not) and I was lucky enough to see the band live a couple of times as well, usually in a very small club in san diego. on one of those occasions, I even got to speak to don and karen, and they were just absolutely welcoming and wonderful people – I had a really nice chat with don, told him I liked the way he would go out on a limb with his guitar playing – which he did all the time, his riffs, bordering on the strange, his use of the whammy bar, very peculiar indeed…but wonderful, refreshing – unusual.

a huge component of my admiration for this band IS the guitar playing of don peris – he pretty much never uses distortion, always plays it clean, plays it straight, uses a lot of bright, chorus-y sounds…but can also play so, so powerfully when the need arises.

of course, it wasn’t just don’s guitar, karen’s ability as a vocalist, pianist and synthesist cannot be overstated, of course, really, this is in some ways, “her” band – mainly because it’s her songs – her piano. again, this always impresses me – I am not normally fond of singers who cannot play an instrument – but karen sings lead, sings harmony, play piano, plays synthesizer, plays acoustic guitar – whatever is needed, and she is a musician first and a singer first, as well – now, for a lot of people, it might be difficult to deal with her voice, because it’s one of those really powerful sopranos that some people don’t like, but if you listen to the words, the stories she tells – and then her vocal arrangements – for example, the arrangement on “black sheep wall” is absolutely stunning – as if joni mitchell and kate bush had a magic love child, and her name was karen peris.

as one of the few husband and wife teams out there in the world of popular music, the peris’ had a long and fruitful, albeit low-key, career – and it’s interesting, if you look at the series of recordings they made at the time, starting with their debut “the innocence mission”, moving on through “umbrella” and onto the phenomenal “glow”…but what was interesting was that at first, it was a real band, with bass, drums, guitar and piano – with karen at the centre of it all, those amazing songs, and don supporting her with his world class super clean, melodic, chiming guitars – those guitars!

but, as time went on, first the drums disappeared, and then eventually even the bass, leaving karen and don right back where they started – full circle, so that the last couple of “innocence mission” albums were really just karen and don – and therefore, a lot more acoustic than the earlier records – but the songs never suffered, and in fact the more minimal approach on the later albums actually works very, very well indeed.

early songs such as “clear to you” and “black sheep wall” – are just so, so beautiful, and even now, so many years later, the distinctive sound of karen’s voice, and those beautiful band arrangements, just resonate so beautifully – nothing has changed, even though…everything’s different now.

 

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I will be around…

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I won’t let you down…”

 

I really admire the amazing talent of these four people, of course, it’s all about karen’s songs, karen’s amazing voice, those kate bush/threatening background vocals, and don’s amazing, concise, careful, clean and sometimes daring guitar playing – and the songs are good, they are solid, the writing is good, the lyrics are intense and meaningful and joyful, the melodies are beautiful – and the band supports karen in an amazing, yet delicate way.

when I spoke to karen and don, I was struck by just what…almost withdrawn, quiet people they were, totally introspective, and when karen spoke, it was in an absolute, barely discernable whisper, almost as if she were afraid to speak aloud (she was probably just saving her voice for the next gig) – and some of her songs are like that too, fragile, you can’t believe something that fragile can exist, something that beautiful – but they do!

so these are definitely not your normal “rock stars” – there was no posturing, no nonsense, just come out, sing and play the songs (and don has a great harmony voice, you could tell that he and karen have been singing together for many, many years) and I was amazed that they then came out to speak to us after the show instead of “off to the hotel” – that was a really nice thing to do, and I haven’t forgotten that conversation even after all these years – I was wanting don to let me overdub one of their songs with layers of ebows – but that idea never came to anything (at least, not yet!) – there is something fairly hypnotic about a lot of the songs, and I had done some experiments where I looped live as the album played – so I could hear it in my head anyway…

 

I really think it’s such a shame that this band was not well known, here, we have real talent, real song writing ability, a great pianist and singer, a fantastic, accurate, clean, quality guitarist – and of course, they were largely ignored in favour of musical atrocities such as…shudder…tori amos.  tori amos was compared to kate bush, but the real talent, the woman who really should have been compared to the vaunted kate b., is our own karen peris – if you ask me, there is a holy trinity of female singers: mitchell, bush, peris – NOT amos, never amos.

 

even new female artists like joanna newsome…OK, I get it, but for me, no one has yet to touch the beautiful, fragile, yet strangely powerful songs of karen peris – they are tops, and it will take someone really, really amazing to replace her place in my heart – I love this music, I’m forever going over black sheep wall and karen peris is taking me there…

sometimes, the band builds up to an amazing frenzy of layered, chiming, beautiful guitars, with multiple karen peris overdubbed vocals lending themselves to this musical frenzy – there is a part in “that was another country” from the “glow” album that never, ever fails to give me goose bumps, as karen’s voices vie with don’s guitars for “most beautiful” or “most chilling” – a really musical, really creative build up of layers, and “that was another country” is a masterpiece, albeit an unknown one – if I had to take just one innocence mission song to my desert island, that might be it…

as I mentioned before, they start out very much “band” and end up very much “acoustic duo” which is a strange career, almost like a career in reverse, the most number of fully arranged, upbeat songs being on the debut, and then, fewer and fewer tracks with band as time goes on.  I love both, and there are also a few tracks that are mostly about karen’s piano and voice, and it’s then that comparisons to both mitchell and bush are totally unavoidable…obviously, she is influenced by both (in fact, mitchell was an actual mentor on the first album, which was produced by mitchell’s then husband, larry klein – as was the second album, “umbrella”, as well) but totally has her own identity, and I love that she is such a strong songwriter, and that the boys in the band – originally, mike bitts on bass and steve brown on drums, along with don and karen peris – they all contributed to the material, but peris is, and always will be, the principal songwriter and is the quiet, gentle, shy driving force behind this band and it’s incredible music.

there is no other like it. an early single, “wonder of birds” has a driving drum beat and a glorious orchestral arrangement that support karen’s massed vocals – and then don starts to layer in his “chorus guitars” – and the whole thing is away, flying, literally flying away – and what kind of band writes about how wonderful birds are – in fact, one of their later albums is actually called “birds of my neighbourhood” – so twitchers (birdwatchers/ornithologists) everywhere, including myself, can rejoice, karen peris and co. are still singing the praises of our avian friends…and that was even a minor hit, with a successful MTV video – can you imagine, a song about birdwatching, an MTV hit??? it doesn’t get more unlikely…

their second album, 1991’s umbrella, starts with an incredibly beautiful, upbeat song called “and hiding away” – with the most glorious guitars, picked chords flying, trying to keep up with karen’s voice, which is soaring so high, so far – and then it’s all don, amazing guitar break, I really cannot express in words what a good guitarist don peris is, you just have to listen – none of it is gratuitous, there is nothing excessive, nothing unnecessary; there is just what the song needs, no more, no less – pop masterpiece minimalism, and “and hiding away” is a perfect example of a great, great pop song – I love it!

I prize the cloudy, tearing sky
for the thoughts that flap and fly.
for staying in and reading by.
for sitting under.

I read a book of madeline
and her friends in two straight lines,
in paris, in a house with vines
over its old face.
far, far is paris…
and the sky is dark with mystery.

try, catch the thoughts that flap and fly
in the cloudy, tearing sky,
that touch and stir and won’t be tied-
and try to speak them.

I think of my old flower sky.
of us, when we thought we were spies.
of bobbing eggs in easter dyes.
of walks in london.
try, try to hold my love for you,
it knows no measure.

this is a day for hearing bagpipes
somewhere playing.
this is a day for hearing sarabands
and hiding away.

sky, I hold my tears if you do.
starling thoughts, go over me

 

and then, from pure, unadulterated joy, the album moves to unspeakable sorrow, with the dirgelike, slowly evolving “ sorry and glad together” with it’s perfect four-note george harrison style slide guitar break – the world’s shortest, best slide solo – so beautiful, a very moody song, that moves from sorrow to joy and back again, and even if this album only had these two songs on it, it would be a masterpiece, “umbrella” is a really, really lovely record.

I love the first three records perhaps a bit inordinately much, and for some reason, I am also very fond of the third album, “glow” – I don’t know why, there are so many good songs, great songs even, across the now-substantial canon of this great, unknown band – and whenever I hear them, I am taken back to the time when these songs were brand new, and I had a secret, I was into one of the best kept secrets ever, the beautiful experience that was being a fan of, and seeing play, a totally real, totally honest songwriter, who would sit down to an absolutely hushed audience, sit at the piano, and pour her heart out without opening her eyes, as don and the band quietly supported her – I will never forget that as long as I live – the venue was a tiny club, and you could hear a pin drop as karen sang…

I feel very, very fortunate that I stumbled across this band by total, total accident; that I took a chance and bought their first CD, that I kept buying their albums (and was rewarded time and time and time again with an even better record than the last one), that I went to see them play and supported them – so many bands are just hype and nonsense, all bluster and no talent, but this incredibly honest couple, with their beautiful, truthful songs, really touched me in a strange way, the songs get into your head and your heart, and you find yourself singing them days and days after hearing them…

“I can see you
I can feel you

I can see…see

you”

normally, I would never buy a CD based on the strength of hearing just one song that I liked – but in this case, I am so, so glad I did, because there after followed 23 years of enjoyment, and I class this band in a very unique category, a rare category, where the quality of the songs and the delivery of the music is such a pure, undamaged thing – even the record companies, the record industry, could not spoil this, and this band always did work on their own terms – they had it their way, even when that way was probably commercial suicide, and for that determination, they have my undying admiration and love.

 

“(I’ve got) clouds in the upstairs, clouds in the memory…

clouds in the upstairs…I still remember…I remember me…”

“clouds in the memory…”

 

 

karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !

 

 

addendum:

 

early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks

if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…

 

 

black sheep wall

clear to me

you chase the light

wonder of birds

and hiding away

sorry and glad together

now in this hush

someday coming

keeping awake

bright as yellow

that was another country

happy, the end

go

everything’s different now

where does the time go?

snow

moon river

 

 

 

beautiful pop heaven playlist…

 

bliss.

what we’re listening to – the ravi shankar collection – 10 CD – 2012

I have always had a soft spot for indian classical music; for me, it started, as it did for so many young musicians, when beatle george introduced us to a remarkable young musician named ravi shankar around 1966 .  I am so, so fortunate in that I actually got to see ravi play on three occasions, once, in 1974, when a massive indian orchestra was the opening act on the george harrison tour – and that was absolutely brilliant, I had never seen indian music performed live, and to see and Indian orchestra led by ravi shankar as my first experience – that was truly remarkable, and again later, at a special concert held at ravi’s home…and finally, again, a few years after that in a more formal setting, I was very fortunate to have seen ravi in concert with his daughter anoushka – and that was truly something to behold, father and daughter, master and student – but I will tell you what, anoushka’s ability on sitar has skyrocketed so incredibly much, that her playing sometimes challenges those positions of “master” and “student” – I believe that in the fullness of time, that anoushka may be an even greater player than ravi – and that is saying something.  time will tell.

so it began with ravi shankar, his influence on the beatles at first, hearing those strange, strange indian instruments in the george harrison song  “love you to” from revolver – of course, everyone cites “norwegian wood” as the watershed moment, but actually, for me, I always felt that was just a bit gimmicky, it’s not serious – but, as with all things george harrison, it became really serious, really quickly – and “love you to” is the first – the drones on “tomorrow never knows” are the second – and then the masterpiece, “within you without you” – which is absolutely brilliant.

then for me, when it really hit me just how good this music really, really is – was hearing, and seeing the film of, the concert for bangladesh. the main piece from that opening act of the film and the concert, “bangla dhun” is an amazing piece of music, and it’s melody haunts my brain to this day, I love the incredible musical interplay between shankar on sitar, and the master of the sarod, ali akbar khan – “bangla dhun” is a duet of the two then-masters of indian classical music.

but we are not here to talk about george, we are talking today about indian classical music, that 3000 year old oral tradition – that to me, makes the entirety of western music seem like a tiny blip on the screen when compared to the rich tradition of the “rag” or “raga” – which have been handed down, from teacher to student, for over 3000 years.  western music has nothing to even compare to that…

it wasn’t until I was an adult that I started collecting the music of ravi shankar, and it was slow going – there wasn’t much readily available, but I did start to build my collection.  and because I’d seen ali akbar khan play at the concert for bangladesh, I also became very interested in the music of the sarod, which is the sitar’s lesser known cousin, and I began to collect both shankar and khan CDs in earnest.

other styles of indian classical music also came into the mix, including some of the master players and performers:  pandit hariprasad chaurasia, an amazing flute player, probably the master of the bansuri, the Indian bamboo flute, is a favourite of mine, and I also have a love for both Indian vocal music, or the very hauntingly beautiful music of the indian violin as played by master musicians such as dr. l. subramaniam.

but for me, it was the holy trinity of ravi shankar, the master of the sitar, the undisputed master; ali akbar khan, the undisbuted master of the sarod; and alla rakha, the undisbuted master of the tabla.  hearing them play together at an early age (I was a young teenager when the concert for Bangladesh took place) left an indelible impression on my young brain, and I’ve been enjoying their music ever since.

few have arisen to challenge these three; for ravi, his only competition, in my opinion, is his own student and daughter, anoushka, otherwise, no other sitarist has come along to challenge his superiority, I don’t know of any challenger to ali akbar khan who simply reigns supreme on the sarod, and maybe, at a stretch, you could say that young bikram ghosh is at least holding a candle to alla rakha’s ability on the tabla – I’ve seen ghosh play (in ravi shankar’s living room, but that is definitely a story for another blog…) and I can tell you he is an extraordinary player – whether he is alla rakah’s equal or possibly better, I don’t know, I doubt it…but it’s a close raise, both men are insanely skilled with the very complex and intricate rhythms – which are often delivered at a breakneck pace!

so the other day, when I got one of those “pre-order this brand new collection by ravi shankar” emails – it was a bit of a no-brainer, especially when I realised that for a mere twenty quid, I would be adding no less than ten full CDs worth of shankar music to my collection – how could I not order it?

it arrived a few days ago now, and I was able to get the first five discs ripped and named and onto my ipod so I could listen to them earlier today, and what a pleasant day it was, too, because of this music.  a few days later, discs 6 – 10 joined them, and it was then that I could really immerse myself in this massive body of work – I can’t get enough of it at this point.

some of the music is familiar to me already, because I already own the very, very beautiful “in celebration” box set, so there is some overlap, but that is hardly an issue – I’m actually pleased that this collection is ten CDs, because at that quantity, you can actually begin, just about, to get an idea of the amazing career, and the amazing talent, of the man named ravi shankar.

it’s all here – solo ragas, duets with other Indian musicians, and the obligatory east-meets-west (probably my least favourite I would have to say) – including shankar’s first two concertos for sitar and orchestra in their entirety – and they are fantastic, it’s a star-studded disc too, zubin mehta, andre previn, yehudi menuhin as guest violinist, rampal as guest flautist, and so on…the usual suspects – but, all at their best under the challenge of trying to play along with a master like shankar – and the result of that challenge is some truly amazing collaborations, with some pretty terrifyingly fast and remarkable playing.

 

now, I really feel like these collaborations do need to be here, and some of them are absolutely essential, and absolutely musically stunning – shankar instinctively knows how to use the orchestra as a gigantic music foil for his sitar, and both of the “concertos” are well worth your serious consideration – I think they are brilliant.

but for me – no offence to anyone – for me, my personal preference is when the musicians are all traditional indian classical musicians.  I think the “east-meets-west” experiments are necessary, and, they would have been an essential tool in introducing this strange instrument, the sitar, to uncertain western concert goers and classical music enthusiasts – and I am sure that by working with the great western conductors, composers, and players (and shankar has worked with so many great names, including people like phillip glass) that shankar advanced the cause of indian classical music from totally unknown to a high degree of recognition – and it’s stayed that way – you hear indian music everywhere, in films, on television, and I believe that all-pervasive presence can be directly traced to the work that shankar did in the 50s and 60s promoting indian music to the great western masses – it worked – he succeeded.

so while I really enjoy the orchestral works, and in fact, some of them are nothing short of amazing – for me, it’s just the “ordinary” ragas that I crave, where you have ravi on sitar and (usually) one tanpura player providing the drone – and then just let this young man play!

and what can I say about his playing that hasn’t already been said a million times, I feel singularly unqualified to even comment – all I can say, as a guitarist, brought up in the western tradition, my admiration for the unending skill that ravi possess, the knowledge in his head – the knowledge in his fingers – he is truly the master of the instrument.

if you watch the opening section of the concert for bangladesh, you can see it, you can hear it – the best player in the room, of the whole night, despite the presence of all of the great western players there – is undoubtedly ravi shankar.  he is a good three or four times faster on his instrument for starters – leaving harrison, clapton, preston, russell and crew in the dust – and harrison himself later remarked that after ravi’s set, that the western music seemed dull, lifeless – and as excited as I was and am about the first post-beatles performance by george – he is right, it really does seem quite lifeless after “bangla dhun” – and it’s in the players’ attitudes too – you watch ravi shankar and ali akbar khan as they play, and they are transcendent, smiling, joy flying from mind and fingers – it’s a celebration of a beautiful folk melody of bangladesh, it’s playing that raga with everything they had, with so much love and so much obvious joy – and then, when the western section of the concert starts – everyone has their head down, no one is smiling, the band is not really in tune, not really in time, and not exuding anything except perhaps weariness.

of course, there were problems for some of the western players, clapton was in the middle of his heroin years, and was hastily cleaned up for the show (where he does not play spectacularly well, if I am honest), george himself was having anxiety and panic from having to go onstage again after NOT having had to since 1966 – he was vomiting before the show – so it’s quite a down, dour affair – which is such a shame!

don’t get me wrong, I love seeing george playing tracks like “wah-wah” live, seeing and hearing him play his best beatles songs and especially, seeing him play songs from the amazing “all things must pass” album – that’s awesome in itself, but I am afraid that ravi really stole the show before the harrison section of the night ever began.  and I am sure that for george and the others, listening to ravi and ali play, and then having to go out there and recreate the “hits” – that must have been disheartening. for me, after the performance that shankar and co. give on that night – well, no one should have to follow something so bloody good – it’s just not fair.

I guess I am saying, if you have not heard/seen the amazing duet between ravi shankar and ali akbar khan that is “bangla dhun” from the concert for bangladesh, hasten ye to do so now – it’s fracking remarkable.

normally when we do a “what we’re listening to” blog, I try to single out certain pieces and talk about them, in this case, that is nearly a futile idea, because I don’t have the requisite language to even describe this music – it’s ravi shankar!  the only pieces I can even talk about with any sense of understanding are the east-meets-west pieces, and to my mind, they are not the highlight here – the highlight is whenever ravi puts his fingers to the strings of his sitar – any time he does this.  when he begins to play, my attention immediately focuses sharply on what he is doing, the scales, I try to think about the uncanny fact that for each rag, there is a specific basic scale – which is one series of notes when ascending, and another when descending!

that idea in itself – well, OK, the western equivalent is “modes” – so it would be as if you played in D dorian mode in the ascending and in D phrygian in the descending – but, there would be hundreds of combinations – and of course, within each rag, there will be standard deviations – and non-standard ones taken by more experienced players – that idea, to me, is just mind-blowing, it’s so, so clever – because that means that the mood of the raga can be controlled – if one scale, say the ascending one, has a “positive” mood, then the piece can be positively influenced by doing a lot of work with ascending scales.  conversely, if the descending scale has a “negative” mood, that might then allow for wistfulness or sadness or even downright heartbreak, simply by accentuating the descending scales.

in practice, since everything sitarists learn is passed down orally from teacher to student, what happens is that the student…”just knows”, just as the master “just knows” a) what notes to play in the ascending b) what notes to play in the descending and c) when to deviate from this and how much deviation is allowable.

for me, it’s all I can do to play a C major scale with a sense of quality, and having to deal with the almost microtonal intervals that occur in some of the bending in sitar music – I would be utterly lost – I can’t readily “imagine” how they “know” what to do – I really can’t.  it is an art form, a pure and absolutely amazing art form – and it’s unlike any other music I know.

but – somehow – this oral tradition, where the “rules” for each type of raga are known and are passed down from teacher to student over the centuries…it just works!  it works well.  because, the emotion, the joy, the sorrow – well, for a player at the level of ravi shankar – all of these are available, and he expresses all of them with consummate skill.  I also have always loved the idea, which would be odd in western music, that each raga has one scale for ascending patterns, and a DIFFERENT scale for the descending pattern – I think that’s wonderful.  and, each raga has a “time of day” – morning, afternoon, evening, night – and while that might seem whimsical and a bit overly simplistic, the weird thing is – if you listen – you can HEAR this mood, you can “tell” when it’s an afternoon raga.  I don’t know why, although I am sure there are certain rags, certain scales, meant for different times of the day, so by selecting the correct raga, you set the piece in the correct time of day. it’s a brilliant system!

now well into his 90s, ravi has over the past several years, tutored his daughter anoushka in sitar, and has in a very short time comparatively speaking, turned anoushka into a stunningly powerful musical force.  I’ve seen her play a couple of times, and the confidence that she exudes when she plays, well, she knows her stuff, and you know she knows it – is really something to witness. but then she did have the best possible teacher!

she is very much her father’s daughter – she reminds me so much of ravi when she plays (and how could she not!) but she also brings two things to the table that ravi does not: her youth, and her femininity.  the energy that she puts out when she plays is phenomenal, and since I don’t believe that ravi really performs much more these days himself, I very much recommend that you go and see anoushka is you possibly can – she’s at least her father’s equal when it comes to skill and command of that most difficult of instruments, the sitar.

listening to this new collection, I realise, even with the space in time that ten compact discs gives us, that it’s still only a drop in the ocean, it’s only a tiny part of what ravi shankar has accomplished over the past several decades, what he did to publicise and popularise indian classical music, but mostly, for me, the music that he played – the music that he plays with such obvious joy and brilliance.

I would heartily recommend this collection to anyone interested in the music of ravi shankar, I cannot speak highly enough of him, except to say that his music changed my life, his music inspires me, his playing is transcendent, and I would give anything to be 1/100th of the guitarist that he is a sitarist – 1/1000th.

the speed – it’s devastating, burst of notes so quick that you might not be able to say what they are – guitarists rarely achieve speeds close to this when playing, and I think that the best guitarists in the world would all step back, respectfully, when faced with ravi at his fiercest, most flying solos – when ravi is on fire, the whole building starts to burn – and in the case of the aforementioned “bangla dhun”, I firmly believe that the way ravi played that night, the speed, the strength, the clarity – I believe that pushed ali akbar khan to play a blinder himself.  so the two greatest stringed instrument players that India ever produced, made each other play faster and better than they ever had before – and it’s also because of the joy, the flying joy, in the room – that’s also a huge factor in this – but that’s something you have to feel, you can’t see it, you can only sense it – but for me, I sensed it, and I followed, and I listened – and I’ve been nothing but rewarded for my trouble.

I am so, so glad that I started seriously listening to indian classical music so many years ago, it’s also had an influence on my own music, and I hope it has helped me to not be so rigid in my playing.  I wish now that I’d started playing an Indian instrument when I was young, but since I never did, all I can do now is listen – but the joy of that alone is enough to light up a room.

ravi shankar lights up every room that he walks into – every time.  you will not be disappointed…hearing ravi “trade riffs” with yehudi menuhin – wow, that is just unbelievable, something I never dreamed I would hear, and again, ravi’s presence spurs menuhin onto the performance of a lifetime – and hearing these two masters, sitar and violin entwined in an ever-growing musical intertwining – playing against each other, playing in unison, playing is sequence – the precision, the speed – it’s just dizzying, and the tabla player is hard put to keep up with these two!  what a performance (“swara-kakali” – based on raga tilang) – this piece is new to me, and it is a mind-blowing demonstration of musical proficiency and skill – it really is.

due to my schedule, I split the listening of the set into two, first, I listened to discs 1 – 5, which contain some of the more obvious feats of musicianship, and include a lot of east-west fusion, which is normally a curse word, but here, in this context, bringing ravi’s sitar into a western orchestra setting, or pairing him against the best western violinists or flautists – is an inspired idea.

discs 1 – 5 blew me away completely; a massive number of tracks; huge variety, and collaborations that are out of this world.  but then…I started listening to discs 6 – 10.   while there are still some collaborations, you also start to get what I always crave: pure ragas, the longer the better.  and there are some amazing ones in the second half of this set; ragas you can sit back and really get stuck into, where the players play for 56 minutes (!!) if they feel like it, developing the themes, just creating such an extraordinary atmosphere – the tanpuras, those random drones, just put me in such an amazing mood, those gently caressed notes that drone endlessly in the background as ravi and co. take centre stage…

I even made a playlist of the longest ragas, so I could hear ravi, ahem, without western accompaniment, and just by tossing in the longest of the “regular ragas” – I ended up with a playlist over six hours in length!  I can’t wait to hear it…

one piece in particular from the second half struck me, and I am sure ravi included it because he remembered and realised what an amazing performance it is, is a piece that features ravi’s regular tabla player, alla rakha – and drummers, sit up, pay attention, you can learn more about rhythm from one alla rakha tabla solo than any number of drum solos by ginger baker or carl palmer – and the man plays with his hands, not with sticks!  to say this is a great drum solo – that doesn’t even begin to describe it, it FLIES, and you just have to hear it to believe it, you really do! I am so pleased that this piece has been included – because it’s absolutely brilliant “tabla solo in ektal”.

back in the mid-nineties, I had the good fortune to attend a concert by ravi and anoushka at ravi’s home in encinitas, california (near where I lived at the time) and it was there that I got to see the modern day holder of the crown of the “hottest young tabla player around” – the amazing bikram ghosh, and his performance that evening, along with ravi and anoushka, was unforgettable – simply the best drummer I have ever seen in my entire life – full stop.  faster, by far, than any western drummer, more rhythmically advanced, just amazing to see and hear – and you could not see, because his fingers flew so incredibly fast.

the down side to this set?  if you ask me – too many orchestral pieces, not enough traditional ragas – but that is quibbling, that’s my personal greed for straight ragas – I cannot get enough of them – because the orchestral pieces are uniformly astonishing, and I would miss them if they were gone – so really, no, no down side – it’s all up sides – ten of them!

wait – I HAVE thought of a down side – it’s not long enough – it should really be 20 discs.  there – I knew if I thought long enough, I would come up with some kind of negative…

another one? not enough collaborations with Indian classical players, not enough appearances by ali akbar khan on the sarod, the aforementioned alla rakah on tabla, but these are minor, minor quibbles indeed – there are so many positives that they absolutely outweigh these almost negligible “negatives” – please ignore me. 🙂

for two pounds a disk, you are getting some of the best indian classical music ever recorded, and, you are getting a great introduction to the music of the man who started it all for indian classical music.  a note of appreciation too for ravi’s great, great friend george harrison, who helped to bring attention to ravi shankar and the music of india, this excellent classical tradition that predates the entirety of “western music” – now, when I hear the phrase “classical music” – THIS is the music I think of this is the “real” classical music – western classical music is something that came along much, much later….

not that sound quality is really an issue in these performances, but most of the tracks on the ten discs are digital remasters, albeit done at different times and compiled here from many, many sources – but the end result, is a set of discs containing some of the most amazing music I have ever, ever heard – all from the skilled hands of mr. ravi shankar, the undisputed master of the sitar.

I love it!

what we’re listening to – neil young – archives vol. I

I hadn’t heard this for a long time, and I suddenly thought, oh, I really, really need to hear that right the way through.  my wife had surprised me with it, brought it home with her from glasgow, this extraordinary box full of the mysterious earliest history of someone who was, and still is, a huge influence on me – neil young.  like every kid, I had harvest, but then I started buying more of neil’s records, and over time, I ended up with quite a few – but I was never prepared for the mass of material presented in this exquisite first archive box.

so I started at disc 0 track 1, and I’ve been slowly moving through neil’s earliest years, and it’s such an amazing trip – right now, he’s playing lead guitar in an instrumental surf number “kahuna sunset” from buffalo springfield,  but at any given moment, you might find neil young almost anywhere – with an orchestra, behind a piano singing, with his acoustic guitar, singing early versions of “nowadays clancy can’t even sing” or rocking the lead guitar on the electric version of “mr. soul” from the underrated, under appreciated buffalo springfield.

the double lead guitar attack of stephen stills and neil young was unstoppable, and on “mr. soul” they trade solos just to prove it – with neil taking a strange, almost indian raga kind of solo at the end of the middle section – beautiful!

or you get something grand and orchestral like “expecting to fly” – so uncharacteristic, I think neil is channelling brian wilson on this number, the orchestration is very, very reminiscent of wilson’s “let’s go away for a while” – a tune that we know young favours, since it’s the closer on his “journey through the past” album. this piece is on such an epic scale, with it’s mournful mood and even more mournful vocal – but, this is and was miles beyond a boy from canada strumming his guitar, it’s neil using the studio and orchestra like a giant song dream machine, taking an ordinary song and re-imagining it in an incredible way, I love the strings in “expecting to fly” and if neil is channelling brian wilson, I don’t care – that’s a GOOD thing in this case.

another very interesting piece from this time is the very oddly constructed “broken arrow” – a great song, broken up with circus organs and other silly things – but a really nice tune, with a little waltz bit in it – it’s genius. “did you see him….? ….did you see him in the river, he was there to wave to you, could you tell that the empty quiver, brown-skinned indian on the banks that were crowded and narrow – held a broken arrow?”

it’s a weird, weird pastiche of sound effects, strange interludes, it’s very weird, but it does keep returning to the beautiful waltz time section with neil’s plaintive vocal just cutting across all the strangeness – determined to tell the story in between the madness – next strange section – some clarinet jazz with piano…making no sense with the rest of the song – but, great piano solo…and then it just fades away – the end – but not, then, it’s an amplified heartbeat – and that is the end!  what a weird song!  but I love it.

of course, there are lots of “normal” songs like the lovely, naïve, “I am a child” – a really, really beautiful piece of music, gentle, beautiful vocal, wonderful lyrics, nice shuffling beat – classic neil young, and when I think of neil, it’s often “I am a child” that comes to mind – anything from his first album, like “I’ve been waiting for you” – things like that.

then you also get wonderful things like “previously burning” – more instrumental guitar music, but with a full orchestra – probably the same orchestra that’s on “expecting to fly” – but this lovely piece is really just a guitar backing for an unfinished song I’d say.  really nice mood, doesn’t sound unfinished – just sitting there waiting for a lyric that never arrived.

it’s quite a wild ride, but what it is constant, is that voice – and the songs – and that amazing lead guitar style.  I used to say that north America only really produced two truly great guitarists: frank zappa and neil young!  each has an idiosyncratic, instantly recognisable sound, and both are really amazing players – who both grew enormously as musicians during the late 60s and early 70s – to the point where no one could touch them.

my two favourite american (I know, neil is canadian – it’s in north america already!) guitarists then, zappa and neil young – and I listened to them both a lot, and learned a lot from both as well…probably more from neil, since when I was a young guitarist, learning zappa was a bit beyond what I was capable of.  later, I did learn a few zappa tunes, but neil young – he was easy to imitate.

I always enjoyed neil’s playing more than his greatly lauded partner/companion/friend/competitor? stephen stills.  stills is a great guitarist – I know, because I’ve seen him live – but for my money, neil is the more interesting guitarist, and, the most consistently good lead player in the buffalo springfield and in CSNY – for me, it was always neil young. you always knew when neil took a solo!

disc 1 starts with a very odd, acoustic guitar filled version of “everybody knows this is nowhere” – which is just so, so cool.  a very different arrangement to the version we know and love on the album, but I love it when artists do this – they have two or more completely different versions, and somehow, they pick one to put one there album.  this on has something like a flugelhorn solo in the middle of it, and synthesizers where the background vocals should be – it’s totally bizarre, but really wonderful.

and then we get to the songs from the first solo neil young album, starting with a song that hits me so, so hard, “the loner” – the attack of the guitars, the beautiful, whammied lead guitars – the perfect Hammond organs and then those guitars that I believe have been run through the organ’s leslie speaker – creating an amazing sound.

but the song itself “know when you see him, nothing can free him – step aside, open wide…it’s the loner…” and then you get the gentle little acoustic guitar melody with beautiful strings accompaniment – then back to the very, very hard verses with all their beautiful guitars, guitars upon guitars, with the strings in the left channel only, acoustic guitar in the right – that lovely 60s complete separation – fantastic.  I could listen to “the loner” all day long..

archives is so full of surprises, such amazing alternative versions of songs that are very familiar – for example, there is a very different version of the song “birds” – which ended up on the “after the goldrush” album many years later, but this early version is charming, simple and very, very beautiful.

another odd thing is neil’s voice – it’s not that wonky! It’s pretty normal on a lot of the songs, serious, no dramatics, he just sings the songs in a really beautiful way – no effects, just neil.

even that strangest of neil young songs, “last trip to tulsa” is enjoyable, it’s a stoner’s dream – a long, long story about chopping down a palm tree – what’s not to like?

then we return to electric music, and the sublime, beautiful, flanged, slow-panning slow motion thick as molasses guitar solo in the centre of “I’ve been waiting for you” – which is such a beautiful song anyway – my one complaint about the song – it’s not nearly long enough – fantastic leslie guitars along with buzzing lead guitars start us out, a chorused electric guitar accompanies neil’s beautiful vocal, bass and piano support perfectly – drums build tension to that beautiful chorus…”I’ve been waiting for you…and you’ve been coming to me….for such a long time now…” and then that SOLO, that amazing solo that wanders slowly from left to right and back several times as it flies through your brain…I love this song!!!

the stereo lead guitars during the fade out are just so urgent, full of life, warped and crying out “such a long time now” just as much as his voice is…beautiful.

maybe his best early work.

then the very serious songs, that are almost awkward in their seriousness – “the old laughing lady” being a case in point – nothing funny about this song; you need to be in a serious listening mood if you are to “get” this number – it’s serious!  another lovely orchestration though, lovely, lovely strings.

a song like “here we are in the years” is so pastoral, so normal, just wonderful in it’s innocence…the slow beauty of the country, how the stupid city slickers can’t relate to the slower pace of life in the country – a fantastic little piece of music…a synthesizer appears to play a few notes, then back to neil’s story, complete with beautiful strings, harmonies and chiming guitars…I love this song, it’s just so full of hope and sorrow and acceptance…here we are, in the years…and then it just fades away as if it isn’t done, but it needs to go…

“I’ve loved her for so long” – an amazing, high pitch vocal, and an orchestra from heaven, then a strange gospel choir appears, but neil’s vocal is so good that it doesn’t really bother me – when he sings in this register, it’s just unbelievable – really lovely.  A really weird arrangement, bass, drums, electric piano – and then the screaming choir in one speaker, the massed strings in the other…it’s just strange – but cool.

archives vol. 1 contains so much amazing material that I would have to write a novel to even describe it approximately, so I am literally picking a few highlights to try and describe – and the one I am listening to now is just astonishing, a previously unreleased live version of “broken arrow” – just neil and his guitar, and it’s an absolute revelation – this is the song, stripped of it’s odd orchestrations and overdubs, and in this simple, unadorned form, with a beautiful, melodic vocal, you get the true essence of “broken arrow” – it’s just astonishing, I’ve always loved this song, but this version, to my mind, is actually superior to the released buffalo springfield version, because the vocal is better, and despite the fact that I love all the weird overdubs on the studio version, it’s this one that I cherish – the surreal, acid-like lyrics, but it’s just the simplicity of the arrangement, straight chords, pure vocal – it’s really a thing of beauty.

the same set of live tracks, “live at the riverboat 1969”, from disc 2, contains other “solo” versions of songs that we know well from the Springfield catalogue, including a similar revelatory version of “expecting to fly” – another one that works far better with the orchestras and overdubs removed – I guess this means I like my neil young without overdubs, just the songs – and it’s the songs that really are so, so powerful “if I ever lived without you, now you know I died – if I ever say I loved you, now you know I tried – babe…now you know I tried…babe…now you know I tried”.

disc 3 propels us into a stark and amazing future, the carefully harmonised, beautifully arranged studio version of “cinnamon girl” is a far cry from neil and his guitar at the riverboat – a man, and a band, transformed, in just a year’s time – a mutation as startling as the beatles evolving from the dylanesque bits of “rubber soul” straight into the full-tilt psychedelic aspects of “revolver” – neil was undergoing a very, very similar transformation – picking up crazy horse as his band, an incredibly shrewd move, and then there is that heavy, heavy guitar solo at the end of cinnamon girl – which I can remember at the time really surprised us, the song was over – but the song wasn’t over, until neil had a little fling with his guitar…

so this third disc is more about crazy horse, and neil as band leader, and it includes songs from “everybody knows this is nowhere” and “after the goldrush” – so some of the most familiar of neil young material, but when I compare this in my mind to the material on the first two discs – the distance that neil young travelled musically, from say, 1968 to 1970 – is indeed comparable only to something like the transformation the beatles underwent.

a brilliant short version of “birds” by crazy horse is followed by “everybody’s alone” with a great vocal, and here comes that neil young guitar tone, the whammied, distorted guitar that we would come to know and love – sweet chord progressions, a totally earnest vocal, but when he takes one of those solos, you just stop, it’s so, so pure, so raw, a great guitar sound, and a sound that I never tire of…

disc 3 also includes one of my favourite neil young songs, performed by crosby, stills, nash & young – featuring Stephen stills on lead guitar, with neil on organ – and singing harmony with graham nash, close harmony – brilliant harmony – I love everything about this tune – “all I need is your sweet, sweet lovin…fill my life with happiness, all I want is your heart – everytime I think of you – mine falls apart” – this track was originally on the woodstock sound track, but I feel it never got it’s due – it’s a cracking little number.

another forgotten masterpiece, “country girl” by crosby, stills, nash & young is included here, and it’s a very formal arrangement, with the four-part vocal harmony to the fore – but despite being slightly over-produced, it’s still a very, very beautiful song – a very powerful song I think – I’ve always loved it “no time to stay the same…too young to leave…” – more neil young lyrical magic “find out that now was the answer to answers that you, gave later – she did the things that we both did before now, but who – forgave her?”.

a surprisingly heavy guitar ominously appears in the last section, playing single low notes on top of the chords…and then suddenly that positive, beautiful chorus “country girl, I think you’re pretty…” with neil’s voice now suddenly to the fore – a great revolving coda with, bizarrely, a reverb-drenched harmonica solo! of all things playing the chorus out…perfection.

the end section of disc 3 features the somewhat rough but very wonderful live at the fillmore east – crazy horse live – including the title track of “everybody knows this is nowhere” – which is a huge highlight for me, love the song, love the fantastic whitten & young lead guitars – they both rock “gotta get away from this day-to-day runnin’ around – everybody knows this is nowhere” – crazy horse are just perfection here, they just play the song – the spark comes from young’s lead vocal and lead guitar – as always, he’s chosen the perfect foil the perfect instrument – to play his songs.  crazy horse never overplay, they never get in the way – they just PLAY.  It’s rock and roll perfection if you ask me, the bass and drums support the rhythm and lead guitars – that’s how a four piece rock band SHOULD work – and despite being top-heavy with the very talented neil young on lead vocals and lead guitar, that formula still operates beautifully – I love this band, live or studio – either way.

this also includes “winterlong” – a tune from this time that never ended up on a studio album, so having it here is nice – it was part of the live show, and the vocal harmonies are fabulous for live and for the time – it’s pretty cool! but for my money – of course – it’s the renditions of the songs we know – including not only “everybody knows…” but also, “down by the river” and “cowgirl in the sand” – with their lovely guitar workouts, when we first heard that “I’ll just play one note over and over again” neil young lead guitar style – and it’s fantastic, in a way, neil young is really an incredibly innovative guitarist – he plays like no one else, he has an utterly distinctive, instantly recognisable sound – as much the “neil young sound” as frank zappa is “the frank zappa guitar sound” – you just know it, and it was during this period that young really started to push his own boundaries, and only he could make playing one note, over and over and over, sound really, really good!  it works…and it’s refreshingly different to the way most guitarists play lead guitar.

I am the first to admit that overall, I prefer british and european guitarists to american guitarists – but there are three american guitarists that I really, really admire (yes, I know he’s Canadian, I mean north American guitarists, of course!): neil young, frank zappa, and todd rundgren.
zappa was utterly unique, and outside almost any conversation involving normal music and normal songs, and of course, both rundgren and young were huge anglophiles, with a well known love of british music – so maybe that’s why I like them, because they were trying to BE british!

disc 3 continues with the lovely songs from “after the goldrush” notable for the strange concept of a young guitarist named nils lofgren being drafted into the band – and then being told to play the piano – an instrument he barely knew – but neil young knew, he knew that this would work – and my god, does it ever work.  the title track, with it’s prominent, blocky piano chords – is so instantly recognisable, so “just right” for the song – and what a song, that sci-fi, dream lyric, the incredibly high pitched lead vocal – I will always love that song.

another huge favourite song of mine is here, “only love can break your heart”, with it’s heart-stopping vocal harmonies on the chorus – I always felt this should have been a huge, huge hit for neil young, kinda like his version of todd rundgren – pop perfection, like “hello it’s me” or “I saw the light” – but it was destined to remain just another brilliant album track from the very, very popular and successful “goldrush” album.

a tour of the songs of this time has to end up with the amazing, immutable “southern man” – another work of guitar genius, this is so intense, and really fun to play – I used to jam on this for ages, I remember one gig where I was a stand-in lead guitarist, and we didn’t know any songs – so I taught the band “southern man”, and we then played it for 25 minutes – that amazing progression from D minor to Bb to G – great to solo over, and on the record neil plays an incredibly fast and spastic solo that is pure genius – of course, live, csny used to jam out on this one too, but whatever the version – “southern man” is a song of genius, with a great lyric, a beautiful, incredibly beautiful vocal harmony – and then – THOSE GUITARS!  This rocks.

“lillie belle your hair is golden brown, I’ve seen your black man, coming round – swear by god I’m gonna, cut him down – I heard screaming, and bullwhips cracking, how long – how long?” – that is just intense, the imagery, and the fierceness of young’s lead vocal takes you by surprise – he is singing with a passion heretofore unheard of – and it’s amazing to behold.

“when will you pay them back?” – probably never, I am afraid.

and then – another pop masterpiece, another should have been a rundgren-style number one: “when you dance, I can really love” – my god, I just love this, harmonies on the verses are brilliant, distorted guitars throughout – but that lovely, harmonised vocal is such a shining, beautiful thing – then, some great chiming lead guitars, and then back to more of the most beautiful vocals on the planet – “I can love, I can really love, I can really love…”.  an insistent piano, an ominous bass and guitar chordal pattern near the end – and then it fades away as quickly as it first appeared.

“when you dance…I can really love” – a simple message, with awesome guitar breaks between each verse – what a cracking tune.  another totally under-appreciated pop masterpiece – at this point in his career, neil could really do no wrong.

now – things turn political, things get very serious – but to neil young, watching soldiers gun down innocent students at kent state was just too fecking much – so we have the really frightening “ohio” – “soldiers are cutting us down…” a shivering testament to a horrific incident – peaceful protesters, shot down for no reason “what if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground”.

apparently, this was written very, very quickly – and was released just days after the incident, young was so incensed, so angry that such a thing could happen, that he really wanted to point the finger – and he does – at richard nixon, at the senseless death of innocents – heavy, heavy stuff – but you know what, I am not normally a fan of mixing politics and music, but in this case, it actually works in an incredible, shivering way – “why? why? how many more?”… an impassioned david crosby can be heard, seriously lamenting, meaning every word…during the outro of this incredibly powerful song.

a live version of “only love can break your heart” with crosby and nash comes out just beautiful, acoustic guitar, bass and three-part harmony – shivers – this is just so, so beautiful, and a great reading of a great song – I absolutely melt when I hear this incredibly beautiful vocal arrangement – these three voices just work – and the song…”what if your world should fall apart?”…it doesn’t get better than this, this is real music – it’s just the song, with neil’s heartbreaking lead vocal prominent, but the exquisite harmonies of crosby and nash make this into a sublime, remarkable musical happening – they really get it, and the whole effect is just stunning – what a thing to witness or to be a part of…sigh.

similarly, a live version of “tell me why” again with crosby and nash – just works so, so well, these two tracks almost put the “official” album versions to shame – especially in the vocal department, where, amazingly, the live vocals are better and more inspiring than the studio ones…excellent!  this song never knocked me out on the album, but hearing this live version totally changes my opinion of the song – it’s brilliant – but, it has to be THIS live version…no other!

speaking of david crosby – you also get the strange live rave-up/mess that is “music is love” – a song from one of crosby’s solo album, that heavily features neil young – and despite the stoned hippie approach to the performance, it’s still kinda cool – although ultimately, this song is more about crosby than young – I quite like it, it’s like a messy, stoned raga – “everybody’s saying that music is love” – a bit obvious.  a strange but essential addition to this disc…

then we move back to something of such delicate, transcendent beauty – a very underrated but very beautiful song – one of my all time favourites of neil’s – done solo at the piano, live – “see the sky about to rain” – this is one that you just have to hear to believe, such a lovely melody, just an incredibly pleasant, wistful, almost mournful song.

as disc 3 comes to a close, we get “on the way home – live” – and from the applause at the beginning of the track, it really hits you what a huge, huge star neil young had become – and here he is, just a few years on from the buffalo Springfield years – playing one of their songs on acoustic in front of a huge audience.

I am sure that part of him could not believe it was really happening, the huge success of csny took all four of it’s members by surprise, and they didn’t deal well with it.  I think of the four of them, neil weathered the strange storm of adulation and nonsense that is being a part of the record industry programme – they had become huge stars at this point, the audiences were huge, and with it, came all the responsibilities and problems of anything that grows far too big far too fast – I think that really, neil kept his head pretty well, all things considered – he just kept doing what he did best, playing that acoustic guitar and singing.

this section is live from massey hall, so neil’s on home territory here, playing in Canada – and as well as “on the way home” he plays “new” songs, and in this case, one of those, “old man”  is presented, and neil’s awe of the song’s subject, the ranch foreman of his ranch, is clear – he respects the man’s knowledge – and how odd is that – writing a song about a guy that works for you, a 70 year old man – and comparing your 24 year old self to him.

the whole thing must have been quite, quite surreal – 24 years old “live alone in a paradise, that makes me think of two…” – having so much money that he could just buy a huge ranch in california “old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you…” – I think writing about something real, helped to keep neil grounded – and “old man” is a brilliant piece of music, very deserving of praise – one of many great, great tunes from the very popular harvest album – which was brand new at this point in time.

to be so hugely successful at age 24, but to still be able to write clear, concise, meaningful songs about very real things – the level-headed neil young sticks to the programme – keep it real.

beautiful – and this live version just sparkles – and gets such a respectful, wonderful hand of applause – sensational.

a live version of “helpless” gets a great reception, because of course, it mentions canada, which, of course, makes the canadian audience at massey hall respond like mad – but it’s a lovely song, even without the trademark csny harmonies – it’s a beautiful song.  somewhere, I have an amazing cover of this song done by yukihiro takahashi and bill nelson – it’s absolutely fantastic – they trade vocals, each taking a verse – wow! a great cover of a great, great song.

a long rambling story about an imaginary neil young movie prefaces a rare live showing of one of the most heartbreaking of all of neil young’s songs, the beautiful, exquisite “a man needs a maid” – a tale of loneliness, sadness, and real heartbreak – on the harvest album, with a fantastic orchestral score – but here – just neil and his piano…and the lyrics are not all there yet, because he sings “a man feels afraid” – instead of the final version “a man needs a maid” on the album.

“when will I see you again” he asks plaintively, as this very, very sad tale unfolds – “a maid…a man needs a maid” – [crashing imaginary orchestra] – but on the piano, stark, naked – it’s even better for all the vulnerability that’s on show – then, it segues effortless into a piano version of “heart of gold” – that’s one odd medley!

“cowgirl in the sand” on solo acoustic is just as beautiful as “cowgirl in the sand” live with the raucous but wonderful crazy horse – I love it either way, and here, he pulls these amazing guitar notes on the acoustic – this one note, he keeps playing, in the middle of strumming – this note keeps appearing – it’s just fantastic, a hint of what the electric version holds.

one great thing about archives, is that you do get to hear truly alternative versions of songs, sometimes, you get the same song in three or four completely different guises – and that is fantastic in the case of neil young, the different versions are rarely similar, in fact, usually they are totally different, and often, surprisingly so – I love hearing the “what ifs…” and neil is a master of this, reinventing song with completely different instrumentation and arrangements – and that is brilliant in itself, but it also shows just how good the songs are – because in most cases, they easily can withstand the varying treatments – they are, quite simply, really, really good songs – and they sound great in solo acoustic settings, band settings, pump organ versions – you name it – it all works.

two of the sets in archives vol. one were also released separately – the live crazy horse set, and the live at massey hall concert, but they are essential to this set, and coupled with the rest of the amazing material on offer here – this is one of the best introductions to the genius of neil young, early period, that you could ever want.

“don’t let it bring you down – it’s only castles burning…”

what we’re listening to – the quiet zone / the pleasure zone – van der graaf

1977 was such a pivotal year in music, sure, in ’76, we had the beginnings of punk, the uncertain rumblings that said “this is gonna change…” and, soon enough, it did all change.

but the established artists of the day just kept working on music, and let the punk tide wash over them and around them – but, critically, importantly – just kept going.

that’s exactly what young peter hammill did – he kept going.  the classic four-man organ-based van der graaf generator had broken up for good after a series of disasters, including a disastrous yet successful “tour” of north america and canada, but hammill, as standard-bearer, decided to reinvent the band – completely.

with guy evans still present on drums, [always present thank god], hammill proceeded to and managed to completely change van der graaf’s sound; he even removed the “generator” to give the band a more stripped down identity in this year of great change: they would henceforth be known as “van der graaf” – no longer  “van der graaf generator”.

with the organ, bass and horns slots all empty, hammill started from scratch: bass player – he retrieved van der graaf’s original bassist, nic potter, so that was sorted; he brought in graham smith on violin, from string driven thing – and immediately, that became the core of the new van der graaf.

so suddenly, those beautiful church organs were gone, and hammill’s stark piano and acoustic guitar songs were now framed by violin solos, strings, real bass – fuzz bass! and these changes completely altered the fabric of van der graaf’s sound.  in a very, very good way…

a new year; a new band; a new album “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” by the new, string-driven, stripped-down van der graaf.  this one…rocks!

the album’s opener, “lizard play”, an acoustic guitar-driven vocal and violin extravaganza, sets the scene for the entire album – a supremely well organised sound, fantastic and very complete vocal overdubs – a great bass’n’drums rhythm section with snapping hi-hats, slithering bass, tight drum rolls, fabulous drum fills…and peter’s voice begging, begging “will you dance with me…?” – and then the secret weapon appears – david Jackson, the on-again off-again member, makes an appearance in the very last moments of this song on sax – so really, you have three of the original “classic lineup” – but the presence of potter and smith manage to change the sound of the band so completely, you would almost never know – so, a very similar band, a very different band – but – a really completely unusual, unique album in the hammill canon, unlike ANY other – I am adamant about that.

we move on to “the habit of the broken heart” – a listless, sad violin accompanies a lonely acoustic guitar, but then guy comes in with a steady drumbeat, and nic joins in with a very accurately repeated sequence – the perfect background for hammill’s vocal, and, on this tune in particular, I think it is lyrically really cool “I’m so sorry that he hurt you, but don’t throw yourself away”…and “you’re so special, such sadness seems a shame” – a straight ahead little rocker, with a central solo section of banshee-wail-smith-violin, just to make sure you are still with us…the violins are used then after the solo, as a sort of drone to build and build tension, the drums go mad at the end, guy is breathtaking on this piece – it’s worth it just to hear the drum part!

“the siren song” is next, and is, perhaps, the most beautiful song here, an epic poem, with fantastic nautical allusions, “lashed to the mast” – done only as hammill can do, but, utterly sincere, utterly heartfelt, and very, very beautiful indeed – I spent many, many hours teaching myself to play this song, and I will tell you, as an amateur pianist of no mean skill – this song is really, really difficult to play and sing – it’s very, very well written.  I love every word, every chord, every sound in this song – I could play “the siren song” over and over and over again, because it has an absolutely unique “feeling” unlike any other song I know – and that’s the genius of peter hammill at work.  the vocal – half-whispered at first, then, stronger and stronger and more and more full of agonised passion – “laughter – in the backbone – laughter – impossibly wise – that same laughter that always comes, every time I flash, on that look in your eyes…” that is brilliant!

“and time, will smash every theory I devise” – “nothing really matters, NO, nothing really matters very much….” – shivers.

then, oddly, a fast section, a lovely little piano bit with a nice, clean violin solo on top, this shouldn’t really work but it works really well, it doesn’t seem likely, but there it is, a nice length, a full run-through of a nice long chord sequence, ending up in a great little electric guitar riff (those AMAZING flangers again) and then … somehow, back to the original song’s theme, back to an almost dead stop, and a final, heartbreaking verse, with tinkling electric piano and more passionate violin helping it along until the very, very end.

it helps that these songs are good, really good, some of ph’s best – like “the siren song” – sure, that helps, but the band – they just sound fantastic.  guy is totally on form, underpinning the songs with his powerful, yet musically rich and complex drum parts, there is no other drummer that could have done these songs justice – it had to be guy.

and it’s on the rocking numbers that guy comes to the fore, propelling the songs forward – “last frame” is the first track that’s wholly electric in nature, featuring some beautiful distorted, thick-sounding lead guitars from hammill – but it’s guy’s drumming that draws me back to this song over and over again – nic’s contribution on distorted bass is awesome, and then hammill and smith handle all of the totally insane soloing necessary (the extended solo section, with it’s multiple overdubbed violins and multiple lead guitar melodies, is a true masterpiece of prog heaviosity – it’s a must-hear solo section).

“last frame” is a real sleeper, you don’t really notice it’s power, but then weeks and months later, you find it’s in your head – a really, really powerful song, using the idea of photography as an analog to a relationship, with hammill in various stages of alienation and grief, “hanging back from that last frame…in case it doesn’t show you, the way I used to know you…” – in hindsight, one of the best tunes on this record, but as I say, you tend to take it for granted.  “there you are – your eyes laced with secret pleasure – saying that you’re on the way – to change – devouring, in inordinate measure, every diversion that’s arranged….”.

The final allusion to photography “but then, I only have a negative of you…” gives way to a great descending coda, that quickly fades away into the distance…

smith is quite a furious player, and on this record, he mostly demonstrates a very powerful, very loud, very electric style of violin playing – which is fabulous – except when suddenly, he reaches deep and produces clean string parts of startling beauty – such as the violins within “the siren song” (perhaps my personal favourite track from the album) or the string parts for “the wave” – so not a one-trick pony, sure, the manic, mad, crazy, insane high speed distorted violin solos on this record are brilliant, but I tend to like the quiet songs even more, and smith does a brilliant job of switching between these two totally opposite styles – impressive.

if we hark back to the vinyl version, “last frame”, track four on our CD, would have been the end of “side one” of our vinyl, meaning that track five of our CD is track one on “side two” of our vinyl, and that is the very, very beautiful “the wave” – which never used to knock me out for the longest time, it seemed perhaps too obvious, but now – I consider this to be a hugely important track, with amazing violin overdubs filling out all the spaces of this piano ballad – and a heartbreaking, truly beautiful vocal from hammill – the drama of his lyrics brought into technicolour presence by smith’s amazing, shuddering overdubbed violins – sudden burst of acoustic piano filter through, and in the background, as always, nic and guy pinning this remarkable little piece of music down into a final form.

on both the “loud” songs and the “quiet” songs, the tension built up by the use of the violin (as opposed to the beautiful, melodic organ playing of the now-departed hugh banton) is stunning, and hammill uses the instrument to make these hard-hitting songs pack even more weight than they do as “just songs” – the arrangements on this album, to me, are just top notch, he’s taken everything he learned in the previous incarnations of the band – and distilled them into this remarkable album.

the other standout rocker on this song, is the absolutely amazing “cat’s eye/yellow fever” – a fantastic piece of distorted guitar/fuzz bass/string section that has to be heard to be believed.  hammill’s super flanged electric guitar is balanced by nics crazed fuzz bass octave parts, while guy is flying across the skins at an absolutely impossible speed…then hammill layers on the background vocals creating an incredibly lush and complex vocal arrangement that stems from his angry, powerful lead vocal – it bounces between the power and the glory, all the while, graham smith is sawing away, soloing, building and releasing the musical tension – then, a quiet, minor key section appears, multiple, heartbreaking gypsy solo violins appear as the chord progression is carried forward mostly by nic (guy stops completely to allow this serious piece of music play out) which slowly winds down to the end…this song, out of all the songs on this record, is such a powerful piece of music, and I think it’s one of hammill’s best songs of all time – bar none.

“the sphinx in the face” has long been one of my very favourite hammill/van der graaf songs, in part because of this fantastic lyric “I’m gonna head to the island when the summer’s out, I’m gonna do all the stuff that I can – drink like a fish in a waterspout…” – that’s genius! beginning with an awkward but cool guitar riff, when the rhythm section enters, with nic potter’s fuzz bass full of confidence, ploughing on through – I love that sound! this is one of those songs that just gets stuck in your head for days.  it has a heavily overdubbed vocal chorus, which hammill uses later in the reprise version “the sphinx returns” – as “the sphinx in the face” fades out, the instruments gradually disappear, leaving the multilayered falsetto led vocal harmonies – a great effect.  and they then begin the reprise version, giving us really good sense of continuity, despite being separated by “the chemical world”, it’s as if this song were playing the whole time in the background.

“the chemical world” – this is one of the strangest songs hammill has ever done, and it takes a while to warm to.  it’s quite…odd, and it also contains a fast section with some very, very heavily warped vocal effects, which makes it end up sounding like a lost transmission from the planet klingon during that section.  But over time, I’ve realised that it’s a really, really well done piece of music, with a great acoustic guitar/gypsy violin part that recurs – and then there are those strange, strange vocals! Weird as green milk, but really, nothing else would suit – and then when the “normal “ vocal returns it sounds awesome – a great back and forth between the totally alien and the relatively normal J  it’s a chemical world … after all.  and it’s gonna blow up in your face…  graham smith is extremely excellent on this with some otherworldly violin playing and effects, this song is so effects laden that it’s not funny, but they are done in a tasteful and wonderfully experimental way – there is no other song on earth like this one!  none.  it’s just the drug … it doesn’t last.

the aforementioned “the sphinx returns” as noted, begins where “the sphinx in the face” left off – in reverse, beginning with the naked vocal harmonies, the band comes back in, but this time, at a furious pace with an insanely beautiful, screaming david jackson sax solo – it is phenomenal! Jaxon is only on this record in a few places, but I think even hammill realised the importance of keeping just a little bit of the “signature” van der graaf generator “sound” in his new generator-less “van der graaf” – and including jaxon here, particularly on this song – is an inspired act of genius, because he takes this piece to another level – it already rocks, just because when you have multiple overdubbed peter hammills, vocals and guitars, on top of that very powerful rhythm section, nic and guy; when you add jaxon to that equation – it really just ROCKS – that’s the only way I can explain it – this is just a very brief reprise, with sax, of one of the very best tunes on the record – no wonder hammill decided to put it on twice!

the remastered CD then brings us an absolutely delightful rarity: the studio version of “door”, a song we’d only ever previously heard on 1978’s live album “vital” – and one of the few studio tracks featuring what was to have been the next incarnation of van der graaf – “vital”, and this track, and the studio version of “ship of fools” – that’s most of what is available from the expanded band, which included synthesizer wizard charles dickie (and his work on both “vital” and on the two aforementioned singles has to be heard to be believed – it’s brilliant) as well as an expanded string section.  it’s such a shame that they didn’t go on, and in 1978, van der graaf ceased to exist after only a two-year run, producing exactly one studio album and one live album.

“door” in the studio is absolutely fantastic, it has a very similar heavy feel to it as does the “ship of fools” single – which sounds like proto-metal to my ears – I love the direction this band was going in when it suddenly disappeared.  stay away from the door…

the penultimate track on the re-master is an alternate version of “the wave” – with no vocal, and stripping away the layers of vocal reveals a remarkable sensitive and beautiful basic track, with a great, great peter hammill piano part, and then there are those strings…another graham smith masterpiece if you ask me. “the wave” has always been a dark horse, the song that I never thought that much of – until you hear it like this – it’s truly, truly one of the most beautiful songs on the album, in either incarnation.

finally then, we come to the holy of holies, the studio version of “ship of fools” – this song very nearly leaves me speechless, you just have to hear it to believe it, an impossible, convoluted but incredibly powerful guitar riff is central, that goes without saying, but you have never, ever heard hammill play – or sing – like this…he is on fire! – it’s just out there,  the vocal and lyric is incredibly powerful – a bizarre slapback echo on the drums, the best bass part nic potter ever played – and hammill, hammill, hammill finally coming into his own as a shockingly powerful rock rhythm guitarist and a surprisingly good lead guitarist too – sure, we’d heard the live version of this on “vital”, which is really, really good – it opens that record – but this, this is a song that I can’t get enough of – “dispensing platitudes and junk”…”there’s no rules”.

no rules.

this then, in 1978, out rocks, out punks, most of what punk itself was putting forward.  we all know the story about how john lydon idolises peter hammill – well, this song is one reason why he probably does – “ship of fools”, live or studio, is the perfect blueprint to start a punk revolution from – just copy this, or any of the similarly punk-like songs on hammill’s fifth solo album, “nadir’s big chance” – and you got yourselves a musical movement.

this song is a powerful argument for the concept that it was really peter hammill, not john lydon, who started the punk revolution – although it was via lydon – who loved the music of van der graaf and peter hammill – he just channelled hammill in his own way – and a genre was born!  when you hear “ship of fools” – you will know exactly what I mean J

it’s rare that a bonus track becomes my favourite song on an album, but in this case, it’s probably a draw between the remarkable “cat’s eye/yellow fever” and this stunning, last-gasp-of-this-van-der-graaf single, “ship of fools” – these songs rock hard, have brilliant lyrics and vocals, heavy, heavy guitars – everything a boy or girl needs to have fun.

1978 was a bad, bad year for prog rock – but by 1977, with the release of “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” hammill showed us, over two years, two albums, and these amazing singles – that not only had he already moved on, but he was creating a startling, new, heavy kind of music that possibly was key as an influence on none other than johnny rotten – that’s quite an accomplishment for someone who would have been classed by those self-same punks as a “prog rock dinosaur” – hammill shed that skin, and grew a brand new one – and walked away unscathed from the punk revolution – one of the very, very few proggers to survive it.

it’s a ship of fools.  (there’s no rules!!)

“I was looking for something good, clean, straight – but instead I found – the bunker wall – and gate”.

what we’re listening to – anthology (40th) – the move – movements (30th) – the move

it’s no secret that I am a fan of roy wood and his first very successful band, the move, and over the years, I’ve collected first move records, then move CDs, but I must say, that the two large anthologies released more recently get a lot of airplay with me.

“movements” (30th anniversary compilation) was the first – three CDs including quite a few most excellent rarities – and for me, some of them are just precious beyond belief, such as an early version of “curly” that is just fantastic, the Italian version of “something” and so on – a really, really great set.  I was and am extremely happy with “movements”, because it’s a really good overview of the band, but they also included enough rarities, alternate takes, and so on, for fans as well – another first is the full length ending/fade-out of “omnibus”, which has always been truncated on every other release, and finally saw the light of day on “movements” – and just to hear roy’s actual guitar playing during this full outro is fantastic – any recovered roy wood guitar is so, so worthwhile if you ask me.

I feel that roy is one of the most underrated guitarists of all time, and if you have doubts about that, I would refer again to the new “live at the fillmore west 1969” cd which proves to me that roy was the george harrison of the move, but he was also the john lennon – he did it all, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, lead vocals – and his lead playing I feel is fantastic.

he’s also the only other british guitarist besides george harrison (well, that I know about any way – only “famous pop guitarist” I should probably say) to seriously learn indian music, and the banjar solo in the middle of “fields of people” on the new live album is a fantastic demonstration of his skill in this area.

ten years after “movements” was released, came the four-disc “anthology” (40th anniversary compilation) – and if I thought “movements” was good – this record is unbelievable.  in some ways, if you have these two releases, these seven discs, then you have what you need to understand the move completely and utterly.  “anthology” has even more amazing rarities than “movements” did.

an early version of “fire brigade” that features piano over guitar, an alternate version of “I can hear the grass grow”, various un-dubbed and partially dubbed songs that you know but in different guises – and perhaps best of all, a fully restored and repaired version of the live marquee show which is just fantastic – this show was always damaged, but they found a way to repair it properly, and it now also features all of it’s tracks instead of just some, and they have also thrown in a couple of the original live mixes as well for a couple of the tracks – ALL of disc 2 is live tracks, from the marquee in 1968.

add those to the tracks from the new live album, and you have a lot of great live move performances!

of course, if you are a completist like me, then you need to pick up the 40th anniversary re-masters of the original albums as well, because on those – you guessed it – you get STILL MORE bonus tracks and rarities.  My favourite of these remasters is probably “shazam” – an amazing record in it’s original incarnation, but this one has some real beauties hidden away in the bonus tracks – including an amazing, amazing alternate version of my favourite move b-side “this time tomorrow” – with a vocal from carl wayne (instead of david morgan, who sings the original version) – a beautiful, beautiful song – arranged in a completely different way from the “official” version – and I love hearing things like this, it’s kind of like roy thinking “well, what if it went like…this”.  Or…this.  Or….this?

so after 40 years has passed, that single I bought way back in 1969, of “curly” on the a side, and “this time tomorrow” on the b-side, is now on CD, and I get an alternate version of both songs to contemplate and enjoy – I would have never dreamed of this amazing set of extra, rare, behind-the-scenes material back then!!!!

of course, I didn’t really get a good sense of the move just from having that single, that’s just how I started, and when I returned to the US after four years in africa, all I could find were compilations – and the vinyl version of “something else” – which was the truncated, bad sound quality live album from the marquee. for years, that was all I had for years…you just couldn’t get “real” move albums.

so I felt like I was missing out for a long, long time, eventually, I tracked down things like “message from the country” and so on, and then finally, over the past few years, I collected the 40th anniversary stuff – and I probably play “anthology” much, much more often than many, many records I have – and it’s fantastically arranged, too – do I want early move? disc 1.  do I want rough and ready live move? disc 2.  do I want psychedelic mid-period move? disc 3. do I want late period/jeff lynne move? disc 4.

I really seriously feel that the move got such a bad deal in the press, and their releases were in a shambles for years, and while those have been sorted, the damage to their reputation hasn’t been, which to me is a huge, huge shame.  I absolutely feel that the move SHOULD have been as big as the beatles, the stones and the kinks were – because musically, they were equals.  roy wood was like lennon, harrison, mccartney, brian jones and ray davies all rolled into one. a quintuple threat, he could write, he could sing, he can play lead guitar, rhythm guitar, piano, organ, drums, sitar, sax, oboe, banjar, banjo, bagpipes – ANYTHING.  the beatles, the stones and the kinks – none of those bands had a single person capable of all that.

if you listen to roy wood’s solo albums, where in the main, he plays every single instrument (doing a “todd rundgren” before todd rundgren did a “todd rundgren”) you can’t fail to note what an incredibly capable and talented man roy really is – I recommend both “mustard” and “boulders”, I love those records, and I really think that todd took a leaf out of roy’s book – I think that the move was a huge influence on todd and the nazz, it obviously was, because todd did indeed cover “do ya” on his live 1975 utopia album, “another live” – and roy also liked todd, because the move had not one but two nazz songs in their live 1969 set list – so it’s difficult to say who influenced who – but both todd and roy are the master of walking into a studio, and playing every part themselves, and creating amazing pop and rock music out of thin air.

on the “boulders” album, there is an amazing song called “all the way over the hill (an irish loafer and his hen)” which is a perfect example of…pop perfection, with amazing background vocals, drums, bass, guitars – including harrison-like lead guitar – but then in the middle of the song, out of nowhere, a brief but astonishing sitar solo that mutates into a reverse guitar and then…back to the song – I would give anything to come up with songs half as clever as this one…and then at the end, roy plays live strings, cello, viola, violin – and does this whole irish jig /outro thing – again, where does this stuff come from – like five little songs all rolled into one four minute song.

from the “mustard” album – well it’s just strange, surreal, the title track is some kind of 20s track with female voices (or sped up roys?) featuring a great horn solo from roy, I love this little song, it’s so bizarre…but it’s the second track that I truly love “any old time will do” – piano based, great drums – another one that would have fit right onto any early todd album – a song of unrequited love, roy singing from the heart, perfect background vocals, a beautiful melody – and every note, every sound made by roy.  the guitars, the slide guitars…are bliss, this song just bursts with pop joy, it’s such a shame that these albums never made much impact on the charts – because if you like the move at all, then roy wood solo is like getting to the man behind the scenes – I really wish roy had made more solo albums, I wish he would make an old-style pop album right now.

I felt so, so fortunate, a couple years ago now, I had the chance to see the roy wood band live, and it was sublime, it was really, really good – the band was great, straightforward, crack players – and of course, even though I didn’t expect him to, he did six or seven move songs – so I was able to see and hear him play those amazing riffs, like that really strange one from “I can hear the grass grow”, and for me, that was just as special, and just as utterly surreal and unbelievable – as seeing george harrison (one of the BEATLES ffs!) play in 1974 – to me, those are my top two live british guitarist sightings, more enjoyable than things like…eric clapton in 1975, who just underwhelmed me – but george and roy – both did fantastically live.  george had lost his voice – but his guitar playing was astonishingly good – as was roy’s.  I can’t believe that I actually got to see roy wood play – I waited a long, long time for that one!

but, if you don’t have any of the move’s albums, and you want to hear the most under-appreciated pop band that SHOULD have been the “other beatles”…hear them properly – then you cannot, cannot go wrong with the 40th anniversary package – and it’s a beautiful, beautiful disc – I love the packaging, it’s totally deluxe, but more importantly, it really gives a very complete overview of the band and it’s music, and I could listen to just those four discs over and over and over again – I never tire of the music of roy wood and the move – and I should say too, what an amazing singer the move had in the late carl wayne, his performances in the studio, and on stage (as proved beyond a doubt on the new live album) are just remarkable, so that gave the band a great live vocal sound – because they had not one but two very, very strong lead vocalists (kinda like that other pop group, what was their name again?) and the live harmony vocals were a move trademark, they took their vocals very, very seriously indeed – and sounded great for the extra effort they made.  so carl’s contribution to the band should absolutely not be overlooked – roy wrote the songs – and sang some of them, but carl drove the band forward, and sang most of the time, so roy could concentrate more on guitar – so that’s a win/win situation if there ever was one.

I am not quite sure why the music of the move resonates so strongly with me, possibly because I associate it with my childhood in africa, a happy time, I don’t know, but they always were, and probably always will be, my favourite pop/rock combo just below the beatles – or maybe, just beside them 🙂

what we’re listening to: roger powell

when we think about the great synthesizer pioneers of progressive rock, it’s really a list of very, very obvious suspects, from wakeman to emerson and right back to wakeman again.  a few others – maybe…  but there is one synthesist that is just as skilled, just as talented, and was really at the forefront of the revolution, I am talking about of course, roger powell, who is perhaps best known for his work with todd rundgren’s utopia.

but what is less recognised is the fact that powell actually was first, a protege of bob moog, and then later,  worked for moog’s competitor arp, who produced the arp odyssey (and by sheer coincidence, I used to own one of those myself) and was really interested in synthesis from a purely technical standpoint as well as from a musical / performance standpoint.  I still have a 7 inch 45 rpm flexi disc of roger powell demonstrating the “amazing new arp odyssey”, which is a strange curiosity now.

I am not saying, by the way, that wakeman or emerson or any of the great prog players were or are ignorant of the building blocks of synthesis; I know that all the players of the time absorbed a certain amount of knowledge just in the process of learning to use these monstrously large and cumbersome machines (they had no choice!).  but to me, powell always seemed in a class utterly by himself, sort of a “mad scientist” of synthesis – and, if you listen to his very, very small recorded “solo” catalogue – just three records spanning some 40 years, you can hear that he really takes the sound-making capability of synthesizers very seriously indeed.

[note: I am only talking here, in this post, about three of roger’s four records because I haven’t yet heard his fourth album, which is an album of solo piano work].

it’s almost as if he decided that within the organisation of utopia, that he would use a certain synth vocabulary, and he coaxed some amazing sounds out of his instruments, and in 1977, went on to help develop the powell probe and brought it to the stage with utopia – and soon, everyone had an original or copycat “portable synth” strapped around their neck.  jan hammer used a modified powell probe so that he could also be free to roam the stage.

I was lucky enough to see todd rundgren’s utopia in 1977 (and twice in 1978!) and powell’s command of the powell probe was beyond impressive – controlling a bank of six (I believe) synthesizers and sequencers that were offstage, he was able to both roam the stage with impunity but still command hundreds of sounds from a vast array of synths – it was absolutely blindingly brilliant…and it was really something to see, bleeding edge technology in 1977 – that worked beautifully.

roger’s work with utopia speaks for itself, it’s a fantastic catalogue of at first, progressive rock, but as time goes on, on both utopia and solo todd rundgren albums, the demands on roger to play not just prog, but ballads, pop – pretty much anything that the chameleon-like rundgren came up with – well, it was all water off a duck’s back to powell, since his skill on piano is certainly equal to his skill with synthesizers.

and he was there in the thick of it, first, working for arp, helping with the design of their products, before rundgren found him and dragged him out in front of an audience.

he didn’t just bring his voice and his skill on the keyboard to the band, he also brought the first fibreglass prototype powell probe, he brought his trumpet, he brought his youthful enthusiasm – and, I was lucky enough to see this tour, the 1977 “ra” tour…and roger was on fire the night I saw the band – hell, they were all four of them on fire.   it was strange seeing the keyboard player stalking the stage with the same freedom as the guitarist – and, it put roger on an equal footing with todd and new bassist/singer kasim sulton.  it was…fantastic – portable, light, fully capable, driving the off stage synths and sounding totally amazing – awesome.

if you listen to something like “communion with the sun” from the “ra” album (1977) by utopia, you really hear roger working so well with todd, they play in unison; they play in harmony; they trade solos in an amazing, concise, intelligent way; this piece was basically set up so it really could be played live, yet, it sounds like it can’t be – it sounds like a very complex studio track.

but – that was the genius of utopia 1976/77/78, at least, that you had four players who could really play, and, all four sang well too, so with very, very tight four-part vocal harmonies (and on “communion”, some yes- or even gentle giant-like “staggered/round” vocal arrangements) on top of a very concise arrangement played by four extremely good musicians – well, utopia live, for those three years, was a musical force to be reckoned with.

sure, the technology would and did let them down – guitars would not stay in tune – things fall apart, so if you listen to a live show from 1978, you will hear disasters, but then they just pick themselves back up, dust themselves off, and dive back in – and suddenly, you are hearing something akin to a prog / beatles, with amazing, perfect, four-part harmonies, and the ability to solo as well as yes or gentle giant – in fact, the guitar/synth trade-offs that todd rundgren and roger powell do sometimes defy belief – they are that technically and musically amazing.

that was the strange inconsistency about utopia – in the same concert, they might play three songs in a row that are just horrible, really out of tune, with bad mistakes, bad vocals – then, suddenly – it all falls into place and they play three absolute blinders, with perfect vocals, amazing solos, and precision chops – brilliant!  talk about erratic though…I actually think that speaks more about todd himself, because he is a bit of an erratic genius, he’s either great, or he is messing up in grand style – gotta love the todd.

a fairly unremarkable pop song might, for example, on the show I am listening to right now, “oops! wrong planet tour” might suddenly come alive because, for this one moment, everything is working: todd’s guitar is in tune, his voice is in perfect condition and he hits all the high notes, the whole band is in tune and in time, everyone is singing at their very best – and then you hear it, the best-ever live version of “love of the common man” you ever heard or dreamed of – far exceeding the original studio version from “faithful” – pop beatlesque perfection.  I’ve heard this song live a million times, but this version – it’s the way it should be.  the vocal harmonies are astonishing for live!  and yet on other tracks from this same show – everything goes wrong!

before I forget to mention, another talent that the remarkable roger powell has, is he is really quite a good trumpeter – this was first apparent on “another live” (1975) – the first utopia album roger appeared on – where his trumpet parts are integral to the success of the lead-off track “another life” – a really brilliant addition to the synthesizers, including an actual trumpet into the very synth-heavy utopia line up (at the time, they had either two or three keyboard players at once!) was a really good idea, and roger excelled at it (whereas todd on sax didn’t quite convince me!) – roger nails it.

later on, on tracks like “abandon city” (another one on the live show I am listening to right now), roger was given a really significant trumpet part, and again, really, really adds a lot to what might have been just another ordinary track from “oops! wrong planet”; roger’s jazzy, tasteful trumpet chops are most excellent.

I can’t say I’ve ever seen rick wakeman or keith emerson or really…any of the more famous prog keyboardist whipping out a trumpet and taking an awesome solo during a live concert!  one keyboard player who does, does spring to mind – edgar winter, who played sax live I believe as well as synth – but he is another unknown great.  there may be a few, but I really respect a guy who can be so good on keys, who can then effortlessly switch to trumpet and play with just as much quality and dedication.

sometimes I feel as if certain players overly dominate the field, while some that are equal or even, dare I say it, better – unfortunately, comparatively – they languish on the side lines or are (criminally) less-recognised:

edgar winter (an amazing talent)

kerry minnear of gentle giant (give me minnear over wakeman any day – sorry rick!) – plays every keyboard imaginable, plays cello, sings beautifully, writes…this man is a genius (another one who plays a non-keyboard instrument)

moogy klingman (of earlier utopia – 1974 version) – brilliant pianist – a prog pianist

larry fast (nektar, synergy, peter gabriel band)

eddie rayner (split enz, crowded house) – especially early split enz (1975-1980)

thiis van leer (focus) – also an amazing flautist, so there is another beside winter and powell

hugh banton (van der graaf generator) – originally a church organist, hugh plays with both hands and both feet

(an amazing thing to see in live performance, and for my money, a far better player than emerson or wakeman – but, because van der graaf didn’t have the high profile that yes and elp did, many don’t realise just how amazing banton is – if peter hammill is the soul of van der graaf, and guy evans is it’s beating heart, then hugh banton is the band’s brain – a mind of musical mayhem and intense, great beauty…)

and of course, our roger “the pal” powell.

don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that yes and elp are not good, sure, I love the music of rick wakeman or keith emerson as much as any true blue progger (but, less so over time), but I think they get all of the attention, while some of the lesser-known players are actually – more interesting, more skilful, more unique – more musically…interesting – but no one gives them a chance, because they have put emerson and wakeman on endless repeat in their brain – please give some of these other very, very talented players a chance – if you love synthesizer or keyboards – I mean, just listen to octopus by gentle giant and then tell me how good rick wakeman really is. (good, but not as creative/interesting/capable as the genius mind of kerry minnear).

just to be clear, I get it, I know how brilliant rick wakeman is on something like “south side of the sky” – I love that, especially the live versions up on youtube – but I just think that the focus needs to shift, and if you really love the music of rick wakeman, then you owe it to yourself to check out the music of winter, minnear, klingman, fast, rayner, van leer and banton !  seven amazing players – I promise you!

roger must have had one hell of a busy life, because during his entire career, he only found time to make three solo records – but what records they are – if you are a serious student of synthesis, or a lover of progressive music – or both – these records might be something you would want to check out.

powell’s first solo record is a period masterpiece: “cosmic furnace”, from 1973, is absolutely spot-on, it has serious titles, serious musical themes, and is using the available technology to it’s utmost.  when I listen to this record, I recognise that it cannot have been easy to make, synths being very unruly beasts back then, but there is no hint of struggle, and powell effortlessly layers his synths to great effect on this record.

the playing – well, it’s sort of techno-proto-utopian, it seems somewhat familiar, but I consider it to be more akin to the mothers of invention at their creative best, than related to the work powell was doing at the time with utopia.  it’s too complex, too serious – for utopia, and I’m glad that powell chose to sit down and make his first serious keyboard solo record at this point in his career, it’s confident, assured, and will sit well with your gentle giant, mothers, zappa, elp and yes – and of course, utopia cds.

we had to wait a long, long time – seven years – for the next roger powell record, made in 1980, “air pocket” is a giant leap forward, a snapshot of the state of the art of synthesis as the seventies came to a close – just before the advent of cheap synthesizers brought us into the musical debacle that was the 1980s – ugh.  When synthesizers passed from the hands of musicians, into the hands of bands.  I’ve written elsewhere about this subject, but powell’s farewell to the seventies stands up really, really well even today, and of his three albums, “air pocket” might be my personal favourite.  it does contain the original studio versions of a couple of tracks that utopia used to play on stage, namely the remarkable and powerful “emergency splashdown” as well as the less known “landmark”.

this record is far more accessible and slightly less musically serious than “cosmic furnace” was, but it’s still an amazing demonstration of skill and sensitivity.  a lot of synthesists struggle to make synthesizers seem human, but powell is better than most at humanising the instrument – I don’t know how he does it, or why I feel that way, but his sounds, his timbres, his tones – even his melodies – connect better with me than someone like emerson – who is more about skill than emotion, while powell, I feel has a better balance of skill and emotion.

the amazing, powerful synth solos that echo powell’s impassioned vocal performance on the studio version of “emergency splashdown” are just amazing, I would rate this album a ten for this track alone – nasty, snarling, visceral lead synthesizer as you want it to be – dirty, wild, spinning, with pitch bend and modulation going mad throughout – and such a brilliant variety of synth voices used in harmony, along with the main melodic synth themes – the solos, arpeggiators, and harmonies all work together as a monstrous orchestra of synthesizers, proving in this track, that you really, really don’t need guitars – it can all be done from the keyboard – if your name is roger powell.  this track is really so, so powerful – and it was equally remarkable in concert, where roger reproduced most of what is on the studio track in the live setting with ease – and doing it all from the portable “powell probe” controller whilst roaming the stage as if it were his own.

“air pocket” also features the original version of another utopia stage staple, the remarkable pop masterpiece “windows” – and you really need to hear this in both it’s studio incarnation and performed live with utopia – beautiful sweeping arpeggiators shimmy about in stereo over the main chordal theme, a really, really catchy pop song that is really all about synthesizers, the central solo is full of reverse and other ethereal, beautiful sounds – a brief glimpse of heaven before we return to that ridiculously catchy chorus – and it’s one of those songs that once you hear it, you just can’t get it out of your head – “you feel yourself, becoming someone else…” – a great pop song, and it proves that powell could have been very popular indeed if he had pursued this line of more pop-oriented material.

it’s actually damnably difficult to make a synthesizer “sing”, to make it sound warm and human, but through some curious bending and oddly-chosen moments of modulation; through his selection of voices, somehow, roger manages this nearly impossible feat.

the title track from the “air pocket” record is a case in point, it’s actually quite reminiscent of a bill nelson synth-driven piece from this same period, with a really emotive, almost oriental sounding lead synthesizer sound, used as the main repeating, melodic theme of the piece – which really creates the most extraordinary mood against an almost funky bill nelsonesque synth bass and snare drum riff – and then, when it gets to the first solo, roger uses a subtly different sound, to differentiate the central section of the piece – and eventually returns to the emotive oriental melody to round the piece out – it’s simple, it’s clean – it’s brilliant!

an even better surprise on this record is the inclusion of a “studio version” of the utopia live classic “mr. triscuits” (which utopia recorded live, but never performed in the studio) so powell makes up for that omission with “dragons’n’griffins/mr. triscuits” – and the glorious melodic themes of this prog masterpiece are reinvented in a most amazing way in this studio tribute.

to round out an all around remarkable record, “air pocket” concludes with powell’s amazing synth version of the all guitars classic “pipeline”, entitled “pipeline 76” so I assume recorded in that year – almost as if to prove a point – these new-fangled synth-o-sizers can do anything a gee-tar can do – and in powell’s capable hands, that actually becomes a truth.  the sounds might not be guitar sounds, but they work – they tell the story of “pipeline” just as well as the guitarists do, including some fabulous distorted “guitar solos” that are just brutal in their intensity – great stuff!

give me these three records over a dozen wakeman solo records anyway – there is nothing here that isn’t visceral, real and honest – I really like these three records a lot!

if we thought we waited a long time for “air pocket”, roger’s other commitments over time meant that his third and most current solo record, “fossil poets” was really a long, long, long time coming – it was originally released in 2006 – and perhaps, that 26 year gap between records was a time to consolidate everything roger had learned and experienced, and then, he finally sat down to make another record.

and it’s a lovely disc, once again, completely different from the other two, and with twenty-six years of progress in the field of synthesis, the voices and sounds that are now available to powell to express himself on this record are mind-boggling; he chooses wisely, and it’s another successful, rounded record – I think in this case, less is definitely more – OK, if I really want to hear roger soloing his heart out, I will find some vintage live utopia from 1976 or 1977, or I will put on one of the official utopia records – but when I want serious, intricate, thoughtful synthesizer music – it would be to these three records that I will always turn.

“fossil poets” is a grower, it’s much more about subtlety, texture – this is a such a different sounding record from either of his two previous solo albums or the utopia catalogue – it sits almost in a unique and unusual sonic world of it’s very own.  I love it, there are some bizarre and wonderful synth tones that you do not hear every day, and they are used in challenging and interesting ways – the weird intro to “fallout shelter” being one example, a nervous, shifting rhythm with a wonderful, tactile solo raging over the top of it, bending and stretching through impossible frequencies…as bill nelson says “the frequencies…shift”.

it’s absolutely fascinating too, to compare the aural experience of these three albums, each, as it were, representing an “era” of synthesizer development: 1973, the tones are more basic, the classic sine, saw, square, triangle waves all have their part to play lfos other modulation are definitely from a more limited palette than on the later records – although, given the primitive state of synthesizers in 1973 (compared to 2006 or even 1980) powell really does coax a lot of fairly subtle and advanced tones from his 1973 machines – it’s brilliant.

come 1980, and the entire vocabulary has shifted, arpeggiators are to the fore, we have some early beginnings in terms of more subtle sonic textures, even ambience, although not to the extent that ambience plays a part in the 2006 offering.  “air pocket” is like a mid-term exam, technology had come a long, long way since 1973, and roger takes full advantage of the new tools available to him in 1980 – he has the answers to the exam, and he passes with flying colours – every track on air pocket oozes confidence and quality.

finally though, we reach “fossil poets”, a modern-day record made with the latest hardware and software synthesizers.  tasteful use of real basses and guitars flesh out what is still, mostly, a keyboard extravaganza, and in the background, there appear everything from synth basses to fender rhodes (or similar) to clavinets (or similar) – or, a sudden hammond organ style solo will appear from nowhere – and curiously, quite often, the voices seem to have been run through a wah pedal or filter – which just goes to show you, technology does not have to be new and fancy to work – the wah-wah was the world’s first portable filter – and synth filters work in a very similar way indeed.

synthetic percussion is present too, and in this percussion, we can hear the progress – similar percussive sounds on “cosmic furnace” sound cheap and simplistic, here, they are fully evolved, they sound like drums, but, synthesized drums – they way they should sound, tasteful sounds that accurately emulate real drums.

the biggest difference though, for “fossil poets” are pads, sounds that “wash” over you, beautiful, ambient chords and drones – all of the ambient sounds and moods, that are completely absent from “cosmic furnace” and only partially in place by the time of “air pocket” – are fully realised here, so from a standpoint of mood, emotion, texture, and beauty – “fossil poets” probably “wins” hands down.

I love the fact that powell uses rhodes-like and hammond-like sounds on this record – why mess with what works? – he could invent or develop really weird synth or piano sounds, but he has the wisdom to not mess with perfection – so the rhodes, hammond, string and even percussion voices, sound good – because he hasn’t messed with the formula that says “use a rhodes sound, and your track will sound good”.

another favourite track of mine on this particular record is “underwater city” – which somehow, sounds exactly like it’s title – it starts out with subtle, ambient keyboards stalking you in stereo, then, ominous guitars layer on top of really ominous synth bass as the song develops – a muffled, strangled bassy drum beat accompanies the lead guitar, while roger plays odd sound effects and wonderfully textured synth accompaniment in the background.  then the song takes some odd turns, some beautiful short chord progressions, and it enters a wonderful, dreamlike state that would simply have not have been possible on “cosmic furnace”.  it’s like bluesy delayed guitar on top of space age ambience – a lovely combination. the use of stereo in this track is phenomenal, and the synth effects and one-off sounds are absolutely fantastic – I love it.

“tribe by fire” really throws in a complete kitchen sink of synthetic sound, there is so much going on, so much texture, so many melodies, so much wonderful ambience – sudden ethnic synth squeals – then peaceful, beautiful electric piano – slithering, snake-like synth leads – then, suddenly, the sound goes dry, and odd flute-like events and percussion take over – it’s as if the track is mutating from one song into another – but, every 17 seconds or so.  I really like this one, too…

“peaceful uprising” is a real centrepiece of this record, with it’s insistent beat, and wonderful layering of synths over a very beautiful ascending, positive sounding chord progression – synth leads harmonise with lead guitars over a vaguely arabic-feel backing – I really, really love this piece, it’s so intricate, so carefully arranged, and it’s all about harmony and texture; texture and harmony – the rhythm stops occasionally and the piece goes very ethnic, little islands of quiet before that insistent rhythm picks up again, driving the song onwards and upwards, it’s absolutely fantastic!

it’s strange too, how your own tastes change – originally, my favourite synthesizer record was undoubtedly “the six wives of henry viii” by rick wakeman; and I still do love that record, but I don’t tend to actually listen to it – whereas, I still find myself putting on the three powell albums quite frequently – often, I just select “play all” and listen to the whole suite – and when you do that, it really hits you what this man can do, what he has accomplished – the brilliant, atmospheric opening to “lunar plexus”, the lead-off track of air pocket, just sounds to me like science fiction/future synth music, I just love it (“air pocket” was the first powell record I owned, cosmic furnace was very difficult to find for a long, long time) but if you play the three back to back – the range, the diversity, the amazing sounds, sequences, arpeggiations – the amazing solos – the quiet piano breaks…the quiet, determined intelligence behind these records speaks volumes – this is how synthesizer music should be!

“cosmic furnace” is entirely instrumental; while “air pocket” sports a few very excellent roger powell vocals, with a return to the instrumental approach for “fossil poets” – and I actually really like roger’s voice, it’s underrated, I’ve seen and heard him sing at a number of utopia concerts, and he turned in some amazing live performances – especially on his own tracks, such as the live versions of “emergency splashdown” or one of his showcase pieces, “caravan” where he trades synth leads with rundgren’s guitar leads to great effect, all the while singing the lead vocal of the piece, to his remarkable “solo section” in the lengthy and complex “singring and the glass guitar” taken from 1977’s “ra” album by utopia – roger on stage was a revelation; even better than in the studio, and the range of expression he wrenches from his keyboards is one of the most significant – sure, wakeman gets a lot of great sounds, but somehow, with powell, it seems more personal, more indicative of his personality and style – wakeman is saying “I can make all these sounds” while powell is saying “these sounds represent how I feel” – and therein lay the difference.

the main difference in the 2006 offering though is probably the presence of real texture and real ambience – those things were harder to achieve earlier on in the development of synthesizers, but none of it is a problem for roger powell – the great unknown contender to the possibly unwanted throne of “prog synth wizard” – I think, if people listened to “another live”, “ra”, “oops, wrong planet” and “adventures in utopia” – along with these three records – they would be blown away by this quiet scientist of synthesis, the amazing roger powell.

I cannot recommend his music more highly to you if you enjoy the sounds made with synthesizers.