Four Days, Four Gigs

My name is Tim, and I’m addicted to live music.

It’s been one of those bank holiday weekends – four gigs in four days, which I think is the greatest amount of music in the shortest time I’ve ever done outside of a festival.

Things started a day early on the Thursday, with The Reasoning at The Met Theatre in Bury. Support band Morpheus Rising are a five piece band shamelessly citing the 1980s NWOBHM as a principle influence, now reclassified as hard rock following boundary changes. Entertaining high energy stuff.

I’d seen The Reasoning a week earlier in London, where a very poor sound mix really hadn’t done the music justice, and the performance suffered badly as a result. Tonight was far, far better. Bury Met is always a great gig whoever is playing, and The Reasoning I know and love were back with a vengeance, now expanded to a seven-piece with new members Jake Bradford-Sharp on drums, ex-Fish keyboard player Tony Turrell and vocalist Maria Owen. The new album “Adverse Camber” features heavily, which takes a slight step back from prog-metal in favour of some elements of the atmospheric melodic music that Rachel did with Karnataka. Not that the twin guitar attack of Dylan Thompson and Owain Roberts doesn’t still rock hard plenty of times, but the overall effect is to make their live set a lot more varied and multi-dimensional, which cannot be anything other than a good thing.

On Friday I travelled down to Cardiff to see Hawkwind supported by Panic Room at St David’s Hall. I’ve seen Panic Room many times before at their own shows, here they made the most of their five-song 30 minute slot, naturally including a great version of “Apocalypstick”. Blessed with a good sound mix for a support, they seemed to go down well with Hawkwind’s audience, and told me they sold a lot of albums after the gig.

Hawkwind themselves I hadn’t seen since 1980, and had lost track of what they’ve been doing since the mid-80s, so I really didn’t know what to expect.

Continue reading

Nothing to do with Shoes!

Apart from that York band you’re probably fed up with hearing about, this Swedish lot are the band who have changed my life the most in the past decade.

Songs like this are why. Jonana and I have got into arguments with Michael Hann over exactly why The Guardian never reviewed the album from which this song came….

Breathing Space, The Riga, Southend, 20th March 2010

Iain Jennings

I think Southend is the furthest I’ve travelled to date for a Breathing Space gig. But with Olivia Sparnenn leaving the band at the beginning of April there are a limited number of chances to see the current incarnation of the band on stage. And with relatives in that part of the world, there was the opportunity to combine a must-see gig with a family visit.

I’ve not been to The Riga Bar before; it’s an excellent little venue, great sound, and a crowd who made up in enthusiasm what the lacked in numbers.

Olivia Sparnenn

Breathing Space were, as usual, superb. Over the past year they’ve significantly upped the energy level of their live performances, replacing the jazz-inflected ballads with tougher guitar-driven numbers. Although the setlist drew from all three albums, songs from last year’s “Below the Radar” featured heavily.

Livvy Sparnenn was on great form; lovely renditions of songs like “Dusk” and “Drowning” as well as rockers like “Clear”. Fans of Mostly Autumn have nothing to fear when she takes over in that band next month. And we were also treated with some excellent lead guitar from Bryan Josh, in much more relaxed form when he’s not leading his own band.

Paul Teasdale

It’s clear that this lineup of the band is determined to go out with a bang. Just one more gig to go now, at Bilston Robin 2 on Easter Sunday, April 4th. If it’s possible for you to get there, be there.

Parade – The Fabric

TheFabric

When Chris Johnson left Mostly Autumn at the beginning of 2008 he stated that he was to work on a solo album. In the coming months touring as Fish’s second guitarist took up a lot of his time, but when I asked him about his solo project when I met him in York at the end of the year he told me it was still on track, and had some interesting collaborators.

The Fabric is that album. The collaborators turned out to be Panic Room and Mostly Autumn vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Anne-Marie Helder, Mostly Autumn, Panic Room and Fish’s drummer Gavin Griffiths, and two of Chris’ long-term associates, bassist Patrick Berry and guitarist Simon Snaize, The album also features guest appearances on a few tracks from Heather Findlay, Olivia Sparnenn and Bryan Josh.

This is certainly an album that took me a few listens for this one to click; on the surface it’s an indie-sounding album with it’s sparse chiming guitars and clattering drums; but listen more closely and there’s some real musical depth there. Chris Johnson sings the majority of the lead vocals with Anne-Marie taking a largely supporting role singing harmonies and middle eights, which may disappoint some fans of Anne-Marie’s vocals, but this is basically Chris’ album.

High spots are many, the menacing-sounding “The Dogs” ending with a lacerating solo from Simon Snaize, “The Diamond” where Anne-Marie makes my heart melt with the line “For a while.. you were mine”, and the wonderfully atmospheric “High Life” again featuring some tremendous wordless vocals from Anne-Marie at the end. The album closes with the epic harmony-filled “Ending” perhaps the closest in sound to Chris’ work with Mostly Autumn, a connection made stronger with a great solo from Bryan Josh.

Like many self-released prog albums, this was released as a pre-order some time ago, but has a full retail release on Monday 25th January. You can stream some of the music from the band’s website, www.paradeband.com.

Questioning Eyes

Breathing Space performing the song Questioning Eyes at Bilston Robin 2 in May last year.

This was the first time they’d performed it live, having laid down the song in the studio only days before. I was in the audience (you may or may not be able to make out the back of my head in the crowd), and I remember congratulating composer Iain Jennings immediately after the show telling him I thought it was as good as anything he’s ever written.

Possibly because I know the story behind this song, I find it incredibly moving – it only takes the intro to bring a lump to my throat.

Congratulations to an RR contributor!

Another prog band have had to replace their singer in the new year, Also Eden. Their new singer is none other than Rich Harding, sometime contributor to Readers Recommend under pseudonym of AfraidOfSunlight, the other person apart from me who continually nominated Marillion songs only to find Dorian never A-listed them:

Rich Harding has been singing live since 1985, fronting bands as diverse as The Allnight Chemists (space rock), Sane (prog) and Twisted (heavy metal). For the last few years he has also been performing with a number of successful Marillion “tribute” bands, in the UK and on the continent (Misplaced Neighbourhood, Lords of the Backstage and Skyline Drifters). His voice is very different to Huw’s – but he has power, energy and enthusiasm and we know he’s going to make a huge impact on the band’s sound this year.

I’m sure everyone on The ‘Spill will offer their congratulations!

Heather Leaves Mostly Autumn

Heather Findlay

Sometimes a bombshell comes completely out of the blue.

As everyone on The Spill knows, I’m a huge fan of York progressive rock band Mostly Autumn. I’ve even managed to persuade CaroleBristol to see them on their last tour.

Late on Thursday night came the news that Heather Findlay is leaving the band to concentrate of a solo career. I’m still trying to come to terms with it. I’m completely devastated in a way people for whom music is background wallpaper or a once-a-year trip to an enormodome will never be able to understand, but I’m sure plenty of ‘Spill regulars who have been hardcore fans of any band will have been there.

I first saw Mostly Autumn live at Jillys in Manchester back in 2004, and have seem them 40-odd times since, 30 of those in the past three years. Their music has changed my life over the past few years in ways I could never have anticipated, and helped me through some difficult times in my life.

There’s just something uniquely magical about Mostly Autumn’s live shows; no other band is quite like it for me. Seeing another great band live is like visiting an exotic location on holiday, seeing Mostly Autumn feels like coming home. I’ve made so many great friends through Mostly Autumn fandom it feels like an extended family.

Although I’ve only met Heather a handful of times, she has always treated me like a personal friend.

Mostly Autumn are to continue, with their backing vocalist Olivia Sparnenn taking over on lead vocals. The knock on effect of that is that Olivia will be leaving her own band, Breathing Space, another great band I’ve seen almost as many times as Mostly Autumn, and who now face an uncertain future.

The absolutely electrifying live shows in 2009 meant Heather’s time with Mostly Autumn ended on a high. She will be playing one last farewell show with the band, at The Assembly in Leamington Spa on Good Friday, April 2nd. I’ve already got my ticket.

Carole’s AOTW

The album is Can‘s 1971 meisterwerk Tago Mago.

It is really one of the oddest records I own. I think it is a work of genius, albeit one that probably would struggle to get released today. It was originally a double album on vinyl, but is a single CD.

The track listing tells us;

1. Paperhouse (7:28)
2. Mushroom (4:03)
3. Oh Yeah (7:23)
4. Halleluwah (18:32)
5. Aumgn (17.37)
6. Peking O (11.37)
7. Bring Me Coffee Or Tea (6.47)

This means not much, except that tracks 1-3 were side 1, tracks 4 and 5 were a side apiece and side 4 was the last two tracks.

The music is really like nothing else at all. It has repetitive drumming, scratchy, spiky guitars, weird sounds, screaming and moaning and various bits of piano and other keyboards.

I first knew it from a pub, of all places. When I was about 16 we used to go to a pub in Hackney called The Britannia, that is no longer there. We used to go there on Friday evenings and it was known as the local hippy and druggy pub. The DJ was a guy called Pete and he had an amazingly wide collection. He’d play everything from chart hits to hard rock, psychedelia, prog and folk.

After a while, the landlord asked him to make the music a bit more mainstream but gave him a Tuesday night spot for the weird stuff. It was a Tuesday when I first heard Can. He played Mushroom, probably the most accessible track on the album.

I never owned the album (I had a copy on a cassette for years) until I bought the CD a couple of years ago, but my friend Diane’s older brother had it and he played it all the time. It was one of those “love it or hate it” albums and I used to hate the long weird tracks at first. It took a long time for me to like it, but eventually I did.

Apparently, John Lydon was (is?) a huge fan, you can see that if you listen to some of PiL’s stuff.

It is in Dropbox

https://www.getdropbox.com/home#/Tago%20Mago%20%287%20tracks%29/

Breathing Space, The Intake Club, Mansfield

Olivia Sparnenn at The Intake Club, Mansfield
Olivia Sparnenn

In CaroleBristol’s review of Mostly Autumn at Gloucester, she remarked that it would have been good for backing singer Olivia Sparnenn to have a bigger role.

In addition to being Mostly Autumn’s backing singer, Olivia also fronts Breathing Space, a band she put together with Mostly Autumn keyboard player Iain Jennings in 2005. What was originally a side project took on a life of it’s own when Iain left Mostly Autumn at the beginning of 2006, but they have continued recording and touring even after Iain rejoined his old band at the beginning of last year.

Over the past couple of years Olivia Sparnenn has got better and better as a vocalist and frontwoman. Indeed, she auditioned and made the shortlist for the gig with Finnish symphonic metallers Nightwish, and I still think she’s better than the singer who finally did get the job.

Many fans of the band were saddened at the unexpected departure of Breathing Space’s guitarist Mark Rowen at the beginning of the year due to good old ‘musical differences’ (I’ll say no more). His replacement was none other than Mostly Autumn’s second guitarist, Liam Davidson.

Liam Davidson at the Intake Club, Mansfield
Liam Davidson

Changing just one band member has transformed the band’s sound far more that I’d expected. Mark Rowen’s economical jazz-tinged playing was a major element of Breathing Space’s sound, and Liam has a very different style. With Mostly Autumn he’s always very much in the background, but I’ve always thought he’s a far better guitarist than many people realise. Given the chance in the spotlight shows just how good he can playing lead. He doesn’t try to copy Mark’s solos note-for-note, instead using the basic structure as a template for solos of his own.

The result is a far rawer and rockier band, which actually suits Olivia Sparnenn’s powerful vocal style very well. Many of the big soaring ballads and jazz-rock jams that epitomised the album “Coming Up for Air” have been retired from the set in favour of guitar-driven hard rock numbers, turning the overall energy level of the set up several notches. A surprise was the Mostly Autumn standard “Never the Rainbow”, which I’d not heard Breathing Space play live before.

The set included several new songs from the forthcoming album “Below the Radar”. The title track has been in the setlist for a while, but the standout of the new numbers has to be the encore, “Questioning Eyes”, a huge soaring and emotionally moving epic in the same league as Iain’s Mostly Autumn classics “The Gap Is Too Wide” or “Carpe Diem”.

It’s a pity a band this good isn’t better known; they deserve far better than playing to less than a hundred people in a small club in Mansfield.

Panic Room, Swansea and Kingston

If Abahachi wonders if he’d have been better off seeing Panic Room on Saturday, I started my live music for 2009 by seeing them twice, in two completely different cities.

While Friday night’s gig in Swansea was really a warm-up for the high-profile London show the next day, it also featured a one-off guest appearance from violinist Liz Prendegast, who’d played on several songs on the album “Visionary Position”.

The Garage is quite a nice little venue; capacity of perhaps 200, although it was nowhere near full. Unfortunately the gig did suffer from a disappointingly high level of background chatter which was noticeable during the quiet bits. And everyone hung at the back of the room despite Anne-Marie Helder trying to persuade people to move forward.

Panic Room’s set suffered badly from technical glitches, the worst of which was Anne-Marie’s microphone not being switched on at the very beginning, resulting in a false start to ‘Electra City’. But the band managed to rise above the gremlins, and played an entertaining and varied set lasting not far short of two hours. While they played some favourites from their debut album, such as the atmospheric epic ‘Endgame’ and the arabesque ‘Apocalypstick’, those amounted to something like a third of the set.

Some of the newer material they’d been playing at the end of last year have already become live favourites, such as the spiky guitar-driven rocker ‘Go’ and the industrial-sounding ‘Black Noise’, and they added another couple of brand new songs for their first live airing; of those ‘5th Amendment’ was the most impressive. Anne-Marie did her customary mid-set acoustic solo spot, of which the a cappella ‘Hadditfeel’ was the highlight. They ended with their groove-orientated cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘No Quarter’, including a few bars of ‘Kashmir’ for good measure. When she joined them on stage, Liz’s electric violin added an extra dimension to the sound, especially on the ‘Apocalypstick’ and ‘No Quarter’. I’d love to see her accompany the band for a whole tour.

Saturday’s gig at The Peel was the replacement for the show in April cancelled due to power failure, and this rescheduled gig attracted the largest crowd I’ve seen at a Panic Room gig to date, while I don’t think they quite sold out, the place was pretty much full. Support was prog veterans Jump, who delivered a highly entertaining set; a band I’m getting to like more and more every time I see them. John Dexter Jones is a great frontman; while he looks a bit like Morrissey, he sounds more like Fish; you can certainly hear the influence of both Marillion and Fish’s solo material in their sound.

Panic Room then delivered the best performance I’ve seen them play to date. Playing a shorter set than the previous night, they went pretty much full tilt all the way through, high energy levels, fantastically tight, and hugely appreciated by the crowd.

What I love about this band is that while they’re all clearly virtuoso musicians, they always play exactly what the songs need and no more; they never descend into the sort of self-indulgent noodling that ‘prog’ is all-too frequently accused of. And I think the fact that I’ve got several of their new songs stuck in my head means they’re capable of writing memorable songs that ought to appeal to mainstream audiences. And after many years as a backing singer to Rachel Jones in Karnataka and more recently to Heather Findlay in Mostly Autumn, Anne-Marie Helder more than proves she’s now in the same league as either of them when it comes to fronting a band herself.

Their next gig is in Stocksbridge near Sheffield in March.

RIP Richard Wright

I guess I’m not the only RR-er listening to Pink Floyd tonight.

The one currently playing is “Is There Anybody Out There”, the live version of The Wall from Earls Court in 1981. I know The Wall isn’t generally reckoned to be the high point of the career 28 years on, but it marked the point where I came on board as a fan, so that work still means a lot to me. And I saw that show, polystyrene bricks and all. It was the only time I ever saw the Floyd live, and the first really big gig I ever attended.

The relationship between Rick Wright and Roger Waters may have been strained at this point, but Rick’s playing is superb on this live album. His style was always understated, never flash, but he was always a key element of Pink Floyd’s sound.

Rest in peace, Rick, and thanks for the music. You were one of the greats.

Lyrics Quiz – Prog edition

I’m not quite the only prog fan in the village, so let’s have a prog-rock lyrics quiz. :)

1. And don’t forget my dog, fixed and consequent
2. The note he left was signed “Old Father Thames”, it seems he’s drowned
3. A man who thinks he owns the future will sell your vacuum with his prose
4. At paranoia’s poison door
5. And God and his accountants drove away
6. No-one dared call it a boat
7. No his mind is not for rent to any god or government.
8. If every time we tell a lie, a little fairy dies, they must be building death-camps in the garden.
9. Dreamer easy in the chair that really fits you
10. The bad blood slows and turns to stone

Most of them are fairly well-known if you know anything about 70s progressive rock, a few of them are more recent. I have no idea how well-known they are nowadays outside prog fandom, so I won’t set a deadline. One is very obscure, but I know they have at least one other fan on RR :)

Review: Mostly Autumn – Glass Shadows

On Tuesday morning the pre-ordered edition of Mostly Autumn’s seventh studio album “Glass Shadows”, which I’d ordered at the beginning of the year, arrived on my doormat.

Since I recommend something by them in RR just about every week, you should have guess by now that I’m a huge fan of this York-based act. They’ve actually been going for more than a decade, completely under the radar of the mainstream media. Their sound is unashamedly 70s, mixing elements of prog-rock, folk-rock, and classic AOR to produce a rich sound that’s far more than the sum of it’s parts. You can hear influences of Pink Floyd, Fairport Covention, Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac, but they manage to transcend any simple pastiche. While I can never really second-guess other people’s likes and dislikes, Gordonimmel and DarceysDad ought to love them.

The band lineup has changed over the years, but the constant factor and creative heart are Bryan Josh on vocals and guitar, and Heather Findlay on lead vocals. Bryan is a fantastic lead guitarist in the mould of Dave Gilmour and Steve Rothery, and his technically limited but heartfelt vocals are balanced by Heather’s wonderful voice, a perfect mix of precision and emotion that somehow manages to sound both sensual and pure at the same time.

Heather Findlay at Gloucester
Heather Findlay at Gloucester Guildhall, 24 April

Like many bands outside the fashionable mainstream, they finance their albums through pre-orders from fans, and this is the third one of theirs I’ve ordered this way. I’m probably too much of a fan of this band to be able to write anything approaching an objective review of anything by this band. When I’ve seen them live eighteen times (so far), have met the band several times, and am on first name terms with some of them, I think I’m a little too close to be able to view their music dispassionately. But I’m going to try anyway.

This was an eagerly-anticipated release. The previous album, the good-but-flawed “Heart Full of Sky”, though the band’s biggest seller to date, rather divided the fanbase. While it included at least a couple of absolute classic songs, I felt there were too many places where half-formed ideas weren’t properly developed. It was as if the band had overreached themselves trying to produce a double album in a limited timescale, and the end result fell frustratingly short of the better album it could have been.

This time around, they haven’t made the same mistake. The sound, engineered and mastered by John Spence, is very different from the overambitious wall-of-sound of it’s predecessor. It’s a more stripped down, organic sound, a little closer to how the band sound live. Not quite perfect; I’d like to have heard the backing vocals of Olivia Sparnenn and Anne Marie Helder a little more prominent in the mix. With Iain Jennings and Liam Davidson only rejoining the band for the start of the tour, and Chris Johnson having left before the start of recording, it’s left to Bryan Josh to plays almost all the keyboards as well as all the guitars. While there are probably a few places where Iain Jennings could have added some of his magic touches, Bryan’s studio keyboard playing seems to have improved from the rather simplistic playing on much of HFoS. Like the last couple of albums there’s not much flute, now played by Anne Marie Helder rather than the recently departed Angie Gordon.

With a running time of just 55 minutes, they’ve concentrated on quality rather than quantity, and spent the necessary time honing the arrangements. There is nothing half-formed on this disk, and no filler either. Musically the band continues to move forward; they’ve refused to play safe by creating a pastiche of their past. Like many great bands of the past they’ve explored some new musical areas, but still kept enough elements of the past sound to keep the majority of existing fans happy.

It’s also a stronger than usual album lyrically, gone are some of the awkward and clunky lyrics that have marred previous releases. They’re not singing about Hobbits any more now; they’ve got too much from their real life experiences of the last couple of years. It’s a true life story of heartbreak, joy, tragedy and hope.

I don’t normally do song-by-song reviews, but I’ll make an exception here.

Fireside
The album opens with a strongly riff-driven hard rocker. With the subdued opening it starts off sounding like Fleetwood Mac, then turns into Led Zeppelin when the guitars come in at full strength on the second verse. Turn the volume up all the way up to eleven for this one, and rock out!

Second Hand
A dreamy atmospheric piece with Bryan singing lead that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on one of their early albums. This is one of those songs that doesn’t make an immediate impact, but creeps up on you after a couple of plays and gets stuck in your head. There are a few lyrical and musical similarities to a slowed-down version of ‘Pocket Watch’, but this is several orders of magnitude better.

Flowers for Guns
This one has ‘potential single’ written all over it, an upbeat pop song you can actually dance to. Heather’s lyrics are actually about the traumatic events of the middle of last year. Although they haven’t done anything quite like this before, somehow it still sounds like a Mostly Autumn song. There’s a great flute solo from Anne-Marie Helder in the middle.

Unoriginal Sin
This song is essentially Heather’s response to Fish’s “13th Star”. The melody and vocal delivery remind me a lot of parts of Odin Dragonfly’s “Offerings”, only an awful lot angrier. The dark brooding arrangement featuring some heavy guitar at the end, and I have to wonder if Bryan channelling Fish’s guitarist rank Usher is deliberate.

Paper Angels
Dedicated to backing singer Livvy Sparnenn, who’s going through very difficult times at the moment. One of the most emotionally intense songs on the album, and knowing exactly what Heather’s lyrics are about, this one hit me hard. Musically this could easily be a Breathing Space song, the first part a sparse piano and vocal arrangement, before Bryan launches into one of his best solos on the album.

Tearing at the Faerytale
This was the standout of the new songs they played live when I saw the in Gloucester, a big soaring guitar-driven epic that almost rivals the traditional live encore ‘Heroes Never Die’ in scope. It’s dedicated to Livvy’s dad Howard, a truly great guy I’ve had the privilege of meeting several times.

Above the Blue
In complete contrast, this song is beautiful shimmering ballad. The sparse arrangement, just piano and a subtle string arrangement from Troy Donockley gives Heather’s voice the space to shine. I find it reminiscent of ‘Broken’ from “Heart Full of Sky”, only far better.

Glass Shadows
Clocking in at more than eleven minutes in length, the title track is the only song on the album for with the label ‘prog’ is really appropriate. From the hauntingly atmospheric intro through to the intense swirling instrumental section towards the end, it’s a impressive well-structured piece, the only place where the Floydian influences they’ve worn on their sleeve on past albums come to the fore.

Until the Story Ends
A semi-acoustic love song about not one but two couples (I won’t say who, but Richard Nagy’s illustration on the lyric booklet is a big giveaway). The lyrics are perhaps a little bit soppy, but by this stage I think they’ve earned the right to a bit of soppy.

A Different Sky
This is the only song on the entire album that just doesn’t work for me. It’s not that it’s a bad song in itself, but this summery sixties-style pop number just sounds out of place on the album. The previous song makes such a musically and emotionally satisfying album closer that this song somehow diminishes it. I’ve suggested on the band’s web forum that they leave this song off the June retail edition of the album, and release it on it’s own as a single instead.

Aside from that one quibble about the final track, this is a very good album indeed. It might not quite be the career-defining masterpiece some people close to the band had been hyping it up to be, but it comes very close. The limited edition, complete with “making of” DVD is available from the band’s website. The normal retail edition will be released in June.