The Black Rock

antarctic ice

March came in with an icy blast here in the UK. We had 10 – 20 cm of snow, much of the country’s transport system ground to a halt and some unfortunate motorists got stuck on a Scottish motorway for eight hours. It was all due to “the beast from the east” – a weather pattern that drew extremely cold air from Siberia across mainland Europe and over the North Sea to chill the bones of the British people. The beast didn’t stay long but this weekend he wagged his tail again and some parts of the country have had freezing temperatures and more snow showers. So I thought it was time to feature a track by the Scottish group, The Cauld Blast Orchestra, in these pages.

You won’t find the Cauld Blast on streaming sites. There are a few videos on YouTube, all uploaded by a member of the band, Steve Kettley. Those videos are live recordings with less than perfect sound quality and intrusive text captions added by the video recorder. They serve as an archive of the band’s performances but they don’t do full justice to the 8-piece orchestra. So Crotchety Man has had a go at making a YouTube video from his copy of an album the band released in 1994. Here’s The Black Rock from Durga’s Feast.

I think I must have picked up the CD at the end of a concert but, frankly, I don’t remember the occasion at all now. Certainly, I was not familiar with the band before buying the shiny round disc in the standard jewel case. Steve Kettley’s website describes Cauld Blast‘s music as a “heady mix of jazz, folk, classical and rock, not to mention the odd tango or march for good measure”. That sounds like an event for the local arts centre and that’s probably where this seeker of all things weird (wonderful or not) stumbled upon them.

Between them the eight members of the band play nearly all the instruments in a modern orchestra: violin, cello, flute, clarinet, tenor horn, tuba and piano all feature on Durga’s Feast. Whistle, concertina, accordion and mandolin add folk music sounds to the mix. Then there are saxophones, bass guitar, drums and assorted percussion to spice up the tunes with a little jazz. Notable by their absence are guitars and vocals. The rock element sneaks in surreptitiously in the pulsing rhythms of the compositions.

The Black Rock, though, is a quiet instrumental; “the gentle side of the Cauld Blast” to quote Kettley again. It’s a piece for piano, violin and clarinet that ambles along in a contented 5-time, just the thing for looking out onto snow-covered fields from a comfortable armchair in a snug room. Come, sit beside me and together we will laugh at the mini-beast as it sidles off to bring shivers to some other part of the world.

cauld blast orchestra, trimmed

But Wait … There’s More!


For this Album of the Month I was tempted to say simply, “see last month’s post”. You see, this is another review of a progressive rock live album by a band that has been around for more than 40 years and has recently found an astonishing new vitality. This time the band in question is Brand X and their latest release is called, appropriately, But Wait … There’s More!

Of course, there are differences, too. For a start, But Wait … is not on streaming sites so I can’t provide the usual Spotify link. These recent YouTube clips, though, will give you a good idea of what the album sounds like.

In a spooky echo of King Crimson‘s Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind the latest Brand X release concentrates on the band’s early material. Seven of the twelve tracks on But Wait … are taken from their first two albums, for example. With Brand X, though, that’s understandable because, after the period from 1976 to 1980 when they released five studio albums, subsequent incarnations of the band have been largely recycling that early material.

But if you think you’ve heard it all before, think again. Founding members John Goodsall (guitar) and Percy Jones (bass) have rediscovered the excitement and spontaneity on those 40 year old recordings. Their touring drummer from 1977, Kenwood Dennard, and the recent additions of Scott Weinberger (percussion) and Chris Clark (keyboards) have added a fresh zest to the band’s performances. And the accumulated experience of several decades has given their concerts a polish that would be the envy of the most fastidious of shoe-shine boys.

For me, there’s a magic in the re-imagining of familiar tunes and there’s a lovely bonus in the wholly new keyboard sounds. (Take a bow, Chris Clark.) But there are a few irritations, too. This Crotchety Man wants to listen to the band; he really doesn’t want to hear the audience whistling in his headphones or shouting comments, no matter how appreciative they might be. And, while the occasional short announcement is OK (“Brand X, ladies and gentlemen …”), the silly interval jingle (“Let’s all go to the lobby …”) is a very ugly wart on the face of the Mona Lisa. Next time, Brand X, I suggest you follow King Crimson‘s example and eliminate those annoying distractions.

But let’s not be over-critical. But Wait … is as fresh as a daisy and as exciting as the Second Coming, which is only to be expected, I suppose, from this radically new incarnation of one of the very finest prog/fusion bands there has ever been.


Off the Radar

shadowy figure

Decisions, decisions … What shall I choose for my Track of the Week? Well, there are several good candidates on my Release Radar today.

How about Dança dos Miseráveis from the Marinheiro de Terra Firme album by Puppi, an Italian cellist based in Brazil? (The track starts at 22:54 in this YouTube video and you can ignore the first 20 seconds.)

Google Translate tells me that the language is Portuguese; the track title means “Dance of the Miserables” and the album title translates as “Landed Sailor”. This web page quotes Frederico Puppi as feeling like a perpetual outsider in his new home country – a man of the sea marooned on the land. I guess, in English, we’d say “a fish out of water”. Or, more pertinently perhaps, “a stranger in a strange land”.

That same (translated) article describes the music thus: “The album … unites the sounds of his cello with a strong electronic footprint inspired by hip hop, contemporary New York jazz and psychedelic rock”. That’s a reasonable stab at what Puppi is doing but I’d say the Dance of the Miserables is simply a rock cello track. Either way, it’s interesting enough for these pages.

But, this radar sweep has more to offer. Having started in Italy and trekked over to Brazil let’s return to Europe and visit the stylish city of Paris guided by our old friends, L’Impératrice.

There’s a funky groove in the air with seductive French accents all around us. It’s a warm evening, the wine is flowing and over the last couple of hours all the diners sharing this back street café have become our friends. “I barely speak your language”, you say to Brigitte Bardot at the next table, “but will you dance with me?”. And she accepts your invitation with a smile. Anywhere else you would be accused of flirting but here, in Paris, it’s just another way of saying “pleased to meet you”.

Our next stop is the other side of the world – Melbourne, Australia to be precise. It’s been a long, long flight and we’ve crossed too many time zones. Our body clocks need to be reset, to get back into Phase with the local time. And our hosts, Mildlife, know just how to ease us into a new routine.

The title track of their first album takes the tempo down but keeps a gentle groove going, soothing away the stiffness with what Kitty Empire of the Guardian called ‘space-kraut-jazz’. In her review of the album she hits the nail on the head when she says that it

“… falls just on the right side of the line dividing smug progressive fusions a la the Alan Parsons Project from questing psych-disco-jazz, the kind that wouldn’t sound wrong supporting Tame Impala on tour”.

Cleverly, of course, she doesn’t say which side is “the right side”, so if you dig The Alan Parsons Project or Tame Impala (or both) Mildlife‘s Phase should go down like a cold lager on a hot Australian beach.

worldwide radar

That’s quite enough travelling for this tired old man but your journey, young hobbit, is still not over. You have one more destination to visit and this one takes you completely off the terrestrial radar. It takes you all the way to Middle Earth where Isildur’s Bane will serenade you Under Your New Moon.

The sustaining power of YouTube doesn’t reach those lands of elves and orcs so you will have to take your own supplies. I have assembled a pack of essentials for you. Take care my friend and may Sauron’s eye be blind to you.

Decisions, decisions … Why choose one track when you can have four? Because those are the house rules. I admit I’ve cheated a little bit here. But I see the Fates have provided a tie-breaker. Under Your New Moon is from an album called Off the Radar so I’ll nominate that as my Track of the Week.

Auntie Aviator“Zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom”, said Auntie, whisking the model aircraft high above her niece’s head, adding “we’ll never touch the ground”. “And if we don’t want to”, replied her niece with a grin, “we won’t come down”. They were both remembering last week’s flight when Auntie took the controls of her light aircraft and took the little girl up into the clear blue skies for the first time. Soaring over the green fields of the English countryside with its quaint little villages knitted together by roads and rivers, pilot and passenger had wished the flight would never end.

There’s a serenity about John and Beverley Martyn’s Auntie Aviator that transcends time and place. I first heard it on the John Peel radio show nearly fifty years ago and when it came up on a playlist this week the title alone was enough to trigger a wave of warm nostalgia. The choice of this latest Track of the Week was never in doubt.

John Martyn

John and Beverley Martyn were a husband and wife folk duo. John had a highly successful career, releasing two studio albums with Beverley and another twenty as a solo artist between 1967 and 2004. Beverley was passed over by the record companies after the second John and Beverley Martyn LP, The Road to Ruin, although she continued to contribute to her husband’s solo projects until the marriage broke down at the end of the seventies.

John Martyn was a gifted singer/songwriter and guitarist. The biography on his official website mentions a long list of influences and collaborators including: Danny Thompson, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, Ronnie Scott, Tim Buckley, Paul Weller and John Paul Jones. But John is, perhaps, best understood as another Nick Drake. By that I mean a folk guitarist with a flair for original songs and a flawless technique. He was also a troubled man at times.

Though scores of musicians, including Eric Clapton, delighted in working with Martyn, his most important musical foil was undoubtedly Pentangle’s double-bassist, Danny Thompson. As 1975’s Live at Leeds testifies, near telepathic interplay informed the pair’s musical unions even when both players were roaring drunk.

James McNair, From his obituary of John Martyn, 30 January 2009

album lions

Although John Martyn was a singer and guitarist, the vocals on Auntie Aviator are Beverley’s and the acoustic guitar retreats behind prominent piano and theremin-like electronic sounds. It’s a combination that lifts us up into a child’s playground among the clouds.

Zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom. … We won’t come down.