Future Strings

harp + kora

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita

Crotchety Man has been bingeing on prog rock recently so I thought it was time for something rather different. As luck would have it my Release Radar this week included an enchanting track called Listen to the Grass Grow by Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita. Now, I used a photo of Catrin Finch in an earlier post so I already knew she plays the Celtic harp. The tune on the Radar sounded like a harp duet but, after a little googling, I found that the second instrument is actually a kora.

What’s a kora? Wikipedia tells me that a kora is a 21-string lute-bridge-harp and goes on to explain that it doesn’t fit into any one category of musical instruments. Not being much wiser Crotchety Man went in search of photos. The instrument, he found, looks like a large lute with many strings. But it was still hard to see how it is played. What was needed was a video.

YouTube couldn’t oblige with a video for Listen to the Grass Grow but it does have a mesmerising clip of the Finch/Keita duo playing Future Strings live in 2013. If you want to know what a kora is, watch this video.

I’m not going to try to describe the music other than to point out that I’ve tagged it ‘classical’ and ‘world’. Just watch and listen. If you are open to that kind of music you will not be disappointed, I promise.

Further research turned up another excellent video and the news that Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita are currently touring the UK. Crotchety Man has booked to see them at the Derby Guildhall Theatre on Friday. It’s not often you get the chance to see a Senegalese musician playing a traditional African instrument here in the UK, although it probably helps that this particular artist now lives in a city quite close to Crotchety Mansions.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita fuse Welsh and Senegalese traditional music, adding African rhythms to Celtic melodies, in what just might become a new sub-genre of ‘world’ music. Perhaps we should call it ‘future strings’.

SaveSave

Far Skies Deep Time

horsehead nebula

When you look up into a clear night sky the more distant the star the farther back in time you are seeing it. This is a simple consequence of the finite speed of light but it has profound implications for astronomy. By studying far away galaxies we can look back almost to the dawn of time. In a telescope, “far skies” and “deep time” are synonymous.

When you listen to Far Skies Deep Time, a 43 minute long EP by Big Big Train, it takes you back to the dawn of the progressive music era. The EP was originally released in 2010 but the music on it harks back to nearly 40 sound years earlier. Big Big Train carries the plain vanilla ‘progressive rock’ tag on Wikipedia and no other band that I know sounds more like early Genesis – not even IQ, the band featured in my previous blog post.

Although their roots go back to the late ’80s, BBT, as they are known when a journalist wishes to add a little variety (or just gets lazy), is new to Crotchety Man. They released demo albums in 1992 and 1993, following them with eleven official studio albums, one live album and three EPs. The Crotchety research department has spent a lot of time listening to this material lately and the whole BBT catalogue has brought the old man considerable enjoyment.

the band

Big Big Train, 2014

It wasn’t easy to decide how to introduce my readers to Big Big Train. Taking their albums in chronological order, it seemed on first hearing that there was not much to choose between them. The Underfall Yard from 2009 had particularly good reviews and the needle on the Crotchety Music Meter did flicker slightly higher there than on the earlier offerings. But Far Skies Deep Time surpassed that high point, creeping up past the midnight zenith reaching for the diamond studded black velvet fabric of the heavens.

The three latest BBT albums, Folklore (2016), Grimspound (2017) and The Second Brightest Star (2017), are described as ‘companions’ to each other, presumably because the compositions were all written about the same time and have a similar feel. Mistress Curiosity prompted the Crotchety ears to sample them and they, too, are fine albums.

The two albums recorded between Far Skies and the Folklore ‘trilogy’ (English Electric Part One and English Electric Part 2) haven’t yet graced the ‘phones and speakers here but the astrological signs for them are very promising. Released in 2012 and 2013 they must have had a bearing on BBT taking the Breakthrough Act gong at the Progressive Music Awards in September 2013.

The time had come to delve a little deeper. The 2011 remastered and re-designed version of Far Skies was ordered from Burning Shed. The original 2010 release had five tracks, starting with Master of Time, a song written by the Genesis guitarist, Anthony Phillips. There was also an import and download version in which that first track was replaced by Kingmaker. The 2011 release retains Kingmaker and adds Master of Time at the end, making six tracks altogether, extending the length to 52 minutes and giving Crotchety Man the best of both worlds.

The package has some of the loveliest artwork ever to appear on the cover of a CD. It has an eight page booklet of liner notes stuck and stapled between the cardboard covers. Each track has a striking illustration by Jim Trainer (about whom Google has nothing to say) alongside the lyrics. The EP is worth the money just for this artwork.

Also in the booklet there is a little information about the band. For the Far Skies EP the personnel are: Greg Spawton (guitars, bass, keyboards), Andy Poole (bass, keyboards), David Longdon (vocals, flute, mandolin and several other instruments), Dave Gregory (guitars and E-bow) and Nick D’Virgilio (drums, percussion, backing vocals). Spawton and Poole founded Big Big Train in 1990; Spawton and Longdon are the primary composers. Nick D’Virgilio was the drummer in Genesis in 1997 and among the guest musicians is Martin Orford, founding member of IQ. The prog rock roots go deep.

Here’s a YouTube video of the first three songs from the original release of the Far Skies Deep Time EP.

The songs here are soft immersive prog rock, many parsecs from anything sharp and metallic. They fill space with keyboard sounds without lobbing artillery shells of distorted guitar chords in our direction. There is guitar work, too, but it is just one thoughtful component of compositions that balance keys, guitars, vocals, bass and percussion deftly, each instrument having a voice, none overpowering the others. There are a few sparkling embellishments, too, from flute, accordion, mandolin, vibraphone and seagulls.

This is intelligent album rock, something to be enjoyed while gazing up into the night sky, deep in meditation, and with no thought of time passing.

The Road of Bones

Brrrr!

The lowest recorded temperature (-67.7 °C) in any permanently inhabited place on Earth was recorded at Oymyakon (Оймяко́н) in 1933 in eastern Siberia. In December and January the average daily temperature there is around -45 °C and the village lies deep within the permafrost region.

Building roads in this frozen and mountainous part of the world is difficult enough with modern machines; creating a 2000 km highway using picks and shovels would be unthinkable – unless you are living in Stalin’s USSR and you have a plentiful supply of inmates from the gulag labour camps to call upon. The R504 Kolyma Highway was built with a forced labour gang drawn from up to 200,000 camp internees between 1932 and 1953. At some point during that period it passed through Oymyakon, connecting it to Nizhny Bestyakh some 1000 km to the west and Magadan a similar distance to the east.

The new highway came to be called the road of bones because it was easier to incorporate the skeletons of those who perished during its construction within the road itself than to dig additional holes in which to bury them. Tens of thousands, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of men are buried within and beside that road.

I think we must assume that the progressive rock band, IQ, took the name of their 2014 album from that gruesome story. It’s hard to tell, though, from the lyrics of the title track.

Some lines resonate with the harrowing account of that road’s construction:

They survey the frozen scene, the cold countenance of hell

Shallow graves I mark with stones as I walk the road of bones

But overall the words fail to convey anything very much to a slightly peeved Crotchety Man; they seem neither profound nor poetic, to me. That’s a shame because Peter Nicholls’ vocals are a prominent part of the mix – warm, clear and perfectly suited to storytelling.

The instrumentation, though, is much more successful. Various keyboards roll over the senses in vintage prog rock style, bass lines skip and tumble, some understated guitar work adds an edge and the drum kit ticks along intelligently.

Wikipedia lists IQ as neo-progressive rock but to my ears the ‘neo’ is redundant. Their musical style owes so much to classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis that, if IQ had been around in the early seventies, the ‘neo’ sub-genre would never have been invented. And then there would be no temptation to make the futile distinction between neo-prog and new prog.

the band

Crotchety Man doesn’t like the cold. If he ever visits Oymyakon it will be in high summer when the maximum temperature can reach over 30 °C, making it one of only three places where the highest maximum is more than 100 °C above the lowest minimum. And that’s still not enough to thaw the bones in the only highway in town.

Manic Moonlight

sea moon

On Friday Crotchety Man took his camera to the Crich Tramway Village in picturesque Derbyshire. He spent several hours the following day sifting through the photos, cropping them, straightening them and adjusting them for exposure and contrast. A selection was then published as an album on the photo hosting website, flickr. In doing so the photographer noticed a curious little icon next to the flickr logo that hadn’t been there before. It looked like two iced doughnuts, one with blue icing, the other one pink. The Crotchety eyes immediately became quantum entangled with that icon, instantaneously taking on its curious state.

There was no tooltip annotation on the doughnut image to give a clue to its purpose but the mouse pointer’s shape indicated a link to another location somewhere else in cyberspace. Could this be a wormhole to a new and fascinating digital world? Or had the page been hacked and the dual doughnuts were the button that opens a Pandora’s box of viruses and trojans? With fingers crossed Crotchety Man clicked.

With considerable relief the cyberspace adventurer found himself transported to a stunningly attractive page labelled SmugMug + flickr. It seems that flickr is now part of SmugMug, a photo hosting site that also provides a platform for photographers to publicise and sell their photos. The contrast between the two sites is startling. Where flickr looks tired and boring SmugMug sparkles with a freshness and vitality rarely seen on the Web. Where flickr is functional and business-like SmugMug is casual and engaging. But, above all, the promotional images on SmugMug knock the flickr ones into a cocked hat.

Needless to say, SmugMug proper requires a subscription (starting at $3.99 per month) but flickr does not. Even so, that trip into a nearby cyberworld reminded me that there is a whole new generation of websites that are making the most of modern computer technology to create immensely exciting places for casual web browsers to visit. Take musicglue, for example. Like bandcamp it provides a place for musicians to publicise and sell their work, taking a cut of the proceeds. But musicglue makes better use of the latest Web technologies to create a site with exceptional visual appeal.

“What has all this got to do with the Track of the Week?”, I hear you ask. Well, this time I’ve chosen Manic Moonlight by the Norwegian post-rock band, SKAAR, who have a presence on both bandcamp and musicglue.

I heard this track the other day when playing my latest Release Radar. My first thought was that Kate Bush had a new song out. A female voice was wailing and swooping like Catherine pleading at the window to be let in to Wuthering Heights. But this voice was less ghoulish than that first single by Kate Bush and the backing band was more jagged rock than heather-soft pop.

On investigation the Crotchety databanks soon added a few sparse details about the band. They are Karla Lesley Jaeger (vocals), Andreas Melve (guitar), Petter Soltvedt (guitar), Ulf Jonsson Legernes (drums), David Magyel (piano) and Thor Saunes-Skarsgaard (bass and synth). They are based in Bergen, Norway and the band’s Facebook page describes their music as “Progressive Eclectic Rock”. This latest single fits that label rather well and it pleases old Crotchety Man greatly.

SKAAR

Also on the Radar

In fact, my Radar playlist this week contained an embarrassment of riches. I think Spotify has located Crotchety Man’s idiosyncratic sweet spot and locked on with unerring accuracy. So here, once again, is another smorgasbord of tracks that are new and carry the Crotchety stamp of approval. If the Radar continues to be so fecund I may make this a regular feature.

A Humdrum Star

surface of the sun

For as long as the human race has existed we have tried to understand our place in the universe. It’s a question that goes beyond “where are we?” to the deeper mystery of “who are we?”. And scientists have given us some of the answers.

We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.

― Carl Sagan

gogo penguin

I think it is safe to assume that GoGo Penguin took the title of their latest album, A Humdrum Star from that thought-provoking Carl Sagan quote. Did they choose that title to suggest this, their fourth album, has the answer to some deep mystery? Or are they hinting that it is just the next, unremarkable work in a continuing series? They haven’t told us, so we’ll probably never know.

What is clear, though, from listening to the album is that Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (double bass) and Rob Turner (drums) have a fiery plasma of music running through their veins. The laws of physics explain why the Earth orbits the sun and why we can’t walk through walls; perhaps one day a Theory Of Everything will explain what compels GoGo Penguin to compose and perform their particular form of sunny, uplifting modern jazz.



— 1 —

A Humdrum Star starts with a spacious, spiritual piece called Prayer. There are no stars here. Space is a dark, empty place that we are slowly drifting through. The vacuum has sucked away all substance; there is nothing to carry a sound. But nature abhors a vacuum and our disembodied minds fill the void with slow piano chords echoing the machinery of creation. If God has a voice we are hearing it now. It seems to say, “Be at peace.”

— 2 —

Ahead a pinprick of light appears. Then another. Soon a billion stars are sparkling in the blackness. They pirouette around each other aggregating into loose luminous balls, cosmic dancers with swirling skirts. It is the beginning of time. The heavens are as black as a blanket of Raven feathers, the stars peeping out like beady eyes. We are now scudding through the heavens as if the Creator has given us angel wings. And we carry His joy towards our destination with an irrepressible lust for life.

— 3 —

But our body is not yet formed. We are in Bardo, alive but not corporeal. For the time being we are free to go where we please, to explore this fresh new universe and to marvel at its beauty. There are shapeless nebulae, there are spiral galaxies, there are stars of many hues and sizes. There are spinning neutron stars spewing out beams of high energy radiation and there are fearsome black holes sucking everything into their gaping maw. It is a truly wondrous creation.

— 4 —

We pause, now, to admire a planet with A Hundred Moons. The celestial choreographer has arranged these balls of rock and ice so that they describe intricate paths, drawing ever-changing patterns in the sky. It is a sublime work of which Slartibartfast himself would be mightily proud.

— 5 —

Moving on we are reminded that the universe can be a dangerous place. Even on this mostly harmless planet swinging round an ordinary star and nestling in the habitable zone where liquid water is abundant its native creatures need to take care. For here is a picturesque section of river known as the Strid that is thought to be the most dangerous stretch of water on this world. Its series of waterfalls and rapids hide a deep underwater channel, quite calm and inviting on the surface but deadly to any unwary animal that ventures into the water.

— 6 —

Our destiny is becoming clear. A living body is forming. It will house our soul. Soon. But for a little while we must remain in this immaterial Transient State. The prospect is exciting. Our heart, if we had one, would be pounding, our life blood would be coursing through newly minted arteries and veins, our fresh new mind would be thrilled with the sights and sounds of a very different world, a world of bone, sinew and mortal flesh.

— 7 —

It is time. The images in the celestial picture book are fading. God has ordered a Return To Text. For a moment all that remains is inadequate words, black characters on white pages, staring back at us where rainbow colours used to be. And yet there is poetry in those lines. Consonants snap, vowels sing, syllables flow with a soothing, satisfying rhythm. Now that the pictures have gone we can, finally, see and hear the music written on the page.

— 8 —

All memory has been erased. Body and soul are fusing in the pure white heat of a sorcerer’s Reactor vessel, a crystal crucible tough enough to withstand even the fires of Hell. The sights, sounds and feelings of our former life have been expunged leaving a blank sheet on which to write the thoughts and deeds of our reincarnated self.

— 9 —

A child gazes through the Window to where our humdrum star bathes the garden in sunlight. The trees and the flowers drink in the rays; they suck in carbon dioxide from the air, building woody trunks, fleshy stems, green leaves and pretty petals. Butterflies and bees gather nectar, pollinating the plants that the animals munch on. The sun drives the water cycle, too; the harder she pedals the more moisture she lifts from the oceans into the air where it forms clouds. And the clouds make the gentle rain that quenches the thirst of every living thing on this beautiful blue planet.

colours

From a distance the Penguin’s star is a smooth, bright ball of sound but, if we get a little closer, we can hear it sizzling with energy. Piano runs spin repeatedly, eddies on the fluid skin of a great ball of fire. Although amidst those roiling surface motifs there are calmer, darker patches and short, but spectacular, eruptions of improvisation. The double bass rings with the slower resonance of whole-body vibrations but it, too, bounds restlessly along, surrounding the piano runs with great circles of its own. And the drums fizz with radiation heating the star’s atmosphere to unimaginable temperatures.

This latest album could be considered humdrum in the sense that it continues the main sequence of development established by GoGo Penguin‘s previous albums but it is far from ordinary. It is the brightest star in their constellation so far. How they can follow this is a mystery that Crotchety Man doesn’t even dare to consider.

“It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

― Carl Sagan

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

A Clutch of Collectives

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


collective

adjective

  1. Done by people acting as a group.
    “a collective protest”

noun

  1. A cooperative enterprise.
    “the anarchist collective and bookshop”

What’s the collective noun for ‘collective’? Wiktionary defines a ‘catch’ of ‘collective nouns’ but is silent on ‘collective’ itself. I need to know because this week I want to bring to your attention two new releases by bands calling themselves a collective, and that happy coincidence has given me a flimsy theme for this post. I considered stealing ‘catch’ but that lacks imagination. ‘Collective’ is too obvious and too cute. So, as you can see, I’ve gone for ‘clutch’, which seems appropriate for small numbers like two.

The bands in question are Lydian Collective and Echo Collective. Neither of them has reached the Crotchety ears before so let’s see what that great collection of knowledge known as the Internet says about them.

lydian collective

Lydian Collective

From the About page on the Lydian Collective‘s website:

London’s Lydian Collective are … Aaron ‘Lazslo’ Wheeler (keys), Todd Baker (guitar), Ida Hollis (bass) and Sophie Alloway (drums).

The Lydian Collective sound is a unique combination of accessible melodies, accomplished musicianship, hypnotic rhythms and an uplifting vibe, which has already been drawing in audiences from around the world. A unique combination of jazz musicianship, melodies that catch the ear and the heart, and infectious rhythms …

I’ve tagged them as ‘cocktail jazz’ because their fine musicianship would draw me into the hotel bar, the infectious rhythms would sit me down and those easy-on-the-ear melodies would keep me there for just one more cherry on a cocktail stick. Or two. And if you care to join me I know the evening will just fly by.

echo collective

Echo Collective

Let me get you another Martini and I’ll tell you about Echo Collective. They are Neil Leiter, Margaret Hermant and a few of their musician friends. This Belgian-based collective brings together classically trained musicians who work with modern composers and bands as well as writing their own compositions. There doesn’t seem to be an accepted name for their style of music; it has been called post-classical, neo-classical and non-classical but I think of it as ‘classical crossover’. The instruments are orchestral but the form and structure is twenty first century. The short sample I’m giving you today, though, illustrates their approach better than any words I can write.

Kurt Overbergh of the Ancienne Belgique concert hall commissioned Echo Collective to reinterpret one of Radiohead‘s albums – either Kid A or Amnesiac. According to Leiter they chose the latter because it “had more layers, more complexity, was a little more esoteric, so there was more to chew on and add our sound to”. The result was released as the album, Echo Collective Plays Amnesiac, which gathers together all but one of the Radiohead album tracks and presents them in orchestral form. Does it work? I think so but I hope you’ll judge for yourselves.

Although both Collectives have some videos on YouTube neither of the tracks I’m highlighting today are there so I’ve put together a Spotify playlist. Track 2 is Lydian Collective‘s Lydia’s Dream then there is the original Radiohead version of Knives Out followed by Echo Collective‘s orchestral interpretation of that track.

In a fit of generosity (perhaps it’s your company, perhaps it’s the cocktails) I’ve added three bonus tracks, all of which were in my Release Radar this week. Groove of Satan from Owane‘s Yeah Whatever album provides a short, proggy/jazzy introduction and tacked on at the end there are two slower ballads: Copenhagen by Camille Christel continues the chamber orchestra feel and The Echo of You by Kira Skov and Bonnie “Prince” Billy sounds like a lost Leonard Cohen track, so much so that it even quotes the title of Dance Me To The End of Love in the lyrics.

Some collective nouns are peculiar, some are startlingly apt and some are wildly amusing. Although it’s not official I very much like a flamboyance of flamingos. Then there’s a yearning of yesterdays, a twinkling of todays and a promise of tomorrows. There are plenty more to savour here. Sadly, though, that page doesn’t list a clutch of collectives.

A Thousand Shards of Heaven

milky way

The English word ‘lunatic’ comes from the Latin ‘lunaticus’, which means someone who is afflicted by one of the diseases of the mind caused by the moon. These days it is generally taken to mean a person who is endearingly foolish and unpredictable rather than actually mad and can be a term of affection.

Perhaps you have a friend like that – someone who goes through life with gay abandon never seeing the dangers that their frivolous actions might entail. Someone, perhaps, who ties helium-filled balloons to his chair until he floats up into the sky, drifts away on the wind and is never seen again. That, I think, is the kind of madness that Mariusz Duda had in mind when he chose ‘Lunatic Soul’ as the name of his solo project.

Duda is, apparently, better known as the vocalist and bass player with the Polish prog/metal band Riverside. Not being a fan of metal, Crotchety Man is totally ignorant of Riverside‘s slant on music but Lunatic Soul‘s latest album, Fractured, definitely doesn’t fit in the metal category. All but one of the tracks on that album sit at the soft end of progressive rock and my Track of the Week, A Thousand Shards of Heaven, almost qualifies as ambient for the first four minutes or so.

But before we get to Heaven, for those of you who don’t have time for the full 12 minute journey, here’s a five minute executive summary of the Fractured album. It’s a track called Red Light Escape and it illustrates Mariusz Duda’s song writing style rather more succinctly.

In Red Light the vocals are prominent and the words are important but the instruments provide much more than a backing track. Guitars, keyboards, bass and drums all support the voice and each other, forming a structure of separate but interlocking parts. And towards the end the warm buzz of a saxophone provides a refreshing change of texture. The drums may be a little fidgety but this is a thoughtful, gentle kind of rock music, red light years from the frantic thrashing of a mainstream metal band.

Now let’s turn on the boosters and build up to escape velocity. We left Earth orbit long ago but now we need to leave the material world all together and smash through the crystal barrier dividing us from the spiritual world above. Brace yourselves …

Our ship shudders with the sound of shattering glass.

We’re through! A thousand shards of heaven’s pearly gate are spinning silently away into the infinity of God’s realm and a deep, deep peace pervades the air.

A guitar begins to play. It could be a John Williams piece from one of the Sky albums – a classical composition with an electric edge. An angel’s string ensemble contrasts with the plucked guitar notes and softens the overall tone. A tenor voice, close by, sings a simple melody. His words tell of a man who, in the wake of tragedy, is yearning for release from his suffering.

I want to feel what it’s like
When sorrow turns into strength.

Slow bass notes add depth. Backing vocals mix in harmonies. An unaccompanied guitar break provides a pause for contemplation. The angel strings sing their own melody. The song continues for another verse.

You can say that I’m surrounded
By the ruins of my previous life
But I am not a prisoner.

At four and a half minutes in you might expect the scattered shards to be dissipating, the song coming to an end. But time has no meaning in heaven. One by one different instruments make their own contribution. The bass begins to pulse more strongly, electronic sounds enter the mix. A drum kit clacks and rattles, another male voice fades in. A funky guitar chatters quietly, a smooth sax croons a mellow commentary.

A thousand shards of heaven
Drinking coldness from the night.

The track has morphed imperceptibly into a slow prog rock anthem picking up impetus without changing tempo, adding several new parts without becoming audibly more complex, reaching a climax without turning up the volume. This is a trick Crotchety Man imagined only the Lord of Heaven could accomplish and he marvels at it.

Finally, one by one, the instruments begin to fall silent again leaving just John Williams’ immortal fingers to remind us of the opening strains before they, too, fade into the distance.

mariusz duda

Mariusz Duda, aka Lunatic Soul

A Thousand Shards of Heaven is both a lovely song and a sliver of haunting, unpretentious prog rock. You’d be a lunatic to knock it. And I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course.

SaveSave

SaveSave