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.

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

But Wait … There’s More!

album

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.

musicians

Radical Action …

iMonkey

The Buddha described the way our thoughts constantly nudge and jostle us as like a troop of drunken monkeys swinging from branch to branch. As each chattering simian swoops by its toothy grin mocks us for our failings. Behind us, it says, lie broken dreams, ahead of us endless trials and tribulations. And, as one screeching monkey tumbles away, another zooms in to harangue us. Again and again.

This incessant stream of worrisome thoughts is known as the monkey mind. Buddhists and a thousand mindfulness sites say the mind monkeys can be tamed by meditation. But, in these more modern times, the long-limbed creatures of the jungle have left their natural habitat and taken to social media. “Like me”, says one. “Hurry! Buy this, now”, shouts another. “That man is a monster!!”, shrieks a third.

How can we cope with texting doomsayers in the virtual jungle of Facebook and Twitter? How can we sift fact from fiction? Is meditation the answer or does it require more radical action? King Crimson‘s latest album suggests the latter. Its full title is Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind and it provides one of the most effective escapes from life’s troubles that I know.

CD case

Radical Action is a three-volume album of live performances, mostly recorded in Japan at the end of 2015. It was released as a Blu-Ray boxed set in 2016 and on CDs in late 2017. The songs are drawn mainly from the seventies, with some nineties material, too. That skews the selection towards some of Crotchety Man’s long cherished KC tracks and gives us some excellent recordings of their early compositions. I still remember hearing Epitaph at the Hyde Park concert in 1969, for example, and the version on Radical Action recreates the thrill of that performance better, I think, than the one on their famous first album, In the Court of the Crimson King.

There’s no point taking you through the track list, suffice it to say that this album contains songs from several KC incarnations arranged for the current seven-headed, three drum kit beast. It’s missing some of the short, too-complex-to-be-pop songs like Elephant Talk and Dinosaur but it covers the very early years well (21st Century Schizoid Man, Sailor’s Tale, Lark’s Tongues in Aspic) and the later Vrooom and ProjeKcts periods more sparsely. Here’s the official taster video.

Radical Action is one of those hitherto rare, but now increasingly common, examples of an album that captures the excitement of a live show without sacrificing audio quality or introducing the irritating distraction of noises off. And for long time King Crimson fans hearing their old tunes with the benefit of up-to-date 21st Century recording technology is a treat not to be missed. To quote Sean Westergaard in his review for AllMusic:

Rarely has a band that’s been around for 45-plus years sounded so vital.
This is essential for fans.

Next time you find yourself unable to think because your mind is full of the sound of chattering monkeys, and when meditation has failed to bring you peace, take Radical Action. Take the full course if you can and if you haven’t been completely cured after the powerful medicine of Epitaph and Starless in the third treatment session, well, I’m a monkey’s uncle and I’ll be driving you mad with my incessant bickering.

7 heads

SaveSave

Burning Shed Free EP

burning shed

Back in March 2017, in my Album of the Month post on Moroccan Roll by Brand X, I opined that the latest incarnation of the band had fully rekindled the energy and enthusiasm of their early albums. As evidence I cited a live version of Malaga Virgen recorded on their reunion tour just a few months previously. Then, towards the end of the year, Brand X released a full album of live material from that tour. It’s called But Wait … There’s More and it was ordered for the Crotchety collection over the Christmas/New Year period.

In the UK the new album is only available from Burning Shed, a company that describes itself as “an online label and store specialising in Singer-Songwriter, Progressive, Ambient/Electronica and Art Rock music”. I had ordered CDs from Burning Shed before but this time their website said that customers who hadn’t bought items since May 2017 would need to re-register. Having re-entered the Crotchety Man details the website kindly offered me a free download EP. Never one to pass up a promising opportunity, as soon as the Brand X album was ordered I hit the free download button.

In no time at all over an hour’s worth of music flowed onto the hard drive. Here’s the track list:

  1. Passing Clouds by Colin Edwin
  2. Surprised by Jane Getter Premonition
  3. The Perfect Wife by Nosound
  4. Bloodchild by Old Fire
  5. Friends Make the Worst Enemies (Public Services Broadcasting remix) by Paul Draper
  6. Heavy Hearts [2016 version] by Rhys Marsh
  7. Aftaglid (Tambura Backing Track Mix) by Steve Hillage
  8. The Confined Escape by The Pineapple Thief
  9. The Warm-Up Man Forever by Tim Bowness
  10. Il Sogno di Devi by Alessandro Monti
  11. Slow (Final mix 1_1.1) by UXB

Most of those artists were unknown to me but the ones I did know were all ones I like. As soon as I had some time to spare the digital bits of the extended EP were sent coursing through the wires from computer disc to headphones. Here’s what I found …

earphone

Colin Edwin is best known as Porcupine Tree‘s bass player but he has also worked in collaboration with several other musicians and has released a couple of solo albums. Prompted by the free download the Crotchety elves were tasked with finding out more. They came back with a basketful of data that I won’t try to summarise here. Suffice it to say that Colin has had his fingers in a variety of pies centred on progressive rock but ranging from ambient to metal.

Passing Clouds, the track featured on the Burning Shed Free EP, sits comfortably within that space, slightly off-centre towards ambient, dominated by a bass riff and electronic effects. It’s more pleasant than exciting, but Crotchety Man isn’t grumbling – it was free after all. That particular tune doesn’t seem to be on YouTube or Spotify but Exit Strategy from Colin’s Third Vessel album will give you a pretty good idea of where he’s coming from.

According to Guitar Player Magazine Jane Getter is “The fieriest fretboarding female ever to strap on a Stratocaster”. In her Spotify biography she is described as a jazz guitarist but Surprised is more of a heavy prog rock/pop tune to the Crotchety ear. The elves report, though, that Ms. Getter’s early releases were definitely jazz albeit with strong leanings towards fusion. The evidence so far suggests the Jane Getter Premonition is just the prog side of Jane’s wider musical persona. And surprisingly enjoyable it is, too.

Things get a lot quieter when Nosound take over although, mercifully, this Italian alternative and post rock band does not take their name literally and leave us in complete silence. The Perfect Wife is taken from their latest album, Scintilla, which is aptly described as a collection of “sonically intimate” songs on the band’s website. It makes a refreshing contrast to the bold brash prog of the previous track.

Twenty minutes into the EP already, next we find the slow, sparse vocals and piano of Bloodchild. This is taken from Songs from the Haunted South by an outfit called Old Fire, an ad hoc collaboration of musicians brought together by U.S. instrumentalist and producer John Mark Lapham. The whole album has an air of melancholy, wistful nostalgia and in Bloodchild the emphasis is firmly on the melancholy. “At least he’s no longer in pain”, moans a sad female voice. Crotchety Man sighs and moves quickly on to the next track, feeling both disappointed and unfulfilled.

Friends Make the Worst Enemies takes us from Old Fire‘s unmitigated sadness to a slightly bitter paranoia. “Never trust your friends …”, warns Paul Draper, “‘Coz your friends can hurt you most”. But the backing track steps lightly and the vocals sail on a fair wind in this alt rock single. Both the original and the remix bring a much needed breath of cool fresh air to the EP. (Links to original and remix are given in the track listing above.)

Sadly, the elvish research team have been unable to find any mention of Heavy Hearts by Rhys Marsh anywhere other than the Burning Shed Free EP. A little background digging, though, suggests that Rhys, as a solo artist at least, is not likely to find a warm place in Crotchety Man’s old and flabby heart.

On his website Rhys is described as a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. And that’s about it. There’s very little that might inspire a casual web surfer to investigate his work. The diligent elves, though, did turn up loose connections to King Crimson, Jaga Jazzist and Anekdoten, which is a lot more promising than the wishy-washy song on the free EP. And there’s an interesting album by Rhys Marsh and The Autumn Ghost called Blue Hour. If you’re curious, drop the heavy hearts and start with that.

Next up we have a classic Steve Hillage track from 1975. Steve is best known as the guitarist with the Canterbury scene band, Gong; he has also made a name for himself as a solo artist and as half of the duo System 7Aftaglid is a psychedelic instrumental from his first solo album, Fish Rising. The version on the Burning Shed EP is a remix featuring the tambura, an Indian instrument resembling a fretless lute, which is reputed to add a slightly more mystical feel to the composition. Frankly, though, the effect is too subtle for the Crotchety ears.

The version on the original album is some 14 minutes 44 seconds long, the tambura remix is shorter at 12:42 and the Steve Hillage website has this 3:36 extract, which provides a representative taster of the prog and psychedelic rock Steve was playing in the mid seventies.

After ‘Glid comes a track by one of my favourite bands, The Pineapple Thief. They have appeared in these pages twice before when I reviewed the album Magnolia and offered Fend for Yourself from Your Wilderness as a Track of the Week. The deluxe edition of Your Wilderness comes with a bonus disc containing seven further compositions welded together into one 40 minute track. The bonus disc has its own title, 8 Years Later, and it’s another absolute treat.

The Burning Shed EP contains track 6 from 8 Years Later, the instrumental The Confined Escape. It sounds a lot like some of Pink Floyd’s more meandering, ambient works and it’s the highlight of the EP so far. Unfortunately, that track doesn’t seem to be on my chosen streaming service but the full 8 Years Later album is on YouTube and it’s well worth listening to. (The Confined Escape starts around 22 minutes in.)

It’s no surprise to find a Tim Bowness song on the free EP. He founded the Burning Shed operation along with Peter Chilvers and Pete Morgan in 2001 and still has a central role in running the company. In addition to his solo work Tim is a member of the bands No-man (with Steven Wilson), Henry Fool, Memories of Machines and Slow Electric. He has also collaborated with Colin Edwin, Bruce Soord (of The Pineapple Tree), Judy Dyble (ex Fairport Convention) and many others.

The Warm-Up Man Forever has the characteristic wispy, almost whispering vocals of Tim Bowness over a pulsing drum beat and synthesiser wash. The words sing a sympathetic lament for an artist who will always be second best, but those restless drums speak of an irritable angst that the warm-up man will never quite shake off. Tim may be (metaphorically) blowing his own trumpet here but this song stands up really well in the context of the whole EP.

According to Google Translate, “il sogno di Devi” means “the dream of Devi”. It’s a track from the Unfolk album by Alessandro Monti. The Crotchety research department has discovered only that Alessandro is an artist and self-taught musician from Venice. He seems to use the ‘unfolk’ tag for his music project(s), directly contradicting Wikipedia’s classification.

So, is this folk music or not? The elves are equivocal. Il Sogno di Devi starts fairly quietly with a folkish mix of mandolin and violin but half way through strident electric guitar notes cut in, transforming it into a kind of prog/rock/folk instrumental. It pleases Crotchety man immensely. And the Unfolk album has plenty more of his highly original folk-based material, too. Alessandro Monti is the most exciting discovery to come from the Burning Shed EP.

The final track on the EP is a dance/trance piece by UXB, an outfit led by the other proprietor of Burning Shed, Pete Morgan. It’s not the sort of thing that usually appeals to Crotchety Man’s inner critic but Slow rolls and rumbles along most agreeably. Once again, the elves have failed to come up with any further information beyond the fact that Morgan plays bass and keyboards. The Burning Shed website does, however, have a free download of an excerpt from a remix of one of UXB‘s tracks if anyone wants to explore it.

logo wall

So, what have we got in return for registering with the Burning Shed website? Eleven tracks, only two duds (those by Old Fire and Rhys Marsh) and still over an hour’s worth of music worthy of joining the ever growing Crotchety collection. Plus, an introduction to several interesting artists. A bargain says old Crotchety Man.

SaveSave

A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows

rainbow stars

Before we get into the new year in earnest here’s a belated Album of the Month post originally scheduled for December 2017. The album in question is called A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows and it was one of my first forays into the hinterlands of jazz.

I must have bought this record in the late seventies before CDs were invented and long before the Internet became available to the ordinary citizen. It was a time when good new music was hard to find and Crotchety Man had to resort to speculative purchases to satisfy his cravings. The Kaleidoscope was just such a leap in the dark. Although ‘dark’ is a rather peculiar word to use for an album whose title describes shifting multi-coloured shapes reflected in a mirrored tube held up to the light.

It was the record cover that compelled the plunge into the unknown. On the front there was a shimmering rainbow galaxy viewed through a mysterious wisp of smoke. It is still one of my favourite pieces of album artwork. Although, looking at it again today, I wonder what the dark foreground shape might be: the silhouette of a human body, a near-Earth asteroid or just a potato waiting for the chipper and the deep fat fryer?

In contrast, the back cover was almost entirely monochrome, consisting mainly of black text on white paper listing the tracks and musicians, carrying the copyright notices and giving a little information about Neil Ardley, the composer, and the compositions on the disc. Intriguingly the inspiration for the album came from a form of Balinese gamelan music, which uses a five note scale. The seven main tracks on the album emerged from Ardley’s exploration of this scale. (There was probably also something about rainbows but I no longer have the vinyl and haven’t been able to check.)

Among the musicians the names of Barbara Thompson and Ian Carr stood out. They were both well respected jazz instrumentalists and their contributions served to reassure Crotchety Man that this record would not disappoint. So, on the strength of the artwork, the blurb and the personnel, the Kaleidoscope was added to my small collection of LPs. And it sparkled like bright sunbeams reflected in falling drops of rain.

dots

The Kaleidoscope of Rainbows is an album that begs to be played all the way through, from Prologue, through the seven Rainbows to the Epilogue. Like a box of tasty chocolates one bite is never enough and it’s impossible to play one track without drooling over the others. Some tunes are soft and soothing, others have a certain funky piquancy. None are bitter. All are food for the soul.

Unlike chocolates this album has no ‘best before’ date; it sounds as good today as it did 40 years ago. And, fortunately, you can’t overdose on rainbows.

SaveSave

SaveSave

Earthworks/All Heaven …

fall of rebel angels

All heaven breaks loose on Earth’s sordid works

Sit up straight and pay attention, everyone, because if you don’t what follows will be terribly confusing. For this Album of the Month piece I’m going to review two albums by Bill Bruford’s Earthworks. Yes, Smithers minor, this is cheating but it provides a partial solution to a difficult problem. You see, I am very familiar with All Heaven Let Loose and I really want to blog about it but I can only find one track from that album anywhere online (see below).

So, what to do? Well, there is exactly one Earthworks album on my favoured streaming service and it matches All Heaven … for style, quality and inventiveness. That album is called Earthworks. (You see why this might get confusing?) Here’s My Heart Declares a Holiday from the band’s first, eponymous album, the one with the big ‘E’ on the cover.

This particular track has an almost latin beat to it, which sets it apart from everything else on the Earthworks album. In all other respects, though, it is typical of both albums. Django Bates swaps effortlessly between keyboards and tenor horn, Iain Ballamy adds soulful saxophones, Mick Hutton anchors the ship on double bass and Bill Bruford sits at acoustic and electronic drums in the engine room. All four players lock unerringly into the beat, even when it deliberately skips and stutters for rhythmic effect.

In contrast, the title track from All Heaven Broke Loose is a melodic piece in two parts: Psalm and Old Song. I don’t think you’ll find the psalm in a psalter or the old song in any hymn book but I can’t deny that the instruments sing as sweetly as a church choir. On this track Bill Bruford’s chordal drums prove that percussive instruments can carry a melody, too.

Those two tracks mark opposite sides of the Earthworks repertoire. In between there are delightful tunes, pulsing grooves and inventive riffs. If Frank Zappa’s band were the mothers of invention then Bill Bruford’s Earthworks must be their jazzier children. There’s nothing quite like the scintillating horn and saxophone duets by Ballamy and Bates, both ex-members of the legendary Loose Tubes jazz orchestra. The bass playing of Mick Hutton (on Earthworks) or Tim Harries (on All Heaven …) simultaneously holds the sound together and drives it on. And there’s no better exponent of electronic and acoustic drum kits than Bruford himself, rock drummer turned jazz percussionist.

Of the two albums, Earthworks is the more rhythmic, solid and earthy, All Heaven … the more melodic, dreamy and heavenly. Both are very fine examples of the jazz fusion genre and fully worthy of the Album of the Month slot in these pages.

Earthworks (the album) was released in 1987, All Heaven … in 1991. In between, Earthworks (the band) released Dig?, an album that Crotchety Man is not familiar with. If you want to hear more from that late eighties/early nineties period there are a few YouTube videos of live shows. This one is a bit low in volume but otherwise of decent quality.

Now, class, I’m setting a test to see if you were paying attention as I asked.

Question 1: Which band have we been discussing?

Question 2: Which two albums have I been talking about?

Question 3: What makes these albums so enjoyable?

Question 4: There is no question 4. You may now leave the room.

Quietly, boys! The other classes may not have finished yet.