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

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.


camera + woman

There has been an outbreak of man flu at Crotchety Mansions. In the interests of public safety Crotchety Man has cancelled all public engagements for the time being. A number of restrictions have been put in place on current activities, too. This Track of the Week was chosen simply because it was the stand-out track on my Release Radar this week  and R.E.M. have not featured in these pages before. It has been written without the benefit of research of any kind.

And now I’m taking my coughs, sniffles and shivers back to bed. Please send in the night nurse.

August & September


Donning his pith helmet and carrying his elephant gun Crotchety Man went out hunting for tracks on the theme of autumn. It proved to be a disappointing expedition. To my mind autumn is a gloriously uplifting time of year and yet all the songs relating to the third quarter of the calendar seem to be either quietly contemplative or downright gloomy. Autumn days are often wet and windy, and winter may be around the corner, but there’s nothing quite like the sun peeping through the trees when they are dressed in their soft leafy gowns of yellows, reds and browns.


So, yes, it was a disappointing trek through the sound jungle but I did bag one or two specimens for the trophy cabinet. Pride of place goes to August & September from the Mind Bomb album by The The. I thought I had three specimens of this particular song but the first turned out to be an imposter (and a rather drab one at that). Although it looks and sounds similar this is actually an entirely different species. It is, in fact a performance by Elbow – you can tell by the sparse production, muted colours and the distinctive Guy Garvey warbling.

I am rather more pleased with the two genuine The The individuals captured on this trip. The one below struts around in its cage bursting with energy, sending out booming calls and passionate songs. I think it is trying to attract a mate but in that it will be disappointed; both of my specimens are male.

The third of my August & September catches is, I think, the prettiest of the three. It was reared in a recording studio and it has all the signs of having been well looked after. It is rounded, but not obese; it’s plumage is bright and shiny. It has a calm and confident personality. This is the one I’d enter into the song equivalent of Crufts if such a competition were to take place. Just listen to Danny Thompson’s double bass and the dual clarinets complementing the piano and guitar work. Could a more delightful creature exist outside of heaven?

The Brief and Neverending Blur

One entry in my Release Radar this week stopped me in my woozle tracks. The ears pricked up automatically when I heard something very much like the soft call of a Hidden Orchestra. The eyes opened a little wider when I saw the contrary title, The Brief and Neverending Blur. When I saw Richard Reed Parry as the first of the two artists the memory hastened to look him up. While it was busy searching, the wonderbrain asked who the other artist, the Bang On A Can All-Stars, might be. And somewhere deep within the cerebral cortex another inner voice had spotted the album title, More Field Recordings, and was tentatively confirming the Hidden Orchestra connection. The Siren sisters, Pleasure and Curiosity, had seized the synapses again.

Turning the online oracle first to the Bang On A Can All-Stars a little knowledge was quickly absorbed. They are a group of six classically-trained musicians who use amplified traditional instruments to play compositions by some of today’s most respected composers of ‘classical’ music. They are the touring face of the Bang On A Can collective, which commissions, performs and records modern music in classical, jazz, rock, world and experimental genres. Clearly, the Sirens know the way to Crotchety Man’s heart.

Taking a diversion to the album from which The Brief … was taken the reason for two artist’s names on the Radar soon became clear. The tracks on More Field Recordings are pieces by thirteen different composers, all performed by the All-Stars; The Brief … is the one composed by Richard Reed Parry. Somewhat disappointingly, all the other tracks on the album fall into the filing bin that Crotchety Man labels “classical, experimental”. They are unusual and interesting in an intellectual way but liking them is rather a challenge, at least on first spin. Perhaps I will see them in a different light after another circuit of the spinney.


Returning to find that the doddery old clerk in the memory halls had still not retrieved any information about Richard Reed Parry, Crotchety Man was forced to consult the electronic memory banks again. The silicon chips came back in a flash with this long lost fact: R. R. Parry is a core member of Arcade Fire. That’s where Old Man Crotchety had met him before. Furthermore, reported the semi-conductor lackey, he was a member of Bell Orchestre and has performed with several other artists, including The National and Sufjan Stevens. Parry has also written pieces for the Kronos Quartet and yMusic, ensembles quite similar to the Bang On A Can All-Stars.

So, the signs are auspicious, but what, you may ask, does The Brief … sound like? It’s a slow, quiet, contemplative work for clarinet, guitar, piano, cello, double bass and percussion. Once again, the Sirens have tuned in perfectly to Crotchety Man’s weaknesses. The instruments’ tones blend beautifully, the notes are both evocative and satisfyingly interesting, and the whole invites you into the arms of those lovely maidens.

The Brief and Neverending Blur is on YouTube as part of a 13 video mix but it is blocked here in the UK. Here’s a link for those elsewhere in the world but (disclaimer) it may not work for you, either.

Crotchety Man searched long in the swirling sea fog where the Sirens’ song called out to him but, when the mists cleared and the sun rose high in the sky, there was no island where a band of musicians could have been concealed. Sadly, the promise of nirvana remained unfulfilled and in the end the connection with Hidden Orchestra was, like the woozle, just an illusion.



Today Crotchety Man is venturing off the beaten tracks, out into the trackless wastes of the Australian desert. He is the dark-skinned messenger carrying news of a recent performance of an atmospheric piece by the British composer David Warin Solomons. The message is both verbal and symbolic. As he walks barefoot over the sun-baked earth this antipodean Hermes recites the words he must deliver, using the carved and decorated stick in his hands like a rosary to put the words in order and commit them to memory.

In the language of his tribe the message stick is called a purinjiti; it serves as both the mailman’s badge of office and the letter he is to deliver. On this one there are marks and notches for musical instruments: flute, euphonium, didgeridoo, clap sticks and bowed string instruments. There is also a crude map indicating the place in central Europe where the work was performed and an approximate date of two moon-cycles ago. In this medium it is impossible to spell out ‘Budapest’, the city in which the music was recorded, or the name of the conductor, Zoltán Pad.

The message is simple enough. Our tribal chief was so amused by the choice of instruments and pleased by the mellifluous tones he heard that he wants to share it on all the social media platforms available to him. And in these parts the purinjiti has a far greater reach than Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp. I will, of course, transmit his message faithfully, conveying our head man’s excitement as accurately as I am able but, to be honest, I found those clap sticks rather irritating. See what you think of this world-spanning music. And, if you like it, spread the word.

Hot Footnote

I met David W. Solomons briefly when he popped his head around the door of one of our music group rehearsals about three months ago. He introduced himself, gave me his business card and was gone. You can find his website here. Note, however, that he comes from a classical and choral background and his work is not likely to appeal to Crotchety Man’s regular followers.

Weeping Willow

winter tree

A few days ago the Crotchety ears were tuned to their favourite radio station. The brain between the ears was only half listening when an unfamiliar but rather pleasant song came on. It turned out to be something called Weeping Willow by The Verve. That reminded me that I’d heard a few Verve songs in the past and liked them but I knew nothing about the band and had never explored their work. Vowing to put that right Weeping Willow was entered into the increasingly heavy ledger listing future Track of the Week blog posts.

There were a few surprises for Old Man Crotchety as he delved into The Verve. If you want to follow his journey of discovery he suggests you listen to the track that piqued his interest before reading what he has to say. As there doesn’t seem to be a decent YouTube video of this song as performed by The Verve here’s the Spotify link (again).

Looking up Weeping Willow on Spotify Crotchety Man found himself in an album called Urban Hymns and was startled to find two exceptional songs sitting there cheek by jowl with the target track. Until then if you had asked this old gentleman “who recorded Bitter Sweet Symphony?” he would have been at a loss. It’s such a well-known song that the artist should have been instantaneously brought to mind and yet it’s so unusual that the Crotchety Filing System had classified it as by “some one-hit wonder”. A similar failure of the mental archival process had left The Drugs Don’t Work as “artist unknown”.

“So they were by The Verve“, the Old Man thought, “I’m impressed”. This revelation clearly warranted listening to the whole album. An hour and nine minutes later (can you fit that much on a vinyl record?)¹ Crotchety Man was a little older and marginally wiser. His verdict: Bitter Sweet Symphony and The Drugs Don’t Work are the stand-out tracks; overall rating for the album around 4 out of 5 (good but not that special). Weeping Willow and This Time are certainly worth listening to but that might not be enough to justify a Track of the Week rosette.

Continuing with his research Crotchety Man called up The Verve‘s Wikipedia page. Surprise number two was that the band’s singer and main songwriter was Richard Ashcroft. Richard also features quite often on the radio as a solo artist and scores well on the Crotchety song-o-meter. Like a jigsaw puzzle a picture of The Verve was beginning to fall into place.

the verve press shoot for big life /emi nov 07 tour


The wonderful Wikipedia went on to explain that The Verve‘s music has been described as alternative rock, psychedelic rock and (most appropriately, I think) Britpop. The Old Man can certainly hear Oasis and Coldplay in Weeping Willow. And, like those bands, The Verve achieved stardom status. In 1997, according to critic Mike Gee of iZINE, “The Verve … had become the greatest band in the world.”² Even allowing for a certain amount of exaggeration that threatened to blow the Crotchety mind. Surely they were never that big. Were they? No, Crotchety Man couldn’t have been so out of touch, not even in those days of largely unexciting music.

At this point The Verve had done more than enough to book a place in these pages but should it be Weeping Willow or another of their songs? Bitter Sweet Symphony is too well-known and a little too long. The Drugs Don’t Work is well-known, too, and a headline picture would be a bit grim. This Time doesn’t suggest a picture at all. And there’s no time left to explore their other albums. So, Weeping Willow it had to be.

The best way to understand Weeping Willow is to listen to Richard Ashcroft’s solo performance. Here’s an “audio only” YouTube video:

The solo version is a simple three-chord song with a lilting Coldplay-style melody. It’s a staple of the singer/songwriter genre and, as such, relies heavily on the words to evoke feelings in the listener. Unfortunately, the message in the lyrics isn’t very clear. It could be a love song or a warning about drug addiction. Or a bit of both.

For me the song only really comes to life in the band version with its atmospheric electric guitar, doleful bass, spritely drum beat and multi-tracked vocals. But then it fully deserves its Track of the Week spot.


  1. I doubt it. The vinyl version was released as a double album and is actually longer than the digital version because the vinyl ends with a ‘hidden track’ separated by several minutes of silence making it almost 1 hour and 16 minutes long in total.
  2. The Verve won two Brit Awards in 1998. The Drugs Don’t Work reached number one on the UK singles chart in 1997 and the Urban Hymns album was number one on the UK album chart for 12 weeks, knocking OasisBe Here Now off the top spot.