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 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.

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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

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The Weaver’s Answer

bayeux tapestryLast week we had an Audience with a House on the Hill. They told us a story that asked where in life’s rich tapestry we belong. So, this week, it seems entirely appropriate that we look for some answers. And where better to find them than in the studio of those master weavers of sonic and lyrical threads, Family.

Family came into existence in 1966 when line-up changes in an R&B band called The Farinas¹ resulted in a change of direction towards psychedelic rock, with folk and prog rock influences. The name change was suggested by an American record producer because, at the time, they wore double breasted suits on stage making them look like a contingent of the mafia. The dress code was soon abandoned but the name stuck.

There are quite a few similarities between Audience and Family. So much so that Crotchety Man often confuses the two. Most strikingly, Roger Chapman’s singing for Family has been described as “bleating vibrato”, a phrase that perfectly describes Howard Werth’s vocals on Audience tracks. Add to that the fact that Family, like Audience, made full use of their multi-instrumentalists to craft a pleasing patchwork of sounds (Jim King contributed saxophones, harmonica and piano; Ric Grech bass, violin and cello) and you can begin to see how easily one’s thoughts can become tangled.

family

Family ca. 1970

As a band, Family was relatively short-lived, but between 1966 and 1973 they wrote and recorded many highly original songs. There were something like a dozen candidates for Track of the Week this time², but the one that always sticks in my memory is The Weaver’s Answer.

It starts gently with an acoustic guitar and violin introduction, the opening words falling on the ears like a poetic spell:

Weaver of life, let me look and see
The pattern of my life gone by
Shown on your tapestry.

An old man is reflecting on his life. It rolls by in his mind’s eye, unfurling like the Bayeux tapestry, telling a story. Not a story of war and invasion but of love and marriage, of his children growing up, of exquisite joys and the bitter tragedy of losing his wife.

There is a pause filled with a saxophone echoing both the good times and the bad.

When the tale resumes we find the old man now is blind and lonely. Though he can hear their laughter he can not see his grandchildren. His only comfort lies in the memories stitched into the warp and weft of his past and he longs to rewind the cloth, to see again the people and the places he has loved. Then, as if the Weaver of Life has heard his plea, he begins to see the loom on which his living threads are woven. And he sees, too, that the spools are empty. He is about to die.

Weaver of life, at last now I can see
The pattern of my life gone by shown on your tapestry.

The violin returns to tie off the loose ends. The old man has his answer. One more life has ended, the tapestry is complete.

Additional Notes

  1. This name reminded me of the Italian design company, Pininfarina, responsible for the styling of Ferraris and many other sports cars. It also triggered a memory of a concept car called the Ikenga which got a Crotchety lad very excited back in 1969. So much so that he went up to central London to see the prototype on display in the Harrods department store. Here’s an article that casts a fond look back at that project. And there’s a YouTube video of the car on the set of the Blue Peter children’s programme.
  2. I’ll mention here three other tracks that are well worth listening to: Burlesque, In My Own Time and No Mule’s Fool.

 

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.

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