Thursday, 24 November 2016

Best of the Year 2016 Volume 1

 

I am getting a bit ahead of myself. It's only November, but lots going on in December so I thought I would get this out of the way now while I have the chance. Like last year I have compiled my favourite tracks onto two 80 minute mini-discs. So here is volume 1.

1. Big Big Train - Folklore. The catchy-as-hell title track from the bands latest. After the mighty English Electric double album, could they top that? They did indeed! More folky, but they are on such a peak of songwriting and arranging, the whole album is top notch.

2. Holon - The Times they are A-Taming. My album of the year. The whole album is so strong, but this features the voice of Rhys Marsh who I admire very much.

3. Grumbling Fur - Strange the Friends. The first track from Furfour. I do love Daniel O'Sullivan's work and this and many others on this great album imbody the spirit of early Eno so much.

4. Pineapple Thief - In Exile. From the fantastic Your Wilderness album. Pineapple Thief have always been a great band, but after Bruce Soords superb solo album of last year, the momentum continues here. Also boasts the best album cover of the year. Carl Glover's found photos are so haunting and fit the mood of the album to a tee!

5. Steven Wilson - Don't Hate Me. All the touring has meant that SW only managed a mini album this year. This re-working of the Porcupine Tree track was a particular highlight with fantastic sax by Theo Travis.

6. Contact - Sensorium. Superb synth rock from Zombi's A E Paterra, very much in the style of Vangelis, circa the Blade Runner end credits.

7. Black Mountain - Space to Bakersfield. The Canadian psychedelic rock band's fourth album ends with this beautifully serene slice of floating, elegiac wistfulness. Driven by languid guitar, which owes as much to Vini Reilly as Dave Gilmour. It feels as if it should go on forever!

8. Grumbling Fur - Milky Light. Doing Eno better than Eno and featuring John Cale like viola, just to add to the Enoness!

9. Opeth - Will O The Wisp. One of the more laid back numbers from their Sorceress album. Very Tull like indeed!

10. Glass Hammer - Eucastrophe. This US band have always produced very fine retro prog, but this years Valkyrie is especially good. The coupling of this track and the following Rapturo, produces the same big, emotional impact which Afterglow achieved on Genesis's Wind and Wuthering.

11. Glass Hammer - Rapturo. See above.

12. Big Big Train - Salisbury Giant. Another prime example of Big Big Train's evocation of pastoral England.

13. Syd Arthur - Coal Mine. So-called Canterbury type band's third album, sees them producing an assured collection of succinct, catchy songs.

Next, volume 2 which includes the epics of the year!

 

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Yes - Tales from Topographic Oceans, Steven Wilson Remix

 

Well, here we are at last! This nearly never happened. After the last Yes Steven Wilson remix, the news was that was to be the last. SW had been working on a remix of TFTO, but the decision was made to put it on ice for now. That left a big gap in the Yes remix series which upset fans so much as they really wanted to hear what SW could do with this album. But after much lobbying by fans in various forums, the project was completed and here we have it.

Word is the surround is pretty good, but I can personally say I love the stereo mix very much indeed. I always felt the original mix lacked dynamics and buried Squire's bass way too much. Wilson's remix has really opened up the instrumental detail and highlights the intricacies, dexterity and punch in Squire's bass playing at last. You can really hear all the metal bashing going on in The Ancient and I am particularly pleased that Howe's guitar figure at the end of The Revealing Science of God is brought to the fore, adding real impact to the end of the piece.

As usual there are lots of extras spread over the 3 CD's and Blu-ray Disc. All packaged in the customery min-vinyl sleeves. However, I feel for this release something extra special should have been done, as the CD format does not do Roger Deans spectacular artwork any favours at all. For one thing you cannot read the original album notes and lyrics at all! Maybe a super deluxe box set could have been produced, including the vinyl edition with the discs and a large format booklet. I really feel with TFTO especially, that only the 12 x 12 format does justice to the artwork which is such an integral part of this album. However, I am griping as the work that has gone into the sonics is quite spectacular and I am just glad this has been released at all!

It may be the last in the series of SW remixes, but from The Yes Album up to Relayer, we have a wonderful set of remixes, which give us such a complete insight into how original and inspired these recordings are.

 

 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

ELP - Brain Salad Surgery BMG Vinyl Edition

I have been buying a lot of vinyl recently! Why? Is this a retrograde step back in time? Has the compact disc failed? Non of the above. For some the resurgence of vinyl is a fashion thing. The latest item to have around your pad. Not to listen to, but to admire. The hipsters may have boosted the popularity for all things vinyl, but not for me. The current vogue for vinyl has piqued my interest in my ignored boxes of vinyl pushed into the garage and attic. The result of resurrecting my collection of vinyl has been threefold: a great emotional rush at re-engaging with records from my youth, at how good some of it sounds and how much I have lost over the years and having not got a clue where it all is! I suppose, just be glad I have what I have!

We can have debates about the merits of CD versus vinyl (hello Mr CBQ) but there is something about the tactile and emotional connection to a vinyl record that to be truthful CD has never really achieved. I know this is a pure nostalgia thing going back to my youth, but when I put on a record that I may not have touched or even heard in maybe 20 years, wow does that send an emotional jolt that takes me right back to memories when I first had these records.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand and Brain Salad Surgery by ELP. My, how many times has this been released over the years! Now the catalogue is with BMG and they have released CD as well as vinyl editions. So I have taken the opportunity to own this on vinyl for the first time. It is my favourite ELP album and did buy it when it was released. But, back in 1973 we were a household that did not have a record player. That was not introduced till 1975. I just had a crappy little plastic cassette player. So my listening was purely tape and mono at that! It's a pleasure to have this now on vinyl in all it's die-cut, gatefold glory. This was ELP at the height of their popularity, even the NME celebrated them by releasing excerpts of the album in a free flexi single. How things would change in a few years.

This new issue is taken from the latest remasters by Andy Pearce and Matt Wortham and sounds the best I have heard it. But it's the overall experience of the great package design, which can only be done justice in the vinyl format that makes Brain Salad Surgery one of progs golden greats.

 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

John Foxx - The Complete Cathedral Oceans Vinyl Box Set

The re-establishment of vinyl as a viable recording medium continues unabated. The whole analogue versus digital debate is not for here, but you cannot deny that to look at and hold something as beautiful as this 5 disc set of John Foxx's ambient series of recordings in large format is the best way to appreciate the artwork. Foxx's sumptuous photographs really come alive within the pages of this book styled package, with each of the records slipped into their own sleeves, all held within the spine of the book. It is a thing of beauty indeed, but practically it's not the easiest thing to handle. Getting the records in and out of their sleeves without touching the vinyl surface is a bit tricky. I found the best solution was to transfer each record into an anti-static sleeve, which can then be placed back into the book sections. Then to remove the record, it's just a matter of pulling out the anti-static sleeve with disc. See below for outcome!

The next point is, does ambient based music belong on vinyl? By it's very nature, ambient music is quiet and hence all the potential crackles and pops inherent in vinyl are more discernible. To an extent I agree, but the reproduction here of John Foxx's multilayered choral vocals and sweeping, mournful synths is expansive, deep and warm as I suppose only analogue can realise. Unlike Foxx's other music such as "Metamatic" which is urban, industrial, cold and artificial, the music here is pastoral, human and very English; the soundtrack to overgrown gardens on a summers evening, musically statuesque and refined and not really ambient at all. It deserves to be heard at volume, in order to completely fill the room with the washes of almost hymn like joy.

So, this set is indeed a thing of visual and aural beauty without a doubt. The packaging may be a bit impractical, but it's heartening to see art take precedence over the practicalities.

 

 

 

Monday, 19 September 2016

Grumbling Fur - Furfour

Fourth album from the duo of Alexander Tucker and Daniel O'Sullivan, hence the title. My relationship with the group is via O'Sullivan whose name I know from the likes of Guapo, Ulver, Miracle (with Zombi's Steve Moore) and Mothlite, whose last album on Kscope was quite excellent.

Grumbling Fur have that experimental feel about them, but at the heart is a keen pop sensibility. Think of some of Brian Eno's songs, at once naive, but also strange and beguiling. Even O'Sullivans multilayered voice brings to mind Eno's. Also coming to mind is Wire's Graham Lewis, whose wonderful He Said project of the 80's also had that mix of skewed pop electronica. Appearing on the album on one track is This Heat's Charles Bullen, giving another indication where this band are situated.

The musical backdrop is lush, dense, with lots of synths and processed percussion. But again, it's the duos deft ability to produce a memorable melody that comes to the fore, making this album so approachable and engaging.

 

King Crimson - Radical Action Box Set

Following on from the recent Live in Toronto 2CD set comes this epic box set of 3CD's plus blu-ray or plus 2DVD's and blu-ray. Now, that is odd! The standard edition should have been CD and DVD with the deluxe adding the blu-ray or blu-ray on its own. If you have a blu-ray player you ain't gonna play DVD, so why add those with the deluxe edition? They do need to forget about adding DVD plus blu-ray to these sets. It's one or the other!

So, these discs showcase the complete playlist of the live Crimson repertoire of 2015. The CD's are based around the best performances which Jakko has selected and the video portion is based around a Japan concert. I admit I haven't viewed that yet, as I have only concentrated on the audio. It does sound great and the performances are top notch. The expanded lineup allows for all the details and nuances of the album versions, like on Larks' Tongues, both parts reproduced here and enhanced upon. For me the highlight is the rather funky rendition of The Talking Drum, that was rather a surprise.

The discs are presented as more of a live in the studio performance as all audience participation has been removed. Fripp's idea for this lineup is more of a performance unit, rather than studio vehicle, so I can see his thinking here. There are new pieces presented here, which are all typical Crimson fare. Radical Action, Meltdown and Suitable Grounds for the Blues sit well with the classic pieces. It's all good stuff and there is plenty here to enjoy. It's good to see that for the recent tour, they have expanded the playlist with material from Lizard, a personal favourite. I was also playing Industry, from Three of a Perfect Pair the other day and it struck me that this would be ideal for this lineup. Lots of percussion work going on and the denounement of the piece would really come alive, rearranged with Mel Collins on sax. So there is plenty for this band to get their teeth into in the future.

The packaging is as expected, top notch. All discs are housed in two separate digipaks, together with a 36 page booklet all of which fit neatly into a slipcase. Of course that is not all the Crimson for this year. We have the SW remixes of Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair plus the 80's box set which includes those plus Discipline and related studio and live material. There will also be the 2016 Tourbox, which follows the previous two boxes in design and should contain lots of interesting stuff. So lots for the KC buff to look forward to!

 

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Holon - The Time is Always Now

 

Let's get straight at this. The debut album by Holon is my favourite of the year so far. So who is Holon? No idea. As far as I can tell its a solo album by Ronny Pedersen. I assume he is Norwegian in origin, as I haven't found too much about him. What drew me to this project was that it's produced by Rhys Marsh, who also sings on a couple of tracks, plays and co-arranges the album. I am a big fan of Rhys Marsh, so I took a punt and went for this album. I am so glad I did. I can see why Rhys was attracted to this as it shares a lot of his sonic sensibilities. Epic 70's prog with psychedelic tones and even a hint of late 60's pop melodic textures with 80's electronica thrown into the mix. It's a heady brew, but its so strong with most tracks over the 7 minute mark, allowing ample room to develop. It just clicked with me from the outset and if you are tapped into Rhys Marsh's ouvre, then this album is a must have. It's essential!