Prog spotlight: Touchstone and the Mad Hatter’s Song

The Mad Hatter’s Song is my favourite by Touchstone. They’re not a band I listen to a lot, but they’re very talented, and somehow they get so much feeling into this song it makes me weep for the city I used to live in.

It’s a dystopian song about London, about the apathy and desolate, crumbling landscape that could be past, present and future all rolled into one. It makes me sad because I love that landscape and it’s important to see the problems in the things that you love.

London Bridge is falling,
Carrion crows are calling,
Big Ben’s turned to rust.

The Cheshire Cat stopped smiling
‘cos the Queen of Hearts was crying,
their rhymes all turned to lust.

And they’re all mad hatters as their cockle shells shatter
and they don’t know who to trust…

My climate-fiction novel, Nimbus (volume 1 is currently under revision), is set in a post-apocalyptic London in 2030 which has been flooded and devastated by supercell storms. When I first heard the Mad Hatter’s Song, I immediately felt the emotions of some of my characters come through.

I don’t want to see a future like that for London but sometimes I feel it’s already there.

Anyway, here’s to a great song.

A tribute to Chris Squire

One year since Chris Squire passed away. Not just one of the founding members of Yes, but the only member to stay in the band throughout their entire 60-year run until last year, his own death being the only reason for ever missing a gig. A beautiful and inspirational person who never stopped writing wondrous stories… Chris Squire, your music was a shining light in the darkest points of my childhood, you were my biggest bass inspiration, and you will always be missed.

prog-cover-chris-squire

Seriously, look at this fabulous, talented man and his multiple amazing bass guitars.

The video below is one of the few examples where he sang lead in addition to playing bass.

Can you imagine what it’s like seeing life
From the other side
Do you imagine darkened light, starless night
You might need a guide

And will the illusion confuse you, play with your thoughts
And alter your mind
Or become a delusion, include you
Change your existence for another kind

See what you see for yourself
‘Til your heart is open wide
Wish what you wish for yourself, and you’ll find it there
And you’ll believe it, and you’ll believe it

A releasekonsert with OAK and Airbag in Oslo

Last night I spent a fantastic evening watching prog band OAK perform for the second time. Since I saw them at Kolbotn’s ‘Progbotn’ festival back in January, they’ve been signed to Bergen-based record label Apollon Records, which is truly fantastic news. OAk have just released their first album, Lighthouse – and you can watch the trailer for it below.

Okay, so OAK are officially called an art rock band, but I digress… it’s amazing music, truly enrapturing and innovative. The lead singer also plays the keyboard, and has a beauty of a KORG that looks very much like a Stage Vintage (correct me if I’m wrong). What’s nice about this is being able to see the keyboard action more closely, as too often keyboardists are relegated to the sidelines.

This time they brought on a saxophonist for a few tracks, and the feel immediately plunged into something akin to the solemn atmospheric work of electro jazz groups like Hidden Orchestra. It was great to hear their new stuff, along with some of the classics from the first set I heard of theirs. The singer truly has a stupendous voice, and I got chills on more than one occasion during their set.

I really want to see this band evolve further and produce ever more work. For now, I’m just basking in the release of Lighthouse, which can be heard on Spotify in its entirety:

SUPPORT THESE GUYS, THEY ARE GREAT!

Also, at the end of their set: biggest applauding for a bass guitarist I’ve ever heard in my life! This makes me happy.

After OAK we had Airbag, a more established outfit who performed a very tight set with a more rocky vibe. They were celebrating the release of their fourth album, Disconnected, and performed a range of pieces from all their previous albums too.

While Airbag did not do anything overly structurally interesting to their pieces, they are a talented group of musicians and had a wonderful sound that was very immersive. A lot of their songs began in a dark and broody manner similar to that of Seigmen, rose to some rocking riffs, then descended into Pink Floyd style instrumentals. Oh, and also, their songs are looooong! Shine On eat your heart out! I feel as though I was listening to a lost Pink Floyd album, and with the moody and meditative, somewhat trancelike vibes, I know I need to listen to this music more when writing.

Midweek Music Picks: Pure Reason Revolution

Pure Reason Revolution are a band that caught my attention first as prog, but I soon realised they were inhabiting the prog genre at the most progressive, eclectic fringes of it – as you can tell upon listening to the song below, Blitzkrieg.

The music hovers between the electroclash rock of Justice, the fast-paced drum’n’bass rock fusion of Pendulum, and the chaotic soundscapes of electronica artist Hans Appelkvist: synthy guitar riffs and strong drumbeats are peppered with Eighties style Orchestra Hits, the odd house clap, before descending into broken rhythms and chopped-up blurts and bleeps, then building up again with polyphonic chorus into an insane fusion of sound, using noise as sculpture, painting crescendo onto seconds.

The slightly dystopian futuristic undertones of their themes (the intro samples of Blitzkrieg, for example, are from 1962 post-apocalyptic French film La Jetéesuggest something akin to Rush’s 2112, which makes sense considering the band’s first producer also produced Rush’s music.

Furthermore this band is from the town next to where I used to live in the UK (Reading – a wee bit north from the birthplace of Genesis). Nobody seems to know where to place them – they have been labelled prog, electronica, alt rock, new prog, and bizarrely ‘Astral Folk’, even garnering a good review from keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman. It’s a shame they’ve split up now, but one can always hope, because this music rocks.

 

The Watch plays Nursery Cryme

Italian prog rockers The Watch are the Genesis continuation we always wanted. Officially endorsed by ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, they do amazing covers of classic era Genesis songs. Their original albums, while having their own distinct flavour, are tantamount to the Genesis albums that never existed but that totally should have. Imagine, if you will, that Gabriel and Hackett never left and that classic era of music had been allowed to progress in that vein. This would doubtless be the result. I have so much love for this band, so you can imagine my excitement when I heard they were coming to Oslo.

The band kicking off the concert

The concert, held last Saturday the 30th January, was billed as ‘The Watch plays Nursery Cryme’, but what we got was so much more. Not only did we get plenty of The Watch’s own music, including a few wonderful songs inspired by the Italian Alps, but we also got a sly couple of songs from The Lamb Lies Down too. And, let me tell you, as soon as those gentle guitar strums and first Mellotron sweeps hit the air, the room was electric.

“There’s something solid forming in the air,

And the wall of death is lowered in Times Square…”

We could all feel it, and in that moment I knew we were enraptured, part of the show, the adventure. We were all Rael then.

The atmosphere electric continued on as they played through Nursery Cryme with stylised restraint. I loved this aspect of the band – it is clear that they are virtuosos, but they let out only as much as is needed for the song, giving the stark impression that they are holding back a powerful hurricane. The lead singer, in particular, Simone Rossetti, embodied the essence of Gabriel’s countenance in ‘Watcher of the Skies’ – a solitary, austere figure, voice tight as a tightrope walker, letting out just enough of the music to make the maximum impact. Less is more, in this case, and it was magical. It belonged to another universe.

Nursery Cryme was indeed played in its entirety, but not in order. This was a surprise for many in the audience, and by the time the album’s stellar track came out, The Musical Box, we were ecstatic, and more so from the unexpectedness. I was deeply happy with the guitarist, Giorgio Gabriel, and his ability to sound every inch as ethereal and heavenly as Steve Hackett. The sound of his guitar playing like waves lapping at the shore. Songs like Harlequin in particular, so dreamlike.

The keyboardist, Valerio De Vittorio, had amazing technique, using Moog and Mellotron to maximum Seventies effect. This really came into its own on the band’s original songs, where the keyboards seemed more striking than the soft waves of Genesis. And the bassist, Mattia Rossetti, impressed many by handling a multi-neck bass and 12-string guitar. Sometimes it amazes me all over again to witness how every single sound from these songs can be made with a group of just five people. Listening to the records, it is so layered that it always feels like it should be so much more.

Once the final song was over and the dust had settled, the encore came. I couldn’t believe my ears when the band announced they would be playing Supper’s Ready from the album Foxtrot. What a treat! This was so much more than I ever could have expected!

So the twenty-three minute epic journey of apocalypse, as envisioned by Peter Gabriel forty four years earlier. The dulcet tones of the intro began, and everything sounded perfect. The mood in this small blues bar, filled to the brim with fans, was like nothing ever experienced before. All of us, I would hazard to say, knew this song in particular, Genesis’s masterpiece, and united by a common love we all fell under the song’s sway. It would not be an exaggeration to say it was a religious experience.

I have to give particular kudos to the drummer, Marco Fabbri, who tackled the section ‘Apocalypse in 9/8’ with aplomb. I have to admit I’ve never heard someone drumming in this time signature before, and it was so well handled. I also really liked the Gretsch kit, a callback to the kits Phil Collins used in this era, and what was interesting and probably due to how small the venue was (and possibly the fact I was right at the front too), was the hard, punchy tones that resulted – it was quite different to the recordings, but made for a nice offset against the taut vocals and dreamy keyboards and guitars.

I also feel that Simone Rossetti flourished in this song. It felt like the entire concert was leading up to this point – the release of those slightly-off-kilter but perfectly placed vocals. I think Gabriel ought to be so proud.

The clock ticked well over midnight as Supper’s Ready, and the entire gig along with it, drew to a finish. I have heard that The Watch return to Oslo every year, so I am looking forward to next year’s show already. Every time I see such a large crowd coming to attend prog-related shows in Oslo I become ecstatic, almost with disbelief at the fact that there are so many others who share this obsession with the somewhat odd and niche music I listened to in my childhood. It’s a good thing, and this particular experience is one I will remember.

Here’s a link to their album ‘Tracks from the Alps’:

Spontaneous Combustion

Sometimes I hear a song and imagine a strong story behind it, concepts that chill to the bone on a close inspection.

My favourite currently is Spontaneous Combustion by Dark Captain Light Captain:

they said they’d be waiting for us

now they’re smiling but they’re against us

they’re shouting in our ears

they’re shouting because they hate us

they hate us because we’re athletes

we’re athletes because we

can see

the rising sun

turn this rising sun into a mountain

turn this rising sun into a mountain

turn this rising sun into a mountain

to hide your x-ray eyes

turn your x-ray eyes into a visor

turn your x-ray eyes into a visor

turn your x-ray eyes into a visor

and turn this whole thing round

 

I hear a world where a group of people are vilified, like mutants (hence the x-ray eyes line) but more in line with what already exists in the world. People with different bodies, who the rest of society call disabled. We’re athletes because we can see the rising sun – the new dawn coming, the terrifying and bold new future. A society where they are hated and people turn upon them because of their differences, because of their different needs, but where their so-called ‘mutant’ powers could become strong and terrifying enough in turn to strike back against the people treating them as less than human. It’s not a good thing to hurt people the way they hurt you, but if you’re treated as subhuman for long enough, the desire to strike back is hard to ignore. All the anger and desperation has to go somewhere. This song feels like a revolution, and more so than I think any other song I’ve heard. It fills me with terrifying passion.

Nobody wants to imagine stories like the X-Men might be real. If the people you tread on actually did turn out to have immense powers, you’d be held accountable, confronted with your own inhumanity.

Of Monsters and Men

While watching the official trailer for Marvel’s upcoming series Jessica Jones, I discovered a new band named Of Monsters and Men. They’re an Icelandic chamber pop group, and they sound ethereal, chill, and peaceful in the sort of way that you might feel yourself before a storm breaks. The song of theirs used in the Jessica Jones trailer is called Thousand Eyes and is fantastic.

A pretty fitting song for Halloween too. The lyric video is particularly odd, but interesting.