Natalie Merchant, the American singer/songwriter originally known for her work with the band 10,000 Maniacs, has enjoyed a long and successful solo career. In the coming months, she is releasing a new album of original compositions, Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings, which will harken back to her first solo release, Tigerlily (1995). That first solo album, along with her second release, Ophelia (1998) feature her warm, resonant vocals and lovely poetry set to mostly down-tempo, dreamy electric and acoustic instrumentation. After her third release in this style Motherland (2001), she expanded her pallet with two compelling explorations into historical music and literature, introducing listeners to a series of oft forgotten artists of the past. These were The House Carpenter’s Daughter (2003) and Leave Your Sleep (2010).
The House Carpenter’s Daughter found Natalie playing musical anthropologist, taking listeners on a journey through a collection of primarily American folk music from traditional to contemporary ballads, hymns, and protest songs. Before the studio album was even recorded, I was able to catch her on a tour that showcased these songs and it is still the best performance I’ve seen from this artist. She was visibly happy, telling stories about each piece, and connecting the audience to their shared history, via a well-chosen set of rescued folk classics. During one of the songs from that evening, an old children’s ditty from the Deep South, “Soldier, Soldier” she skipped rope, as the song was originally intended to accompany that diversion.
Similarly, her next album Leave Your Sleep presented a collection of poetry for children put to music. The tracks were a result of six years conversations with her daughter about poems, stories and songs she found to, as she says, “delight and teach her.” What she discovered is a wonderful selection of prose from British and American poets clearly inspiring her to pen and record a very remarkable set of songs to match. She spent over five years researching and writing the “poem-songs,” finally whittling what ended up being 50 songs down to 26 for the release. The 2 CD package came with a picture book based on the album, for which Natalie collaborated with award-winning children’s book illustrator Barbara McClintock. The introductory prose by Mother Goose says it all:
Girls and boys, come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,
And come with your playfellows into the street
I was able to catch the supporting tour for this unique recording at the Fox Theater in Oakland. The show was filled with a series of sweet, poignant revelations from this artist as she shared family anecdotes and her love of poetry with the enthusiastic audience. She projected a few slides for each song, showing a photo of the poet and accompanying artwork along with a story, a bit of the author’s history and why she chose it.
On record, I found it took several spins to begin to appreciate the diverse all-acoustic set, played in varying traditional styles, at mostly slow tempos. But as performed in concert the music and imaginative arrangements came to life. The first set was all from Leave Your Sleep, after which Natalie returned for a collection of standards from her back catalog, including several tracks from her days with 10,000 Maniacs going back to their seminal release In My Tribe. In short it was a beautiful performance.
Last year Natalie released her sixth studio record simply titled Natalie Merchant, her first album of all original material since Motherland. I completely missed this one, only learning about it while preparing this article. It’s a shame, as the album continues where she left off in 2001, enriched by scores of musicians including strings and woodwinds players, and supported by a tour with some dates including a full symphony orchestra.
In her liner notes to The House Carpenter’s Daughter, Natalie Merchant, opining on the great tradition of folk music writes, “…a song that is universally loved and understood will endure the test of time and become folk music because it has made itself useful to so many of us.” To her fans, this applies to her music, meaningful poetry, and compelling live performances. Looking back over her career, seven albums in 20 years might not be prolific, but each is a quality work of art. We are now eagerly awaiting the next showing.
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
…croons Greg Lake, in powerful melodious voice, to begin the first track of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s most progressive, conceptual album, 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery. The opening track, a beloved and patriotic English anthem, sets the stage for what is to come; a series of intricate compositions and virtuosic performances from Lake (vocals, bass, guitars), Keith Emerson (keyboards, computer voice), and Carl Palmer (drums & percussion synthesizers). The album represented a high water mark for the band, both in the studio and for their stunning live performances, which culminated in America when the group played to over 200,000 fans at “California Jam Festival” in 1974. Nearly forty-five minutes of this show was captured on film, later released on DVD as part of the Beyond the Beginning collection. In addition, fans were treated to a triple album capturing the band at their peak.
I never was able to catch ELP in concert, and have always been more of a Rick Wakeman fanatic rather than a Keith Emerson fan. Keith’s keyboard attack always seemed a bit too violent and prolonged for my ears, whereas I felt that Rick focused more on melody and song craft. Nonetheless, I never thought the critics were fair to this band. After hailing them as the “next super group” they were savaged by accusations of being pretentious and bombastic. Instead I felt that the hints of these qualities made sense as part of the package, and that it was more talent, confidence and showmanship that the critics unfairly assailed. I did get the chance to see Carl astound us all when playing with Asia, and always loved Greg’s rich baritone on anything graced with his tones. And, as the years passed, I’ve warmed to the ELP sound, finally catching them live on their Black Moon tour. It’s clear no matter one’s musical palette, that these are three of the most talented musicians of our time. Brain Salad Surgery is to this listener their undeniable masterpiece.
CONCEPT & MUSIC
The centerpiece of Brain Salad Surgery is “Karn Evil 9”, a suite presented over 30 minutes in three parts, or “impressions.” The themes in the “Karn Evil 9” suite, a “carnival of words and music” came in parts, moving from a disaffected generation witnessing the evils of the world, culminating in mankind facing a war-ravaged world taken over by computers. King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield and Lake collaborated on the lyrics during intense writing sessions, weaving together the disparate movements. In the early sixties Sinfield had worked on a mainframe computer that he claimed could actually play the song “Daisy, Daisy” a tune which listeners may also recall from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, itself a study of the man-machine battle. On a recent CD reissue, Lake explains, “Some of the lyrics would be surreal, then the next day we would feel that something needed to be said, for instance like the way the media make money from photographing people suffering. The whole concept of computers dominating peoples lives, and the one line Load your program, I am yourself – they were rather prophetic words… I really do question sometimes how much good it’s doing us, all this bloody technology! That’s what Brain Salad Surgery was to some extent about.” Taken as a suite, the themes of the composition leave the listener to interpret the whole, a hallmark of the best conceptual rock in the 1970’s.
To round out the album, four initial tracks display the band’s prowess in every possible manner. Already known for interpreting classical and contemporary works by other composers, the band began the record with “Jerusalem,” by Sir Hubert Parry, with words from the poem by William Blake, and follow-up “Toccata,” a complex instrumental piece based on the 4th movement of Alberto Ginastera’s “1st Piano Concerto.” This cut includes a credit to Carl Palmer for his synthesized percussion movement; a startling aggressive workout on his new electronic kit. Lake’s ballad “Still… You Turn Me On” is the primary “radio-friendly” track on the album, a serene and catchy love song. The comedic music hall number “Benny The Bouncer” gives Lake a chance to work out raspy vocals in a Cockney accent, with boogie-woogie piano by Emerson and Palmer keeping pace on small kit. The centerpiece, “Karn Evil 9,” began on side one of the original LP and continued by filling all of side 2.
For the album cover, the band went with an evocative painting by artist H.R. Giger, whose work later in the decade would be used in the Alien movies. Emerson had been introduced to Giger while on tour in Switzerland. The band went to his studio to peruse his work, and he produced the cover henceforth. The painting, featuring industrial machinery housing an embedded human skull, presents a portal through which an image based on a portrait of Giger’s wife’s is partly visible. Opening the album’s gatefold cover revealed the complete picture. This inventive design perfectly suited the album and it’s themes. Famously, the record company forced the band to tone down the painting’s sexual content, replacing an image of a penis with a slightly vague shaft of light.
Reflecting on the album, band members look back fondly. “I think what people really found appealing about the band was more it’s fantasy side,” says Lake, “and that side of ELP was more predominant on the earlier albums.” “We were doing things to push the boundaries of experimentation and recording forward,” adds Palmer.
Brain Salad Surgery came during the time when there were major innovations in technology and recording process. The band deployed these on their prior album Tarkus, but found the songs difficult to recreate in their live shows. For the new album, they ensured all tracks could be played live by the band before going into the studio. The resulting concerts benefited tremendously from this foresight, as the band was able to deliver precise yet energetic renditions of each track with flights of improvisation as well.
The tour started in America in late 1973, and represented the most complex stage, sound and lighting system of that time, including quadraphonic sound, and for some of the dates, a “flying piano” setup that allowed Emerson to appear to be playing a grand piano while spinning head over heels in 360 degree loops. Not to be outdone, Palmer’s massive drum riser weighed almost 1.5 tons, including a revolving platform, church bell and gongs. The 1974 three LP set, Welcome Back My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends – Ladies and Gentlemen was produced from the band’s February 1974 shows in Anaheim, California, and is one of the best selling triple-album sets of all time.
The DVD Beyond The Beginning (2005) contains a documentary of ELP, but more importantly includes the best available concert film of the band at this pivotal time. The 44-minute picture was taken at their last stop on the American tour, headlining at California Jam, playing for over 200,000 people. The professional color film is a top quality production for its time, featuring lengthy close-ups of fingers, sticks and picks, capturing the virtuosity of each band member.
The set list begins with Palmer and his synthesized drums playing the solo in “Toccata” after which we are treated to two of Lake’s ballads, “Still… You Turn Me On” and “Lucky Man.” Emerson’s astounding “Piano Improvisations” follow and they are caught in detail, along with the first segment of “Take A Pebble”. The real treat follows, an almost note-perfect live rendition of the 1st and 3rd impressions of the “Karn Evil 9” suite which includes a lengthy Palmer drum solo, highlighting his rotating drum riser, followed by Lake’s powerful vocals, Emerson’s polyphonic Moog leads, and the simulated destruction of the villainous computer. The film concludes with “Great Gates of Kiev” during which Emerson deploys the spinning piano stagecraft, before the coda and fireworks.
Though on the balance this film is priceless, there remain a few quibbles. Most importantly, this DVD hosts an incomplete edit of the concert, as originally edited before being broadcast on ABC television. Opening songs “Hoedown” and “Jerusalem” are cut as is “Tarkus” which followed “Toccata” in the set list, and “Karn Evil 9″ 1st impression part 1, and all of the 2nd impression. Additionally there are a few instances where songs are truncated, such as “Toccata” and “Take A Pebble.” As to the camerawork, the only inadequate scenes are distant shots meant to capture the full band across the large stage, as these are grainy and unfocused. Otherwise, the edits are well timed and camera angles are expertly planned, yielding brilliant shots of each musician in action. As to the performance, Emerson and Lake visibly and rather annoyingly chew gum throughout the evening, but otherwise these artists play with precision, enthusiasm, and aplomb. Lake for one claimed in a recent interview that those shows were never be surpassed for their emotional intensity and capacity to impact the audience, and this reviewer agrees. For those who missed it, this film remains the best way to capture this most impressive moment in in ELP’s history.
The Yes album Relayer, one of the band’s most adventurous and enduring records, was originally released in 1974. It is a progressive rock masterpiece that includes elements of jazz-fusion, and a looser feel, thanks in great part to keyboard player Patrick Moraz, and the sessions that were part of its writing. The album is a work of art, in its story telling, prose, virtuosic playing and beautiful cover art by Roger Dean. Its release was followed by two tours of North America, England and Europe, each segment utilizing amazing stage sets designed and built by Martyn Dean, resulting in the most impressive theatrical performances of their careers. Forty years after it’s release, Steven Wilson remastered the album from its original multitrack tapes in stereo and 5.1 sound, producing what is now the definitive release on CD and Blue-ray.
Relayer’s centerpiece is “The Gates of Delirium” which occupies side one of the vinyl album. Written during the unending turmoil of the Vietnam War, and the August 1974 resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon, it weaves a tale about the evils of war and it’s aftermath, inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace. As Anderson described the multi-part suite “There’s a prelude, a charge, a victory tune, and peace at the end, with hope for the future.” It contains some of the most assured and aggressive instrumentals and vocals of the band’s catalog. The music perfectly illuminates the central story and it’s lyrics. Consider the battle scene instrumental, complete with the sound of battle cries and clanging metal, the band creating the sometimes abrasive tones of naked aggression – following the lyric:
The fist will run
Grasp metal to gun
The Spirit sings in crashing tones we gain the battle drum
Our cries will shrill the air will moan and crash into the dawn
This cacophony fades into the peaceful finale “Soon,” one of the most beautiful songs Yes composed and an enduring fan favorite. Just as with the story of war before it, “Soon”, perfectly matches music to hopeful prose emerging from the shadows of battle. Moraz lays down a backdrop of peaceful organ and Mellotron. Steve Howe leads with atmospheric pedal-steel and acoustic guitars, and Jon Anderson delivers one of his most touching yet powerful lead vocals, a reflection of his utopian philosophy:
Soon Oh soon the light
Ours to shape for all time, ours the right
The sun will lead us
Our reason to be here
“The Gates of Delirium” is a prime example of Yes’s large-scale songs that are designed to take listeners on a journey, to take them to a place far removed from their beginnings. The song begins with a state of turmoil, the onset of war and reaches its climax in the middle with a musical depiction of war. A state of peace is attained after the battle, bringing the listener into a world free from the fetters of time and space. The beginning of the piece has a strong rhythmic force, which propels the music forward. The ending has an absence of beat and pulse, and produces a feeling of timelessness, quietude, and contemplation – a hymn-like atmosphere. While Tchaikovsky and Mahler give their final slow movements tragic overtones, Yes’s slow movements portray hope and transcendence rather than tragedy. It is music for the theater in our minds.
The second side of the original LP contains two tracks that are masterful works in their own right. In particular, the jazz fusion influence brought by Moraz is demonstrated in “Sound Chaser” featuring his impossibly fast leads on the Fender Rhodes keyboard backed by similarly frenetic drum and bass runs – some of the best synergy between Chris Squire and Alan White on record. The frenetic middle instrumental passes between key and meter with vocal punctuations (cha cha cha, cha cha!). This music rewards only the attentive listener. The more gentle, melodic “To Be Over” makes a perfect closer for this brilliant album.
The cover art for Relayer is one of Roger Dean’s most beautiful paintings. I felt fortunate to see this finely detailed work up close at a San Francisco Art Exchange showing in 2009, prior to seeing a Yes and Asia gig in the city. Roger once described the painting: “Relayer was really a pencil drawing –I’ve said it jokingly but it was almost painted with dirty water- its got so little color in it. It wasn’t a conscious intention to do a contrast– it was just how that should have been – just the right way to do it – to this day it’s definitely one of my top 3 favorites.” A poem by Donald Lehmkuhl sets the tone for Jon’s lyrics and Roger’s cover art; it begins with the line, “Snakes are coiled upon the granite.” As rendered, the artwork imagines an otherworldly, nearly colorless historical setting for “Gates” creating the perfect packaging to match the musical genius inside.
THE 2014 STEVEN WILSON REMASTER
As to the latest remastering, the CD and Blue-ray DVD present the best sounding versions of the albums I’ve heard to date. In an interesting turn of events, the battle sound effects from the original mix of “Gates” are not included on the remastered versions of that track as they were not found on the multitrack master tapes. Not to worry, as original album versions, including two with the needle drop are included on the DVD. In addition we get single edits of “Soon” and “Sound Chaser” along with a studio run through of each track. It’s nice to have the clean Blu-ray stereo pressing of “Sound Chaser” live from Cobo “Hall” (an arena in Detroit, Michigan) in 1976, though it was previously available on The Word Is Live, and would have been more valuable had it been paired with “Gates” (which appeared on YesShows) and a version of “To Be Over” from the prior year. It would in fact have been a notch better if an alternate live performance of the entire album was included, and even more interesting if any live video had been added. Having said that this now definitive set contains a wealth of audio to consume and appreciate.
TOURS AND LIVE RECORDINGS
As to live video, the only complete film from this period is a valuable if flawed document of the Relayer tour at Queen’s Park, London from May 10, 1975. The picture is excellent considering the era, though because it’s the early leg of the tour, and the band played during daylight, the staging effects are poorly captured. Unfortunately, the sound is poor during the first segment of the show, and never completely recovers. At some date we may see unearthed footage from later segments of this tour, which eventually ended with the most impressive staging of the band’s history. For now it is the most important footage of this incarnation of Yes.
The staging by Roger and Martyn Dean represented a massive undertaking for the ensemble during the long tour. If we include the 1976 “solo albums” leg of the journey, there were almost 150 performances between November 1974 to late August 1976. The staging went through three iterations – beginning with the Tales set, followed by a set dubbed “Barnacles” for the second U.S. visit between June and July of 1975. A subsequent tour with the same lineup but no new Yes album to support came in May of 1976. Dubbed the “solo albums” tour, this is still referred to by most as part of the Relayer tour, though “To Be Over” had been dropped from the set list to make way for a few alternate and solo tracks. Most importantly, the break left time for Martyn Dean to conceive of his most stunning staging yet, the “Crab Nebula.”
The “Crab Nebula” was a three-headed creation that towered over the band, fit out with spotlights, and built to emerge and vanish during the show, because as Martyn noted “Anything that’s onstage for three hours becomes boring if you can’t make it vanish.” Ten people worked for three months on the “Crab Nebula” structure, made with wood, aluminum, foam, plaster and varnish, resulting in a transportable, sturdy construction that kept it intact and functional through the summer tour of stadiums and coliseums, which ended in August of 1976. This was part of Martyn’s work with Yes over a seven-year period, when he and his team produced increasingly sophisticated and impressive staging. Along with the cloth backdrop designed by Roger and made by Felicity Youlette, it represented scenery and craft raised to the level of artful theater.
Music, lyrics, poetry and art come together on Relayer, creating a sumptuous package. Considered along with its legendary performances, this is one of the pinnacles of 1970’s era progressive and classic rock.
More to come on this fantastic album, its long tour, and its place as one of the most theatrical works of the progressive era, when I finish my next book! In the meantime, collect these discs and put on your headphones…
Circuline was founded in 2014 by Andrew Colyer (keyboards, vocals), Bill Shannon (guitars, vocals), and Darin Brannon (drums, percussion). Each had played with groups that covered progressive and classic rock masters along with original material. For this new band the desire was to make a concerted go of it – to write and record new original material to bring to the stage. Lead vocalists Billy Spillane and Natalie Brown joined the group, having performed countless times as singers, actors, dancers, and rock musicians. Paul Ranieri plays bass along with Matt Dorsey on a handful of tracks as well. The band are about to release their debut album, and are booked for a series of concerts this spring.
Circuline’s debut album is filled with modern progressive rock gems. Its sound is dramatic and technically advanced, yet accessible and melodic. The balance of dramatic dark and light tones that can be so difficult to achieve seems to come easy for this outfit. Tracks like the opener, “Return” shine with tight vocal harmonies, well-tuned toms, and bass, grand piano, and clean synth leads. Follow up “Nebulae” draws the listener in with it’s ambient intro building to a tight fusion style guitar lead, all ending in the sound of crashing thunder and the sound of rain fading away. “Imperfect” shines with beautiful melody followed by “Fallout Shelter” which sports a monster sized dissonant jam on guitar, atop crashing drums, sounding as frightening as the title implies. Instant favorite “Silence Revealed” (click here for YouTube audio) closes the album with a compelling summary of all that comes before, ending a journey that is challenging and appealing.
I talked to Andrew Colyer one of the founders of the band and it’s keyboard player and backing vocalist. Andrew came to the world of progressive music a bit later in life than some, which affords him a balance of pop and prog influences. I started by asking him about these influential bands, and wanted him to elaborate just a bit about artists as disparate as Happy The Man, and Ambrosia:
Andrew: My favorite keyboard players include the greats: Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Tony Banks, Jan Hammer, Jordan Rudess, Chick Corea, Lyle Mays, Herbie Hancock, Bruce Hornsby, Keith Jarrett but Eddie Jobson is my favorite. I’ve seen Eddie live several times –when they played on CTTE in 2013, everyone was stunned into silence. At the end of the show, when people are usually chit chatting, nobody was saying a word – they were so awesome you couldn’t speak. As far as I’m concerned, Eddie is the man to beat.
Jan Hammer was the first guy to use the pitch bend wheel to really make the keyboard sound expressive, like a guitar player. I think it was Jeff Beck who said his favorite guitar player is Jan Hammer.
Kit Watkins was a phenomenal synth player, who worked with Frank Wyatt and Stanley Whitaker in Happy The Man. Frank and Stan went on to form Oblivion Sun. What I really like best in this music are Frank’s chord changes – it all starts with the chords and song for Frank, and he and Stan come up with these odd rhythms. I know Frank, am in contact with the band and may record and play with them live in the future.
I liked Ambrosia in the 70s and they were on the first Cruise To The Edge. Before that show, I didn’t know they had those progressive origins. I grew up listening to Kasey Casem’s top 40 and movie soundtracks and so in the late 70s “Biggest Part of Me” and those soft rock hits caught my ear with their 5 part vocal harmonies, interesting chord changes – today they still sound terrific – just like on the record.
Doug: You mentioned the focus Circuline also takes with vocals and harmonies, making space within the compositions for vocals to shine.
Andrew: That was one of Darin’s rules. Billy Natalie and I met before this band was formed and both of them are great singers – the three of us together have a really nice sound. And Bill (guitar) also sings so we can do 4 part harmonies. For this band we definitely want to feature the vocals – I think it makes the music more accessible. It doesn’t matter how great the music is – if you don’t have great vocalists I don’t believe people are going to come back again to see a band. You can do enough marketing to get people to come out and see a band once, and you want that reaction where they want to come back, and bring their friends with them. For us to have the caliber of vocalists in Billy and Natalie and not feature them would be a wasted opportunity. We’ve already been labeled “crossover” prog, which is good with us, because we would like to be more accessible, more viable as an ongoing band. We know that when you see an artist like Steven Wilson or Sound of Contact you can relate to the music and come away ready for more.
Doug: When it comes to performing these songs live, we’ve discussed the theatricality of a concert – the range between simply a powerful emotive presentation and costumes, staging and lights – how do you approach your live shows?
Andrew: Besides Billy fronting No Quarter for 6-7 years he has also performed all over the world as an actor and dancer. Natalie had a 30-year career as an actor – she had the lead in Evita twice – that was her full time job. First, our dress is different – we have a rule – no t-shirts, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. It s a personal thing – we believe that if we are going to ask somebody to leave their home, and pay money to see us we should at least try to look good. None of us care for the “rock n roll” thing where the band looks like they haven’t had a shower for a week, and are wearing ripped up t-shirts and jeans. We are going to try to look like we belong on stage. Second, some of the theatricality has to do with the way Billy and Natalie present the music, either their facial expressions or gestures while singing – they have the ability to play off each other while playing to the audience at the same time. Because they are trained they have a way of doing that and make it part of the performance. It’s just who they are.
In the 70s having the music being progressive was new enough – in todays world, people see things like Katy Perry and the Super Bowl halftime shows, Taylor Swift with her huge stage sets, Billy Joel who has a big rotating stage, lights, and show – what people can see live or on YouTube has them used to getting some kind of visuals with the music – something happening on stage. Some musicians can still come out and stand still, just playing their instruments. We are looking to include some movement, and drama to benefit us, and our audience.
Doug: By the way, what happened to your Trumpet?
Andrew: For 10 years, I played in Jr. High, High School and college in multiple bands and there is just no time to keep up with my horn, but I really miss playing. The big band stuff is really fun. People make fun of “Sussudio” by Phil Collins, but listen to those horn lines! Maybe I can incorporate it playing the horn my right hand, and keys with my left. Pat Metheny did a long composition live and the trumpet player had a mic, and a bunch of guitar effects pedals – reverb, delay – he could do a bunch of great effects. It would be great to incorporate an approach like that in the future.
Doug: The keys sound congruous throughout the record – lots of patches within a tight family of sounds. Bill stretches out on Fallout Shelter with that dissonant guitar passage. It comes just after “Imperfect.” Was there a plan to its placement on the record?
Andrew: I tried to use different keyboard patches on every song – and Bill was conscious of his tone – we tried to blend these together. We are very particular about our parts, and dial things up and back in service of the song.
Imperfect was “the pretty song” on the record. Bill and I had the idea in the studio and we recorded it and forgot about it for about 3 months. Near the end of the recording we thought, “lets go back to that ballad we were working on.” We played it back and decided to include it – no mixing, no overdubs – the performances were flawed – I have plenty glitches and notes, but we did not want to go back and redo it – we captured a moment, and we thought, let’s put it on the record and call it “Imperfect.” For Fallout Shelter the working title was “Brand X Jam” – Darin gets to do his Billy Cobham drum solo – so it was a jam we recorded at The Cave (recording studio) and we kept Bill’s original guitar track as the basis. Later I wrote the big kind of epic chords and the synth part ending. We put “Fallout Shelter,” the most demented song, after “Imperfect,” the prettiest one!
Circuline feature the new album in concert on April 24-26, on a double-bill with Glass Hammer, and are filming and recording the show for DVD at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, New York. Additional gigs with Glass Hammer include the New Jersey ProgHouse, and Orion Studios in Baltimore. They also have three nights in May for the Sonic Voyage Festival with a great lineup of bands, and are looking to start their second album this summer. Circuline will also record additional videos, which are to include short videos for Internet TV, some of which will be videos of their social time together. Next year they are planning to get into some of the summer festivals, which book at the beginning of the year. Watch for these events from this new and engaging progressive rock band!
Sparkle in the Rain, released in February of 1984, went to #1 in the UK, even when it was a big turn in the road for Simple Minds. The release came on the heels of the more gentile New Gold Dream from the prior year, which had a production draped in layers of lush, romantic synth, and echoes of Roxy Music, Japan, and Duran Duran. In contrast, Sparkle In The Rain presented a muscular, aggressive version of the band, a demanding wall of sound produced by Steve Lillywhite, who had been at the helm for U2, Peter Gabriel, Siouxsie and the Banshees and others. It’s a classic album from the 1980’s that should be in every collector’s catalog.
The Album The album begins with a count in for opening track “Up On The Catwalk” (1,2, 1-2-3-4) followed by the crack of drummer Mel Gaynor’s snare in time with Mick McNeil’s ringing piano chords on his new Yamaha Grand. It’s a fantastic way to start the album – a powerful song with lyrics about hypocrisy in Britain, constructed from a riff and a promise that “I will be there” instead of a chorus, delivered with urgency by lead singer Jim Kerr. Throughout the record, guitarist Charlie Burchill’s adds rhythms, serpentine licks and washes of color to each track, often begging the attentive listener to wonder how he is achieving the sound. Again on this album as with their back catalog, bassist Derek Forbes, one of the absolute best players in that era, drives many of the tracks with his propulsive, creative leads – demonstrated by just a cursory listen to the hit “Waterfront” or “Kick Inside of Me”, the latter including fierce vocals from Jim that sounds as if he is actually shaking off fearful ghosts:
And we steal the world and live to survive
Shake out the ghosts and turn around
In spite of me, shake up the ghosts inside of me
Now full time drummer Mel Gaynor smacks his snare with what seems like Herculean might – and when he runs the toms from top to bottom its like the roar of approaching thunder. This coupled with Derek’s monster bass leads, establish the bottom end of the sound, and part of said wall, through which it often seems the bits of piano, synth and guitar emerge, shine, then fade back into the mix. Jim’s vocals work in and around the music structured more often than not in a scat-like rather than verse-chorus-verse form, something that made this band unique among peers. All of these elements combine to create the brilliant things found herein.
The Box Set Last week a newly re-mastered version of this landmark album was released in a box set format. It includes the original album re-mastered in stereo and various surround sound mixes by prog wizard Steve Wilson, an audio recording of a live concert from the era, a few videos, and live performances from the BBC and various TV shows, a beautiful re-print of the concert program for the tour, and a complete background on the album, with track by track liner notes. This is all aimed at the collector, rather than casual fans, and it is we who will be impressed.
The first disc presents the original album re-mastered with all the clarity and shine one would hope. Bass and drums appear warm, midrange is full without sounding muddy, and the top end is all shimmering clarity. The audio herein is of the highest quality – critical for this album because in compressed formats the engineer’s wall of sound can be noisy and overwhelming. Disc two has the B-sides and rarities – mostly edits or extended mixes of the album tracks – it’s the least essential of the set. Things get more interesting on discs three and four, which present a live concert from early in the tour, recorded at Barrowland Glasgow on February 28, 1984. It’s an excellent document that captures the band on their home turf and in their prime. Called the “Tour du monde”, the tour to support Sparkle… included a seven-night residency at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was the last tour of that period booked primarily in the smaller theaters. I caught it at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on a night that cemented their vaulted place in my heart. The recording herein is a potent reminder of the band’s live prowess at this time. After this tour, the next album Once Upon A Time took the band to stadiums where much of the subtlety found here was lost for a time.
Rounding out the forth disc are three performances captured at a Radio One Session in London 1983, including an interesting, more rhythmic, sparing sound for “Waterfront” and “The Kick Inside of Me” indicating perhaps what the record might have sounded like if the band continued more in the vein of it’s prior release.
The DVD presents the album in various 5.1 surround formats, along with a high-resolution stereo mix. These surround mixes are not always worthy, but in this case, they reveal details in the songs that reward the attentive listener. Uncharacteristically, bass and drums are presented strongly on the rear channels, allowing the guitar, keys and vocals more space in front. If you have a system for this, and ever find yourself spinning a CD and really listening to it, than these mixes are worth the price of the set.
Also included on the DVD are three videos, followed by television appearances of the same tracks – “Waterfront,” “Speed You Love To Me,” and “Up On The Catwalk.” The latter two live videos, though truncated by credits, are taken from a performance on the Oxford Road Show at the end of January 1984, just before the album was released. Of all the television and live concert appearances of the band at the time, this is one of the greatest – as the two tracks are played faithfully to studio versions, allowing us to be witness to just how their sound was achieved, certainly answering the question, “just what is Charlie playing!”
Because Sparkle in the Rain sits in their catalog between the romantic New Gold Dream, and the subsequent more commercial smash Once Upon A Time, it might escape the attention it deserves. In fact, booklet liner notes suggest the album promised that greater things were to come from the band. There is an assertion that the album might be considered transitional – even Jim Kerr is quoted as saying the songs on the second half of the album needed more time to develop and that while the album showed their evolution, it was not a landmark, favoring instead the more song oriented follow-up Once Upon a Time, produced by American Jimmy Iovine. Of “Speed Your Love to Me” Jim opines that “with a less puzzling arrangement it could have been …a huge hit” for the band adding that he wished they had left “Street Hassle”, a Lou Reed cover, off the record. Perhaps these comments make the best argument for a re-evaluation of this work, and the box set treatment with engineering from Steve Wilson.
Instead for this observer the album’s true place is as their landmark creation, besting its follow-up, more directly commercial cousin as the pinnacle of their achievements in the 80’s. It is as one fan called it “art school rock with fantastic bombast.” Before deciding for yourself, check out this set in all of its grandeur.
I actually tried to return this album to my local “Licorice Pizza” record store after spinning it just once, back when it was released in 1977. At that time, it was more common for a local record shop to employ teens who might help guide you to new records based on your taste, instead of making you feel like a complete idiot. Knowing I was a huge fan of all things Genesis the clerk encouraged me to keep it for another week and try again, that “it wasn’t rock ‘n roll, but I’d like it.” I loved the brilliant second Genesis album, Trespass, and knew that Anthony Phillips had been their guitar player then, but leaned a bit more towards the sound of “The Knife” than “Stagnation” at age 17. However, I followed his advice and have thought for over 30 years now about the thanks I should have given him for convincing me to keep this amazing record, one of the most beautiful thematic albums ever recorded.
That The Geese and the Ghoststill comes up in Gracenote as a “Rock” album still brings a smile. The record is actually a combination of classical, renaissance and pastoral folk pieces, sporting three tracks in the verse-chorus mold. After short musical intro, the opening track “Which Way The Wind Blows” is sung in delicate tones by Phil Collins, recorded before he took on lead vocals for Genesis. The music and lyrics set the mood perfectly for what is to come:
I sit in the sunset Watching God’s evening, Receding so gently now Into the Westlands. I think I’m at peace now But of nothing am I certain Only which way will the wind blow next time?
Phil’s pretty, choirboy like vocals and 12 string guitar accompaniment draw the focused listener back to another, simpler time, evoking the pastoral scene gracing the album’s front cover. It’s one of the most graceful, exquisite songs of all time.
What follows is a magnificent showcase of acoustic 6 and 12 string guitars, bass, cello and violin (with occasional orchestra), winds (including flute, oboe, recorders, and lyricon), and all manner of piano and keyboards, with sparing use of electric guitar, drums and percussion. Besides Phil Collins and Michael Rutherford of Genesis, additional guests will be familiar to fans, including John Hackett (brother of Steve) on flute and Jack Lancaster (Blodwyn Pig, Lancaster Lumley, Aviator, and many others) on flute and lyricon. Viv McAuliffe sings a duet with Phil on “God If I Saw Her Now” – a lovely delivery on this touching song.
The featured tracks are two suites, the renaissance sounds of “Henry: Portraits from Tudor Times” and the title track “The Geese and the Ghost.” These suites are multi layered acoustic masterpieces featuring dexterous 12 string guitar playing, composed by Anthony and Mike – much of it way back when Trespass itself was written, then developed over the ensuing years. Anthony sings a third vocal track, “Collections,” in his breathy, quavering manner, ending the record with one of the most emotive, poignant piano pieces ever put to record, “Sleepfall: The Geese Fly West” ending with an orchestrated coda so delicate it seems to vanish in the distance of an imagined dusky sunset.
The material for the album was written and recorded over a period of seven long years, before finally seeing the light of day, due mainly to busy schedules and record label indifference. It’s a wonder the album did get released on Passport records in the states and Hit and Run records in the UK and elsewhere. That it did, and is now available in this new re-mastered release from the Esoteric label, available at Cherry Red records, is a blessing.
The three-disc set is by far the best presentation of this material since the original LP release. The stereo CD is crisp, clean and most importantly quiet. The DVD disc includes a version of the main album in a 5.1 surround sound mix. These 5.1 mixes, which have been so popular of late for progressive rock re-masters, often don’t satisfy, but this is a case where they accomplish what is intended. The mixes place the listener right in the center of the dense acoustic recordings, illuminating additional detail, and retaining all the clarity and integrity of the stereo version.
A second disc of bonus tracks include several that fans will already know – one of the best being the track Anthony recorded with Mike and Phil in 1973, “Silver Song,” written for departed early Genesis drummer John Silver. This is followed by what might have been a B-side “Only Your Love” from the same period. The two tracks feature Phil again on vocals at a level of quality that should have made his replacement of lead singer Peter Gabriel two years later an easier decision. Apparently there had been consideration of making this a side project while the Genesis gem Selling England By The Pound was being written. Amazing how much music was pouring from these talented musicians during that period. Besides Anthony’s “Master of Time,” the rest of the bonus tracks are demos and outtakes from Geese – of interest mainly to fans who may want to dissect the final product. One last thing as far as content – it should be noted that a short segment of additional material was found for “Henry” – a reprise of “Lute’s Chorus” that will please fans and new converts alike.
The package is a spoil of riches – Phil Smee at Waldo’s Design & Dream Emporium should be commended! Within a sturdy CD sized box comes the three discs, each in a thick paper slipcase, adorned with blown up images from the magnificent cover painting by artist Peter Cross. A fold out poster is included with the album cover and byline on one side, and the narrative for “Henry” on the other, each of the six segments include the original line drawings along with the text. For the uninitiated, it will aid your enjoyment of the record to read these while actually sitting down to listen – as actress and fan Rosanna Arquette nicely puts it, “…there is this feeling of hope, innocence, and fantasy when you made music for the sake of music rather than a single or hit record. It’s a whole experience, not just a chapter, but the book read cover to cover.” That booklet that includes this heartfelt quote, details the work and it’s long path to its March 1977 release, including liner notes and gratitude from Anthony. It includes photos and original adverts, which describe the album in a most fitting way for the time: “The Geese and the Ghost is a musical panorama from the intimacy of haunting love songs through the majesty of historical pageants to the drama and destruction of war.”
No question this album rewards the focused listener who is open to classical and renaissance era music, with just a hint of progressive “rock” for good measure. It’s [not] only rock ‘n roll, but I like it ….rather, I love it.
Back in the tumultuous days of 1975 the progressive rock movement was in full flight. At that time, considering the amazing array of artwork that graced record album covers, it was often the case that one might explore a new band based on the strength of the package. Such was the case for me with the band Gryphon, and their third album Red Queen to Gryphon Three. The music was as fantastic as implied by the sumptuous cover painting by Dan Pearce – an older man contemplating his chessboard in a pastoral scene recalling the Renaissance era.
Gryphon recorded 5 albums from 1971-1977, each with a slightly different contemporary take on traditional English folk music including medieval and Renaissance sounds, and original compositions, which blended traditional instruments like bassoon, crumhorn, recorders and mandolin, with modern electric bass, guitar, and keyboards. This album was my introduction to the band.
Being from California, I never had the chance to see the group ply their trade live, though I was well aware they opened for Yes in Britain and on the east coast in 1975. Recently, to our great excitement, we booked tickets to see Gryphon this May in England, as they have reformed and are staging a short tour for the first time in 39 years.
I had the chance to talk with David Oberle, drummer, percussionist, and vocalist for Gryphon about their history including their rare live performances:
Gryphon had 5 incarnations effectively – every album was so different. I’ve played albums to people who thought there were different bands! There was a natural progression, as we developed the band. The first album Gryphon (1973) established us. The music we wrote for a Tempest performance was to form the basis of Midnight Mushrumps (1974). That second album maybe appeared inaccessible to a lot of people who had liked our first one – not only do you need to have an appreciation of more classically based music you might need to be a musician to really understand it!
The title track, Midnight Mushrumps, was performed at the Old Vic in July 1974 – the only rock concert ever held at Britain’s National Theatre – is there a recording of that show?
This was a wonderful opportunity. Our publicist at the time Martin Lewis does have the master, recorded on four track, though over a period of time tapes disintegrate – he plans to see if we can get it digitized – we probably have only one run at it before the tape falls apart! There is an old cassette of it, but only good enough for a reference. It is of historic interest as it’s true – we were the only band to ever play at the Old Vic. When we did the Queen Elizabeth Hall show in 2009, Sir Peter Hall, who had directed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “The Tempest” at the Old Vic, attended, which was a huge honor.
After this, you released Red Queen to Gryphon Three, which seems your most progressive album, complete with Moog synth leads and electric bass, and you toured with Yes
The tour in support of Yes began back when Red Queen to Gryphon Three just came out. We were a good balance for them because we were very English but very different from them. They had been great heroes of ours for a long time. The connection there was that Richard and Brian were at The Royal College of Music at the same time as Rick Wakeman and he introduced us to the Yes management and that’s how we got the gigs. The tour we opened for them was in support of their Relayer record, with Patrick Moraz on keyboards. We played for about 45 minutes a set list typical of the time – tracks from the first three albums. In the states, we made it to the east coast but not the west.
Red Queen to Gryphon Three, our third, was probably the most accessible of our albums, and most of the time the one people mention. The prog rock scene here and in America was beginning to open up, and audiences were growing. We were friends with the Yes guys and were influenced by what they were doing – but we also wanted to keep the instrumentation different. When we originally toured America I think there was an interest in what we were doing with the more traditional instruments. Richard and Brian were classically trained. As the band went on, what Graeme and I were doing came more to the fore. When we got Phil Nestor on bass the thing began to shift. Before then we had effectively no bottom end – Brian was playing bassoon and that with the bass drum was the low end. All of the sudden we introduced electric bass and the whole sound just exploded and took it to something completely different.
A reader survey here in the UK a couple years ago in classic rock magazine put Red Queen at number 5 in the top 100 prog albums of all time – it’s a shame the sales did not reflect that but its nice when something like that happens because it means its not just the older people who are interested – Classic Rock magazine has a reasonable spread of ages in the readership – so its nice to see it come to the attention of new listeners. I hope we can perpetuate that.
Your final release, Treason, in 1977 took even more of a rock direction, but marked the end of the band at that time.
The story behind Treason was that Brian Lane, who was Yes’s manager at the time got us signed by Clive Davies to Aritsta Records in the States. Raindance (1975) our fourth was a bit of a mish-mash and really went nowhere. We got out of the contract with Transatlantic and signed with EMI Harvest in the U.K. Treason was produced by Mike Thorn – he was responsible for getting the Sex Pistols signed to EMI, so enough said! That was when the whole punk thing came in and ran over so many bands here and in the states. Suddenly there was this new music – it was a different approach, a different way. People didn’t want to go to stadiums and see bands with dry ice and everybody dressed in up in costumes and things flying around stage. It was just four guys and a light bulb and that was it. It flattened a lot of bands. We hadn’t ticked up to the size of audience where we could survive it. Bands like Yes, King Crimson and Genesis – they were already there – they were established and kept their following. Maybe if we started a year earlier, we might have made it. Also, all 5 of our albums were different and some fans did not follow us through all of them. Someone who liked our debut album might not like Treason. In the 70’s we literally had nuns sitting next to Hell’s Angels in the audience – it was seriously diverse!
Tell us about the new tour and what we might expect from the current lineup.
We are spreading the word now for the new tour – the last proper tour was 39 years ago. Some of the people who will come to this concert weren’t even born when we started. What you will see with this version of Gryphon is us going back to our roots. We will have the prog influences but we will steer away a bit from the electric side of our work and focus on the acoustic.
We know a lot of the audience are “silver surfers” that are our age, but if you look at the web stats, there are guys 15-24 years olds telling us they found our records in their dad’s collection and are looking forward to seeing us. It’s medieval meets the 20th century!
There are a couple of video clips of the 2009 show – any plans to record a concert?
The reason we did not film the show last time was the steep fees we would have faced from the venue. Now we are thinking of recording the Union Chapel gig. There a lot of comments on our site from the states and other locations –people who can’t come – and if we can manage it, a film would be a way to get the show to them. The editing and production can be very costly, so we will see. We are going out and playing 200-300 seat theaters – I don’t know if it’s the same in America but these days its getting really difficult to get people out to see bands. We have to reinvent ourselves.
The other situation is that Richard spends a lot of his time writing, and is doing very well – he does not need to play with Gryphon for the pay – he is in LA for 5 weeks recording for Disney, and he lives 6 months of the year in Thailand. Consequently we get a limited window. Gryphon was really his band – his idea from the start. This has made it difficult to put together new material and perform live. The change in concert really came when we invited multi-instrumentalist Graham Preskett to play with us. He is a long-standing friend of the band and he’s added a huge amount to the new lineup. With him there we can almost recreate Midnight Mushrumps perfectly. After 40 years we’ve all gone off and done stuff and come back again – the musical core of knowledge we have now has increased tremendously. All of us are dragging along a history behind us that we did not have when Gryphon first kicked off. Back in the 70’s when we were creating it we were really just a bunch of hoodlums (laughs) so with 40 years of experience you start to learn a few new tricks.
In total there are six gigs. There are complaints we are not going north past Birmingham, but we would have liked to. We will try these dates and if it works, the agent will have the ammunition he needs to go north, based on the reviews and attendance.
We’ve decided to do this tour because there’s something going on – our web traffic says there is real interest (210,000 hits to date) and traffic to the Facebook page is increasing. We just did an interview for Record Collector, so even the press is picking up on the story. We will present Gryphon to fans and hopefully gain some new friends along the way.
After a very long wait we will be coming over from San Francisco to see the first night of the tour in Wolverhampton. It promises to be a special night – if you are not aware of Gryphon, check them out, then climb out of that comfy chair, and make it to one of these gigs!