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Neil Young Trans (1982)


I’d like to think that by now most of you understand where I’m coming from. Be that as it may, there will likely be a percentage of you who will not understand why a writer who has chosen to focus on progressive music would have anything to do with Neil Young. Never mind that he was a driving force behind the proto-grunge movement and helped in no small way to define the Seattle Sound… and that he has, for that matter, hopped around from genre to genre leaving his mark in each one for the better part of forty five years. Forget that he’s a Canadian national treasure and, though I normally don’t buy into that sort of thing, I love him for it. No, if there’s any one reason to include Neil in our stroll through the history of prog, it’s his criminally underrated album Trans.

The seeds of the album were sown in his third album with his sometimes backing band Crazy Horse, 1981′s While trying to find therapeutic ways to relate to his second son (both of Young’s sons were born with cerebral palsy), Neil acquired a synclavier and a vocoder. The synclavier made its way onto, which, while it did feature the proto-grunge elements of Rust Never Sleeps, was written off by most die hard fans as an attempt to merge with the popular new wave movement, a dominating force in the post-punk landscape of the early eighties.

After signing with David Geffen in 1982, Neil briefly began work on a more familiar-sounding record which was to be called Island in the Sun, but Geffen expressed that he would like to hear something a little stronger. Young’s focus shifted once again to the sessions with his son. He quickly built a concept out of the boy Ben’s inability to speak. Using the vocoder to mutate his speech, Young combined the reality of the then emerging and computer age with his son’s struggle to communicate to create a work that would depict the irony of the ‘information age.’ Though three of the tracks from Island in the Sun would be included as something familiar, the six remaining tracks would feature vocoder-processed lyrics which, with a few exceptions, would be entirely indiscernible. The fruit of this brilliantly progressive concept is Trans.

The first track on the album is one of the ones from the Island sessions and I can only imagine it caused a great deal of confusion among the man’s loyal fan base. “Little Thing Called Love” is a very familiar type of Neil Young track, even going so far as to include a very “Harvest Moon”-like guitar hook after the chorus. I suppose this track was placed first on the album to remind everyone that this was in fact a Neil Young album. The next track, however, hurls us directly into the grand Trans concept.

To me, the album’s second song, “Computer Age,” is one of the greatest examples of how prog mutated and survived throughout the eighties. Although most hardcore prog fans consider the emergence of new wave and electronic music as anti-progressive (believe me, most of it was just fluff created to entertain a mindless pop-culture majority), I find it very difficult to write off intelligent concepts that used the emerging popular sound as a tool to make intelligent concepts heard rather than dismissed. The song begins with a synth beat that will sound familiar to haters of the current electropop resurgence. For the love of prog, try not to think of it this way! I’ll say it once so that we’re clear: the modern electro-resurgence is entirely made up of mass-produced tripe that makes money because little girls can dance to it and say ‘hehehe, that sounds funny!’ and spread it around the net in the form of the ever-popular meme… and the only self-respecting male that can listen to it is only listening to it to get girls. In this way, it is akin to disco. For heaven’s sake, the difference between that and the handful of intelligent experimental electronic composers from the late seventies and early eighties is night and day! Neil Diamond and Tony Iommi both used guitars, are they the same? Pardon the outburst; I’m sure the majority of you are mature enough to understand this album.

The aforementioned beat brings us into a strikingly bleak sound and then to one of the most beautiful guitar hooks I have ever heard. The whole sound before we even get to vocals is perfect for the growing sense of the emergent cut-throat big business dystopia that so populated the eighties underground (i.e. Blade Runner and anything by author William Gibson). The vocoder-filtered vocals finalise the picture and illustrate well the oft-explored concept of a future where humanity comes in clips and sentence fragments.

This dystopian concept is even more prominent in “We R In Control,” and by this point, if you aren’t familiar with his guitar tone, you likely won’t recognise this as a Neil Young song. However, even with the electro-saturation, one can still hear Young’s ingenius ability to implement catchy hooks in any and all types of music. This and all the rest are wholly typical Neil Young tunes if that they are cleverly disguised on the exterior. One needs only to closer inspect the compositions. As proof of this, “Transformer Man” has been performed in acoustic form, notably on his MTV Unplugged album.

The second side begins with another, more familiar-sounding tune (complete with the infinitely more natural sounds of pedal steel and electric piano) but then we’re right back into the prevailing concept with the sprawling “Sample and Hold” which, while quite dancy (cringe), contains subtle and atmospheric guitar playing that I bloody love. We are eased out of the synth stuff with “Mr. Soul,” a song that to me is pretty much a straight-forward electro interpretation of a straight-up rock ‘n’ roll tune. The album’s coda is the bitchin’ “Like An Inca,” the nearly ten minute track that makes this album a must even for fans who will skip the electronic stuff. “Like An Inca” is the third non-concept track intended for Island in the Sun and it is seventies Neil all the way!

Because I feel it is one of the neatest, the album’s cover must be mentioned. As one of the first to be drawn on computer, it is nothing short of progressive in its own right.

If you’ve heard the album before and put it down because of its notorious departure from previous works, take what I have put down here and give the album another listen. I, and to a far greater extent I’m sure Neil, would love for you to appreciate Trans for what it’s really about. And if you’re an astral traveller who has been wandering through the depths of prog space and never ever thought to set the controls for Neil Young, you now have good reason to.

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October 18, 2012 • 5:19 pm
Neil Young’s musical journey took a few detours from his style of folk rock/grunge that he was known for. These stylistic sidelines took him to rockabilly (Everybody’s Rockin’), R&B/Blues (This Note’s For You), Pop/New Wave (Landing On Water), and Electronic (Trans). These sidetrips were negatively accepted by both critic and fans when these albums were released. But now, these detours can now be perceived in the proper perspective as Young’s experimentation with other genres for whatever reason they served the artist.

Experimentation – this is probably one of the reasons why Neil Young is one of the last holdovers from the classic rock era. For this, he has earned my respect and admiration.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young Trans | | Leave a comment

Neil Young Sleeps With Angels (1994)


This album seems to be having a pretty tragic life: I, with no exaggeration, see at least one copy of it at every used record store I browse, every time. Fair enough; none of the songs have found their way into the popular Neil Young canon. But fuck it. I say this is the one Neil Young album where form most closely meets content, and that’s why it’s a great work of art.

A lot of people talk about albums being “depressing” for whatever reason. You hear it a lot about Tonight’s The Night – you actually hear it enough as an adjective for Neil’s music as a whole – but as far as I’m concerned Sleeps With Angels is the only time he’s recorded music that expresses depression as its primary mood. On Tonight’s The Night, the grief and darkness were sublimated into an unreflective hedonism; Sleeps With Angels, though, has a different energy. Jimmy McDonough, in his classic biography Shakey, calls the use of Crazy Horse on this album “a stroke of genius,” and it’s true; they serve the purposes of the album perfectly. Traditionally, Neil’s collaborations with Crazy Horse are the albums on which he “rocks the fuck out,” as one says. Crazy Horse represents vital, outward, life-directed energy and catharsis.

On Sleeps With Angels though, their playing is uncharacteristic. There are no guitar-squalling climaxes, and the performances are subdued throughout. Crazy Horse has always dragged and thudded – that’s Neil’s vision – but when their playing isn’t pushing forward loud guitars, it can be sluggish and confrontational. And on Sleeps With Angels, this consistently creates tension between Neil’s lyrics and the music.

Listen to “My Heart,” the first song: it sports one of those Neil melodies that seem to have always existed, just needing to be found. But the lyrics: “Down in the valley, the shepherd sees/His flock is close at hand/And in the night sky, a star is falling down/From someone’s hand.” This is how we enter the record: a pastoral nighttime scene is matched with lonely Old West piano, and the distant vibraphone – recorded with just enough reverb, mixed down just far enough to conjure up the image of some kind of celestial decay – completes the image of a “star … falling down.” The image of descent; the decline of Kurt Cobain, star in the very-much-earthbound sense, repeating the pattern Neil observed twenty years earlier in Danny Whitten.

Neil dealt with that death through hedonism and some softer drug use of his own (see: “Hitchhiker”). Now, a family man and elder statesman in rock music, it is driven home to him that the demon has not weakened – but how can he react in this situation? The lyrics on Tonight’s The Night could be grief-ridden, but the music reached for life. The lyrics on Sleeps With Angels, however, reach upward: the refrain of “My Heart” is the hypnotic chant “Somewhere, somewhere/I gotta get somewhere/It’s not too late, it’s not too late/I gotta get somewhere.” The celestial imagery introduced at the beginning of the song makes it clear that Neil’s speaker here is referring to his undefined heaven, the “Dream That Can Last” of the final song (which again employs the tack piano, echoing “My Heart” and bookending the album). But the Horse’s drag-and-thud pulls the lyrical sentiment back down to earth.

But this unorthodox approach makes for, I think, Crazy Horse’s best performance. And if not, Sleeps With Angels is at least the moment in which Frank Sampedro lays the ghost of Danny Whitten to rest. Critics still mourn the loss of Whitten’s scratchy, funk-influenced rhythm guitar playing (which was awesome), but on Sleeps With Angels, the Horse is “on some other shit,” as one says. 14-minute album centerpiece “Change Your Mind” is – and I will fight you on this – the best epic Crazy Horse song. Instead of building to the usual intense catharsis, on “Change Your Mind” the Horse instead break the song down: Ralph Molina reduces the beat to kick and snare, Neil wrenches low, bassy, delayed moans from his guitar, and Sampedro crafts abstract textures, finding the other end of the second-guitarist spectrum from Whitten’s sure rhythm. It’s actually dubby. And it’s the sound of the void that the voice of Neil’s lyrics is looking into.

What I think accounts for this album’s place in my heart, though, comes down to that sense of thrill, wonder, and discovery that I get from a favourite album. I don’t feel like I’ve stressed enough how great the production on this album is: it sounds like all the principals were getting themselves reacquainted with the novelty of what can be done in the studio. We get the guys in Crazy Horse playing unfamiliar instruments: Frank Sampedro plays the heavenly vibes on “My Heart,” a vintage Oberheim on “Safeway Cart,” as well as grand piano on “Driveby” and the brilliant “Western Hero.” And just listen to the latter song on headphones. The way the last note – it actually may be wrong to call it a note and not simply a noise – seems to be sounding off just over your head …

So yeah, I call it Neil Young’s best album. Choose a used record store at random, and pick it up there.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young Sleeps With Angels | | Leave a comment

Genesis Foxtrot (1972)


The winter of 1971 was one of discontent after the unspectacular release of Nursery Cryme. After five years of untiring work and many disappointments the band did not really feel they had made that step ahead. In January 1972, however, they could unexpectedly see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The light came from Belgium where Genesis’ second album topped the charts. This led to their first invitation abroad – and their TV premiere. The band realized that they did not have to focus on their home country to be successful. Soon after they received more surprising news: Their current album had already made it to #4 in the Italian charts. Knowing that the number of their supporters had grown so much gave the band lots of self-confidence. Tour obligations in England did unfortunately not permit them to make their Italian fans happy by playing concerts there right away, but the summer break in the UK proved very convenient.

The shows in Italy and the impressions the band gathered there were very important for their new album because it all was a source of inspiration for the musicians. The band became aware that there were people out there who shared their musical preferences. For the first time they were perceived as stars. Says Peter: “They sent us to Italy for almost the whole summer in order to get us over the period between the end of term at university in June until the beginning of the next term in October. Our weekly income was precarious. Many people thought we had been born with silver spoons in our mouths and that we could always boomerang back home to our parents, but we really did not get any financial support.”

Watcher Of The Skies is a product of this tour: “Mike and I wrote the lyrics for Watcher Of The Skies in Naples when we were staring at this landscape behind the hotel. It was a total wasteland – incredible. We had this idea of an alien that lands on a planet and sees this world in which there was life once, but where now nobody can be seen”, says Tony. Other songs that had been written by this point were Can-Utility And The Coastliners, Get ‘Em Out By Friday (their first song to contain social criticism) and a song that had been extensively tested live, Happy The Man. This last song had been recorded before the Foxtrot recording sessions proper, and it was released to promote the album though it did not end up on the record. Horizons is an instrumental piece for classical guitar that Steve Hackett pulled out of his hat: “When we did Foxtrot I still felt a bit self-conscious because I felt I did not contribute enough to the band. I remember asking: ‘Do you think I should leave because I do not write as much as the rest of you?’ Anyway, they calmed me down by praising my guitar playing, which was the first time I really got any feedback from them. I had an unaccompanied piece called Horizons on the album. It was not just their concession to me. It was something they all liked.”

The band’s euphoria promised a steady stream of ideas when they met in summer to work on their next album. Mike: “Some of it we wrote at a doctor’s house near Chessington, but most of it was written in Ina Billings’ dancing school in Shepherd’s Bush. We were downstairs in a rehearsal room, which meant that we would hear the stamping of the shoes the whole day long.”
Perhaps this noise was a kind of inspiration for the piece of music that many Genesis fans consider The Masterpiece. Tony: “I think Supper’s Ready is by far the best thing we have written – not least because of the combination of ideas.” The bizarre story is in part based on a very moving spiritual experience Peter had with his then wife Jill. Tony describes the way Supper’s Ready developed: “We put it together over a period of two weeks, and we would arrange other songs at the same time. We sorted it by throwing together all the bits we had, and I thought it would become exactly like Stagnation unless we were careful. So I thought we should do something really crazy after this very romantic bit that became How Dare I Be So Beautiful, and this crazy thing was going right into Willow Farm, just stop the song and hurl ourselves into it. Willow Farm was a little song Peter had finished, words and music. Suddenly we all felt good about the idea and put Willow Farm in there, and that gave us the big push to write the rest. The Apocalypse part came from that, it was a kind of improvisation I did with Mike and Phil.” Peter’s personal relation to Supper’s Ready led to good musical results: “It was the first time I felt I had got something good from my voice because I felt I was really singing from my soul – almost as if I were singing for my life.” At the time, however, nobody realized that they had written a real milestone. Remembers Mike: “We did not really realize what we had, we were worried about other songs.”

In August a collective of musicians who had become more mature, more experienced and more self-confident went into Island Studios in London to record their new material they way they wanted it to sound. Things had changed since Nursery Cryme. The musicians had really become a band, they had established their own style and also their sound. Genesis could have produced the album themselves (and would have liked to) because no-one knew better what the band wanted than the band themselves, but Charisma insisted that an external producer be brought in. This did not sit very well with Phil: “Charisma thought we needed a producer, and we made it difficult for everyone because we knew we could do it ourselves. From the middle of Supper’s Ready, from Apocalypse In 9/8 onwards we started to sound really good on record.” The fired producers were Bob Potter and Tony Platt after him and they could not stand either the music or the musicians. In the end, Genesis found a good team in David Hitchcock and a technician and Genesis fan called David Burns.

Recording and producing the album took the best part of two months. Apart from the tracks that made the album the band also recorded Twilight Alehouse. The song hat been a staple in their live repertoire, but it was released only a year after Foxtrot. All in all they were visibly happy about the result. Says Mike: “Foxtrot is probably one of my favourite Genesis records, mainly because of Supper’s Ready.” Tony agrees: “For me it is a really exciting album, very melodramatic, great treble, depths and contrasts. When you listen to it it is very original and exciting, and a very peculiar album as far as writing it was concerned.”

Tony Stratton-Smith, their manager and boss of Charisma, had tears in his eyes when he first heard the completed recordings for the album: “They’re going to make it with this record!” were his words to Richard Macphail, a close friend of the band. Foxtrot was released in October 1972, and everybody agreed that this simply had to be the breakthrough for the band. Fans and critics alike deemed it a masterpiece and took it to #12 in the UK charts. It had become clear that this band could not be ignored anymore, especially not at home.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Genesis Foxtrot | | Leave a comment

Neil Young Broken Arrow (1996)

untitledFrom The Independent

As with all of Neil Young’s Nineties output – and at eight or nine LPs, that’s some output – there is a halfway decent album struggling to get out of Broken Arrow, though struggling is perhaps not the right word. This is more of a stagger.

Second only to Dylan’s in loyalty, Neil’s fans will always be lenient as far as his Crazy Horse records are concerned. They’ve experienced a few too many odd and sometimes downright eccentric career detours over the years not to feel heartened by the group’s presence. Usually, this is with good reason – whatever twists and turns Young makes, this is a band reliable and flexible enough to respond sympathetically, compared with, say, the way Pearl Jam just kept on chugging away through the one- dimensional Mirrorball.

Broken Arrow, however, is no Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Compared to that masterpiece, this is, well, nowhere. Lyrically, it’s Neil’s equivalent to Dylan’s Under the Red Sky, with the most trite of formulations pursued to the point of tedium and beyond. “I’m a little bit high, I’m a little bit low,” he offers in “Scattered (Let’s Think About Livin’)” before going on to make similar routine observations along the lines of wrong / right, here / there, up / down, and so on; it doesn’t exactly pinpoint his position with the precision one might have desired. The rest of the songs are little better, but sometimes eerily similar in their sense of balance. “Have you ever been lost, have you ever been found?” he enquires in the quiet acoustic number “Music Arcade”. Well, yes, you think, but you didn’t feel constrained to write a song about it.

Musically, the meat of the album is concentrated in its first three songs, which cleave to the classic Crazy Horse style – long, ragged and (hopefully) glorious electric guitar workouts with warts in plain view. But it’s pretty poor stuff, even by the shaky standards of Young’s recent work. The 10 minutes of “Loose Change” ride a cumbersome Bo Diddley riff, complete with tail-chasing guitar solo. “Slip Away”, the best track, offers a serpentine reverie to match the woman who, in the song, “just slipped away/ like a river flowing down”, while “Big Time” finds Neil claiming to be “still living the dream”. This may be part of the trouble – for most of Broken Arrow, he’s sleepwalking.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young Broken Arrow | | Leave a comment

Led Zeppelin Intimidator (Montreux, March 1970)


Montreux Casino, Montreux, Switzerland – March 7th, 1970
Disc 1 (53:31): We’re Gonna Groove, I Can’t Quit You Baby, Dazed and Confused, Heartbreaker, White Summer / Black Mountainside, Since I’ve Been Loving You
Disc 2 (58:14): Organ solo, Thank You, What Is And What Should Never Be, Moby Dick, How Many More Times, Whole Lotta Love
Disc 3 (58:31): We’re Gonna Groove, I Can’t Quit You Baby, Dazed and Confused, White Summer, How Many More Times, Whole Lotta Love

Led Zeppelin played at the Casino in Montreux in the middle of their first tour of Europe of the new decade. A year and a half before some stupid with a flare gun burned down the venue, Zeppelin played one of their tightest and most intense sets of the year. Most of the show was recorded from the audience. The tape is rich, deep, powerful and one of the most vivid documents of the band basking in the success of Led Zeppelin II. It is unfortunately incomplete, with minor cuts and with most of “How Many More Times” and “Whole Lotta Love” missing.

The excellent audience tape was pressed onto the vinyl titles Feel All Right – Live In Montreux (Audio Recording Audio Recording Inc. ARC 2002) and copied on Egg On Your Face (Wonderwall GA 104 A-D) and Hammer Of The Gods (Golden Age Entertainments GAE/SS 080102).

Early compact disc titles include Montreaux 1970 (Live Storm 51525), We’re Gonna Groove (Luna Records LU9314) and We’re Gonna Groove (Scorpio), all of which are incomplete and have the wrong date. Better versions of the tape came out after on The Dark Tower (Tarantura T70CD-3, 4), Feel All Right (Cobra Standard Series 003), All That Jazz (The Diagrams Of Led Zeppelin Vol. 033) and Divinity (Atlantic Ocean 208/624 039 2).

A soundboard fragment surfaced with “We’re Gonna Groove,” “I Can’t Quit You,” “Dazed And Confused” and “White Summer” was pressed on Sunshine Woman (Flagge) and were included as bonus tracks on Intimate (Almost Mysterious) (Equinox EX-00-018/019) along with the Berlin show later that summer.

In 2001 a longer version of the soundboard surfaced featuring the complete “How Many More Times” and three minutes of “Whole Lotta Love.” It’s featured on Charisma on Tarantura and Intimidator on Empress Valley. The latter is one of the best productions of the label and has been reissued several times. The most recent came in July 2012, packaged in a quad jewel case.

The first two discs are an edit of the two tapes. The audience tape is obviously the base, but the soundboard is used to fix a gaps in “We’re Gonna Groove” between 2:08 to 2:11, in “White Summer” from 8:28 to 9:50 (a section which includes the dreamy descending riff Page would later use in “Midnight Moonlight”), and cuts in seven minutes into “How Many More Times” and runs through to the end of the show.

Disc three features the entire hour long soundboard in good mono. The audience tape on Intimidator sounds as good as on Divinity, and the edit between the two tapes is very nicely handled.

The show starts off with the rush of “We’re Gonna Groove.” The intensity of the rhythm section challenges Plant to keep up. He even seems to lose his place after the guitar solo. The segue into the slow blues sludge is seamless. The Led Zeppelin track is much heavier and loose than the studio recording and by this time was on its last legs. Zeppelin would drop it from the set then they went to America after this tour and it would reappear in the “Whole Lotta Love” medley in 1973 in a very loose arrangement.

“Dazed And Confused” follows and at this point in Zeppelin’s history is still a fifteen minute psychedelic masterpiece. Plant sings a unique second verse which introdcues a bit of levity in the piece, “I’ve been wonderin’ and I’ve been wandering / tell me what can I do? / I’m in love with a sweet little girl / and she looks exactly like you. But baby let them / say what they will / It’s gonna work out fine now / nothing can change my mind … but I will.”

Robert Plant has some problems with his microphone and attempts a bit of French, saying: “Je casser mon microphone [I broke my microphone]. You feel alright? Well, are we alright? Have we got another one?” From the new album “Heartbreaker” is played with the Jeff Beck Group’s “Rice Pudding” as introduction.

“White Summer” is introduced as “a thing that’s comprised of several different numbers in what might be called a peculiar tuning.”

“How Many More Times” reaches twenty-five minutes and is one of the most intense recordings of the medley available. After introducing the band, the band play the song through the verses and the opening instrumental break which includes references to “Susie Q” and “Beck’s Bolero.” In “The Hunter” Plant pushes the band into John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun’” with references to “Further On Down The Line,” and Page responds with the famous “Hideaway” riff.

Lonnie Donagen’s “Cumberland Gap” is referenced in the Tommy McClennan version of “Bottle Up And Go.” Plant sings ”Now, nickel is a nickel A dime is a dime. I don’ need no girl, If she want wine” and “Now, the nigger and the white man / Playin’, set ‘em up / Nigger beat the white man / Was scared to pick it up.”

The follow with a strange version of “My Baby Left Me” and their only known live reference to Little Richard’s “Jenny Jenny” (making this a true rarity). After Page jams a bit, Plant throws in “The Lemon Song” reference before having the girl in the sight of his gun and the song’s crashing finale. The encore “Whole Lotta Love” cuts out during the middle cacophony which features not only Page’s theremin but Jones’ crashing chords on the organ.

This reprint of Intimidator comes in a standard quad case with nicely design artwork and offered at a more than reasonable price. It seems Empress Valley have drifted away from the awful “TMOQ” style sleeve / inserts garbage they were using for their reissues several years ago and have returned to more standard, but sturdy, packaging. This version is an affordable way for collectors to obtain this worthy show.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Led Zeppelin Intimidator | , | Leave a comment

Steve Hackett Voyage Of The Acolyte (1975)


The idea that Steve Hackett releases a solo album may have shocked many fans. Genesis had just lost their singer and supposed musical mastermind Peter Gabriel, the future of the band seemed uncertain. Was Hackett’s debut another indication that the band was breaking up? He was the first one to release a solo album, and that, too, surprised people, because during Genesis live performance he had always been the most unobtrusive of the lot, sitting still and unmoveable at the side of the stage.

Listening to the album dispelled most of the worries and speculation. The music was very compact and very sophisticated from the first to the last note. A certain ‘Genesis sound’ is evident on the album not only because his band mates Collins (drums, percussion, vocals) and Rutherford (bass, bass pedals, fuzz 12-string) played on it. Hackett’s guitar has moved to the front, though, and the keyboard mostly accompany him.

Hackett could let it all out and show he is a master of the strings, but he does not really. There are many moments, to be sure, where he demonstrates the breadth of his repertoire from classical acoustic to fast and rocky, but all these part remain in the context of the album and the piece in question. Hackett is no show-off, he is a musician and a composer who knows when to show and when to conceal.

He is supported by his band maters and his brother John, whose extraordinarily melodic flute-playing adorns Hackett’s works to this day. Keyboarder John Acock, cello player Nigel Warren-Green and Robin Miller (oboe and the related coranglais) help give this song a sound different from Genesis. Only three songs have vocals. Hackett himself sings on the one, Phil Collins joins him on the second piece while the clear voice of Sally Oldfield can be heard on the third.

While opinions may differ about Hackett’s singing and Oldfield’s vocals are flawless, the drummer’s vocal performance is surprisingly good. Up to this album Collins could only be heard doing backing vocals in Genesis, singing lead vocals only on the ballad More Fool Me which did not win him all the fans’s sympathies. His performance here is solid and shows that he is not only a good drummer but also a fine singer. Those who heard Voyage Of The Acolyte in 1975 will not have had any doubts about Collins’s qualifications as the lead singer when it turned out that Genesis would continue with Collins as the front man.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Steve Hackett Voyage Of The Acolyte | , | Leave a comment

Gram Parsons GP (1973)


Hanging out with Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones had taken its toll on Gram. He was down, and nearly out, his nerves shot by alcohol and his career drifting. Chris Hillman, former band-mate in both The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers conspired to introduce Gram to Emmylou Harris. There was an instant spark when they sang together, and it gave Gram a renewed sense of conviction – leading ultimately to the recording of ‘GP’ and its follow-up, ‘Grievous Angel’.

Gram Parsons had been born into money. So, when Warners turned down his request of hiring three members of the Elvis Presley touring band, he simply paid for their session fees himself. It’s pertinent to remember, Gram had no real public profile and had sold a negligible quantity of records. Being born into money gave him license to almost do as he pleased. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds once remarked that when Gram joined as David Crosby’s replacement ‘it was almost like Mick Jagger had joined The Byrds!’. But, Gram was bitter. He’d played a pivotal role through his work with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers in starting ‘Country-Rock’ only to see the likes of The Eagles reap the commercial fortunes he felt should have been his.

‘GP’ sounds very accomplished musically thanks to the team of top session players Gram had recruited. The real sparks come from the vocals of both Gram and Emmylou, and of course, the songs themselves. Whether the quiver and frailty in some of Grams vocals here really was down to his alcohol abuse, or for other reason – it gives these songs, especially the ballad performances, a huge emotionally resonating quality.

‘Still Feeling Blue’ makes good use of Byron Berline’s fiddle playing as well as featuring attractive Pedal Steel work. It’s a fast-paced song, very celebratory in musical feeling and with Emmylou joining Gram in the chorus parts. ‘We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning’ features slightly wayward Parsons vocals – and it becomes very easy to believe listening to this that his alcohol abuse was part of the reason. Emmylou joins him here throughout the song, pretty much singing co-lead. In fact, she sings far better on this song than Gram himself, but when they do sing together, it sounds pretty nice. A far better song than ‘We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes’ arrives with Grams own ‘A Song For You’. This is where his quivering, frail voice works to best effect, very tender and emotional. Emmylou sings harmony, and the whole song is utterly gorgeous. ‘Streets Of Baltimore’ is one of several covers here, and perfectly well done but lacks the extra sparkle of Grams own compositions.

‘She’ is another spine-chilling ballad, this time with a stupendous Parsons vocal full of emotion. The lyrics are evocative with mentions of ‘delta sun’ and ‘she sure could sing’ over the top of beautifully understated, perfectly appropriate musical parts. ‘That’s All It Took’ is the kind of hokey country tune Elvis Presley might have performed. It’s not very entertaining, although perfectly well performed. ‘The New Soft Shoe’ is another Parsons original, and sounds like many of his songs, totally otherworldy and beautiful – more affecting vocals here in particular. ‘Kiss The Children’ opens with some entertaining fiddle playing, great little pure country guitar parts and is a fun, less serious song. ‘Cry One More Time’ is a little blues, rather strained and breaking the mood of the album a little. ‘How Much I’ve Lied’ contains more accomplished playing, the closing ‘Big Mouth Blues’ a little funky country blues, although like ‘Cry One More Time’ doesn’t sound at all matched to some of the other material here, the Gram Parsons originals in particular.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Gram Parsons GP | | Leave a comment

Steve Hackett Genesis Revisited (1996)


In late August a new Steve Hackett album was released in Japan, and hardly anybody has heard about it before hand. Genesis Revisited follows the trend of the Genesis tribute albums that have come out last year and the first boxset [Archive 1967-1975] that is to come out soon: The album consists of eight remakes of Genesis songs from Steve’s time in the band, the completed version of a hitherto unreleased song Peter Gabriel initiated in 1973 and two of Steve’s own instrumentals.

In a somewhat exhausting prologue Steve explains that he had returned to the “strange yet beautiful planet called Genesis” with a couple of friends from the genre of “permissive music” (which term he prefers to “progressive music”) and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He touches on the problem the Genesis line-up encountered in their songwriting back then and thanks his fans for their continuing support. According to what he said in an interview this project was a healing return to the past; apparently it was triggered by the doubts a fan in Palermo had whether Steve would sign the Genesis record he had brought. Steve explains that attempted to develop the sketches from back then into complete paintings by adding colours and highlighting details through the use of his grown experience, modern technology and a bigger team. Since Steve admits to reworking the old compositions under completely different conditions, one cannot, indeed, must not see this album as a kind of reckoning with the band, a smart-alec product of an egotist or something similar.

Here is a brief list of interesting details from the eleven pieces: The clear sound is the first thing you will notice about the opening song, Watcher Of The Skies (of course!). “Tony’s portentous introduction” (as Steve puts it in the booklet is ruled by violins and still has the desired effect in 1996 – less threatening than it used to be, but gentler instead and very secretive. Instead of the hi-hat a computer comes in with “Phil’s inventive morse code rhythm” (I think it spells the word “heeeeiss”).

John Wetton’s vocals are a bit more conventional than Peter’s, and neither Bill Bruford’s whipping drums nor Julian Colbeck’s quietly grandiose foundation for the verse can complete compensate the odd flaw in the arrangement of the original organ part. The final chord, however, is even more bombastic than you would ever have dreamt – listen for yourselves! The precise bass work comes from Tony Levin. The version of Your Own Special Way, “one of Mike’s most beautiful songs” (arranged by Aron Friedman), removes two flaws from the original: The incompatible time signatures in verse and chorus are replaced with a 4/4 throughout, and the instrumental middle eight with a virtuoso e-guitar solo. Paul Carrack was a superb choice for a singer, his voice complements the wonderful arrangement. Incidentally, Richard Macphail sings backing vocals here. Dance On A Volcano proper is preceded by a brief musical sketch of the “volcano landscape”. When we “glimpse into the crater”, as it were, the famous guitar riff comes in. Steve sing-speaks with an electronically lowered voice. Chester Thompson’s drumming and Alphonso Johnson’s bass work are not as overwhelming as Steve thinks. Dance… evolves into a musical sketch with low notes and heavy rhythm that were inspired by the big Egyptian pyramids. The piece is therefore called Valley Of The Kings, and it has Hackett’s old mate Nick Magnus in it. Déjà Vu is the Gabriel/Hackett piece we mentioned before. It is sung by Paul Carrack again; the accomplished arrangement make it seem like a chorale, and it involves a choir, too. The instrumental in the middle shows Steve sailing through different keys. The listener is then refreshed by Riding The Colossus – with this song Depth Charge, a piece that allegedly dates back to 1962 and was released on the live album Time Lapse, has found its way into the studio, albeit with a different second interlude. The Colossus is a wooden rollercoaster ride in California, and that’s why you can occasionally hear rollercoastersounds. For Absent Friends was arranged for Colin Blunstone and orchestra only as a slow waltz (conducted and arranged, as all orchestra pieces on the album, by Matt Dunkley). It seems a bit as if Blunstone did not feel quite at home with the rhythm.

Steve considers the tale of the first hermaphrodite in The Fountain Of Salmacis a mini-opera, and he adds the odd passage and musical figure. Though these rather dissolve the coherence of the original they provide many a fine moment along with the flute played by Steve’s brother John. Steve sings himself. Waiting Room Only, like The Waiting Room, is an attempt to journey through various moods. The piece does not only involve instruments but also many other recordings from a railway station, a scary/funny theatre and a fun fair. After three and a half minutes a rhythm begins that rules over the rest of the piece. I Know What I Like moves far into the farcical. It has a swing rhythm, Mr. Farmer is given a deep voice, and a jam is attached to the song proper (as in the live versions) before the final repetition of the chorus in which you can also spot Antonin Dvorak’s Humoresque and various musicians are introduced with their instruments (e.g. “toy piano”) … very peculiar.

The best is saved for last: Steve describes Firth Of Fifth as “one of Tony’s finest, in my humble opinion” – and it is a particularly precious gem on this album, too. The former piano intro is performed on glockenspiel and orchestra while a full organ sound supports John Wetton’s vocals. Steve plays the flute part on his “little orchestra”, the six-string acoustic guitar before a hectic new motive is briefly introduced and taken up by the orchestra and other instruments. Calmness returns after a beautiful transition into Steve’s big (though not too long) solo on the electric guitar. We would also like to mention how the orchestra fades in quietly after the piano outro with a piece I cannot place – a fantastic moment! Both The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and …In That Quiet Earth have allegedly been rehearsed but were left off the album. Rumour has it that Steve is currently working with Tony Banks on a remake of Los Endos as a bonus track for the U.S. version of Genesis Revisited.

The cover is a new painting by Kim Poor that illustrates the Creation. Apart from many celestial bodies, some UFO-like objects and a couple of animals the two-colour cover shows Adam and Eva freshly expelled from Paradise. The final evaluation of Steve’s revisit, he concludes, “dear listener, lies with you”.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Steve Hackett Genesis Revisited | , | Leave a comment

Genesis Trespass (1970)


The eighteen months between the release of the Genesis debut in March 1969 and its successor Trespass in October of the following year are probably the decisive period in the history of Genesis. Everybody who knows both records cannot but notice just how impressively much the band had developed their style. Many a crucial experience from this period laid the foundation for what was to come.

Once they had overcome the frustration in the wake of their first record things returned to normal. All of them continued to pursue their education, but the music and the experience of the months behind them would stay with them. Says Tony about his time in university: “I wrote quite a number of songs at that time. I could not play the piano because the music building was still under construction, so I wrote songs on my guitar which I found very interesting… it was a very productive period for me.” Though they met less frequently they used every minute to practise together. “… we would travel around all summer and rehearsed at friends’ places. Everybody’s parents went away for two or three weeks and we would roll in.”, Mike remembers. He and Ant developed their skills on the twelve-string guitar. And it was their new-found enthusiasm for music that prompted first themselves and later that summer also Tony and Peter to break off their education and become professional musicians in Genesis. The only exception was John Silver who did not want to run the risk of a career in music. The band were undeterred and tried to overcome the weaknesses that had surfaced when they had been recording their debut.

Said Tony: “We had been rehearsing all summer but we had not played any gigs because we kept writing new material and learning new things. We recorded many demos during that time as well as in the months that followed.” The band had found their new drummer in what used to be the usual way, i.e. an ad in Melody Maker, and they were now ready for their first gig: The famous party at Mrs Balms’s in September 1969. With the cottage of Richard Macphail’s familythey found the perfect place for the winter to focus on their career: “That was definitely the beginning of a new era because we started living with each other. This cottage period certainly left a strong mark”, says Mike, and Richard recalls what the days were like there: “We would get up around 7 in the morning, have breakfast, and then we would rehearse for ten or eleven hours straight, interrupted only by lunch breaks.”

The most recent musical influence coming from outside the band was King Crimson’s album In The Court Of The Crimson King. Producer John Anthony, who was captivated by one of the band’s more frequent and regular performances, hooked them up with Charisma boss Tony Stratton-Smith. It was not difficult to excite him for this project, and soon nothing spoke against Genesis recording a new album. This intensive phase in which the band wrote songs (and also recorded a couple of demos) and the more or less regular live gigs had positive side effects, Tony recalls: “Everything was different on this album. We had gained a bit of live experience, and each song on the album had been played live on stage before. We had at least twice as many songs to choose from than ended up on the album.”

According to Richard Macphail there was one major factor that determined which songs landed on the album: “The effect the gigs had on them was decisive.” Adds Ant: “I am not quite certain that we really picked the best songs …. Many acoustic pieces were left out though they merited inclusion.” Trespass was recorded over a period of one month in summer 1970 at Trident studios. Tony: “We were still very inexperienced and tended to press too much into a song. We used 16 tracks instead of 4 tracks we had on the previous album and we really made use of them. There were many good things on this album, though, and it moved in the direction we have been following ever since.” Intense work with their own music made them their toughest critics. Says Tony: “We were not very happy with the end result of the album. We were always very critical and not too happy with the production though we got along very well with John Anthony.”

As the band became increasingly perfectionistic and he grew less and less satisfied with both his and the other’s input Ant decided to leave the band. He was not up to the new professional approach of the band, and problem then were not solved by talking about them but by “separations”. Ant: “I slowly realized that I could not exist in such a collective, democratic musical environment.” In the wake of this sharp loss the band thought “in for a penny, in for a pound” and also fired their drummer John Mayhew, who had never really been considered a full member of the band. But there was never a question of not continuing.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Genesis Trespass | | Leave a comment

Genesis Nursery Cryme (1971)


I believe this is the first progressive song I ever heard and it began a life long love affair with this music. Genesis’ Nursery Cryme begins with “The Musical Box.” It is one of the all time great prog rock songs and is still played in some form by the band on even the most recent tours, and tribute bands (of which there are many) cannot perform without at least a nod to this. It is a mix of dynamics with light and shade throughout its over ten minutes. “Musical Box” is full of 12-string guitars and powerful electric, almost a textbook lesson in prog songwriting. I had never heard music this beautiful before. Upon hearing this for the first time, I knew I had heard “my” band.

This was also the first album for Steve Hackett and Phil Collins who would both become integral parts of the music industry for years to come. They both bring forth really good performances on this album, and we are even treated to a rare early vocal performance by Phil on the quiet “For Absent Friends.” Hackett has great moments on “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” and “The Fountain of Salmacis.” Not forgetting anyone else here the Mellotron drenched “Seven Stones,” “Return of the Giant Hogweed” and the amazing “Fountain of Salmacis” drive home the talents of Tony Banks and Michael Rutherford as well.

Peter Gabriel was really finding his voice and developing his theatrical talents at the time and the stories he is telling are designed to put on a show. “Harold the Barrel” is hands-down my favorite “silly” song by the band. It has funny voices and call & answer sections as it reveals a story of a man drawing a crowd while standing on the ledge ready to jump. The addition of Collins not only as a top-notch drummer, but as a vocalist really help out on Nursery Cryme, as this song and the sweet harmonies on “Harlequin” confirm.

Compositional and songwriting skills were at their peak beginning here. Playing ability and recording techniques would get even better later. I’m not certain about this, but I don’t think you can be a progressive rock fan and not have at least one Gabriel-era Genesis album in your collection. I think it’s pretty much a rule. Although I might pick the next album 1972’s Foxtrot over this, you can’t go wrong with Nursery Cryme as a seminal work from an inspirational band. They are setting standards here for themselves and the prog community for years to come.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Genesis Nursery Cryme | | Leave a comment