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Posts Tagged ‘Theo Travis’

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Burden Of Proof (5:51)
2. Voyage Beyond Seven (4:53)
3. Kitto (1:50)
4. Pie Chart (5:07)
5. JPS (1:03)
6. Kings and Queens (6:46)
7. Fallout (6:59)
8. Going Somewhere Canorous? (1:13)
9. Black And Crimson (5:05)
10. The Brief (2:27)
11. Pump Room (5:19)
12. Green Cubes (5:33)
13. They Landed on a Hill (3:03)

LINEUP:
John Etheridge – electric guitar
Roy Babbington – bass guitar
John Marshall – drums, percussion
Theo Travis, tenor sax, flute, Fender Rhodes piano

It should not come as a surprise to find Soft Machine Legacy on the roster of an independent label named after one of the original Soft Machine’s most iconic compositions. The band – the last in a series of Soft Machine offshoots started by bassist Hugh Hopper back in 1978 with Soft Heap – was born in 2004, when guitarist Allan Holdsworth left Soft Works and was replaced by John Etheridge. They released a studio album and two live ones between 2005 and 2006, just before founding member Elton Dean’s untimely passing. Their second studio-based effort, 2007’s Steam,  saw renowned flutist/saxophonist Theo Travis (currently also a member of Gong, The Tangent and Steven Wilson’s band)  take Dean’s place; the album was also to be the last with Hugh Hopper, who succumbed to leukemia in 2009. In spite of these setbacks, Travis, Etheridge and drummer John Marshall (who had originally replaced Robert Wyatt in 1971) recruited another Soft Machine alumnus, bassist Roy Babbington, and went on to produce their third studio album. Burden of Proof, recorded in Italy at Arti e Mestieri keyboardist Beppe Crovella’s Electromantic Studios was finally released on Moonjune Records in the spring of 2013.

Though its name may suggest yet another of the many tribute bands whose popularity often eclipses that of bands performing their own material, Soft Machine Legacy deliver much more than just a reverent homage to one of the most influential bands of the early progressive rock scene. The “Legacy” at the end of the band’s name (even when all of its founders had the legal right to call themselves Soft Machine) emphasizes the continuity between the “mother” band and its offshoots, while ruling out slavish imitation. Bringing together the variegated threads of the history of the band founded by Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen in the mid-Sixties, the quartet led by John Etheridge have perfected their own original sound. Travis’ own soundscaping system, called Ambitronics, lends the proceedings a haunting ambient component, bringing to mind his work with Robert Fripp, and integrating with Etheridge’s use of loops and other effects to replace Mike Ratledge’s trademark fuzzed organ; while his sparing but effective use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano creates an ideal connection to Soft Machine’s turning-point album, Fourth (their first completely instrumental effort).

Featuring 13 relatively short compositions spread over a running time of about 55 minutes, Burden of Proof possesses an internal cohesion of its own. The longer, more structured pieces (between 3 and 7 minutes) are bridged by shorter interludes, mostly improvisational in nature; despite this apparent fragmentation, the music flows effortlessly, and the two “souls” of the album fit together without leaving an impression of patchiness. A stunning rendition of Hugh Hopper’s “Kings and Queens” (from Soft Machine’s Fourth) – strategically located in the middle of the album, and led by Theo Travis’ melodic, melancholy flute meshing with Etheridge’s measured guitar – functions as a centerpiece that captures the original band’s moment of transition from its psychedelic roots to state-of-the-art jazz-rock. Roy Babbington (who guested on Fourth, though not on “Kings and Queens”) is a discreet but unmistakable presence, his finely-honed synergy with John Marshall’s impeccable drumming in evidence right from the opening strains of the title-track – which later develops into an intriguing “conversation piece” between sax and guitar. The upbeat sax intro to “Voyage Beyond Seven” briefly dispels the previous number’s elegantly laid-back atmosphere, before going into a sort of slow-motion that culminates into a rather chaotic, spacey jam with sudden flares of volume.

The deeply atmospheric Etheridge showcase of “Kitto” leads into the slow-burning, jazz-blues saunter of “Pie Chart” – an unexpected but welcome deviation from the band’s heady yet somewhat lofty stylings, as is the bracing boogie-rock of “Pump Room”, with Etheridge delivering a barrage of rough-and-ready riffs and scratchy, distorted chords, aided and abetted by Travis’ buoyant sax. “Black and Crimson” is all about melody Soft Machine Legacy-style, with an almost Latin feel; while the nearly 7-minute “Fallout” sandwiches a loose, improvisational section between a brisk, sax-and-guitar-driven main theme, bolstered by Marshall’s dramatic drum rolls. The album is wrapped up by the noisy avant-garde bash of “Green Cubes”, followed by the spacey, meditative strains of “They Landed on a Hill” – a finale that, in a way, represents the album’s two souls.

Those who have followed Soft Machine Legacy and its previous incarnations for the past two decades will find a lot to love in Burden of Proof, an album that combines melody and ambiance with the almost carefree abandon of improvisation. The four members of Soft Machine Legacy draws upon their individual strengths, striving to create music that, while sophisticated, is also not too detached from the earthiness of rock. Though the amount of improvisation may put off those who prefer their music to be scripted, and the minimalistic approach to composition may be found unsatisfactory by fans of prog’s more convoluted aspects, the album captures a group of seasoned musicians who obviously still enjoy themselves both in the studio and on stage. Even if sometimes demanding, Burden of Proof is also a consistently rewarding listen.

Links:
http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/052_SOFT-MACHINE-LEGACY_Burden-Of-Proof_MJR052/

http://www.johnetheridge.com/softmachinelegacy/index.htm

https://myspace.com/softmachinelegacy/

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Setlist:
Luminol
Drive Home
The Pin Drop
Postcard
The Holy Drinker
Deform to Form a Star
The Watchmaker
Index
Insurgentes
Harmony Korine
No Part of Me
Raider II
The Raven That Refused to Sing

Encore:
Medley: Remainder the Black Dog/No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun

As my readers will not have failed to notice, my love affair with music – especially progressive rock – has cooled down considerably over the past few months. A combination of personal issues and the inevitable burnout caused by the punishing pace maintained for over three years forced me to take a break after I realized that writing reviews had become a chore. Though I had previously experienced periods of writer’s block, this time around it had impaired my enjoyment of music to the point that I was dreading, rather than anticipating, the evening of April 20, when the celebrated Steven Wilson and his “all-star” band were slated to grace the stage of Washington DC’s historic Howard Theatre. I will therefore apologize if this piece is more of a collection of personal impressions than my usual detailed account.

Most of my readers are well aware that – while recognizing the man’s talent and unstinting work ethic – I have never subscribed to the Steven Wilson cult, and most of his output (whether solo or with his many projects, including Porcupine Tree) has always failed to fully resonate with me. Though I had meant to get Wilson’s latest opus, the highly acclaimed The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) to familiarize myself with the material before the show, my disenchantment with music (coupled with other, unrelated issues) prevented me from doing so, and I went in expecting to be somewhat underwhelmed. However, I am glad to say that the concert vastly exceeded my expectations, and I walked out of the theatre with a renewed appreciation for music of the progressive persuasion, even if not yet fully converted to the “Wilson cult”.

Mainly known as a temple of jazz and soul music, the renovated Howard Theatre (opened in 1910, but gone into a decline that forced it to close for decades after the 1968 riots) has already hosted a number of rock concerts since its 2012 rebirth. While its stylish, dimly lit interior does not allow for a lot of socialization, and its bar and restaurant menu are not exactly good value for money, the theatre’s superb acoustics, state-of-the-art lighting and spacious stage are designed to enhance any music performed there. What better setting, then, for über-perfectionist Steven Wilson, the high priest of pristine sound quality, the man behind a slew of 5.1 reissues of progressive rock classics?

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I am generally rather suspicious of supergroups, which can often be a triumph of style over substance, and the all-star cast assembled by Wilson for his latest album and tour brought back memories of Eddie Jobson’s Ultimate Zero Project’ rather sterile headlining performance at NEARfest 2010. In spite of being prepared for the worst – that is, an ultimately soulless display of technical fireworks – the opening strains of “Luminol” put my fears to rest, immediately pushing  Nick Beggs’ impossibly nimble bass lines and Marco Minnemann’s thunderous yet intricate drumming into the limelight, though at the same time emphasizing their contribution to the  composition as a whole Indeed, the extremely tight outfit allowed very little room for solo spots, and each of the musicians put his own considerable expertise at the service of the songs.

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In the centre of the stage, slight and dressed in black, the obligatorily barefoot Wilson, flanked by Beggs and guitarist Guthrie Govan,  switched between guitar, keyboards and 5-string bass, with Minnemann, keyboardist Adam Holzman and reedist Theo Travis positioned at the back. Though I fully expected Govan to launch into lengthy shred-fests, his understated role was undoubtedly one of the show’s most positive surprises. In spite of his standard guitar-hero image (complete with flowing locks and the occasional shape-throwing), his performance was remarkably restrained, his trademark scorching fretboard work delivered on rare occasions, such as at the end of “Drive Home”. The impassive Theo Travis’ blaring saxophone injected a jazzy, almost frantic  note, while his flute’s meditative tones complemented some of the more subdued passages. Adam Holtzman’s magnificent keyboard textures laid out a rich foundation, in turn atmospheric and dramatic, according to the needs of each composition.

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Over nearly 2 and a half hours,  Wilson’s latest album was performed in its entirety, the seven songs interspersed with tracks from the artist’s two previous solo efforts, Insurgentes (2008) and Grace for Drowning (2011) – with no references whatsoever to Porcupine Tree, who seem to have been put on ice for the time being. While this might be bad news for the band’s many fans, I feel that The Raven That Refused to Sing features much stronger material than most of PT’s albums from In Absentia onwards. Indeed, in Wilson’s solo output any overt metal or alternative rock references are eschewed or toned down, though a keen edge is always lurking around the corner. Even in the longer compositions, any excesses are reined in by keeping the emphasis firmly placed on the songwriting. Drawing upon the wide range of diverse experiences of his band members – jazz, avant-garde, metal, pop, classic rock and, of course, “traditional” prog – Wilson as a solo artist has built a sound in which his very vocals become an additional instrument, with lyrics kept to a minimum taking a back seat to the music. The unrelentingly gloomy subject matter (cleverly targeted by Wilson’s surprisingly laid-back stage banter) is reinforced by a skillful use of visuals that develops and refines Pink Floyd’s ground-breaking paradigm, conjuring disquieting, often nightmarish images out of an H.P. Lovecraft story (in particular the ones accompanying “Harmony Korine”), and proves a necessary complement to the music.

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While Wilson’s music is not exactly innovative (and very little of what is released nowadays can be called so), he succeeds in the feat of updating the classic prog sound, using King Crimson, Yes and Genesis as a springboard rather than as a template. Veering between the brooding, haunting atmosphere of the likes of “Drive Home” or “Deform to Form a Star” and jagged, frantic-paced moments in which all the instruments strive together to build up an increasing sense of tension, his compositions sound as carefully structured as any of the Seventies classics, though not as blatantly contrived as a lot of modern prog. From a personal point of view, I found those driving, dynamic pieces far more involving and emotionally charged than the quieter, moodier ones, which tended to sound somewhat alike after a while. In a show characterized by a consistently high level of quality, two songs stood out: the creepy, chilling “Raider II” (from Grace for Drowning) and the mesmerizing “The Watchmaker”, during which the band played behind a semi-sheer curtain used as a screen for the stunning visuals.

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Considering Wilson’s tireless activity as a producer and sound engineer, it was a fortunate coincidence that April 20 also celebrates a cherished institution that is stubbornly resisting the encroachment of online sales – record stores. Not surprisingly, the venue was packed, with many far younger attendees than the average prog gig or festival – a testimony to Wilson’s appeal to a large cross-section of the concert-going, music-buying public, even to those who are not necessarily into “progressive rock”. Watching the crowd, and reflecting on the poor attendance of most prog shows, I thought that Steven Wilson must be doing something right in order to attract such large numbers, even if his band (no matter how talented) does not include any of the Seventies icons, and his performances showcase very recent original material rather than the ever-popular tributes and covers. Moreover (and rather ironically), now that he has stopped rejecting the “prog” tag  and fully embraced the genre, his music has gained in appeal. Not being a PR expert, I have no ready explanation for this phenomenon, but I am sure there must be a lesson somewhere for the multitude of prog bands that struggle to draw a crowd larger than 30 people.

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Even if I cannot see myself resuming the same pace of the past couple of years as regards writing reviews – at least not in the foreseeable future – I am grateful to Steven Wilson and his outstanding crew for showing me that music can still have an important role in my life as a source of enjoyment. By way of a conclusion, I would like to thank friends Michael Inman and Helaine Carson Burch for putting some of their outstanding photographs at my disposal for this article.

 

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TRACKLISTING:

1. Where Are They Now? (20:38)
2. The Mind’s Eye (8:15)
3. Perdu Dans Paris (10:47)
4. Paroxetine 20mg (7:15)
5. A Sale of Two Souls (7:51)
6. GPS Culture (7:00)
7. The Music That Died Alone (7:51)
8. In Darkest Dreams (including “After Phaedra”) (21:25)**

** on DVD disc only

LINEUP:
Andy Tillison – lead vocals, keyboards
Jonathan Barrett – bass
Luke Machin – guitar, vocals
Tony Latham – drums
Theo Travis – saxophones, flute

Just like Phideaux, The Tangent are one of those bands that do not need to be introduced to prog fans – unless they are the kind that adamantly refuses to listen to anything produced later than 1989. In spite of their frequent line-up changes, the fiercely independent outfit, based in an artistically fertile area like the north of England, has always been much more than just a vehicle for the undisputed talent of Andy Tillison – keyboardist, singer and songwriter with a a passion for the making of progressive rock with a keen edge of social and political awareness. Straddling the line between vintage and modernity, The Tangent have established a reputation for thought-provoking music with a healthy dose of dry British wit, and the kind of technical brilliance that is put at the service of the music rather than the other way around.

As the title indicates, Going Off on Two is the logical follow-up to the band’s first live album and DVD, released in 2007 and titled Going Off on One – though the line-up has undergone yet another overhaul (and, at the time of writing, has further changed, with drummer Nick Rickwood replacing Tony Latham). However, while the 2007 set was based on actual concerts, for Going Off on Two The Tangent have chosen a bold, unusual format that may well set a trend within the prog scene. Making full use of a live-in-the studio situation, the band are playing, to all intents and purposes, before a worldwide audience: the numerous fans from over 40 countries that have helped the DVD happen through their financial support. Recorded over a period of five days in December 2010 in a converted abattoir in the town of Stockport (on the outskirts of Manchester), it was inspired by popular Seventies TV programmes such as the legendary “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, whose performances often resulted in much sought-after recordings. The “gig” brings together the best of two worlds, the immediacy of a live performance and the relative comfort of the studio surroundings.

The polar opposite of the shallow, image-driven acts that command the attention of modern audiences, the band members are five refreshingly ordinary men of various ages that look as if they are genuinely having fun, in spite of the high level of complexity of their music – they are even shown dancing outside the studio in the end credits of the DVD. Dressed in comfortable, everyday clothes, obviously at ease with each other, they certainly do not deserve the vicious jibes flung at them by some alleged music journalist with a shockingly unprofessional attitude. Thankfully, progressive rock is not the sole prerogative of young, good-looking hipsters, and prog artists have every right to look like “accountants and sheep farmers” instead of posing as something they are not.

The 90-minute DVD, filmed by experienced documentary director Paul Brow, comes strikingly packaged with stunning cover artwork by renowned artist Ed Unitsky (a longtime collaborator of the band). While it contains few extras, they will definitely be of interest to fans of the band, or even to those who are getting acquainted with them. The images are crisp and clean, and the excellent photo gallery depicts the band members in various, often humorous situations, emphasizing their endearingly down-to-earth attitude. Though mostly focused on technical matters, the interviews are liberally laced with humour, and can be enjoyed even by those who (like myself) are not practising musicians. I especially liked the part in which Tillison explains his use of computers to generate all sorts of keyboard sounds, pointing out that Seventies icons like Emerson and Wakeman were ground-breaking because they made use of cutting-edge technology. So much for the current obsession with anything analog!

The 8 tracks chosen for this landmark performance span all of The Tangent’s almost 10-year career, bearing witness to the band’s remarkable skill in quality control. Indeed, The Tangent bridge the gap between classic prog of the symphonic persuasion and the elegant jazz-rock of the Canterbury scene, with a sound that is at the same time sleek and intricate, melodic and edgy, with plenty of wit thrown into soften the blow of the often barbed social commentary. While Andy Tillison’s voice may be a bit of an acquired taste, and it is definitely not you would call conventionally “beautiful”, its wry, understated tone blends surprising well with the music. And then, in spite of the obvious collective talent involved, The Tangent are not interested in bludgeoning the listener over the head with their technical prowess, even if their obvious dedication to their craft is highlighted in the brief interviews included in the Extras. While the current members of the band may not be as well-known as some of its former members (which, especially in the early days of the band’s activity, led critics to label them as a “supergroup”), they are certainly no less talented. In particular, Tony “Funkytoe” Latham’s drumming is nothing short of stunning, and Jonathan Barrett’s fretless bass delivers the kind of fat, slinky lines that prog fans have come to treasure.

The setlist offers a nicely balanced selection of material, bookended by two 20-minute epics dating from different stages of The Tangent’s career – “Where Are They Now?”, from 2009’s Down and Out in Paris and London,  and “In Darkest Dreams” from their 2003 debut, The Music That Died Alone. Two particularly tasty tidbits for the band’s fans appear in the shape of “The Mind’s Eye”, from the forthcoming album COMM (to be released in the fall of 2011), and Andy Tillison’s homage to German Seventies electro-prog masters Tangerine Dream, “After Phaedra” (which is only featured on the DVD). The former is a tense, edgy number driven by Tillison’s powerfully expressive keyboard work and fresh-faced new guitarist Luke Machin’s sharp yet fluid guitar; while the latter is accompanied by striking psychedelic visuals reminiscent of the Seventies, yet also amazingly modern.The occasional use of split, parallel frames (which in “Where Are They Now?” show idyllic views of England’s “green and pleasant land”) adds further interest to the “concert” footage. However the highlight of the DVD , in visual terms lies in the stunning images of Paris by night that are seamlessly integrated into the band’s performance of “Perdu Dans Paris” – which in the second half of the song, in order to complement the lyrical matter, turn into heart-wrenching shots of homeless people, in stark contrast with the beauty and allure of the Ville Lumière.

The stripped-down setting – so unglamorous to trendy so-called journalists, but perfectly in character with the reality of things for most prog artists (as illustrated in my reviews of gigs at Baltimore’s Orion Studios) – sets off the band’s unassuming, yet dedicated attitude, the undeniable intricacy of the music tempered by humour and level-headedness. The members of The Tangent may not look like rockstars (as none of us thankfully do), but they obviously love every minute of what they do, and the very format of the DVD celebrates the nowadays indispensable synergy between artists and their followers. The Tangent represent a voice of strong integrity in today’s music world, proving to the sceptics that progressive rock in the 21st century is not merely a vehicle for dazzling instrumental performances and lyrical escapism, but can foster social awareness and create a genuine bond between providers and users of art.

Links:
http://www.thetangent.org

http://www.paulbrow.co.uk

www.edunitsky.com

 

 

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