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Category: Media (page 2 of 2)

Reviews or comments on assorted media things.

Nine World Geekfest 2015 – My Saturday Writeup

This post is a follow-on to the previous one, in which I covered the Friday of Nine Worlds 2015.  Saturday continued along similar lines, with sketchnotes along the way.

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Nine Worlds Geekfest 2015 – Friday

I’ve recently returned from the thoroughly enjoyable “Nine Worlds Geekfest” – a friendly, highly inclusive, mixed media / mixed genre geek/fan convention.

Whilst I was there, I spent many of the panels I attended scribbling some sketchnotes.  For me, sketchnotes are a way to force what I hear in panels to go through different bits of my brain, and to stay in my head better than they would if I just listened.

This post is going to be a con report, but unlike any other con reports I’ve written, I’m going to include scans of my sketchbook pages. So you have some context…  my sketchbook pages are roughly 12.5cm wide by about 17.5cm tall.  If things look a bit fuzzy on bigger screens, it’s because they’ve been blown up a bit in scanning.

So – on to the programme items for Friday – Saturday & Sunday will follow.

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A Different Flavour of SF

A while back I got a bee in my bonnet whilst I was listening to music on the train home from work.  It boiled down thusly:

I am a fan of SF (meaning science fiction, speculative fiction or whatever else you may think along those lines).  I am a fan of music – including (but not at all limited to) progressive rock.

There is a fair chunk of well known crossover between SF and prog rock, and to music in general.  So I started to think a bit more… and an couple of ideas popped into my head.

Idea #1: Host an SF music listening party.  This is a bit further off, and involves a bit more planning and whatnot, but is still something I’d like to do.

Idea #2: Create a collection of original SF in musical form. This now exists, albeit in a limited form.

Following up on Idea #2

I started out by unpacking a few terms and setting some rules, and by pinging my assorted online contacts and mining their brains for examples.  It’s their brains as much as my own which have populated the playlist so far.

Rules & Definitions

Definition: “Original SF” – Speculative Fiction which is not an adaptation of pre-existing speculative fiction from another medium.

Definition: “in musical form” – A distinct chunk of music that can be identified in some way.  A single track, a suite of pieces, an album, an EP, a performance, etc…  but in this case, standing as music alone.  Soundtracks, cast recordings and things which require you do anything other than listen to get the SFness don’t count.  There are occasions where a theme song can fit (there’s at least one in the playlist, after a fashion), but they need to stand in their own right, without the show.

Rule: No soundtracks – Stuff that exists solely as an attachment to other media doesn’t count

Rule: Scope Limit 1 – Exclude sword & sandal / sword & sorcery fantasy.  Not because it’s necessarily bad, but because there was a glut of it in the 1980s (even more than there was SF stuff in the 70s and 80s) and it’d swamp the playlist.  Creating a playlist of original fantasy in music would be a different exercise.

Rule: Scope Limit 2 – Exclude horror (unless explicitly SF horror). See above.

 

The Playlist

So you can listen along…

I’ve put this together on Spotify so you can do more than just read about the music.  The playlist is collaborative, so stuff can be added, but please don’t spam it with crap – If that happens I’ll just delete it and create a new one that’s locked down.

Spotify Playlist – HTTP Link: Original SF music
Spotify Playlist – Spotify Link: Original SF music

The Music

Rush – 2112 suite

Type: Multi-part album track
SFness: Following a galactic war, all planets are ruled by the Red Star of the Solar Federation, lead by the priests of the temples of Syrinx. They control all media & every facet of life. Protagonist discovers an ancient guitar & starts to be creative. Oppressive civilization is oppressive.

Rush – Cygnus X-1 (books 1 & 2)

Type: Multi-part album tracks from two albums (“A Farewell to Kings” & “Hemispheres”)
SFness: Space explorer is sucked into a black hole and emerges in Olympus, where Apollo and Dionysus are dividing the human mind, leading to conflict.  The explorer gradually takes on a role as a god of balance, bringing heart and mind together.

Rush – Red Barchetta

Type: Track
SFness: This is “inspired by” the SF story “A Nice Morning Drive” by Richard Foster (acknowledged by both band and author, and the author is aware & fine with it), but I’ve read that it’s quite distinct from it, so I’m going to include it anyway.  If somebody who’s read the story disagrees… comments are welcome.

Sontaag – Sontaag

Type: Concept Album
SFness: From the artist’s album notes:  “The Ancients, through a long process of trial and error, had discovered the secret of synthesizing essential energy from harmonic sound, giving them the power to reanimate extinct planets by utilising giant orbiting sonic generators. But life came at a price. The newly supplanted inhabitants of MP-5 were compelled to provide the musical fuel for The Great Harmodulator simply to stay alive.”

Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

Type: Concept Album
SFness: Dystopian, near future SF set in an increasingly aggressive post 9-11 united states as events unfold towards (and beyond) nuclear war with Iran.

Janelle Monáe – Metropolis suite(s)

Type: Multiple albums / EPs / tracks (Metropolis: Chase Suite EP, Archandroid & Electric Lady albums)
SFness: Cindi Mayweather, a messianic android, is sent back in time to free the citizens of Metropolis from The Great Divide, a secret society that uses time-travel to suppress freedom and love.

Queensryche – Operation: Mindcrime

Type: Concept Album
SFness: Near future / current day dystopian SF. An amnesiac drug addict starts to recover memories of his time as a drug fuelled, mind controlled assassin.

Keldian – Heaven’s Gate / Journey of Souls / Outbound

Type: Multiple Albums
SFness: They’re specifically an SF themed power metal band

EDIT – October 2015 – quite a bit of Keldian (whilst still great)

  • Heaven’s Gate – Album of SF songs
  • Journey of Souls – Album – ideas around souls travelling through time & space (as opposed to bodies). Mostly original SF, except:
    • Hyperion (based on Dan Simmons’ Hyperion)
    • The Last Frontier (based on Battlestar Galactica)
  • Outbound – Mostly original SF songs, except:
    • “A Place Above the Air” (based on Dan Simmons’ Endymion)
    • The Silfen Paths (based on Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth books)

EDIT – October 2015 – quite a bit of Keldian (whilst still great) is turning out to be based on other works, so I might have to move some more out of this list.

The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Type: Album / Tracks on album
SFness: …less than is immediately apparent, but still fitting

  • Not actually about battling robots.
  • The “pink robots” of the title (and title track) are apparently a metaphor for cancer, and the story of the title track is an analogy to the fight against illness, presented in an SFnal way.  Still SF, because it doesn’t have to be about robots to be SF.
  • “Do You Realize” – about precariousness of existence.
  • Not a single SF piece, but most of the songs have themes that can be considered SFnal – particularly “soft SF” (SF based on the “soft sciences”).

Queen – 39

Type: Album track
SFness:  Space explorers depart for a year long voyage, but relativity means that upon their return 100 years have passed.

Devin Townsend – Ziltoid the Omniscient

Type: Concept album
SFness:  Ziltoid (an alien warlord) travels to earth in search of something described as “the ultimate cup of coffee”.  He finds it foul, and brings his battlefleet to wage war on earth in disgust.

The RAH Band – Clouds Across The Moon

Type: Single
SFness: A woman tries to contact her husband who’s fighting on mars.  A connection is made, and so she has a few minutes to leave a message telling him that she misses him before the connection is lost.

Kate Bush – Experiment IV

Type: Single / Album Track
SFness: Military scientists looking to create a sonic weapon… and (unfortunately for them) succeeding beyond expectations.

Zager & Evans – In The Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)

Type: Single / album track
SFness: Dystopian SF depicting humanity’s decline as a result of the growth of dehumanizing technology.  A modified cover version was used as the theme to the somewhat awful (yet bizarrely, regrettably watchable) “Cleopatra 2525” TV show.

Norman Greenbaum – The Eggplant That Ate Chicago

Type: Single
SFness: The invasion of Chicago by carnivorous, plant-like alien.

The person who suggested this to me was joking, but they shouldn’t have been – it fits.  SF can be silly, too.

Threshold – Clone

Type: Concept(ish) Album
SFness: Genetic manipulation of humans leads to the development of telepathy. Enhanced humans leave the earth to colonize other planets, eventually returning to Earth centuries later.

Electric Light Orchestra – Time

Type: Concept album
SFness: A man from the 1980s finds himself in the year 2095, tries to come to terms with being unable to return and adjust to his new surroundings.

Tandy & Morgon – Earthrise

Type: Concept Album
SFness: Space explorer longs to return to his one love on Earth, only to eventually find that true love has always been with him… inside. (from description on wikipedia)

David Bowie – Space Oddity

Type: Single
SFness: Features a space launch where things don’t go entirely to plan…  You mostly know the song, I’m sure.

David Bowie – Starman

Type: Single
SFness: It’s either about an alien or a deity.  Who knows?

Landscape – Einstein a Go-Go

Type: Single
SFness: Oddly cheery dystopian vision of a nuclear apocalypse.

Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship – Blows Against the Empire

Type: Concept Album
Notes: Particularly Sunrise / Have you seen the stars tonight (which are on spotify, whilst the main album isn’t)
SFness: The story tells of a counter-culture revolution against the oppressions of “Uncle Samuel”.  This leads to a plan to steal a starship from orbit and journey into space in search of a new home. Loosely based on / inspired by Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children”, but apparently different enough to be considered original SF in its own right.

Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time

Type: Album
SFness: Lots of “space and time” themed songs – characters taken out of their time / place in SFnal ways.  Not a single SF piece, but most of the songs have SFnal themes.

Styx – Kilroy was here

Type: Concept Album
SFness: Rock music is outlawed by a fascist government and the “Majority for Musical Morality”. Kilroy (a former rock star who has been imprisoned) escapes using a disguise (“Mr. Roboto”) and becomes aware that a young musician, Jonathan Chance, is on a mission to bring rock music back.

Jon Anderson – Olias of Sunhillow

Type: Concept album
SFness: An alien race journeys to a new world following a volcanic catastrophe

What next?

This is not an exhaustive list.  The playlist will grow and change.  In writing it up, the playlist grew one album (a mistyped search found a result I’d never heard of, but which fitted better!) and was reduced by four or five songs as I researched them and found they didn’t fit the “Original” part of “Original SF”.

If you have suggestions, either go to the spotify playlist and add them (preferably pinging me a message somewhere explaining the SFness) or leave a comment somewhere I’ll see it and hope I can track it down to add it myself.  Either way, I’m interested in hearing more.

Contributors

Responses to my pleas for music references came from the following folks (even if their responses didn’t make the cut for some reason):

  • Ann (who was trying to be facetious but accidentally made the list anyway!)
  • Beth
  • Caz
  • Chris T.
  • @dakkar
  • Dave W.
  • Dean M.
  • Francis M.
  • Gav
  • Gurdy S.
  • Neil J.
  • Simon R.
  • Victoria S.

Music Discovery

It’s occurred to me that a) I’ve not posted here for a while, and b) I’ve never quite managed to write the post I keep meaning to about how I find music to listen to these days.

So here it is, knocked together in a few minutes over a lunchbreak.  So don’t expect a novel or, if I’m honest, any kind of continuity.

I listen to a lot of music.  I’ve written about that before.  The constant challenge is marrying up discovering new music with being able to seamlessly listen to music without having to nursemaid it the whole time.

Spotify

Lately, I’ve been using spotify’s “discover” section a fair bit… mostly because it’s easy to get to and my workplace doesn’t block it.  Thankfully.  However, it’s got a weird knack of being both transient and persistent.  Recommendations I’m interested in just vanish without a trace, whilst ones I’m not interested in just keep cropping up

It also doesn’t help that much with letting me look back over my listening for a period of time and determine what I might want to pay more attention to in future.

Playlisting

So I got into a habit – monthly playlists.  If I find something that grabs my attention (or just doesn’t make me switch off) then I bung it into a “new finds” playlist for that month.  I’ve been doing this since about last November.

This means that I can look back over them and think “Wow, I listened to a lot of style-X last month and was starting to get quite miserable and mopey.  Time for a change!”.  It also means that I can say “I was really in a good mood a couple of months ago – I’d like to get that back” or “I’m getting a bit shouty.  I was mellower in December – let’s rewind!” and then just pull up a playlist from an appropriate month and see what’s in it.

It’s been working pretty well for me so far.  Even better, I can share the playlists.  Which I do.  So, without further ado, here are the past seven months of my work-based listening material…

Seven Months of Soundtrack

  • New Finds – 11/2013 (Post-rock / Ambient / Downtempo)
  • New Finds – 12/2013 (Progressive rock / Symponic metal / Prog-metal / Post-rock / Darkwave / Electronica with a side of chiptunes)
  • New Finds – 01/2014 – Part 1 (non-anglo-american metal / weird electronica / post-rock / game soundtracks & electronica)
  • New Finds – 01/2014 – Part 2 (post-rock / electronica / shoegaze / dream pop / Experimental Rock / Guitar Virtuoso)
  • New Finds – 02/2014 (bleepy ambient / downtempo / soundscapes / guitar virtuoso / electronica / 80s retro electronica / post-rock / Piano / Progressive Rock)
  • New Finds – 03/2014 (Guitar & Bass Virtuoso / Ambient / Post-Rock / Hard Rock / Instrumental & Soundtrack / Blues Rock / 80s Retro Electronica / Heavy Rock / Electronica / Southern Rock / Modern Psychedelic Rock / Progressive rock)
  • New Finds – 04/2014 (Post Rock / Hard Rock / Psychedelic Rock / Progressive rock / Guitar Virtuoso /  Heavy Rock / Progressive Metal / Alt. Prog / Doom Metal)
  • New Finds – 05/2014 (Post Rock / Ambient / Drone / Progressive Rock / Progressive Metal / SynthPop)

Recently, an old friend gave me back something I’d lost…

If you know me in real life, you’ll know that a had some health trouble a while back.  This post isn’t about that, but it gives some context, so I’ll fill start there.

One of the symptoms of that trouble was an even-less-reliable-than-usual short term memory.  Short term memory isn’t “the past few days”.  It’s not even hours or minutes – it’s seconds.  Short term memory isn’t your ability to remember what you did ten minutes ago – it’s your sense of now.

It was a scary time in general, but I found it particularly unpleasant  as it caused me to lose something valuable to me – my ability to read books.

I could read the words and they made sense, but more often than not, they’d be gone a few seconds later.  I’d have to go back and reread a sentence over and over to give it a chance of sticking. Or, because I had no sense of now, I’d keep reading, with no reason to realise I’d forgotten anything.  It was only when I stopped briefly that I’d realise I had no recollection of anything I’d just read.  It stayed long enough for me to parse it and be conscious that I had read it… and then went out of my mind entirely, as if it had never been there at all.

So I stopped reading.

After a few false starts, nearly a year later, I decided I was better.  Except for the whole reading thing.  That wasn’t coming back.  I managed to read a book here and there, if it was one I’d really been waiting for.  In some cases, I need to go back and read them again, because I’m fairly sure I’ve got massive gaps in my recollection of them.

But, when I’d started to be able to read books again (albeit slowly and painfully) I decided to invite an old friend back into my life.  One I’d not seen for a fair while, because we’d become a bit too close and decided we needed to see other people for a while.  Not a flesh and blood kind of friend, you understand, but one of the paper kind.

I decided to re-read the “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” trilogy by bestselling author and crazy person Tad Williams.  We used to hang out a lot, those books and I.  In my youth, we’d get together at least once a year for over a decade, and we’d hang around in the same circles a lot.  In particular there was the Lyst, which I had been around for a great many years, often in the background as a moderator, but from time to time as an active participant as well.

Over time we’d drifted apart.  Many new books had come into my life since we parted ways.  There was A Song of Ice and Fire.  There were The Dresden Files.  There were the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies.  There were the collected works of Alastair Reynolds and the works of Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow.  That’s just a small sampling, too.  My eyeballs got around a bit, if I’m honest.

Then, as explained above, something horrible ate my brain.  In a strictly metaphorical sense, of course.

But when we met up, the old familiarity was still there.  Not enough for me to regret reaching out, but enough for me to re-adjust to this whole “reading books” thing.  I spent a couple of weeks with The Dragonbone Chair, and the bond between us was still there.  It took time, but over the course of a couple of weeks we became re-acquainted.

I don’t think it’s fair to take all the credit for that.  I was struggling a bit at first.  There were moments where my brain panicked and decided I needed to stop reading in case it all went horribly wrong.  It sounds daft, but anybody who’s had clinical anxiety will know what I’m talking about. Sometimes you just have a fight, flight or freeze reaction to the most mundane of things.

(As you might have guessed, clinical anxiety was another aspect of my health problems.  My doctor and I are both pretty sure it was a secondary condition rather than the root cause, but as with all such things, you never really get to know what came first because something horrible was eating your brain at the time.)

But anyway, The Dragonbone Chair helped me through all that.  The fact that we could fall into an old and well remembered pattern made it all so much easier.  I got to know Simon Mooncalf again, and his first interactions with Malachias and the scattercat.  I refreshed my acquaintance with Dr Morgenes Ercestres and his works.  I felt once again the unlooked for conflict between two royal brothers, rekindled by the death of their father.

I saw the Uduntree and the blood of Igjarjuk.

Given that our time together in the past had, on occasion, taken place in the space of a single sitting, our re-acquaintance was slow, but it was pleasant, and the pace quickened over time.

So much in fact, that I had something of a wild fling with The Stone of Farewell.  In some ways, I feel that I hurried all the players to get together at Sesuad’ra faster than was wise.  But I was hungry for things to move along.  Hungry to see Jao e-Tinukai’i again, and hungry to visit the house of Shent.

Shent is a game that, even now, appeals to me because it’s a game where playing competitively is missing the point, whilst exploring possibilities and experiencing different flows of the game is paramount.  My kind of game, and my kind of gameplay.

I slowed down a little for To Green Angel Tower, not out of any shame or second thoughts… but because my hardback copy was too titanic to read on the train.  Seriously.  If I were to hit you with that hardback, you would die.  Your neighbours would die too, from the ensuing shockwave.  So I had to read my paperbacks, one of which is not in fantastic condition so required some care to avoid breaking the binding.

So I learned again the story of the Storm King, and I learned his reasons.  I re-learned the deepest secrets of Osten Ard’s greatest knight, and I re-learned of the sorrowful events that had happened long in the past to bring it all to pass.

Since then, I’ve been reading books consistently and comfortably.  I’ve been ploughing through them at a fair rate, if I’m honest.  Sometimes two at a time – I know, I’m shameless.

So, thank you, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, for helping me get back something I’d lost.  Thank you, Tad Williams, for writing those books, all those years ago… and for being around to talk to a bunch of internet geeks about them (and other things) when many other authors still hadn’t worked out that computers were more than fancy typewriters and that the internet might actually be a “thing”.  I still wonder if I should be taking pineapples with me to SF cons, just to see who understands.

A Film I Wanted to Love… and DID!

Today, I went to see a film. It’s a film that I really wanted to love, and which film critics really wanted me to hate. Sometimes I love it when things turn out my way and the critics turn out to have been watching a totally different film.

The film: John Carter.

It’s GREAT. Go see it.

If you’ve not heard of it it, it’s based on a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs that fit into the genre known as “Planetary Romance”. People will often call it science fiction, but it predates the SF genre, having been written nearly a century ago (the first book was written in 1917).

It seems the critics have their knives out for this one, but largely speaking, it seems that they’re just not paying attention. Either that, or they’re panning it because they don’t like the genre. I’m not going to say it’s a masterpiece, but if you like the genre, you’ll *love* this film

It nails it. The cast are good. The effects are appropriate. The story is solid and doesn’t drag. The action is good, and unlike most modern action film fights, they told the story of the fight, rather than just showing a series of jump-cut set-pieces.

If you’re aware of the books, and are staying away because it’s just called “John Carter” instead of “John Carter of Mars” or “A Princess of Mars”, stop being an idiot and go see it. The title change, whilst a bit weird, actually makes a lot of sense in the way that the film pans out.

If you want a good, solid action / adventure film in a Planetary Romance genre? Go see this. Go see it now. Don’t just go and look at Rotten Tomatoes, as it’s clearly populated by folks who don’t get Planetary Romance. The kind of people who’d have panned Star Wars because it was “silly”.

The fact that everybody who’s voice I respect in the field of SF or Planetary Romance seems to have got on board with this and loves it should tell you something.

I gave it a shot, and loved it. I’d like to see more of this kind of thing, and I’d like to see it done as well as this has been, and as respectfully of the source material.

So there.

(I’m about to crosspost this to a couple of other places. If you see it multiple times… well, that’s how it goes!)

My Life Has a Soundtrack

A Quick Starting Note…

I plan to link to a whole bunch of music to go with this post. It’ll probably all go at the end as a massive lump until I rejig my content management system to let me conveniently link to music in a more sensible way… which may or may not ever happen. It’s not the focus of this blog, after all. If there’s not a small bunch of music links at the end, bear with me and they’ll be along eventually. There’ll probably be links in the body too…

In the meantime, here we go…

My Relationship With Musical Talent

Conspicuous by it’s absence

I’ve never had quite the relationship I’d like with music. I like to think of myself as a put-upon musician, in that I’ve never yet found a musical instrument that doesn’t hate me.

As it stands, I’ve attempted to get somewhere with a violin, a piano or keyboard, electric or accoustic guitars, bass guitar and drums. No luck. I seem to have the musical talent of a whelk. On top of that, please never,ever ask me to sing. The geneva convention probably prevents me from doing so, and if it didn’t, I’m sure they’d rectify the oversight shortly afterwards. Of course, I still attempt some form of music every once in a while.

I’ve come close to being able to make vaguely decent noises come out of guitar, bass and keyboard… but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play them in any reasonable capacity. Guitarists are usually expected to be able to play more than the first few bars of the intro to “wish you were here”, or to be able to make the guitar do what they want without causing pain to all in the vicinity. I had a slightly better go with a keyboard, and actually managed to work out the start of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” by ear alone… which a) I’m unduly proud of, considering it’s not exactly complicated and b) absolutely certain that I’ve since forgotten.

I finally understood what the hell was going on with a guitar (and similar stringed instruments) after an awesome presentation on the physics and technology of the guitar at BarCampLondon a while back (which I mentioned in another blog post nearer the time – If I remember, I might come back and link to my writeup about it). I still can’t play a guitar, but I understand them a lot more about how they work than I did. With time and patience, I reckon I could probably play some form of stringed instrument for a particular style of music. Not a style I reckon many folks would listen to, admittedly, but I reckon I could.

Likewise, it was experimenting with a keyboard after knowing a bit of physics and maths that made me finally get how they behave. It was also messing about with chords on a keyboard that made chords on a guitar start making more sense to me. Not because of how you play them, but because it’s easier to pick up on the relationships between the strings and how the waveforms interact.

As for rhythym, it was messing about with a cheap electric drumkit that made me finally get how some of that stuff worked. I couldn’t quite make my limbs behave enough to give it a proper go, but I got a much better idea of how drums work and what’s involved in playing them. it’s something I may eventually go back to when I have more space and more free time. I could carry a very, very basic rhythym, but I couldn’t do anything more complex than that.

But, even with all of that, I don’t think I’ll ever be a musician.

Can’t create, but can appreciate

I may not be able to play music in any meaningful way, but I can sure as hell appreciate it. My continued attempts to learn to make instruments make noises other than “cat put through badly oiled shredder”, “drums dropped down liftshaft” or “monkey trapped beneath piano lid” also give me more and more respect for the talent I do hear.

When I find something I like, I want there to be more of it. Which means more people need to support those artists right now, before they go away. I’ve always tried to build enthusiasm around the music that I like and spread it around. It’s a way of ensuring that a band gets a bit of reputation and survives.

How things used to be…

Airplay

Very little music I like gets airplay. This has always been the case. In the past, there used to be a rock show every friday on the radio… which would play rock & metal for four hours, from eight until twelve. That was it. There were a couple of other shows, and a couple of other stations, but they mixed to good stuff in with so much utter arse that they weren’t worth bothering with. There were also a couple of TV Shows that did me some favours, for the brief time they were around, and when I got the chance to watch them… shows like snub-TV or, on certain weeks, when they had the indie or rock charts, The Chart Show.

The problem was that I didn’t have my own TV – just the one in the front room, so when I wanted to watch music shows, my folks were usually sat right there with me. I had a tape deck of my own, but that required me to have found and bought music. Which I couldn’t easily do if I couldn’t listen to it first to find it.

Discoverability

The problem I always used to have was that it was really difficult to discover bands, or to evangelise about a band or a song. You could hear it at random, and you could tell people about it, but you couldn’t just point at it and say “listen to this, right now!”. You had to wait for the radio to play it, usually with two fingers at the ready on the tape deck so you could record it, give the tape to your friends and tell thim “this is the one I meant” – because the chances were that the local record shop wouldn’t have it unless it was already popular. Considering a lot of the stuff I liked was never really going to get as far as popular (or had long since ceased to be so) I was unlikely to get very far. I knew there was an underground scene, but living away from cities made it largely inaccessible to me. You also couldn’t really try tapes before you bought them, and they weren’t cheap. If I saved for two or three weeks, I could afford a tape.

The problem comes a little from my rarified tastes. There’s not much “popular” music out there that I like very much. There never really has been. The closest I got was in the 80s with some of the hard-rock, metal and goth stuff, and the 90s with a bit of the shoegaze and indie stuff and, on a different tack, some of the ambient or celtic stuff.

Tastes & Clubs

I can appreciate a fair amount of music that does get airplay for what it is, but I don’t necessarily like it. I won’t say it’s bad… art is subjective, after all. I will, however, say very firmly that most of it’s just not to my taste. It’s not meant to be. Overweight ex-goth-metaller-indiekid-prog-rocker guys in their mid-thirties aren’t usually the target audience for pop music… especially if they’re ardent two-left-feet-that-don’t-even-work-right non-dancers like me, so aren’t interested in dancing to stuff at clubs. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate some club music in the right circumstances – which are generally when I’m rocking the lighting controls for the club and getting caught up in the vibe of the room. I did a fair bit of that to fund myself through university, and grew to appreciate a lot of different music for different reasons. I wouldn’t listen to all of it, but I can appreciate the atmosphere it can create in a club. Even as a non dancer, I can, in the right circumstances, get caught up in a good club night if the DJ is good at their job and I’m running the light show to follow the music. I can pick up on the vibe of the room and find myself getting lost in it. It doesn’t even have to be music I like – it just needs the right atmosphere in the room.

But my music – the music I li
ke – isn’t really club music. Not all of it anyway – some of it is, but usually for a different kind of club.

Music Archaeology

I’ve spent a long time finding my music via recommendations from friends, which have usually had around a one-in-three success rate if the friends know me and my tastes pretty well. Some friends have a better hit rate than others, of course, but that’s to be expected. I have tastes that have traditionally been a little outside the mainstream. On top of that, bands I like have a long habit of breaking up due to label shenanigans (or just plain falling out with each other) and scattering into a selection of new bands, with no breadcrumb trail to let you follow them. They also have a habit of doing it just after I’ve found them. I am become death, destroyer of bands!

The bands that don’t follow the “explode as soon as discovered by Eggwhite” pattern do tend to hang around, but don’t usually release music on a particularly punishing schedule. An album every few years, if I’m lucky.

This often left me starved of new music. This wasn’t too bad, as I often dug back into the past to find music that was new to me. Whilst finding this was great, and I still do dig into the past to find music on a fairly regular basis, it doesn’t help me find new, current music to share or introduce people to. It’s music archaeology, rather than music discovery.

Ticking along with the same few bands

This situation left me, for a great many years, with a small number of bands that I really liked, and who’s back catalogues I’d buy up fervently until I ran out. Then, because they were established bands, I’d get maybe a new album every year or two. Eight to Twelve new songs every year or two, from three or four different bands. Because I live in the UK, pandora wasn’t a viable option for me (it might be now, but I’m not that fussed) and because my tastes are a bit far from the beaten track, spotify just didn’t handle me very well. Last.fm? Love the site, but it just didn’t have content for my kind of music. I still use it, and try to make sure that all my music players scrobble to it. I found a couple of bands that way, but mostly it just liked recommending bands I already knew or that weren’t to my taste.

There just wasn’t much out there for finding me new music. There were a couple of podcasts that I listened to, such as a few from The Dividing Line Broadcast Network, but they were usually quite hit and miss for me. The better shows were pretty awesome, and probably still are, but there was so much in there that just didn’t quite grab me… and long podcasts where you don’t like 50% of the music, whilst they’re better than my luck with radio, are a lot of effort to go to for not much benefit. Too many shows themed around one band, and too much effort to work out what a song was whilst listening. Good for listening, but not so good for music discovery.

Then came Classic Rock Presents: Prog – a print magazine, with cover CDs. The magazines were good (probably still are – I think my subscription’s lapsed and I can’t remember my credentials to renew it) and I’ve picked word up a lot of good bands that way. One of which was a solo artist called Matt Stevens. More on him later. But, as had always been apparent, I’m not just a prog fan, and I don’t like all prog. That said, the cover CDs always had at least one track on them that I really liked – usually more. I’ve only had one cover cd from them that I thought was “a bit of a duffer”, and even that one still had some good stuff on it.

Then, Out of the Blue, Bandcamp!

How BandCamp got on my radar

It was actually one of the cover CDs that made me notice Bandcamp, via a guy called Matt Stevens. His song Lake Man had been on one of the cover CDs. I’d also heard his name a couple of times around the place, but hadn’t gone much further than that. But having heard a bit, I did a search, found a link, and there he was… on bandcamp. Where I could listen to a bunch of stuff for free… and where I could also buy stuff if I wanted to. I liked this model. I listened free for a while, and then decided that, at the prices he was asking, and with the amount I kept playing it over and over, he thoroughly deserved my money. So I bought both albums – physical CD and download.

Here’s another place where Bandcamp is a bit different. The amount I paid? I got to set it. There was a minimum, bit it was ludicrously low, but if I wanted to pay more, I could. I could also listen to the whole lot online before I did so – so I knew exactly what I was getting. I was impressed, so I paid over the minimum. They were easily worth twice what he was asking. So I paid twice what he was asking. I don’t regret it.

Now, I’ve not found Bandcamp to be a site that I ever intend to use, particularly. But it is one that I found myself ending up at again and again. I ended up there by following hints of interesting music from other sources – particularly from twitter (the other half of this equation). I end up there by accident so often that I’ve become familiar with the place, and have decided that they’re getting something really, really right… and that they’re worth looking at a fair bit more. I’ll be looking into them further to see how they tick, I can tell you that!

If you go to their homepage, it’s not hugely geared towards consumers. Sure, consumers can go there, and it has some browsing tools, but they’re not given priority on the homepage. The homepage is for artists. Bandcamp isn’t selling itself to consumers, really. The main purpose of the homepage is to sell the site to artists and explain their approach. The approach is also clearly geared to help artists sell their work to fans. It sells itself to the artists, and gives those artists a platform on which they can sell their stuff with some pretty simple charges – to me as a layman in music and finance, the setup seems remarkably fair.

Where does twitter come in?

That’s the next trick. I followed him on Twitter at the same time I bought the CDs. I also gushed a bit about how awesome they were on twitter (and rightly so – they’re awesome – buy them!).

But here’s the first kicker. He replied and followed me right back. A proper reply.

Even better, he doesn’t spam me about his music all the time – he posts like a real human being instead! If I happen to tweet about another band that he likes or works with, even without referencing him or music at all… he’ll quite often reply or chip in. Now that’s community engagement. That’s how to get and grow a fan base around your product, and how bands can help each other out right there. It’s not all about him or his music. Okay, so I think he has some fingers in other pies as well, and may benefit from pushing some other artists a bit… but if the way he pushes them my way is to engage with me personally? I think I’m fine with that. Better than fine, actually, I think it’s bloody awesome. It’s online community and social media done right.

Here’s the next kicker. He didn’t just reply to my tweets when I mentioned him or bands he has ties to. He replied to some other stuff too… if I mentioned other bands, quite often he’d reply to enthuse about them too. How often do you find a recording artist who’s prepared to froth about other recording artists with some random dude on the internet? In this case, I think the band / recording artist I frothed about and got some froth back from him about was The Echelon Effect. Where might you find their stuff? Guess. As a brief aside, just the title of one of their songs is so awesome it br
ings me out in goosebumps. I’m not exactly a floaty romantic type, but the title “Defying Gravity to Meet You” just works for me. I’m a rustic, practical, stocky country type… but as song titles go, that one’s just a winner. It hits me right where it needs to, and it helps that it’s a masterful piece of music, too. The whole album’s awesome. Go listen. I can’t listen to it enough – you have to do some listening for me!

Every now and then, I’ll see Mr. Stevens frothing about some other band, which immediately gets my attention. I’ve found quite a few that way. Initially from him as a seed, but also by following the other he mentions too. When he mentions another band, I notice. I’ve found a whole bunch of other bands from that initial seed. Some were his other projects, like Yonks or The Fierce and the Dead. Others have been more diverse, and have lead me to other bands entirely, sometimes by direct connections, sometimes by compilations.

The combination of a social network like Twitter and a platform like Bandcamp is, for me, the “killer app” for music. I get engagement with bands, and a quick and easy way to give them my money in exchange for their music.

Compilation albums – didn’t they die in the 90s?

Sometimes a bunch of the artists I’ve been discovering pull together for something incredible.

After the Tsunami in Japan, there was a charity compilation put together extremely quickly, called Hope For Japan. For an album to channel funds to disaster relief, it was the fastest I’ve seen – it was out less than a month after the quake, with all money made from it going straight to charity. I think it was put together within days of the disaster – although I don’t recall exactly how many days. I threw money at the album and don’t regret it in the slightest. You can still buy it, and I advise you to do so. The cause is a good one, and it’s 36 tracks of incredibly high quality music to boot. In fact, mentioning it has reminded me how awesome it is, and I’m listening to it now as I type.

Several of the artists I’ve mentioned above are on there. So are a whole bunch more that I’d not found yet. I still have to catch up with them, but I’ll do so in the near future. A bunch of them are going to be on bandcamp.

On top of the good cause, there’s not a duff track on there. I’ve found a bunch more artists thanks to that album as well, and have many more still to follow up on. I’m actually listening to the album now, because writing this post reminded me how high the quality is.

I threw links to it around on twitter at the time, but I really, really can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s always atmosperic, sometimes brooding, sometimes uplifting, sometimes melancholy, sometimes hopeful. It’s a damned fine album.

The platform for this compilation? The way it was released? Bandcamp. The way it was marketed? Twitter and other social networks. A community of recording artists engaged with each other to pull it together, and then engaged with the public via social networks to get the word out.

A New Musical Landscape

This is probably the richest time in my life when it comes to being able to find new music that suits my taste and buy it. The barriers between me and trying new music are low for the first time I can remember. I can discover one artist, and then using Twitter and Bandcamp, that single artist blossoms out to a whole forest of them. I can engage with artists over twitter and pick up on the music they themselves like. I don’t need mainstream media to connect me to the music I want anymore (which is handy, because it never really managed it) – I can now connect directly with the artists, and give them money for their work. I can find new artists and support them. When I combine it with services like kickstater (which is a whole different conversation), where I’ve been able to help fund a couple of artists recording their first albums… and you’ve got a winning combo.

The costs of buying the music are low, and I know that a sensible amount of the money ends up with the artists themselves, not lost along the way to a host of overheads. I get to engage with the artists in a way I never could before, and for the last year or so, I’ve felt engaged with the music scene in a way I’ve never felt before.

Long live Bandcamp and long live Twitter, and long live other services in the same vein. Long live every band that I’ve mentioned here, and the many I’ve failed to mention. Between the lot of you, you’ve connected me to music in a way that every other medium or service in my entire life had so far failed to achieve.

It’s rare that I get to say that about what are, when it comes down to it, some pretty simple online services. It’s rare that I get to say that about anything, really.

It counts for a lot.

Punk killed prog, don’t you know?

Go out there and watch a documentary on Prog-Rock. Doesn’t matter which – any of them will do. You’ll notice one thing in common in all of them – the point at which they end, which is usually by saying that Punk came along and killed it. This really annoys me for a whole host of reasons, but mostly because it’s just lazy. What I intend to do in this post is to talk a bit about what happened after that – how the landscape changed through the 80s, 90s and up to the current day.

Having said that, it’s important to bear in mind that I am not a musician – not by a long stretch. I’d love to be, but I’ve never been able to find the time and means to learn to make intruments make the sounds I want them to make. I can play a few guitar chords, understand how piano chords work and have a rudimentary understanding of how rock drumbeats are put togther… but when it comes to putting any of that lot into any kind of structure or performance I just haven’t gained the necessary skills. What I can say, though, is that I’m passionate about listening to music and appreciating it. I’ll even go so far as to occasionally listen to music I don’t like, so that I can come to understand why other people do like it.

Definitions and Ethos

I don’t think anybody will ever truly pin down boundaries between musical genres, but for this post I’m going to have to explain my definitions upfront so that we can get onto the same page.

First up, lets think about what defines progressive rock, and the ethos behind it. There are plenty of variations on this around but here’s what I’m using.

  • Prog sets to break out of the restrictions of the 3 minute pop song – When prog began, rock was dominated by short 3-4 minute songs, as only singles would get radio airplay, and that was all you could fit on a 7-inch 45rpm single. Some bands even set out to create long-form rock music, intended to have durations comparable with symphonies rather than folk songs.
  • Prog sets out to have progression within a single piece of music – Rather than being in the standard “verse, chorus, bridge” format that everything fit into at the time, the idea was to have variation and progression within a piece, much like different movements in a classical piece.
  • Prog sets out to explore beyond the prevalent norms of rhythym, melody and harmony – When prog began, rock was dominated by simple chord progressions and 4/4 time. There’s nothing wrong with those (there’s a reason they’re popular), but they’re not all there is.

For contrast, let’s think about punk:

  • Punk set out to strip music back to the bare essentials – When punk began, prog had become very self indulgent and the music was often extremely complex to perform and wasn’t always easy to listen to!
  • Punk set out to remove the distance between performer and audience – When punk began, prog musicians had set themselves apart from their audiences either by technical virtuosity, complexity of stage setup at concerts or just by sheer ego. It was also firmly rooted in the here and now, so you could relate to both it and the performers much more easily.
  • Punk set out to make making music easily accessible – Punk set out with the idea that anybody could make music, regardless of talent, training or background.

There’s probably a lot more in both cases, but this is pretty much what I’ll be working with.

The first thing that this calls to mind is that both genres, at least initially, were about transgression – albeit in slightly different ways:

  • Prog was about technological transgression first, and social transgression second – breaking technical limits on what could be performed and recorded, and pushing beyond what was popular at the time.
  • Punk was about social transgression first – breaking social limits on who should be able to make, perform and record music, and (as with prog) pushing beyond what was popular at the time.

So they’re the same?

Only in that they were both about changing things away from what they had been before. Musically, you’d probably notice the odd difference here and there.

So Punk did kill prog?

No, but it did change it and change the way it was percieved. Not all prog bands survived, and as a genre it certainly had a rocky period for a while as it fell out of favour, but it continued. But it didn’t die out. Instead, it evolved and adapted to a new environment. The ideas didn’t die or go away, but instead branched out in different directions.

Enough prog to more than fill a weekend!

First, some background

For those not in the know… I’m a bit of a progressive rock fan. Like most progressive rock fans, I’m a bit picky. I’m not a huge fan of the massively overblown late 1970s prog, or of the frequently impenetrable canterbury scene (although I do quite like a bit of Caravan or Gentle Giant every now and then).

I’m mostly into neo-prog that’s surfaced since the 1980s, and in how the influence of prog can be seen in so many other bands. With this in mind, when I found out about the Summer’s End festival, I decided to go along.

It’s a small, annual progressive rock music festival which took place int 2008 in the Forest of Dean, about 5-10 minutes drive away from a place where I used to live. Beth (t’other half at the time of writing) was taking photos of the first night’s acts, so we needed to be there early enough to check in to the B&B, so I took a half day from work to make it possible. We arrived in the forest at about 5:45pm, and got checked in to the B&B… only to discover that pretty much everybody else staying there was also there for the music.

Edale House is a fantastic little B&B, and if you’re after such a place in the heart of the Forest of Dean, I’d recommend it highly. Especially the full english breakfasts, complete with good, thick bacon and homemade sausages.

Season’s End – Friday’s Opening Act

Photo: Season's End - Guitarist

After a quick meal at The Fountain (one of my old haunts), we headed down to Lydney for the opening act.

Now, as it turned out, I’d actually heard this lot before. I wasn’t impressed the first time around and I was a little surprised to find them on the bill at a prog festival, even on the prog-metal night, as I last saw them at a goth festival in Reading (Malediction III). However, I try to keep and open mind, and I’m glad I did… because they were actually really rather good.

Now that I’ve mentioned that, I’ll tell you that they’re called Season’s End. They’re still a female fronted Symphonic Metal band, with all that entails, right down to the obvious nightwish comparisons… but I have to say that in this case those comparisons are favourable.

Since I last saw them, they’ve changed most of their line up (thus adding to their prog credentials) and have failed to release a new album for four years (also adding to their prog credentials), but have been touring with new material and refining their sound (adding to prog credentials once again).

In short, I still wouldn’t call them prog, but on a couple of songs they were getting pretty damned close… and since I have a soft spot for good metal as well, I really enjoyed their set. When their new album eventually appears, I’ll be picking it up.

The stage lighting geek in me also forces me to point out that this festival had an ever evolving lighting rig, with a few more bits and bobs being added for each band. As the first act on, and with venue problems having delayed the full setup of the lighting rig, Seasons End were lit only by six parcans and a strobe. The fact that this was enough to actually light them and fill the stage with colour should tell any theatrical types out there why I like parcans and think that no rig should be without them.

Friday – Headliner

There was a short break after Season’s End, in which some broken lights were replaced and Threshold got set up for the headline set. I’ve not seen them live before, but I can tell you now that I’ll be seeing them again. They had an energy on stage, and Damien Wilson is a consummate frontman. He’s clearly a bit of a tart, but then that adds to stage presence and means he knows how to work the crowd.

He even covered nicely for some technical hitches early in Slipstream, their opening number. The rest of the band deserve huge amounts of credit as well, as they played a blinder of a set and really looked like they were enjoying themselves… a feeling which was contagious, and spread rapidly to the crowd.

Drummer Johanne James also needs to be awarded a large number of “how hardcore is he?!” points for playing such a high energy set merely a week after dislocating his shoulder. He still had strapping on to ensure that his arm remained fully attached to his body. If it hadn’t been mentioned, you wouldn’t have been able to tell at all from his performance.

That rounded out the music for the first night, but it was a good hour or so after that before we retreated back from the venue to the B&B… An hour that was spent talking to various members of each band. I can now reliably inform you that several of the members of Threshold need to be lauded as not only fine musicians, but also as some of the nicest people in rock.

Season’s End also need to be lauded as some of the most manic, judging by the way that most of them were happily careening around the venue like four year olds on crack. They were highly entertaining to talk to, and generally really nice people.

Saturday – Before the gigs

After a spectacularly poor night’s sleep the first full day of Summer’s End began with one of the fine breakfasts I mentioned earlier. After both of us were eventually vaguely awake, we set out for a morning’s exploration.

Doors weren’t until 12, with the first gig due for 1pm, so we had a couple of hours to kill. We decided to kill them by going to a place called Puzzlewood, near to Coleford. It’s a place I’d never managed to go to whilst I lived in the area, or even over several visits back there after I moved away. Boy, had I been missing out. Some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen, and I could have easily spent a lot longer wandering around in there. Not least because it’s quite mazelike and finding our way out could easily have become an issue were it not for my rather good sense of direction.

Saturday – Afternoon Session

After that, we continued on to the venue, where we took in the beginning of Overvibe‘s set. Unfortunately, they didn’t hugely grab me… although I do like what I’ve heard online of their music. I just didn’t get into them live. It probably didn’t help that I heard most of the first song from the bar, which didn’t exactly have the best sound in the world. In fact, it sounded like somebody had set the PA to “flatulent” for their set. So we went off and did a bit of shopping nearby instead.

I might give them another go at some point, and see if that was just an “off” gig. We came back from our short shopping stint in time for me to catch the last half of Abarax‘s set. They were solid and interesting, but I’m not sure how best to describe them other than as clearly being heavily influenced by Pink Floyd (especially when they had a moderately decent stab at Comfortably Numb as a tribute to the late Richard Wright).

Their stage presence wasn’t great, however, and at a live gig I find that it’s a band’s ability to work with the audience that makes or break the gig… so overall, they were very good musically, but somehow a bit lacking. I had planned on picking up one of their CDs anyway, but was going to wait until later as I couldn’t afford to buy CDs from every band, and it was still quite early in the weekend.

Unfortunately for Abarax, Quidam came on and totally blew me away. Clearly there’s something in the water in Poland, because they’re really churning out some fine progressive rock right now. Between Quidam and Riverside they’ve got a lot going on. They had fantastic stage presence, even with what was clearly a bit of a language barrier getting in the way. They worked a couple of progged-up rock classics into their set, usually as medleys with their own songs, which certainly helped to get the audience moving for them… but to be honest, I don’t think they needed it as their own material was phenomenal.

I could see some pretty strong influences in there, but none so strongly as to make me question the band’s ability to do their own thing. They were also clearly enjoying the gig – only their second in the UK – immensely. I do think they may have been a bit frustrated at the apparent stillness of much of the audience, but I think everyone was too busy being shell-shocked that a band this good had managed to pass under so many people’s radars.

I bought their latest CD as soon as I found it, and I was far from alone in doing so. I think they got one of the biggest, most heartfelt rounds of applause of the whole festival.

Saturday – Special Guest

Then there was a short break whilst Magenta got set up and sound-checked, which gave us an oportunity to grab a bit of food and a drink, then to queue impatiently as they were one of the bands we’d both really been waiting for. They didn’t disappoint, even with some sound problems early on in the set. If the PA had been set to “flatulent” for Overvibe, it was clearly set to “prolapse” for the opening number (“The Ballad”).

However, things seemed to get sorted quickly and I got the impression that the early glitches made the band even more determined to give it their all… and they really did! I had always expected them to be one of the highlights of the weekend and that’s exactly what they were. They gave a performance full of passion and emotion, and made it all come to life in a way that not many bands can manage. They also seemed totally at home on the stage and treated the audience as friends rather than fans, which is always a plus.

Saturday – Headliner

There was then a longer break before IQ came on. Unfortunately, this break was rather too long as I’d not had much sleep the night before and I had been aching everywhere even before Magenta’s set. The result was that I only stayed for the first few songs. I mentioned the steadily evolving lighting rig earlier… By this point it had turned into what I’d call a proper lighting rig. It had grown some frontlights over the course of the day, and now had a couple of moving mirror lights, a bunch more parcans and a couple of colour scrollers, which I think came with the band.

As a result, IQ were the best lit band of the festival so far. They had clearly put a lot of work into their staging as they even came with three screens worth of video projection behind them – a bit over the top for a small festival like this! I’d not heard much IQ before this gig, but from what little I did hear before we had to call it a night, I’d quite like to hear some more to get a bit more of an idea of what they’re like.

So ended my second day of the Summer’s End festival… driving back to the B&B whilst my back was still flexible enough to fold it into the driving seat of my car and still be able to steer and operate the pedals.

Sunday – Before the gigs

Day three began in a similar way to day two, in that we had some time to pass before the start of the day, and we decided to spend it on a short visit to Clearwell Caves. We’d both been there before, but it’s always worth a visit.

Sunday – Afternoon Session

After we’d done that, we headed down to the venue to catch Glow – the opening act of the day, only to find them halfway through their set already. Clearly day three was starting earlier than advertised… Probably to counteract the massive overrun seen on day two.

Unlike the previous day, though, I thought they were a fantastic opener. Glow are a bit different in that they make a kind of psychedelic prog dub. They were upbeat, active and clearly enjoying themeselves a great deal. I held off on buying their CD for a couple of minutes… until it was announced that it was only a fiver and my resolve evaporated. I’m very glad I bought it as so far it’s been a great mood lifter.

After Glow we had Thieves’ Kitchen, who are a band I really wanted to like, but somehow didn’t quite manage to. Within the first two minutes of the set, as well as singing, the singer had played the clarinet, the castanets, maracas, a theremin and the spoons.

Seeing a rather attractive young lady dressed in a blend of goth & jazz singer garb bending over to play the spoons on her knee is one of the odder experiences of the weekend.

However, it just felt like they were trying too hard to be clever and experimental, and that somehow they were so focussed in that direction that they forgot to put any tunes in. I gave them a few songs and then decided that it was time to head off and do something else for a bit.

That something else was a walk around Lyndey Harbour. Last time I went there was before they’d started the restoration. It was a broken wreck of a place, with the gates of the tidal lock rotting and hanging half open.

This time, however, it was all fantastically restored. You could go right out to the tip of the harbour wall and get a fantastic view out over the severn estuary. If you’re in the area and want some striking views, it’s certainly worth a look… if you can find it with the woefully inadequate signage!

This meant that we returned to the venue just in time to see Abel Ganz, who are apparently a scottish prog band with a long established pedigree, but who went on hiatus some years ago. Now they’re back, and have new material out there. I’d never heard of them before, and so was pleasantly surprised.

They didn’t blow me away as much as Quidam, and didn’t grab my immediate attention as firmly as Glow, but I really enjoyed their set. They reminded me quite strongly of earlier Marillion, but without Fish’s lyrical convolutions and occasional shrieking, and not so much as to make them sound derivative.

I was impressed enough to buy a CD, but was faced with a quandry! They had a limited edition of the CD reissue of their first album, or they had the new album. In the end I opted for the special edition. I’m quite likely to also pick up the latest album in the near future as well.

Sunday – Special Guests

Next up was another band I’d really been looking forward to… Frost*. No, I’m not referencing a footnote – they just have an asterisk on the end of their name. At this point I have to admit to feeling a bit sorry for The Tangent, who were on afterwards, because this was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. The refreshed lineup really works for them, and Dec Burke is a fantastic addition as an extra guitarist and singer.

I was hooked from Experments in Mass Appeal (the opening number) and didn’t care that my back had flared up again – I was too buzzed to even really notice! That buzz carried on all the way through the set, right up to the phenomenal, rocking out encore of The Other Me.

I don’t think any band could have followed that and not been a slight disappointment. Beth seemed to be thinking along similar lines, and as her knee had gone again I drove her back to the B&B so she could rest up whilst I returned to the venue to see The Tangent.

Sunday – Headline

I said earlier that no band could follow Frost* without being a slight dissapointment… but The Tangent gave it a damned good go. I’d not heard of them before, although I read bit about their history and picked out that they had previously been a supergroup involving most of The Flower Kings and a few others, fronted by two people who were respected greatly by musicians, but not particularly well known.  Now it’s those same respected people (Andy Tillison & Guy Manning), a new guitarist and sax player… and the entirety of swedish prog band Beardfish.

Andy Tillison pointed out that Beardfish are possibly the most important band in prog at the moment as they’re all under 30, and I think that in many ways he’s correct. Unfortunately, they’re deliberately trying to continue the classic prog sound rather than exploring new things. But my argument about how a lot of prog has stopped… well… progressing is an argument for another time. In terms of ability, I can’t fault them at all… They did one number on their own, and it was some of the best “classic” prog I’ve heard in recent years. But enough about Beardfish… what about The Tangent?

Well, they were an immense amount of fun. Their onstage banter was terrific and highly enteraining. For example, Andy Tillison commenting on how they’d managed to maintain a stable lineup for so long… since monday, at which point Guy Manning says “I’m out!” and walks off stage. I also need to comment on how I don’t think I’ve seen so much energy in skinny people for a long time… Between Tillison’s hyperactive bouncing and Beardfish bassist Robert Hansen’s sliding all over the stage with a bass that’s wider than he is, the world’s energy problems could be solved in a moment.

With songs based on such wonderfully proggy subject matter as being propositioned for sex outside a soho jazz club and giving a confused response, or about our lives being ruled by GPSs and mobile phones, the humour in both the banter and the songs themselves really made the closing set of the festival something special.

Highlights & Next year?

For me the ultimate high points were Frost* and Magenta, with my new finds being Quidam, Glow and The Tangent. I’m now eagerly awaiting next year’s Summer’s End festival. The organisers announced that there will definately be one, and that it will definately be in September in Gloucestershire. I’m sold. If the quality’s half of what it was this year, It’d still be worth the money.

Fields of the Nephilim: Ad Vitam

Building Anticipation

Fields of the Nephilim are one of those bands that I thought I’d never get to see live. I first started to listen to their music around 1991, just after they’d split up. Since then there have been a few abortive attempts to revive them and a large number of ever fragmenting spin off bands, but it’s only in the last couple of years that it’s looked like one of these attempts might actually succeed. Of course, by this point there’s only one original member of the band left. Their most recent album at the time of writing, “Mourning Sun” (2005), was performed by singer Carl McCoy and what he refers to as “Ghost Musicians”. For the touring band, everyone else is new.

So when I was presented with an opportunity to go to one of these two shows (only their second and third UK gigs since the last album, if I recall correctly), I leapt at the chance. I’ll tell you now, I was not dissapointed. The queue outside the venue for Sunday’s gig, which was named “Ad Vitam” in a typically occult manner, seemed oddly subdued. It was quite a curious experience, seeing everyone around me dressed in either their trad-goth finery or the band’s signature goth cowboy look… whilst I was there in black combats and a black nepalese shirt.

I used to be able to pull off the goth look, and to be honest, I could probably still give a reasonable showing in the Nephilim look, but on short notice I just didn’t have the wardrobe for it. Besides, in the baking sun I didn’t really fancy having to lug around a heavy, weathered leather duster, or even wear the multiple layers that make the look work.

Support Act and Venue

When the doors opened, it became apparent that people who’d been for the previous night’s “Ad Mortem” gig knew that there would be an hour and a half between the doors opening and even the support act coming on. So there was a fair bit of standing around to do. Since I’ve never been particularly inclined towards throwing myself around at a gig (I’d call it dancing, but for me that’d be a real stretch), I aimed for my usual gig spot… as close to the sound or light desk as possible. There I lurked until “[url=”http://www.myspace.com/pythiamusic”]Pythia[/url]”, the support band, appeared on stage.

I’m not going to dwell on them particularly much – they were always going to be outclassed as a support act for Fields of the Nephilim, especially as they’re a bit of an odd match. They were reasonable, if not to my taste and a little derivative (Nightwish called – they want their act back). What I will say in their favour was that they had good stage presence and didn’t fall into the usual support band slot of performing like they’d been nailed to their spots on the stage. (as an aside, I’m also amused by their [url=”http://www.myspace.com/pythiamusic”]MySpace page[/url], simply by the band member photos down the left hand side.)

Once they left the stage, the venue started to get more and more crowded, and two things became apparent to me. One: Fields of the Nephilim fans are, on average, unnaturally tall. Two: The stage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire is too low. It was rapidly becoming clear that I wasn’t going to have the best of views, which did make me wonder if perhaps I should have headed for the front after all. It seems that I’ve become too used to other venues where the view is at least passable throughout.

A Powerful Opening

It started quite quietly and quite subtly. I think a fair few people missed the first, plainitve cry from a distant harmonica, but when the rest of the audience picked up in sudden anticipation they certainly heard the second. Using samples from Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack from “Once Upon A Time In The West” ([url=”http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064116/”]IMDB[/url]), The Harmonica Man is one of the most recognisable introductions you could ask for, and it immediately sets the tone for the gig. It immediately builds audience anticipation – they’re starting with a classic opening. Real, classic nephilim. The opening from their first album, in fact, which immediately puts to rest the idea that the band would only be playing newer material.

The fact that it lead straight into the instantly recognizable drumbeat of Preacherman practically sent the crowd into a frenzy. This is pure blooded goth-rock stomp, and it cements this gig as something special. At this point, my view of the bad isn’t too bad, provided I don’t want to see anything below the level of their chests… but the staging and lighting are good, so I don’t mind. I also know that my view is about to get worse. You see, where other bands have stage-divers, crowd-surfers and the like, Fields of the Nephilim have a long standing tradition of human pyramids.

Pyramid Schemes

Sure enough, it’s part way through Preacherman that they begin to form. Nothing serious yet – just a couple of people held up with their shins at chest height. You’d think that this would detract from the gig, particularly as it block my already poor view of the stage… but it actually does the exact opposite. It changes the atmosphere from one of passive entertainment into something special – the audience are as much a part of the event as the band on stage are. It sounds incredibly hackneyed, but seeing members of the audience lofted up into the air, stripped to the waist and just basking the music really is something special. In keeping with the band’s occult themes, the pyramids are like some form of ecstatic ritual for the audience. It’s powerful to watch and I have no doubt that it’s something even more for those involved.

Next, the band moved on to From The Fire, a song from what’s best described as an awkward period in their history. From the album “Fallen”, the outcome of an abortive reformation of several original members. The album was largely made up unfinished rough-cuts from the studio, although it does seem that this song was one of the more finished pieces. Here’s it really works, and it’s clearly had time to settle and become a much stronger track than it was on the album.

The song that followed it technically isn’t a Fields of the Nephilim song. Penetration is taken from Zoon, the album released by Nefilim – the band Carl McCoy formed after Fields originally split up. That said, it continues the ideas and feel, even if the musical style is very, very different. A much more brutal song from an album that’s often dismissed by fans of the original band. Personally, I quite like a lot of it… just for different reasons. The version they played here was quite different to that on the album – driven a lot more by a pounding bassline that really give it the kick it needs.

Classics, Old and New

Then we’re treated to Moonchild. Not only one of the band’s classic songs, but a personal favourite of mine as well. Again, the pyramids spring up, getting a little further each time. I think it was around here that I saw the first attempt at a third level. This attempt never quite made it, alas. Instead it broke apart and became several smaller pyramids. This was followed by Requiem XIII 33 and Xiberia, both from “Mourning Sun”. One slow, atmospheric song and one heavy, throbbing beast of a song. With any other band it would be strange that these two would sit together so well, but this kind of versatility is one of the things that make Fields of the Nephilim so memorable.

Special Treats

Next up was another pair of tracks, one classic and one rare treat. Dawnrazor followed immediately by The Sequel. Dawnrazor is, as far as I can tell, a staple of Fields of the Nephilim gigs. The Sequel, however, is rarely played live at all – which is a crying shame because it’s a fantastic song, and it was great to hear it belted out here. Musically it’s an oddly jaunty song, but the lyrics manage to bring across a message that mixes hope with menace.

Just when I thoug
ht it couldn’t get any better I hear yet another distinctive opening – the plaintive guitar solo that is the introduction to The Watchmen, another of my favourite songs. It’s another classic, and as ever, the crowd goes more than a little crazy when it steps up a gear after the first verse. Pyramids are still springing up all over the place, but all of a sudden there’s a frenzy of them.

End of the Set

It made sense to have the last song of the set be one of the newer songs, and they couldn’t have picked a better one than the fantastically triumphant “Mourning Sun”. I think it was around now that the successful three layer pyramid appeared, and it was a sight to behold with the guy up on the top throwing his arms wide and letting the atmosphere wash over him. Usually it’s a problem when you can’t see a thing at a gig, but for this one I really didn’t care – it was a fantastic gig anyway.

Encores

Unlike many bands, they made us wait quite a long time between main set and encore. Not quite long enough to doubt that there’d be one, but long enough that it was definately distinct from the main set. Many bands walk off stage and then thirty seconds later they’re playing again. The encore started off with another Nefilim song – Zoon III / Wakeworld, which was always one of the songs I’ve liked more from Zoon.

That was followed up by Last Exit For The Lost. I’ve never been a huge fan of Last Exit… or more accurately, I’m a fan of the last third of the song, when it picks up the pace and becomes a bit less dirgelike. Perhaps it was just the crowd’s enthusiasm getting to me, but this time around I even enjoyed the first part of the song. I’d have been happy if the gig had ended here, as the end of Last Exit… is a fantastic way to end a gig.

But that wasn’t the end.

The second encore brought us Celebrate. In some ways it’s an odd one to end on, being a resolutely downbeat song, but it’s also a very powerful one, expecially performed as it was here. It’s also a song about new beginnings. I’m hoping this is a new beginning for the band, and wont turn out to be another brief reappearance before another messy implosion. The gig came to a close with the band leaving the stage as the coda of the “Unsealed” version of the song was played over the PA.

To conclude

Overall, this was a hugely enjoyable gig. I’d given up hope of ever seeing Fields of the Nephilim play live, and even though this is a very different band to the classic lineup, the new musicians have really stepped up and do the songs justice. I’m very much looking forward to hearing more from them. I’ll even forgive them for playing nothing at all from “Elizium”.

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