Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Heaven & Earth: 8 tracks

Jon Davison says in a recent interview that the new Yes album, Heaven & Earth, has 8 tracks (plus a bonus track for the Japanese CD). Let's presume the album will get a vinyl release, so that limits the overall length. What does this mean for song lengths?

Well, Yes and Time and a Word had 8 tracks each, the longest at 6:54 ("Survival"), the shortest 2:06 ("Clear Days"). The Yes Album only had 6 tracks, but Fragile had 9 (with 3 tracks under 2 minutes and "Heart of the Sunrise" at 10:34 + reprise).

The next few albums all had rather fewer tracks (3, 4 but a double, 3, 5), but Tormato also has 8 (up to 7:47 for "On the Silent Wings of Freedom"). Drama is a short album and just 6 tracks, but 90125 has 9 (up to 7:39 for "Hearts"). Big Generator is another 8-tracker (maximum 7:37, "I'm Running"). Union, on vinyl, was I think 13 tracks (including "Miracle of Life" at 7:30).

So, actually, 8 is the commonest number of tracks on a Yes album (from the vinyl era). Fly from Here has 6 or 11, depending how you count ("Into the Storm" at 6:54 is the longest if you don't count the "Fly from Here" suite). The longest track on one of these 8-piece albums is only 7:47 ("On the Silent Wings of Freedom"), but Fragile squeezes in one track over 10 minutes out of its 9. Generally, we see a lot of the longest tracks being around the seven, seven and a half minute mark.

Wild speculation, but there you go.

UPDATE: A new Chris Squire interview has more. He describes "three [songs] that are on the longer side, nine-, 10-minute sort of long songs." But that can't leave much room for the other five tracks.

OK, presume they long-uns are 9.5 minutes long each. Three of them adds up to 28.5 minutes. If we're still presuming a vinyl length to the album, then total run time will be forty-something minutes. Fly from Here was towards 48 minutes, but albums like Fragile, The Yes Album and Tormato were under 42 minutes. Let's say the new album is 47.5 minutes long, then that would leave 19 minutes for the other 5 tracks on the album, or 3:48 on average. That's short. That's shorter than everything except "Cinema" on 90125, shorter than everything except "Holy Lamb" on Big Generator.

So, maybe we have something that looks like Fragile, a bunch of shorter tracks (the five "solos" on that album go up to 3:00 long for "Mood for a Day", plus "Long Distance Runaround" is 3:30) and a few longer ones ("Roundabout", "South Side of the Sky" and "Heart of the Sunrise" all over 8 minutes).

Squire also described how Davison "worked with the other four of us on a couple of tracks each", so no solo tracks like on Fragile. Should we take Squire's quote literally? Will the credits have 2 songs that are Squire/Davison, 2 that are Howe/Davison, 2 that are White/Davison and 2 that are Downes/Davison?

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Interview with Steve Babb of Glass Hammer about their new album, Ode to Echo

I talked recently (well, Facebook messaged to be precise) with Steve Babb of Glass Hammer about the band's new album, Ode to Echo, which is released 11 Mar 2014, and other things. My thanks to Steve.

You have a new album out very soon in Ode to Echo. Can you tell me about how the album came together, and about working with multiple vocalists on it?

Steve Babb: I think this may be our 14th studio album. It’s getting hard to keep count! We began work on Ode to Echo shortly after the Cruise to the Edge shows last year.  It being our 20th anniversary as a recording band, we thought it would be cool to have fun with this one and bring back some voices from the past. Carl Groves fronted the band on stage last year, so he was a clear choice to handle the lion’s share of the lead vocals. Of course Jon Davison sings a good deal as well. Susie Bogdanowicz returned after a three album hiatus, and she’ll also be joining the live band for The Moody Blues Cruise in April and The Terra Incognita Festival in Quebec this May of this year. Walter Moore and Michelle Young were valuable GH members and singers in the 90’s – Walter fronted the band for our NEARfest performance and the Lex Live DVD. They’re both back too!

Some of the singers worked here at our studio with us, others we recorded in different studios in Florida, California and in Nashville, TN.

Essentially, this album began the way most do. Fred [Schendel], Alan [Shikoh] and I worked on ideas which developed into songs; then we worked with the singers. 

Ode to Echo was a beast to mix. But I couldn’t ask for a greater group of people to work with!

Now that Yes has become Jon Davison's priority, what has it meant for Glass Hammer to work around those commitments? Has Jon joining Yes brought Glass Hammer more attention?

The priority for all the members of Glass Hammer, including Carl, Susie and Jon is to make music. We do that under the Glass Hammer name, and sometimes we do that within the context of the music of another band. The way I see it, that’s a good thing. The priority never changes for members of this band. For example, Fred and I are currently producing and arranging for at least seven different artists as well as playing for a number of projects and albums. Carl Groves remains the leader and creative spark behind Salem Hill. Jon sings and is now writing for a version of an older prog group from the seventies. That Glass Hammer gets to spread its influence into numerous bands and directions is a win-win for us and the fans. We’ve not had to work around anyone actually. Of course, Jon wasn’t allowed to perform live with us last year – which was unfortunate, but that took one phone call to Carl to fix. Fred and I continue to work and Glass Hammer continues to thrive. Other bands play no part in the momentum we’ve established for our creative output. That’s just not going to happen.

As for the attention, Jon has always acted as a Glass Hammer ambassador to Yes-fans since he joined their operation. Basically, you have the singer for Glass Hammer on stage in front of thousands of prog-fans whenever they’re on tour. The vibe we get from Yes-fans is very positive. I know Yes catch a lot of grief from one faction or another – so maybe we’re getting the best of that deal. Either way, free promotion is not a bad thing.

Can we go back to your previous album, Perilous? Can you talk through the writing of that album?

Perilous was written by Fred, Alan and myself. We collaborated with Jon on all the vocal ideas of course, and he did a fantastic job of interpreting those ideas. We wrote songs, as usual – music first, then vocal melodies, then lyrics. We did this knowing that the entire thing had to work as one enormous (epic) idea. It is, essentially, one piece of music. I penned all of the lyrics, which were based on the notion of coming to grips with mortality in middle age. I knew most of our fans could relate to this – being of about the same age as myself.

A very good friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer just before we began writing the album. Lyrics were based, to a certain extent, on conversations he and I had about his fears and his faith. He knew I was writing lyrics about this, and gave his blessing before succumbing to cancer just before we finished the album.
Life is Perilous. We live in Perilous times. It sounds like a downer for a group who is known for its optimism. Yet that is where I’m at right now as a lyricist. Life can take nasty turns as well as good ones, and where I once kept my ‘feelings’ private about such things, I am now more vocal. 

Ode to Echo is largely about malignant narcissism and its dangers. See what I mean? Maybe we’ll get to talk more about that later.

You and Fred are active online. How do you find interacting with your fans (or, indeed, detractors) in this way?

Some of our dearest fans and friends will occasionally voice a negative critique of one of our albums or maybe have a problem with the direction we’ve taken the band at one point or another. That’s cool. I like to know what they’re thinking and I don’t count them among the ‘haters’. I’ll read a nasty post or a bad review every now and then, and I’ll try to be objective about it and see if there is anything to learn from it.
Fortunately, most of what I read is very positive and exceedingly friendly. Many of our fans become cherished friends over the years. For me, it’s a completely positive experiences. I encourage them to email or post to our Facebook page – whatever they’re thinking. We’re grateful for them. I can’t say that enough!

Online, you've mentioned Glass Hammer being involved in the Sonic Realities project. Can you say anything more about this? Is this original music or a cover?

Dave Kerzner of Sonic Realities asked us to join the Neil Peart project. [More about Sonic Realities here - Henry] Fred composed most of the music for this track, and I did the lyrics. Alan added a good deal too. Carl Groves is singing this one. We were given many of Peart’s tracks to choose from, then asked to write music to his drumming and to incorporate his ideas into the Glass Hammer sound. It is unavoidable that we don’t sound a little like Rush on this, but I think it has mostly succeeded. We just wrapped up this song, which for now at least is called “Impulse”. 

Lots of fun! Rush was and remains a huge influence on Glass Hammer.

Friday, 14 February 2014

DPRP 2013 poll

The results for the 2013 DPRP poll are out. As discussed before, there were not many high profile Yes-related releases in 2013, but let’s see how they did anyway with the 431 voters.

One might wish to count Steven Wilson as part of the Yes camp now he’s remixing the band’s back catalogue, and Wilson dominated the results. The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) won Best Album. Tracks from the album were 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th in the Best Track category! Wilson and band came top overall for concerts, although in terms of individual shows, they were only 2nd and 3rd equal, with Camel’s 26 October show in the Netherlands winning. Wilson’s album and tour was 3rd in Biggest Happening (topped by Camel’s return). The album also did well in terms of individual performances, topping the list for Best Guitarist (Guthrie Govan, with Wilson himself also 11th), Best Bassist (Nick Beggs) and Best Drummer (Marco Minnemann). Adam Holzman was 2nd Best Keyboardist (won by Andy Tillison for The Tangent’s Le Sacré du Travail) and Wilson was 5th Best Vocalist (won by David Longdon for Big Big Train’s English Electric (Part Two)). The Raven… was also second in the Best Artwork category (won by Fish’s A Feast of Consequences). Wilson’s DVD “Drive Home” made 7th in Best DVD; Anathema’s “Universal” won.

Otherwise, however, the Yesmen were little to be seen. Rick Wakeman made 11th in Best Keyboardist for his guest appearance on Ayreon’s The Theory of Everything. The album itself was 8th in the Best Album category and 9th in Biggest Happening, although it was also 3rd in the Biggest Disappointment category (won by Dream Theater’s eponymous release).

The rise of prog cruises made 10th in Biggest Happening, with Cruise to the Edge specifically at 14th. Also notable is Tony Levin at 9th for Best Bassist (for Levin Minnemann Rudess).

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Poll: Best Yes-related album of 1971

Our first two historical polls produced very clear results (Tomorrow's eponymous release winning best related album of the 1960s with 95% and King Crimson's Lizard winning best related album of 1970 with 67%), but 1971, the year of my and Jon Davison's birth, was much, much closer. With 70 votes, the results were:

1) George Harrison: All Things Must Pass (w/ White): 15 (21%)
2=) David Bowie: Hunky Dory (w/ Wakeman): 13 (19%)
2=) John Lennon: Imagine (w/ White): 13 (19%)
4) Mainhorse: Mainhorse (w/ Moraz): 10 (14%)  
5) The Strawbs: From the Witchwood (w/ Wakeman): 9 (13%)
6) Cat Stevens: Teaser and the Firecat (w/ Wakeman): 5 (7%)
7) Elton John: Madman Across the Water (w/ Wakeman): 3 (4%)
8) Colin Scot: Colin Scot with Friends (w/ Anderson, Wakeman): 1 (2%)
9=) Yoko Ono: Fly (w/ White): 0 (0%)
9=) Bell and Arc: Bell and Arc (w/ White): 0 (0%)

There was one 'other' vote, but with no choice specified.

The options were dominated by session work from either Rick Wakeman or Alan White, both still to join Yes at this point. White's two albums with former Beatles come first and joint second, although Wakeman's various appearances total marginally more votes (31 versus 28).

Saturday, 11 January 2014

2013 charts and awards

Yes's 2013 touring was the 180th highest grossing in North America (on the Pollstar chart), with a total gross of $4.4 million, average ticket sales of 1,431 and an average gross of $84,615. They were just below Hall & Oates on $4.5 million, who beat them to Hall of Fame induction, and just ahead of Ed Sheeran ($4.4 million), who's had great success in the UK, but is taking longer to break America.

It's hard to say who Yes's competition should be considered to be, but I note Sigur Rós were 163rd ($5.2 million, 2,815 average tickets), Rush were 64th ($14.9 million, 8,338 average tickets), Muse were 30th ($31.2 million, 12,968 average tickets) and Trans-Siberian Orchestra were 14th ($47.9 million, 13,161 average tickets), but of course 99% of all prog rock bands didn't come anywhere near this list. Black Sabbath, with whom Adam Wakeman is still touring, were 56th with $19.7 million grossed and 13,990 average ticket sales. 1st on the list? Taylor Swift ($112.7 million, 28,411 average tickets).

Let's switch to a different perspective on the year and Prog magazine's Readers Poll. With few high-profile Yes or related releases in 2013, Yes or Yesmen did not appear in most categories. Rick Wakeman was #4 in the Keyboards category, won by Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess, a professed Yes fan. Tony Levin made #9 in the Bassist category, won by Nick Beggs (currently playing with Steven Wilson; worked with Steve Howe some years ago). Yes did win the Reissue category with the Panegyric Close to the Edge, while King Crimson's The Road to Red (with Bruford) was #4. Remixes on Close to the Edge were by Steven Wilson, of course, who had a very strong showing in the poll for his own work. His album The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) won Album of the Year. His band's tour won the Event category and they came #3 in Band of the Year, while Wilson himself topped the Icon category and was also #5 in Male Singer.

A third perspective... what was the best selling Yes-related album of 2013? Hard to tell, but I presume it was Renato Zero's Amo - Capitolo 1, with 4 tracks produced by Horn (and also involving Luis Jardim, percussion on Fly from Here, and Tim Weidner, worked on Fly from Here and Magnification). The album made #1 in Italy and was certified Platinum (60,000 sales). Horn also produced 2 tracks on Spector's debut album, Enjoy It While It Lasts, which made #12 in the UK and, I guess, would be the second best-selling Yes-related album of the year. That is, unless we include David Bowie's The Next Day, with Levin on 5 tracks, because The Next Day made #1 in the UK (94,048 first week sales) and many other countries, and #2 in the US (85,000 first week sales).

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Poll: Best Yes-related album of 2013, part 1

There were 169 votes (2 of which were for ineligible albums and 1 was blank). The results were as follows.

?) Days Between Stations: In Extremis (w/ Sherwood, Banks, R Wakeman) - 62 (37%)
?) Sarastro Blake: New Progmantics (w/ R Wakeman, Sherwood) - 57 (34%)
1) Gordon Giltrap & Oliver Wakeman: Ravens & Lullabies (w/ David) - 15 (9%)
2) Glass Hammer: The Inconsolable Secret Deluxe Edition (w/ Davison) - 13 (8%)
3) CIRCA: Live from Here There & Everywhere (w/ Sherwood, Kaye) - 12 (7%)
4=) Renato Zero: Amo - Capitolo 1 (w/ Horn) - 3 (2%)
4=) The Samurai of Prog: Secrets of Disguise (w/ Davison) - 3 (2%)
6) Angharad: Angharad (EP) (w/ Downes) - 1 (1%)

There were no votes for Nektar's Time Machine (w/ Sherwood).

You may have noticed my odd numbering above. Well, in the initial period the poll was up, In Extremis and New Progmantics (which was my personal choice for the period) received very few votes. And then my last blog post went up, reviewing the two albums, and sh-bam, voting for both exploded. Whether that was a deliberate attempt to distort the results with multiple voting (which I can hardly complain about as that's exactly what I'm encouraging people to do with Yes and the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame public vote; and keep voting - it's only up for a few more days) or an influx of new readers to the site, I don't know, but it's clear that most of those 119 votes are not representative of those who usually vote.

Anyway, it was an unusual half year in that there were no major releases from the better known Yesmen. There was nothing album-like released with Anderson, Howe, Squire, White, Bruford, Rabin or Moraz, and only guest appearances from Wakeman. And it's big releases by those which generally win. Instead, for much of the vote, it was a close run thing between new boy Jon Davison's Glass Hammer and the previous new boys Oliver Wakeman and Benoît David, with Sherwood's CIRCA: just behind.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Review: In Extremis by Days Between Stations; The New Progmantics by Sarastro Blake; Northumbria by Aethellis

I’ve received review copies of three albums by new bands: In Extremis by Days Between Stations (with guests including Billy Sherwood, Pete Banks and Rick Wakeman), The New Progmantics by Sarastro Blake (with guests including Billy Sherwood, Richard Sinclair and Rick Wakeman), and Northumbria by Aethellis. It's tough being a new band. With so much music so readily available, the competition is intense and it is difficult to stand out from the crowd. You might make the greatest music in the world ever, but if no-one ever hears it... That's even more true in a genre like progressive rock where the classic bands of yesteryear still dominate fan attention.

So, how can you boost your profile? One way is to establish a link with better known acts through a guest appearance (something the Internet has made easier to do). Being able to say that Rick Wakeman, say, plays on your album gets you noticed. It's a mark of approval from a big name. Music journalists have something to write about you, the audience takes notice and sales go up. And, hopefully, at least some of the new listeners attracted by the guest star will stay for the music you've produced. Not to mention that you get to make music with your heroes, and learn from an experienced pro.

Two albums out this year following this approach are In Extremis, the second release from US band Days Between Stations, and The New Progmantics, the debut from Sarastro Blake, a recording name for Paolo Pigni who has worked before in Mogador. And let me be honest: the guest star approach worked on me. Both are good albums, but I probably wouldn't have noticed either if they hadn't had that hook, guest starring...

But what do you with your guest star? (I know one label that loves to put the names of guest musicians in the album promo, but is less bothered if their actual contribution to a track is minimal.) How do you let them shine, while still complementing your music? It's easier to start with Sarastro Blake here. The guest list is impressive:  Billy Sherwood and Rick Wakeman from Yes, David Paton from Camel and the Alan Parsons Project, Greenslade's Dave Lawson, Richard Sinclair (ex-Caravan/Hatfield and the North), Nick Magnus (ex-Steve Hackett/The Enid), and current Hackett collaborator Amanda Lehmann.

Sarastro Blake offers a pastoral, Romantic (thus the name) version of prog with this set of enjoyable songs, harking back to earlier Genesis or Anthony Phillips. Pigni has situated his work in a particular style, but not so as to obscure his compositional voice. The core band is strong, but there is room for each guest star to make their distinctive stamp. It's like a box of cupcakes: you get a nice cake-y bit from the band, but an array of different icing from the guests.

Days Between Stations is a more complicated affair. This Californian band consists of Oscar Fuentes Bills and Iranian-born Sepand Samzadeh. As only a duo, the band have recruited greater involvement from their famous colleagues. Billy Sherwood is here as almost a third member: he plays drums throughout, co-produces, mixes, co-writes lyrics and sings. Tony Levin is the album's bassist. Others appear in a typical guest role: Wakeman and XTC's Colin Moulding are on one piece each, with Pete Banks on two.

In Extremis was given an unexpected legacy just as the album was being finished with the passing of Peter Banks. This is one of the last albums Banks worked on, and the last new recording to feature Banks on more than a single track. Remembering Pete was not a role planned for this album, but the band have modestly accepted the assignment. "Waltz in E Min" is dedicated to Banks, while the liner notes talk about Pete and include a contribution from his long-time friend George Mizer. Pete was a wonderful musician who often struggled to find the right outlet. It is welcome that Sherwood opened so many doors for him in recent years, and that Days Between Stations were able to enjoy their collaboration with him.

Both The New Progmantics and In Extremis have running themes, but In Extremis is more explicitly a concept album, about a man’s life flashing before his eyes just before he dies. It is also more diverse stylistically, ranging from orchestrally-supported instrumentals to pop. Days Between Stations are a young band reacting to a prog heritage. At their best, I think they conjure up atmospheres more akin to earlier Floyd or Pure Reason Revolution, but their attempts at traditional prog songs along the lines of Yes or Genesis, like "Eggshell Man", are less successful. That song, for example, lacks energy. It proceeds from one section to another too politely, without verve. The lyrics lack the poetry of the music. Promo for the album has used “Eggshell Man”, highlighting contributions from Wakeman and Banks as well as Sherwood and Levin. But the big-name guests contribute little to the track: Banks and Levin are barely noticeable, Wakeman's part predictable, while Sherwood's drumming actively detracts. We have an album that trades on big name guests, but which often thrives away from their performances.

"The Man Who Died Two Times" is the more successful vocal track, a tighter pop construction and a spirited vocal from Moulding make it punchy. The band are better too in pieces like "No Cause for Alarm" and "In Utero", eschewing the basic rock instrumentation, more like music for a never-made film. "In Utero" offers snatches of different styles, as it paints a scene. The nearest comparison that comes to my mind is Vangelis' "Blade Runner" score. The expansive title track also provides Samzadeh and Fuentes space to shine, and Banks’ contributions here are more interesting.

Sherwood's hard-working nature makes him feel almost ubiquitous in projects like these. His jack-of-all-trades approach means he can come in and fill whatever role a band needs, but I feel he does better in some roles than others. His production of In Extremis is strong and something from which both The New Progmantics and Northumbria would have benefited. But Sherwood has a distinctive thump-y style as a drummer. This works bringing an urgent, martial tone to "No Cause for Alarm", but sits at odds with the atmosphere elsewhere on the album, becoming too familiar on an album that is otherwise quite eclectic in instrumentation.

Northumbria by Aethellis (released 2011) has no guest stars, no famous names to bring it to your attention, but it is just as worthy of that attention. The band consists of Ellsworth Hall (keyboards, vocals), Mark Van Natta (guitar, vocals, Erik Marks (bass, vocals), Mike Harrington (drums, vocals) and Joe Dwyer (sax). While the name and cover art give the impression that this will be another pastoral affair, the album is actually much more eclectic, in the way prog should be! If I had to describe the album overall, it’s what Rick Wakeman should have been doing in the 1980s, but wasn’t. There’s old school Rick Wakeman-like, proggy keyboards, but that’s mixing with a 1980s Genesis sound (“The Penal Colony” steers rather close to “Turn It On Again”) and also more modern elements (“The Awakening” reminds me of Ken Ramm’s Euphoria). There’s strong playing, catchy songwriting, and stylistic variation squeezed together. Samples, as for the other two albums, are available online.

Both In Extremis and The New Progmantics are in the current Where Are They Now? poll on the best Yes-related releases of the first half of 2013: you can vote here.