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.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Anderson: app or album?

Jon Anderson is a visionary. You can't be a Yes fan and dismiss Anderson's central role as an ideas man in the band. So if Anderson has some seemingly crazy idea for how to do things, I think it's worth stopping and thinking about what he's proposing.

Much of what Anderson has been proposing recently has been a move away from albums. This goes back to when he was last in Yes. After disappointing sales for Magnification, Anderson talked of leaving the album format and presenting new music in other forms. Back then, he talked of doing that live and then in DVDs, as he did with his own music and the "Tour of the Universe" DVD.

But in recent years, he's focused on new media. There were ideas for a Zamran video game. And now, Anderson talks about releasing new music in an app that allows you to explore a virtual world.

So, it's an idea. Hard to know exactly what it would mean until we see and hear it. But I'm unconvinced so far. I'm a fan of the music and what technology has done is made it easier and more convenient to hear music. Making the music only available through an app goes against that trend. It makes it harder to access the music, constraining how you can hear it. However, I wondered what you all think, and so I ran a poll on the Where Are They Now? site, asking, "Jon Anderson has discussed various ways of releasing new music. Which would you prefer he do..."

(Physical) album releases: 88 (77%)
Individual pieces of music released digitally: 11 (10%)
New material included in live DVDs: 6 (5%)
Release regular new music as part of an app where you interact with a virtual world: 5 (4%)
Other: 4 (4%)

(The 'others' included one suggestion for high resolution digital releases, and three comments about the music rather than the format.)

As I suspected, us fans are a conservative bunch when it comes to formats. Three quarters want old fashioned album releases (as would be my preference too). The app idea got a mere 4% support. Maybe we'd all be wowed by whatever app Anderson can come up with, but it doesn't look like a strong marketing position to start by annoying 95% of your consumers. Do an app, but stick the material on a CD while you're at it, please...?

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Poll: best Yes-related albums up to 1970

I've run a series of biannual polls on the best, recent, Yes-related releases (i.e. anything featuring a member of Yes on it). Many of you have voted in these polls and I hope they're brought a little bit of interest and elucidation.

But, I was thinking, what about before I started these polls? What about looking back in time? So, I decided to run some polls covering earlier years. The only problem, however, was when to start because there weren't very many eligible releases in the first few years! In the end, I decided the first poll would cover the 1960s. 21 of you voted. Tomorrow's eponymous album, with Steve Howe on guitar, romped home with 20 votes (95%). Which wasn't much of a surprise given the competition was three little known albums with Alan White appearing: two by the Alan Price SetA Price on His Head (1 vote, 5%) and The Price is Rightplus Johnny Almond's Music Machine with Patent Pending.

[Edit (April 2014): It's been pointed out that I made a terrible mistake, omitting David Bowie's David Bowie (a.k.a. Space Oddity), a 1969 release on which Rick Wakeman plays. Doh!]

The next poll, for 1970, offered a bit more of a contest. 57 of you voted:

1. King Crimson: Lizard (w/ Anderson): 38 votes (67%)
2. The Strawbs: Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios (w/ Wakeman): 15 (26%)
3. Billy Preston: Encouraging Words (w/ White): 3 (5%)
4. Gary Wright: Extraction (w/ White): 1 (2%)
5= Doris Troy: Doris Troy (w/ White): 0 (0%)
5= Sky: Don't Hold Back (w/ White): 0 (0%)
5= Chris Harwood: Nice to Meet Miss Christine (w/ Banks): 0 (0%)

It will be interesting to see how many more of these polls King Crimson wins.


Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Poll: Best Yes-related album of 2012, part 2

We had 103 votes for the poll on the best Yes-related album of the second half of 2012. The results were as follows.

1. Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Centre of the Earth - 27 (26%)
2. King Crimson: Larks' Tongues in Aspic [40th anniversary releases] (w/ Bruford) - 18 (17%)
3. Mystery: The World is a Game (w/ David) - 16 (16%)
4. Downes Braide Association: Pictures of You (w/ Downes) - 11 (11%)
5. Glass Hammer: Perilous (w/ Davison) - 8 (8%)
6. Asia: Asia [30th anniversary box] (w/ Downes, Howe) - 5 (5%)
7= The Prog Collective (w/ Sherwood, Wakeman, Kaye, Banks, Squire) - 4 (4%)
7= Dennis Haklar: Lizard's Tale (w/ Anderson) - 4 (4%)
9= Spector: Enjoy It While It Lasts (w/ Horn) - 2 (2%)
9= Edison's Lab: Edison's Lab EP (w/ Sherwood, Kaye) - 2ish (2%)*
9= Other - 2 (2%)
12= Songs of the Century: An All-Star Tribute to Supertramp (w/ Sherwood, Squire, Kaye, Wakeman, Banks, Downes) - 1 (1%)
12= The Fusion Syndicate (w/ Sherwood, Wakeman, Kaye) - 1 (1%)
12= Billy Sherwood: The Art of Survival - 1 (1%)
12= Wave Mechanics Union: Futher to Fly (w/ Anderson) - 1 (1%)

There were 2 votes for 'other', but neither specified what. There were no votes for three tribute albums on Cleopatra Records involving Billy Sherwood, one by Nektar, one for The Who and one for The Black Keys.

Nostalgia rules the roost this period, with a remake of a 1970s album and an anniversary re-issue of another taking over 40% of the vote. Another anniversary re-issue made sixth. Post-Anderson vocalists also did well, with David singing with Mystery in third and Davison singing with Glass Hammer in fifth. Fourth was the Downes Braide Association album. Billy Sherwood led multiple projects in this period, three featuring multiple Yesmen guesting, but only The Prog Collective received more than one vote.

* The Edison's Lab EP received 7 votes, a surprisingly good showing for a less well-known project featuring guest appearances from Sherwood and Kaye. However, it was clear from the voting patterns that this reflected an attempt to distort the results. While I can understand how enthusiasm for music can lead people to want to promote the music they love, it rather undermines the point of a poll like this. So I've excluded 5 votes as misleading.

DPRP Poll 2012

The Dutch Progressive Rock Pages do an annual poll and their 2012 results were recently announced with a total of 723 votes. So I thought I'd review how Yes-related acts performed last year. While Yes etc. did well in 2011, Yes-related acts were less prominent this year, although The World is a Game by Mystery and I am Anonymous by Headspace (Adam Wakeman's new band) did well and there were some positive results by Squackett, Asia and daddy Wakeman.

In the Best Album category, the winner was Big Big Train's English Electric (Part One), with The World is a Game #11 and I am Anonymous, #20. Squackett's A Life Within a Day was the next highest album with a Yes connection at #37. The Flower Kings' "Numbers" won Best Track. Mystery came #23 with "Pride" and #24 with "Another Day". Headspace's "Fall of America" was 53rd equal.

That Flower Kings track is from an album entitled Banks of Eden, which won Best Artwork. Asia's XXX, with its Roger Dean cover, was the highest Yes-related entry at 12th equal, followed by I am Anonymous at #18. The World is a Game was tied with Focus X (another Dean cover) at #22.

Banks of Eden and The Flower Kings reunion also won Biggest Happening. Jon Davison joining Yes was 18th equal in this category, with Rick Wakeman's new Journey to the Centre of the Earth and King Crimson's 40th anniversary releases of Larks' Tongues in Aspic tieing with others at #28.

Steven Wilson's "Get All You Deserve" won Best DVD. King Crimson's "Live In Argentina 1994", with Bruford and Levin, made 20th equal. Asia's "Resonance" made 31st equal.

Best Newcomer was the Morse/Morse/Portnoy supergroup Flying Colors, with Headspace coming 5th and Squackett 14th equal.

The award no-one wants is Biggest Disappointment, which saw a tie this year between Marillion's Sounds That Can't be Made and Rush's Clockwork Angels (albums that were 3rd and 5th in the Best Album category). Squackett's A Life Within a Day came 4th, while 11th equal were Asia's XXX and Yes continuing without Anderson and (R) Wakeman. Indeed, if you combine several critiques of the current Yes, they would move up into 5th.

Finally, there are the best individual performances. Steves Hackett and Rothery tied for Best Guitarist for Genesis Revisited II and Sounds That Can't be Made respectively. Michel St-Père made #11 for The World is a Game and Hackett also made #12, this time for A Life Within a Day. Trevor Rabin was 28th equal for Jacaranda. Neal Morse won Best Keyboardist with his solo album Momentum. Rick Wakeman was #7 for Journey to the Centre of the Earth, while Adam Wakeman (I am Anonymous) and Fred Schendel (Glass Hammer's Perilous) were among those tied at #9.

Steve Hogarth won Best Vocalist for Sounds That Can't be Made. Damian Wilson was at #3 for I am Anonymous (and also at #5 for his work in Threshold). Benoît David made #10 for The World is a Game, while Jon Davison was 40th equal for Perilous. Jon Anderson received no votes, perhaps reflecting that he was only on comparably obscure releases in the eligible period.

Best Drummer was Neil Peart for Clockwork Angels. Nick D'Virgilio made #8 for The World is a Game (having also made #2 for his work in Big Big Train). Carl Palmer's performance on XXX was 23rd equal. There were no votes for White or Bruford, but then neither released any new material in 2012. Matching the Best Drummer category, Best Bassist was Geddy Lee, again for Clockwork Angels. Chris Squire came 5th here for A Life Within a Day, while Lee Pomeroy was 14th equal for I am Anonymous. Billy Sherwood for his solo album The Art Of Survival and John Wetton for XXX were among those tied at #23.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

2012 in the charts

Selling well doesn't get you street cred in the world of progressive rock and what sells well is often very different from what achieves critical acclaim, but it's interesting to look back on the many Yes-related albums of 2012 and see what sold well. OK, what charted well, given we have access to that data whereas we usually don't see actual sales numbers.

The best charting album of the year with any sort of Yes member connection is probably Estelle's All of Me, on which Trevor Horn co-produced one track. The album made #28 in the US and #20 in Australia, although it didn't chart in the UK. The best UK chart performance was #5 by Anthems, an album by Russell Watson (best known for singing the Star Trek: Enterprise theme tune). This includes a cover of "Race to the End", a vocal version of the "Chariots of Fire" theme by Vangelis with lyrics by Jon Anderson. (Anderson put out his own version as a digital download soon after.) Just behind that was The Overtones' Higher, #6 in the UK (Horn produced and performed on 5 tracks). Also making #6 in the UK was the compilation Two Sides: The Very Best of Mike Oldfield (one track from Tubular Bells II produced by Horn).

When Yes and prog fans look back on 2012, those aren't the albums they'll be thinking of, I hazard, but remember all those sales count. That Russell Watson cover and another by Laura Wright (on her album Glorious, UK #52) will have been a significant payday for Anderson.

In terms of albums with more significant contributions from the Yesmen, well ahead is Asia's XXX, which made #69 in the UK and #134 in the US, as well as #36 in Japan and #33 in Germany.  Also notable here are Producers' Made in Basing Street, which made #26 in the UK Indie chart; Trevor Rabin's Jacaranda, which made #19 in the US Jazz chart; and The Prog Collective made #50 in the US Heatseekers chart (a chart for acts that haven't previously made the main Billboard chart). For comparison, Rush's Clockwork Angels made #2 in the US and #21 in the UK (the UK figure is artificially high because the release was split as a fanpack first and then a regular release later), while Fly from Here the year before made #36 in the US and #30 in the UK.

But charting better than all of them was Trevor's son, Aaron Horn. He is one third of Sam and the Womp, whose single "Bom Bom" made #1 in the UK (selling 107,461 copies in its debut week). It was the 42nd best-selling single of the year in the UK (with 372,000 sales). It also made #6 in Ireland, #4 in Australia, #2 in Israel, #16 in Finland, #43 in Belgium, #44 in the Netherlands, #54 in the Czech Rep. and #84 in Romania. Their album is due this year. Here's the video (Aaron's the one with the boombox.)