It has been a rollercoaster time for the Scottish neo-Prog rockers Pallas who came storming back onto the scene last year with their album XXV, the official sequel to their landmark studio album The Sentinel originally released way back in 1984.
On the back of the album coming out to widespread critical acclaim, the band hit the road in the UK in 2011, the highlight being their opening slot on Sunday at the UK’s High Voltage Festival in July.
With new singer Paul Mackie now fully installed, Pallas are back touring the UK and mainland Europe playing concerts in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and France next month (February) and in March.
To tie in with these new dates, rescheduled from last autumn when Paul had a health scare, they are releasing a new DVD Pallas Live at Loreley (The Night of The Prog). Filmed at their show closing performance at The Night of The Prog Festival in 2010, it is being released later this month (January) with advance copies being available via the band’s website.
The band has been issuing some fascinating free downloads, including their version of ELP’s Black Moon, which came out at the end of last year and the radio edit of XXV’s single Monster. Not content with that, Pallas, often referred to as the Doric Dimwits, have also been letting their hair down releasing the radical “Big Band” remix of Monster (in which Paul Mackie shows it is not only Michael Bublé who has the monopoly on swing) and a downloadable Pallas artwork calendar is also another goodie now freely available.
And there is also the promise of a new album coming out in the next 12 months with recording starting after the European tour.
So while they were catching their breath during their hectic recording and forthcoming touring schedule, DPRP’s Alison Henderson caught up with the band’s bass player Graeme Murray and new boy, Paul Mackie to check on progress.
I think it is fair to say that 2011 was a watershed year for Pallas. What were your own personal highlights?
Graeme: Well that’s an easy one for me. Highlights of 2011 must be the brilliant reviews across the board for XXV.
I don’t think we had a bad review anywhere, and certainly had a number of brilliant reviews which were really great to see. Whenyou put your heart and soul into something it is so good to receive critical acclaim for your efforts!
The other great highlight was, of course, the huge crowd and fantastic reception we received at High Voltage. It was tremendous to be back on such a big platform, and to be playing to a huge audience. We absolutely loved it and are working hard on getting onto some other festivals this year.
I think 2011 also allowed Paul to establish himself in the band and to find his comfort zone. We will see the benefits of that on the next album, which is currently taking shape as we speak!
Paul: We indeed had a great year. Being the new kid on the block, it was great to hear so many people noticing a happier more energetic Pallas and some may say I had something to do with that! That is a highlight – also playing at High Voltage wasn’t too bad either. Ha ha!
Obviously cancelling the European dates at the end of 2011, due to Paul’s impending operation on his sinuses, was one of the lowlights. I think we would all like to know where you are at with the op, Paul.
Paul: No op, I’m afraid. After eventually getting my CT scan, it showed that I did not have a tumour – neither malignant nor benign, which was nice. However, it revealed I had some abnormal bone growth, which is causing blockage. I have been taking a steroid now for seven months but I would prefer to get the op and move on. I just have to behave myself and manage my dairy intake, true, but it is hard when you love cream cakes the way I do.
Graeme: We knew from Paul that something was not quite right at some of our gigs. Paul takes his singing very seriously and told me that he was having breathing problems, so he went to see his doctor. When he came back with the news that the doc was “concerned” and scans were required, we all felt sick. Paul, to his credit, though remained very upbeat! It came as a huge relief in the end when the growths were diagnosed as benign. Thankfully, it is all sorted now and we have breathed a huge collective sigh of relief. We were gutted to have to have cancelled the autumn tour dates, but are now rebooked to all the venues we had to cancel. So, sorry to all those we let down but looking forward to seeing everyone soon with a fighting fit lead singer!
You seemed to go down a storm at both established venues last year and especially festivals. Loreley gave you a tremendous reception in 2010 and you totally “owned” your slot at High Voltage in 2011. Do you have any other festivals in your sights for 2012?
Graeme: Kind of you to say so, but yes, we had a great reception everywhere last year, and we feel that we are on a bit of a wave at the moment. We are now actively pursuing other festivals for the summer. We have a few looking promising but, as you know, it is dangerous to say anything too much at this stage!
Paul: Loreley was amazing for me but I would love to do it again with a more confident presence on stage, I have that now with Pallas. If we can do that again I would be there in a shot and they look after you extremely well. Thanks Loreley crew. There are some offers coming in but as of yet, we are not sure what’s in the diary.
You must be over the moon with the response to XXV from both the music Press, both printed and online, and also music buyers who have been posting some great recommendations about the album. And I have made no secret of the fact it was my favourite album of 2011. What are your reflections on the response now?
Graeme: Very proud! We had always talked about a Sentinel sequel but we never got round to it until the 25th anniversary was looming. It was great fun taking little melodies and riffs from the Sentinel and reworking them into a new setting. It was also enjoyable on the lyric front getting acquainted with our Atlantean benefactors. Most of all, it was tremendous when it all came together so well into a coherent “piece of work” That was really satisfying: as many readers will know, the Sentinel did not quite “hit the spot” as far as the band were concerned, but we could tell this was different. I think all of us are really proud of XXV. Of course, the big challenge lies in following it up!
Paul: I am over the moon for sure and reading the press and fans comments kept me smiling in 2011 – absolutely no doubt about it. I find it hard to distance myself from my recordings, which makes me focus on what could have been better but every now and then, I would love all of it – perfectly normal reactions, I think. Conclusion: delighted and humbled.
You have also mentioned on certain social media sites that you have started writing new material already. Could you give us a clue as to how these songs are evolving and whether the good people of Atlantis should be quaking in their boots about another cosmic visitation in due course?
Graeme: Well, we are very conscious about the gaps between albums and the fact that this may have harmed us in terms of keeping up our profile. As a consequence, we started writing new material almost immediately we put XXV to bed. We now have more than enough material in “rough outline” form for the next album. We are now fine-tuning the songs one by one and are effectively recording a lot of it as we go along. We are all writing on the same version of Logic Pro so we can each take the others’ ideas away and work on them. It means things are progressing faster. We are aiming to have the next album out at the end of this year – all going well!
Paul: I don’t want to give too much away, but we have started the process and have some solid ideas in place. They are sounding superb but it may be different from XXV. I think more of an optimistic vibe needs to emerge from this album, as there is enough doom and gloom around currently, affecting all of us. Let’s find small chunks of peace and happiness and spread them around!
Are you looking forward to playing in Holland and Belgium again as you appear to have a very solid following in mainland Europe?
Graeme: Very much so. We love playing in Europe. We just hope that people get out there and come to the gigs. We feel that Pallas has moved up a gear musically and performance- wise, and we want some of the “stay at home” Prog fans to get out there and support us where it counts, i.e. by coming to the live shows. These fans are vital for bands to grow and to be able to keep making the music we love! So if you are thinking of staying home to watch soap operas on TV when Pallas is in town think again! (Laughs).
Paul: I am looking forward to it enormously. I always love to play when the crowd wants to rock with us. I may have expected a little more when we came out to Europe last year as there just were not that many people showing up. We put it down to cash flow but who knows? Let’s see you all out this year and we won’t disappoint you. Promise!
And what about plans for going to the USA in due course?
Graeme: At the moment, we are focusing on building our profile back up in the UK and Europe. We would love to get back over to the US but we are concentrating on working closer to home for the meantime.
Paul: I have no Idea about that yet. But it would be something to consider further along the line as Rosfest would be fantastic to play at.
And for those of us coming to see you at your gigs in the UK and Europe in the next three months, what new elements can we expect from the set? Are you planning to play any of the other older songs or will the core still be XXV (not that any of us are complaining)?
Paul: Ha ha, I’m not sure. We shall sit down soon and have a chat about that. Personally there are some tracks I would like to tackle but the guys may say ”Oi, no way Iggy” (Writer’s note: “Iggy” is the pet name the band has given Paul after a particularly steamy gig, during which he peeled off his tee-shirt to reveal a sinewy torso not unlike that of Mr Pop.)
Graeme: Effectively, we haven’t toured XXV in Europe so the core of the set will be XXV. With a wide selection of tracks from all our albums, there should be something for everyone in the set. So let’s hear from fans on the Pallas Official Facebook page as to which old songs they want to hear and we will try to oblige.
Questions for Paul: you have had an interesting musical career pre-Pallas, being a singer for the Grand Auto Theft games and Love Fist. How were you approached to join Pallas and how much are you contributing to the new material? Do you still feel very much the new guy?
Paul: Grand Theft Auto was a fantastic few years in my singing career no doubt during which I learned a lot about recording my vocal and getting used to my voice on tape. It was an eye-opener and was extremely enjoyable from the writing stage to now.
It’s great getting emails from fans going back as far as GTA 1 saying that these songs still meant a lot to them as they grew in to adults. Pallas approached me after they parted with Alan, as you may be aware and came completely out of the blue.
I had finished touring with my other bands and, to be honest, I was happy to stay at home and develop my landscape photography. To me, that meant no more vans or too much booze, eating fast food on the road and bad sleep patterns. But then Pallas’ drummer Colin Fraser called and asked if I’d be interested. I had known Pallas and seen them a couple of times when Alan had first joined; and I was also friends with guitarist Niall Mathewson, as I had been recording various projects at his studio for 15 years. I had gone to the studio to pick up some demos I had made and Pallas were all there. We all got chatting about Colin’s exploratory telephone call then I jumped into the vocal booth and sang a Pallas tune. They liked what they heard and I was in!
I only felt like the new boy because I was nervous about getting the old stuff right, but got straight in with Graeme to help write XXV’s lyrics to ensure they flowed better for my style of singing. Musically, I left it to the experts. I just come up with the odd hook or air my concerns and they listen and sometimes changes take place and sometimes they don’t. It depends, but it suits us all I think.
Question for Graeme: How much does this current Pallas incarnation come close to the sound you were looking for when you originally got the band together? Are there any particular aspects on which you feel there is still work to be done?
Graeme: I know a lot of fans were very upset when we parted company with Alan, but the band was in danger of stagnating to death. It is very difficult to thrive when a key member of the band lives 500 miles away and has very limited time or inclination to work together with the rest of the band.
We now have a new lead singer with a great voice, who lives right here in Aberdeen, close to all of us. It means we feel more like a band of five members again and more significantly, we are able to rehearse together a lot more which has hugely improved both our sharpness and our writing. Hopefully that is coming over loud and clear in our live performances.
As to how we sound? Well I love it. My voice and Paul’s blend really well together. Our harmonies with Ron (Brown, Pallas’s keyboards’ player) sound a lot better both live and recorded.
Personally, I really enjoy listening to every track on XXV. Paul is very exacting in the studio and keeps at it until we are all happy with his performance. There is none of that “that will do” attitude going on now.
I have really enjoyed rediscovering our heavier side too and Niall has been making me smile a lot with his great guitar work. I also love the contrast with the classical orchestrations against the heavier guitar.
The Prog class of the 80s still seems to be going really strong, with Marillion still touring extensively, IQ are making regular album releases as well as plenty of gigs, and Twelfth Night popping up from time to time in different forms. How significant do you regard that period in the, excuse the pun, the progression of Prog?
Paul: My 17 year old son Connor, who by the way is a great guitarist, is growing into a big Prog fan and a lot of that is due to being exposed to bands like Marillion, Caravan, IQ and Rush and now is inspired by Pallas, I am glad to say, as well as other contemporary Prog bands like Spock’s Beard, Dream Theatre and Tool.
I think if parents expose the roots of today’s great Proggers then “all will not be lost.”
Graeme: I guess it was an important time for Prog. The “punk” championing music media, had totally slagged-off Prog for several years and had turned Prog music into an object of ridicule.
We and Marillion came along and were packing out the Marquee night after night, while “new wave” music was at its height and suddenly, the music press could no longer laugh at what we were doing because of the groundswell of support for what we were doing. Suddenly we were the “underground subversive” movement!
Many other bands came to the fore and we saw the resurgence of Prog. Sadly, I think the media prejudice generated against our genre of music remained, particularly in radio and television, and as a result, I personally feel that the revival never achieved its potential. EMI was the only major record to commit itself by signing Pallas and Marillion. What we needed was for other bands to be signed by other majors and sadly, none of us other than Marillion ever received the level of support needed to break into the “top level” and truly make a full breakthrough.
And looking ahead, are there any new Prog bands who have caught you eye over the past year or two who may be the Prog torchbearers for the future?
Graeme: There is a tidy wee trio who are looking promising on the Prog front. They are called Muse – keep an eye open for them!
Paul: Sadly, I have not been investing in new music, as I have been so busy with Pallas and my photography, which takes me to the Scottish mountains for days on end. Please everybody; do push some in my direction!
Thank you for your time Graeme and Paul. It has been a pleasure hearing all your latest news and views on Pallas’s future plans. And speaking as a great admirer of the band, do catch them if you can either in the UK or in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and France.
Following these shows the band head out to Europe
Feb 27th Scene Bastille Paris, France
Feb 28th Gallery Pratteln, Switzerland
Feb 29th 29/02: Rüsselheim, Das Rind, Germany
March 1st W2, Den Bosch, Holland
March 2nd The Boerderij, Zoetermeer, Holland
March 3rd Spirit of 66, Verviers, Belgium
For more information about Pallas and to download the new tracks and calendar, go to:
Pallas website: http://www.pallasxxv.com
Pallas Official Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/PALLASOfficial
Pallas Official Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/pallasofficial
Pallas Official Reverbnation: http://www.reverbnation.com/pallasofficial