Dan Coffey — On Track... Van Der Graaf Generator - Every Album, Every Song [book]
The run-up to Christmas 2020 saw the publication of a host of new books in the On Track series from Sonicbond Publishing, providing ideal stocking fillers for the discerning music lover. There's nothing quite like a good read to while away those languorous hours over the festive season. Several of the more recent books in the series have been devoted to mainstream acts although that's definitely not the case here. Van der Graaf Generator are one of the seminal progressive rock band of the 1970s even though their uncompromising style failed to attract the same commercial success enjoyed by Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull and fellow Charisma Records signing Genesis.
At 125 pages - plus a 16 page colour section - this is one of the shortest books in the On Track series. Nonetheless, a separate chapter is dedicated to every studio album along with a selection of Peter Hammill's solo albums from the 1970s. There is also a roundup of live albums to conclude the book. Although author Dan Coffey acknowledges the contributions of each band member, especially the "classic" quartet of Hammill, Hugh Banton, Guy Evans, and David Jackson, the founding members' output is seen as integral to the VdGG story. Of the first nine albums discussed in the book, five of them are solo releases although the other band members feature on each of them. Hammill's Fool's Mate (1971) and Nadir's Big Chance (1975) are included but may have been late additions as they are both missing from the Contents page, as is the 2012 VdGG instrumental album ALT.
An interesting aspect of the On Track series is that although the books follow a set format discussing every individual song, the style of each author is as different as the artists themselves. Some books for example rely on quotes from the band members which are virtually absent here. Instead, Coffey prefers to give his own very detailed description of each song, a method I can relate to. No less than five pages are dedicated to VdGG's magnum opus A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers that occupied side two of the 1971 Pawn Hearts album. Such is Coffey's single-minded approach, peripheral details such as record sales and critical reception are mostly eschewed. While there is scant biographical information for each band member there is a short chapter summarising their musical activities during the band's dormancy between 1978 and 2005.
In addition to being an author and critic, Coffey is a poet which is perhaps why he has a tendency to get carried away when discussing the lyrics. Nonetheless, I found his writing compelling; his analysis of the songs borders on the same intense conviction conveyed by VdGG in their recordings. Fans will also welcome his consistently positive comments, in Coffey's view the band can seemingly do no wrong. As such, it's written by a fan for the fans, and that's just as it should be.
Hawkestrel — Pioneers Of Space
Former Hawkwind bass player, Alan Davey, has been very busy over the last year with a number of Hawkwind related projects, including 2019's, The Future Is Us, this year's Hawkestrel Presents Pre-Med, and the Christmas album, SpaceXmas. With each project Davey has called upon exemplary musicians to aid him in completing his works, these include people who are already part of the wider Hawkwind family, and a number of artists that you would normally not expect to be involved with a Hawkwind project.
This is an album which will have anyone with an interest in Hawkwind, or the space rock genre, jumping for joy, due to its links to the lavish history of the band as it involves Robert Calvert, Nik Turner, Huw Lloyd-Langton, Simon House and Michael Moorcock on the album. From the opening notes of Biometrics, there is no doubt that you are listening to music tied to the Hawkwind family. Davey's bass on most of the album is high in the mix and drives along the songs with that familiar Rickenbacker rumble.
Arthur Brown's dramatic vocal delivery in Glass Wolves makes this one of the standout tracks for me. I have never been a huge fan of the Calvert's or Moorcock's singing, and over the years have found it at times unpleasant to listen to. But Brown adds a magical touch which elevates this song above most others on the album.
One surprise on the album, is the inclusion of a cover of Circles, a song originally by Post Malone. (Confession time: I had no idea who Post Malone was, so I had to refer to Google to discover the original song. Aside from a lavish video, I struggled to find any particular merit in in deciding to cover this song.) Todd Rundgren provides guitar to the track, but still cannot really elevate the song beyond being the weakest on the album.
The instrumental album closer Pioneers Of Space is a stand out track. While having the DNA of a Hawkwind song, the inclusion of Carmine Appice's drumming elevates this to a new level. His fills and, at times, syncopated beats add a new dimension to the track, which is added to by David Cross' virtuoso violin playing.
I did wonder how long ago some of these tracks were recorded, due to the inclusion of Ginger Baker, Larry Wallis and Joel Vandroogenbroeck all who sadly passed away in 2019.
For anyone who has ever owned a Hawkwind album or been mildly interested in their phenomenal output, this will be a welcome arrival. For anyone expecting anything different, such as where it has been tried with Circles, then it has been a failure for me in that respect. It does have some great moments such as the title track, but there may be to many tracks I would be pressing the skip button on. But well worth a listen.
Instant Curtain — Let Tear Us Apart
Milan-based Instant Curtain is Giuseppe Petrucci on guitar and keyboards, Fabrizio Paggi on bass and keyboards, Carlo Maria Marchionni on drums and Massimo Gerini on vocals. These guys developed their musical talents playing the local clubs in the broad surroundings of Milan, performing in a blues rock or Canterbury style in several different bands. The website doesn't mention how they met each other and what the inspiration was to form this band.
The nine self-composed tracks on this album are compact, tightly performed and all mid-tempo. At a first listen it seems hard to distinguish the different tracks but that improves gradually with more spins. The musical style is an interesting blend of nineties Genesis (especially the Calling All Stations album), Citizen Cain, and Gentle Giant.
The songs lack the typical verse-chorus-verse structure which gives them a tasty flavour of jazz rock without sounding "difficult". A good example is the longest track And The Ship Battle Down in which the nice guitar melody floats and flows against flute-like keys with a solid bass and drums rhythm section in the background. There are some nice guitar solos now and then (Reverse In The Sand, Tell The Tales, May I), subtle piano and guitar interplay in the coda of The Beginning and some fine Hammond parts in All White. The core of the music is the tight band playing without long instrumental passages. Towards the end the songs dwindle a bit in quality and creativity; closer April is a rather anonymous song and with its sudden stop this album comes to an unsatisfactory inconspicuous end.
Gerini has a nice voice to listen too, not particularly strong but strong enough and with a timbre that resembles Mystery's Jean Pageau. His English pronunciation is almost without an Italian accent which make the vocals one of the great assets of this band.
The album comes in a well-crafted blue and dark red digipack containing a tastefully designed booklet with all information on the lyrics and the band. The lyrics seem to deal prominently with human relationships but are not always easy to understand. But that applies to many bands. The artwork is effective and far from exuberant which suits the music very well. It all breathes a devotion to produce a solid first album and that is exactly what they have achieved. The music on offer here is without really high points but there are no real weaknesses either. Yet it takes some time to get to know it for they haven't made it easy!
Instant Curtain is a promising new band from Italy, firmly establishing themselves in the neo-prog niche. I hope we'll hear from them more in the near future and they'll find the time and inspiration to develop their music further, making it somewhat more varied. In the meantime there will be ample time to work on the English grammar, the state of which is not a graceful feature of their otherwise appealing website, which even in this state is far more accessible than those of several other Italian prog bands. I'm sure that will be solved when the debut album of this band will find its way to many listeners. And having listened to Let Tear Us Apart that situation is far from unlikely.
Eoghan Lyng — On Track... U2 - Every Album, Every Song [book]
My introduction to the music of U2 dates back to October 1980 and their first album Boy. I have BBC radio to thank when it was showcased on the Saturday afternoon rock show. To my jaded ears, it was one of the most refreshing debuts to come my way since the early 70s. I was fortunate enough to catch the band one year later when they played the Leicester Polytechnic; a venue so intimate, the audience could reach out and shake Bono by the hand. Even then, he had stage presence.
Given U2's subsequent and phenomenal success, it's no surprise that they are the subject of this latest book in the On Track series from Sonicbond Publishing. Appropriately, the author Eoghan Lyng hails from the band's hometown of Dublin in Ireland. The band's recorded output is subject to the detailed scrutiny that's a feature of the series plus a roundup of compilations, remix albums and live projects.
I must confess my interest in U2 stalled following The Joshua Tree album in 1987. As such, my attention span was tested during the book's middle section covering the pop and dance biased albums of the 1990s and 2000s. But that's not the author's fault, Lyng's lucid writing maintains the same honesty and integrity that U2 display in their songs. Even though he uses adjectives like “astonishing” and “jaw-dropping” to describe certain albums, he doesn't shy away from critical comment, acknowledging their weaker efforts. That's not to say that you will agree with all of his views, which is what makes the On Track series so interesting.
One thing that's apparent from the book is U2's unity. While many of their contemporaries have faltered and fragmented, the original lineup of Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. remains intact to this day. Despite the singer and the guitarist being the principal songwriters, all four members are given equal credit, negating the arguments over royalties that's divided so many bands. And should U2 ever lose their singer, it's hard to imagine them following the same path as Genesis or Queen.
As is typical of the On Track series, the book is free from the conjecture and gossip that can be found in many biographies. Lyng's unwavering approach concentrates on the individual songs, which is just as it should be. Even the band's astonishing chart success in the 1990s isn't dwelled upon and thankfully, Bono's numerous political activities outside the band is all but ignored. What is evident throughout the book is the pride the author has for the unprecedented achievements of his fellow countrymen.
Rainbow Face — Stars' Blood
Founded in 2015 in Portland, Oregon, Rainbow Face inhabit a musical sphere that they themselves describe as "carrying the banner of progressive rock while treading the waters of dark psychedelic rock and post-punk". Personally, I have no idea what post-punk means as, to my mind, anything after circa 1978 is post punk, but then I was never one to go for labels.
The quartet of Jake Rose (vocals, guitar), Salvador Altamirano-Farrell (keyboards), Dominique Reveneau (bass), and new recruit Connor Reilly (drums), who joined after the album's recording had been finished. They produce a rather shouty noise that is very in your face, is largely bereft of subtlety and is lacking in any meaningful relationship to what I would call progressive rock.
In fact it bears more to the early sound of grunge that emanated from it's northern Stately neighbour. They happily state that their music would find acceptance for fans of, amongst others. King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Van der Graaf Generator which I find rather insulting to actual fans of those bands as I can't really discern much crossover in the music.
The angst-ridden vocals are rather painful and annoying, even when they are not being shouted out of the speakers. Waves is the only track that I could really find any interest in, although it would have been immeasurably improved if it was an instrumental. Wonder if there is anything in the fact that it is the only song not written by guitarist and vocalist Rose? Even when other instruments are added into the mix, sax on Back In The Bottle, viola and violin on Massaged By Bullets their sound is quite heavily processed sounding like old synthesisers trying to imitate real instruments.
Sorry chaps, there is undoubtedly a market for the stuff you are producing but I'm afraid it is not with me or, I would suggest, the more mainstream progressive rock audience.
Show Me A Dinosaur — Plantgazer
Having recently seen a lot of good music coming out of Russia, from Gleb Kolyadin to Motorama and more, I was excited to see what a country with such a wide variety of talents can offer. And so, I have come to Show Me A Dinosaur and their third album, Plantgazer. The album being described by the band thusly: “What's left to a someone locked down alone with their thoughts on a warm sunny day. Just gazing at house plants day in day out and trying to figure out answers to the many questions this new world has given rise to.” Sounds interesting to me, so let's get to it.
Opening track Sunflower leads you in with a fantastic beat and pace, with a very post-rock vibe to it before the harsh screams come into play as well as some melodic leads. The vocals, along with some of the leads and drums brings across an almost ethereal feel, a bit like the blackgaze stylings of Alcest or Deafheaven
The album has a lovely balance between softer clean and the raw, yet melodic, heaviness while keeping a very atmospheric sound. Red River brings this home perfectly, with a clean and effect heavy first half before the, almost otherworldly, tremolos kick in.
It is one of those rare finds of an album that is heavy in the sense of harsh screamed vocals and blast beats and heavy guitars, but it is light and melodic and ideal for chilling out to. I wouldn't say many of the tracks, except for maybe Sunflower and Red River and Unsaid I particularly remain “memorable” but that is more in the sense that they all fit together so perfectly, it could be one single twisting and turning piece of blackgaze, perfect for spending this second lockdown looking after your plants.
If you're a fan of Alcest, Deafheaven, Vatnett's earlier work (when they were known as Vatnett Viskar), or similar then check these guys out. It is just a pity this album didn't come out in 2021 or it would be on my top 10 list already.