Eight years ago the debut album by UK prog supergroup Lifesigns entered the UK top 100 album chart. Thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign, the band's third album, Altitude is due to be released in the middle of March.
Here founder-member John Young tells DPRP about Lifesigns' changing line-up, future touring plans and his work with the likes of Bonnie Tyler and The Scorpions. Patrick McAfee asks the questions.
I've just had my first few listens of Altitude and it is excellent! Congrats on another fantastic Lifesigns album! Pretty much from the start, Lifesigns has been embraced by the prog community as a band of true substance and quality. How rewarding has the positive response to the band been for you?
John Young: I think that is something that is right at the core of everything that is Lifesigns. The band was actually formed as we felt there was a lack of substance and depth in the prog world at that time; although in more recent years it seems like it's making a comeback I'm glad to say. We have built a very positive community and the music itself carries a very positive and optimistic message for these difficult times.
Prior to the release of the debut Lifesigns album in 2013, you were probably best known in prog circles for your song-writing and performances with artists such as John Wetton, Greenslade, Asia, Fish, Quango, Jon Anderson and your solo releases. Are there any particular career highlights for you in those years?
Crikey that's a big question and probably hard to pin down to one band or event. I've been very lucky. My first tour with Uli Roth was back in 85 from a Melody Maker (magazine) advert I applied to (those were the days). I got my second major job in Asia from playing with the MTV band when John Wetton guested. I owned a lot of his music but was too shy to say anything on the night. I got a phone call the following week saying: "Have you heard of Asia?" "Of course," I replied; "Well you start Monday," said the voice! It was great to work and write over the years with John Wetton.
Paul Rodgers was another great voice I worked with for 18 months. There were really highlights with everyone I guess. My main live employer these last 27 years has been Bonnie Tyler which is like family to me and I really enjoyed The Scorpions which was a five or six-year spell. In some ways for me it's not so much the gigs but the off-stage or back-stage stuff that remains in my head long after the gigs are gone. I love the humour. I went to see a comedian not that long ago (pre-Covid) and I didn't laugh. As we left, a friend said to me: "You didn't laugh John." I replied: "Well to be honest it wasn't that funny. Have you ever been on a tour bus?"
Are there musicians/bands in the genre that you have worked with or not, who were a prominent influence on you?
I don't think there were too many influences. I was classically trained both in piano and vocals (a cathedral choir) so anything from Tallis and Palestrina, to Howells and Matthias were in there. I liked the romantics like Chopin and Debussy. I think this is why I was more of a Refugee or Trace fan than ELP. It had to have some romance in it to capture me. I loved Genesis and Yes, but also Caravan, Camel, Gentle Giant, Bruford, Brand X. I was always looking for more.
As a big John Wetton fan it was a pleasure to become part of his team, both live and writing wise. I saw an article he wrote where he singled-out just three people he could write with. Geoff Downes was obviously in there but so was I ... which was a great honour.
After working with so many people I have tended to not listen to much, and to avoid influence in order to build up an identity of my own. I hope it has worked!
Lifesigns have gone through some significant line-up changes over the years. Although losing key members like Nick Beggs, Niko Tsonev and Frosty Beedle could have been detrimental, Altitude proves that the band's musical mission continues undaunted. Dave Bainbridge and Zoltan Csorsz bring a great new dynamic to the music. How has Lifesigns been so successful in manoeuvring through these changes?
Yes it's been quite a force of nature Patrick. I think, firstly I have been so lucky to work with so many wonderfully talented guys. It's been a real honour. Going back to your first point, I also think that as our reputation grew with regard to the substance of the material, then fortunately people really wanted to work with us. Timing of course is everything but generally if we have a 'name in the frame' then they come and help, whether as permanent members or guest artists.
We realise that we are not the 'day job' of pro musicians and we work around that where we can. We are very independent and so if we have to consult the management or the record company ... it's all us! It makes life a little easier.
There is a lot of musical variety contained on Altitude. The songs are accessible and melodic, but in many ways it feels like the most adventurous Lifesigns release. The music is very BIG in its scope. As an example, I predict that songs like the title track, Shoreline, Fortitude and Last One Home are going to go over substantially well with prog fans. When recording a new album, how do you approach it in terms of what the concept, structure and style will be?
I hate to throw water on this question but we don't have one really. It just worked out that way. So I go into the studio with a blank sheet of paper and see what happens. We sometimes have a couple of older tunes that we feel should see the light of day, and this was the case this time with Ivory Tower and Last One Home. Then the rest is really up for grabs.
Without becoming too obscure, I write through a process called 'channelling', so it really just turns up and I try and put it into some kind of order. I remember when the chord sequence turned up for Shoreline. I wrote it down and then just mailed it to everyone. I received a barrage of 'yes' emails and away we went. The guys trust me I guess, and as it was all recorded, mixed and produced in bedrooms, I think it turned out quite well. Steve Rispin is our 'quality control'. Not much gets past him. We sometimes have to be blunt with the guys but that is far outweighed by the wonderful creativity they all possess.
I remember when we finished Fortitude. Steve and I just looked at each other and grinned. It did what we wanted it to!
The cover artwork for Lifesigns albums are fantastic and so distinctive. Altitude continues that wonderful tradition. They are made for the vinyl format and are some of the best album covers of the last decade. How important do you think it is for bands to utilise artwork as part of their brand, and is this new album again the work of Brett Wilde?
We only work with Brett. He is part of the Lifesigns family. He understands us so well and is just as hard to please as the rest of us.
Quite often I will give Brett an idea of something we are after and then after a sleepless night it will be there in all its glory the next morning; sometimes in three different versions. He is really an extension of the band, a master with artwork and photography. He can see things in the ordinary and bring them to life. Brett creates our brand and the team around us make it work. You have the players, Steve, Brett and Julie Crowe who looks after all things office, web and merch'. We are quite the cottage industry.
When touring resumes, hopefully in the coming months, are there plans to do any shows around the new album?
Of course Patrick. We've not met Zoltan yet (or Lynsey Ward who provides the amazing backing vocals) so I think it would be nice to have dinner with the band at some point... don't you agree?
John, thanks again for taking the time to answer DPRP's questions. I wish you great luck with Altitude. I think fans are going to love it and it is one of those albums that has broad musical appeal. Hopefully, you will make a lot of new fans with it as well.
I hope so Patrick, thank you so much.
Lifesigns — Altitude
A studio album every four years is a long interval between releases but in Lifesigns' case, they've all been worth the wait. Altitude is their third, proceeded by Cardington in 2017 and the eponymous debut in 2013. They also released the live CD/DVD Live In London - Under The Bridge in 2015.
The man behind the band is multi-talented singer, songwriter and keyboardist John Young. He has an impressive CV having worked with Uli Jon Roth, Steeleye Span, Bon Jovi, Asia, John Wetton, Bonnie Tyler, Scorpions, Fish, Greenslade, Jon Anderson and the Strawbs. He formed Lifesigns in 2008 and since then, the band has gone through several line-up changes. Currently they are Young (keyboards, vocals), Dave Bainbridge (guitars), Jon Poole (bass, vocals) and Zoltán Csörsz (drums).
Like Young, Bainbridge is no stranger to DPRP with Iona, Strawbs, and DBA amongst many others to his credit. His excellent solo albums are all well worth checking out. Multi-instrumentalist Poole is a former member of Cardiacs and The Wildhearts, and although principally a jazz drummer, Csörsz will be better known to prog fans for his work with The Flower Kings, Karmakanic and The Tangent. An impressive line-up, I think you'll agree, and collectively they certainly deliver the goods.
Over an unhurried 15 minutes, the title track Altitude builds from mellow piano and acoustic guitar beginnings, to a stirring peak, before concluding with an ambient synth and violin coda. Along the way, soaring guitar solos, evocative, wordless harmonies and the cutting-edge rhythm partnership of Poole and Csörsz are just some of the highlights. Violin and backing vocals are courtesy of guests Peter Knight and Lynsey Ward respectively.
Ivory Tower is an unabashed song of lost love, blessed with a haunting vocal melody that finds Young at his most poignant. The acoustic guitar playing of Bainbridge and guest Robin Boult is an absolute delight. Shoreline is another song with a personal feel, thanks to the repeated choral hook “Save me”, although the instrumental sequence with nimble synth and guitar exchanges against a galloping riff is the most arresting part.
The 10-minute Fortitude has a prog-fusion feel, reminding me of The Tangent with shades of Yes, (particularly the vocal harmonies) along with a touch of chiming Genesis-style 12-string guitar. The soaring synth coda is an album highlight, although Young has saved the best for last.
Last One Home tells of a woman waiting by the waterside for her loved one to return safely from the sea. The song's centrepiece is a stately guitar solo with more than a hint of David Gilmour, before the uplifting “You'll be the last one home, the sea won't get you tonight” arm-waving finale. A short reprise of the title song brings the album full circle.
Given the high quality of the previous releases, expectations for Altitude were high (if you can excuse the pun) and it doesn't disappoint. John Young is in fine vocal form throughout and he's assembled a superb collection of songs and an equally superb line-up of musicians. Dave Bainbridge's contributions are exceptional and I believe he also had a hand in the song-writing and arrangements. I'm already looking forward to 2025.
Lifesigns' last album, Cardington , was on my top 10 list for that year and has remained a recent favourite. The strength of that album created a lot of anticipation for Altitude.
In the almost four years between these releases, drummer Frosty Beedle and guitarist Niko Tsonev have left the band. However, any concerns about that were alleviated by the news that Dave Bainbridge (Iona, The Strawbs) and Zoltán Csörsz (Flower Kings, The Tangent) would be replacing them. I had little doubt about the impact that these two talented musicians would bring to the band.
In fact, considering Bainbridge's work on this album, as well as his fantastic performances on the new DBA release, Halcyon Hymns, 2021 has already been a banner year for him. Csörsz's contribution is similar to what he brought to The Flower Kings a few years ago. He is a complex drummer and there is an effective fusion slant to some of the instrumentation here that reminded me favourably of the legendary debut by the band, U.K.
The opening 15-minute title track is a textbook example of the appeal of Lifesigns. Singer and keyboardist John Young is a songwriter of note who can pen an indelible composition with the best of them. Upon my first listen to this epic song, I was immediately swept up in its visual story-telling, majestic themes and note-perfect performances. The band has an ability to create music that feels expansive. Yet it strives mostly on the vast power of a simple melody. A special mention goes to violinist Peter Knight, whose solo closes this track in a stunning and memorable fashion.
This is the band's most satisfying album from a progressive rock perspective. Songs such as Ivory Tower (an extended interpretation of a John Young solo tune), Last One Home and the brilliant Fortitude are adventurous in structure and feature some truly outstanding instrumentation. Also, the concept around survival that runs throughout the album is powerfully executed.
Sometimes as a reviewer, the best course of action is just to cut to the chase. Altitude is an essential album for the most basic of reasons; the songs on it are truly exceptional. As a fan of melodic, traditional progressive rock, it absolutely hits all the right chords for me. There are many examples of already-great bands finding their perfect chemistry with the change of a member or two. This seems to be one of those circumstances. As good as the previous two Lifesigns albums were, Altitude is their strongest release thus far. In fact, it is an album that can stand proudly with classics of the symphonic prog genre.