Syd Arthur on tour! – 3 June 2017, Deaf Institute, Manchester

Third time seeing Syd Arthur in Manchester for me last night, but after a blinding gig at the Band on the Wall a few years back, followed by a less memorable low key gig at the Night and Day a few months later, it’s clear that things have changed. Back then, they were trying out new tunes to be heard next on the “Sound Mirror” album, now they are promoting ‘Apricity’, 8 months or so after its release.

liam magill
Liam Magill

A few obvious differences first – Josh Magill is now the drummer, replacing Fred Rother, apparently now out of music completely due to tinnitus, and last heard of carving out a living cultivating mushrooms. A shame, as Fred brought a texture and sensitivity to the sound fully in line with those early folk and jazz-flecked albums. Josh joins his brothers Joel and Liam in the band, alongside the multi-talented Raven Bush.

The second obvious difference is that Raven appears to have downed his violin completely, alternating between a heavily treated electric mandolin and a bank of keyboards. At times, marvellously wild-haired as he is and cranking up various effects on his soundboard, he generates a convincing mad scientist vibe. The story appears to be that he was struggling for a decent sound with his violin in some of the stadium gigs Syd Arthur did in the States, particularly whilst supporting Yes. Us lesser mortals who scratch, scrape or blow our way unconvincingly for years on end on one instrument can barely comprehend a virtuoso abandoning an instrument he was so proficient in, but Raven softens the blow a little by being a highly convincing pianist.

The third difference, no doubt influenced by the first two, is a new ‘sound’. It’s more straight ahead, more overtly poppy, more electronic and one would hope, for the band’s sake at least, capable of widening their audience. That said, the Deaf Institute was far from sold out, even though this was a double header with stablemates Morgan Delt.

The band’s strengths are not just an ever expanding repertoire of short sweet tunes with a twist, but their incredible tightness as a unit, honed without doubt by repeated tours in the States, and strengthened by those familial links. Liam Magill, stick-insect-thin and stooped over his microphone is very much the focal point, despite the obvious talents of the rest of the band  – as a presence he puts me most in mind of Richard Sinclair. This is less for the pitch of his voice (he can switch into a falsetto at the drop of a hat) but just as a naturally gifted, understated musician who should have the world at his feet. This was a truncated set, clocking in at around an hour and mainly featuring tracks from ‘Apricity’ and whilst this album is very much their most straight-ahead album in terms of composition, there’s still an overall hint of deviance, almost menace in their live set, particularly some of the token olden numbers – witness the noodling, tempting intro to ‘Hometown Blues’, or the sonic assault of the wigged out ‘Singularity’ as it breaks out from the anthemic ‘Chariots’ – a very fine set-ender. Good to hear also that tracks like ‘Seraphim’ and the single ‘SunRays’ have a bit more impact live than on the album. Highlights for me apart from the above was the classic new pop tune ‘No Peace’ and the encore ‘Apricity’. I’m still hoping that at some point Syd Arthur will return, or at least give more reference points to, their folky roots, but their songwriting talents are so apparent they could still plough whatever furrow they wish and still have me wanting more. Roll on the new material the band mentioned during a brief chat afterwards, and here’s hoping for a few last minute festival bookings over the summer…

Allan Holdsworth

issue 12 cover 2Really sad news about the passing of Allan Holdsworth a couple of weeks back. Latterly an emigre in the US, he nevertheless retained an accent of sorts of the type heard around these parts in West Yorkshire. I saw him several times in the 90s, always as the bandleader he became from the 1980s onwards.

Perhaps his undoubted genius was fuelled by his perfectionism – to many he was a guitar god but when I interviewed him in 1994 he was often fiercely self-critical, not just in terms of how he played live (when we spoke he was grumpily complaining about his gig the night before – other tutored ears reckoned he’d played a belter) but also some of his recorded output (he dismissed the extraordinary Igginbottom’s Wrench album as a ‘horrendous experience’, disowned his first solo album ‘Velvet Darkness’ as a ‘terrible disaster’, and dismissed John Stevens’ ‘Re-Touch’ albums as ‘outtakes’ and therefore worthless.!)

Allan Holdsworth always seemed to cut a fairly enigmatic figure within the Canterbury scene, probably because he may not even have recognised the term, never mind felt he was a part of it. And that was probably what intrigued me enough to publish no less than 3 articles about him in Facelift Magazine, the other 2 of which survive on the web in the Other Facelift stuff menu further up this page.

What really intrigued me about him I suppose was him yo-yoing around any number of seminal 70s projects adding blistering solos here and there to diverse projects before moving on, apparently blind to the trainspotterish links between the bands readers of this forum might pore over. Latterly,  the ‘Blues For Tony’ album with Alan Pasqua, Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip appeared to show him relishing the freedom once more of not being a sole bandleader whilst still pumping out those wonderfully crafted solos.

So, in deference to that, I’ll give you my Allan Holdsworth Desert Island Disc 70s solo compilation:

Gordon Beck – The Gathering (from Sunbird)- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcmH3ZSw3DE

Gong – Expresso  (from Gazeuse!) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuMEhD4P8PY

Uk – In the Dead of Night – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMu7XUc9OcI

Bruford – Beelzebub (from Feels Good to Me) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRl-IIPezn4

Bruford – Back to the Beginning – (from Feels Good to Me)-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJQrlHUGZlo

Gong – Sleepy (from Expresso II) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07UUCXZwpnw

Soft Machine – Hazard Profile (from Bundles)- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zSZBAcQ-5M

Nucleus – Hector’s House – (from Belladonna) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jG20EvOyFg

Allan Holdsworth RIP.

Kozfest 2017!

Just an excuse really to post – tickets are on sale for Kozfest for this July. Procuring a handful of returned tickets at the last moment last year proved to be an inspired gamble and indirectly inspired this blog…

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Some words I posted up on the What’s Rattlin’ forum after the event last year which sum up my thoughts pretty well:

“Those of you who look at the Planet Gong website might have seen this festival popping up numerous times on their gig listings not just over the years, but multiple times for each festival, due to the number of related bands who play.

 I’d been intrigued for years, but as we’ve run a campsite up here in Hebden Bridge for the last few years, doing summer festivals has been a bit difficult. Then this spring I had a serious illness so we missed out on getting tickets. Luckily a couple of returns turned up on Facebook (this ain’t Glastonbury – you make an enquiry to ‘admin’ on the website, and the festival’s organiser, who also turns out to be the lead singer of one of the acts, the Deviant Amps, points you in the right direction) and so we took ourselves and the kids down to Devon on Thursday to see what it was all about.

 Kozfest is an intimate ‘psychedelic dream’ festival (the Koz is short for Kozmic, as in the host Kozmic Ken) and is a 3 day, 2-stage festival for only 500 punters on a small working farm in the rolling West Country. Between 30-40 bands play, all pretty much spin offs, offshoots or influenced by Gong and to a lesser degree Hawkwind. There’s lots of cross-pollination between bands. Headliners on the 3 nights were Gong, Hawklords and Astralasia, but the line-up overall was like Gong 25 or Uncon revisited (or presumably a Hawkfest).

 The music side of things is really well organised – the two music tents are separated by 100 yards or so, whilst one tent soundchecks/sets-up, the other is in full swing, so you spend your days ambling between a permafest of pounding bass and skysaw guitar with little down time (unless you want it).

 Bands included Sentient (Steffe Sharpstrings, Mike Howlett, Joie from Ozric Tentacles), PsiGong (Mike Howlett’s funky improv outfit), Magick Brothers (Mark Robson/Graham Clark), the Inspiral Trio (three of the current members of Gong), the Glissando Guitar Orchestra, Invisible Opera Company of Tibet – previous lineups have included Steve Hillage (both System 7 and his own guitar band) and Here and Now. But it was so much more than this – I saw so many bands that I want to investigate further (Shom, Deviant Amps, Sendelica) and there are as many musicians milling around as punters, and you’d find yourselves dancing in a tent next to the bass player from a previous band, or memorably being served at the ‘tat’ store by Steffe.

 My 5dsc03185-year old took it upon herself to point out every ‘Camembert Electrique’ T-shirt she saw, and she had her work cut out – there was a tug on my sleeve every few minutes. Apart from one incident in a tent on the last night, this was a safe, gentle, non-ravey event with a freefest vibe – full of Gong afficionados.

 Highlights (for me) were finally meeting Fabio Golfetti (Violeta de Outono, IOCOT and now Gong) after 20 years of correspondence; Andy Bole’s extraordinary bouzouki set where he looped around stringed rhythms, backed by partner Sally on exquisite electric violin and Mark Robson on Didg; the Glissando Guitar Orchestra – 8 guitarists sawing away in a meditative series of drones, envelopping everyone in the most reflective moment of the festival; Mandragora; IOCOT – a welcome more feminine interpretation of the Gong vibe including stuff from ‘Camembert’ and ‘2032’- then the more ‘known’ stuff – PsiGong with freely improvised Howlett-fuelled funkery; a remarkable performance from Steffe with Sentient – he was ever visible around the festival as a humble, unassuming punter, amazingly transformed into a man possessed on stage – I’ve seen him many times with his head thrown back as a freewheeling Hillage-style soloist, but never in such open-throated vocalist mode as tonight as he reprised the old H&N ’77 number ‘Near and How’. Sentient, like PsiGong are a band who appear to dip in and out of improvised numbers – some of it works, some doesn’t, but when it hits the spot, it’s oh-so-sweet…”

As for this year, not only have tickets just gone on sale here but the line-up, which has been building up over the past few week, has been finalised too – today, the three headliners were confirmed as Here and Now, System 7 and Soft Machine (the legacy band who in the last year have been gigging under the original band name – I think current line-up is John Etheridge, John Marshall, Roy Babbington and Theo Travis). The Softs’ gig will be particularly interesting as the music is probably somewhat out of kilter with the free-festie vibe of your typical Kozfest band roster. Other bands of note for this blog are the Magick Brothers (Mark Robson and Graham Clark), Glissando Guitar Orchestra, Andy Bole, various Ozrics/Here and Now spin offs plus some fantastic bands we saw last year (Shom, Sendelica, Deviant Amps etc.)

Tickets apparently go fast, nice and cheap as these things go (£85 for an adult ticket), decent food, beautiful countryside. Best to  get on to this ASAP and hope to see you there!

10 things I learnt from the Gong tour – thoughts from Manchester and Allendale, November 2016

1. Steve Davis is an unexpectedly diverse DJ

Or maybe it’s not so unexpected so when you start to scratch the surface. He was taking as much adulation up in his podium above the stage prior to Gong’s set in Manchester as when the main act themselves played. For those of us who grew up in the Eighties when he was at his height of fame as a snooker player it was hard to shake off a sense of surreality grooving along to his tunes in a grimy Manchester venue, which included a particularly fine and obscure track from Magma offshoot Weidorje, reviewed years ago back in Facelift. But if you check out the various videos he’s done to help promote ‘Rejoice’ he clearly knows his stuff and combines knowledge with a matey risqué bonhomie : “Tim Blake’s strapping one on”, anyone?

2. The guitar solo on the track ‘Rejoice!’ is not just the work of Kavus Torabi.

When I reviewed the new Gong album in this blog, the highlight of the entire album for me was the guttural, heart-wrenching solo eked out early on in the 10 minute title track. I had this down as Gong’s new lead singer alone crafting out a theme, pausing, then going again. In fact, live the equally fine second part is played live by Fabio Golfetti, and an interview here (with Steve Davis) reveals that this part is played on the album by Steve Hillage, which becomes blindingly obvious on second hearing.

3. The new Gong signature sound is four part vocal harmonies!

Or at least whilst Kavus Torabi sings all the lead lines, backing vocals can come from any angle, often simultaneously. Even Ian East occasionally hangs down his sax to join in.

4. The sound at a Gong gig varies enormously from venue to venue.

I remember practically writing off the Steve Hillage lineup in the Noughties after seeing them both in London and at Manchester Academy, only to be totally blown away days later in Edinburgh – same line-up, same tunes, I suspect equally good performances but worlds apart in terms of what you could hear. This time around, a muddy Manchester sound at the Gorilla where Kavus Torabi’s guitar was practically inaudible, was replaced by glorious clarity, warts and all, at Allendale, a provincial village hall so far into Cumbria it’s actually in Northumbria. This despite the fact that presumably there was a much smaller budget for a decent sound system.

5. Gong sets are long long long….!

The band came on at 9pm at both venues, disappeared off briefly around 10.30pm then reappeared for a 2 set encore. They played practically all of Camembert Electrique, 6 songs from the new album, and one each from ‘Angel’s Egg’ and ‘You’. Not just that, but versions of ‘Master Builder’, ‘Selene’ and the new classic ‘The Unspeakable…’ clock in individually as probably their longest ever versions.

6. Kavus Torabi is a strikingly charismatic frontman.

It’s a big ask replacing Daevid Allen as a visual presence, but it’s difficult to take your eyes off him, even when others are doing their thing.

7. It might be time to drop ‘I’ve Been Stoned Before’

I’ve always thought this was a bit of a one-joke song, even when performed by Daevid. Whilst it’s great to hear great swathes of ‘Camembert Electrique’ and no complaints in particular about hearing ‘Selene’ and ‘You Can’t Kill Me’ ad nauseam, surely ‘Dynamite’ would suit this band much more?

8. Fabio Golfetti is a very humble bloke

I’ve been writing to him since the early days of Facelift in the 90s, ended up providing the sleevenotes for the CD release of ‘Glissando Spirit’ from the Brazilian version of the Invisible Opera Company of Tibet, and finally got to meet him during the summer. He’s a fantastic glissando guitar player, an admirable foil for the more zany antics of Kavus Torabi and along with Dave Sturt is currently the glue which binds…

9. Cheb Nettles might be the most innovative singer of the lot

Not only an extraordinary drummer, but the wild falsetto scat singing at the end of ‘Insert Your Prophecy’ in unison with the other instrument lines could well be the vocal highlight of the album.

10. Maybe Ian East and Fabio Golfetti would like to jazz out a little.

The current set is dominated by thrashy guitar numbers (understandably given the guitar-heavy lineup) but there was a palpable sense of release on ‘The Unspeakable Stands’ and ‘Eat That Phone Book’ for the sax in particular when given the chance to noodle…

Andy Bole

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Andy Bole photo: Hairy Collision

I was sitting down earlier on today to write up my thoughts on the recent UK Gong tour, and got a bit side-tracked by a bandcamp release https://andybole.bandcamp.com/track/blind-cat-live which I didn’t think I could move on from without passing comment on.

A bit of context: amongst many notable performances at Kozfest 2016, including the new Gong dispensation as well as projects (Sentient, PsiGong) from a few current emigrees (Steffe Sharpstrings, Graham Clark, Mark Robson, Mike Howlett), was a quite extraordinary performance from a guitarist/bouzouki player called Andy Bole. Familiar with the name only from the Planet Gong Bazaar http://www.planetgong.co.uk/bazaar/releases/recent.shtml, this turned out to be probably the highlight of the festival for me, low-key as it undoubtedly was.

Kozfest is such an intimate gathering that it should be no surprise that not only are you likely to bump into musicians around the festival, but that you might be actually camped next to them! And so it proved in this case, as gentle violin strains from Sally Minchin, Andy’s partner, drifted across the morning breeze on the Saturday morning over breakfast. Like us, they had a young family on site, and as the kids played together I put a name to a face and vowed to check out the live performance on the Saturday afternoon.

Andy Bole on this occasion was backed not only by Sally, but also the drones of Mark Robson (Kangaroo Moon)’s didg. From memory there were a couple of bouzouki-led shorter pieces, before Andy, to some amusement, checked how much time his set had left to run (it was about forty minutes) and then debated as to whether they could ‘squeeze’ the next track in – this was most certainly the Kozfest equivalent of the 25 minute bandcamp track above. Bouzouki and later guitar sounds are sampled, fed back into the mix and slowly build up layers upon layer of sound which virtuoso electric violin, lead guitar and glissando then use as their base for some really uplifting soloing.

On the bandcamp version (recorded at the Blind Cat festival, Kozfest’s sister gathering, 2 weeks or so later) a synthesiser is added, creating a slightly different but equally mesmerising vibe. Fabulous stuff – you can check out the sounds via the link above or download for a measly couple of quid (proceeds to the Warchild charity). Andy’s website is at http://www.andybole.co.uk/

New Syd Arthur album – Apricity

syd-arthurIt’s not an exaggeration to say that in the last 5 years, I’ve spent more time listening to Syd Arthur than any other artist. The initial link might have been a geographical one to Canterbury, plus the fact that their music in the past has doffed its cap to the likes of Caravan et al, but they have been such a tight, innovative, folky/jazzy entity in their own right that they  quickly generated a identity in their own which made any pigeonholed comparisons irrelevant.

On ‘Apricity’, their third full album (after ‘Sound Mirror’, ‘On and On’ and a couple of stunning earlier folk-based EPs ‘Moving World’ and ‘Kingdoms of Experience), it’s clear that something fairly major has happened: maybe it’s the departure of original drummer Fred Rother (apparently through tinnitus), the fact that maybe the band have become tired with trawling around low-key venues to little acclaim,  possibly something to do with their regular touring the States as a support act, who knows?

Anyway, prefaced by their recent singles ‘Apricity‘ and ‘Sunrays’, Syd Arthur appear to be morphing into a keyboard-based, somewhat funkier outfit than their folky roots: still peddling extremely catchy tunes, but with a couple of key changes: Raven Bush, a superb violinist who also did much to create the trademark Syd Arthur sound through his blistering electric mandolin solos, now appears to spend most of his time resident behind the aforementioned keyboard, whilst the arrival of a third Magill brother, Josh, on drums, appears to have had the effect of straightening out the rhythms – this despite plenty of live videos on Youtube of him thrashing around dervish style on tracks from ‘Sound Mirror’, or even the subtlety I’ve heard in him backing more jazzy Canterbury outfits.

apricity-album-cover

And so, at this stage, a day or so into listening to ‘Apricity’, for me the jury is still out. The album appears to have lost a lot of the intricacy of previous excursions, and that’s a real pity – the Syd Arthur of old appeared to routinely pack in the diversity of a 10 minute prog track into 3 or 4 minute popbites. On the other hand, the songs (witness ‘No Peace’, ‘Apricity’ and the hypnotic ‘Evolution’) are  as insanely catchy as ever and will have you waking up in the night with Liam Magill’s melodies going round your head. Syd Arthur are immensely talented – it will be interesting to see what the setlist blend is on their current tour – will they still perform their classics like ‘Ode To The Summer’ and ‘Pulse’? And will the change in direction pay off  – witness them being album of the week in Mojo – (and by the way, I’ve just read their review, and there appear to be lots of common threads with this piece – coincidence, not plagiarism) and bring them the audience they deserve? Let’s hope so…

Rejoice I’m Dead! – New Gong Album

rejoiceIn one of those bizarre coincidences, Gong and Van der Graaf Generator released new studio albums in the same week in September, in both cases 45 years on from their breakthrough albums ‘Camembert Electrique’ and ‘Pawn Hearts’. But whilst VdGG soldier on (magnificently) with a stripped down version of their seminal four-piece line-up, Gong, on the other hand, find themselves breaking out afresh with a set of musicians all of relatively recent vintage. The late Daevid Allen always flirted with concepts of re-incarnation and invisibility (witness their live album ‘Gong est Mort, Vive Gong’ when things fell apart in the late 70s, closely followed by ‘Daevid Allen N’Existe Pas) as well as a collective umbrella approach to band identity  and so it’s maybe not entirely a surprise that not only is the first post-Daevid album called ‘Rejoice I’m Dead’, but it emerges that as his health declined, he effectively passed the baton of bandleader on to Kavus Torabi, Cardiacs and Knifeworld frontman, who appears to have enough vitality and panache to carry it off.

Gong’s new dispensation may not be an entirely new project  as such, given that this band toured sans Daevid a couple of years ago when he became seriously ill. However as a recording entity in its own right, ‘Rejoice I’m Dead’ treads new ground.

I saw the band headlining at Kozfest back in July, announcing themselves with the crash-chords of “The Thing That Should Be”, Kavus Torabi stalking the audience with his eyes and generally putting himself around the stage in a very Allenesque manner. This track too opened the BBC6 radio session a couple of days later, a 3 track showcase which also included ‘Kaptial’, a spiky ‘Camembert’s-style thrash  which apparently was co-written with Daevid before his death. In fact the BBC6 session version of ‘Kaptial’ probably fares even better than the album track, with vocals untreated and much more to the fore. These two tracks were good choices for the BBC session, being immediately hooky and DJ Marc Riley’s stunned reaction helped the impact, but sandwiched between them on the album is the title track, which behind its slightly awkward chorus reveals itself to be a fairly wigged-out opus: pounding tomtom drums, thundering bass line and wonderful glissando work recalling ‘Fohat Digs Holes in Space’. Kavus Torabi delivers a monstrous, meticulously constructed solo using tortured minor-key themes as mucky as those peddled by guitarist Phil Miller (is that enough ‘m’s in a sentence for you?).

Elsewhere, ‘Model Village’ treads similar ground to Daevid Allen’s many 3/4 ballads (I’m suspecting Fabio Golfetti had a major hand here), whilst also sampling the Allen voice, which Beatrix also does, somewhat more disquietingly. Then, after a rather pleasant glissando interlude on ‘Visions’, the theme extends to perhaps the most sophisticated track of the lot, ‘The Unspeakable Stands Revealed’ with guitar and sax weaving in and out of a Howlett-like undulating bass theme. ‘Through Restless Seas I Come’ starts off like another classic gentle Allen ballad before crescendoing gloriously in more complex band interplay which in strange way reminds me of Pierre Moerlen’s tuned percussive work.  This track is genuinely moving and uplifting and possibly the album’s highpoint. ‘Insert Yr Own Prophecy Here’ rounds things off.

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What strikes you about the album is its overall cohesion – there are few tracks which dip below a really excellent standard, and the subtle carving out of a new Gong style, containing recognisable elements of Gong past (dissonant, angular guitar work, a glissando backdrop, spiky sax and also blending in some guest incursions from Steve Hillage’s aquatic guitar sounds and Didier Malherbe’s doudouk), but also something fresh, particularly with Kavus Torabi’s superb guitar soloing. I was genuinely excited by seeing them live back in the summer and whilst the autumn tour looks to be somewhat pared down in size and scope from previous Allen-fronted excursions, the chance to see a very tight and exciting band in a few lower-key venues is really something to look forward to.