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.

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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…

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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.

Magma live in Manchester – 23 September

A hotly anticipated gig – Magma at the Band on the Wall in Manchester, where in the last few years I’ve seen both Gong and Syd Arthur. I’d had a ticket for their seated gig at the Royal Northern of College last year, got ill at the last minute and ended up giving my ticket away to an old friend. 3 gigs in Manchester within just over a year (this was a 2-date visit to Band on the Wall) suggests an unexpectedly sharp amount of interest in the band: an unlikely  Zeuhl nirvana after so many barren years in the UK.

Having not only never seen Magma before, but also having dragged along a friend who was a complete Magma ignoramus, I was able to see the gigs as if through  the eyes of an outsider. Forget for the moment that I’d had more than a passing acquaintance with their back catalogue and imagine you’d just stumbled in on the act – the prevailing initial impression is that, on the surface, at least, this is a quite preposterous proposition:  8 doomy, intense, largely dark-clothed musicians purveying an unsmiling blend of rolling, low-end basslines, repetitive keyboard mantras and inpenetrable chants authored in a fictitious, menacing Germanic language. My friend, let’s call him Progshy D, looked on implacably at this intimidating cacophony: was he impressed? I’m not sure. Was this prog? He most definitely thought so. This music is other-worldly without being ethereal, and exploratory in its sense of stripping back perceptions of what is musically ‘normal’. And yet for all the freshness of its menace, it turned out that all music performed tonight was around 40 years old, the first and third parts of the ‘Theussz Hamtaahk’ trilogy, the first part of which, the eponymous, atonal first part I didn’t recognise for a some considerable while until it kicked into its recognisable ‘chorus’ a mere 25 minutes or so in!

The band included a bass player, electric guitar player, keyboardist, mallet player (vibes?), a lead vocalist, two backing vocalists and drummer/bandleader Christian Vander himself, an incredibly tight-knit outfit who gave little away facially whilst pounding away with their mesmeric rhythms. Rumour has it that Christian Vander keeps a close leash on his troops , and this is borne out by meticulously scored, repetitive themes which give no indication that the musicians could stretch out beyond their basic parts. But that’s rather missing the point: the effect is to draw you in hypnotically and dare I say, transport you somewhere else. There are darker rumours out there about Christian Vander’s political leanings, which Hugh Hopper alluded to during correspondence with me years back, in response to my eulogising about the (little) Magma I’d heard up to that point. Thankfully there’s no tangible evidence of this on stage, (unless you count the occasional stiff-armed gesturing by one particularly worked up fan in the front row of the audience).

A few things to note: for all the presence and impact of the lead singer  and the two female vocalists (of whom Stella Vander contributed more than one beautiful melody), the high points of both Theussz Hamtaahk and Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh were the sections where Christian Vander downed his drum sticks and assumed lead vocals himself. Backed by starkly simple keyboard themes, he soloed almost raga style with a chilling intensity I’d not seen since some of Daevid Allen’s live performances on Gong’s ‘Selene’ .

I have to be honest, I’d not even been aware that Vander sang until the advent of Youtube – the only previous time I’d seen him live was back in the autumn of 1989, when, in something of a fried mental state, I’d set off for southern France on a cheap Interrail  ticket and quite by chance stumbled on the Christian Vander Trio gig peddling jazz standards and more in a salubrious jazz venue in Avignon. He’d totally bowled me over with his muscular, omnipresent drumming and his virtuousity is equally in evidence (almost egotistically so)  in the official Magma videos which cut backwards and forwards to the drum kit throughout. Tonight however, he was very much buried behind his drumkit, which made his vocal solos, where he stood up and brandished his mic like a wind instrument, even more striking.

Having played the grand total of 2 songs for their entire set, it seemed doubtful that any encore would be snappy. But the band re-emerged for a what was a quite uplifting reworking of a track from their debut ‘Kobaia’ album, where the idiom was much more jazz-flavoured, and vibes, guitar and keyboards were allowed to solo with a joyous freedom. And yes, they were all astonishingly gifted musicians, as I should have guessed.

Gilli Smyth RIP

(post written late August 2016, Trapezaki, Kefalonia, Greece)

In the liner notes of ‘Canterburied Sounds Vol 2’, issued around the millennium on Voiceprint Records, I  was allowed to indulge myself by talking about how I’d got into Canterbury music.. I related the story of Dave ‘Wobbler’ Watts, and how he’d sneaked on a tape of Gong’s ‘Camembert Electrique’ on the school stereo one lunchtime and inadvertently changed my life.

For all the sonic impact of the dissonant guitars,the manic tape loops, the Aussie rap/drawl and the fanfarish saxophones, perhaps the most striking element of all to an untutored ear like my own was the female ‘vocals’. I’d purchased the ‘Magick Brother/Mystic Sister’ album simultaneously and it seemed that Gilli’s impact on the sound here was equally outlandish – multi-looped laughter, orgasmic wailing, and the first elements of her patent ‘space whisper’ – this unique, semi-formed version of Gong seemed very much as much of a product of her imagination as Daevid Allen’s, even if the songwriting credits wrongly attributed to her were I suspect more of a function of avoiding Daevid’s contractual obligations.

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Gilli’s involvement in Gong was intermittent through the Seventies, but I am sure that it was as much in deference to her as to Daevid that subsequent offshoots (Paragong, New York Gong, Pierre Moerlen’s Gong) added a prefix to the mother name, and even the early 90s Gong band which held plenty of legitimacy through Daevid and Didier Malherbe’s involvement went out for a couple of years as Gong Maison. In the meantime she led Mother Gong, a very different outfit with her as the central character even if partner and multi-instrumentalist Harry Williamson appeared to pull many of the strings musically.

 

I’d had the odd letter exchange with Gilli from her Australian base – she was supportive, professional and friendly to the idea of a Gong/Canterbury fanzine but it wasn’t until 1991 that I got to meet her. I was totally mesmerised for a week or so by Mother Gong mark Z, to the extent that I followed them round various North West provincial venues, such low-key outlets as the Witchwood in Ashton Under Lyne, the Citadel in St Helens and a pub in the centre of Bolton called the Crown and Cushion where the band seemed particularly incongruously booked amongst the weekday sots.

 

My eulogy to this particular version of the band is published here and I still have a particularly well manufactured tour T-shirt, which I remember my now 24 year old stepdaughter pointing out a few year ago was the same age as her (!) but what the piece doesn’t portray is my own impressions of the interview – a frank, honest, unromantically fond depiction of events from an unassuming but clearly strong personality.

 

The interview took place after a gig in Leeds – the band were generous with their time when I am sure that talking to an unpolished Gong geek was the last thing they wanted to do in the midst of a pretty length tour. I also remember being too polite or probably too unskilled (this was probably only my second ever interview) to stop Harry Williamson often taking centre stage in the interview – it was Gilli I really wanted to converse with after all but too often the talk became bogged down in the technicalities of their ambitious touring set up. I’m not sure quite where the two were in their own  relationship at that point, but it was certainly an insight into their interpersonal dynamics. I vowed to go back and do the job properly at some point and get Gilli on her own terms, but of course never did. This version of Mother Gong was peerless and the album ‘Wild Child’ the perfect document, but having witnessed on several occasions her subsequent performances with Glo, her stunning dancebeat-based collaboration with Here and Now’s Steffe Sharpstrings, I reckon the latter was a much more harmonious musical union.

 

Whilst Daevid Allen’s passing was commented on within hours by national newspapers and music magazines alike, Gilli Smyth’s death remains less commented on and what I’ve seen often cobbled together from wikipages, her own website, or more by proxy, a paean to Daevid. And I’ve not seen a single mention of Glo…

 

Feminist, beatnik, intellectual, vocal pioneer, poetess and the glue that bound Gong together, Gilli Smyth RIP

 

 

Tomorrow Never Knows…

(post written late August 2016, Trapezaki, Kefalonia, Greece)

I’ve been at a bit of a loose end these past few days…

 

I’m currently on a package holiday in Greece – not entirely my style but after a dodgy year health-wise any plans to do something more adventurous hit the buffers a while back.  At a bit of a loose end last night, and not wishing to jump into another holiday book, imbibe some more Fix Hellenic lager or contemplate another night on a mattress on the floor next to the fridge, I let my mind drift off into half forgotten Canterbury territory.

 

The train of thought had been going like this – I’d been listening to Violeta de Outono (Gong guitarist Fabio Golfetti’s long standing Brazilian band) and in amongst the bonus track from their 1987 debut album was a version of the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – actually probably less ‘psychedelic’ than the original, but blessed with a fine line in glissando guitar I can guarantee was never originally contemplated by John, Paul et al.

 

A bit of idle research reveals that it’s bang on 50 years since that track was originally recorded, also 50 years since the Soft machine got going. As I turn 50 myself this year I’ve been musing more than is necessary about ages and their significance.

 

When I came across ‘Canterbury’ music in the mid 80s for the first time it’s fair to say that I thought I was looking at it entirely retrospectively – due to age I’d missed its first wave completely and many of its artists seemed to have disappeared from view. I was able to plunder the musical archives from a distance with none of the ongoing frisson of being exposed to new ideas which comes from seeing the development of a band like say, Syd Arthur, as they metamorphose from album to album. It was a distant, impersonal study of a band or bands from afar.

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In 1987 at the Band on the Wall in Manchester I saw some of these ‘distant’ musicians become flesh for the first time.  I remember being staggered by the listing of a band led by Hatfields/National Health guitarist Phil Miller called In Cahoots, and containing (for me) luminary names such as ex-Softs Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean, and Gong drummer Pip Pyle. A band and experience that did not disappoint in any way.

 

What I was musing on last night was that 3 of these musicians are now long lost to us, all 3 of whom I had the opportunity to communicate with in one way or another over the next 10 years or so.  Hugh Hopper was a total inspiration for my magazine Facelift, the  first to lend his support with so many links and encouraging words, Pip was a friendly face at so many gigs and a wry commentator on so many subjects, Elton a more distant correspondent via letter. And yet the counterpoint to being able to plunder your heroes’ back catalogue in  retrospect is that those same heroes’ fortunes wax and wane so much earlier than your own – all 3 died tragically early in their sixties, and the death of the seemIngly ageless Daevid Allen in 2015 was in some ways an even starker hammer blow – I can’t claim to have had any personal relationship with him and he reached a much grander age, but he seemed so impregnable, such a constant musical backdrop to my life from 1985 onwards in so manŷ different guises – I could selfishly pick and choose when to see him live through the Nineties,  and still rack up in excess of 40 viewings over the years. I still can’t quite believe that I’ll never hear him tap out the guitar intro to ‘You Can’t Kill Me’ again or pulverise the riff to ‘Dynamite’ and it’s one of the reasons why for all the joy of seeing a Gong renewed at Kozfest with Torabi, Golfetti and crew  that the new material was so essential, the old coming at an emotional cost.

 

These thoughts were still with me this morning when I visited the Planet Gong website, ostensibly to see if the promised Gong Autumn tour dates had popped up. And immediately I saw the news about the death of Gilli Smyth.

This is the first verse…

 

In 1989 I started up a fanzine called Facelift – it proudly trumpetted its aim to cover the ‘Canterbury scene and beyond’. Over the years myself and other like-minded writers interviewed the likes of Daevid Allen, Hugh Hopper, Steve Hillage, Dave Stewart, Phil Miller, Gilli Smyth, Jakko M Jakszyk, Tim Blake, Pip Pyle and numerous others, whilst reviewing the studio and live work of countless musicians within the ‘scene’, whatever that may be. In 1999, a bit burnt out and embarking on a new adventure in my personal life, the fanzine fizzled out. A website appeared in 2006 at http://www.faceliftmagazine.co.uk

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At Kozfest 2016

mainly to shift some back issues of the ‘zine. It never got updated, but still exists (and you can still buy back issues there).

In 2016, an unscheduled visit to Kozfest, a ‘psychedelic dream’ festival in which Gong and various related bands performed, rather blew my mind and set me thinking about writing again. I’d never intended to stop Facelift, really, it’s just that running a fanzine (or indeed a website) can become very much a full-time job (and I already have one of those). Maybe a blog would be the perfect way to start rambling on again about the music that I love. These are my first written thoughts 17 years on – please let me know if you want more…!