Archive for the ‘Rock’ Category

A couple of weekends ago I went to the di_stanze mini festival of electronic music and, on the Sunday evening, to see Steve Hackett’s ‘Genesis Revisited’ tour. Not much in common there you might think: new experimental electronic pieces in a classical concert hall, followed by a rock guitarist and his band playing music from the early 1970s. That would be a mistake. In fact the proximity in time of the concerts only served to highlight their similarities for me.

The major difference was that the music at di_stanze was all (to my knowledge) new pieces and the Genesis pieces were around 40 years old, but it’s important to note that they were in new arrangements. Steve Hackett makes no attempt to faithfully recreate the sound of the 1970s band, these pieces are truly ‘revisited’ using all the modern technology and techniques of a 21st Century rock band with considerable instrumental technique and knowledge of electronic music techniques from samplers & synthesizers to guitar pedals, guitar synthesizers and vocal effects.

One of the performers at di_stanze was the excellent Will Baldry, a hip-hop DJ who is using his turntables in new ways  to perform classically structured pieces and poetry to great effect. This shows the ‘classical’ world embracing and learning from other genres, The opposite also happens – Genesis’s 1970s material drew heavily from classical structures and ideas.

Steve Hackett’s extensive use of the Whammy pedal at the later concert brought to mind a piece by the normally brilliant Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen who once used that pedal in a rather arch and slightly strained ‘one idea’ way that many classical composers seem to when adopting a new technology. By contrast Steve, like most rock musicians, is at home with new technology and it is fully integrated into the music so much that unless you know what is going on you might not even notice. it’s this seamless integration of technology into music that is often lacking in ‘classical’ compositions even today. I am pleased that this was (mostly) not the case at di_stanze.

One of the things that many classical musicians seem not have go the hang of is synthesizers. The only synth performance at di_stanze was an unimaginative piece of live-coding into a Juno polysynth. I wish people using this sort of equipment would listen to, and learn from, performers such as Roger King (of the Steve Hackett band) who use multiple synthesizers (soft, and hardware) to make real, high quality music, and not just a collection of sounds.

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In memoriam, Post Rock

I was late to the Post Rock party. For reasons I won’t go into here I’d never even heard of it until I was invited to go and see the band Vessels play in 2009 or 2010. I was blown away! I’d never heard anything as fresh as this before. Bear in mind my main experiences of music were 1970s progressive rock and classical. The stuff that appears on the radio had passed my ears but made no impression.

So Vessels were a breath of fresh air to me at that time. A new sound using rock instruments to produce what was, effectively, modern chamber music. I devoured the genre keenly, seeking out their precedents Godspeed You!Black Emperor, Mogwai and others, including a few local, and not-so-local bands that I thought did the genre well. I was often taken by the ‘math’ variants that were actually just using time signatures other than 4/4 – pretty standard in the classical world to be honest, but nice to hear electric guitars doing it.

But ‘genre’ is was and is, and as with most genres there are a lot of copycat bands, a style I always referred to as ‘Generic’ Post-Rock, usually simple 4/4 rhythms and general guitar noodling over a simple bass line. I did go to quite a few post rock gigs after that Vessels one and only a few made any real impression. Of course, the style was no longer fresh to me but they often seemed to be following the same formula as each other.

I recently went to a small festival of post rock. There were bands from all over the country and some even outside so I thought this would be a good showcase of the different styles of the genre available. I was disappointed. The vast majority of the time it was four men (only 1 woman in all of 8 bands) wielding guitars like they were weapons, and a drummer. It seems there are basically three sub-genres of Post Rock these days: Generic, Math and Metal. Generic and Math I’ve dealt with and Metal seems to be just one of the first two but with more distortion, especially on the bass guitar. All of these three were evident, but to be honest, it was hard to distinguish between the bands except on the basis of these sub-genres and sometimes not even then.

Perhaps it’s harder to be have of a distinct sound in rock without a vocalist – someone with a unique voice and also singing words that are personal to them – but I’m not convinced. Going back to classical chamber music the genre is still going strong after several hundred years. The keys here, I think, are more varied use of instruments and close attention to texture. Some post rock bands use synthesisers and some, shock horror, violins. But mostly they are just in support of the guitars which always seem to be the main event (and what is it with Post Rockers and Telecasters? Ugh, jangly things! Sometimes just a different guitar might help). Also where there are violins I rarely hear good arrangements, commonly it seems to be sixth-form classical harmonies (Sigur Ros, I’m looking at you, amongst others) or folky riffs. But for the most part I seem to be hearing just indie rock without lyrics. And that’s even worse than just indie rock! Well, maybe.

I’ve followed the post rock Twitter and Facebook communities for a while now and heard people rave on about this new band or that old band’s latest album – then I’ve gone over to listen and been singularly unimpressed and disappointed – mostly they sound like the last one I got bored with. The main exception to this was the last GY!BE album.

In fact if you want an example of how to do this interestingly then the GY!BE collective are a model. They have offshoots (Esmerine being my favourite and are truly modern Chamber Music) that play with the genre and seem to be capable of keeping it fresh.

Someone suggested to me that guitars are the problem, though I’m not convinced. I love electric guitars, I’m a violinist and I own two! A lot of the problem is lack of originality but I think the rock drum kit is the biggest trope. It seems to force people into a particular style of playing. A percussionist friend of mine (who is not a rock drummer) has tried a rock drum kit a few times and was largely unimpressed – ‘it just does the one thing, though it does it well’, she said. It’s one reason I’m really happy to be without a drummer in Helicopter Quartet.

While writing this blog post I’m listening back to Vessel’s “White Fields And Open Devices” and it’s still good. I did wonder if it’s just me that has tired of the genre but think this means not.

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Se Delan

Some time before Justin Greaves contacted me about the Crippled Black Phoenix session he also rang up asking me to play on a new project he was working on with Belinda Kordic, also recorded at Chapel Studios in Lincolnshire. At the time he didn’t have a publisher for this project, so it’s taken longer to come to fruition than that other album, but it’s now been taken up by Kscope and will be released in April of this year.

The band is called “Se Delan“, it has quite a different feel to CBP and I really like it. Partly I think this is because of the more cut-down arrangements that let the songs ‘breathe’ a little more and less self-consciously ‘prog’ song structures. I also really like Belinda’s ethereal, slightly unsettling, vocals which complement Justin’s songwriting perfectly. In fact this album is my current favourite release of the year (though I’ve been listening to it since May last year when we got the first mixes).

Signing to Kscope should get good coverage for the album I imagine, hell they are the same label that Steven Wilson is on … I’m on the same label as Steven Wilson!!! *faints*

One part of this is a pair of gigs timed to coincide with the album release – one in Leamington Spa and one in London – which I will also be playing at. These are large venues, much bigger than anything I’ve ever played before. I think even the largest venue we played on the CBP tour was smaller than the Assembly at Leamington!

So this is a big deal for me. Not just large venues but actually performing a commercially released album of music I really love for a major (in prog terms) record label. We’re supporting Kscope’s other artists Gazpacho and members of Pineapple Thief so it’ll be a fabulous night of music – come along if you can. And if you can’t, go and buy the album. I know I have a vested interest in saying so but, seriously, it’s really really good!

The performances are on 14th April at the Assembly Rooms in Leamington, and the 15th at the O2 in Islington. The album is out in a beautiful CD packaging and even more amazing etched LP on the 14th April and is available direct from Kscope and all the other usual outlets.

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It’s been a hard decision, but we are retiring the Moog Little Phatty synthesizer from Helicopter Quartet. There are a number of good reasons for this, primary among them is that I am not a synth player. In some ways a monophonic synth seemed a good fit for me as I’m very much a ‘hunt and peck’ keyboardist anyway, but really that just further limits what it’s good for in this band. It’s a good, no it’s a great synth, but even people who can play them on stage take more than just the one. As Stuart Russell says, there’s a limit to the sounds one instrument can make, especially when I’m trying to play violin at the same time. Taking more synths just isn’t a sensible option either, we already have far too much equipment!

I hardly ever used the keyboard on the Moog, I mostly played it using foot pedals so I could concentrate on the violin – an instrument I at least have some moderate competence in; the keyboard was used only on two songs. So often it ended up being mainly stage eye-candy or a bow stand. Even when I did play it using the foot pedals it’s not featuring largely in the material we currently have – at the last gig I lugged it all the way up several flights of stairs and only played two notes on it!

So what we had was a heavy instrument, with limited use.

To the horror of the analogue purists, it will be replaced by a laptop. In a way this will be no less ‘analogue’ than before as, at the start, the laptop will be playing sampled Moog sounds for the old material – and as the real Moog was always played through a digital looper it wasn’t a clean analogue path even as far as the PA system. But once we have the laptop available to us it opens up a whole world of new sounds we can use and effects that are available. Not to mention being able to get the MIDI pedals to play more than single notes in one octave … chords even!

What we will certainly not be doing is using the laptop for programmed whole tracks. We went through this with Catscans and I wasn’t really happy with it – mainly the lack of flexibility but also the fixed timings it imposed on us. Our laptop (actually it’s the same physical laptop!) will be there to provide triggered samples and effects only, initiated from the MIDI foot pedals, and possibly a Launchpad, when we need them. The playing will remain free and collaborative which is how we work best.

When we originally started the band I wanted a synth/laptop player as part of the line-up but never found anyone suitable, so I ended up playing the synth myself and not really doing a very good job at it. Most of the synth lines we have are drones that add bass to compensate for the lack of other bass instruments in the band. Although Mike does play bass guitar sometimes, he can’t do that and play normal guitar at the same time and we try to make the recordings a good version of what we play live. We are *not* a multi-tracked studio band.

So the album after the next one (which is already all written and mostly recorded) will probably sound very different to previous ones, though still very focussed on violin and guitar. It’s a new era!

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Nearly three years ago now (gosh is it that long?!) I toured round Europe as part of Crippled Black Phoenix in what was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. While nothing of that magnitude has come my way since (nor is likely to), I was privileged to be called up by Justin Greaves of CBP and asked if I would session on a few tracks for the new album “White Light Generator”. This is actually the second session I did for Justin last year – more of the other one in April.

I set off for Chapel Studios, in the wilds of Lincolnshire, fairly early on a Wednesday morning with a car full of violins, two acoustic and two electric, and my main pedalboard. When there I recorded for four tracks over all (or was it three? it was such a full day of listening to and playing for songs I’d never heard before!) mostly on acoustic violins. As it was a ‘late’ session, Justin was often in the other studio assisting with the mixing while I was overseen by assistant engineer ‘Reg’* and CBP’s great new singer Daniel Änghede. ( Incidentally I can also recommend Daniel’s other band Hearts of Black Science)

After all the acoustic tracks had been done I was feeling pretty tired and almost ready to drive home but Justin asked if I was up for providing some mad noises for a track. I’m *always* up for providing mad noises of course, so I got the octave electric violin and the pedalboard out and recorded the wild sounds that are about 3 minutes into “Black Light Generator”. Justin and Daniel were also quite taken with the huge bass drones I can do on that instrument and took some samples of various notes. I’m not sure if they got used or not, I hope so 🙂

The album is out on today (17th March 2014) and it’s really good – and I’m not just saying that because I appear in small corners of it. If you’re into thoughtful, high standard but not show-offy progressive rock then you really ought to have a listen.

It’s available from the label’s website as well as record shops in the usual formats, including a gatefold vinyl extravaganza if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.

* all assistant engineers at Chapel Studios are called Reg, apparently.

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Matt Stevens – Lucid

I’m in the middle of the RPM challenge at the moment but this is unrelated. Last year I recorded quite a few (for me) sessions, so this year you will see me plugging the albums that I’ve played on … be warned!

The first of these is Matt Steven’s new album ‘Lucid’, which is out early in March. This is the second of Matt’s albums that I’ve contributed to, and it’s always a pleasure to work with an interesting an innovative music such as Matt – it helps that he’s a really nice guy too so more than deserves all the success that he seems to be getting at the moment.

This was a session I recorded at home rather than in a studio, and I contributed to two tracks and I’m eagerly waiting to hear how they came out .. as well as the rest of the album, Matt is always worth listening to. Here’s a preview of one track:

You can pre-order the album from Burning Shed or Cherry Red, or the usual Amazon/iTunes people.

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This year has been a busy (relatively) one for recording sessions. I’ve recorded for three albums for other people at recording studios and three more, for different people, at home. I’ll blog more about those as they become available, record companies can take time to get releases sorted out and I’m not even sure if I’m allowed to talk about them at the moment.

One of the more different experiences, for me, was that of recording a Christmas single. Yes, I know. It’s hardly the avant-garde or progressive rock I mostly specialise in, nor is it an orchestra recording, but I like to think I’m versatile 🙂

I got this job by accident, a friend on twitter wasn’t available that day and passed on my name to the guy who was organising the song and sessions and, being me, I was available.

So, I toddled off to the recording studio on a Sunday afternoon with my violin, just the four-string acoustic, not really knowing what to expect. I had been sent a demo of the song the day beforehand but wasn’t really sure what was wanted of me.

What was wanted of me was a full string orchestra! I recorded 4 versions of 4 different string parts (all made up on the spot by the producer … they are talented people) for the choruses and a further set for the final big chorus. Several of these were pitch-shifted down to give more tonal range and make it sound more like a large string section. With two microphones on me (one at the top of the stairwell, and one at the bottom, where I was) that’s 32 tracks of … me! Such a scary thought! The whole thing took about an hour and a half and I went off to the Midnight Llama meeting afterwards feeling I’d already done a days work.

It was fun doing a ‘pop’ song for a change, and this is a fun song. It’s not a saccharine Christmas song, more Wakefield’s answer of “Fairytale of New York” (but with a LOT more strings!) than … actually I don’t know any saccharine Christmas songs, I erase them from my memory as soon as possible.

The finished single will be released for Christmas on the 9th December. It can be pre-ordered on iTunes or Amazon and there’s the obligatory promotion video (luckily NOT featuring me, apart from in the music) on YouTube:



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I went to see Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited show this weekend. I bought the album when it came out and was impressed with the re-realisation of the ‘classic’ Genesis songs from the 1970s so I was really looking forward to seeing them performed live. As I’ve blogged before, Hackett puts on a very good show that is usually better than the studio albums in my opinion.

But even with my high expectations, the show was AMAZING. Steve has assembled his usual touring band, with a couple of changes, and put together a show of such a high standard it will live in the memory for a very long time.

The album contains a lot of guest singers on different songs, obviously this wasn’t possible for a tour (though there are a few guests on the Hammersmith live album, more of which in a moment) so Nad Sylvan was brought in to do the majority of the singing, ably assisted by wonderful drummer/singer Gary O’Toole. Nad’s voice is perfect for those old Genesis songs, it has that slight rough edge to its timbre that Peter Gabriel had but with a more lyrical style that Gabriel himself has worked on since. The one thing I did find slightly offputting was Sylvan’s rather “New Romantic” stage presence but as Steve himself dominates the stage musically that’s easily overlooked. The authenticity was aided by Lee Pomeroy playing Shergold 12-string/bass double neck guitar and a Rickenbacker bass, much as Mike Rutherford used to.

However, and this is my point, this was no straight re-creation of music from the 1970s, Steve Hackett is far too much of a progressive rocker for that. These are gently updated arrangements, using the skills of the different musicians at hand (Rob Townsend is a far better flautist than Peter Gabriel was) and the technology available – eg the Les Paul sustainer guitar that is Steve’s standard instrument these days. Also, Steve has developed as a composer and arranger since those days and used that considerable skill in the new arrangements. These songs did not sound like relics from forty years ago, they sounded fresh and new and exciting. Granted they are very good songs and the old albums still stand up well but this took them to whole new level. I’ll risk the ire of many fans by saying that these made the new versions actually better than the original. And yes, I have seen Genesis live – though in the early 1980s post-Hackett.

Ears still ringing from that gig I went to Steve’s website and bought the live CD/DVD box containing the Hammersmith gig. This has all the power and musicianship of the live show I saw in Manchester, and is destined to supplant ‘Seconds Out’ as my favoured version of these songs. Yes, it’s THAT good. I might get expelled from the prog rockers union for saying such things but, in my opinion, ‘Prog’ should be (though rarely is these days) progressive, and you can do that even with old songs if you have the talent. Which Steve Hackett most assuredly does. This was no ‘authentic’ performance, but the equivalent of Bach played on a modern piano … by Bach! Of course, Genesis songs are largely timeless, they are about generic human themes, Greek myths and suchlike, so they don’t age like more political or ‘youth’ songs would do, and stylistically they still sound very contemporary especially when played in this manner.

I also prefer this album it to its studio equivalent partly because Steve and his band are so much better live (maybe for reasons I’ve mentioned in unrelated posts) and partly because having Nad Sylvan singing for most of the songs gives them a consistency that is not present on the album, with all its guest singers.

So, a fabulous achievement and we now have a new ‘classic’ album to add to our collections.

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Well, we recorded a single with Helicopter Quartet!

There are a couple of reasons this track is released separately. The first is simply that it wasn’t ready for inclusion on the album, we just hadn’t finished writing it. The second is that I wanted to try a different method of recording our music.

As I’ve mentioned before we record our album as a band. We play through the whole track as if we were playing live and record that. Sometimes there are small overdubs but the core of the music is recorded in one go. Usually we pick the best of several takes of course, and occasionally we’ve mixed & match sections to get a complete track – though not often.

This time I wanted to experiment with tracking. This is the more usual method of recording modern non-classical music but it has several disadvantages for us. Principally that our music is semi-improvised so that we are always listening to and responding to each other as we play. There is an important core structure that we always stick to but there is some flexibility in exactly what happens. Tracking this sort of music leaves us with a bit of a catch-22 problem as you might imagine.

But recording it all together also has problems. As we use loopers extensively to get our big live sound it makes it really difficult to perfectly match the background sounds and ostinatos with the lead lines, as they are both coming out of the same amplifier. With experience we’ve got quite good at this I think, but it’s always nice to have more detailed control of such things as compression and EQ when making an album and this method prevents it.

So, we tracked this single as an experiment. We played the track once all together as a guide, and then played out the parts over the top until we’d replaced everything.

I like the extra control this gave is but it also threw out some problems I hadn’t anticipated. The most significant being noise. Both of us have very extensive pedalboards and they generate noise (my Vox VDL1 looper is a major culprit, sadly). When layering multiple tracks all this noise builds up and I had a hard time keeping the aggregate noise levels down. Also,  playing to a guide track didn’t really work as well as I’d like. I actually play quite freely and ignored it mostly so in reality we ended up with me laying down the violin parts first and the Mike playing guitar to those, which is less than ideal.

Despite those reservations I’m really pleased with ‘Refuge’. I think it works musically and I’m happy with my production, mixing and mastering on it. Feel free to make your own mind up of course.

I haven’t decided yet how we will record the next album, we might explore some strange mix of the two methods or go back to ‘whole band’ recording. There’s plenty of time to decide!

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2013 has been a bit of a lean year for Helicopter Quartet gigs so far. For myself I’ve been quite busy on solo and other projects recently and so haven’t had the time to organise any gigs myself so we’ve been relying on other people to put us on, which is quite hard for a band that almost no-one has heard of!

HOWEVER, we are playing an amazing festival in Reading in September which I hope will bring our style of music to a new audience ‘Down South’

“Raising Steam” is billed as a Steampunk music festival and is being run in aid of New Futures Nepal – so that’s at least two reasons to go already! It features an eclectic range of acts over a weekend in the city, and I’m really looking forward to meeting some people that I’ve known on twitter for a while now, not least of which is Tom Slatter. Tom is more hard core steampunk than we are, I must admit, but I think we’ll fit in well. I might even wear the long dress I wore at SAF earlier this year which should add to the steampunk aesthetic.

There’s such a lot going on, that I can’t list everything, and I honestly don’t know most of the bands, but I trust the organisers to make it a really good weekend and we’re looking forward to it immensely. Please turn up for at least one day, you won’t be disappointed

Facebook event


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