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General

Performance

If a tree falls in in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? Despite the length of time I have spent on Earth, this philosophical question has only just become relevant to me. Let me explain…

When I joined what was to become known as Crimson Creatures in 2021, there was always the aspiration that the band would gig, if all went well. I was nervous about the prospect, not having played in front of an audience since the 1980s, but nerves are normal and, sure enough, just before our first gig, they left me, and I was raring to go.

3 gigs later, and I am no longer in the band. The gigs were successful, in that we played well and sounded good. Did I enjoy the experience? Hmm. Yes, and no. I mostly enjoyed the 45–60 minutes I was on stage, but the rest of it?

I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to do any more gigs. The lead up to each gig was filled with repetitive rehearsals, gear prep, and a nagging apprehension that something might go wrong on the night. The next gig was always lurking in the back of my mind.

The gigs involved lugging gear up and down stairs from badly parked cars, solving equipment problems, sound checks and fighting sound systems, playing to half empty rooms, and packing up late at night. I was sober in a room full of well-oiled people, before a long drive home, when I really could have done with relaxing. You can keep your Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle.

Now, when friends ask about my musical activity, I tell them that I’m concentrating on writing and recording. They will inevitably ask when I’m gigging again, to which I reply that I’m not keen, and it may not be for a long time, if ever. The reaction is always the same — total dumbfoundment. It’s as if there’s no point making music, unless I’m playing it live, probably in a bar near to them. This is where the philosophical falling tree comes in.

What is the point of making music, or being in a band, unless there are gigs and the performance? I’ve thought about this a lot recently.

Listening

I’ve been listening to and collecting music since the 1970s. I can’t usually remember what I ate for lunch, but I can tell you in what year Band X made their 2nd album and who played on it. There’s no feeling like discovering and going through the honeymoon listening phase of a great album.

Once I learned to play an instrument and how to record and mix, it was natural to want to make something vaguely resembling the amazing stuff I loved. So, by the age of 17, I’d made my first album and played in front of a big audience.

To be clear, those first gigs were playing covers of popular songs to crowds which were coming anyway. We were the entertainment, and we were appreciated. It was great. We later introduced our own songs, with limited success, and realised that the public wasn’t ready for our stuff. Still, a crowd is a crowd, and memories were made.

But, isn’t that what being a musician is all about? Well, no. Music isn’t made to get a round of applause and a pat on the back — though it’s nice if that happens. Many people make music because they they want to create something great sounding, thought-provoking and original that they can listen to and can be proud of. If other people like it too, fabulous, so much the better. It’s a huge buzz to add another great recording to your collection, especially if it’s been made by you.

Of course, people like to play music in front of a crowd too, because they want to share, perform and entertain, and that’s fine. But not all musicians are entertainers. And not everyone makes music for entertainment.

Keep Music Live

When recording studios really took off in the 1960s, until piracy became widespread, popular music was consumed voraciously in its recorded form. But, as artists lost revenue from falling sales, they had to hit the road to make a living from music. And now streamed music is king, and recording artists get very little income from streaming, nothing is set to change.

Digital technology has enabled anyone to become a recording artist. This is a double-edged sword, and there are more recordings being released now than ever before. It’s difficult to get noticed amongst the sea of music, unless you have any marketing skills or staff at your disposal.

So, musicians are expected to perform, whether they like it or not. “Keep music live,” they said. Well, music wasn’t always live.

Categories
General

Progressive Punk?!

Some said it couldn’t be done, but, finally, it has. Wire and The Stranglers both had a good stab at it in the late 70s. But, we are now seeing what happens when you cross-breed two seemingly incompatible musical genres.

For the First Time (2021) by Black Country, New Road

It started in 2021 with Black Country, New Road‘s debut album For the First Time. It was a Post-Punk album with clever arrangements and striking contrasts. It was closely followed by Squid‘s debut album Bright Green Field. This was arguably more Post-Punk than Prog, but the extended instrumental sections begged to differ.

Bright Green Field (2021) by Squid

Black Midi, who had been getting a name for their blazing rapid-fire controlled explosive music and Mercury Prize nomination, finally harnessed their full potential, and dropped Hellfire! on an unsuspecting public.

Hellfire (2022) by Black Midi

Their third album is a dizzying whirlwind of genre-hopping, face-slapping, sprinting thrash-laden, crooning horror. It’s an eloquent, masterful album, with equal measures of raw power, Dadaist technical brilliance and Zappa-esque humour. The first time I played the album, I couldn’t listen to anything else for at least an hour, my senses had been so assaulted.

Motorbike (2022) by Blue Bendy

Struggling to follow this up in 2023, I eventually stumbled upon the Motorbike EP from 2022, by another young band called Blue Bendy. A bit less Post-Punk and a bit more Progressive, their music is bristling with ideas, condensing a huge array of sounds, rhythms and emotions into their songs.

Blue Bendy’s music is so dense, it might be a difficult listen for some people. But it is saved by their sweet and delicious sounds, which reward the listener with new layers with every play. I have played this at least once almost every day this year, making it a clear winner of my ‘album’ of the year, without either being an album, nor released this year.

Categories
General

Life on the Road

When I joined Crimson Creatures in 2021, we talked a lot about the music. We talked a lot, full stop. We talked about writing songs, and recording them. Pretty soon we had 12 songs done. We also talked about the possibility of playing the songs live. And, as it became clear that we were able to do the songs justice as a live group, we stepped up the search for a drummer.

We struggled to get the right drummer, but, 8 months later, we finally managed it. After 4 months of rehearsals, we played our first gig, and it was largely a success. I say “largely” as there were some technical problems beyond our control, and some that were down to us. And the audience was small—many people being distracted by the other goings-on at the festival. But the main thing was that we played well.

Crimson Creatures, live in 2023

With another couple of gigs lined up, it seemed it was onwards and upwards. But, with the change of focus to live performance, Ego started to affect the band dynamics, and the ecosystem of the previous 18 months started to unravel.

I’d been quite nervous about playing live. In my last gig (with First Night With the Indians) I was almost 20. I’d had a 38 year hiatus from gigging. But, as I watched the band on before us, I realised I was raring to go. I was buzzing at the end of our set.

This all changed with the 2nd gig. From the outset, my reservations about the venue were realised. For 45 minutes on stage, I had to struggle with feedback, lack of space, and poor sound. On top of this, the Ego was bolder and more vocal with the audience.

We finished the gig with different feelings. Half were pleased, half were disappointed. We’d been building up to this for months. And for what? An audience of maybe 20 people, one of whom was complimentary afterwards. We packed up without much talk that night.

Third time lucky though, eh! I brought along a big group of family and friends to gig number 3. We played our best chops, and the sound was spot on. I relaxed a bit, and enjoyed the intimate atmosphere. Unfortunately, the Ego had fully blossomed by this stage, and the evening was punctuated by a series of annoying incidents.

Fortunately, I’d thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I had lots of friends in the audience to distract me. But, after sleeping on it, I started to see more negatives than positives. Do I really want to be putting this much work into what is effectively just a hobby? Can I really stomach any more of the Ego? Is the audience ever going to match or exceed this, without bringing all my mates? Why does no one else in the band share my concerns?

Of course, it’s always the last straw which breaks the camel’s back. A silly argument about something which shouldn’t reasonably need discussing was the tipping point for me. I’d had enough; I wanted to make it stop. And, all of a sudden, I quit the band.

So, the moral of the tale? You shouldn’t regret decisions to try new things, but be wary of changing circumstances affecting the delicate balance of something as simple as a rock band. And keep talking.

Categories
General

What is Progressive Rock, anyway?

This question has crossed my mind a lot in the last couple of days. I’ve seen it discussed online too in recent months. I’ve never seen a satisfactory explanation. I have my own idea of what Progressive Rock actually is, or at least what it feels like. But, putting this into words is harder than it looks.

I was compelled to put my thoughts into pixels during a long car journey, accompanied by the music of noughties US bands The Polyphonic Spree and Subtle, when my mind wandered around the land of Prog for an hour or two. I was still recovering from a lunchtime discussion during a band rehearsal, where that old chestnut was raised, debated, and left unresolved. I think I got a little closer to the answer, by the time I arrived…

Accepted wisdom states that Progressive Rock is flowery music about wizards made by ex-hippies in flares, who attained Grade 8 in their chosen instrument at Boys’ Grammar School. The songs are long and meandering—so long, in fact, that an album of only 2–4 tracks including some complicated time signatures and plenty of Mellotron should be of no surprise. Accepted wisdom—oh, the irony.

Let’s face it, Prog Rock got a bad name from this common perception. And this previously-hip musical genre was outcast with the advent of back-to-basics Punk and Disco in the mid- to late-seventies. Much of this accepted wisdom remains to this day. Even Progressive Rock fans sort of believe it. I went along with it, ashamedly, though I never really fully believed it.

What do I know, anyway? Who am I to judge? What follows is only an opinion. The cool thing about music is that it’s subjective. And it is very personal. People argue about music all the time, and all opinions are valid. But my opinion is more valider.

Unknowingly, I got into Progressive Rock at a very early age—probably 7 or 8. I was the youngest in my family, and I was influenced by teens with growing record collections, because there wasn’t much else to do in the early seventies. I say “unknowingly” because it was all just music to me back then. I was weaned on a diet of Beatles, Beach Boys, Focus, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Stackridge, Roxy Music, Supertramp and Mike Oldfield. At the age of 11, my first favourite band was 10cc.

Back then, Progressive Rock was as much a fashion as a musical genre. And fashions change. True to form, I didn’t properly get into Progressive Rock until age 13, in the late seventies, when it was very uncool. That’s when I knew the type of music I liked had a name, and I had to find more of it to listen to. My new favourite band was Yes. My bedroom wall was covered with Roger Dean posters and band photos. I learned to play guitar on a diet of S.H. (Steve Howe, Steve Hackett and Steve Hillage).

I had to be content with listening to records by bands who’d gone a bit crap. They’d had their day. By the early eighties, it was a bit embarrassing. When asked which my favourite bands were, my responses were met with a mixture of disgust and amusement, because they were currently making shit records. They didn’t know one of the universal laws of Physics, which states that, “a band’s best albums are usually their earliest.” When I ran out of good Progressive Rock to listen to, I moved on to what the people in the know were calling New Wave. Anyway, I digress…

Some time in the nineties I had an epiphany. Quite a few of the albums I had been enjoying over the last decade were pressing the same buttons as those seventies Prog albums. I eventually created a website called Prog’s Not Dead, dedicated to contemporary albums which I felt followed the Spirit of Prog and yet avoided that classification. [Don’t look for it; I wiped it a long time ago.] It was around then that I realised that popular bands like Radiohead were very much Prog, and that Punk, Dance, Folk and Hip-Hop could be Prog too.

Fast forward to recent times. In 2021, a band answered my musicians wanted ad, asking if I’d be interested in joining them in their Prog Rock band. My initial thought was, “HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA, no.”* I hadn’t followed actual out-of-the-closet Progressive Rock since the early 80s. Don’t get me wrong—I still love my seventies Prog—but, it was in the past. The post-seventies Progressive Rock bands I’d heard had been pretty dire, in my not-so-humble opinion. Why would you try to recreate that magnificent musical genre if you couldn’t do it any justice?!

Back to today, and I’m daydreaming in the car to a soundtrack of hippy choral indie rock and experimental hip-hop from the mid-noughties. Both albums strike me as being very Prog. Neither has long meandering songs with weird time signatures or great instrumental prowess. No fancy solos, or references to dragons or faeries. No sci-fi album covers. But they are still Prog. Why are they Prog? There must be a pattern, a code or a formula!

Then it began to dawn on me. You have to separate the ‘Progressive’ from the ‘Rock’. They are two different things. Rock music emerged in the mid-sixties, and, like Blues, Chart Pop and Traditional Jazz, had a defined set of musical parameters: raunchy guitars, earnest singing, pumping bass and hard-working drums. Verse, chorus, bridge/solo. The Progressive guys found this a bit boring and predictable, and messed around with the format. It’s as simple as that. I guess you could say that, by the mid-seventies, the Progressive guys had run out of possibilities within the Rock format, and got stuck. Some went downhill rapidly, and some managed to extract a bit more mileage for another few years before going the same way.

So that’s what Progressive Rock is. It’s almost as important to know what it isn’t. This is where I reach for the dictionary, and check what the word ‘progressive’ means, literally. It can be interpreted in a few subtly different ways. It can mean steady evolution by increments. It can mean trying to improve/change something. Which brings me to those aforementioned post-seventies Progressive Rock bands. They aren’t so much Progressive Rockers as Retro Revivalists and copyists. Indeed, there’s nothing progressive about emulating something you liked when you were a youngster. Unhand that adjective!

So, to recap… You can have all types of Progressive music: Progressive Hip-Hop, Progressive Dance, Progressive Metal, Progressive Punk, etc. BUT, it’s only truly progressive, if the artist is trying to change the format for the better. Progressive Rock probably had it’s time by the late 70s. Progressive Rock is dead. Long live Prog!

[* I joined the Prog band.]