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Review of the Tangent at Danfest 2011

When The Tangent frontman Andy Tillison walked up to the microphone on the stage at The Musician in Leicester at a quarter past midnight announcing that their show had to be cancelled because the drum kit provided was unplayable, it seemed simply too cruel. I turned to Rodrigo, who had flown all the way from Brazil for the show and attempted to say something but neither of us could speak.

No sooner had he made the announcement than the guardian angels of prog rock quietly stepped in and put everything in order. The missing drum equipment was replaced thanks to a generous gesture by the drummer of the previous band on the bill, IO Earth. Rodrigo and I could finally speak again. Nothing sums up the ethos of the band better than Tillison’s subsequent “It’s amazing how far sincerity gets you”, echoing that famous line from Rush’s Spirit of Radio “It’s all just a question of your honesty”.

Despite the truncated set (a prog band that plays for an hour is surely unheard of), their show was an inspiration. Aside from the obvious delight of getting to see The Tangent for the first time, what I will most take away from this show is the feeling that I was present at the birth of a guitar legend. Watching the 22 year old virtuoso Luke Machin in action was one of those ‘I was there’ moments. He is receiving rave reviews for his work on The Tangent’s new album COMM, and tonight’s show was a clear demonstration of why.

Hours earlier, I had the immense good fortune of being able to spend some time with Tillison, Machin and former Tangent acoustic guitarist Guy Manning. When presented with an opportunity to talk to people like Andy Tillison and Guy Manning, two of the vanguards of modern progressive rock, all one really has to do is find a way to flip their ‘on’ switches, then to sit back and listen. It isn’t particularly hard in this case. Of course, the cliché is true. Just as the conversation between a group of mathematicians will rapidly disintegrate into unintelligible babble, so too will the conversation of prog fanatics. Manning and Tillison are no different, and before long, we were exchanging stories about Yes, Jethro Tull and Transatlantic and discussing how 1973 was the best year for prog (I believe that 2011 was as good). And playing the classic game of “who loves the more obscure album?” Tillison won on that front, but he does have a forty year head start on me. He firmly believes that much of the progressive rock released in the last decade easily sits side by side with the classic albums of the 70s, as he cites albums by The Flower Kings, Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard and modestly omits The Tangent’s own, although I am sure he knows as well as I do that they too belong in that group.

Almost two years ago now, while on a routine CD shopping trip, I discovered that The Tangent’s albums along with many others on the prog label InsideOut were suddenly available in India, as imports. As Indian prog rock fans, we find ourselves in the middle of a very exciting time. Not only can we walk down to the local music shop and pick up a copy of The Tangent’s The Music That Died Alone or Pain of Salvation’s Remedy Lane, but we can also legitimately hope to see such bands performing without the expense of having to fly to Europe.

The last three years have seen massive outdoor performances by Porcupine Tree, Katatonia, Opeth and Pain of Salvation even though almost none of their albums were legally available in India at the time of their shows. Pain of Salvation’s drummer Leo Margarit once told me that far more people attended their concerts in Brazil than had bought their albums. A similar statistic surely applies to India. He went on to say that if even half the people who had downloaded the albums had just bought them instead, then they would not find themselves in a situation where long term band members had to quit because it was no longer economically viable to stay in the band, despite their love for it. We are at a stage where bands are able to perform to large crowds in India because a large number of people simply download their albums to get acquainted with the music before the show. It makes for wonderful atmosphere at concerts, certainly, but it is a hollow and unsavoury situation. The argument presented was always a paraphrased complaint about the lack of availability, but that situation is changing now.

Andy Tillison’s passion and precision are truly inspiring, and over the last decade with The Tangent he has assembled around him some great musicians, spanning however many generations it takes to get from David Jackson (of Van Der Graaf Generator, who played on the first Tangent album) to Luke Machin. Aware of this sudden appearance of his albums in India, Tillison says that he and the band are just waiting for an invitation to play. There certainly is no shortage of playable drum kits here.  

Curry Hell with Daniel Gildenlöw and Robin Eriksson

[This is an excerpt from a much longer piece on Pain of Salvation’s UK tour supporting Opeth in november 2011]

The conversation in the dressing room had been about food for over an hour yet no plans had been made. Giving in to excessive hunger, Leo, Johan and I accepted defeat and made our way to the nearest McDonalds to pick up some food. When we returned, Daniel said he had found an Indian restaurant famous for its ‘Curry Hell’, the hottest curry in the world. If anyone could finish the dish, they would get it for free and be awarded a certificate.

Unable and unwilling to turn down the challenge, I accompanied Daniel and guitar technician Robin Eriksson, silently kicking myself for this juvenile display of bravado. It is often seen as a badge of both masculinity and ‘Indianness’ to be able to tolerate or even enjoy excessively spicy food. I have no such aspirations, and would rather be thought of as having the taste buds of a young Latvian girl than subject myself to the torture of eating a jalapeno pepper.

This time, though, I decided to quell my instincts for self preservation. I ordered myself the infamous Curry Hell and prudently asked for some buttermilk, water and ice cubes. As I waited for my culinary executioner to arrive, I struck a bargain with Daniel. Free dinner, a certificate and the respect of a boyhood hero can only motivate a person up to a point. I needed a bigger incentive.

“If I finish all the chicken in the curry,” I began, ”then would you be willing to play a song of my choice in London?”

Expecting to be shot down, I was shocked to see Daniel considering the proposal. We bargained a bit- it couldn’t just be any song off any album, it had to be something realistically playable and it had to be short enough to replace only one song from the existing set. After a few minutes we arrived at a compromise- Fandango, the six minute long gem from 2002’s Remedy Lane.

Armed with such motivation, I was rejuvenated. When the innocuous looking curry arrived, I could already hear strains of the opening guitar riff of the song. All of which came to a grinding halt when the first molecule of the curry touched my tongue. It is lazy to say that there are no words to describe how hot the curry was. There certainly are. And I probably know them too, but I will struggle to find the order in which to put them in order to describe fully the magnitude of my suffering. The best I can offer is that it felt like I had accidentally slit my tongue and then gone for an open mouthed swim in the Dead Sea.

The waiter, for whom the biggest fringe benefit must be to watch people spontaneously combust while eating this curry, informed me that in order to receive the certificate, I had to finish all of the gravy as well. I spent thirty minutes painfully combating one piece at a time, taking the occasional break to run up and down the nearby empty corridor with my tongue hanging out just to simulate a cool breeze. By the time I finished the last piece, I had reached my limit. On a technicality, I had ensured that Fandango would be played (the deal was that I had to finish all the chicken, not all of the curry) and no certificate in the world could possibly have motivated me to continue. The waiter brought us the cheque with the smug and condescending air of a bully’s sidekick.

Opeth’s ‘Heritage’

Surely metal is the most maligned of all subgenres of rock. Of course, headlines like ‘Australian heavy metal band member jailed for satanic goat sacrifice’ do not really help, and, as Sam Dunn’s documentary ‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey’ demonstrates, there is a section of the metal community openly devoted to behaviour that includes church burnings and murder. Treating such groups as representative of metal fans in general is like using Rebecca Black as a synecdoche for pop music.

As a huge fan of the genre of progressive metal, I often have to introduce myself as a fan of ‘70s prog rock and the bands they influenced’ deliberately omitting the word ‘metal’ for fear of being gently excluded from the rest of the conversation. In short, unless you’re talking to someone who is wearing a Megadeth or Dream Theater T shirt, you proceed with caution. In a conversation I had with guitar virtuoso Andy James, he mentioned how he jokingly said that he was going to go into jazz fusion when conducting a master-class because that is what is perceived as being a ‘proper’ genre for a serious guitarist. Luckily, he added ‘That’s not going to happen, though. I’m going to stick to metal.’

It is even worse for fans of death metal. The harsh vocals and orchestrations sometimes obscure the true artistic and aesthetic value of the music. It is far from immediate. That, combined with the morbid imagery usually associated with it, has kept it in a little niche about as far from the mainstream as possible.

But there were exceptions. Listening to Opeth adds immediate prog-credibility to a death metal fan’s canon, just as listening to the Beatles does for a pop music fan’s. Of all the contemporary death metal bands, Opeth are the most popular among fans of other genres. Opeth made it acceptable to be a death metal fan. And not just because of their music. Frontman Mikael Akerfeldt’s reputation as a connoisseur of both esoteric prog albums from the seventies as well as the previously sneered-at death metal albums of the eighties bridged the gap that many found impossible to cross.

And that is why I have a problem with the title of the new Opeth album. It is their tenth album and it is called Heritage. It is a loaded term, particularly in the context of Opeth’s music. The album is heavily and almost exclusively influenced by 70s era prog bands like King Crimson and Jethro Tull, who were famous for combining jazz and folk influences. It is not a death metal album. It is not even a metal album. It is a brilliant album, but that is hardly the point.

This is not their first album not to feature death metal vocals. It probably will not be their last. Most Opeth fans will be able to deal with it; Mikael Akerfeldt writes great music. It is not the apparently temporary abandonment of their death metal roots that is upsetting. It is the symbolic abandonment of their death metal heritage that is. Even if one speculates that Akerfeldt’s interest in death metal is beginning to wane (and there have been a few hints), there is no denying that he was, once, the champion of the genre. His collaboration with Steven Wilson showed the world that death metal musicians could be erudite and intelligent while still being vulgar, funny and visceral.

Calling the album ‘Heritage’ and then leaving out any traces of death metal is selling short an already short changed genre.

How to listen to a prog rock album

Prog season is upon us again. And this time it’s particularly exciting and daunting. With so many albums scheduled to drop in such a small span of time, it is important to go about digesting them scientifically.

Listening to a prog album is a skill. In the seventies and eighties, limited by the capacity of vinyl, prog albums were rarely longer than forty minutes. The approach to listening to them is quite simple- tackle the big 15-20 minute song first. Assimilate it. Once that is done, you have half the album under your belt and can then move on to the shorter songs. In other words, listen to 2112 first, then move on to A Passage to Bangkok. Listen to Close to the Edge then move on to And You And I.

The expanded capacity of the CD meant that over the years, albums grew to fill up more space. So even though Dream Theater has released only eleven studio albums compared to Rush’s eighteen, Dream Theater has released more music. So how do you tackle an almost movie-length album?

Modern prog albums fall broadly into two categories. The first consists of bands which have carried on the structure of the albums of the seventies, at most doubling the number of songs. The Flower Kings, Dream Theater and The Tangent fall into this group. Adam and Eve by the Flower Kings is structured like a double album- Two songs of nearly twenty minutes on opposite ends of the album with shorter songs in between. Dream Theater’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings too has this structure, as do most Tangent albums.

In the other set are the prog albums by bands which make a conscious effort to move away from this structure- There is no Pain of Salvation song over thirteen minutes long; Opeth moved away from the twenty minute song over fifteen years ago and Porcupine Tree songs are rarely over seven minutes long.

Whether dealing with an album from the first or second category, there are a few things an astute listener can do.

– Lose all objectivity– Or at least go in assuming the songs that don’t engage you immediately will take a few more listens to sink in. If after half a dozen spins, a song still does not do anything for you as a listener, then consider moving on. But do not give up on a song because it does nothing on the first listen. Especially the longer ones- the instrumental sections can be trying, but are very often rewarding. Do not be quick to dismiss a song as filler.

A typical five stage thought process with a long prog song-

Stage- 1.  Ah another long fiddly /ambient/ heavy instrumental section. This is going to be good.

Stage 2- (Three to Six minutes later) That section was a little short/long. Not particularly impressive.

Stage 3- (On second, third and fourth listens)- Wow, look at how clever they’ve been rhythmically. This is pretty good.

Stage 4- (Twelfth listen)- Wow! The progression under that section was the same as the chord progression from the chorus of another song on the album- but backwards! That’s so clever! I love this song. This is the greatest song of all time!

Stage 5- Repeat with next song

Listen to any promotional snippets, and early singles-These usually come out weeks or months before an album and provide points of stability once the entire album is out. Suddenly tackling an 80 minute album isn’t so difficult, because 10-15 minutes are already familiar.

Listen to the album in its entirety only the first time you listen to it- After that, imbibe 15 minutes at a time. The first listen is usually a reconnaissance listen. The only time in the first week that an album should be listened to completely. This is to help gauge which songs are immediate and which will require a few more spins. The second and third listen can concentrate on sections that stood out the first time. Usually these will be songs with catchy hooks, incredible bits of technique or snippets that have been released earlier.

Do not listen to the album in bed before going to sleep– Especially if the album is particularly dynamic- A sudden growl or heavy riff can make you jump out of your skin if you’re not prepared for it. You may also wake up with a riff or melody that, in isolation, could turn you into Schumann and drive you insane. Believe me, this does happen.

Needless to say, in an album with long songs on it, delve into them first– The long song is usually the focal point of the album. Think of any album with a 20 minuter on it- Octavarium by Dream Theater, The Great Nothing of V by Spock’s Beard, Supper’s Ready off Foxtrot by Genesis, Hemispheres by Rush.  Embrace the epics and the rest of the album will follow.

Alternatively, you could just sit back and listen to the music like a normal person. But where’s the fun in that?

UK 2011- The first two shows- Blaze Bayley and Muse

It is three in the morning and the Reading Festival wristband is beginning to cut off the blood supply to the fingers on my right hand. My back is stiff, my feet spongy and my fingers blue. There is nothing like a long rock festival to awaken the inner geriatric in a bunch of people in their twenties. Complete strangers bonded over buckling knees and sore ankles.

This was the weekend that ended my seven month concert drought. Two concerts on successive days, from two opposite ends of the popularity spectrum. Saturday night’s show was former Iron Maiden lead singer Blaze Bayley in front of fifty people (most of whom left much before the end to catch the last train of the day), Sunday’s was Muse’s headlining performance at the Reading Festival to 87,000. This was a cultural exchange between A and me, the Blaze show being my idea and the Muse show hers.

As much as he tried to extol the virtues of playing a tiny gig like Saturday’s at the Water Rats in Islington, there is no doubt that somewhere at the back of Blaze Bayley’s mind was a voice asking what exactly went wrong. Although not the most popular Iron Maiden frontman, his four year stint with them surely warrants a larger audience, especially when half the set consists of Blaze era Iron Maiden songs. He did well to get the sparse gathering going initially, but lost the plot about halfway through when his speeches between songs made him sound more and more like he was selling a pyramid scheme.

I screamed for him when he asked us to scream from him (I wonder if Bruce Dickinson receives royalty cheques for that). I clapped furiously when he caught me not clapping furiously. I politely applauded when he started telling us we need to ‘live our lives for ourselves, not others’. He lost me when he asked us to ‘grab all the negativity, hatred and shit in our lives, put it in a fist and then Kill and Destroy it’. The last was as bad an attempt to introduce a song title innocuously into a sentence as if John Lennon had said ‘I was watching the Godfather the other day wondering why they went to all that trouble when they could just as easily Dig a Pony.’

By the end of the show, it would have been easier to introduce the audience to the band instead of the other way around. It was an odd show, and ultimately disappointing for as big a fan of his work as I am.

The next morning, as the ringing in my ears began to subside, A and I caught the train to Reading and arrived nine hours before Muse’s headlining performance. Five hours of wandering, eating and alternating between sunglasses and raincoats later, we were at the venue. In a moment of incredible foresight, A suggested that if we did get lost, we should eventually meet back at the Reading Station before the last train of the day.

Watching the footage of the show that is already available online, along with a few older clips, it is clear that no video recording can do justice to the superhuman spectacle that is Muse’s live show. I have read tomes dedicated to Pink Floyd’s sense-overloading live performances at their peak and I have no doubt that years from now, Muse’s live shows will be spoken of just as fondly.

It is always special when a band performs an entire album at a single show, whether promoting a successful new album or revisiting a classic. It adds an extra sense of occasion. At Reading, as they had done two days earlier at Leeds, Muse opened with New Born off their 2001 album, Origin of Symmetry and played the album through in running order to its closer Megalomania. The second half was dedicated to newer material, with three songs each off their last three albums.

The stage was designed to recreate the album’s cover, and from the moment the orange screen which covered the front of the stage lit up and Matt Bellamy began the piano intro in silhouette, it was clear that this was no ordinary performance. The screen lifted to a frantic and chaotic response from the audience, which was soon drowned out by the dirty distorted guitar riff from New Born. By the time they had moved on past Bliss to Space Dementia, I had reached the end of my ‘being-elbowed-repeatedly-in-the-throat-while-ankle-deep-in-mud’ quota, and made my way with great effort and pain to the side of the venue some two hundred metres away. It is one thing to hold an audience of a couple of thousand dedicated fans in a closed theatre. But to be that engaging to a moderately enthusiastic fan at a distance of a third of a kilometre for two hours is testament to the greatness of this band’s live show. Energetic and clever music, pyrotechnics, needless guitar violence, lasers and a screen the size of a small country all meant that I had found another band I am willing to travel hundreds of kilometres to watch.

Bellamy proved that you do not have to be loquacious to be a great front-man. The sheer control (both vocal and instrumental) on display had the entire crowd spellbound. And he proved that it is still very cool to kill and destroy your guitar in front of thousands of people (perhaps it represented all the negativity, hatred and shit in his life).

Realising that A was not going to show up anywhere near where I was, I made my way to the back of the venue at the beginning of the last song, Knights of Cydonia. The hour long walk back to the station through mud, grime and excrement was unpleasant.The reunion with A at the station (which, as she simply would not let me forget, was her idea) capped an exhausting and surreal evening.

It is hard not to compare the two shows, if simply to marvel at the contrast. It bodes well for the next few months of shows that I have lined up in and around London. Things are looking promising.

Come September

I should have been in London by now. I should have been at the High Voltage Festival in July and I should have already written extensively about Dream Theater’s first tour with new drummer Mike Mangini. I should have been full of stories about how I bumped into my musical heroes, with slightly (but justifiably) embellished accounts of our encounters.

There is an officer sitting somewhere in the British High Commission blissfully unaware of all of this. Months of planning, dozens of emails, applying for and being granted accreditation, flight tickets and accommodation reservations were all rendered pointless because I was not granted a visa in time. The actual justification was, in hindsight, valid. I will be moving to London in August anyway as a student, which precludes my being granted a tourist visa. I don’t know what is more frustrating- that I did not get my visa, or that I did not realise that I never actually stood a chance of getting it.

Although it felt like the end of the world, I realised eventually that the best part of the year for a prog fanatic was around September, with a glut of highly anticipated albums all due to be released then. Aside from the High Voltage Festival’s prog stage, virtually every concert worth attending will take place after I get to London in August. With eighteen concerts already lined up for a two month period beginning in September, it is a little easier to get over the High Voltage disappointment.

The year began with such great promise for a prog-addict like me. Virtually every major artist was releasing at least one studio album this year, with almost all the giants of the genre represented in some way. The list seemed too good to be true- Dream Theater, Opeth, Pain of Salvation, Steven Wilson, Devin Townsend, Symphony X, Agents of Mercy,Riverside, Pendragon, Beardfish, Blackfield, Anathema, Blotted Science, Neal Morse, Nick D’Virgilio. It even included rejuvenated bands from the seventies like Van der Graff Generator and Yes.  The list was longer than any year in recent memory.

I remember having a conversation with someone after a King’s X show once, who articulated one of the problems that we have with this kind of music. Albums are long, dense and complex and require undivided attention and plenty of it. Discovering an artist’s back catalogue can be a daunting and arduous task (as I most recently discovered with Roine Stolt). It feels like a full time job. With so many potentially great albums about to drop at the same time, my immense excitement is tempered with mild apprehension. September and October will be hectic, and I will have to plan a proper listening schedule, much like how my parents adjusted all of our lives and schedules when we, as a family, got hooked onto the TV show 24. In my mother’s immortal words, “You wake up at 9 instead of 11, so we can watch two episodes in the morning. You can go back to sleep after that, but be up in time for lunch and two more episodes. Finish your work in the evening quickly so that we can squeeze in a three episodes at night.”

I have six weeks to prepare. September 13th flags off of the next round, with Dream Theater’s A Dramatic Turn of Events and Opeth’s Heritage. By the time Pain of Salvation’s Road Salt Two is out a couple of weeks later, I am quite sure I will be hearing my mother’s voice over the phone saying “You wake up at 4 instead of 8. Listen to two albums in the morning, then get some breakfast, after which…”

Welcome to my DNA

 There are probably a dozen bands that have crossed over the line and I feel are ‘uncriticisable’. The list is, however, in dynamic equilibrium with bands crossing back and forth every so often. The biggest advantage of having so many bands in this group is that at least twice a year, an album is released by one of them (or their subsidiaries) and from the moment it arrives until at least a fortnight later, my every waking moment is consumed. 

Blackfield, the melancholic rock band collaboration between Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree and Israeli singer Aviv Geffen, released their third album earlier this week. There is always a dichotomy when I listen to an album like this. I know the band’s back catalogue so intimately, that it seems blasphemous that there now exist so many songs with which I do not even have a passing acquaintance. I must listen to the new album as many times as possible in a short span of time. On the other hand, it may be many years before I can experience new music from them. I should ration out the new songs.

A happy compromise usually occurs naturally. It is very difficult to find an uninterrupted hour to go through an album completely. What inevitably happens is that I listen to the first half of the album and then skip to the last song. I then become familiar with those songs over the first few days on car and bus journeys. The album seems more controllable when approached that way. Then, slowly, I add one new song at the end of the daily listening session. 

This cycle is compressed in the case of a Blackfield album. The new album, Welcome to My DNA clocks in at just under forty minutes, and almost all songs are around three minutes long. Which is why I reached song number seven, Blood, a whole two days ahead of schedule. From the opening bar, I experienced that rare buzz- the knowledge that this would be the first of hundreds of times I listen to the song. My finger was poised on the repeat button on my iPod less than halfway through a song that is so good that I cannot wait for it to finish before I listen to it again. If only there was some way to double the pleasure by listening to it twice simultaneously.

I will never know how bad a critic my lack of objectivity makes me. Does it make me fall in love with a substandard album or does it raise my expectations so high that I am inevitably disappointed? Or do the two effects cancel each other out? I choose not to dwell on these pointless questions. There is a new Blackfield album waiting for me.