Muse – Drones

Brief thoughts on Muse’s new album, Drones, after a few listens.

  1. Dead Inside – Alright. Not much more to say.
  2. Drill Sergeant – See start of Warheads from Extreme’s 1992 album III Sides to Every Story.
  3. Psycho – Another Muse glam beat track. Nice main riff. Kind of grown on me in successive listens.
  4. Mercy – Return to earlier Muse sound with their old, Abba-esque hammered piano octave chords and arpeggiated synth.
  5. Reapers – Nice classically-inspired guitar opening and generally a bit more interesting for me, this one.
  6. The Handler – Lovely bass parts in this and rhythm change at 2:20 to a Bach-like instrumental part.
  7. JFK – A section of JFK’s speech, The President and the Press: Address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association, April 27, 1961 (see http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/JFK-Speeches/American-Newspaper-Publishers-Association_19610427.aspx) – an appeal to the American press to consider carefully the information it was making public in the light of the Soviet threat. Conspiracy theorists will no doubt take it out of context and think it refers to the Illuminati. Sigh. That may be Muse’s intention.
  8. Defector – If ELO had done heavier rock, this could have been them.
  9. Revolt – Slower verses and faster choruses with more Muse synth arpeggios interspersed by what sound like car alarms. Nothing special at first listen, but a grower.
  10. Aftermath – Slower paced with strings throughout. Nice melody and break from the distortion-fest throughout most of it, although Bellamy can’t resist bunging a bit in for the last minute or so.
  11. The Globalist – The proggiest track on the album, weighing in at just over ten minutes. The first 2.5 minutes see Ennio Morricone making a return to influencing Muse again, as we go all spaghetti western. Instrumental, with plenty of slide guitar and emerging bolero snare. Brave of Muse to fly in the face of the supposed public hatred of whistling too! Then at 2:50, track becomes a regular, slow-paced song until 4:30, where it picks up pace with quite a nice bit of frantic instrumental. At 6:32, Bellamy goes all Rachmaninovy and a melody invokes the band’s English roots by hinting rather massively at Vaughan Williams’ Nimrod before overtly incorporating it. My fave I think. Not just the length of the track, but the (Enigma) Variations too. 🙂
  12. Drones – Nice, multi-part, descant, renaissance choral-type stuff. Sounds like Bellamy and co have been at the Thomas Tallis.

A grower of an album after a few listens. It’s a more consistent ‘concept album’ than past efforts and there is a narrative throughout of an individual’s struggle against corrupting authority.

I’m not sure I buy the whole ‘drones’ concept. As is often the case, an artist makes a ‘controversial’ or ‘political’ choice/statement in music, but perhaps in doing so, fails to consider their audience who may disagree with them over such issues or even their perception of these issues.

More on that in a separate post.

 

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Vinyl Schminyl

Right, I’m bored of supposed audiophiles babbling on about how vinyl reproduces recorded music better than CD. It doesn’t. You may like the experience of playing vinyl records, but the audio reproduction is not ‘warmer’, let alone better than digital. It’s all in your mind… or you’re not comparing like for like.

I’m perfectly fine with people saying they prefer the ‘vinyl experience’. For those whose formative years were spent listening to vinyl, I get it. They (and even I) have fond memories associated with the magic of vinyl from the days when getting hold of certain rare music was an adventure in itself, whereas nowadays, we can pretty much get all we want with a few clicks or prods on a screen. They (like me) probably still have a collection of old albums on vinyl, but there’s no way I’d buy any new albums in that format.

My own favourite kind of music, Progressive Rock, is especially cherished and associated by hardcore fans with the vinyl record. It was the perfect format, giving bands the opportunity to record expansive pieces of music, stretching them musically and giving them the opportunity to expand into longer, side-long, concept pieces – far beyond the three minute, ‘boy being meets girl being beneath the silvery moon’ pop song. It also allowed them to present the artwork as an integral part of the album, launching the careers of artists such as Roger Dean and the Hipgnosis team.

Then there’s the quasi-religious experience around the vinyl record: peeling off the film; studying the artwork in a large format; opening a gatefold; reading lyrics and studying the production notes; cleaning the dust from the needle and record; placing the needle on the record; the initial crackle of anticipation before the music starts, twenty or so minutes of audio bliss before the runout groove of the first side and the process of turning over the sacred disc to begin scene two of the play.

I get it. I really do.

I was born in 1971 and so I lived through the transition from vinyl to CD. I continued to buy vinyl albums up until around 1987, when I made a conscious effort to start buying albums on CD, even though I didn’t own a CD player for some time afterwards. After that, I only continued to buy rarities on vinyl from record fairs in particular. Oddly, the first CD I bought was not Brothers In Arms (like most of the population), but Rick Wakeman’s 1973 debut solo album, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

No sooner were CDs available, and many people were replacing their old vinyl collections with their CD counterparts, than we started to hear vinylphiles declaring that vinyl records offered a better audio experience than CDs. Many went out and defiantly bought the latest Smørg or Björnsen £1000 turntable, read What HiFi, and balanced speakers on tennis balls halves.

Most normal people merrily (or not so merrily) continued to get CD versions of albums they already owned and, despite the cost implications, most of us marvelled at the hiss, click, and scratch-free sound of our favourite albums on CD.

Now here’s where we have to be a little careful. A great deal of ’70s music was recorded at a boom time in recording studio technology, with studios stepping up to increasing numbers of tracks, and improved outboard equipment and instruments. Many artists took advantage of this and used the studio almost as an instrument in its own right. Coincidentally, the artistic freedom of the time led to music with a range of dynamics – particularly noticeable was the big, heavy production on the rhythm sections of that time.

Coincidental with the CD boom in the 1980s was a tendency to compress the buggery out of music in attempt to make it sound better on tin boxes. This meant that we could hear the details of the music on cheap audio equipment. The problem with compression is that while it may level off the audio and make the music dense, the very process robs the music of dynamics.

For me, the change in production values is particularly noticeable when comparing the Rush albums Signals (1982) with Grace Under Pressure (1984). Whilst the former predates the latter, it sounds so much better. Turn them both up on a reasonable stereo system and it’s immediately obvious which one sounds more ‘lively’, so the fact that there was a coincidental move to compress the life out of music at around the same time as CDs hit the streets is the first thing to consider.

“Ah!” says the vinylfile, “But you’re not comparing like for like. If you play the same album on vinyl and CD, the vinyl version sounds better!”

That is possible, but only if the CD mastering was done poorly. At the start of the CD boom, many record companies used the same vinyl mastered tracks for the CD version. The two formats require differently mastered versions, so it’s an unfair comparison.

But ultimately, it all comes down to science. CD has a greater dynamic range than vinyl and digital audio files leave vinyl standing. Put simply, vinyl is not capable of faithfully recreating the recorded version of music to the extent that some audiophiles claim, whereas digital is, so long as you aren’t listening to lossy MP3 versions of the music at low bitrates.

In a world where there’s a market for gullible consumers, record companies will be happy to charge a premium for vinyl versions of new albums – supply and demand, and all that, and there’s enough of a novelty factor for a new generation who didn’t grow up with vinyl and who hear their parents extolling its virtues for it to be a badge of honour to the cool set to buy their music on vinyl.

We also need to consider that not everybody has the same keen ear for music. In the days of the compact cassette, I heard many a piece of music played back on poor reproduction equipment, with misaligned, dirty heads. The whole top (treble) end of the music was missing, as though the cymbals been taken out of the music. Much the same effect was achieved by people who swore by Dolby noise reduction. Yes, the hiss went away, but so did the cymbals! Many were blissfully unaware of this, but of course, as soon as they played a vinyl version of the album (where there were no heads to get dirty or misaligned), the improvement in sound was obvious. I suspect that part of the preference for vinyl in many people’s rose-tinted view is down to a memory of comparing vinyl with compact cassette rather than any fair A/B comparison between vinyl and properly mastered CD versions of the same music.

Perhaps the truth for many is that when we moved from the 12 inch vinyl sleeve to CD Jewel cases, we lost something. Well, perhaps it’s too late now, but there is a middle ground. We should be buying CDs in 12″ cardboard sleeves. We should make it difficult to get hold of certain albums, requiring months of effort to track down elusive albums and rarities. Then, perhaps the ‘magic’ will return to those who talk longingly about the days of vinyl.

I’ll stick with digital, and yes, CDs. Give me the consistently faithful reproduction listen after listen. You won’t hear me proudly proclaiming that I listened to a CD so many times that I ‘wore out the grooves’, as I have heard many vinyl fans claim – even to the extent that they had to buy multiple copies of the same album.

Oh, and that 25 year old CD copy of my first CD purchase, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, still plays fine… the same way it did on the day I bought it, time after time… without any hiss or crackle.

BAiT Produces Video Demo from a Live Rehearsal

In early December, BAiT decided to embark on a live audio and video recording of a rehearsal. We thought this would serve a couple of purposes. Firstly, it would allow us a relatively quick means to create an honest audio demo of how we sound live. Secondly, it would give us an opportunity to hear and see ourselves properly and identify any areas for improvement.

Our main aim was to create an audio/visual montage of our songs, joining a short snippet from each of the songs together.

We booked a few hours in Hartshill Community Centre, Nuneaton, took along our standard stage equipment, some cameras, and some headphones (for monitoring purposes). Chris brought along his portable recording desk and we set everything up and then ran through the set a couple of times. The first run through gave us a chance to get used to the monitor mix and get into our stride with our singing and playing.

By the second run through we were more relaxed and just enjoyed the performance. We were finished by the mid afternoon, having recorded nine songs.

Over the following days, Chris worked on the audio while I worked on the video side of things. We also met up to discuss the mixes and tweak these as necessary. Once Chris had mixes of all the songs, he sent me the mixes and I did the video syncing. However, over Christmas, Chris invested in some mastering plugins for Cubase (on which we mixed the tracks) and had a play with these. The results were very pleasing and really lifted the sound of the recordings, transforming them and making us far happier about the sound (even if we do still beat ourselves up about the mistakes we hear). By the time we had synced the newly mastered audio tracks to the video and viewed these, we decided to let them stand in their own right as individual tracks, rather than the montage we originally intended.

The videos can be viewed above and also from the Media / Videos page on the BAiT website.

Yes, we could perform better, but we feel the videos give a very fair and accurate representation of how we perform live at the current time. We have already identified areas for improvement and will be working on these in upcoming rehearsals.

Muse’s New Album, The 2nd Law

Well, thanks to my brother in Germany, I’ve got a copy of the new Muse album, The 2nd Law, early. I’ve pre-ordered a copy too, so I’m not a naughty music pirate person.

I’ve now heard the album a few times through, and it’s already a winner.

These guys are so far ahead of any popular band in recent years in every way. They write more adventurous songs with adventurous chord/key changes, great melodies, and vocal lines which switch easily between Bellamy’s natural and falsetto voice.

On The 2nd Law, there are the lovely classical influences as ever, with nods to various artists of the past and nice use of orchestral strings and choirs throughout the album too, with the addition of very modern influences in just the right amount.

So, in terms of a track run-down…

Supremacy – A nod to Zeppelin’s Kashmir (that song has been borrowed now by so many bands) with elements of Yes (I’m thinking ‘Homeworld’). The Bond theme makes a little entrance and the end chord is very ‘Bond-esque’. Song switches between the Kashmir section to a nice part of strings with snare and choral backing. A nice little guitar solo, which could have come from the Queen album Innuendo. In fact, the overall song is very Innuendo.

Madness – Saw the band play this on Jools Holland’s show. Nice use of the Status Kitara Doubleneck Bass on this track, giving a nice synth edge to the bass.

Panic Station – Slap/Pop-tastic! Naughty word alert! Funky guitar over some nice bass playing. Got a very ’80s feel to it.

Prelude – Like a mid ’70s ELO track – Bellamy’s Chopin-esque playing over a string section. Instrumental and short.

Survival – Probably known to many already through its use in the Olympics. Nice, operatic backing vocals over a relentless, menacing song.

Follow Me – Lonely vocal over strings, joined by an arpeggiated keyboard line. Turns into something which sounds like it could be U2, albeit with the kind of classical chord sequences associated with Muse. Then we go all Dubstep after a couple of minutes – lots of ‘zooby’ bass, another verse, and more Dubsteppy stuff.

Animals – My personal fave so far. In 5/4 – Electric piano with nice drum beat joined by lovely, clean electric guitar and great chord changes – not at all predictable, other than the standard Muse classical resolving chord sequences, which are of course their ‘trademark’. There’s a lovely section at 2:42 of 3 bars of 5/4, followed by a bar of 6/4 (or a single bar of 21/4, if you prefer) which repeats twice, then at 3:36, the instruments except the drums continue in 5/4 while the drums play a counter-rhythmic 4/4 – great track! Will keep me interested for quite a while.

Explorers – Prizes for those who manage to avoid hearing part of the verse melody from ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. Gentle, broken piano chords with solitary Bellamy vocal. Builds into a different chord sequence over cellos, and then the drums come in for the next verse. Ends with gentle piano chords again and a bit of chimes, with a lullaby finish.. Nice enough song.

Big Freeze – Another one with a slight ’80s feel to it. Snare stick over Jan Hammer-esque intro. Second verse features full drums and funky guitar. Nice, satisfying, heavy bass in the choruses.

Save Me – Interesting. A song in 6/8. First listen confronts you with a different voice. Sure enough, the lead vocals are taken by bass player, Wolstenholme. Really nice feel to the song. A beautiful melody sung over clean guitar and keyboard pads/strings. Chords kind of evoke Bond incidental music somehow. Drums join in with a 4/4 feel over the 6/8. At 3:41, there’s a nice shift in the drums to a half-time feel 6/8. Great little run out at the end.

Liquid State – The second of two songs on the album where Wolstenholme takes the lead vocal role. The vocals are nicely affected. Quite an urgent beat, which breaks down into half time feel for the choruses.

The 2nd Law: Unsustainable – Nice music. The second of three instrumentals on the album – well, it’s kind of semi-instrumental. Again, elements of ELO – that big string section with operatic choral singing. Then a woman with a bad electro-stammer lectures us about the unsustainability of our lifestyles. Vocoders make an appearance. The tune is like a collaboration between ELO and Jean-Michel Jarre (in late ’80s ‘Revolutions’ period), with a guest appearance by Tight Fit on Vocoder in the chorus and Uncle Dubstep has poked his head around the corner again. Might sound like I’m taking the mickey – I actually really like the tune! 🙂

The 2nd Law: Unsustainable – Bit of a dance feel to this one, but not in a bad way – more ambient, I’d say. More snippets of various sustainability-related samples. Oh, and apparently, in an isolated system, entropy can only increase.

I’m not a lyrics person, so someone else can review that aspect of the music – to me, the vocals are just another instrument.

Muse had a tricky task following up their Resistance album (the finest album in years for me), but they’ve done a great job. Instead of going more epic and even more Proggy, they’ve concentrated on delivering well-crafted, solid music – as usual, brilliantly executed.

Thick as a Brick, Live, its Newly-Released Sequel, and Musings on Tull

I went to see Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull yesterday evening at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. A friend of mine entered a competition run by Roland UK through Facebook and drew my attention to it, so I entered the competition too, not expecting anything to come of it (I can’t recall having won anything in my life, but there again, I don’t enter competitions normally, so I wouldn’t) It was more of a prize draw actually, to name your favourite Jethro Tull song, and the prize was a couple of tickets to see Anderson and band (not Jethro Tull) perform the whole 1972 Jethro Tull hit album Thick As A Brick in its entirety, followed by Anderson’s new solo album, and sequel to Thick As A Brick: Thick As A Brick 2.

The winner was announced, but promptly declared that he couldn’t make the gig. The competition organiser therefore offered the tickets to my friend, who in turn offered them to me. Cardiff is just over two hours away from where we live, so it is not that big a deal of a journey to make. Having made initial enquiries for a gig buddy at such short notice and drawn a blank, I decided that it might be a suitable time to introduce daughter number two, now aged 11, to a proper gig. More significantly, she was excited about going on another motorbike trip with me, and to Wales (a place we both like).

We headed down at 14:40, stopping for a bit of a break on the A449 and got to St David’s Shopping Centre car park for 17:30. After a little wander around the area, we had a drink and a bite to eat at the Starbuck’s near the venue, before heading over to the venue at around 19:00.

On enquiring about the tickets at the booking office, I was told that they didn’t have any reference to my name (or my friend’s come to that, nor the bloke who had organised the competition at short notice). I tried calling the organiser, who had left me his number on Facebook, but it was the wrong number. I left him a message on Facebook and then decided to try my hand with the ticket office again. The first woman there had been a bit short with me, but the second was friendly and instantly produced the tickets. They were under a completely different name, so it looks like they had been won elsewhere too, but the original prize-winner couldn’t make it. They were the only two prize tickets from Roland UK she had though, so she said that they must be for us and handed them over. We made our way up to the hall and found ourselves seated almost directly in front of the sound desk. On that basis, I knew we would be getting a good sound mix.

The audience was reasonably mixed. There seemed to be more people of around my age (40) than there were of those who would have been contemporaries of Anderson. On that basis, the Thick As A Brick album was as old as many of us. There were quite a few women present (they tend to be somewhat lacking at Progressive Rock gigs) and Philippa was pleased to see a girl of around the same age a couple of rows in front, along with a father of around my age who thoroughly enjoyed the whole concert, given his head movements, which Philippa kept pointing out.

Just before the gig started, slowly, but steadily, various people in Pythonesque brown overalls and flat caps appeared on stage doing all manner of preparatory work around the equipment. Straight away, a smile hit the audience. I’ve never understood critics’ loathing for Progressive Rock, when the humour behind a lot of it is so evident and disarming. It transpired that these people included the band, and they started the set still wearing the outfits.

The original Thick As A Brick album was conceived as a single, 44 minute song, designed as a humorous and tongue-in-cheek, but well-meaning send-up of the contemporary emerging Progressive Rock genre, its critics, and its fans. It was written in response to critics’ labelling of the band’s previous album, Aqualung, as a concept album. Anderson consistently denied this at the time, and continues to do so, but in response, he resolved to write what he considered to be the ‘mother of all concept albums’, and has continued to describe Thick As A Brick as such since Saddam Hussein popularised the ‘mother of all…’ phrase. The premise behind the original is that it was based on a poem by a young, fictional schoolboy named Gerald Bostock (the newly-released sequel, TAAB 2, goes on to explore what might have happened to Gerald Bostock in the intervening years). The thing is, people didn’t get the joke, and the album, as quintessentially British as it is, became a number one album in the US album charts and number five in the UK album charts.

It’s easy to see why. Anderson’s songwriting, much of it written in great haste on the morning of band rehearsals and presented to the band as though it had been written weeks in advance, is brilliant, both lyrically and musically. According to an interview I heard with a few members of the band who played on the album, the band took on Anderson’s ideas, learnt parts, suggested musical and arrangement ideas, rehearsed the whole piece in two weeks, and then went on to record it completely in just over a week. In fact, they claim it took them longer to put together the full mock newspaper which came as the original album sleeve than it did to do the music.

Back to the concert… The band played the original album in its entirety. Anderson has assembled a collection of very talented musicians to accompany him on this tour. There is no doubt that they are all great players in their own field, and rather than rearrange the original, they have learnt their parts more or less completely faithfully to the original performances, which, I am sure, many fans appreciated. If we can’t have the original members on stage, it is at least a fitting tribute to them to hear someone else perform their parts as faithfully as possible. I do wonder though why Anderson chose to do this particular tour under his own name, rather than as the band Jethro Tull, particularly when the line-up of musicians includes two musicians, bassist David Goodier and keyboardist John O’Hara, who have been with Tull for a few years. Perhaps long-standing Tull guitarist Martin Barre wasn’t so keen on revisiting and performing the whole of the original album. In interviews, Barre has stated how very difficult it was to perform such complex music in its entirety on the original album tour. So perhaps Anderson was respecting Barre in touring it under his own name.

In my case, I paid special attention much of the time to the drum parts played by Scott Hammond, and he did recreate the original parts very well, albeit with his own feel. For the trained ear, drummers have a distinctive style of play, and, although Hammond remained pretty faithful to the original parts, he didn’t play them with Barriemore Barlow’s feel. That’s not a criticism by any means – just an observation.

The band played the first part (or side A, as the original fades out and back, due to the limitations of the original vinyl album format) of Thick As A Brick, and then had a short break while Anderson tackled the subject of the importance of regular prostrate checks for men in the audience, having lost quite a few of those dear to him (and us, as music fans) to prostate and colon cancer. This was done in a light way, and involved a couple of supposed random audience members in a mock prostate check behind a screen, accompanied, by humorous shadow-puppet-esque video backdrop. It was a serious message handled in a humorous way though, and very well done.

The second half of the song followed (introduced with photos on the backdrop of those, such as Frank Zappa, who have been victims of these cancers) and then we had a short interval, complete with ice-cream tubs. Now, that’s what I’m talking about! Philippa certainly appreciated that.

After the interval, the band performed the whole of Thick As A Brick 2, which, thanks to the longer format of albums now, weighed in at around an hour. All those on stage partook in the recording of the album, with one exception – Ryan O’Donnell, who acted out parts of the music throughout the gig and handled (very well, it must be said) all the vocal parts from the original which Anderson can no longer sing. I say that, but I suspect O’Donnell does actually sing briefly on the album. I can’t lay my hands on my copy of the CD at the moment to confirm this, but, it does indeed sound like him singing on part of Swing It Far on the recording.

Which brings me neatly on to the subject of Anderson’s voice. Now this may upset or anger the type of uncritical fan, but I’m afraid that Anderson’s voice is completely and utterly shot. If he is a stickler for good performance, he needs to be a little more self-critical. To be fair, either he clearly is, or someone has had a frank word with him, since he has recruited O’Donnel to the live show to assist with the vocals. And yet, even there, I can’t find any reference to Anderson conceding that he simply can not handle those parts any more. It’s almost like he fears to admit it. He makes reference to having been foolish in the arrangement on the original TAAB album, by having acoustic guitar, flute, and vocals simultaneously, and all performed by him – a valid reason, it would appear, to recruit a vocalist, and yet O’Donnel is not even mentioned as part of the touring band on the band’s website. Why not? Hard-core fans (the type that won’t accept any kind of criticism of their idols) will come up with all manner of excuses for the poor quality of his voice, and many of these explanations are perfectly fair and valid. But explaining why his voice is bad does not alter the fact that it is bad. Even my eleven-year old daughter picked up the fact with no prompting from me and mentioned it straight away in the interval.

“I’m enjoying it, but he can’t sing very well. The young one is a much better singer.”

Kids sometimes say things that adults don’t like to hear. Even my gut-reaction was to defend him, but there’s nothing to defend. It’s there for all to hear. If you deny that his voice is bad, then I would have to question the quality of your musical ear. Whether his voice problems are down to years of chain-smoking (I suspect that didn’t help), illness, or just years of constant singing, doesn’t change the fact that he does have big problems with it. He can’t hit notes, strains to hit others, with Blakey (from On The Buses) facial contortions, is not able to sustain notes, does vocal glissandi to approximate notes, and sings consistently behind the beat, or off the original beat of the vocal line. If I were Anderson, I would recruit someone (possibly O’Donnel) to take over pretty much all but the easiest vocal parts on a permanent basis, make him the lead singer, and concentrate on doing the other things I do well. It’s not like Jethro Tull will be anything other than Ian Anderson’s band for so long as he plays any part in it, even if he just wrote the music and didn’t play flute and guitar so brilliantly.

Anderson is a very clever guy, excellent lyricist, and fantastic musician, but he is also gifted in the ego department (something every good frontman needs). Everything I’ve read recently suggests that he has been almost blind to the key role the other musicians have played in the success of the band. He just nudges over the line of where ego becomes claiming others’ glory. This is evidenced in the wording of his introduction to Thick As A Brick 2, which begins

“In 1972, I wrote and recorded the Jethro Tull Progressive Rock classic album Thick As A Brick…”

I’m just the slightest concerned that this leaves the impression that it was all his doing, and that’s a bit sad, because he doesn’t need to claim all the glory. There is glory enough for Anderson as the conceiver and writer of Tull’s work over the years, and the man who has kept the band/brand alive. He remains a great musician and multi-instrumentalist. It would be nice to hear him heap more praise on his former compatriots from time to time, regardless of the status of any relationships or bad feelings which may or may not exist between the now very extended members of the Tull family. To give him credit, it is probably his dedication, workmanship approach, and yes, probably discipline, which has made the band the worldwide success that it has been and remains, but we Brits don’t tend to like a show-off who takes all the credit, and I’m afraid that for me (and just for me – other fans may, and probably do, feel different), he sometimes sails a little too close to that mark for comfort.

The albums which resonate with many fans as the outstanding albums are those which feature certain members (for me, it is the albums which span Barriemore Barlow’s tenure – not just because of Barry).

For someone as smart as Ian to underestimate the importance of the contributions made by past band members, as he seems to do, is perplexing, and my Tull-fan friends seem to feel the same way. This is not just a question of age either. I am 40, and consequently not old enough to remember these ‘classic’ albums of the ’70s as formative albums in my life at their time of release. Nevertheless, they simply stack up as an amazing catalogue of work, featuring wonderful musicians and musicianship.

Now, if Ian can claim to have told these musicians exactly what to play rather than a rough approximation of what to play, he can take full credit and he is even more of a musical genius than I already think he is, but given that the style of the band’s playing changed considerably after the loss of Barlow, Evan, Glascock, and Palmer, I suspect that this is not the case.

As a musician myself, I can at least identify a person’s playing style. I have also observed that pretty much all bands which comprised the Progressive Rock genre have failed to match the excellence of their output from the 1970s, with very few exceptions in individual albums.

Interestingly though, this failure to recognise the importance of a band’s performance is not unique to Ian. Even the band’s former drummer, Barriemore Barlow, has been extremely self-critical of his own ‘overplaying’ on some of his work with Tull. While I get the idea of overplaying, I couldn’t disagree with Barry more (bad pun intended). His drumming finesse and deft touch in playing some very complex lines are key to the pieces on which he plays and it does not detract from any other aspect of the music. He does not ‘play all over the song’, but rather ‘play all under the song’. He is just downright wrong and it was clearly his ‘overplaying’ which led John Bonham to describe him as the finest rock drummer England had produced. Again, this is clearly an inability to recognise the very aspect which has brought oneself fame in the first place. “Barriemore Barlow – that great drummer who plays simple 4/4 beats all the time.” Erm, no.

Whether by accident or intention, albums such as Thick As A Brick, Songs From The Wood, and Heavy Horses, simply stand out as examples of superlative band performances. The fact that Ian and even his fellow band members underestimate the key role their ‘overplaying’ had in making these albums the great albums they are is very telling.

Sorry to say, but albums subsequent to Heavy Horses show a clear change in style, but not for the better. In deliberately losing the sheer musicianship in performance, Tull, along with many of their contemporaries lost a key part of their appeal. Sure, Ian’s songwriting has remained exceptional in subsequent albums – notably on Broadsword (which I love, but don’t consider a true Prog album), but half of the ingredients of an exceptional album are missing.

I grant that this is not an opinion shared by all, but it stuns me that so many Prog musicians, in an effort to ‘mature’ musically, decide to abandon or shun the very aspects of them which made them great in the first place. At a time when there is renewed appreciation of good musicianship and kids are having to reassure these musicians that their early work really is bloody excellent, it’s sad to see that so few of the musicians involved (Steve Hackett of Genesis is a rare exception of someone who stands proudly and vocally by his former band’s work, and continues to produce such work) actually seem to understand this.

Progressive Rock fans are fans of that genre because it is complicated music; it challenges musicians and offers lots of variety. We are an impatient and demanding lot. We like to hero-worship real musical talent, turning up to gigs and thinking, “Right then. Let’s see you play that stuff live.” When our heroes deliver live, we love them all the more. However, it’s not just about complexity for the sake of it. We require good, catchy melodies, great beats, memorable riffs, and superb musicianship. Oh, and that brilliant little musical section we absolutely love… whereas other musical mortals would extend that out to a whole song, along the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle 8, chorus, structure… we want less than a minute of that, before you move onto the next one. Yes, we’re impatient like that. Start playing undemanding stuff that we know any standard pub band could play (I include myself there) and we’ll switch off eventually. Some will stay out of loyalty to a band, but others are more fickle.

Unfortunately, TAAB 2 does not stand up to the original. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad album. It may even be Anderson’s/Tull’s best in years. Progressive Rock music generally requires several listens until it really starts to reward. It’s ‘slow burn’ music. However, it is instantly apparent that Thick As A Brick 2 is not in the same league as its mother (of all concept albums). There is a little too much attention to story-telling and less emphasis on clever little musical parts, interesting time-signatures, and all round musical inventiveness. There is too much music in common time (4/4) and down-beat slow parts. Where changes do happen, they tend to be abrupt rather than clever segues, follow definite song breaks, or bits of narration. The drum parts are certainly not as interesting as Barlow’s on the original, and one is left with more of a feeling of the whole piece being more of a musical, given the narrative. Even the narrative is a little less subtle than Anderson’s previous writing, making rather obvious clichéd references to Wooten Bassett, bankers, and eBay. Anderson is trying a little too hard to be relevant, perhaps.

TAAB 2 is simply too different a beast from the original to be considered a sequel. If Anderson intended to make a reasonably good rock album, he succeeded. If he wanted to create a true sequel to TAAB, with all that this entails, I’m afraid he fell short of the mark. He may be content with that and solely interested in what appeals to him (it’s that kind of attitude which made bands great in the first place – unconcerned with seeking mass appeal), but boy, does it miss those truly progressive, constantly shifting arrangement ideas, and that small matter of the people whose own playing style made the band a great band.

Having said all that, Jethro Tull remains one of my favourite bands. Sure, they may have gone off the boil for me after 1983, but I am glad that Anderson still tours – on his own, or fronting Jethro Tull, whoever happens to be in the band at the time, and despite what may seem like a barrage of criticism from me here, I do love Jethro Tull. Best friends should be honest with each other, and all that. The band has created some wonderful moments, and much of that magic is indeed in large part down solely to Ian Anderson’s vision and musical skill.

Moreover, both Philippa and I really enjoyed the evening, so thanks to my mate and Roland UK for the tickets!

BAiT’s Return to the Stage

Last Friday night, after five years away from the stage, BAiT made its return to public performance, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

We had been offered a slot at Ditch The TV – a monthly, predominantly acoustic evening, run by local musician, Malc Evans, for whom I’ve played session drums in the past, both with his band Beneva, and with Malc in his solo work.

Having got back together again at the close of 2010, we (BAiT) have been working on an acoustic set for some months now. Eventually, we settled on a collection of songs predominantly from the band’s back catalogue, with a couple of extra songs penned by Andy which hadn’t ever been played in BAiT and a new song for which I wrote the music and Andy wrote the lyrics.

Ditch The TV normally runs from the Maudsley pub on the Allesley Old Road, but due to a double-booking, it was unavailable last night. Fortunately, Malc had managed to obtain use of the function room at the nearby Four Province’s pub.

We had the headline slot, which basically meant we were on last. This is not always the blessing it would appear to be, as people can start to shuffle off at various points in an evening, but as it goes, we were lucky last night and people stayed for all three acts.

First on was a sixteen year old, Kane Collins, who entertained us with a couple of original compositions and then a range of covers. It was just him and his guitar and he had a good tone to his voice – would expect he’s got a good musical future ahead of him.

Second on the Bill was a fellow Nuneatoner (and flat-cap wearer), Chris Tye, who performed a selection of his own material on acoustic and electric guitar, and accompanied by a guy on double bass. The sound out front was great. Chris had a nice tone to his voice and the material really suited the atmosphere.

Finally, we took to the stage. Having a minimum set-up, this was a relatively new experience to me (or at least one I hadn’t been through in recent years). In the first instance, it’s odd for me, since I ordinarily play drums, to be seated at the front of the stage, but I can’t begin to express how nice it is to not have to set up and break down a drum kit – a task which I utterly loathe nowadays.

We worked our way through the set we had worked out. All went relatively smoothly from our point of view, although following the gig, we did all admit to being nervous at the start. I also had some tuning issues in one song – the E string on my mandolin was a little out of tune and it kept making me wince. At one point Andy leaned over and whispered that it sounded like an old piano, almost causing me to lose it completely, because he had hit the nail on the head.

This and the odd bit of feedback aside, we soon settled into things and really started to enjoy it. As the gig went on, I thought the vocals were working together nicely from what I could hear. For my part, it was nice to switch between cajon and mandolin.

When we had finished our set, Malc asked if we had any more we could play, which gave us the chance to play the one cover we had worked on – Songs Of Love by The Divine Comedy, which many will not know in its song format, but will be more familiar with as the theme tune from Father Ted.

The gig over, we caught up with various people who had come from near and far to see us, and all of whom gave us the ‘thumbs-up’. Mark from Ministry of Beaver was very complementary, which meant a lot. Sometimes, people can be protective or reluctant for band mates to be involved in other projects – whether it be through fear of them ‘quitting their main job’ or just a sense of protection, I couldn’t say, but fortunately Mark is not that sort of person.

Paddy (my former Beaver rhythm section colleague) and his ‘Mrs Lady’ as he calls her also came along, and again, he was very supportive. He’s heard the band’s CDs before and has always spoken highly of us, which again means a lot, as he is a talented bass player.

A few other friends had come along to offer support too, and it was nice of them all to make the effort to come to see us.

The final ‘seal of approval’ of the evening came from the landlord at the Four Provinces who was extremely complementary and asked us on the spot whether we’d be prepared to play a gig there in our own right, so that is something we’ll certainly have to take him up on.

So, it was a really enjoyable first gig back. BAiT is most definitely back. It is different again from its last iteration, but we have a nice rehearsal routine worked out now, and our meet-ups are productive, yet informal enough to have the enjoyable general chat we used to have too much of in the old days of BAiT, when we met up three times a week.

We just need to keep the set polished, look out for some more gigs, and look at adding some more material over time.