Geoffrey Feakes — Decades: Rick Wakeman In The 1970s
As one of the most gifted and influential musicians ever to emerge from the 70s, keyboard wizard extraordinaire Rick Wakeman is sure to ring many a bell. With more than a staggering 100 solo (!!) albums to his credit he's without doubt one of the most prolific artists ever to grace the world of (prog) music and his caped-crusader adventures within Yes, A.B.W.H. (and derivatives), and The Strawbs will more likely set off complete alarm systems.
For reasons I cannot explain, as I simply don't have any, I personally never really explored Wakeman's career, apart from a handful of albums including those with Damian Wilson under the 'Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble' banner. If this is also the case for you as a reader of this review, then let me begin by saying that Geoffrey Feakes' take on Wakeman in the 1970s provides the perfect starting point for further examination.
As a DPRP colleague and author of four Sonicbond books, Geoff has already been able to re-acquaint me with several of The Who albums and fully convince me of 1973's golden prog-status. This time the result is rather similar, with Geoff once again delivering an engaging story brimming with an exuberant amount of knowledge, explanatory quotes from magazines and artists alike, immaculate research, profound musical analysis and lengthy and insightful (personal) elaborations on Wakeman's most significantly prog-filled decade.
Despite many successes later on in his career, the name Wakeman will, quite understandably, always be associated and remembered from his immense achievements during the seventies. A time in which he launched his professional career as a highly respected session musician playing, mostly uncredited, on hit-singles and records by the likes of David Bowie, Elton John, Cat Stevens and Marc Bolan. Many of which are covered by Geoff, who goes on to perfectly illustrate Wakeman's first music steps before he joined The Strawbs in 1970.
Wakeman would then get it on with Yes and establish his name by partaking on iconic albums like Fragile, Close To The Edge and Tales From Topographic Oceans. One very appealing factor is that these chapters also contain imaginative memories of old, with Geoff having witnessed several events first-hand during these exciting times.
Then there was the period when "grumpy (young) rockstar" Wakeman, at the age of 23, set out to forge his own solo career and released The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, followed shortly after by Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. Here on the night of the actual recording (18th of January 1974) Geoff sits directly behind Steve Howe and Chris Squire. A memorable moment which he devotedly pats on the back some 40 years later by recalling this magical evening with excellent visualising words.
Whether Geoff, as an avid Yes devotee, was able to resist patting those in front of him on the back, remains unclear. But that's about the only aspect not addressed with Geoff going all out in making Wakeman's story come fully alive through a highly detailed story involving ambition, a 1974 heart attack scare, marriage/divorce, Wakeman's talented sons Adam and Oliver, near bankruptcy, and other interesting aspects.
Next to attention to the changing situation within the Yes camp, the book includes artistic highs and lows which Geoff affectionately describes with objective judgement. A striking example can be found in his positive approach towards Lisztomania which Wakeman himself condemns as "dreadful and truly awful". Prior to this. Geoff indirectly answers my question as to what year deserves prog's silver accolade (1974), and continues his captivating story as we pass into 1975 where Wakeman's flair for showmanship reaches its peak with The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table.
Introducing me properly to White Rock and a variety of lesser-known albums by Wakeman, Geoff successfully refreshes my memory by addressing Wakeman's second fling with Yes that resulted in the albums Going For The One and Tormato, the latter now spinning as I write this. He finalises his narrative by shortly reminiscing on Wakeman's undertakings from the 80s and onwards in his epilogue.
In these decades, Wakeman would go on to release the vast majority of his solo albums, go through various record labels of his own, and next to the on-off relationship with Yes become a well-known TV personality by (co) hosting programs such as Gastank and Grumpy Old Men. Making an unforgettable Top Gear appearance somewhere in between, which is among one the few achievements not summed up in these pages as far as my knowledge goes.
This sum-up actually shows there's lots more to tell about "prog god senior" (not my words!) Wakeman. I hope Geoff will clarify and highlight these years in the same entertaining way as he has managed to do within this excellent Decades volume. All that's left for me to say is that for those generally interested in classic progressive rock, this is an exceptionally fine read worthy of attention, while for Wakeman fans it proves to be an essential read that answers many a question.
Ptolemea — Balanced Darkness
It's been a couple of years since I caught up with this band from Luxembourg, when I wrote enthusiastically about their first two mini ambums. Both Tome released in 2018 and Maze that came out two years later, were a treat for anyone seeking a rhythmically-adventurous alternative style of rock that owed a debt to the blues and world music.
Since then, two singles, Mad and especially Wrong Tears have suggested a band that is seeking to push its musical boundaries into new directions. So, it was with a mix of anticipation and trepidation that I decided to delve into their newest offering.
And the first thing to say is that Balanced Darkness does indeed work from a very different sound palette to the first two releases. I am all for bands/artists challenging their listeners and allowing their sound to evolve with new influences. Thankfully Ptolemea have retained enough of the identity that was established on Maze and Tome, so that this can be seen as a natural evolution.
Some of this is to do with a changed line-up. Band founder and singer Priscila Da Costa remains the centerpiece of the band's sound. Her voice is again utterly compelling.
Behind her, Martin Schommer on drums and guitarist Remo Cavallini are retained. But no bassist is listed and the electric violin which added such interest to the sound before, has also gone. Instead, we see the arrival of Sarah Kertz, whose Moog textures and backing vocals bring something darker, more industrial and completely different.
Gone too is most of the blues and alt-rock elements of the sound. In its place is a distinctive shamenic, spiritual, trance-like groove. It's also wrapped in a darker, meditative vibe.
Priscila Da Costa explains that the aim of Balanced Darkness is "to illustrate a connection between nature and our own consciousness by inviting us to look at the world and ourselves from a different perspective, and embark on a journey of exploration and transformation."
The seven songs seem to be split as if on two sides of a vinyl disc; three on side A and four on the flip-side. Opening each side we find two pieces of soundscape. Shamanic Lullaby is a strange way to open the album. Basically nearly four minutes of a throbbing machine with someone singing a shamanic lullaby over the top. It's musically dull and too long.
To have gone straight into the tribal beat, buzzing guitar and trance-like vibe of Atmospheric Pressure Drop would have been a far stronger opening statement. This is my favourite track on the album. I bet it's a real belter in a live setting too.
The listener quickly notes that this is going to be an album with great variety. As the title suggests, the second song is Fado, mixed with alt-rock. Sung in (I presume) Portugese, it is another great track.
Less successful is Inspiration. The haunting, horror film vibe with a bit of violin just isn't my thing musically.
More throbbing machines, this time with a high-pitched buzz, open side 2, before My Darkest Creature treads a not dissimilar path to the song that opened side A.
Ease yYur Mind is a slow, bluesy ballad with some lovely guitar touches and enchanting vocals. It's the closest to the sound that was used on previous efforts.
Leap of Faith stays in a balladic mode but this is a song that never leaves much of an impression. Balanced Darkness is more interesting with its clever mix of dynamics and again some very enchanting vocals. I do find these final three tracks have a similar slow pace. Another rockier track, to break them up, would have added more interest and variety. With the two intro-pieces taking up seven minutes, this is just one or two songs too short to be considered a full -album.
Overall this is an enjoyable listen but with two interludes and two tracks which do little for me, the five successful tracks make it more of an EP, than an album. I am however interested to see which musical path Ptolemea take next.
Ruby Dawn — Beyond Tomorrow
It's curious sometimes how your personal appreciation of music can be different from a press release or musicians' own interpretation. This serves not to demonstrate that one critic understands music better than another, but just how listening experiences can vary from performing experience (and others' listening experience, for that matter).
It is Beyond Tomorrow by the British quartet Ruby Dawn that pushed me to these thoughts. But since Ruby Dawn is not (yet) a prominent name on the prog scene, I shall first make a brief introduction.
This Wokingham-based band is formed from the ashes of Quiet Wish, a prog collective, active between 2014-2019 including multiple live shows and several EPs. The new band consists of Carola Baer (keys and vocals), Dave Salsbury (guitar), and a rhythm section of Ian Turner and Ian Perry. Female-fronted prog with keys and guitar, pushes me to comparisons with the likes of Magenta or Mostly Autumn, while the musicians, according to their Bandcamp page, cite influences from Pink Floyd, Porcupine Tree and Massive Attack. It is also impressive to see the amount of fan support on the page – not every debut LP in prog rock can boast such popularity.
To my understanding a good share of Beyond Tomorrow is re-recorded material from the days of Quiet Wish, which explains both the solid length of the album and some of the fame as well, since the music is recognisable to the audience.
Now to my initial point. Of course, comparisons with Pink Floyd are not completely out of place, since the guitar solos sound undeniably Gilmour-ish. But despite the rather urbanistic atmosphere of the record, I cannot trace any direct parallels with Porcupine Tree or Massive Attack. More evident to me are the influences of 80s indie, mixed with Floydian solos and even touches of dark-wave. Comparisons with bands like Kingfisher's Sky and Panic Room are also valid. Carola's vocal delivery somewhat reminds me of white soul (a less pop-oriented Sam Brown comes to mind), but generally lies in the vein of Elizabeth Fraser (This Mortal Coil) or Monica Richards (Faith and the Muse) rather than Heather Findlay.
This is also echoed in the way the band itself sounds; in an abstract, loose manner. Keys are doing harmonic patterns, creating hazy atmosphere and substance, while the guitar shifts between chord strumming and soloing, very rarely doing riff work. I should mention that the solos are real ear-candies here, especially in Into the Sun and the closing Dust and Fire.
This relaxed manner may please some listeners, but makes it hard to me to follow the album's course, because dynamically the record has little versatility. The tempo changes only from slow to moderate. The album, for all its length, needs more aggression in the vein of tracks like Save Me or the post-punkish “swing” of Star on You.
Beyond Tomorrow to me turned out to be an odd record. As a long-time fan of neo-prog I admire the solos and my growing appreciation of indie styles clicked more than once, while going through some songs. On the other hand, I can't help noting an excess of material here. If cut shorter and with a different track order, it could have been more rewarding.
John Van der Kiste — On Track... Eagles
Are Eagles prog? I guess that's a question many users of this website will pose when seeing this review. The honest answer is of course: “No, most of their music isn't prog at all”. But it's equally true that some of their iconic songs can very well be classified as prog, as John Van der Kiste, author of this new On Track volume clearly states. We also know that many prog fans simply like the music enough to listen to, so this is interesting for part of our reader-base.
Remarkably, Van der Kiste's most outspoken prog-tag is for Journey Of The Sorcerer, the fabulous instrumental on their One Of These Nights album. Coincidentally that's my all-time favourite Eagles song. Those occasional proggy songs, combined with Eagles' musical versatility and the high quality of their harmony singing, form more than enough reason to review this new volume here.
John Van der Kiste is an experienced writer who also wrote the volumes on the Free and Bad Company in the Decades series by the same publisher as part of his more-than-90 book output. He is also a performing artist and former DJ.
With only seven studio albums (not including the compilations) in their back catalogue during their now more than 50 years of existence, Eagles can hardly be called prolific. Van der Kiste presents a nice insight into the reasons behind this, without loosing himself in too much detail. It is widely known that the various egos in this band caused a lot of internal tension and trouble, hampering regular studio work and culminating in the dramatic controversy between guitarist Don Felder with main songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey. That dispute has never been solved, so Felder is ignored by the living members of the band until this day. Sad but true.
It is also widely known that the band originally opted for only the highest musical quality, spending as much time in the studio as necessary. With that in mind, it is still quite incomprehensible that they ever released a complete failure, The Long Run. Van der Kiste is rightfully harsh when reviewing the songs of that atrocious album, making this book all the more trustworthy.
Of course the legendary Hotel California album gets the most extensive review. The author spends almost four pages on the title track which is far from too long. It is a good and informative read, mixing his views as a musician with his views as an author and a music lover. Moreover, he spends the same amount of pages on The Last Resort, for him (as well as for me) the real highlight of that incredible album. And he doesn't refrain from calling that song "prog", which it indeed is to my ears. However, he doesn't consider Wasted Time and the orchestral Wasted Time (reprise) prog. He clearly likes the album, and considering its huge success, who doesn't?
With a limited number of studio albums to deal with, there is ample room to pay attention to other issues regarding this band. There is more than enough to choose from, such as the big differences in musical taste between founding member Bernie Leadon and Frey, as well as between the shy bass player Randy Meisner and big mouth Henley. Yet the more negative issues are well-balanced by the author's detailed account of what bound the members of the band. They all had this mutual goal to have “number one singles and albums, great music, and a lot of money”. In that respect they've been incredibly successful.
While I've long thought that the money focus was the ultimate raison d'être for Eagles, certain members, especially Henley, turn out to have been much more environmentally sensitive than expected. His refusal to continue with the band after Glenn Frey died in January 2016 is empathic, while his decision to go on the road again when Frey's son Deacon joined the band is completely logical. Unknown to me, he was also the main objective behind their last studio album, the double CD set Long Road Out Of Eden, which Henley meant to become the historic legacy of Eagles. Maybe that would have been achieved if the album had been shortened by at least 30% in length. It certainly is testimony to their musical capabilities, but it can hardly stand in the shadows of Hotel California of even Desperado. Although listening to it again made me realise that there are a couple of really beautiful songs to be found, such as the epic title-track.
As with all volumes in th On Track series, all albums are reviewed chronologically, starting off with the 1972 debut Eagles, and closing with the 2007 set Long Road Out Of Eden. What makes this a nice read is the fact that the author also pays attention to the origin of Eagles, being the backing band of American singer Linda Ronstadt, to the origin of the name (without "the"!), the personnel changes, the different live albums and the (extremely successful) compilations. The numerous contributions of individual band members to albums of befriended musicians such as Dan Fogelberg are also mentioned, as well as the solo albums by each member. There would have been room for an extensive description of these albums, as with only 124 pages it is not a very voluminous edition, but Van der Kiste stuck to the band and that makes sense.
A nice addition can be found in the closing section where he dares to rank all studio albums from best to worst. It comes as no surprise that Hotel California tops that ranking and that The Long Run is firmly placed as their worst. With their third album On The Border as the second to worst I can only fully agree.
This is a very concise book on one of the most successful bands ever. It may not present many real new insights but at least Van der Kiste gives a well-balanced coverage to the developments within and around this band, placing the well-known negative issues in perspective. It's an honest, respectful and informative book. Contrary to some other volumes in the series, the text is edited quite well. I haven't found inconsistencies or obvious editor's mistakes. I can easily forgive Van der Kiste's omission to mention the John Lees cover of Best Of My Love when describing the songs of the On The Border album. He does mention quite a few cover versions of that particular song, the best that album had to offer, but misses Lees' obscure cover that was released as a single but failed to attract any attention.
As with all On Track volumes, the overall quality of the paper and the photos is rather cheap. To me that is just one of the assets of this series, as long as the text is readable and correct, which is the case in this volume. The book made me go back to all Eagles albums and even made me re-appreciate their last album. I think it will be a welcome addition to anyone's private book collection. So definitely recommended.