Sign of the Crow
By ProgBlog, Aug 15 2016 10:18PM
In the early 70s bands released a studio album roughly every year. Perhaps the first of the prog bands to increase the time between new studio output was Pink Floyd, with an 18 month elapse between Dark Side of the Moon (March 1973) and Wish You Were Here (September 1975) and then a further 16 months before Animals came out in January 1977. The gap between Relayer (November 1974) and Going for the One (July 1977) was tempered by solo albums from the Yes camp in 1975 and 1976 and though the wait for Wish You Were Here, possibly the most anticipated release of the time, seemed interminable, the follow up to Brain Salad Surgery (November 1973) took ELP an incredible 29 months, up to March 1977, for Works Volume 1. These bands had to contend with the rise of punk and have to take some responsibility for the brief but successful assault on the music scene, through absence from the country (including for tax reasons), coming back with material that had to compete in a different environment, one where the counter-culture ideals and ideas which had been so important to the genesis of progressive rock were no longer valid. The fan base seemed to hold firm for the premier acts: Going for the One stayed at no. 1 for two weeks in the UK and climbed to no. 8 in the US charts; Animals peaked at number 2 in the UK and one place lower in America; and though Works Volume 1 was less successful, bearing in mind the format of one side of the original double LP for material by each of the members and only one ‘band’ side, it still managed to get to number 9 in the UK and 12 on Billboard 200.
One effect of punk on prog acts was the redefinition of their sound. In the immediate aftermath of the arrival of the upstarts, Yes first became more direct (think of the title track from Going for the One) but as punk gave way to New Wave which was in turn subsumed by the glamour of MTV, they went with the commercial flow and produced their most successful selling album 90125. The Floyd may have continued to push the boundaries of studio possibilities but the material that made up Wish You Were Here was the last of their symphonic prog output until the sans Waters A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987, having descended into straight forward rock ‘n’ roll with The Wall and The Final Cut; I was ashamed of the flirtation with a disco beat on Another Brick in the Wall (part 2). The less said about ELP’s confused Love Beach (1978) the better... Jethro Tull, another globally successful act were already changing from the diehard prog of Thick as a Brick (1972), A Passion Play (1973) and Minstrel in the Gallery (recorded in Monte Carlo for tax reasons in 1975) to the prog folk trio of Songs From the Wood (1977), Heavy Horses (1978) and Stormwatch (1979) via Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! (1976), a release Ian Anderson described as a reaction to punk. This was a potential rock musical intended to demonstrate the cyclical nature of fashion and fads but, despite being a worthy concept, the songs didn’t come anywhere close to their standards reached between 1972 and 1975. It was probably time to change style after Stormwatch which sounds a little tired but I wasn’t impressed with the clear out that resulted in A (1980), despite the presence of Eddie Jobson. This was pop-rock and the songs never engaged or challenged me.
The resurgence of the genre in the mid 90s conformed to a different paradigm. In an industry that had changed beyond reason in the intervening years, it was never going to a re-run of the early 70s and if the music was to reach the public, it couldn’t involve chasing record labels like in the 80s where artistic control had to be largely ceded to accountants and managers, even though many of the bands had been integral to the success of an album-based market in the first place; it didn’t rely on any single solution but utilised a number of emerging technologies which included the internet and file sharing, crowd sourcing, online fanzines and discussion forums and social media, all of which empowered bands to take back control of their output. One practical facet was that collaborators didn’t even have to be on the same side of the world to produce a record, though with the requirement to maintain a reasonable lifestyle, musicians often took on other time-consuming roles. As a consequence some material took a long time to gestate, from concept to physical release making the wait between Dark Side and Wish You Were Here seem ridiculously short.
I first saw the David Cross Band as ‘special guests’ at a John Wetton concert at the Astoria in London in 1996, performing material from their forthcoming album Exiles which I thought was complex and aggressive but very good. I eventually found a copy of the CD in New York a few years later and I think it’s easily as good as I remember from the gig. The period between Exiles and the subsequent DCB album Closer than Skin puts almost all other delays in the shade, coming eight years later in 2005. The two albums are similar but Closer has less musical variation and more vocals. This is partly because Exiles features guest vocalists Peter Hammill and Cross’ former band mate John Wetton with Wetton singing on a pretty good version of the title track and also on This is Your Life, where the words are penned by Crimson alumnus Peter Sinfield. Another Crimson connection is guitar provided by Robert Fripp on tracks Duo and Troppo. More links to Cross’ Crimson past come on Closer, where all the lyrics are by Richard Palmer-James. If eight years seems an eternity, it has been a further 11 years waiting for Sign of the Crow.
I was one of a fairly intimate audience for the launch gig of the David Cross and Robert Fripp CD Starless Starlight in May 2015 where Cross was joined onstage by Tony Lowe on guitar, Yumi Hara on keyboard and vocals, and saxophonist/flautist/whistles player David Jackson with interpretations of the Fripp guitar loops and Cross violin improvisations around the Starless theme (from Red.) That show was immensely enjoyable, including some unexpected pieces like Stan Tracey’s Starless and Bible Black and a reading from Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, so when I saw that the David Cross Band were going to perform a launch gig for Sign of the Crow in London, I signed up immediately; I was also pleased to see that David Jackson would be appearing as a guest.
A couple of days before the event an email came through from the ticket agency warning that the doors would open 30 minutes earlier than originally advertised but unfortunately on the day (Tuesday 9th August) I’d arranged to have dinner out with my family and though I thought I could make the gig in time, the fantastic food and relaxed atmosphere at Rucoletta in Foster Lane near St Paul’s meant that I arrived at the Lexington just as Richard Palmer-James was finishing his set (Palmer-James was once again responsible for the lyrics of the new DCB album.) I bought a couple of CDs from the merchandise stall, English Sun by David Cross and Andrew Keeling, an exquisite release of flute and violin pieces accurately described as ‘electric chamber music’, and a live CD from Tony Pagliuca and David Jackson with the Massimo Dona Quintet performing Le Orme’s Collage, an album widely regarded as the first progressivo Italiano release (the CD is called Re-Collage.) When I got home I discovered that there was no CD in the sleeve and had to email Chiemi Cross who put me in touch with a very apologetic David Jackson. I’m expecting the real CD soon.
The second part of the show was a duet between the two Davids, a short but challenging set that included a piece from Starless Starlight with Fripp’s original guitar loop where Jackson was asked to play the Starless riff in reverse but refused to do so, citing the perfection of the original phrase. Another tune borrowed the title of the track Water on the Flame, to be found on the new album, as a spoken lyric. The mutual respect between these two fine musicians was quite evident and they really challenged expectations of violin/sax music. Jackson has suggested that there are studio recordings of the two of them improvising, pushing each other, which sounds like it could be edited into an amazing album.
Though he doesn’t appear on Sign of the Crow, Jackson added sax and keyboard for the David Cross Band, part of a line-up of incredibly gifted musicians: Paul Clark on guitars; Jinian Wilde on vocals; Craig Blundell on drums; Mick Paul on six string bass; and Cross himself. Beginning with a phenomenal drum solo (was it in 9/8 time?) the set featured the new album but also dipped into the past, with Nurse Insane (from The Big Picture), Over Your Shoulder (from Closer than Skin) and Tonk and the DCB version of Exiles (from Exiles). I hadn’t heard the new material because I was waiting for the CD to arrive in the post but it was powerful, complex, and at times verging on prog metal. From where I was standing it was also rather loud but I was still able to discern the sax, the violin and the keyboards. Paul Clark’s rhythm work was at times a heavy chug but his soloing was clear and precise; Mick Paul’s bass work was stunning throughout and Jinian Wilde was a revelation. He was the unknown quantity for me but his vocals suited all the material, including Exiles, a stunning rendition of Crimson’s Starless, and the encore, 21st Century Schizoid Man. He also wore a rather good top hat with a jester-like band and dangling bells, supplemented by a pair of goggles. He may have visited the same milliner as the two Davids!
My two favourite new tracks, since confirmed listening to the studio versions, were The Pool and Rain Rain; the former carefully constructed, melodic and anthemic (think next year’s Prog Awards), while Rain Rain is another slow burner but which still includes sudden changes of feel; it’s these changes that make the music unpredictable, gripping and enjoyable. The band was fantastic and the enthusiastic crowd, assembled in a fairly intimate venue having come from various points around the globe, were treated to a very special performance. A great gig, the best of 2016 so far and (now I have it) a really good album.
As a rock historian and author the above article smacks dead center and extremely well researched and accurate , I ask you humbly why can't such articles grace Mojo magazine , Record Collector or even Shindig. As a South African, 'Starless & Bible Black' was often played in South Africa and dedicated to the late PW Botha , a fascist president that ruled by fear and quoted the good book to substantiate his reign of terror. The Cross improvisation equates to any classical arrangement, 'marvelous & angelic tact'