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The ProgBlog gig marathon rolls on, back in the UK 48 hours after the symphonic edition of the Z-Fest for two shows themselves only 48 hours apart: The #Yes50 tour at the London Palladium and the first show of Steven Wilson's three night residency at the Royal Albert Hall.

Could it all be getting a bit too much?

By ProgBlog, Jan 23 2018 04:44PM

The limited edition CDs are being hand-numbered and I’m eagerly anticipating the postman bringing me my vinyl copy, gatefold sleeve and all, of debut album The Swan Song by Servants of Science, the Brighton-based crossover prog collective. I was invited to listen to a download of the music shortly after its digital release in early December last year and was suitably impressed by the whole project, from the cinematic opener Another Day which reminded me of dreamy 70s French prog masters Pulsar, to the epic Burning in the Cold which closes the album. Musically, the compositions most obviously reference Pink Floyd and Roger Waters’ solo material but there’s also more than a hint of arty 80s synthesizer pop bands, something which should appeal to anyone who likes Steven Wilson’s To the Bone. Lyrically, if you scratch the surface you find a layer of meaning apart from the obvious ‘destruction of the earth’, and perhaps this is also Floyd-related; an examination of mental health issues.


With an intelligent social media campaign to back up an amazing product, they've gained a lot of radio play across Europe and North America over the last month and generated a good deal of interest surrounding the release of the album. In the first ever ProgBlog interview, to coincide with the release of the physical editions I set Stuart Avis, the prime mover of the group, some questions about the new album, influences and about survival in the music business. To my gratitude, he’s provided some in-depth and insightful answers; I hope you find them interesting too.


The Swan Song by Servants of Science
The Swan Song by Servants of Science

Servants of Science play at The Prince Albert in Brighton on 21st April 2018

For details of live appearances see https://www.facebook.com/servantsofscience/



ProgBlog: Who are your favourite bands, who is your biggest musical influence and why?


Stuart Avis: I've always been drawn to bands that are sonically interesting, people that make albums that can still surprise you with something that you hadn't noticed before on the umpteenth listen. Bands like Pink Floyd, The Flaming Lips and Grandaddy are masters of the art, it's all in the details. Many of us know a record like Dark Side of the Moon inside out but, when you give it a listen on a pair of speakers or headphones that you've not used before you can never be 100% certain of what you're going to hear, that's pretty amazing. Growing up in the 80's I became a big fan of the pop music at the time as most pre-teens do, but the band that really stood out for me was Depeche Mode, they were at the forefront of sampling and crafted their own sounds. This was when sampling was extremely limited and not the quick fix lazy exercise it can often be today, you couldn't just lift a chunk of a song back then, you had just a few seconds to work with and use your initiative. They'd spend hours doing field recordings then effectively create new instruments with fragments of those recordings in a sampler. You'd hear sounds on a Depeche Mode record that had never been used before musically. I guess they were my way in to a lot of the music I would get into later, including prog due to them being one of the key pioneers of the 12" extended version, lapping up those 7 or 8 minute epic versions was a good primer for long form music outside of a typical song structure. My first musical love was Sparks, a band that have a lot more prog tendencies than people may realise. They're still my favourite band to this day, no one can pen a skewed pop song like Ron Mael, and their relentless drive to redefine what pop music can consist of always yields fascinating results.


PB: Brighton has a fantastic vibe and there’s some excellent countryside around with settlement going back to Neolithic times. Your debut album The Swan Song is about an astronaut witnessing the end of the world from space and the cover depicts The Joker pub at the bifurcation of Preston Road and Beaconsfield Road (the A23); what prompted that concept and do you draw any inspiration from the surrounding area?


SA: Oh absolutely! We're quite spoilt down here, where I live I can travel 5 minutes in one direction and be on the beach, or 5 minutes in the opposite direction and be in the countryside. Two roads that run parallel to each other can have completely different vibes, there's no end of inspiration. The idea for the cover came to me on the train home after recording the vocals for the album up in Nottingham last year. "The Swan Song" has two story lines running in tandem, the surface one with the astronaut witnessing the end of the world, but the album is also littered with references to a possible mental health condition such as schizophrenia, so, depending on how the listener wishes to interpret these clues this may all just be in someone's head as they're experiencing an episode of sorts. The image of the astronaut holding one of those "The end of the world is nigh" boards in a normal everyday setting seemed to capture both stories in one photo. The location became one of necessity. The story takes place in the summer, as set up with the radio samples and the "summer rain" references in the opening track "Another Day", but there was a delay with the spacesuit so we couldn't do the photoshoot until the end of November. The location was the last high street left in Brighton that didn't have Christmas decorations everywhere, this turned out to be quite fortuitous though as we ended up with a better shot than what I originally had in mind. The traffic lights all being on red was a nice bonus too, a signal to stop, they're very fitting with the themes in the album.



PB: Brighton has some great record stores and a variety of musical instrument suppliers. Do you shop locally for music and musical equipment?


SA: Far more than I should! Record shops are my Achilles heel, although I've tried to curtail my spending a bit over the last year, partly because I have a huge pile of records I still haven't played, and partly because I've been so involved with "The Swan Song". There are constantly gems to be found down here, Brighton's record shops can be a tad pricey compared to say, Nottingham, but once you get to know the owners, a little haggling helps things along. I own a studio called Black Bunker so I'm often having a wander around miscellaneous shops keeping an eye out for equipment bargains too and of course things that can benefit the band as well. It's worryingly easy to pop along the road for a packet of crisps and come back with a guitar amp.


PB: What was the last prog album you bought?


SA: That was FEAR by Marillion, to my eternal shame I arrived late to the party for this one and only got around to hearing it last November, my jaw hit the floor! I'm a massive fan of the Fish-era but never fully gelled with the Steve Hogarth material, when they hit the spot though they're amazing and everything on FEAR is amazing and then some! I lost track of them for one reason or another after Marbles but this has prompted me to fill in the gaps over the last decade or so since then, and I'm finding more treats that are making me kick myself for missing them first time around. Steve Rothery is as close as anyone can get to David Gilmour for feel, tone and sheer beauty of playing but still retains his own individuality without ever cloning, they're a super-talented bunch.


PB: Where is the best place to see a gig in Brighton and where is best to eat/drink beforehand?


SA: I guess my regular haunt for local bands is The Prince Albert, I'm very fond of the place. I've a good relationship with the venue and staff there, have known some of them since I was a kid and even played in bands with a few over the years so it's like a night out with mates even if I go alone. They do excellent food there too so you can kill two birds with one stone. We'll be playing there on April 21st with The Filthy Tongues, a band I've admired for nigh on 30 years in their original incarnation as Goodbye Mr MacKenzie and then Angelfish. The albatross that's forever circling over them is being the band that Shirley Manson was poached from for Garbage, but they're a fantastic band in their own right.


PB: Some of your own ideas have been worked on on-line and releases like Anderson-Stolt’s The Invention of Knowledge show technology has made long-distance collaboration no barrier to producing adventurous music. Would you like to collaborate with any other artist(s) and for what reasons?


SA: The internet is amazing for this; it's opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Many years ago I co-ordinated a couple of Pink Floyd tribute CD sets for a website called Neptune Pink Floyd. Pre-Facebook, Twitter etc internet forums were hugely popular, the NPF one was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, of Floyd ones. Many of the various forum members contributed songs either solo or recorded with their own bands, but one of the aims was to try and get the forum members to collaborate on covers wherever possible regardless of where they were in the world. I played keys on a version of Atom Heart Mother which also included a guitarist in Australia and a bass player in Ireland. The project may also be considered one version of the genesis of Servants of Science. Our vocalist Neil Beards submitted to me a couple of cover versions under the moniker The Amber Herd for the project. After we put out the CDs I organised a live Floyd tribute event in Brighton which lasted 10 hours inviting as many of the CD participants to perform as possible. Neil wanted to take part in the event so he put a band together to bring The Amber Herd to life which is still going strong to this day. On the day of the gig, I found myself in a bit of a jam when it became clear that neither of the people I was collaborating with could sing our opening number, "Welcome To The Machine", so Neil graciously stepped up to the plate, did a fantastic job and from there on a friendship was born and now, 12 years later, Servants of Science. Internet collaborations are such a wonderful opportunity for people; I guess the biggest success commercially of this ilk so far may well be the FFS project between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. They wrote the whole album by sending files back and forth across continents via e-mail. Sparks are a band I'd love to collaborate with, that would be a childhood fantasy, but I'm happy to collaborate with anyone. I believe everyone has a musical ability, even if they don't believe it themselves, often those are the most rewarding and surprising ones. Obviously any of the members of Floyd would be a dream collaboration too. I pass David Gilmour's house almost every day on the way to the studio, once the physical copies of the album arrive I'll be popping one through his letterbox, nothing ventured as they say.


PB: You’re self-releasing a limited edition CD and a heavyweight vinyl edition of The Swan Song. What do you think of the state of the music business today and what challenges as an indie artist do you feel you have?


SA: It's making a steady return to health. After it fell on its arse with Napster, which no one seemed to know how to deal with, a lot of record labels turned into headless chickens then died and we lost a lot of record stores in the fall-out as sales dwindled, but, things are certainly on the up again. We'll never see a return to the kind of sales that ran from the 60s through to the 90s, the landscape has changed too much for that, but it's in a good place, even cassettes are making a return. The worst aspect now is probably the need for instant gratification, both from the labels and the consumer. It's not exactly new but fewer risks are being taken now and investment in bands and allowing them to grow is a much rarer occurrence today. Fortunately there are still a number of small maverick labels out there taking risks and their number appears to be growing, we're seeing a return to the punk DIY ethos thanks to the internet. Ironically, something that once nearly crippled the music industry is now serving as its saviour. I think the challenges have always been the same, trying to stand out in a crowd and offer something fresh and get that noticed, the main difference now is how you navigate the obstacles, social media is proving a great vehicle for that.


PB: What importance would you ascribe to social media for getting noticed and providing support for your projects?


SA: It's been a massive help for us. The opportunities the various social media platforms provide for artists to be heard is incredible, we're having this conversation now thanks to its virtues but, as these opportunities are, and quite rightly so, available to everyone, artists have become a needle in a different haystack. However, I do believe the pros far outweigh the cons if you're willing to put the time and effort in. We've been getting played a lot in Canada and the U.S. as well as a number of European territories within a month of putting our music out into the world. This is something we could have only dreamt about prior to the social media boom; it's put music in the hands of the artist and given them a chance to take control of their path. It's tough and the competition is fierce, but that's a healthy thing, it'll pay off if you work hard at it.


PB: What is your opinion on streaming?


SA: As a way of discovering new music and being heard by people that might not normally get to hear you it's invaluable. Streaming technology has opened a lot of doors with radio and video and generated new audiences, it's certainly expanded our reach immeasurably, the downside is it has also majorly contributed to the growing disposable nature of music for many too. It has had a massive effect on sales but in turn it has also generated sales for us which we wouldn't have received without streaming. I'm a traditionalist and prefer the physical format, which fortunately is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment, and long may it last, but streaming is here to stay so I guess we have to adapt to it and focus on its benefits.


PB: What advice would you give for people thinking of getting into the business?


SA: Keep on keeping on, expect a lot of knock backs but remain positive and believe that each "no" is one step closer to the next "yes". Utilise the internet, it's full of opportunity, look up bands in a similar vein to yourselves, find radio stations, press and promoters that are following them and get in contact and build a database of the contacts too.


PB: Can you give us an idea of what Servants of Science has planned for the future?


SA: We'll be performing live and promoting "The Swan Song" for the foreseeable future. We're developing the live show at the moment which will feature the album in full and it's coming along spectacularly. We've got a great 6 piece band together that features many of the musicians that appear on the album, but rather than playing various instruments each, like we did on the record, we have dedicated roles for the live shows. I'll be sticking to just keyboards, Neil Beards is playing acoustic guitar and providing lead vocals, Andy Bay is playing bass, Helena Deluca is reprising her vocal role and adding some extra harmonies as well as playing rhythm guitar, Adam McKee is in his spiritual home behind the drum kit and Ian Brocken, who recently joined us, will be handling all the lead guitar parts and, if I may say so myself, it's all sounding fantastic! We're currently shooting footage for our backdrop film projections which we're also going to be putting out as a film of the album. On top of that we'll also be incorporating lighting into the shows too, and anything else we can get our hands on. The astronaut may even be joining us on our journey. After that we'll be embracing the challenge of the difficult second album…




Servants of Science
Servants of Science


By ProgBlog, Dec 24 2017 12:17AM

2017 isn’t quite over but there will be a short break for ProgBlog over the Christmas period. As I type there are almost 900000 hits on the website, many of which might not be from individuals who stayed to browse but in the 45 months since the site was founded, the trickle of visitors per month has shot up, accelerating from a total of 174000 at the beginning of 2016 thanks in part to my adoption of twitter and a dedicated Facebook page, a strategy suggested by the hosts of a Guardian Masterclass in how to promote your website.

It can’t be denied that substantial proportion of music bought in the early to mid 70s, the so-called ‘golden age’ of the genre, was progressive rock, so prog wasn’t really niche because it produced some very successful acts though an observer of musical trends over the past 50 years might not think so. Fast forward to 2017 and proof that progressive rock is regarded as mainstream (or at least present and recognisable as something distinct) comes in the guise of BBC TV family quiz show Pointless series 17, episode 10, where the final round is about prog! Yet it’s hard to explain the resurgence of a musical form which attracted such vitriol at the end of the 70s, despite the fact that Prog magazine, after something of a scare this time last year, is once again thriving and obviously serving a large fan-base, and across in mainland Europe, the Prog Italia title seems to be doing well and publisher DeAgostini, in conjunction with the magazine, has started to reissue a massive series of classic progressivo Italiano records on 180g vinyl which are available from newsstands. So why exactly is prog currently in vogue when it’s not really commercial and therefore not attractive to major labels, and the struggle for bands to get heard above the competition is far more difficult now than it ever was in the 70s?


Prog goes mainstream (1) Pointless categories
Prog goes mainstream (1) Pointless categories

Prog goes mainstream (2) Pointless questions
Prog goes mainstream (2) Pointless questions

I don’t think the answer lies in 2017 but it was a year when trends seems to coalesce and were picked up by the media. This is certainly true of the vinyl revival story, despite the rise in sales commencing in 2014, if not a couple of years earlier and though vinyl isn’t restricted to prog albums, classic prog is linked to the popularity of the LP and even CD box sets now come laden with facsimiles of original sized album artwork and other goodies. Talking about the music helps enormously, whether in print like Prog magazine, via social media (where the prog community behaves more civilly than almost any other group), or at one of the increasing number of occasions where the fans are able to approach and interact with musicians face-to-face. However sad, it’s a fact that the protagonists are dying and though 2017 might have seemed less tragic in terms of numbers of recognised musicians who passed away compared to 2016, all we’re left with is the irreplaceable sonic legacy of John Wetton (who inspired me to take up the bass), Phil Miller and Allan Holdsworth. But their deaths got us talking, too. National newspaper The Guardian printed obituaries of Miller and Holdsworth and the Daily Telegraph carried an obituary of John Wetton; it is only right that we celebrate their music. As far as mainstream print media goes, I try to keep tabs on the number of mentions in The Guardian concerning progressive rock and it’s more than you might realise, from crossword clues to film reviews!


Allan Holdsworth obituary - The Guardian 19/4/17
Allan Holdsworth obituary - The Guardian 19/4/17

From a purely personal point of view, over the latter part of the year I’ve learned to test my boundaries a bit more. This has proved somewhat challenging because I’m someone who doesn’t use music as a backdrop to other activities as I like time to concentrate on what’s being played. On a number of occasions I’ve been asked to review (or at least listen to) some new music, which has come in a range of styles. I’m exceedingly grateful that my judgment is valued enough for complete strangers to contact me and take this as a vindication of my opinions aired via the blog and associated bits of social media. I’m sure that a graphical representation of my particular tastes would result in a normal distribution curve but the wide spectrum that makes up prog means that some of this material was going to be right up my street and some was less likely to appeal. For anyone who has sent me links to their music, please be patient; I think that the promotion of prog music is a worthwhile pursuit and I will get around to writing about it however, I do have a daytime job which sometimes carries on out-of-hours.

The point is that once I’ve agreed to give something a listen, I can’t just play it in the background while I’m doing the ironing or reading my daily newspaper and then come up with an opinion, I have to really listen and pick out moments which I like and explain why I like it. I approached Process of Illumination’s Radiant Memory with a degree of trepidation because when I read their influences I genuinely thought it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. After repeated listens I could really appreciate the guitar and keyboard interactions and maybe they did have a metal edge, but they also had a good ear for a melody and mixed adventurous complexity with ambient washes. On the other hand, An Invitation by Amber Foil sounded and looked like a slice of 70’s prog and got me hooked instantly, and then proceeded to pull me deeper into a dark and vaguely disturbing storyline; though only an EP, An Invitation is my album of the year. Dam Kat’s Alawn mixes Kate Bush with Pink Floyd and Steven Wilson and adds a dash of traditional Breton music and the result is very pleasing, so I’m glad that I was invited to listen to it; the music of Dublin’s Groundburst was new to me, despite a back catalogue of EPs stretching back 10 years, with their latest EP Triad frequenting ground shared between prog and math rock, and though a full-length album due to be released next year will include much of their devilish complexity, it’s also rumoured that lengthier tracks will allow for more symphonic development; Seattle-based Gaillion are another band I’d describe as outside my old comfort zone with a more concise approach but I can’t help but admire their musicianship and rhythmic invention on their latest CD Renewal and Release; Servants of Science from Brighton and Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate from London have both covered exceptionally deep concepts on The Swan Song and Broken but Still Standing respectively, the former about an astronaut witnessing the end of the earth from space, and the latter following the story of human evolution from the last universal common ancestor to conflict and finally symbiosis with artificial intelligence. Both are cinematic but The Swan Song tends towards haunting alt-rock and Broken but Still Standing is more in the mould of Floydian soundscapes, aided by really gorgeous flute. Both are well worth seeking out.


2017 saw me manage multiple trips to Italy where I witnessed the first ever gig by the much admired Ancient Veil, in their home city, and became one of only a couple of hundred people to see the first two performances by Melting Clock. This young Genovese band may not have released an album yet but their symphonic prog is brilliantly structured and possesses an enviable accessibility, so I’m pretty sure they’re going to do well. Another young band who did release their first album was Milan’s Cellar Noise with Alight. This harks back to classic 70s Italian prog, even though it’s sung in English and the concept is based around stations on London Underground. I caught their show at Milan’s Legend Club, part of the Z-Fest, and bought the CD immediately after they’d completed their set. I actually took in two major prog festivals over the course of the Italian summer; the Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genova and Progressivamente in Rome. The former was an international affair organised by Black Widow Records where Melting Clock debuted, and the totally free Progressivamente festival, held over five nights, featured established bands (including some which had recently reformed), presenting an unmissable opportunity to catch up on incredible music from the last 45 years. The last trip to Genova included a night at La Claque where Ancient Veil played unplugged; Melting Clock played gig no. 2 and wowed the crowd; and Phoenix Again demonstrated their quality with a brand of jazzy/heavy/symphonic/complex prog. I stayed in the city for a couple of extra days because PFM were performing at the Teatro Carol Felice and I’d managed to get a ticket.



I don’t really speak Italian so I’m indebted to all the people I met to discuss prog for kindly resorting to converse in English. This list includes a whole host of musicians from Melting Clock, Panther & C, Phoenix Again and Ingranaggi della Valle, the friendly and knowledgeable staff from Black Widow Records, promoter Marina Montobbio, and audience members at the gigs like Vincenzo Praturlon and the cousin of Semiramis bassist Ivo Mileto. Part of the attraction of Italy is seeking out record stores in the different cities, where once again communication was in English, otherwise we couldn’t have had any sort of sensible conversation. Guidance and expert advice from Genova’s Black Widow comes as part of the package but new shops were discovered in Como (Frigerio Dischi, Alta Fedità); Savona (Jocks Team); and Rome (Elastic Rock, Millerrecords).

Wandering around record stores in the south east has been a major feature of the latter part of the year. There’s a shop just around the corner of my road which I recently discovered sells second-hand vinyl but the best find is a short tram journey away, Wanted Music in Beckenham where proprietor Adriaan Neervoort keeps a wide stock of prog and electronica, in great condition and at market rates. I’ve discovered it’s often worth popping into charity shops where amongst the James Last and battered classical LPs you might find the odd gem for £1 or £2, like my French version of the Chariots of Fire soundtrack and the Synergy album Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra. Then there are the flea markets...


Wanted Music, Beckenham
Wanted Music, Beckenham

I attended a few gigs on UK soil, the most anticipated of which was Anderson Rabin Wakeman who I went to see in Brighton, but the highlight of the year was the Pink Floyd Their Mortal Remains exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum, an in-depth historical perspective of the band using their music and a wide range of personal and band artefacts, providing a must-see experience for any Floyd fan.



That’s 2017 in a nutshell; good bits and low points. It demonstrated that prog is still going strong and I’ve already got some events lined up for next year... Prog on!











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