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The last of the May events in the ProgBlog gig marathon was a celebration of Italy... ...in Islington!

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, 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.




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