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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 20 2017 11:24AM

I’ve recently introduced a ‘playlist’ feature to the ProgBlog homepage and rather than a straightforward list I’ve produced a GIF, made up from photos taken of the albums as I’ve been playing them. I used to tweet pictures of whatever I was ‘now playing’, influenced by the posts of some of those that I follow, including 140 characters (or less) describing what I think about the music on that record; for a couple of months in 2015 I did post a list of my weekly indulgences, because I’d seen playlists on websites including Steven Wilson’s official site where there’s also an archive of what he’s been listening to, referred to as ‘Headphone Dust’ http://stevenwilsonhq.com/sw/playlist-archive/ . My GIF is intended as a way of presenting my listening habits in a manner more interesting than a simple list and still illustrating the width of the progressive rock genre.


ProgBlog playlists from 2015
ProgBlog playlists from 2015

I’m vaguely wary of the idea of a playlist because I see it as a device to prop-up the music business, linked to streaming services. The release of the mp3 codec by the Fraunhofer Institute in 1993 was to facilitate rapid transmission and immediate access of audio files between different points on the planet and, inadvertently or otherwise, it proved very easy to copy and share. From the ‘home taping is killing music’ panic which began in 1981, when the industry really wasn’t that large (but which was about to gear up and become truly global) and the uproar over the introduction of Napster in 1999, music corporations have consistently stifled creativity and creamed off massive profits from their artists. At the beginning of this decade, recession, falling CD sales and piracy all seemed to spell doom and gloom for the record labels but last year saw a reversal of fortune, driven by streaming services exemplified by Spotify, Deezer, Apple and Amazon. It’s been reported that around 30% of Warner’s £2.66bn revenue for 2016 came from streaming. I’ve just finished reading Robert Barry’s excellent The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2017) who points out that the idea of a ‘celestial jukebox’ (in essence, a remote server sending music to everyone with a suitable hand-held device for accessing the service) first aired by Stanford law professor Paul Goldstein in his 1994 article Copyright’s Highway, allowed the ‘record oligopoly’ to convert from supplying goods to on-line services and creating a landlord – renter relationship. The one-off Napster payment has given way to subscription which, it has been predicted, could double or triple the size of the music industry; the tech firms also seem to be doing fairly well from this model - there are 90 million people signed up to streaming services worldwide.


The Music of the Future by Robert Barry
The Music of the Future by Robert Barry

A couple of fairly recent articles in The Guardian, one in July and one earlier this week, highlight some worrying issues with streaming. Industry insiders such as Paul Smernicki, former head of digital at Universal Records, speak in terms of business models and commodity rather than music as an art form, proposing that the numbers of people streaming indicates that music has never been more popular, where the value of reliability, convenience and accessibility to an enormous catalogue of songs for a small cost now make illegal downloading almost redundant, encouraging people to invest in the service. He doesn’t go on to say that while a paid-for download or a physical copy of some music only generates revenue once, streaming rewards the music company over and over again and it’s only a tiny amount, between $0.006 and $0.0084 which goes to the artist for each play of a song; it’s being sold to us as ‘choice’ and in our inimitable consumerist manner we believe the glossy images and accept what the industry says. Unfortunately, a shift to streaming has the effect of discouraging experimental music while enriching already big stars, with the pursuit of Adele by Sony creating a parallel with the other-world Premier League transfer market. Both the majors and indie labels are incorporating streaming playlists as the thrust of their marketing strategy, tying in music to consumption and lifestyle habits.


It’s a successful strategy. There’s a huge market for streaming playlists because the public is increasingly engaging with the service to find their music, so that the streaming companies themselves have invested in the creation of their own playlists which theoretically, might help less well-known artists if part of their remit is identify new music to champion. This part of the tech company – music business relationship appears roughly symbiotic, where the business now uses streaming pluggers pushing for songs, and the range of artists on offer can define the streaming service and help it to attract more subscribers. In reality, the record labels are favouring music that is known to provide the greatest revenue and the tech companies are getting the greater benefit. Barry explains that Spotify (for example) is doing what tech companies do, gathering data, in much the same way as Facebook and Google and Amazon do. The playlists are created with the help of sophisticated collaborative filtering systems where your preferences are matched with the preferences of everyone else on a database and you're constantly badgered into 'liking' and responding to posts, so you get specific recommendations. This doesn’t work very well for me because I hold a deep disdain for advertising and anyway, a very large proportion of people who like the same music as me also like Rush...


While the latest Guardian article suggested that the album could be under threat from streamed playlists, as artists are tempted to ignore the format and concentrate on rolling playlists instead, the Alexis Petridis piece from July concerned reports of ‘fake’ artists used to pad out popular playlists, paying producers a flat fee to create tracks within specific musical guidelines, mostly unchallenging instrumental music for relaxation, avoiding royalty payments. Spotify denied the charge, which would have far-reaching implications for genuine artists, but the stories continued, citing theories relating to quality control, and a tussle for power between service and industry.


I don’t use a streaming service and have no desire to do so but the music business couldn’t care less as the development of voice-activated speakers means we can ask Apple, Google and Amazon avatars to choose some music for a specific mood at a specific time. The playlists I put together in 2015 differ slightly from those now appearing as video on my Twitter and Facebook pages and on the ProgBlog website; in 2015 I was commuting from East Croydon to London Bridge, a nominal journey of 17 minutes, during which I would read my Guardian and, like many other commuters/consumers, listen to my portable mp3 player to shut out incessant high frequency beats, predominantly hi-hat, emanating from the earbud headphones of my fellow travellers. For the past four years or so, the railway lines south of the capital have been increasingly congested as major redevelopment has been carried out at London Bridge, making it impossible to predict the duration of any single journey (industrial action by two rail unions didn’t help but they get my sympathy as they stood up to management pressure to relax safety regulations, opposing the introduction of driver-only trains) and therefore making playlist selection difficult; an unwritten rule was that you couldn’t leave the train mid-track.


The recent playlists have been compiled from listening to albums, mostly LPs but some CDs and, on one occasion a download of demo tracks by new Italian prog band Melting Clock. The commonality between the two sets of playlists is that I listen to the album in full, in running order. That’s obviously essential for something like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway where there’s a linear narrative but it’s not strictly necessary for every single concept album. It might be irritating to mix the tracks around on Dark Side of the Moon because the album is designed with specific segues but would the world end if we played the different sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans out of order? It would certainly wind me up! I’m not a fan of the shuffle function on music players and as much as I admire Sid Smith’s eclectic podcast Postcards from the Yellow Room http://sidsmith.blogspot.co.uk which has genuine breadth, it’s essentially a sampler for the now generation, whereas I prefer to make time to submerge myself in the entire album.


playtime
playtime

It’s quite clear why the record oligopoly likes streaming and I find it hard to envisage what future developments might come along, if there’s ever to be another threat to the industry. I don’t believe that there’s any immediate risk to the album from streaming as long as genres like prog retain a degree of popularity, simply because the grand themes of progressive rock were developed across the LP format, continued during the CD era and as yet there’s no sign of that historic link being broken. The current fad for all things vinyl may not last but while it does, there’s no better feeling than holding the edges of a new release on heavyweight vinyl between your palms, placing it carefully on the turntable and getting ready to devote your time, in 20 minute chunks, to uninterrupted listening.







By ProgBlog, Sep 7 2014 06:40PM

I read an article in The Guardian at the beginning of last month about the ‘death of the album’ http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jul/29/album-music-format-streaming-playlists-extinction due to the rise of digitised music and the rise of the playlist. The article was titled “Album spins closer towards its final track as a viable format” with the subtitle “Sales continue to fall and streamed playlists dominate. But like vinyl, talk of LP's extinction may be premature.” Musicians and industry insiders cited by the author, Hannah Ellis-Petersen, seemed to regard an ‘album’ as a collection of songs released at one particular time. There are classic progressive rock albums that contain collections of unrelated songs (Rain Dances by Camel, Going for the One by Yes, for example) though the 1981 incarnation of King Crimson released their first album of songs that were thematically disparate but stylistically linked by new technologies and interwoven guitar technique; prog was, and to a great extent, still is the genre of the concept album. Ellis-Petersen is also making a distinction between vinyl and LPs, two things I class as synonymous (though I prefer to call an LP an album.) I was never into singles and I was certainly not into bands that produced an album that contained tracks that were released as a series of singles, with the possible exception of Kate Bush – I’ve been listening to Hounds of Love as I write this article. I’m interested in concepts and serious art, not something that’s throwaway; something that provokes thought or reflection, not something that is desirable because it is in vogue. By this admission, I may be opening myself up to the charge of elitism, a criticism that was thrown at prog in the mid 70s, eschewing the simplicity of pop for something that the musicians created with care and imbued with value. Before you think I’ve gone all reactionary, the idea of craftsmanship was embraced by William Morris and the early socialists and the compression of music into digital information, firstly onto CD and then as purely digital files, is the product (and I use that word aware of all its meanings) of an industry that doesn’t care about music as an art form but as something that can be packaged and sold, a commodity to make money. This cynical approach promotes the mass marketing of artists who want to be famous, rather than those who have any creative ability. That’s not to say there are no current artists without credibility, it’s just that fashion wins out in the short-term. The old 7” single has been transformed into the download and the download is as ephemeral as prevailing trends. Streaming services do give the buyer the choice of what to download, so if I didn’t want all of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe because I don’t like Teakbois (I really don’t like Teakbois!) I wouldn’t have to download that particular track. This impression of consumer choice is still managed by large corporations; it’s handy for them to get their artists to produce a series of one-off songs because there’s no musician-controlled creative pause as they gather enough new material to fill an album, during which time prevailing trends may have changed and therefore profitability might suffer. Think of the gap between Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, which for a 15 year old seemed interminable! Another charge thrown at prog was the length of time some of the bands spent in the recording studio but why should that be a valid criticism? I accept that from Bill Bruford’s point of view, decision by (group) committee during the production of Close to the Edge was very frustrating but, from a listener’s perspective, the results were worth the aggravation of the recording process. I think the decision of iTunes to diversify into the headphones market was fairly astute because of increasing competition within the streaming business, though if you take any journey using public transport you still hear streamed music played through the pathetic speakers of mobile phones and the high frequency-rich beats escaping from the ears of individuals who have the volume of their portable device turned up way too high. It’s laughable to think that any of these people should dare to consider themselves music lovers. Maybe I should get a life and accept this is the current established way to experience music but I still find it galling that a large proportion of the population don’t understand the term ‘personal’ as in ‘personal stereo’.

My recent experience in record shops in Tuscany, where they also sell component hi-fi equipment, shows that the vinyl album is doing very well, thank you. The Genova-based record label BTF has a Vinyl Magic division and Burning Shed, the online label and store established in 2001 by artists Tim Bowness, Peter Chilvers and Pete Morgan for singer-songwriter, progressive, ambient and art rock music artists, does sterling work releasing heavyweight and 200g super heavyweight vinyl editions of albums. In Lucca’s Sky Stone and Songs there was a very impressive range of vinyl releases from metal bands, something that would have put Barrow’s Kelly’s to shame, even in the mid-70s. The march trip to Prog Résiste also revealed a thriving LP market, where for a few Euros more I could have bought the vinyl version of Elysian Pleasures by Carpet instead of the CD.

It’s not that I don’t buy vinyl. Last month I picked up a copy of The Kick Inside, in very good condition for £2, from a stall in Lewes flea market. I should get my Rega RP2 serviced – it’s a couple of years shy of 30 years old but it’s been well looked after, so that when I last did get it serviced by Billy Vee of Lewisham, they thought it was only a couple of years old. Perhaps age is the key. Middle aged and relatively comfortable with decidedly settled musical tastes, I can afford to side with the audiophiles and their turntables. I can also appreciate that some of the finest musical moments of the last 45 years have come as an album, a well-presented conceptual whole, requiring attention and making you think. The pop download is the antithesis of prog, classic or modern, and though there is a whole swathe of the world that either thinks the album format is dead or didn’t even know it existed in the first place, the album, the LP, is not going away because it’s not simply about how a song tells you of passing feelings, it’s an immersive experience.


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