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At the start of a four-day immersion in gigs and record buying, ProgBlog attended the album launch of Gryphon's first studio release for 41 years, ReInvention.

More akin to the eponymous first album from 1973 than the more proggy later material, it's a worthy addition to the Gryphon canon

By ProgBlog, Aug 29 2018 09:27PM

Dave Stewart’s keyboard playing has graced a number of iconic and important albums in the progressive rock canon, from the proto-prog psychedelia of his early bands Uriel and Egg to the studio trio and one live recording from Bruford, releases fitting somewhere between progressive rock and jazz classifications, marking his time as an integral part of a band producing interesting music while the golden age of progressive rock faded into industry-influenced AOR. Looking back on his personal influences which included Jimi Hendrix, Keith Emerson, Cream and Mont Campbell, any leanings towards jazz within Hatfield and the North, National Health or Bruford came from his erstwhile bandmates and, by association, the Canterbury tag that seems to have been applied to his music.


The first Dave Stewart album I owned was a cut-price Caroline Records pressing of The Civil Surface by Egg, recorded and released two years after the demise of the group and after the Hatfield’s eponymous debut in 1974, when Stewart suggested an Egg reunion to Simon Draper of Virgin Records. I was influenced by the marketing, i.e. selling an album cheap, and by the fact they were a keyboard-trio, having started to listen to The Nice and ELP in 1972 but, in common with a number of people who have commented on a Progarchives thread, I didn’t really get it at the time and eventually sold it to a school friend who collected anything musically related to Bill Bruford; The Civil Surface also featured Barbara Gaskin as one of the Northettes along with Amanda Parsons and Ann Rosenthal, who had provided some beautiful vocals on Hatfield and the North and I can safely say that I now get it!

The next time I came across Stewart’s work was in fact on Bruford’s Feels Good to Me (1978), a release my circle of friends had been looking forward to with fevered anticipation and one that didn’t disappoint. Bruford had worked with Stewart during the formative years of National Health and called on the keyboard player not only for his playing skills but also his ‘reasonably advanced harmonic advice’. Stewart would gain three co-writing credits on the album which was released one month before the debut from National Health, with the sophomore release Of Queues and Cures coming out ten months later in December 1978.



I began to retrospectively acquire National Health and Hatfield and the North LPs during my final year at university and even when I began to trade-in vinyl for CDs in the late 80s I hung on to them, eventually adding CD versions of selected titles to my collection when I found them in second-hand shops, or in the case of Of Queues and Cures, bought a new, re-released copy on Esoteric Records in 2009. One of my most treasured albums is a vinyl copy of DS al Coda, bought from an Our Price store in Charing Cross Road sometime, I now believe, having previously written that I bought it in the early 90s, that I added it to my collection in the mid-80s and strangely, possibly as a result of some temporal-fold effect, my copy of Hatfield and the North, bought in Virgin Records in 1982, is an Italian pressing!


Stewart quit National Health, his own band, after Of Queues and Cures because the majority of the other musicians were interested in pursuing a more improvised approach. Then when Bruford (the group) was effectively shut down by their management in July 1980, disclosing an £11000 deficit following what seemed to have been a successful tour of the US and suggesting that the drummer could work off the loss by joining a new band with Robert Fripp, Stewart formed a band called Rapid Eye Movement with close associates Pip Pyle, Rick Biddulph and Jakko Jakszyk. I distinctly remember the announcement about the formation of this group in the music press, but subsequently becoming very confused when attempting to research its history during the early days of the internet, only managing to find links to the American group REM. What little documentation has since emerged indicates that Rapid Eye Movement did play some live dates (according to Jakszyk, some poor quality recordings of French gigs survive) but they never recorded an album.


It came of something of a surprise that Stewart’s next move was into the world of pop though his discovery of the Prophet 5 while working with Bruford must have helped him to catch the early 80’s synthesizer pop zeitgeist; watching him perform on Top of the Pops in 1981 having arranged the Jimmy Ruffin soul classic What Becomes of the Brokenhearted for ex-Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone, sporting a Public Image Limited T-shirt while punk hair crossed in front of the camera might sound as though it would give your average prog fan nightmares but the arrangement actually features a fairly proggy middle section and there’s even some Canterbury-like organ work. Peaking at number 13 in the UK singles chart, the experiment obviously paid off and set the course for his future career: writing his unique brand of adult pop; arranging classics; and arranging strings for some very well known contemporary prog acts including a number of Steven Wilson projects and Anathema. Better still, the Stewart-Gaskin follow-up which was released in August 1981, a cover version of the Gluck-Gold-Weiner-Gottleib 1963 teen lament It's My Party, not only reached number 1 in the UK and Germany, it remained in the UK top spot for four weeks, preventing the novelty Birdie Song from topping the charts.

The one and only Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin album I own is The Big Idea. This was bought second-hand from Real Groovy in Christchurch, New Zealand for NZD 7.95 in 2009 but I was an early subscriber to the couple’s email newsletter making it possible to follow their artistic endeavours and which included interactive posts on their compositions and referenced Stewart’s writing for the US Keyboard magazine.



When I received the announcement that they were going to play somewhere in London, the venue being dependent on the response from the email subscribers, to coincide with the planned release of a new album I indicated that I was intending to attend, though the email was sent early in the year and I had absolutely no idea if I was going to be able to go. When t became obvious I was going to be in the country, wasn’t going to be on call and could easily access the venue, Bush Hall, I recruited a friend, Jim Knipe and signed up; after all, they don’t play very many concerts and I’m quite enamoured with Stewart’s music. I’ve only seen him play once before, with Bruford at The Venue on 5th May 1980, a double-header performance along with Brand X, which was excellent (and is now included in the Bruford CD box set Seems Like a Lifetime Ago.)


I may have not expected a prog gig but I was a little nonplussed by other members of the audience who, judging by their choice of T-shirts (Gentle Giant’s In a Glass House; Zappa’s Hot Rats; Larks’ Tongues in Aspic; Led Zepellin) were all prog aficionados. I guess I didn’t know quite what sort of audience to expect because the Stewart Gaskin newsletter quite clearly indicates that the group, augmented by stellar drummer and long-term associate Gavin Harrison plus emerging talent Beren Matthews on guitar, play pop. It also transpired that despite a penchant for prog-related clothing, a number of people preferred Jim’s Schrödinger’s Cat is Dead/Alive T-shirt so their openness to things other than prog was a positive sign.

The evening was split into two sets with a lengthy interval when we were encouraged to go and buy beer. Stewart acted as compere, eliciting details of the audience’s nationalities (Finland, Sweden, Spain were mentioned and I’m pretty sure there was a Japanese gentleman standing in front of us) while resetting patches on his keyboards. He’d asked his old school friend Anthony Vinall (co-author of Copious Notes, the story of Uriel and Egg) to perform lighting duties, but Vinall had suggested his son could sub for him which resulted in a terrible joke about lumiere et son. The music was more proggy than I’d imagined thanks to Stewart’s arrangements and choice of keyboard sounds. I only recognised two songs, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, a Billy Bragg song covered on The Big Idea, and Walking the Dog, a very brief excerpt of which is included on National Health’s Missing Pieces, but even though I wasn’t familiar with the other songs, I liked the continued saga of Henry and James (from the track of the same name on 1988’s Up from the Dark) called Wings on their Heels, which I assume is featured on the forthcoming release Star Clocks; another new track was inspired by their bathroom floor following a bout of illness! Star Clocks should have been available for the gig but Stewart hinted that the perfectionist in him had managed to delay its printing.




Barbara Gaskin still has an excellent voice although there were times when it was a little low in the mix. Stewart used keyboard patches to add Gaskin’s own backing vocals which were very effective, similar to sections of It’s My Party, and Matthews added some backing vocals. I found it quite difficult to work out Matthew’s guitar lines because he appeared to be strumming rhythm while impressive lead guitar sounds emanated from the keyboards but this provided a simple demonstration why Stewart and Gaskin were so much better than the thin synth-pop acts of the early 80s: Not only could Stewart actually play keyboards, his arrangements were brilliantly layered, giving a full, orchestrated sound. The one thing lacking, considering the pedigree of keyboard player and drummer, was something in an odd time signature.



Public transport had been dissolving in heavy early evening rain so we left early and missed any encores. It might not have been prog, but it was still worth the trip, even in heavy rain. The description of the duo on their website isn’t far off the mark: one of the UK’s most respected, innovative and intelligent pop acts; I’d like to add, and excellent hosts.





By ProgBlog, Jul 19 2015 07:03PM

Oktober are comprised of Gary Bennett (basses, guitars, keyboards), David Speight (drums, percussion) and Molnár Kinga (vocals). Their origins hark back to 2007 when drummer Speight was playing with Peter Banks’ improvisation group Harmony in Diversity, who were invited to play at a Hungarian prog festival; also on the bill were Netherlands band Flamborough Head and Yesterdays, a Hungarian band based in Cluj Napoca, in the Transylvanian region of Romania and featuring Kinga on vocals. Speight was acquainted with Gary Bennett through symphonic prog band Yak but when the pair were involved in a collaborative effort on a record for Southend-on-Sea based hi-fi company Rega, Speight suggested Kinga as a vocalist for the project because she would be able to handle the complex arrangements associated with the prog take on the tracks they’d selected.

Bennett continued to work on original material with Kinga when she was back in Transylvania, sharing mp3 files over the internet. By 2011 the songs were ready for the addition of the drum tracks. The vocals were recorded in the UK in 2013 and the entire album was completed, mixed and mastered in December 2014; Sandcastles (2015) is the end result and it’s an album of well-crafted, beautiful melodic music carefully presented with some poignant (uncredited) photography from Bennett and his partner Fiona and one photo, ice skating, taken by Bennett’s father in 1986.

This isn’t really prog but it certainly has sonic links with prog. At just under 32 minutes and containing six songs it could have come from the early progressivo Italiano stable where a band’s recorded output was often notoriously brief. I’m struggling to pigeonhole the music but I shouldn’t really try because it’s best to let the music speak for itself; labels are only marketing tools, after all. Lyrically, the content is reflective and descriptive, taking in supernatural phenomenon and myriad aspects of the natural world. Throughout, Kinga’s voice is clear and strong and is reminiscent of Annie Haslam from Renaissance or, perhaps closer still, Amy Darby from Thieves’ Kitchen. Another comparison with Renaissance would be shared natural imagery as Betty Thatcher’s words included word pictures of icy pools and curling leaves; I’d go as far as suggesting that Bennett’s lyrics stray into classic Yes territory with his use of ‘green language’.

There’s a general progression over the CD of increasing complexity, where the later tracks are more layered than on the earlier tracks. Opening song Other People’s Parties is almost exclusively Bennett on acoustic guitar and Kinga singing though it’s here that we first get a glimpse of one of Bennett’s influences with a short burst of electric guitar that calls to mind the clean, compressed and EQ’d sound used by Mike Oldfield. This song is a joint Bennett – Kinga composition, the remainder of the album was written entirely by Bennett.

The shortest track on the CD, Don’t Stop is more up tempo and introduces a short riff on one of the multi-tracked guitars during the first two verses before another splash of Oldfield-like lead. The contemplative Dust and Rain is analogous to Genesis’ Blood on the Rooftops with some clever word-play over classical guitar, something that Steve Hackett would cover over his solo career. Lost and Found gets a traditional Irish folk song treatment, Bennett having played in a ceilidh band, and Oktober are joined by guest musicians Mick Graves on fiddle and Fez Powell on bodhran - Graves’ violin was produced by premier London violin maker Richard Duke and dates from around 1780. In this song Kinga delivers some neat call and response vocals and her harmonies remind me of Canterbury-scene backing vocalists The Northettes.

The opening section of Sleepers Awake is a fantastic riff reminiscent of Songs from the Wood era Jethro Tull and features a bouzouki, custom-made from an old 12 string guitar. The scan of the last two lines of verse two is a clever piece of lyricism, like Steve Hackett’s Tigermoth from Spectral Mornings. There’s more evidence of keyboards on this, the longest track, and there’s a nice ambient percussion section before a repeat of the bouzouki phrase and a reprise of the third verse from preceding track Lost and Found. In very prog fashion, there’s a neat segue into final track Sandcastles; taken together these two tracks could almost be a 13 minute long mini-suite because musically they’re approaching prog territory. Sandcastles features more Oldfield-like lead guitar but it’s the structure of the song that makes it stand out; after a fairly conventional verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus there’s a short syncopated section with the kick drum on every beat overlain with a concise guitar solo that fades (too) rapidly to seashore noises. This ends with a haunting verse that doesn’t appear in the lyrics, rather like a hidden song: Sing me to sleep underneath weeping willows / Wild fragrant roses are still in full bloom / I need to be gone by the first chill of autumn / My old friend the west wind is calling me home. These last two tracks are without a doubt my favourites and when Kinga sings the ‘rolling white horses’ line in the first chorus of Sandcastles it gives me involuntary goose bumps.

Bennett himself suggested that it would be disingenuous to call the album prog, but as both he and Speight are lifelong progressive rock fanatics, specifically citing Yes and Genesis, it’s hardly surprising that prog influences shine through and it’s evident from their respective techniques on guitars and drums that they really know their art. It was their belief that there was sufficient prog element in the songs to appeal to fans of the genre and I find it difficult to disagree. The songs may range from singer-songwriter introspection to electric folk but they defy being catalogued. Not having a target audience could be detrimental but, if Oktober get the break they deserve, Sandcastles, with its general theme of the ephemeral nature of things, has the power to speak to a wide range of people. I know I like it and I know there’s an audience out there.

Copies of the album can be ordered on ebay: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Sandcastles-Oktober-/291512162629 or by contacting the band at www.facebook.com/oktobertheband



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