Tagged: Prog

Live review: Thundercat – Heaven, London



Before punk came along and pulled the pickle out of Britain’s mottled backside, old Britannia was really struggling for new ideas. Angel-faced choristers, sick of pulling the pud to Elgar’s refined pomp, had successfully swapped motion for motion, with bands like ELP, Genesis, and Yes knocking out intense, studied compositions to bedazzle their audiences into believing cosmic progress really could come in capes.

While Britain’s choirboys were raging firmly within the machine, things were looking a hell of a lot tastier Stateside. Born of the blues, musicians like Mingus, Monk, Miles, the Coltranes and Nina Simone were breaking through the stratospheres of spontaneous musical interaction, and using their voices to promote new ideologies, and greater civil liberties for black and female Americans.

With jazz choosing the right moment over the right notes, punk had to go one step further. Bin your scales; fuck it, bin your instruments, if it helps you get your kicks. Opening the door for the industrial, noise and no-wave movements that followed, punk ditched the choral tradition for whatever felt right, calling popular music’s basic architecture into question through feckless experimentation and wilful ineptitude. You gotta transgress to transgress, man.

In the middle of all this heat lies Thundercat (Stephen Bruner), the LA bassist who at 32 has already collaborated with the likes of Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, and Kendrick Lamar, not to mention a nine-year stint in legendary LA thrashers Suicidal Tendencies. Bruner’s latest offering, Drunk – released February 24th on Brainfeeder – is a perfect combination of all of these influences, and his dizzying flurries of amphetamine-riddled smooth jazz have drawn all sorts to Heaven’s packed arches tonight.

On stage, Thundercat’s studio recordings are enhanced with a series of madcap geometric fills, which are miraculously kept in check by his calm-set falsetto. He’s joined on stage by keyboardist Dennis Hamm, and drummer Justin Brown, whose left hand snare – some two inches deeper than that to his right – adds a gutsy acoustic weight that sits perfectly with Bruner’s six-string hollow body bass. On ‘A Fan’s Mail’, Brown’s drums could easily pass for a slap bass, whilst Hamm’s underlying synth rumble opens up the floor for Bruner’s bass to elicit a sequence of slick oily wahs. Maybe it’s just the sound of bottles popping in the mixing desk, but it all sounds way punchier than Drunk lets on.

The extended space between songs is where the band’s telepathic interplay really steals the show. With cerebral harmonics sparking from six flurried hands, the instruments’ own identities blur and interchange, and you’re forced to question whether you really are witnessing just three musicians on stage. Conservative and clunky in comparison, the studied unison of bands like Yes and Jethro Tull restricted them from ever cutting this loose.

With brain-melting riffs noodling out at a dizzying rate, many of the audience watch on in bemused astonishment. Others adopt the kind of hypnotized sway you’d expect Aphex Twin to summon. Unsure of what to hang shapes on, the audience just finds new ways to get down. Still, there’s plenty here for everyone. Thundercat’s set finishes on the more radio-friendly trio of ‘Oh Sheit it’s X’, ‘Friend Zone’ and ‘The Turn Down,’ whose obsidian R&B whirlpool is the perfect antidote to two hours of intergalactic trans-instrumental deviation.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – whose slick production bagged Bruner a Grammy – knocked rock and roll off its dusty perch, crowning hip-hop as popular music’s sharpest political tool. Now once again, Thundercat has flipped the script, using his genre-hopping explorations to screw with the basic physics of instrumentation. Yes, there are points where Hamm’s marauding synth sax lines lack a little on the high end, in a way that a live saxophone wouldn’t. But even the JBs would struggle to knock out two hours at this intensity. It’s a small price to pay to see a band dextrously take jazz beyond the capacities of embouchure. Transgression, man.



Festival Review: HRH Prog 2016

In March I was lucky enough to tie up with the guys at Echoes and Dust at HRH Prog festival in North Wales. It was my first editorial assignment for the site. Featured below is my review of the Saturday afternoon. The full weekend review can be found here.


HRH Prog 2016: website
Photos: Charlie Gardner

A ninety minute postponement on Saturday’s early-afternoon acoustic sessions provides the perfect opportunity to nosy around the adjoining Sci-Fi Weekender. Eight-foot Space Marines and prowling Dredd squads may seem like enough to ward off even the most leather-clad progger, but as a Richter-bashing stand-off between a throat-singing Focus fan and bloodthirsty Uruk-hai demonstrates, they’re parties that bleed well together.

With the Owner’s Lounge doors eventually open for business, we find refuge among the polished harmonies of a stripped-back Messenger. The Londoners’ pastoral jaunts are well-rehearsed, well-executed and well-received in this intimate setting, and for a band soon to release their second album they demonstrate impressive versatility ahead of their fuzzier main stage set.

Ducking back into the central arena, Emirati post-metal outfit Empty Yard Experiment are christening the day with a menacing arsenal of hypertrophic mantras, hailing largely from their 2014 album Kallisti. Snarling opener ‘Greenflash’ balances bruising toms and grunting distortion to snake its way into a charged magnetic groove, whereas the engrossing ‘The Blue Eyes of a Dog’ lilts far closer to EYE’s expansive post-rock beginnings. Having gained an insight into the band’s visual output in our interview with frontman Bojan Preradovic and keyboardist Gorgin Asadi, HRH Prog’s AV shortcomings leave us ever so slightly disappointed not to have had the opportunity to experience Empty Yard Experiment’s live show in full flame. Still, Preradovic’s forlorn gravitas proves a captivating focal point for the band’s cinematic display, and by the time ‘Entropy’ reaches its writhing climax the room has filled out and is asking for more.


Fortunately, the opportunity arises next door, where EYE are ushered off to play their part in the festival’s unplugged programme. Second helpings are reserved only for those willing to stump up the VIP premium, and when combined with the day’s poor scheduling, both Messenger and EYE’s sets are criminally under-attended. To best exhibit the talent at their disposal, HRH must consider waiving the acoustic lounge’s bolt-on entry fee in years to come.

Empty Yard Experiment

A clash with hotly-tipped Bristolian musos Schnauser brings us back to the main stage. Victims of some uncharacteristically poor mixing from HRH’s sound crew, the psych-pop outfit’s Sergeant Pepper harmonies never quite get the treatment they need to really hit the mark. This is a shame, because Schnauser’s tongue-in-cheek exploration of matters ranging from PPI to Walkers binges are genuinely very funny. It’s Adrian Mole-meets-Soft Machine: wry, eccentric, culturally crass and with plenty enough going on to keep it interesting. Unfortunately today, obstructive audio interference from the bass and keys prevents the band’s incisive humour and technical virtuoso from shining through, and many onlookers don’t quite know what to make of it. Determined to get the last laugh – and perhaps a little fed up with the sound team – Schnauser trade wit for slapstick: when frontman Alan Strawbridge dons a latex Granny mask and begins launching himself from stage apparatus, furrowed brows quickly make way for aching sides.


Scratching our heads, we head out for the first brew of the day. Entering the Mash & Barrel, we encounter a dressing-gowned Jedi council, who’ve convened to clop spoons over a few Hobgoblins. Enthusiastic but not entirely rhythmic, they’ve clearly drawn inspiration from Geoffrey Richardson’s prodigious dalliances the night before, though their newfound party-piece is a force probably best left to the confines of the caravan. Unless you’re in Caravan, that is. Still, it provides yet another entertaining example of the fantastic and unique interplay this dual-code congregation has to offer.


Messenger’s appearance at HRH Prog comes ahead of their sophomore release Threnodies, available now via InsideOut. Opening with ‘Midnight’ from 2014’s Illusory Blues, the band waste no time in continuing from where their acoustic set ended, interweaving fingerpicked guitars with chalky vocals before launching into a spunky three-axe crescendo, with Dan Knight ditching the keys to get in on the action. Hunched in a close-fitting horseshoe formation, they jam out ‘Midnight’ to some 13 minutes before slipping into a sweeping ‘Solimnoquist.’ It’s not until Messenger’s third song that the audience gets the opportunity to hear the new material up front, guitarist Barnaby Maddick donning the mike to deliver a Gilmour-esque rendition of leading single ‘Balearic Blue.’


The band are a tight set-up: mellow on the ear but highly focused to watch. Never missing a note, their commanding stage presence only falters between songs, and when frontman Khaled Lowe asks the audience to give themselves a round of applause after a hard-sell on the merch, more than one pair of Doc Martens will have shuffled uncomfortably. Nevertheless, Messenger show real promise in their performance, and their T-shirt sales will have suffered no setbacks as a result of this polished display.


With the sun setting on the Llyn Peninsula, Twinscapes make their way to the stage. A project between Naked Truth’s Lorenzo Feliciati and Porcupine Tree’s Colin Edwin, the bass-wielding duo incorporates fretless and fretted basses, E-bows and a stash of samples to produce a varied docket of sounds and textures. There’s hints of Jaco Pastorius’ moodier solo material here: atmospheric, proficient, slightly eerie, and featuring – as one punter put it – “interludes you could open a crypt to.” Though many will have been acquainted with the band’s former projects, Twinscapes enter the main space as relative unknowns. At ease onstage, they take the time to contextualise the band’s conception, and provide a few interesting insights into the driving forces behind their material. On the basis of this performance, Twinscapes’eponymous debut, released on RareNoise Records in 2014, certainly warrants a listen.



Interview: Khaled Lowe and James Gomez Arellano from Messenger

Messenger_Band-wpcf_1000x650As the London-based five-piece prepare to release Threnodies on the 22nd April, Khaled Lowe (guitars/vocals) and James Gomez Arellano (drums/percussion) stopped off at HRH Prog festival to tell Dave Brooks how forgotten family, lost heroes and a few new additions have helped shape their second album.

(((o))): Threnodies struck me as a more full-throttle release than 2014’s Illusory Blues. Less preoccupied with orchestral flirtations, it’s gone for a straight-up classic progressive rock sound that sets it apart from its predecessor. Was this a deliberate sound you were aiming for?

Khaled Lowe: The main reason that Threnodies sounds a bit fuzzier is because it features a different line-up to our first album. Our initial intention wasn’t even to start ‘a band,’ so when we recorded Illusory Blues there were only three of us. That gave us a freedom to flesh out our recordings with flute and string arrangements, and we made full use of Gomez’s role as a producer to call in that help.

It was only when we settled on our new band members that Messenger’s current sound came about. We had to relearn the first album in a band context without the session musicians; replacing certain sounds with things we could do live. String sections made way for keyboards, flute parts were substituted by ambient guitars. We didn’t approach Threnodies with a particular sound or intent in mind; it’s more a product of where we now are as a group.

James Gomez Arellano: It was a very spontaneous process. We spent three weeks together playing and writing in the same room, and left ready to record. We started from zero, so when someone came up with a riff we liked we went with it. There was no overarching design to play heavier stuff.

(((o))): What about the album’s lyrics? Were there any specific themes you wanted to address, or lyrical trends you subsequently identified?

KL: On Illusory Blues we’d either written them start-to-finish before the songs were completed, or at least had ideas we wanted to explore. For this record the lyrics came afterwards, and they’re probably slightly darker. We weren’t aiming to be morbid or morose, and I don’t think that’s the way they come across, but lyrically-speaking there’s certainly a bleaker edge on this album.

(((o))): I suppose that ties in with the album’s title?

KL: Definitely. A threnody is a poem or song to commemorate people who’ve passed away, a kind of lamentation. After losing legends like Bowie, Dale [Griffin] from Mott the Hoople and Lemmy it certainly seemed an appropriate choice. Their losses really amplified the fact that socially and politically speaking, we’re living in particularly turbulent times. The first album was the product of a lot of crazy happenstances that culminated in us coming together and making music, and it was cathartic to document that on paper. This time round everything seems slightly bleaker, and we wouldn’t have been being honest with ourselves if we’d have gone for really happy lyrics.

(((o))): You’ve also joined up with InsideOut Music. What opportunity did you see in changing label?

JG: We had a great time with Svart. [Label founders] Tomi [Pulkki] and Jarkko [Pietarinen] are very good friends of ours, but we only signed a one album deal with them. I met Thomas [Waber] who runs InsideOut at Roadburn Festival. He mentioned that he was interested in the band, but we were touring and still working on our first album so left it at that. When the opportunity arose they sent an offer and we signed for them in January. I was a bit freaked out a first because I thought InsideOut would be too focused on technical prog, and we’re more about atmosphere than technicality. But it’s been a great move and they’re working really hard for us, so we’re very happy.

(((o))): The press release for the new album goes into quite a lot of detail about the cover’s artwork, designed by the Columbian, Berlin-based artist Daniel Correa Mejia. What’s the story there?

JG: He’s my cousin actually! My auntie kept on saying “Do you realise you have a cousin in Berlin who’s a really good artist?” and I was like “Yeah whatever, nice to know.” When we were writing the album she messaged me again so I got in touch with him on Facebook. We had a look at his work and straight away decided it was perfect. He ended up doing all of the layout and design for the new album, so it was a nice coincidence.

(((o))): And in terms of your creative process, was any of the songwriting on the album inspired by Daniel’s artwork, or was it just a good match?

KL: It was a serendipitous match, and it fit perfectly. It’s an ethereal, psychedelic cover image, but also has an organic quality. It fits in well with the various motifs and shades of our music.

(((o))): Jamie, in the band’s gig at Brighton’s Concorde 2 – which we covered in July 2015 – and again here at HRH Prog, you chose to play with your drums facing centre stage. Is that a sort of ritual for you guys?

JG: Yeah it is. It’s actually something that we’ve always done. Visual contact is really important because we do improvise between and sometimes during songs. Of course it depends on how much time we have to play with, but if a show is going well, it’s nice to be able to see the band and decide where we should take it next.

(((o))): You’ve performed both acoustic and main stage sets here at HRH Prog. Which do you prefer playing?

KL: We definitely enjoy both. Today I really liked the vibe of the electric one; the room was much larger so the sound could ring out more. But the acoustic shows are always fun, and I’m glad the dynamic works.

(((o))): You’re touring with Von Hertzen Brothers ahead of Threnodies’ release on the 22nd April. Any other plans lined up to promote the album?

KL: We’ll be heading back to London for the 19th June to play the second day of Stone Free Festival at the O2. Rick Wakeman is performing the Knights of the Round Table, and our friends and labelmates Haken are also on the bill. Beyond that, we have Leafmeal festival lined up in Germany for later in the year, and will be organising other plans in the coming months.

Threnodies is out on the 22nd April on InsideOut Music. Messenger play Stone Free Festival at the O2 on 19th June. For full details, further dates and tickets, head here.


Interview: Bojan Preradovic and Gorgin Asadi from Empty Yard Experiment

In my first piece for left-field music blog Echoes and Dust, I caught up with Middle Eastern proggers Empty Yard Experiment at HRH Prog festival: http://echoesanddust.com/2016/04/interview-bojan-preradovic-and-gorgin-asadi-from-empty-yard-experiment/

https://i0.wp.com/echoesanddust.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Empty-Yard-Experiment.jpgHailing from from India, Iran and Serbia, Dubai-based progressive post-rockers Empty Yard Experiment channel a confluence of influences as diverse and ephemeral as the city they grew out of. In between acoustic and live sets at HRH Prog festival, Bojan (guitars/vocals) and Gorgin (keys) took the time to shoot the breeze with Dave Brooks. On the cards: creating a scene in one of the world’s most transient cultural landscapes, their plans to follow up 2014’s critically-acclaimed album Kallisti, and the best soundtrack to a good floss.

(((o))): First off guys, welcome back to the UK. Beyond gigs in Swansea, Basingstoke and Milton Keynes, where’s on your map?

Bojan Preradovic: When we came here to tour Kallisti in 2014 we were over for about ten days. Ten days in December was maybe a little ill-advised for a band from Dubai, but we had a great time and even made it out to Stonehenge. I used to live in London, so after the show in Milton Keynes I think we’ll hang in Yorkshire for a few days and see what’s going on up there.

Gorgin Asadi: Stock up on some proper tea!

BP: After that we’re playing Basingstoke and then heading home.

(((o))): You’ve played some huge arena shows back in the United Arab Emirates, supporting the likes of Anathema (2011), Evanescence (2012) and Metallica (2013). When you’re planning a tour, what kind of venues do you have your eye on?

GA: The stage here at HRH is a good size for us. Empty Yard Experiment began in 2006 as a post-rock band with no vocalist, so the music has always been quite cinematic. We like venues to be a little more spacious to allow us to hear each other clearly, and fit in visuals too. Unfortunately that’s not a possibility this time round, but they’re a big part of our show, and  something we’d really like to include on our next tour.

(((o))): Several other bands we’ve spoken to would have liked the option to include visuals too. The festival is expanding next year: we’ve been told that the big theatre will feature a full AV set up, so maybe there’ll be an opportunity to stage the complete Empty Yard Experiment experience at HRH Prog 2017. On that note, how do you feel visual accompaniments enhance your stage show?

BP: It’s a great dimension to add because it provides the audience with another perspective from which to interpret our music. It’s been a core part of our live show that has helped us to build a name back in the UAE. Plus it takes the focus off me so I don’t have to gyrate on stage as much!

(((o))): What’s the creative process behind your visuals?

GA: We have a bank of illustrations, graphics and filmed footage that we’ve collected over the past ten years. Some of them are shot by us; some by our friends. Occasionally we incorporate material from documentaries, but we try not to do that too much because we want to put forward our own creations. Every two or three shows we change the set to try out new clips and new combinations. If people come to see us play numerous times, we’d like them to feel that each experience was unique.

(((o))): When you’re songwriting, do you ever start with a piece of film and try to soundtrack it?

GA: That’s an interesting approach. We’ve definitely drawn inspiration from certain books, movies and scenarios in the past. Still, the music and visuals tend to grow out of a mindset or concept that’s developed from that blend of influences. Our on-stage visuals always tend to come after a song is written.

(((o))): With a new album in the pipeline for 2016, what’s inspiring you at the moment and what doors do you think that’ll open for the next record?

BP: We’re working on the new album and hope to be able to put it out by the end of the year. If not, we’ll definitely have some tracks lined up to preview by that point.

GA: When the time comes to write, we’ll meet up a few times each month, and then eventually lock ourselves away for two months to really get everything sorted. Frankly, during that latter period I don’t listen to anything except the news. At that point I feel that focusing too much on what other bands are doing isn’t really helpful.

More generally speaking we’re all quite eclectic in our influences, though we share points of convergence when it comes to rock and post-rock.

BP: I brush my teeth to Karnivool. I’m looking forward to the new Deftones album too.

GA: I’ve been listening to a lot of Cage the Elephant recently, but last month it was Fifties swing. Constantly. That’s the beauty of being in a band: you listen to whatever attracts you and use that collage of interests to collaborate with other musicians, each of whom bring their own ideas and influences to the table. When we write it feels like we’re all from different bands, collaborating on a project.

(((o))): Kallisti gained plaudits far beyond the reaches of the UAE, thanks in part to Red Bull’s backing, which has helped to promote your music to a wider audience. What difficulties do up-and-coming Middle Eastern bands face in terms of gaining investment, marketing their music and getting on the road?

GA: The biggest struggle back home in Dubai is that there’s no platform to help new bands to develop.

BP: In fact, for a lot of bands playing our kind of music it really isn’t easy, and that’s not exclusive to the UAE. Everyone has a second career or a job, even well-established artists. Unless you’re touring every single day and putting out new material you have to work, because making music is just unsustainable on a day-to-day basis.

To put some perspective on it, Steven Wilson recently came out and said that for him “Every day is a working day.”  If someone as revered on the prog circuit as Steven Wilson has to work constantly to be able to make a comfortable living, you can imagine what it’s like for bands in our environment where there are far fewer opportunities to work. There’s very little in terms of music industry infrastructure in the Middle East, and unless you’re making Arabic pop it’s really hard to gather any support from commercial outlets. A lot of people give up at some point.

GA: They die trying, and it’s not down to their music because a lot of them are incredibly talented. If you don’t gain the attention of the people who matter the most, you struggle.

BP: The UAE is a very transient place. It’s changed rapidly and there are a lot of people moving around. You never really feel like you’re at home. It makes it difficult to establish a music scene, and the result is that in Dubai there’s a real shortage of viable music venues. Unless you’re U2 or Madonna it must be quite a discouraging prospect to play in the region, and for promoters it’s unlikely to be commercially or financially worthwhile. There are a lot of barriers in terms of decent venues and good promotion.

GA: It’s much better than it was ten years ago, and the amount of festivals, concerts and shows on offer in the UAE is increasing. But they still tend to be one-off events. What we actually need is a platform that’ll encourage growth on a more consistent basis; something that’ll help emerging bands to keep developing and be rewarded for their efforts. For artists to survive they need to be able to perform regularly and build up a reputation.

BP: As you said we we’re fortunate enough to be supported by a brand like Red Bull, and they’re really doing a lot in the region to support individual scenes. Unfortunately, a lot of excellent bands out there haven’t been so lucky.

(((o))): It’s easy to take that established infrastructure for granted, living in Europe.

GA: Perhaps. As Bojan mentioned, there’s no easy ride to writing prog or post-rock, wherever you are. That being said, it does seem that in the Middle East it takes six to seven years to get where bands in Europe get in two to three. We have to apply for every tour about four months in advance, and accepting a foreign gig a month beforehand is impossible because you need to get flights and visas sorted, as well as giving notice at work.

(((o))): Visas must be particularly tough considering the band’s multicultural make-up?

BP: We actually didn’t get our visas through for this tour until a few hours before travelling, despite pleading with the embassy to let us know what was going on. Even arriving at the airport in Dubai, we almost missed our flight. We have three Iranian guys in the band, which doesn’t make airports the easiest place in the world. It seems we were hassled at every single point until we finally made it onto the plane.

GA: I guess all of these obstacles make the whole act of being in a band more interesting, because you really need to want it to do it. The UAE doesn’t produce a lot of artists, but those that are around are generally good. They put their blood and sweat into it because that’s what it takes. There’s some great music in Dubai just waiting to be discovered.

(((o))): So what’s the solution for bands coming up at the moment?

GA: You have to use any help you can get from outside of the Middle East to grow.

BP: That’s one of the reasons we really wanted to come over here and play, because a lot of bands that tour the region never manage to get out. It’s so important to get your music out to a wider audience.

(((o))): Even if it isn’t financially viable?

BP: Definitely. This tour isn’t financially viable for us, but it’s an investment. Playing a specialised prog festival seemed like a great opportunity.

GA: If bands in the UAE thought about it financially then no one would do it.

(((o))): And finally, where would you guys like to take on next?

BP: It’d be great if we could get back to mainland Europe at some point.

GA: We’re best suited to warmer climates!

Kallisti is available via Bandcamp