Sunday, 14 August 2011

Steven Wilson – Grace For Drowning (Playback)

I've received a few invites recently to album playbacks – my remoteness from London generally precludes my acceptance – and they seem to be a developing method by which record labels will solicit reviews in the music press without distributing promo or finished products, generally I guess because of a fear of said music being leaked on-line in advance of the release date proper. Huddled together in a room, the massed ranks of music journalism receive a one-off advance listen to a major release, take notes and from that cut their text. I have to say I'm not particularly crazy about that since the label – artist – journalist relationship should entail a level of trust between all parties, and the methodology of proper criticism requires a more one-on-one intimacy with the work but I can understand the concerns and risks regarding promotional material.

That said, an invite came through recently that I found absolutely irresistible and which, despite being a new album playback, was very much removed from the listen-and-review concept since promotional copies circulated promptly after the date in question to enable reviews to be written from physical media. This playback was an opportunity to hear the new solo record by Porcupine Tree leader Steven Wilson, Grace For Drowning, in the rarefied atmosphere of AIR Studios in Hampstead and in the company of Wilson himself – an intriguing character whose artistic development since the formation of Porcupine Tree back in 1987 has been a fascinating journey. Can we describe him as the man who has legitimised progressive rock in the 21st Century? It's certainly the case that he's worked with and within a maligned and arguably creatively near-bankrupt genre, giving it new definition and process, bestowing respectability and at the same time raising it to new levels, helping detail the road map for a sort of new progressive rock that's fresh, vivid, contemporary, forward-looking and yet which also looks back into the genre's past to find the parts that were exciting or innovative and in so doing reshaping those ideas for a modern audience.

I'll be reviewing the record itself in print elsewhere – really its two distinct albums released as a double-disc package: Deform To Form A Star and Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye. Here, I'm really more interested in musing on the experience itself, since I've never been to something like this before and it's really quite a strange way of hearing and attempting to absorb such a complex work for the first time and listening back to the album at home I'm struck by the ways in which the experience of hearing a record differs through environment.

Grace For Drowning is indeed an intense sensory experience – I'd anticipated as much of course from reviewing Wilson's previous solo record, Insurgentes, a couple of years back for R2 magazine – and its first movement, if perhaps we could breakdown the two discs in that manner, or perhaps its first suite, is met with due deference among the collected reviewers ... at times I'm tempted to ask whether I should be stroking my chin in thoughtful supplication to the music but it's not really that, it's also that there is a herd mentality that may be subconsciously at work here – nervous glances around to see what others are making of what's being presented. I was once told a story about motorsports journalists who'd assemble at a Formula One test session, have myriad viewpoints of what they'd seen happening on track and in the pits but gather later over beer and sandwiches and from which process a collective viewpoint would emerge that resulted in many journalists across numerous magazines and newspaper back pages disseminating a broadly similar interpretation of what they'd seen. I wonder to myself if something of that unconsciously emerges from an album playback in a similar vein, generated from discussions across the plates of Indian snacks, piles of crisps and glasses of red wine that are consumed between discs and at the end of the session.

Listening now, I'm struck by how song-based the first disc is; I simply didn't hear it that way in the classical surrounding at AIR. Indeed, it has a lightness of touch within it that I didn't at all appreciate on first hearing it there. At time then, it must have been the case that the music soaked through the lyrics to such an extent that it became a wash of experimentalism and soundscapes – it's certainly true that one of the unusual experiences was found in hearing an album with a printed tracklist handed out but no visual cue to where one track ended and another began from which you start to understand how important it has become to simply see where you are within a record. Can it be that textures compete for attention so that the most striking or powerful texture overwhelms those around it so that? What I took away from disc one back then is almost what I'm hearing in disc two as I write. So I have to consider, and I'm finding that this is really informative for a critic and part of the learning process of self-improvement, the value of first impressions and the way in which contrasting parts of an artistic work will compete for that initial feeling or view of the whole.

We mingle amongst the refreshments. I tell my favourite music journalist story, of a boozy liquid lunch with the late and so very much missed Carol Clerk and in return I'm told something that I think I already knew: that if I was only ever going to have one boozy liquid lunch with a journalist then, by God, I picked the right journalist to drink with on so many levels. I have an interesting chat with Marc Saunders of There Goes The Fear during which we are both delighted to get a brief word and a handshake with Steven Wilson himself. I talk briefly to Classic Rock's Dave Ling, and have a good chat with their reviews editor Ian Fortnam.

I leave Air Studios in the grey drizzle of what regretfully constitutes an English summer in the 21st Century and head vaguely off uphill in search of Hampstead underground station where I'll met my Crouch End-based sister for an excellent pizza in a Pizza Express that can't do coffee that evening due to a malfunction on their cappuccino machine – and where we'll ponder whether the concept of instant coffee has not yet reached these parts. As I struggle into a waterproof jacket while trying to avoid my overnight bag coming into contact with the wet pavement and wondering whether I'm on the right road to reach the Hampstead tube I spot someone who looks as though he must be a local coming in the opposite direction. I think of asking him the way but, and bear with me here as I can't do his seemingly Polish accent and neither can I write in one, I'm instead asked whether he is on the right road to AIR Studios. I point out the way and ask, "Is this for the Steven Wilson playback?"

He confirms that is indeed his destination. "Steven Wilson," I say in return, raising a thumb to the prospect. "Excellent!"

Later, I'm standing in the entrance to Hampstead underground. The drizzle has turned into a sharp, heavy downpour. I'm approached by another person seeking directions. I must look more local than I think. "Do you know where Pentameters Theatre is?"

I ask if he's heading to the performance of Robert Calvert's Mirror, Mirror which commences a month-long run that evening – I'd have gone to see it, but I didn't know how long to allow for the playback and any potential networking as a result of it.

He confirms that is indeed his destination. "Robert Calvert!" I say in return, raising a thumb to the prospect. "I've no idea where Pentameters is, but Bob Calvert ... excellent!"

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Hawklords Autumn 2011 UK Tour

Oct 13th. Liverpool. O2 Academy. 11- 13 Hotham St, Liverpool, L3 5UF. £15.
Doors open: 7pm. Under-14s with adults only.
Box office: 0844 477 2000/

Oct 14th. Leeds.
The Irish Centre. York Road, Leeds, LS9 9NT. £12 adv, £14, door.

Box office 0013 248 9208 (cash or cheque only) or 0113 245 5570 (credit & debit cards).
Doors open: 7.30pm.

Oct 15th. Glasgow.
The Ferry. 25 Anderston Quay. Glasgow. G3 8BX.

Adv, £14.50 (plus booking fee). Door, £16.
Box office: 01698 360085/
Doors open. 8pm. Support act: Whimwise.

Oct 16th. Edinburgh.
The Queens Hall. 85- 89 Clerk Street. Edinburgh. EH8 9JG.

Box office 0131 668 2019. £15.
Doors open at 7pm. Support act: Dyonisis

Oct 18th. Leicester. O2 Academy. University Road, Leicester, LE1 7RH. £15.
Under-14s with adults only. Doors open at 7pm.
Box office: 0844 477 2000/

Oct 19th. Wolverhampton.
The Robin 2, Bilston. 26 - 28 Mount Pleasant, Bilston, Wolverhampton, WV14 7LJ.

£12.50 adv, £15 door. Doors open at 8.45pm.
Box office: 01902 401211/

Oct 20th. Oxford.
O2 Academy. 190 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1UE.

£12.50. £15 door. Under-14s with adults only. Doors open at 7pm.
Box office: 0844 477 2000/

Oct 21st. Mansfield.
The Diamond. 47, Stoney Street, Sutton-In-Ashfield, Mansfield, Notts, NG17 4GH.

£10. Doors open at 7pm.
Box office: 01623 456617/

Oct 23rd. Leamington Spa. The Assembly. Spencer Street, Leamington Spa, Warwicks, CV31 3NF.
£15. Doors open at 7pm.
Box Office: 01926 523 001/

Oct 25th. Plymouth.
The White Rabbit. Unit 14, Brenton Bus Station, Plymouth, PL4 0BG.

£11adv, £11.50, door. Doors open at 8.30pm.
Box office: 01752 268 801

Oct 26th. Poole.
Mr Kyps. 8a Parr St, Lower Parkstone, Poole, Dorset, BH14 0JY.

£11 adv, £12.50 door. Doors open at 8pm.
Box office: 01752 268801

Oct 27th. Chislehurst. The Beaverwood Club. Beaverwood Road, Chislehurst, Kent. BR7 6HF.
£12 adv, £15, door. Doors open at 7.30pm.
Box office: 0208 761 9078/

Oct 29th. London. O2 Academy Islington. N1 Centre, 16 Parkfield Street, London N1 0PS.
The Hawklords Halloween Hells-a-poppin' show! Prizes for best costumes - judged by the band!
Support act: Gunslinger.
£15. Under-14s only with adults. Doors open at 6pm. Curfew at 10pm.
Box office: 0844 477 2000/

Check with venues before travelling.

Evel Gazebow

Though I've still got a MySpace page I've joined the ever swelling ranks of those who've basically abandoned the concept; its social networking facilities were long ago surpassed by Facebook and I see a slew of user-friendly sites that have overtaken MySpace for ease of music delivery so it seems to me, as I know it does for many others, a rather redundant method of getting music to the masses as it were. I guess, then, that other on the rare occasion I'll log-in to check any messages that might have arrived, I'm now only visiting there if I'm specifically direct there – in this instance because of an e-mail from Evel Gazebow's Graham Davis asking me to check out their music.

London-based Evel Gazebow are Graham on guitar, vocals, bass, keyboards, writing and production alongside Did Dilley who provides drums, vocals, and percussion and they advise that they've been performing Hawkwind's Space Ritual, in its entirely, "complete with space poems, back projections and scantily clad dancer." They've even provided their rendition at The Royal Academy of Art for an event curated by Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner that was billed as The Psychosomatic Acid Test.

What they've made available on their MySpace, however, are their own songs. "We drew inspiration from listening to some of our all-time favourite bands," they tell us. "Pink Fairies, The Deviants, Hawkwind, Gong, Amon Duül, Edgar Broughton Band, Syd's Floyd... we've tried to keep some of the 'stoned, lazy feel' evident in the music of all of those bands [but] we've also added some additional 'stoner – punk – kosmische – folky – pop – eastern – electro' stylings, and some Zappa / Mighty Boosh-esque humour." That's as sharp a summation as any of what these guys are up to here with their collection of lo-fi but evocative demos.

They've eleven tracks available on-line. 'A Message To Your Mind' starts with what I'm guessing are backward tapes before launching into a insistent and imploring slice of psychedelic fuzz with a really mind-melting groovy and jamming instrumental break; 'Little White Dress' has an infectious Eastern motif that runs through an otherwise quite whimsical number. 'Invisible Tractor' is very 60s Hippie stuff featuring a robust bass line punctuated with bright splashes of keyboard whereas 'The Times They a-Changed' has Hawkwind sci-fi effects leading into cosmic lyrics and again some nice Eastern tinges but doesn't really distinguish itself with its rather generic psychedelia even though it has a sweet sound. 'Bubbling Under', however, delivers exactly what its title suggests... a spacey, drifting and, yep, bubbling, dreamscape with an oceanic splash at the end that is really quite infectious. I liked that one a lot.

After that interlude, 'Swordfish 2010' gets all pulse-pounding space rock with punk rock vocals and a roving bass line before 'On The Edges' invents the whole new side-genre of; 'Secret Door' is more improvisational fuzz-laden music with a 60s vibe to it, all bright lights and mini-skirts and which invokes for me those strange cut in and cut out cinematic effects that used to be so beloved of directors who wanted to visually demonstrate just how hip and happening the 60s and early 70s were. 'Lost Tribe', 'What Happens If' and the deliciously-named 'New Free Sex Chocolate' complete proceedings, all three are hard rocking space rock numbers.

This is very decent stuff. In all honesty it's a bit derivative in places, or put another way, it wears its dual enthusiasms for psychedelic whimsy and fuzz-laden jamming on its sleeve as a badge of honour, but it does have a lot of dynamics and appeal and is certainly worth hooking up as a playlist and listening through or grabbing a free download that they've made available.