Category: Reviews

REVIEW: Caravan – In the Land of Grey and Pink [40th Anniversary Edition]

In the Land of Grey and Pink

1971 was a good year...












I came to the Caravan party a little late, discovering their music in July 2000 when I picked up their compilation “Where But for Caravan Would I?” and was immediately a fan. I always say that if I were a contemporary of Caravan, then this would be the band I’d be in. They probably match my level of technical competence – not too flashy, but full of soul and ideas.

With the 40th Anniversary edition of their seminal 1971 album, I shall be talking mainly about the 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound mix that appears on the accompany region-free DVD. Over the years, I have become quite interested in these surround mixes put out by classic bands as they often throw up new auditory experiences for the listener, uncovering instrumentation that’s often been buried in the mix.

The thing about this record is that while Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree does a sterling job of the mix, there’s not a lot here to impress the listener. The problem with Caravan is that they are not a symphonic band like Genesis or have the power or detail of a King Crimson, so this remix just sits there and does its job nicely.

Granted it’s nice to hear the acoustic guitars of “Golf Girl” and the sub-woofer thump certainly reinforces the mix, with the bass now being a more prominent member of the team, but it’s hard to overly excited by this remix. The last remaster done at the start of the millennium is a good starting point, and the mixes here (and the stereo mix for that matter) doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but they are obviously cleaner.

Yes, you are getting the ultimate Caravan listening experience, but I would argue that the work here isn’t as radical as what you hear on the Genesis or King Crimson 5.1 surround mixes. That’s because what you hear on a Caravan album is very much a live experience committed to vinyl. There’s no multi-layering of instruments as you’d hear on King Crimson’s “Lizard” for example and you don’t gain any extra “ooomph” either.

While Steven Wilson has done a great job, retaining a lot of the original’s roundness and warmth, it’s not going to blow anyone’s socks off. But maybe it’s because this album was more about the original homespun “vibe” than supersonic, 21st century, clarity? What you do get is good separation of the instruments and for those of you who want to study the record, you are going to be more than satisfied with this.

The DVD also contains two Beat Club appearances by the band, which if you look hard enough are already available to view on YouTube. The quality isn’t bad and certainly makes interesting viewing if you are unfamiliar with the clips.

The packaging is great, but the record company has scrimped by not including a plastic outer slipcase that often comes with these “Deluxe Edition” releases and instead the fold-out four-panel sleeve is initially secured by a seal that needs to be broken to open the case – meaning you can seal it up again. The inner booklet is packed with the usual collection of photos and there are some nice words to read.

The CD side of things sees the album being expanded over two discs. The first disc contains the album with three extra tracks tacked onto the end. I’m one of those weirdos who likes albums to keep their original tracklisting and any extra material to be put on a separate disc. The stereo mix is very clean and there’s some excellent separation on show. Comparing it with the reissue from a decade ago, this version just has the edge in terms of crispness and definition, but there’s really not much in it.

Some of the extra material from this release also appeared on that previously-expanded edition, but whoever compiled this collection has really pulled out the stops and collected enough relevant extra tracks to fill a second CD including five live tracks from various BBC sessions.

The bottom line is that this really is the ultimate edition of this album and represents excellent value if you don’t own “In the Land of Grey and Pink” in any format. If you are not interested in the 5.1 mix or the extra CD, then I am not so sure this is such a good buy, but fans are fans and the MusicBizTM knows that like slavering dogs we will buy our favourite albums again and again and again!

Overall, a positive experience…

And here’s the review I posted on YouTube:

Van der Graaf Generator Ticket Barbican 27/03/11

1 Interference Patterns
2 Mr. Sands
3 Your Time Starts Now
4 Mathematics
5 Lemmings
6 Lifetime
7 Bunsho
8 Over The Hill
9 Scorched Earth
10 Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End

11 La Rossa

The last time I’d seen Van der Graaf Generator was back in 2005 when they thundered back to the realm of live performances with their now legendary comeback gig at the Royal Festival Hall. I had tickets for their previous Barbican outing in 2007, but decided not to go because I’d gotten the Missus pregnant and I thought all the noise and excitement of a VDGG concert wouldn’t be conducive to the development of the foetus.

Despite getting a little lost driving into London, we arrived late to miss the first song and caught them blistering through “Mr Sands” from the new album “A Grounding in Numbers”. And quite a bit of material tonight was from this CD and their previous released “Trisector”. But despite this, the one hour and forty-five minute set whizzed past with such speed, such was my enjoyment and involvement with the music.

It takes quite a bit of getting used to not having David Jackson’s saxophones in the mix, but I must admit I didn’t miss him with Hammill covering his lines on guitar and keyboard. This was a very different animal, much leaner, much meaner and definitely louder. The material from “A Grounding in Numbers” felt a lot stronger than the “Trisector” songs, which felt a little meandering and meek in comparison. Of course, you also want some of the old songs and there was a smattering of those to suffice: “Lemmings” which the beginning was almost unrecognisable thanks to Hammill’s lead guitar playing, “Scorched Earth” was dispatched with a raw power you come to expect, but it wasn’t until show closer “Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End” that I felt the power of the music actually suck the air from my lungs and leave me breathless. The encore of “La Rossa” continued to electrify and left me tingling as all the hairs on my neck and body suddenly stood to attention, such was the power of the music.

The band were on good form and one can forgive the “trainwrecks” (Peter Hammill’s words not mine) that happened during the show. The power and brute force of this trio still amazes me and Hammill’s unfaltering voice, which soars and screams and whispers and talks, is worth the ticket price alone. How that man can still do what he does at his age, I find totally awe-inspiring.

I must admit that I had pretty low expectations of the concert, but I feel that was the best place the start because I had a very good evening of music delivered to me. I spent a lot of the evening transfixed by the playing of drummer Guy Evans, who is the heartbeat of the band, while Hugh Banton bolstered the guitar and keyboard playing of Hammill. The only criticism, if there is to be a criticism, is that Peter Hammill is no lead guitarist and his playing was a little weak in places and sometimes you couldn’t even hear him in the mix. But it doesn’t matter because with that voice, Hammill can sing the telephone book and I’d pay to listen.

They are a pretty tight trio when they get going and, despite their collective age, make a lot of younger rock bands look like a bunch of simpering pussies. Viva le VDGG!

CD Review: Penguin Café – A Matter of Life…

Penguin Café - A Matter of Life...

The new album from Arthur Jeffes, Penguin Café

I’ve written many words about my fondness for the original Penguin Café Orchestra and its proprietor, Simon Jeffes, and you might have already read my review of the recent concert by the revived, rebooted, Penguin Café helmed by son-of-Jeffes, Arthur. Well now there’s an album of new material written by Arthur Jeffes featuring this new configuration of musicians.

It’s a hard job to fill anyone’s footsteps, probably even harder to fill your father’s footsteps but “A Matter of Life..” is brave attempt at resurrecting his musical heritage. Before you even listen to the CD you have to commend his strength of character for even attempting such a feat. I mean, what if the record is a stinker? What if it is just a piss-poor shadow of the original Penguin Café music?

Thankfully, the answer to those questions is a resounding “No!”. There are some classic moments on the record where you forget that this is Jeffes Jr work and you kid yourself that the PCO are back in town, the opening track “That, Not That” and “Landau” are examples of the music just spiriting you away to the good old days and a are worth the price of admission alone.

And while it is a brave record, you can sense that there is a lot of nostalgia here, the tunes are looking back and not looking forward. A lot of the musical cues and ticks and styles are borrowed wholesale from Jeffes Snr (the “Fox and the Leopard”, for example). Is this a bad thing? Yes, if you are looking for a work of startling genius. No, if you accept the record and the project for what it is: remembering and reviving.

I must admit I’ve never experienced music or a record like this before. It feels right as a continuation, but the snickering cynic at the back of my mind asks: “Is this music genuine – does it come from a genuine place?” I don’t want to even try and answer that because I have already accepted the record and I can’t imagine my own children being remotely interested in the music I make, let alone setting out on a path to recreate it.

The bottom line is that if you are a Penguin Café Orchestra fan and you want the closest thing to bringing the band back from the dead and experiencing a new PCO album, then this is it. My only criticism is some of the later tracks feel a little underdeveloped and meandering, but the original band were guilty of this trait sometimes too.

It truly is a remarkable piece of work and my admiration for Arthur Jeffes continues. I look forward to seeing the band again in May.

I have been using Roland guitar synths since 1994, starting with the now legendary GR-1 and working my way through to the most recent GR-33 version. Being a tech fanatic, it is no surprise that every time Roland releases a new shiny box, my pulse races and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. When the announcement of the new GR-55 guitar synthesiser was made at the 2011 Winter NAMM, the news was equally, if not more, exciting.

This time around Roland was marketing the GR-55 as a kit-killer, a one box solution that would do away with the GR-33, the VG-99 guitar modeller and any other stomp boxes you might employ. The promotional videos near enough spelt this out in huge flaming letters four hundred feet high. So, the GR-55 had a lot of hype to live up to but this didn’t stop me pre-ordering my unit.

I’ve had my GR-55 for a couple of weeks now and I thought it was time I posted some thoughts on it. First off, I must commend Roland for returning to a metal chassis when building their effects units. The VG-8 and VG-88 both sported metal cases and looked like Stealth bombers and this gave the units a sturdiness that was comforting. Other units such as the GR-33 or the VG-99 have relied on lighter, less solid plastic constructions, so it was nice to see that the big blue GR-55 was rock solid. It instantly makes you think you’ve bought a quality piece of kit. The buttons are solid, the footpedal exudes quality and there’s a nice big rotational control knob flanked by press buttons to act as your main navigational tool.

This is my Roland GR-55 guitar synthesiser

This is my Roland GR-55 guitar synthesiser

The display is lovely and large and is a refreshing change to other guitar synths I’ve had which often have relied on double line LCD displays which tire your eyes really quickly. The GR-55’s display takes a page from the VG-99 and writes its messages to you in large friendly letters. The editing and patch access takes getting used, relying on lots of flicking through the “Page” buttons to access features and it can be a bit overwhelming remember where patch functions are. But I am sure with some more practice this will come second nature to me.

But what about the tracking? Yes, the most important quality of a guitar synth is how well it tracks on your guitar and I can say, hand on heart, that the GR-55 is the best guitar synth for tracking I’ve ever owned. With minimum setup, even my nylon string Godin Multiac ACS was triggering sounds very accurately. The sounds themselves are very high quality and in my opinion, superior to the GR-33 and hark back to the top end synth sounds of the GR-1. Of course, some of the patches are near useless and will need tweaking, but I was very impressed with the pianos and the wind instruments. The flute patch itself is very expressive and sounds utterly convincing.

The unit also features a USB stick reader so it can be used to playback WAV files – making ideal for solo performers to pack backing tracks with them – and there’s a 20-second looper on board too. The looper itself is good fun allowing you to capture ideas and to overdub on the top of the original loop ad infinitum, but compared to one of the RC units put out by Boss (Roland’s dedicated guitar business) it feels quite limited. However, it is an extra value feature you get with the unit and should be considered in those terms.

Connectivity involves a USB connection to a computer allowing you to backup any patches, but I don’t think that there’s a dedicated patch editor for the GR-55 yet. This would be a great tool to have, especially if you have trouble editing on the GR-55 unit itself.

But the big question thrown up by the GR-55, or more specifically by Roland’s original promotional material, is whether you can throw away all your other effects units if you buy a GR-55? Well, you can certainly sell your GR-33 on eBay because this is the superior item on every level. But if you use a VG-99 for recording, then you might want to consider holding on to it because some of the COSM guitar modelling sounds OK, but nowhere near as rounded as the VG-99. Of course, hearing is subjective and you might think them acceptable. I can see the GR-55 being used by gigging players to replace racks of equipment as I think the pedal would be great in a live situation.

Overall, the GR-55 is a jump forward in the technology and a welcome addition to my sonic armoury. If you are considering purchasing one of these units then you I believe you won’t be disappointed. If you are looking for a cheaper option or your first foray into guitar synths, then check out eBay for all those GR-33s and GR-20s that are being offloaded by new GR-55 owners!

And here are three videos I’ve made to demonstrate the GR-55. I used my Godin Multiac ACS nylon string guitar to show how well the GR-55 tracks.

Roland GR-55 Piano Patch Demonstration

Roland GR-55 Flute Patch Demonstration

Roland GR-55 Patch Compilation

And here comes the self-publicity bit where I foolishly try to convince you to buy some of my music, much of it recorded using guitar synthesisers, funnily enough:

And here is a complete demo of the pre-programmed patches of the GR-55:

It is hard to believe, but it has been four and a half years since my last gig. My self-imposed exile meant that I have not been able to worship at the shrine for such a long time, so it was quite apt that such a musical banquet was served up to me last night.
I had been looking forward to the concert since it was announced because it was my first chance to see the Portico Quartet who I’ve admired since hearing their first album two years ago and it was also the first proper London outing for the Penguin Café, but more about them later.

The music of the Portico Quartet is straddles genres – the use of saxophone and upright bass puts the band firmly in the jazz camp, while the utilisation of the hang drum adds a new age/world music slant to their output. The band is purely instrumental and we were treated to performances from both their debut and follow-up albums, “Knee-Deep in the North Sea” and “Isla”.

The performance was truly mesmeric. The music, for me, transporting and expansive – showcasing the unique sound of the band. Tunes played included, “Lifemask” with its strange looping beginnings, “News from Verona”, “Line” and “Clipper” – there might have been others by my memory isn’t want it was and I don’t remember their tunes by name, just by familiarity.

I was surprised just how much use of looping there was by the band with both the saxophonist and drummer preparing and triggering loops, and sending ethereal noises into the sonic backdrop. The drummer also appeared to be responsible for some live mixing on the set as he often was seen scrambling to adjust his mixer whilst playing.

I thought it was a truly superb performance and I felt old and “over the hill” seeing these young fellows being so adept at their craft. The music was so engaging that by the end of the hour-long set, I felt emotionally drained and exhausted by the performance – in a good way, of course.

After a short interlude, whilst road crew scurried around removing equipment and preparing the stage, the Penguin Café headed by Arthur Jeffes took the stage. What is the Penguin Café? It’s not the Penguin Café Orchestra, for that was a completely different beast. It is not a cover band. It’s not a reboot (although Arthur Jeffes coined that terminology during the set). It’s similar but different – like looking at the world through a new set of eyes, or listening to the Penguin’s albums with someone else’s ears.
The strength of goodwill and positive feeling washed upon the stage and it was a good night. I thought it took the band a few songs to hit their stride, but it didn’t matter, for this was a special night and a night I thought I’d never see happen. To imagine that I’d hear these songs again performed live was fantasy since the untimely death of Simon Jeffes and for his son to pick up the reins was an incredibly brave thing to do.

What to say? If you love the Penguin Café Orchesta, you will love this band. It just has to be. You will forgo the complaints that the guitar playing on “Dirt” isn’t as good, or that Arthur’s ukulele playing needs a little work and that there appears to be too many people on stage at once, because it’s not about that. It’s about celebration, for the concert was more than just a run-through of a few old songs, it felt like a celebration of the music and a way of preserving the musical legacy put-down by Simon Jeffes.
Arthur Jeffes is a personable young man with a deft line in rambling, humble stories and he does a grand job as band leader. The band itself is a sprawling mess of talent, with many of them dressed as if they’d just escaped from a Victorian lunatic asylum, which is kind of jarring when they first hit the stage. Of course, this is stage craft and very few bands these days try to attempt to engage with their audiences in this way.

All the old favourites were performed such as “Telephone and Rubber Band”, “Music for a Found Harmonium” and “Perpetuum Mobile” as well as new tracks from the freshly-released Arthur Jeffes-penned “A Matter of Life…” album.
I thought it was a truly wonderful evening of music and a rich feast for a cultural starved man as myself. It was good to be a part of it and one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had and one I will remember for a long while.

And to be a total publicity whore, for those of you visiting via Google, feel free to check out my music at iTunes:

DVD REVIEW: Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe – A Night of Yes Music…Plus

Now I have fond memories of the ABWH period of music. For those of you who don’t know or who have absolutely no knowledge of progressive rock music, this band was the bastard offspring from the Yes franchise in the late 1980s, which had floundered both commercially and creatively. With lead singer Jon Anderson conning ex-Yes and King Crimson dummer, Bill Bruford, to come play some drums on his solo album, an interesting franchise was creating. With the band name sounding a lot like a local solicitors, the first album offered a lot of promise. OK – some of it was a little sweet and sickly thanks to Anderson’s input, but as a whole, the album is quite robust when compared to others of that period. And for once it was a progressive rock album that actually had a smile on its face, rather than frowning earnestly and asking you to marvel at the musicianship.
So the best memory was getting excited about going to see the band at Wembley Arena and it was the first time that I had ever been to a gig. It was also the first gig me and the Missus attended together and it was a rather stonking night. I got to watch my favourite rhythm section (Bill Bruford and Tony Levin, both of King Crimson) working out and to hear some old Yes classics that I thought I’d never hear played live. It was a good night, apart from me slipping on some spilt beer (not my own, I didn’t drink back then) and falling down the stairs during “Heart of the Sunrise” as I attempted a quick toilet break. Ouch! Also, my English teacher Mr Bailey was also a fan and he attended the concerts, though I found it a little embarrassing to talk prog rock in the class in front of frowning, disapproving peers. (Mind you, this was the guy who used to quote King Crimson lyrics and give me the wink during lessons too…so it was a really progtastic period of my life!)
In terms of merchandise, there was a video EP released called “In the Big Dream” that documented the recording process for the album, which was put together at the recording studios in Montserrat, and included a couple of promotional videos too. A few years after all this, a concert was released on video as a limited edition and I was lucky to pick this up and it is the same concert that I am reviewing here.
Voiceprint, a company that specialises in reviving old classics back from the dead and the obscurity of deletion, saw fit to release this concert in its entirety and bring out a 2 DVD edition that also includes “In the Big Dream” as a bonus. Of course, being a fan and deserving of a couple of hours of sweet nostalgia, I snapped it up. The concert itself is a surprisingly good transfer, however there’s nothing in the way of a surround sound mix or anything. But despite this, the music sounds fresh and clean. The concert itself starts with each member of the band doing his party piece until they are all on stage and then the fun begins with cuts from the ABWH interspersed with some well chosen songs from the Classic Yes period. The only downside to this performance is that Tony Levin is missing due to illness, replaced by Jeff Berlin.
In terms of quality, I thought this was a good upgrade to my old VHS edition, but my one bugbear was that the concert was split over two discs (ever heard of dual layer, Voiceprint?) and the original introduction was tacked on as an extra on the second disc, completely out of sequence. This original opening showed Jon Anderson as he walked to the concert explaining that he was going to appear in the middle of the audience and start singing. OK, so its not THAT important, but when I saw it originally, it really added to the sense of excitement and anticipation. Now, it is resigned to an outtake on the second disc, which seems a bit stupid. Either keep it in or cut it out, no?
My other major grip is the quality of the “In the Big Dream” video EP. There have been edits made to this and the video quality is bordering on awful. It is actually worse that my old VHS because it is obvious that they’ve taken a PAL VHS source and recoded to NTSC, rendering the colours muted and washed out. The sound is also awful. On my old VHS, there was a recording error during one of the songs and the sound is spiked by a tape wobble. Guess what? The same error occurs on this DVD, so obviously the tape was from the same source. Gee – I could have just dubbed my VHS to DVD and saved myself the trouble.
On one hand, this is really great for those who have never owned the original VHS, but for those of use die-hard fans who have the tapes and the T-shirts and the novelty blow-up Steve Howe dolls, you might be a bit disappointed with the quality of the “extras”. It really is a game of two halves. But saying that, for the money, it was nice to wallow in the warm glow of nostalgia with The Missus and feel really, really old.
“The order of the Universe, the order of the Universe…”
For even more information, go to
And here’s a little video sample for you:

CONCERT REVIEW: Peter Hammill, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 04/10/06

It seems I am jinxed. Someone out there has been busy with needles and wax effigy or has thrown a dark hex my way. “How so?” I hear you ask. Well it all began when I stepped into my local tube station with the intention of getting to the gig on time. I had left early, so that I could meet up with the Missus and have a bite to eat at one of those snazzy eateries on the South Bank, before tootling onto see Peter Hammill in concert. However, my Spidey-senses tingled as soon as I hit the station and the word “delays” echoed over the PA system.
What should have been a simple, 60 minute journey was stretched out beyond all recognition. Travelling from Debden to Stratford, which normally takes about 25 minutes, turned into a 90 minute marathon with the driver apologising profusely for there being signal failures at Bethnal Green. The problem with that bottleneck of the Central is that you are stuffed until you get to Stratford as there are no connecting trains, so I stood in cramped carriage and swallowed it down. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t like the Underground. I know it is a bit wimpy, but there’s something I just don’t like about the UK tube network. I always think it is on the edge of collapse and when we get stuck in a tunnel for a long period of time, my bowels begin to churn. But enough of the details, eh?
So when I did eventually get to The Missus, all hopes of having something to eat were out of the window and it was just a matter of walking to the venue and taking our seats. I was in a bad mood and didn’t particularly want to be there – my nerves were shot by the prolonged tube fiasco and I wanted a drink. Yes, I wanted a drink real bad. But I never drink before a gig as I believe music should be received untainted by alcohol, so I was very tetchy.
In this tour, Hammill was accompanied by violinist Stuart Gordon and I was interested in hearing how it would turn out as I hadn’t had the chance to pick up their collaboration “Veracious”. Tracks like a “A Better Time”, “Driven” and “Bubble” were stripped down and arranged in such a way that there was plenty of space for Gordon to fill in with his violin. I am not entirely sure if this approach worked. I mean those guys are great performers, but some of it just didn’t work for me and didn’t engage my senses. The only time things really started to get electric was during a harrowing performence of “Like Veronica”, a song about spousal abuse, which really went for the jugular. An old classic “The Birds” elicited whoops from the audience and I was particularly pleased when Hammill performed “Stranger Still” as the final song. It’s one of my favourites, but again the rearrangement jarred me, but all came good in the end. There was one encore with “A Way Out” and it was all over. While I thought it was an interesting night of music, I did find myself feeling slightly underwhelmed by the proceedings. Hammill, I felt, was a little off and a little sloppy in the guitar/piano department and Gordon’s violin, while sweet and soaring in places, began to grate after a while. Again, this is no slur on their performance, I just think a whole evening of this configuration is difficult listening, which can be a good thing sometimes. I guess my tube troubles had clouded my musical brain, which upset me.
After the show (yes, Hammill performed that song too), we headed out into the night and The Missus want to eat. Again, my Spidey-senses were tingling and, much to her annoyance, I insisted we went straight home. Good job too, because the tube was still up shit creek without a paddle. First there was the “Passenger Action” on the Jubilee Line (yes, those are two words you don’t want to hear on the Tube), so we hopped off and diverted to Bank station. There we waited ages for a train to Leytonstone, then had to wait there for a connecting train heading to Epping, which was another 20 minute wait. By the time we got home, it was 11.50pm and we’d left the concert at 9.30! The Missus remarked that in total, I had been travelling nearly four and a half hours on the Tube that evening for a round trip of less than two…
You’ve got to laugh, ain’t ya?

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