Although I have previously heard some albums in which Steve has been involved, most notably the awesome Bomber Goggles and their incredible album ‘Gyreland’ (if you haven’t already bought this then you need to), this is the first time I have come across one of his solo albums. Steve provides guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and vocals, and is joined by Böhn (acoustic and electric guitars and backing vocals) and Bingo Brown (drums, percussion, and backing vocals). ‘Stargazer’ is a concept album, and is the nickname given to the hero of our story born into a dystopian future in which man’s neglect has made Earth no longer habitable. This is a similar theme to ‘Gyreland’ and the impact of humanity’s impact on the earth, and at this point, it is not possible to save the planet so people have to leave.
Steve has a knack of bringing together multiple musical themes and styles and bringing them together in a fashion that is best thought of as crossover progressive rock, with large elements of power pop styles. The songs are all short, with only a couple daring to break the five-minute barrier and are incredibly infectious. In fact, one can imagine quite a number of these being played on the radio to great effect. Take “Phoenix Rising” for example, here we have find Steve channeling Weezer while with “In The Darkness” it is much more like Nik Kershaw! The music is fluid, sonorous, and always with stacks of melody and hooks.
It is an incredibly accessible album, one that I knew I was going to enjoy from the very first note, as the title cut opens proceedings with layered harmony vocals. This is a poppy funky rocking number that shows inspiration from Utopia, and I defy anyone not to sing along with the chorus when it returns. Straight away I was smiling, grooving in my chair, knowing that this was yet another to add to my list of albums of the year – and given that ‘Gyreland’ is also in the Top Ten, Steve’s not doing badly. He has a real knack of producing catchy songs, giving them enough depth so that they have a real presence, but also showing restraint. There is the impression that ‘Stargazer’ could have been a lot heavier, it wouldn’t have taken much in the mix but it works great as it is. There are also little touches, like the bass slide up and down the frets in the chorus, which definitely add to the overall piece, and from that we go into the far more jagged “The Celestial Show” which has a very different attack both in terms of arrangement and vocals, yet is also another great number. This is quite some album, highly recommended. 10/10 Kev Rowland
So, when I heard that this album was finally getting the ‘Definitive Edition’ treatment I knew immediately that it was going to be an essential purchase. It didn’t matter that I had the original MSI CD, which had somehow reversed the cover so that it was black on white instead of white on black, nor that I had the Cyclops reissue from 2002 which had also included various demos: here was a triple CD release which was finally going to provide everything any Twelfth Night fan could wish for. Originally recorded in 1982, to this day it remains one of my very favourite albums, which will always appear in any Top Ten list. Listening to it again, more than 35 years after it was originally recorded, it still sets a benchmark to which many bands aspire, but few will ever achieve.
For those progheads who have somehow missed this band (I know I did at the time, much to my later disgust), Twelfth Night were the band that should have had the success of Marillion at least, and if Geoff hadn’t decided to become a church minister who knows what they might have achieved. But back in the early Eighties, the band had just been reduced to a four-piece with the departure of keyboard player Rick Battersby (who returned after the album had been recorded). This left Geoff Mann (vocals), Clive Mitten (bass/classical guitar/keyboards), Andy Revell (electric and acoustic guitars) and Brian Devoil (drums). The recording process took a year, as the band decided to shift the attention away from some more commercial elements and dropped some numbers and rewrote others. The result was a progressive rock masterpiece.
The album starts with the second longest song, in “We Are Sane”. Gentle held-down keyboards with Geoff singing falsetto and in the background there are the sounds of children playing and a radio being tuned. Gradually Geoff sings lower, the keyboards come down and the sense of menace starts to appear. Percussion starts not with Brian on drums but on typewriter as “Reports flop into the in trays”. Even from very early on in the album it becomes apparent that Twelfth Night just weren’t like any other prog band that was around at the time, or since. Prog bands often today are likened to Genesis/Marillion/IQ but rarely to TN. “We Are Sane” is about a Big Brother society where individuals are controlled by a small box they plug into their brains each day. The music swirls and changes, being beautiful and refreshing, or rocking and dramatic, as the need arises. There is a spoken word passage; all tricks utilised to make the song unusual and classic.
Following that is the more laid back “Human Being” which not only contains one of my favourite lyrics in any song (“If every time we tell a lie a little fairy dies, they must be building death camps in the garden”) but also a powerful bass solo which has to be one of the best bass riffs ever. “This City” again starts slowly, with children in the background and in some ways is almost Floydian except with far more menace and emotion from the Mann. It is stark and barren, with Geoff in total control. Next up is a small instrumental “World Without End” which acts as a gentle keyboard bridge into the title cut. It may only be four minutes long, but this keyboard dominated piece is one of their more powerful and thought provoking, all with no guitar! Given the current climate this song seems even more poignant “If the unthinkable should happen, and you hear the sirens call, Well you can always find some shelter behind a door against the wall, Don’t make me laugh!!”
This also gives way to an instrumental, “The Poet Sniffs A Flower” which features acoustic guitar and keys in gentle harmony until the drums kick in and they are off and racing, as they lead into the longest track on the album, the one with which Geoff will always be associated, “Creep Show”. It starts gently enough, and we are invited into the creep show to see the exhibits (as in “Karn Evil 9”, but here with an even more damning indictment on society). It is gentle, lulling and simple, or dramatic, rocking and complex. It can be a breaking voice, pure melody or a spoken statement of fact: whichever way you look at it this is one of the most important prog songs ever.
Given all of the horrors and complexity that has gone on before, the only way to end the album was with a gentle number that gave the listener the chance to reflect. “Love Song” is pure and delicate, as Geoff sings about the power of love and what it can achieve. It is a song of restrained emotion here in the studio, which became an outpouring when performed in concert. It builds and builds in tempo, on from the acoustic guitar to a more powerful prog rock number and to put it simply, out of all of the many thousands of songs I have heard over the years, this is my number one.
Of course, that was where the original album ended, 49 minutes of brilliance. But here we have now been treated to a great deal more. Disc one is subtitled “Studio: 1982”, and contains all of the songs from Revolution Studios, where the album had been recorded. This includes the original version of “Human Being” (called “Being Human”) plus a small interlude which linked to “East Of Eden”. This is one of the band’s most powerful stomping rock numbers (and was the song they performed on the David Essex Showcase!) and had originally been destined for the album but was instead released as a single along with “Eleanor Rigby”, which is also included.
That leads us into Disc Two, “Live: 1983-2012”, which includes live versions of all the tracks from the album, with three different singers (Geoff, Andy Sears and Mark Spencer). Some of these versions have previously been released on other albums, while there are also songs that are appearing for the first time. Of course the version of “Love Song” was taken From ‘Live and Let Live’, recorded at Geoff’s final gigs with the bands – the emotion is palpable, and I can remember playing this when it was first put out on CD and sitting there crying in front of the speakers, it had that much of an impact on me. Of all the other versions the one that I must mention is “Fact and Fiction”, recorded in 2012. By this time the line-up was Brian Devoil, Clive Mitten, Andy Revell, Dean Baker (keyboards, Galahad) and Mark Spencer (vocals, guitar, ex-Lahost and ex-Galahad, although now he is back with them again!). This absolutely belts along and I must confess that I never thought that it could sound anything like this, and it takes the number to a brand new level.
The CD closes with the 1982 demos that were first released as part of the 2002 Cyclops reissue. These start with “Constant (Fact and Fiction)”, which has nothing in common with “Fact and Fiction” and sounds like Geoff and Clive and a drum machine and is interesting but has to be taken as a work in progress, and was never developed any further. “Fistful Of Bubbles” shows the band experimenting with an almost reggae style in the chorus, and much more in the way of emotional guitar and is interesting but again was a work in progress. To the fan it has to be “Leader” that is by far the more interesting demo, as this is a song that had musically built out of a number called “Afghan Red” and would in turn become “Fact And Fiction”. The verse is musically almost the same, with some of the final lyrics, and it is fascinating. “Dancing In The Dream” is a poptastic keyboard led song that is fun and is a song I have found myself singing. It reminds me of Men Without Hats and I wonder if a finished version of this had been released as a single what would have happened? The very last song is a previously unreleased demo of the closing section of “Creepshow”, here titled “Creepshow (After The Bomb Drops)” which contains quite different lyrics, and ties is much more closely with “Fact and Fiction”.
The last CD is called “Covers and Interpretations: 1983 – 2018”. A special mention should be made here of Galahad, as at different times Dean Baker, Mark Spencer and Roy Keyworth were all members of Twelfth Night, and all appear on the second disc. On this last disc Galahad are credited once (but that is actually only Dean and Stu Nicholson with Brian Devoil on bongos), but Dean, Mark and Lee Abraham between them perform on another 7 songs on the CD, which shows just how important they have been to the later story of Twelfth Night. The majority of songs here are previously unreleased, and those involved have generally allowed their imagination to run riot.
A special mention here must be made of Mark Spencer’s totally solo recording of “We Are Sane”. I wasn’t too sure of the opening section as It felt that it was actually too quiet, but he captures the angst and emotion vocally on “The poster on the billboard”, and when he cranks into the guitars for the second section it is then that the initial quietness makes so much sense. I must confess to have never being a huge fan of Pendragon’s take on “Human Being”, which originally appeared on ‘Mannerisms’, as Peter Gee never really captured the presence of Clive Mitten, but it is great seeing it made more widely available again. Another person who appeared on ‘Mannerisms’ was Alan Reed, who performed “Love Song”, which also didn’t really work for me. But this time Mark Spencer provides the keyboards and arrangement, and it is performed as duet by Alan and Kim Seviour. This is easily the best version I have heard outside Twelfth Night or Geoff Mann, and is definitely well worth hearing. The final word, as if there could ever have been any doubt, belongs to the Mann. Recorded in 1992, and originally released on ‘Recorded Delivery’, the album closes with “Fact and Fiction” and “Love Song” recorded by Eh! Geoff Mann Band.
Released as a digipak, with a great booklet containing details of who played on what, now is the time to catch up on what is to my mind one of the very finest albums ever released. The total package is now some 3 ½ hours long, and every minute is a gem. If you are a Twelfth Night fan then this is simply indispensable, and if you have never come across them prior to this then you need to stop reading and jump over to the Twelfth Night site before this set is sold out. This is a limited edition single pressing, so when it’s gone it’s gone. I’m still taking it personally that they waited until I was on the other side of the world before they reformed and played some gigs, but until they decide to play again at a time when I am in the correct hemisphere this will keep returning to my player. Awesome.
Back in 1995, a totally unknown quartet released their debut album. This was back in the days before the internet existed, and the mainstream hated prog, so it was actually incredibly hard to hear about new bands, especially from America unless they were signed to a label such as Kinesis who was getting publicity. But, pretty soon everyone involved in the underground scene in the UK knew who they were, and we’re talking about them. I remember going to a gig at Shepherd’s Bush, and afterward, everyone just seemed to be talking about this new band, and had anyone actually heard ‘The Light’? Martin Orford was incredibly excited that GEP had secured the European rights and the first time I played that album I was in awe.
From there on Spock’s Beard could do no wrong in my eyes or ears, as anyone reading Feedback at the time will attest to, as I was shouting from the rooftops that this was the best band I had ever heard out of America. I saw them every time they came to London, and each gig was better than the last. Then in 2002, they released ‘Snow’. At the time I was working on a project which involved me spending many hours in a car visiting different supermarkets each Thursday, which gave me the opportunity to blast this out at the correct volume in its entirety, and I was saying that the best band in the world had just released the finest album possible. Then it was announced that Neal Morse had left and that there would be no tour. I was in shock, and went through all the stages of grief (especially denial), as it just made no sense to me whatsoever. I mean, Gabriel went through with the Lamb tour didn’t he? But no, it was all over. The next time I saw Spock’s Beard they had California Guitar Trio as the initial support, followed by Enchant. They had a long time been a favorite band of mine, so I really enjoyed the set, but the same can’t be said to Spock’s Beard, and I left halfway through the gig. I was fortunate enough to catch Neal on the ‘Testimony’ tour, and it was like old times, but I accepted that the finest album released in the past 20 years would never be played at a concert.
Fast forward to Saturday,
July 2nd, 2016, at New Life Fellowship Church in Cross Plains, and the unthinkable happened. The current line-up of Spock’s Beard (Alan Morse, Ryo Okumoto, Dave Meros, Ted Leonard and Jimmy Keegan) was joined by Neal Morse and Nick D’Virgilio for one night only, and they performed ‘Snow’ in its entirety. Being performed in a church (as part of Morsefest) there was only ever going to be a small audience, so it was also recorded and filmed, and what I have here is the 2 DVD/2 CD set. There was no pressure on the band, all they had to do was perform the album note perfect for an audience that knew the words as well as they did, but also it was very much a one-off, never to be repeated. The first thing I did was play the DVDs so that I could then listen to the CDs knowing what was going on. I must state that I felt sorry for Ted Leonard through this whole performance, as although he was always onstage, and made valuable contributions, he was very much the third wheel. Having a second drummer made a lot of sense as it allowed Nick to be at the front when he needed to be, but Ted was raised on a small dais behind Alan and just didn’t look comfortable, which is a real shame as he is one of the best singers around, and I have always enjoyed his work.
But, tonight was all about Neal being back where many SB fans feel he totally belongs, front and center of the Beard, performing his songs. Not only was he the voice, but he also wrote the majority of the songs, and his ability to move between keyboards and guitar gave the band presence and ability they have missed without him there to provide it. Was it a brilliant performance of the album? Pretty much, it has to be said, and with an additional electric guitar from Leonard when the time was right, it added some crunch that would have been missed otherwise.
The DVD filming of the evening is also good, and the interplay between Jimmy and Nick is wonderful to see, especially in the duet on “Falling For Forever”, one of the only two in-‘Snow’ songs from the night (the other of course being “June”). The question and answer section was interesting, especially as Rich Mouser was involved. The “making of” was also really interesting, where they talk about the original recording and what had happened. I hadn’t realized that the combination of Nick being incredibly unwell and the falling of the Twin Towers had a major impact on the album, which was basically re-written due to that.
Anyway, if you have no idea what ‘Snow’ is about then this four-disc set isn’t the place to start, go and get the original instead. If you are already a fan then this is indispensable. ‘Nuff said.
It’s probably best to let singer and keyboard player John Paul Strauss describe the rationale behind this album. ‘During the time we were working on the most recent Ten Jinn release, ‘Sisyphus’, came the very sad news about the passing of David Bowie. At the time (though we were very busy with working on the album and dealing with the upcoming release in 2017) I suggested to the other Ten Jinn members that as soon as ‘Sisyphus’ was completed, we should record a David Bowie tribute record before preparing for live shows or recording the next Ten Jinn record, ‘Worlds (the Four Worlds of the Hopi)’. While I was very excited about the prospect of playing live again and getting on to ‘Worlds’ (I even completed the first draft of the score) I felt very strongly about taking this detour in order to pay my respects to an artist, who was probably the single most important influence in my development as a musician in general and vocalist in particular.
I can’t be the only person who never expected an album like this from Ten Jinn. Since their second album, 1999’s ‘As On A Darkling Plain’, they have cemented a reputation as one of the most interesting progressive rock bands around, so a Bowie tribute album isn’t exactly what one would expect. There haven’t been many progressive bands who have recorded whole albums of covers (Dream Theater of course taking it to the extreme by re-recording complete albums, often very well indeed), let alone of music that us so far away from what one would expect.
What I also found interesting was the track selection, as while of course there are many hits, there are also many missing which one may expect on a collection like this, such as ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘Young Americans’ etc. There is the feeling that here is a very personal collection, one that has a collective cohesiveness which works incredibly well. What I really enjoyed about the album is that although they have stayed close to the originals, they have also allowed themselves to put their own stamp on the songs. They have played it fairly straight, and consequently it has worked exactly as it was supposed to, namely as a tribute.
One of the real stand outs has to be ‘Dead Man Walking’, which originally featured on the 1997 album ‘Earthling’. While much focus will be on the wonderful acoustic guitars, funky percussion or superb vocals, what really makes this such an essential song is the wonderful fretless bass which adds so much class, warmth and emotion to it. Strauss’s vocals throughout are exemplary, and the whole band sound as if they have been performing Bowie songs their whole lives, such is the skill and joy they bring to this collection. This is a must for any lover of Bowie, as rarely is his material treated with such care.
Ten Jinn have taken upon themselves a monumental task. It’s one thing to do a cover song of a famous artist and quite another to do an entire album covering that one artist. And when the artist being covered is someone as huge as David Bowie, the mountain to climb looks pretty forbidding. Additionally, when that artist has recently left us and everyone is quite likely wanting to do tributes but at the same time perhaps having second thoughts about touching the sacred shrine so soon, there’s every reason to leave the notion well alone. Ten Jinn, however, have boldly decided to pay their respects to Mr. Jones by following their hearts and recording an album entirely of Bowie covers.
They say that the best way to do a cover song is to either make it totally your own and arrange it in a completely different style (as Deep Purple used to do with Beatles‘ songs) or to strike that delicate balance between capturing the original song’s motif and its appeal while simultaneously putting the covering band’s own stamp on it. I have never been a Bowie fan (I totally respect his talent and what he gave to popular music but I just never became a fan) but I am familiar with many of his hit songs. So it’s very interesting for me to hear what Ten Jinn has achieved with their Ziggy Blackstar album because I can hear the Bowie in the music, and even at times in the vocals, but at the same time these songs sound fresh and new to me. Some of the songs Ten Jinn have covered are unfamiliar to me so they sound like new material, and if asked for my opinion I might say that they have a Bowie-esque quality to them. Vocalist John Paul Strauss manages to affect some very close Bowie-isms but never sounds like a hopeful mimic. He is confident in his own voice and that’s one of the reasons the songs come across not as copycat tribute songs but as interpretations by John Paul Strauss and Ten Jinn.
The music nearly all sounds original to me. I don’t know most of the original songs well enough to say how close Ten Jinn‘s versions are to the originals, but from my perspective, they have gone ahead and arranged the music to their capabilities and once again I am hearing fresh new music. I admit I was surprised by the album opener “I’m Afraid of Americans” because that is one Bowie song I have always really liked thanks to Trent Reznor‘s involvement. During the first listen to Ten Jinn‘s version I felt that they made a valiant effort but could not beat the original. But after the second listen I changed my view. They still can’t beat the original but what they have done with the song is, once again, made it their own and in the end, their result is a stand-alone effort. It’s like when you hear Paul McCartney praise a band for their personal take on a Beatles cover; I think Mr. Jones would have approved.
Other moments that caught my attention were the insane piano solo in “Aladdin Sane” (I don’t know if that’s in the original but it’s very cool here) and the surprising (to me) intro to “Future Legend” because it sounds so Ayreon.
Basically, I’ll say this: Ten Jinn‘s album sounds great to someone who does not have a deep familiarity with David Bowie‘s music. It can be enjoyed as an album on its own. Bowie fans might be more critical and zero in on details that go past me. But I think Ten Jinn have done a splendid job of doing an album entirely of Bowie cover songs. They struck the right balance between tribute and originality.
I must confess that I was more than a little surprised to discover that this is the debut album from Maurice Frank, as not only not the youngest talent on the block, but he sounds as if he has been recording and performing for many years. He has a fine voice, and obviously grew up listening to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and wants to take everyone back to the Fifties and the slow ballads of those performers. Pianist John Di Martino has put together a great band, but the arrangements sometimes overpower the feel and style that Frank is attempting to portray. Take “Slow Hot Wind” for example, the Latin undertones of the backing almost overpower the vocals and totally change the mood.
This isn’t really my style of music, as it is just too laid-back for me, but I can recognize that Frank has a fine voice and isn’t afraid to go for long-held notes, as he nails them every time. Sat on a stool, in a solo spotlight, I can imagine Frank holding a jazz room in the palm of his hand and if you like this sort of thing it could well be worth investigating. For more details visit www.mauricefrank.com