Slator on… Fela Kuti’s “Zombie”

It’s hard not to like Fela: ambassador of the people, exposer of corruption, warrior against injustice and inventor of Afrobeat. His method of serving up politically-charged lyrics wrapped in an infectious blend of Jazz, Funk and Hi-Life was pure genius: give the audience an education as well as a tune they can dance to. He was also a master of simile and analogy when it came to his lyrics.

Here, he equates the Nigerian military with the titular zombies: simple-minded, brain-dead and incapable of independent thought: “Zombie no go think unless you tell am to think”. Every suppressive order given (“put am for reverse”), even when it means certain death for others or even themselves, the soldiers comply without question.

On Side 2, entitled Mister Follow Follow, Fela expands on this theme further but without the militaristic analogy. He argues against those who blindly follow the herd without observing their environment, engaging their intelligence and without communication. It sounds very much like a wake-up call to the people of post-colonial Nigeria, calling upon them to recognise the changes colonialism has made to their culture, their language and their country. Very sound advice.

As always, it’s the music that sells the message. If you’re not already familiar with his music, Afrobeat is made up of simple, yet wholesome, ingredients: funky rhythms, call-and-response vocals and full-scale improvisation on saxophone, trumpet and piano; his ever-present drummer, Tony Allen, underpinning everything with dexterity and precision.

When I first heard Zombie, I couldn’t stop playing it. For an album with such a heavy, political message, it’s catchy as hell! While you’re tapping your feet, Fela’s words burrow into your brain.  I loved the sax and trumpet solos during the intro that evoked the interplay between Miles Davis and John Coltrane back in the late 50’s, and how Fela’s mockery of the military was done tongue-in-cheek. At just 25 minutes, the album was short enough to play twice in a single lunch hour, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve done so. Is it my favourite Fela album? At the moment, definitely – but I’ve only just scratched the surface of Fela’s works. With the world as it is today, his works are still highly relevant, so time will tell!

The album was a hit amongst the people, but the ruling junta didn’t react quite as favourably. A thousand or so of the titular zombies turned up at Fela’s commune, the Kalakuta Republic, and razed the place to the ground. Fela was severely beaten and almost killed; his mother, Funmilayo – herself a prominent rights activist and educator – was fatally injured.

What happened next is a story for another day.

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100-Word Weekends: Bobby McFerrin’s “Simple Pleasures”

There are “singers”, and there’s Bobby McFerrin. The man has more knowledge of, and skill with, the human voice than many professional singers will ever possess. While his career of late has transcended above the A Cappella pop of his late 80’s output,  Don’t Worry, Be Happy will always be the song for which he’s best known. However, if you wipe that song from the record, you still have an album that’s brimming with smiles and sunshine whilst also quenching a creative thirst without getting too convoluted; as he says himself, simple pleasures are the best.

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Slator on… Going Forward

While I’ve got enough articles in reserve to see me through the next week or so, I’m a bit dry on inspiration for new articles. I think I was being a wee bit over-optimistic about having 2 articles published every week!

Starting next month, I’ll be posting on a more ad-hoc basis as and when I’ve got something to write about. I might still continue the 100-Word Weekends feature though.

Slator on… Steve Hackett’s “The Night Siren”

It’s a well-known fact that you cannot have any “prog-cred” at all if you have not heard of Steve Hackett. You may be forgiven if you’ve not heard any of his solo albums (on the condition that you go forth and buy one), or if you’re relatively new to the genre. Given that his tenure with Genesis covered several albums of what is essential listening for any prog rocker, his name, along with his six-string wizardry, cannot have escaped you.

Now, I will admit that my collection of solo Hackett albums is a bit lacking, but in the same breath, I was really impressed by his last album, 2015’s Wolflight. When Steve announced the release of this follow-up, I knew it was well worth a punt given his recent form. When he said there would be a limited “Northern Light”-style vinyl release with all pre-orders signed by the man himself, I was as good as drooling over my credit card.

I’d paid for the premium, de-luxe, once-in-a-lifetime package, and his team delivered just that – but did Steve deliver his end of the bargain?

Erm. Yes. Very much so.

He has a magnificent way of blending worldly instruments and influences into a sound that’s undeniably his. Some artists struggle to fill an hour’s worth of music without B-grade filler, but Steve’s open mind and widened inspiration prevents that from happening. Each track is like a mini epic, each with its own character and each with its own story to tell – from the percussive turbulence of El Niño (performed by none other than Nick D’Virgilio – think back to when Phil Collins and Bill Bruford went head-to-head on Seconds Out), via the war cry of In Another Life and through to the call-to-unity of West to East. It’s all very captivating.

I’d have liked to hear more of his nylon guitar work on this album – at least as a bonus track. He is, after all, a formidable guitarist in both classical and rock disciplines, and the solo guitar pieces he composed for Wolflight were delightfully gossamer and tuneful. That’s nit-picking though – The Night Siren is still a solid and engaging album without them.

I once said, after hearing Wolflight, that I didn’t particularly care if Genesis ever reunited with a pre-1978 lineup as long as Hackett was making albums of that standard. I still feel the same way.

At least he can deliver an album of high-quality original material without you having to wait 15+ years for it. Don’t you agree, Mr. Gabriel?

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Slator on… Tangerine Dream’s “Quantum Key”

Tangerine Dream fans can be a loyal, if fickle, bunch. When the news hit that the band were continuing without their recently-departed founder, Edgar Froese, I’m sure there were a few people who wrote the band off there and then. No Froese, no TD. I’m also willing to bet there were some devout TD collectors who were conflicted between writing off a Froese-less band and owning an incomplete collection.

I’m going to be honest here: out of the three band members, I much preferred the sound Thorsten Quaeschning and Ulrich Schnauss were creating. I found some of Edgar’s recent compositions just didn’t go anywhere, which is quite unusual when you look at his early solo work. I longed for a time when TD albums returned to being collaborative efforts rather than a compilation of solo performances. Looks like I got my wish.

Quantum Key is perhaps the best TD release I’ve heard since Mars Polaris back in 1999. Edgar’s abstract/minimalist approach is augmented with the more expressive styles of Mssrs. Quaschning and Schnauss, allowing the band’s penchant for progressive instrumentals to really shine through. It pulses, it ripples and it haunts in the way their early Virgin-era albums used to, but with a noticeably modern touch. I also love the contrast that Hoshiko’s violin brings to the music – a classical elegance floating effortlessly over the boys’ bubbling sequences and arpeggios.

Edgar’s legacy is in very safe hands.

If you’ve got a turntable to play it on, the recent vinyl issue by Invisible Hands Music is well worth investing in. They had the lacquers cut at Abbey Road, and the sound quality is stunning.

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100-Word Weekends: “Your Wilderness” by The Pineapple Thief

Birthday gift vouchers are ideal for gambling on artists I’d not heard before. Kscope label? Gavin Harrison on drums? Sold! With the ghostly delivery of Snow Patrol, the introspective whimper of Radiohead and the intensity of In Absentia-era Porcupine Tree, the album sounds quite simple on the surface, but is so acute and brimming with mystique that the more rewarding discoveries require time, effort and patience in unearthing them. In ExileThat Shore and The Final Thing on My Mind are must-hears, best experienced with headphones on and the lights off.

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Slator on… GTR

At the time of writing (March 31st), I’ve come to the end of a week fuelled by Steve Hackett. From Monday thru Thursday, The Night Siren has been on constant play during my daily commute (more on that album at a later date), and today, my lunchtime walk has been accompanied by GTR: his mid-80’s collaboration with Steve Howe, formerly of Yes and Asia. I’d recently re-acquired the album on cassette, and listening to it again took me back to 1998 during the height of my Genesis-mania. CDs of the album were long out of print, but I managed to find it on cassette whilst holidaying with my parents on the Isle of Wight. Sod the scenery, sod the picturesque coastline… Walkman on… GTR!!!

A lot has already been written about the album, and it’s had its fair share of criticism and notoriety over the past 30 years. Is it really that bad (or as SHT as one critic put it)?

Let’s be honest: GTR was always going to disappoint. Put Hackett and Howe – two very talented and high-profile Prog guitarists – in the same band, and they’ll obviously raise some very lofty expectations. Adding Jon Mover on drums and Phil Spalding on bass (who recently had stints with Marillion and Mike Oldfield respectively), didn’t curb the Prog massiv’s expectations either. The album hits the shelves and, while it performed well on the airwaves over in America with healthy sales to match, it just wasn’t Proggy enough for some.

Personally, as much as I love my Prog, I’m quite partial to a bit of radio-friendly, mid-80’s pop rock too. Stick GTR up against Journey, Foreigner, Toto – even Asia – and you start to see them in proper focus. They were what I call “Mid-Atlantic AOR”: all the power and poppiness to break into the American market, but with a very British sensibility.

Case in point: count the power ballads.

I’ll give you a clue: there aren’t any (well, not by my definition of the term).

There’s also a major difference in their sound: they were, as their name suggested, very guitar-centric. Beyond the odd bit of guitar synthesizer, Hackett and Howe flex their chops at every opportunity. They’re very complementary to be honest: they give each other ample room and equal footing, depending on what the song requires. Toe the Line is a fine example, where Howe’s slide guitar melodies glide over some delightful nylon-stringed picks from Hackett.

The lack of a waving-zippos power ballad works to their advantage, for it allows their lead vocalist, Max Bacon, to really shine. His voice is a very clear, powerful and tonally-pure tenor – cutting through the twin-guitar assault like a Hattori Hanzo sword. Geoff Downes‘ production puts him front-and-centre, with the two guitarists flanking him on either side, in their own little space.

It’s only real crime is boasting two Prog legends but offering very little Prog. The closer, Imagining, is perhaps the closest you get. If you can look past genre expectations, and forgive the two founders a couple of minutes each of guitar-geekery (Howe on a 12-string, Hackett torturing his whammy-bar), GTR is actually quite a strong and powerful album – it rocks way harder than any AOR album of its time. It’s worth hearing just for the tight musicianship and Max Bacon alone.

But do you want to know the best bit?

When the Heart Rules the Mind is probably the only AOR mega-hit that hasn’t been covered on Glee!

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Slator on… Transatlantic: Album #5?

I really enjoy the music of Prog supergroup Transatlantic – for my birthday just over a year ago, I was on the receiving end of 3 of their 4 albums on double vinyl (I’d already got Kaleidoscope) which really re-kindled my love for their work. As musicians and composers, all four are among the best in their class, and when they’re together, they create these immense albums that sound bigger than the four of them put together. I don’t know what it is about them, but they can make a 75-minute album, with just four or five tracks, pass in what feels like seconds. Time flies when you’re having fun!

New Transatlantic albums don’t come around very often. There was a four-year gap between The Whirlwind and Kaleidoscope, and next January, it’ll have been 4 years since then. Is it likely we’ll see album number 5 surfacing soon?

Let’s check the calendars… and, in doing so, give their respective tours a plug.

Roine Stolt has recently finished a tour with Kaipa, and the Flower Kings website shows no further tour commitments as of yet. There’s still the possibility of him touring with Jon Anderson, promoting last year’s jaw-dropping Invention of Knowledge, but that’s unlikely given Jon’s ongoing commitments with Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman.

Marillion will be keeping Pete Trewavas busy until the end of July but, apart from an appearance at Oxford’s Cropredy Festival in mid-August, there are no dates planned until late September.

That just leaves Mssrs. Morse and Portnoy. Both of them are currently touring to promote Neal’s acclaimed, triple-vinyl Prog behemoth: The Similtude of a Dream. When he’s not on the road with Neal, Mike’s got some dates booked with Shattered Fortress, but there are some gaps in late-July/early-August

So, it looks like there are some windows of opportunity in August/September for the four of them to convene and bash out another handful of long, multi-part epics. With previous albums, they’ve had a couple of weeks around Neal’s place to pool their ideas and flesh things out, no doubt film a documentary or two for a future live DVD.

Of course, this is pure speculation – nothing official has been announced from any of them – but you’ve got to admit… the stars are aligning quite nicely!

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Slator on… Mike Oldfield’s “Return to Ommadawn”

Mike’s third album, 1975’s Ommadawn, has since become such a fan favourite, it’s no longer uncommon to find someone who prefers it over his most famous creation: Tubular Bells. I count myself among those people. Whether he was revisiting an older work or not, I secretly hoped to hear him return to the long-form instrumental style he’s well-known for.

The album certainly doesn’t lack any of Oldfield’s early hallmarks: a hand-crafted earthiness, delicate contrapuntal melodies, tactile guitar work and a very spacious-yet-detailed production.

Side 1 has the more Ommadawn-esque self-reflection, particularly in the delicate layering of each instrument, accompanied by Mike’s quivering guitar solos. Structurally, it sounds closer to its spiritual cousin, 1990’s Amarok, which is no bad thing at all.  The themes are shorter, more numerous, and employed in variations  later on throughout each side. Side 2 also had more of Amarok‘s cheery playfulness, but with Oldfield’s relationship with Virgin on far more cordial terms than it was under Richard Branson, its mischievous and rebellious streak is kept at bay.

One area where I feel Return eclipses the original is how it feels like one, conclusive whole than two distinct parts. Once Side 1 has completed its build-up to the turbulent finale, concluding with a short reprisal of the opening theme, it moves quite naturally into the more optimistic second half. During the “On Horseback” finale, you feel like you’ve just been taken on a forty-minute, nomadic musical journey, culminating with a sense of completeness and finality as Mike declares “I’d rather be here“.

It’s definitely a fan-pleaser, and those with keen ears and huge Oldfield collections will love poring through the piece looking for hints of other back-catalogue pieces like a musical Easter Egg hunt.

Is it of the same standard as his “big three”: Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn? Time will tell, but for now, it’s not far off. It’s pleasant, pastoral, gentle, jaunty and, at times, down right fun; listening to it certainly gives me a rush of endorphins from time-to-time. Being forty-years separated from the big three, the only thing it lacks is an authentic, vintage, analogue charm – but owning the vinyl release goes some way towards capturing that back.

A very worthy entry into an impressive and expansive catalogue.

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100-Word Weekend: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Recomposed by Max Richter

Under the old adage of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”, you could argue that Vivaldi’s Four Seasons didn’t need re-composing: it’s just fine the way it is. Lack of necessity doesn’t automatically imply lack of value. In applying his minimalist approach, Richter disassembles and reconfigures Vivaldi’s work into a modern piece that boasts both the spirit and vivacity of Vivaldi but also the mood and melancholy of his own style; unlocking new images and sensations from what is, perhaps, the baroque era’s most well-known concertos. Approach with an open mind.

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