Saturday, 31 December 2016

My Song Of 2016: Ange Hardy & Lukas Drinkwater - By The Tides

2016 - well, that was a year for the future historians. It was as if someone had grabbed hold of the game board and just threw it up in the air, letting the pieces fall as they will.
The only constant, as usual, seemed to be music. Although 2016 decided it was a year to take more than it's fair share of Musicians up to The Great Gig In The Sky.

There have been some tremendous songs released this year. Most tucked away on various albums that the mass market won't even get a chance to hear on the National Airwaves. It's been up to the independent Disc Spinners to ensure these songs at least get a chance to be heard on the radio waves.
So BIG LOVE to Disc Spinners such as Adam Wilson, Alex Huskisson, Chris Giles, Del Day etc for helping bring these great songs to their audience.

Nobody could have failed to notice the turmoil around the world this year. The musicians certainly haven't. Again, it's left to the artists of the world to truly describe what we are feeling - not the newspapers or media who all have their own separate agendas.
By The Tides is Ange Hardy & Lukas Drinkwater's response to the tragic scenes of the people of Syria desperately trying to make their way over the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. 
So many who saw the photograph of that child being brought dead out of the sea were moved by what they saw. But very few had a response such as this.

Delicate, heartbreaking and so, so moving, By The Tides captivates from the moment you hear it.
As I sit and write this, Top Of The Pops is showing on the TV. With it's plastic pop and commercially driven music, it is the total antithesis of what By The Tides stands for.
So often, it is left to what are perceived as Folk performers to tell the stories and describe life the way it is. And they are so often underappreciated for their efforts. But it's songs such as this that will, in the end, stand the test of time as future historians and musicians look to the past for information and inspiration.

Ange Hardy & Lukas Drinkwater have written a modern classic. 

Seek out the album from which it comes - Findings. It's an absolute beauty.

Twitter - @AngeHardyMusic


Friday, 30 December 2016

My Album Of 2016: Robert Reed - Sanctuary 2 - (also my Prog Album Of 2016)

One of the fabulous surprises for me in my musical journey was the appearance of Sanctuary by Robert Reed in 2014.

Robert Reed – The Multi Instrumentalist, composer , producer and guiding light of the Welsh band Magenta and through various solo projects (under various names other than his own – Kompendium, ChimpanA, Kiama) – produced Sanctuary 1 as an exercise in long form instrumental music. He used his love of Mike Oldfield as his template. Many saw it as a tribute to Oldfield – but it wasn’t intended to be a tribute or homage. It was a ‘doff of the hat’ to one of his biggest influences and musical heroes. And he pulled it off with a sense of elan that I didn’t think was possible in these musical times. It was a fantastic piece of work 
that was just begging to be followed up with another record in the same format.

opening of Sanctuary 2

So, using the same template as Sanctuary 1, Rob Reed has produced the follow up, Sanctuary 2. This time he has added another of his heroes into the mix – David Bedford. David worked with Oldfield since his early days in Kevin Ayers band and through his various solo work such as Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, The Odyssey, Instructions For Angels and Star’s End.
Indeed, the opening lines of Sanctuary 2 have David Bedford written all over them. And what a great opening it is. Stringed Keys with a tremendous deep sonic boom which certainly gives your bass speakers a workout.

Sanctuary 2 - Side 1

Rob Reed has looked to Sanctuary 1 as a starting point and built upon the sound. Adding more textures and colours whilst keeping to the spirit of the original. I was lucky enough to have heard some of the early mixes where I described the sound as being Sanctuary 1 but wearing velvet and brocade and he’s stuck with this in the final mix. It really is a beautiful piece of music.

Rob has once again taken on the role of multi instrumentalist as he once plays the vast majority of the instruments himself but has, this time, taken the opportunity to broaden the soundscape with the help of former Oldfield drummer Simon Phillips. The drums within the record lift it up to musical heights that the first Sanctuary just hinted at.

The danger of the follow up mirrors the work of Oldfield when he followed up Tubular Bells with the more pastoral and delicate, Hergest Ridge. But Rob Reed has come up with a beautiful collection of melodies contained within the two sides for Sanctuary 2.
With legendary producer Tom Newman again working on the project, Rob has the opposite problem to Oldfield. With his pop sensibility for melody, he has had to cut down on the number of melodic passages contained within the work and to develop a melodic and cohesive whole, rather than adding another melody.

It’s hard to describe a long form piece of instrumental music. Suffice to say, it ebbs and flows, takes you to highs and lows, is contemplative in passages and euphoric in others. The whole range of emotions. But it is very much a ‘human’ record. The recorders of Les Penning and the vocals of Synergy and solo vocals of Angharad Brinn further define these human moments in the layers of sound that swirl around you.

The album is certainly several steps forward from the original Sanctuary but keeps the same uplifting spirit as the first. Epitomised at the end of side 1 where Rob’s soaring guitar dances around the solid beat of Phillips’ driving beats while vocals, keyboards and Tubular Bells join in the euphoric melody as the musical reaches its climax.

The Sanctuary albums show another side of Rob Reed. The delicate, folky side of his nature. Sanctuary 2 has more of this flavouring than the first album and side opens with a lovely acoustic guitar melody which develops using vocals and glockenspiel and finally electric guitar and bass. Which then breaks into a lovely flamenco styled acoustic section. The whole album contains many musical twists and turns like this as it weaves it’s way through the various themes.

Rob has certainly used the skills of Les Penning to it’s maximum effect and you can tell both musicians are enjoying themselves as they’re playing. It’s one of those instrumental albums where you’re only a few bars away from a memorable phrase or theme that sticks in your head after only a couple of listens.

If you look back over the years, a lot of instrumental based albums normally save all their best ideas for side one and often side two pales in comparison. Not Sanctuary 2. The themes and performances in side 2 are of equal quality to side 1.

And I must say the quality of the playing by Rob himself is exceptional. Known as a keyboard player, his work on bass and particularly guitar, is getting better with each album. I think the original Sanctuary album meant more to Rob in terms of proving to himself what he capable of than all of his earlier work. I may be wrong and I’m sure he’ll tell me if I am. But I can see the growth in confidence both in his playing and approach on Sanctuary 2.
I was lucky enough to have been at the very first performance of Sanctuary live at Real World in the summer. To hear it live it a totally different experience. But how I chose to listen at home is through my 5.1 Surround Sound system. Music like this is made for Surround Sound and sounds absolutely breathtaking as the instruments swirl around you. If you have this facility at home, make sure you get a 5.1 copy of the album.

So, Rob Reed has shown that Sanctuary 1 was no fluke. He’s bettered it with Sanctuary 2. Is there going to be a Sanctuary 3? Who knows. Rob is obviously comfortable within the long form musical format but whether he feels he has explored those ideas enough, only he knows. Personally, I’d like to see him produce a third. Possibly with a more orchestral leaning maybe. Only time will tell. But if Rob Reed chooses to leave it at two – I’ll be happy as Larry with what he’s achieved and relish the prospect of his next musical move.

Twitter - @robreedmagenta

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

My Singer/Songwriter Album Of 2016 - BLAIR DUNLOP - GILDED

Released early in 2016 - Gilded -  the third album by Blair Dunlop finds him in superb form. Following on from his debut Blight & Blossom and his sophomore release House Of Jacks, album number three - Gilded - shows how much Blair has developed as a songwriter and performer.

Initially bracketed in the Folk genre, Blair has worked hard over the three albums to show that he has much more in his locker. And with Gilded he has thrown off the shackles and has, (excuse the pun), 'blossomed' into a singer/songwriter more akin to his West Coast heroes such as Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.

The young man has even formed his own record label, Gilded Wings, (taken from his song Temper Your Smiling), on which Gilded is released.

Italy is never far away from Blair's heart and indeed the opening track, Castello, again brings a taste of sunlight into the observations of his story telling style - one aspect of his folk roots that will serve him well as his career develops in the future. Describing an encounter with a young lady on one of his tours, it's a delicious opener to an absolutely gorgeous album.


The album was recorded with very much a 'live' band vibe in Manchester's Blueprint Studios and with regular cohorts Fred Claridge on Drums & Percussion, Jacob Stoney on Keyboards and Tim Thomas on Bass.

She Won't Cry For Me rises and falls like waves on a beach as it shines a light on Blair's more romantic side as he ruminates about love and relationships - something that is never far away in his thoughts. 

Courtesy of

She Won't Cry For Me

Never scared to shy away from social comment, Blair quietly lets rip on Third World Problem, which features some lovely organ work from Jacob and focuses on today's industrial farming methods. And a sudden stop which will make you check your cd player.

It's amazing how the small everyday incidents can come to life in songs. With the jaunty 356, Blair describes a trip to a local car dealership near his now London home. The car in question is a Porsche 356 and the story is beautifully told.


Temper Your Smiling finds Blair in fine voice as his voice uses his falsetto in a pleading and epic 6 minute ballad. A key feature of the song is the splendid keyboard touches on organ and piano provided by Jacob Stoney which provides a counterpoint to the sensual, slow pace.

photo courtesy of Nick Baker

Blair also has a penchant for looking to history for subjects for his songs and next up comes Up On Cragside, about Lord William George Armstrong, the 19th Century entrepreneur. It may sound as dry as a bone but it's one of my favourite songs on the album. 

Up On Cragside

photo courtesy of Nick Baker

Eternal Optimist is at the moment my favourite song on the album. It's a beautiful shuffle with flourishes of piano and electric guitar against a lovely off beat which shows that Blair has more than one trick up his sleeve in his sonic explorations.

Let's Dance To Paganini is an acoustic song that Jackson Browne would be proud of and would sit well on any one of his early 70s album. It's great to see Blair looking to wider influences in his search for his own journey. One thing that gets better on each album is Blair's flair with a lyric. He's never been June, Moon, Spoon but with stories to tell and emotions to expose, it's becoming a major feature of his work.

This year, BBC Radio 2 came knocking at Blair's door as it playlisted the next song on the album, the ever so catchy, The Egoist. With a lovely three note phrase, the song hooks you and twirls you around it's delicate finger. Again, it features some lovely falsetto touches from Blair. 

No Go Zones is a reaction to US news reports that parts of the UK are now 'No Go Zones' due to immigration here in the UK. And Blair doesn't pull his punches. Showing his finger picking panache, it's an iron fist of an acoustic song presented in a velvet glove. And a beautiful thing it is too. Very much in a Woody Guthrie vain. 

No Go Zones

I Don't Know is another of Blair's gorgeous light and airy pleading ballads with the cymbals crashing like waves with a lovely pulsing bass running throughout the song. It almost beats like a heart. I think it's the most atmospheric track on the album and it's gone before you know it. Like a British summer.

Phoenix closes the album in style. It's a slow burner of a song which brings together all of the features of the album. Lovely electric guitar work, a touch of falsetto, throbbing bass by Tim Thomas, beautiful cymbal work from Fred Claridge and sympathetic piano work from Jacob Stoney. 

I can't believe how much Blair Dunlop has grown as an artist over these three albums. And he's still very much a young man. What's he going to achieve in his later years? He has the potential to be another Jackson Browne or indeed a Leonard Cohen. I only hope I'm around sufficiently long enough to see him able to take his place up there with the best the UK has to offer. He IS that special and we should cherish him.

Twitter - @BlairDunlop