Thursday, 30 May 2013

Wagner preludes and Rush hours

Two rather full-on concerts to tell you about. The first was at the Royal Festival Hall (largest performance space in London's South Bank Centre) to celebrate the 200th anniversary of composer Richard Wagner's birth.

Rejoicing in the title 'Wagner Anniversary Concert' (suspect that was quite a short meeting), the programme seemed to be a bit of a greatest hits set, divided into three parts: the overture of one of Wagner's most accessible operas, 'Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg'; the opening and closing sections of 'Tristan and Isolde', commonly (as I found out) extracted and joined together for performance in concert; and Act III of 'Die Walkure', the second opera in the Ring cycle and, importantly, the bit that kicks off with 'Ride of the Valkyries'. (All together now, 'dur-nur-nur-nuuuuur-nur...')

Mrs Specs and I were accompanied by [*applause on entrance of much-loved recurring character*] David, our Proms pal and classical music oracle. David has been particularly patient with me lately as I'm on a bit of a Wagner crash course. This coming summer, it's basically Wagnerama at the Proms and, with Mrs Specs being far too sensible to even consider this, David and I have bought 7-day season tickets to 'Prom' - that is, go along and stand rather than book a seat in advance - at performances of all four Ring operas inside a week. (This led to David sending me the memorable text that he was "Looking forward to tackling the Ring with me up in the Gallery". I'm a married man, etc.)

So - David saw this anniversary night as a 'warm-up' - a chance to dip my toes into Wagnerian waters before total immersion come late July. And weirdly, that really is what it felt like. Apparently Wagner took a lot of persuading before allowing any of his work to be chopped up into bitesize pieces for performance, and I can hear why. When the Meistersinger overture stopped, I just wanted it to carry on. Hearing the two ends of Tristan only made me want to hear the whole thing. And even a full 70 mins of the Valkyrie third act made me slightly cross I hadn't got to hear the first 150 or so.

Initial reaction: I know that some people are put off Wagner because of an impression of immensity or weight, but I wonder if this is more a matter of length, or scale. While these pieces tonight were extracts, I found the music to be surprisingly light on its feet, and certainly inviting. The overture was dizzyingly varied and inventive (David in 'insider' mode was explaining to me how hard orchestras tackling the piece have to rehearse the 'joins' between the sections to achieve the necessary 'zip'). And the action at the end of 'Die Walkure' is resolutely small scale. Often quiet and seriously intimate (after the initial burst of action, it's essentially a two-hander between Wotan, king of the gods, and his soon-to-be-estranged daughter Brunnhilde), it plays out as an almost domestic tragedy - ok, with shields, helmets and an all-encompassing circle of fire, but you get my drift - with moving performances from the two soloists prompting an heartfelt and appreciative response from the audience.

(An aside: I'm not ignoring or dismissing Wagner's 'dark side' and the difficulties that may or may not present for enjoying his music. I suspect, though, that when I'm blogging - possibly an emotional and exhausted shell of a man - during the Proms, there'll be more sense, room and context to discuss it then.)

Anyway, Wagner might have thought he was re-defining the epic, but had he seen Rush in concert? I THINK NOT. Rush do have a break mid-set - presumably for oxygen and stamina-enhancing elixirs - but overall we're talking a three-hour gig and it FLEW by (night).

I genuinely don't think there's another band quite like Rush. Following a debut album of relatively straightforward blues rock, the current trio were in place by record number 2 - released in 1975. Incoming drummer Neil Peart (still affectionately called the 'new boy' by bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson) was of a literary, intellectual bent and, taking over the lyrics, helped send them off more or less into their own genre. (Sample song title from the debut: 'Need Some Love'. Sample song title from the follow-up: 'By-Tor and the Snow Dog: III - Of the Battle, a. Challenge and Defiance'.)

They write lengthy and involved songs without lapsing into abstract proggery (whatever the lyrical excesses, the music is pin-sharp); they rock very, very hard without becoming truly metallic; and on top of that, they have the unpredictable melodies and chords - and scary technical precision - you might find in jazz or fusion. In fact, their virtuosity has become something of a calling card. One of the most dazzling aspects of a Rush concert is that (normally - see below...) whatever complex wizardry you can hear, it's being made by just the three of them, live. I checked Wikipedia for a bit of background and I was relieved to discover that they are, at least, only human: they use triggers and samples, which allow them to get somewhere near to the sound of the records, but can control these in 'real time' without having to use backing tracks. Alex and Neil are astonishingly talented, but in a band of three geniuses, it's Geddy's multi-tasking that really drops the jaw: he plays either bass or keyboards with his hands, uses his feet to operate the synth pedals, and then sings on top. I can't understand why he doesn't have to be led off-stage, a gibbering wreck, by the end of each evening. (Hang on. Maybe he does.)

This is the third time I've seen Rush. In some respects, it's business as usual at the O2. They only play large arenas so they make sure the visuals are spectacular. Neil does a deranged drum solo that the punters lap up (instead of prompting the undignified sight of hordes of grown adults flinging each other out of the way to reach the bar). Also, their back catalogue is now so large that every tour it's as if they've walked into a room at Rush Mansions and tripped over an old neglected LP, with the cry "why don't we do a few off THAT one?" This year the 'Power Windows' and 'Roll the Bones' albums get the VIP treatment - clever, because those synth-heavy tracks are a good balance for the new stuff from 'Clockwork Angels', the brilliant new record. Not only do these songs provide some full-on guitar mayhem - \m/ - but Rush have a genuine, surprise masterstroke up their sleeves as a seven-strong string ensemble appears - in an explosion, obviously - to enrich the noise even further. They play like maniacs, the video screens showing enormous grins on their faces as they're let loose on some old Rush classics, like 'YYZ', as well as the new songs.

They encore with a slimmed-down version of '2112', their side-long SF epic about a totalitarian order suppressing the masses by controlling all forms of culture, including music. Reminded me of Wagner for some reason...

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Home is where the art is

Very quick blog update this. Only a couple of posts ago, I was trying to alert as many of you as possible to the beautiful art of Peter Ray Billington. Much of what I would like to say about his work, I said there - so if you didn't see it before, please go and have a look now.

Why the update? Well, one extremely exciting reason, for me at least. Mrs Specs and I did the necessary sums and worked out that we had the budget to buy one of P's pictures. Around the same time, P had posted a couple of pen and ink pictures from his archives, and I had fallen rather in love with this one, 'Three':

To our delight, it was for sale - so we are now the proud owners waiting to take delivery. I love the giddy intricacy of this piece - the way the shading choices echo without quite repeating across the three panels, and how similar symbols appear at various points re-coloured or re-shaped. And while P works in the abstract, to me this is so much about landscape folding in on, then out of, itself; sun, cloud, sea, mountain and sky interchangeable, dreamlike. I'm so looking forward to getting lost in when it's actually up on our wall.

It's also worth considering the intensity of labour and care required for a pen and ink piece like this. Here is another one P posted around the same time, 'Magic Carpet':

I cannot imagine the patience and determination involved - having had the idea in the first place - to carry it through with such precision.

P mentioned to my amazement that the pen and ink pictures are in fact 'vintage', and the piece we have bought is a couple of decades old. This not only shows how fully formed P's talent arrived in his youth, but also how consistent his approach has remained without his ever seeming to repeat himself.

Please also feast your eyes on these two commissions that Peter has completed much more recently. Both, I think, unlock that multi-patterned mind and send him down creative avenues that dare to suggest our world (the nightlife cityscape of 'Monk', followed by the alien peaks and valleys of 'The Magic Mountain'), while remaining firmly in his.

Finally, if I'm to be any service at all, I should mention that P is still available for commissions - so please have a good look around his website, and contact him if you think he belongs on your wall as well.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Dark folk in a dark room: Sieben, Naevus

[Above: the 'ogham' symbol that forms the Sieben logo. It represents (to quote the mighty Sieben himself, Matt Howden: Quert, Muin and Huarth, the letters Q, M, and H, and the trees Apple, Vine, and Hawthorn. Matt has a tattoo of this on his arm. I, being a coward, have a badge.]

The publicity for the gig was pretty insistent - 'get there on time'. Doors around 7pm, first band around 7.15. Electrowerkz at the Angel, Islington was clearly a tightly-run ship, by God. Be punctual unless you fear missing the first note.

And that was a genuine risk. The evening overall was a mini-festival of sorts, packing in a top-flight line-up of five 'dark folk' bands and artists. (By the way, I prefer this way of describing the genre to, say, a buzzword like neo-folk, because I think it diminishes these musicians to call them a new, updated version of something. The best of them are true originals. Dark folk works for me: it sums up the slightly occult nature of the music - not simply that it sometimes uses pagan/pastoral subject matter, or flirts with the eerie and the gothic. It's also that you have to go looking for this music - and once you've found it, it draws you in and that's it.)

You'd have had to take my word for it, though, standing outside what is basically a kind of impressive shack in broad daylight. I fell in love with Electrowerkz, to be honest. Who couldn't find room in their heart for a 'Do not break the windows' sign next to a row of unfailingly broken windows? Or - not that I want to suggest this was a low-key gig - the way one of the band members came out to apologise for not letting us in the venue yet; they were having trouble with "the amp". We were all pleased to find once we got inside that there was more than one amp, although sadly the rogue piece of kit caused trouble for one of the bands later on.

Still, I only want to feature two of the acts on the bill - namely, the ones I really, properly love. First of all, Sieben - aka Sheffield violin genius Matt Howden. (For those of you that know me in real life - yes, all right, sorry, I have probably told you about this guy before. Possibly about 43 times.)

Matt builds his songs up, alone on stage, using only his fiddle and loop pedals. While he's not the only musician to play live in this way, he's a unique performer with a bewildering array of, er, strings to his bow. For a start, he has a completely unrestricted idea of what he can make a violin do. Before your eyes and ears, he will layer a few melody lines (including 'bouncing' down a bass part, and plucking as well as bowing the strings), then add beats by tapping - and, on occasion, pretty much lamping - the body of the instrument. Earning the epithet 'the Hendrix of the fiddle' in a more literal way than you might expect, he may also rub the stubble on his chin against the edge of the violin to create a jittery hi-hat effect - although judging by this latest performance, he has toned that down slightly after finding a way to create the same effect with his hand.

Nonetheless, he remains a consummate showman - which is why I felt it was important to include a live video in this blog entry. Seemingly wired to the earth through the fiddle and pedals, he is never still - prowling the stage while he layers the tunes and rhythms, recharging his batteries during the vocals by pumping his bow arm up and down, then eventually - spectacularly - he seems to cross a kind of ecstatic tipping point and whirls his bow around above his head. (I've often wondered how he actually learned to do this. How would you practise it and avoid the bow describing a perfect arc across the room? I have visions of a teenage Matt's home being a bit like a Sheffield Bayeux Tapestry - friends and family staggering around the house with bows sticking out of their heads, necks, rear ends.... "AAAUUGHH!" "Sorry, mum." Etc.) Finally, you might get the 'solo', for want of a better word. With the other layers motoring away underneath, by themselves, he gets a chance to display his virtuosity and invention.

This wouldn't all work, of course, if he wasn't a great songwriter as well. Luckily, he is. Not afraid to wrestle with a concept, he treats every album more or less as a clean slate and focuses on new subject matter and lyrical themes as well as continually refining the way he puts the tracks together. We heard brand new songs in this performance that took a sidestep away from the highly rhythmic approach of last CD "No Less Than All" into more ethereal territory, beautifully and confidently sung with the fiddle providing a kind of stately and serene pool of sound buoying up the vocal line. This video is not from the Electrowerkz night - and the tune featured is now a good few years old - but I think it's a spellbinding performance, skilfully filmed (love the shadow) and gives you a really good feel for Matt's energy and skill.

Also completely owning the Electrowerkz stage were Naevus. (It means 'birthmark' - thanks, Wikipedia!) You can tell from the way I've raved above that I've been living with - and loving - Sieben's music for a long time. I don't think I'll be able to speechify about Naevus to quite the same extent, because I'd only come across some of their stuff relatively recently. It was enough, though, to give me a really good feeling about seeing them live.

I can see that if they belong anywhere, it's in 'dark folk' - arresting and visceral lyrics, strong awareness of atmosphere, chord sequences of hypnotic power. Brilliantly, though, they overlay this with touches of punk and even grind - on the evidence of this performance, that would mean the thunderous drumming and an electric guitarist playing like he'd fallen into the magic potion as a child. It was as if a band like Killing Joke or Swans had accidentally got into some of the more spooky folk acts like Trees or Mr Fox and given their sound a substantial kicking. This gave the performance real tension, in the best sense; the pull of lead singer and songwriter Lloyd James's intriguing words and insistent melodies, against the push - the controlled aggression - of the rest of the band, barely kept on the leash.

The clip attached is of a song Naevus didn't perform on the night. However, in a way I think that's even more of a recommendation - as, still on a gig high, what I immediately did on getting home was stay up into the small hours hunting down any clips I could find of other Naevus tracks and ordering a couple of their CDs. Listen to this song for a masterclass in how to build up an epic, involving sound without any hint of bombast or excess. A marvellous group.

Find Sieben here.
Find Naevus here.
Both bands are also on Facebook.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

It's a frame about Ray

Something a bit different for the Specs blog this time. Looking back over the posts dealing with art or photography, I can see that what I'm writing about is essentially the 'shared' experience. I'm not a critic - I'm a punter, so I go along to the exhibitions that interest me, along with God knows how many other people. We all look at the same thing, but perhaps we all 'see' something different. I then come home and write up my thoughts on here - generally positive, I like to think, since (a) I don't go and see stuff I expect to hate, and (b) there's too much dissing on the internet already. My main aim on here is to ignite enthusiasm and generate some love and appreciation for artists and musicians I admire. Get people interested in things rather than put them off - otherwise, what good are you doing here? But I digress....

If I've ever come across something that might be new to people that know me (or to those who don't and are still kind enough to read the blog!), I suspect it's normally on the musical side. I like to think that there might some people listening to, say, Janice Whaley or Bitter Ruin, partly - or purely - because I've raved about them. I'll never know. But I think this might be the first time I can usefully get the word out about an artist.

Full disclosure: I consider Peter Ray Billington a good friend, even though we have only met 'virtually'. Occasionally I think I've made reference to the online community that revolved around the now defunct music magazine Word, and Peter belonged to that group. So first and foremost, he was to me the kind of excellent chap that shared with many of us the ability - and tendency! - to bang on about all manner of musical topics, more or less ad infinitum. Only after learning more about him, did I discover that he is an extraordinary abstract artist.

Mentioning the music upfront is significant - as Peter does himself in his website biography, declaring it possibly his key influence. From conversations with P, I can only doff my cap to his encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz in particular, even sharing as I do his pretty much obsessive love for it.

But even though some of his titles give the game away ('Bird', 'Miles'), can't you just tell that his head is full of jazz? What other music expresses so well the importance of two seemingly contradictory characteristics: the need for precision, the absolute mastery of one's instrument - balanced with the unleashed joy of improvisation, of loosening up, of finding a place to go where you haven't been yet. Without the first part - the virtuosity and discipline - the second would be a mess. With all the elements in place, though, there seem to be no limits to what can be achieved creatively when the 'conscious' process gives way to spontaneity.

I find this comparison is such a good approach to Peter's work. The more you study its detail, the more you appreciate the impossible care that has gone into each line and shape, and even on-line reproductions reveal an extraordinary variety of subtle moods as one hue morphs into another (notice how this goes on in the background shades as well as the foreground patterns). Yet step back, and the whole image is unfettered: an explosion of colour, wit and abandon. The circular shape used in several of P's images imposes a kind of control - just about keeps the lid on the contents - but the miniature fireworks within are breaking out at the edges. Improvising, if you like, around the endlessly repeating chord changes.

All the same - while I find the jazz connection really illuminates P's art for me, you could take it away and still be left with something wonderful to appreciate. P has not had an easy ride, and the jostling yet compatible motifs in his art also make me feel what it's like to try and contain, or hold together what can seem to be falling apart. The 'suffering artist' is a cliche I would prefer to avoid - but I think P's paintings have a lot to say about making art. It can be awkward and demanding, I suspect. Difficult, untidy even. It provides a release, while exerting a kind of control over you at the same time. That P can take such dizzyingly disparate elements and weave them into images that feel perfectly composed and unabashedly joyful is the mark, I think, of his own peculiar genius.

P does not currently have the budget or facilities to exhibit in a gallery, so it all has to happen through the magic of the internet. He is taking commissions AS I TYPE, so if you like what you've seen, please follow this link to his website, browse more of his work, and - if you fancy one of your own - drop him a line. Mission: a commission.

All pictures by Peter Ray Billington:
Sun Box
Miles No.1, Silent Way
Tower of Babble