Friday, 19 October 2012

Progarchy: 'Pointing Toward Proghalla'

Progressive rock has a very vibrant presence on the internet, with a number of communities and sites all with their particular strengths and idiosyncrasies. Over the years, I have probably visited Progressive Ears, Progarchives and DPRP more often than most, but there are many others, including sites hosted by individual bands (such as the BBT Facebook Group.)

Now, there is a fine new prog site called Progarchy which I strongly recommend. The site functions as a blog and includes reviews and articles. The number of contributors and readers is expanding very rapidly and I forecast that Progarchy will become an essential resource for prog listeners. The site can be found here and followed on Twitter here.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Summoned By Bells

Upper Kent Street, Highfields, Leicester
The title of the fifth song on English Electric, Summoned By Bells, was pinched from Sir John Betjeman's book. Like Betjeman's poem, the song takes a look back at an earlier part of the subject's life, but in this case the memories are from my mum, Doreen, who grew up in a working class area of Leicester called Highfields.

My grandad John was a wheeltapper and lived in a terraced railway house in Upper Kent Street, Highfields, for almost all of his adult life. The photograph below shows the railway yard where he and my uncles worked (Leicester Shed). The row of houses lit up by the sunlight on the left of the roundhouse is Upper Kent Street.

Leicester Shed and Upper Kent Street
My mum has told me many stories about her upbringing in Highfields and, a couple of years ago, we decided to take a family trip back to the area to have a look around.

We found that much had changed. Leicester Shed is just sidings now; Upper Kent Street is gone and the roundhouse is no more. The population of the area has changed too and, in many ways, it's a very different place from when John and Doreen and her brothers lived there.

However, the more we looked around the more familiar the place became to Mum. Many of the old redbrick buildings survive, including her old school. And the park at Spinney Hill where she played is still there (and still popular with the local children). There appeared to be a strong sense of community and, whilst Highfields is just an ordinary place, it seemed to me as good a place as anywhere.

As we drove away, we stopped to let a young girl cross the road. If we had been able to stand in that spot 70 years before, that little girl could have been my mum on her way down to Spinney Hill park. With this image in my mind, more clear to me than the changes in Highfields, was the golden thread of continuity running down from the past.

Summoned By Bells is about my mum's upbringing in Leicester and about our trip back to her childhood home. The early parts of the song are built around Danny's piano playing before the focus shifts to Dave's electric 12-string. The song also features our brass band, led by Dave Desmond, and the recorder playing of Jan Jaap Langereis.

In the next two weeks on his blog, David will be telling the stories of the sixth and seventh songs on English Electric, Upton Heath and A Boy in Darkness.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Winchester From St Giles' Hill

'Alfred had me made (or made me again)'

The third song on English Electric (Part One) is called Winchester From St Giles' Hill.
Winchester is a beautiful and historic city in the south of England. St Giles’ Hill lies to the east of the city and forms part of the western edge of the South Downs. From the top of the hill you can see all of Winchester, and the song is an historical view of the development of the city and of (as Peter Ackroyd calls it) the ‘long song’ of England.
Winchester stands at a number of crossroads in time and provides a narrative of British and English history in miniature. There was a prehistoric settlement at Oram’s Arbour, then it became a Roman town and afterwards, a Saxon capital and stronghold. The Normans built a castle and a massive cathedral. It became a centre of learning with the opening of Winchester College and, in Victorian times, the railways came and with them the modern age.
Michael Wood has stated that 'Geography is history and history is geography' and Winchester From St Giles' Hill seeks to link the development of the city with its place in the landscape.
'A river flowing from the chalkhills through the water meadows and the open fields.
Walls were made and streets were laid down,halls and houses, schools and churches.'
Winchester From St Giles' Hill begins and ends with a flute and piano motif. The theme also forms part of the instrumental section where it is played on classical guitar. Alongside David's flute, a key feature of the song is the beautiful and complex piano playing of Danny Manners. I asked Danny to develop the piano part so that it sounded like a mountain stream racing down a hillside: of such obscure requests, beautiful arrangements are made.
The next song to be featured as we count down towards the release  of English Electric will be Judas Unrepentant. David will be telling the tale of that song on his blog in a few days' time.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Judas Unrepentant

Judas Unrepentant from English Electric Part One appears on the covermount CD of Prog magazine which is available from newsagents tomorrow.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

About the new songs - The First Rebreather

Over the next few weeks, in the run-up to September 3rd, David and I are going to tell the stories behind each song on English Electric Part One. I'm going to kick off with The First Rebreather, which is the opening song on the new album.

The First Rebreather

Like many people, I'm fascinated by the world beneath our feet. Many towns and cities in England are riddled with underground passages and chambers (London, Bristol and Exeter being obvious examples) and a number of books have been published on these hidden places. There is also an organisation called Subterranea Britannica dedicated to the study of man-made underground spaces in Britain.

As BBT listeners may know, we have featured one such underground place in a song on The Underfall Yard called Winchester Diver, which tells the true story of diver William Walker who saved Winchester Cathedral by diving under the flooded foundations. The title track of The Underfall Yard also included some references to the world below.

When it came to writing English Electric, I remembered a story that Dave Gregory told me about the making of the Severn railway tunnel. On the basis that there can never be too many prog songs about diving into flooded tunnels I started researching the story and found an article called The First Rebreather which gave me the song's title.

As soon as I've got a good title, the creative juices normally start to flow and so I quickly set about writing the soundtrack and lyrics to the true story of a man called Alexander Lambert who dived heroically into the flooded Severn Tunnel in 1880. The navvies who built the tunnel and who were hard-drinking fearless chaps were terrified that the river would break in and drown them all. However, when the tunnel flooded, the water was found to be fresh rather than tidal. The navvies had, in fact, struck an immense underwater spring which flowed through a fault in the rock (they called it The Great Spring). Conventional diving equipment was used to try to close an iron door in the tunnel to hold the water back. The equipment failed due to the air-hose continually being snagged.

The tunnel engineer had heard of a man called Henry Fleuss who had developed an experimental diving apparatus called a Rebreather (in effect, it was the first aqua-lung.) Fleuss was persuaded to make an attempt on the tunnel but was so frightened that he turned back and said he would not return to the darkness ‘for £10,000 or more.’ The equipment was handed over to Diver Lambert who carried out a number of dives which involved swimming 1000ft up the flooded tunnel in complete darkness. Lambert, The First Rebreather, confronts his fear in the tunnel whilst the workmen await his return.

‘The first rebreather’ is a strange phrase which sounds almost super-heroic which, indeed, Lambert was.  So, I decided that, for the purposes of the song, The First Rebreather would be seen as a sort of superhuman creature come to save the navvies from the Great Spring.
Lambert would, of course, have looked very odd in his diving gear and, to the superstitious men, I’ve imagined that he would have looked like a Mummer (also known as a Souler). Mummers’ plays generally feature a character who brings back to life a dead person, so that fitted quite nicely as Lambert tries to bring air back to the lungs of the tunnel.
In the song, The Great Spring has also become a character. I remember being frightened as a child by the story of Beowulf swimming into the mere to slay the beast and again, I’ve used that imagery. In Beowulf, his men waited by the water for him to return. He returned ‘at the ninth hour’. The closing vocal section of the lyrics is about the workmen waiting for Lambert to swim back to the surface. As The First Rebreather is also a direct follow-up to Winchester Diver, I have also worked in some references to The Divine Comedy.
Musically, The First Rebreather is built, for the most part, on Dave's insistent guitar riff and Andy Tillison's beautiful organ playing. In the choruses and in the Moog solo section we set out some themes which are reprised in different songs later on (and also in songs on Part Two). The First Rebreather also introduces the sound of our string quartet to the album.
The next song we will be featuring in this series of blog posts will be Uncle Jack, which David will be writing about on his blog in a few days' time.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

News round-up

Quite a lot of things happening at the moment, so I thought I'd do a little round-up.

The new album English Electric (Part One) is out on 3rd September with pre-orders being taken at our new website here.

The track listing is:

1.The First Rebreather (8.32)
2.Uncle Jack (3.49)
3.Winchester From St Giles' Hill (7.16)
4.Judas Unrepentant (7.18)
5.Summoned By Bells (9.17)
6.Upton Heath (5.39)
7.A Boy In Darkness (8.03)
8.Hedgerow (8.52)

On English Electric, we are joined by special guest musicians Andy Tillison (The Tangent), Louis Philippe, Rachel Hall (Stackridge), Danny Manners (Robert Wyatt, Cathal Coughlan)and our brass band and string quartet. Full information on the album can be found here.

We also have an English Electric tee-shirt which will be nice to wear during the blazing hot summer sunshine we're having in England (ahem). Tee-shirt sales are being handled by the lovely people at The Merch Desk. Tee-shirts are available in various sizes and colours and in gents and ladies styles. The Merch Desk also have a special offer tee-shirt / CD pre-order deal which is worth checking out.
Earlier this week, we took part in an interview with Nick Shilton of Prog magazine for a forthcoming feature article on the band. In the meantime, a track from the new album called Judas Unrepentant will feature on the covermount CD of the next issue of Prog magazine which is due out on the 18th July.

I've recently been interviewed by Brad Birzer and the interview has been published here. An interview with David will also shortly be published online.

Our Group page on Facebook continues to grow and has become a wonderful place to talk about music with like-minded people.

We are also active on Twitter and recently heard via Twitter that Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater is now a fan of BBT.

Finally, we are pleased to announce that BBT have signed a licensing deal with GEP. Whilst we are keen to retain our independence from record labels, we recognise that GEP will be able to assist us with distribution and promotion and so we have signed a deal which is right for the band and hopefully for GEP too.

More news soon.

Friday, 20 April 2012

This is London

Just spent a couple of wonderful days in London. I was originally planning a walk along the course of the lost Fleet River (following the directions in Tom Bolton's excellent book London's Lost Rivers) but ended up getting distracted at Kings Cross,  firstly by the construction of a new city quarter on the railway and canal lands behind the station, and secondly by developments at the station itself, with significant progress made on restoring the train shed roof and the newly opened Western Concourse.

To the north of the station, work is well underway on the new city quarter and it is shaping up to be a beautiful area of London. There is a real sense of place and history in the plans and it appears that every effort is being made to create a balanced community with mixed use of the available space (eg education, arts, retail, business, transport, government, leisure). The University of the Arts has already opened and has made use of a range of Victorian granary storage buildings. It looks sensational. A new square is being built in front of the University which leads down to the Regent's Canal. The Canal itself is well used for leisure purposes, although it still has an air of the edgelands about it. However, work is planned to improve the towpath and this should create a lovely walking route up to Camden Lock (just a mile away).

We walked part of the way towards Camden along the towpath and then looped back towards St Pancras station. We climbed a short flight of steps and found ourselves in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, which has been a place of worship for over 1500 years (although most of the current church building itself is Victorian).

In the churchyard, my eyes were drawn to a cluster of disused headstones, heaped up alongside an ash tree. The roots of the tree had grown over some of the headstones and the tree seemed to be trying to lay claim to them.
Photograph by Jacqueline Banerjee
There was an information board in front of the tree which stated:

"before turning to writing full time, Thomas Hardy studied architecture in London from 1862-67 under Mr. Arthur Blomfield, an architect based in Covent Garden. During the 1860s the Midland Railway line was being built over part of the original St. Pancras Churchyard. Blomfield was commissioned by the Bishop of London to supervise the proper exhumation of human remains and dismantling of tombs. He passed this unenviable task to his protegĂ© Thomas Hardy in. c.l865. Hardy would have spent many hours in St. Pancras Churchyard . . . overseeing the careful removal of bodies and tombs from the land on which the railway was being built. The headstones around this ashtree (Fraxinus excelsior) would have been placed here about that time. Note how the tree has since grown in amongst the stones" (source: The Victorian Web).

So, here in the corner of a London churchyard, we found an extraordinary historical site which linked back to one of the great men of our Wessex homelands. And this is what I love about London, and why it calls me. There is so much history in the stones and in the land and so any walk through the city is rich with interest as there is a story on every street.

We stopped for a quick pint at the Betjeman Arms at St Pancras Station and spent some time admiring Barlow's train shed (surely one of the most beautiful buildings in England.) It is difficult now to believe that St Pancras had once been scheduled for demolition. In the 1960's it had come under the baleful gaze (like some Wellsian Martian death-ray) of planners, who were fresh from destroying Euston station just along the road. Thankfully, protests (led by Sir John Betjeman) caused there to be a rethink and the station was saved and subsequently restored (Martin Jennings' statue of Betjeman at St Pancras is a must-see).

We finally made our way back to the starting point of our walk, Kings Cross station. Once the roof of the train shed is fully restored and the appalling existing concourse removed, opening up for the first time in half-a-century the glorious Victorian frontage of the train shed, Kings Cross Station will become (like St Pancras next door) the sort of place you go to not just because you're going somewhere else. It will be another destination in itself in a city which is full of them.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Updates from the BBT forum

Just thought I'd post a couple of updates from the BBT forum for those disinclined to use Facebook.

A post from me last Wednesday:

'A quick update on the mixing. We went into the studio last night to do some snagging and now have mixes of:

East Coast Racer
Uncle Jack
The East Prospect of Winchester from St Giles' Hill
Judas Unrepentant
A Boy in Darkness
The First Rebreather

We reckon we're about halfway there, with another 9 songs to go.

On the way to the studio I bumped into former BBT singer Sean Filkins and had chance for a catch up. Sean's solo album has been picking up excellent reviews and, if you haven't heard it, is well worth checking out:
And a query from Sylvain:
'A question I've been wanting to ask for some time: how will you conceive the two volumes of English Electric? Will each record have its own theme or mood, or will you just randomly separate the songs in two groups?'
with my answer:
'We have thought long and hard about this issue. We want both albums to work as separate releases (some people may buy one but not both) and also succeed as a double CD for those who want to listen to the whole thing in one sitting. There are themes and motifs that are shared between both discs but each volume also needs to be able to stand alone. So, track selection has been difficult! Whilst there is a good balance, overall, I think that volume 1 will grab the attention more quickly than volume 2 (which is a little more reflective and quirky.) That's the plan, anyway.'
Happy Easter from BBT

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Good People

We've been pondering whether to create a forum on our website in advance of the release of English Electric. However, our Facebook group is beginning to do the job very nicely.

Over there you can read learned conversations about the last resting place of the Winchester Diver; you will find out which songs Spotters think should be covered by BBT and you can seek information on our future plans.

You will meet cultured and attractive people discussing English folk music and the size of Nick's cajones.

In short, you will be in good company and, if not already a member of the group, I urge you to pop on over and take a look.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Steve Wilson Interview

If you have a few minutes to spare, I recommend checking out Anil Prasad's interview with Steve Wilson at Innerviews. It's a thoughtful interview with a thoughtful man and worth reading in its entirety.

One of many interesting points that Steve Wilson makes is that prog musicians from the classic bands began to suffer from a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, coming to believe that their best music of the 70's was worthless because they were continually told it was rubbish by their captors, the media. This does offer an explanation as to why so many prog musicians ended up dismissing their greatest work, much to the chagrin of fans.

Sunday, 5 February 2012


I don't blog about gear very often as it's not really my thing (unlike Andy and Rob, I don't run to the letterbox every month when the postman delivers their subscription copies of Sound-On-Sound and I glaze over very quickly when they get talking about the minutiae of their latest piece of software or kit.)

However, I have discovered an amazing (and very cheap) bit of musical technology which I love so very much that I have to mention it on here.

Forget the wheel and the jet engine; never mind computers and t'internet and all that twaddle, for I now have a Snark.

We were at Regal Lane Studios in Camden a few weeks ago, when we noticed a handy little device being wielded by studio-owner, Ken Brake. It was a tuner. It had a clamp for attaching to an instrument. It could tune by vibration or microphone. It had a dial like a rev counter on a fast car. It glistened in the studio lights. It looked a bit like a character in a Pixar movie. It was called Snark.

We now have our own Snark and it is a wonderful thing. We were recording some 12-string last week for a song called Judas Unrepentant. Now, I love a bit of 12-string but they are fussy and frustrating instruments that require continual tuning-checks. However, with a Snark clamped to the headstock, staring at me with its turbo-charged eye, it was a breeze.