One of my proudest achievements is producing the album Pouric Songs with my band D.F.F. A new version of the album has just been released. It's re-mastered, re-ordered and re-edited. Below I share the story of Pouric Songs to celebrate the release and explain the re-issue.
The 1990's Roots of Pouric Songs
Long before I composed orchestral music or Irish trad tunes I wrote and sang indie pop songs. I cut my teeth at Dave Murphy's legendary International Bar songwriter nights in the 1990's and early 2000's. Regulars at those nights included Glen Hansard, Damien Dempsey, Ann Scott, Declan O'Rourke, Gemma Hayes, Mundy, Roesy and Paddy Casey.
Such was the status of Dave Murphy's Night, you'd never know who might turn up. I'll never forget the nights Christy Moore and Paul Brady turned up out of the blue to join the songwriters queue and try out some new songs, sans mic, in front of the intimate hushed crowd.
There was a great democracy about the night. It didn't matter if you were famous, if you produced a great performance of a good song you'd get as good an ovation as anyone. It was a brilliant way of testing new songs and learning stage-craft. Those were halcyon days for Irish songwriting.
Enter the lyricist
Dave Murphy's International Bar nights are where I debuted many new songs, including some I wrote with Pádraic O'Beirn. I met Pádraic at a songwriters week organised by IMRO in 2000. That week was an incredible coming together of songwriters. In the daytime we'd collaborate with other songwriters. Each night there'd be open mic followed by house parties where the guitar was passed around. About half-way through the week I found myself sitting opposite Pádraic at lunch. We immediately hit it off and Pádraic asked me if I'd look at some of his lyrics. I'd never set another person's lyrics to music before but I thought I'd give his a quick look over to see if they inspired me.
Within a couple of minutes of scanning through his lyric collection I stumbled across a beautiful, poetic lyric called Lullaby. The rhythm of the song matched perfectly with an instrumental in 5/8 time I'd recently composed. Within a short space of time Lullaby was finished, soon after that I'd set another lyric, Woodlands,. We debuted the songs that night and we knew we'd stumbled onto something special. With Pádraic's lyrics collection I'd found a goldmine of inspiration and eventually I'd set 11 of his existent lyrics to music. Within a couple of years I'd set 11 of his lyrics. Pádraic's lyrics lent themselves to eclectic music, from folky-dream pop (Beauty Becomes You, Stone Walls), jazz-pop (Woodlands, Harvest Do) and energetic Afro-pop (Mad for You, Phantom Moves). With Pádraic's lyrics collection I'd found a goldmine of inspiration. I just needed to find the perfect band to play it.
The Magnificent Seven
The path to forming D.F.F. was a bit like Yul Brynner's search for the Magnificent Seven. It gradually unfolded over time as I met various musicians with different skill sets.
In 2000 I put together a band with musicians who played with some of the great 90's Dublin songwriters. It included future D.F.F. members Ciarán Swift, Cion O'Callaghan, Aidan Dunphy and bassist Brian O'Toole. They were big session players in Dublin's 90's music scene who'd collectively played with Mundy, Paddy Casey, Fionn Regan, Declan O'Rourke, Roesy and others. A bit like a 90's Dublin version of the famous 'Wrecking Crew', the house band for Phil Spector and the Beach Boys. We recorded demos and did a few gigs but nothing really came of it as my college commitments took over. A decade later I reformed the band, with a couple of star reinforcements.
From Sweden to the Congo
There were other songwriter nights in Dublin in the late 90's including Ken Burke's open mic in Molloy's of Christchurch. One day Ken offered me a slot in support to called Damien Rice, who was starting out as a solo artist after leaving Juniper. It was there I met his then cellist, Vyvienne Long. After my set she came up to me and told me she liked my songs and if I ever needed a cellist to give her a call. Soon after Damien became a huge success and Vyvienne was touring the world.
A decade later I met Vyvienne again at the Secret Festival in Sweden. The festival brought musicians from across Europe together to collaborate in a kind of 'Eurovision meets Big Brother' experiment! We were cooped up in a house together for a week before playing three gigs at secret locations on the island of Öland. We all played on one of each other's songs. I chose Stone Walls. It was there I realised Vyvienne's voice and cello would work brilliantly on all of Pádraic's songs. Soon after that I reminded her of the offer she made a decade ago. Now free from touring commitments with Damien Rice, she happily joined my band.
Around 2009 I met the amazing guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, who had come to live in Ireland from the Congo. Several of the songs I'd written with Pádraic were influenced by Congolese guitar playing, so I asked Niwel would he like to jam on them with me. I visited his home, we jammed, we clicked, it was magic. Niwel is the greatest guitarist I know, he can play anything! Soon afterwards Niwel joined Cion, Maírtin Tourish and I to perform some of Pádraic's songs at Africa Day in Dublin's Iveagh Gardens. That sowed another seed for the album to come.
The final piece of the search for the Magnificent D.F.F. 7 came into place when Vyvienne asked me to support her on an Irish tour. Cion joined me on those gigs. Vyvienne's bassist at the time was Dan Bodwell, who I'd played with before in an Irish Composer's Collective concert. There was something about how Dan's double bass and Vyvienne's cello and voice blended that convinced me Dan was the man to be D.F.F.'s bassist. Finally, after 11 years of searching for the perfect band D.F.F. was assembled in 2011.
Recording in an un-Real World
In 2012 we got together to begin rehearsing the songs in Dublin. It wasn't long before the band really clicked and we were producing some great music together. Then we travelled to Peter Gabriel's astonishing Real World Studios to lay down most of what become Pouric Songs.
Recording in Real World was a sublime experience. I've never been in a studio like it before or since. The engineer Patrick Philips helped get a great vibe going and he loved the music. Real World is a hub of creativity. At times we shared the dinner room with Kaiser Chiefs and Simple Minds guitarist Charlie Burchill who were preparing new material in Real World's songwriting studios. It was an elusively tempting peek into the wonderful world of successful rock stars.
After five glorious days in Real World we had most of the album tracks down. We followed the Real World sessions in 2013 with a few days recording in Grouse Lodge and Sun Studios, I was honoured that Dave Murphy agreed to do some backing vocals in Sun Studios. (You can hear Dave's low bass voice in the 'Freaky Funk' section at the end of Beautiful Freaks Like Us. He's also on The Mad Magician, Phantom Moves and Quartz). I returned to Real Word to mix the album with Patrick. Then it was mastered by Fergal Davis, cover/booklet designed by my sister Fran, the CD was manufactured and distributed around Ireland and digital stores. It took 15 years from the first song being composed to the album release, it was well worth the wait though!
The President Calls
When it was released in 2014 we got some great reviews across Irish publications (including Hot Press, The Sunday Times, The Irish Times), we featured on RTE's TV Show The Works and even made it into the tabloids with an interview for The Irish Mirror. An Irish tour and festival appearances followed. We seemed to be on the up and up when we got invited to play for President Michael D. Higgins at his summer garden party. At first I thought the invite email from the President's office was a hoax, but a quick phone call confirmed it was a genuine invite.
D.F.F. all looked set to be a great success, but somehow in the end, it wasn't. Despite all the acclaim and publicity mainstream radio wouldn't play Pouric Songs. Producer after producer said no to what we thought was a radio-friendly single Mad for You or the funky follow-up Beautiful Freaks Like Us. Without that radio support Pouric Songs faded away into obscurity. It didn't hit the zeitgeist. It was a critical success but commercial failure. Disheartened by it all I left D.F.F. aside.
The Return of the Magnificent Seven
Earlier this year I orchestrated two of Pádraic's songs for The Irish Memory Orchestra. This caused me to listen back to Pouric Songs a few times. It made me think it deserved another chance to be heard. I thought maybe the reason it didn't catch on was the track order and the length of some of the songs. So I experimented a bit to find a better track order and edit some songs
So that's how we've got to this new 2018 re-issue. The original release still stands but maybe this new version is a more accessible starting point, maybe it's better as a shorter album. Time will tell.
I hope radio producers, broadcasters, press, bloggers and listeners will give it another chance. You don't need to take my word for how good the record is, these press quotes speak for themselves
'A true melting pot of music, DFF is a new supergroup marking the point where everything from chamber pop and Irish trad to the influence of Congolese "guitar sorcerer" Franco converge in glorious sound' - Hot Press
'The band's purposeful debut album zings with vibrance and originality' - The Sunday Times
'Sophisticated yet instantly accessible, the enchanting Pouric Songs is surely one of the finest pop debuts to come out of Ireland in many a moon. In times when the world often seems to have gone truly mad, D.F.F.'s rainbow music is a joyous balm' - All About Jazz
Pouric Songs (2018 version) is out now on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and all the other main digital platforms. The original Pouric Songs is still available on CD and download through Bandcamp. Take your pick!
p.s. A while ago I removed all my albums from digital services as I didn't like the deal I was getting through my old distributor. The deal with Symphonic is better than what I'd had. Most people just aren't buying CD's anymore so, despite my misgivings about streaming I've figured it's better for people to hear the albums than not. So over the next while my albums will re-appear online. Pouric Songs is the first of the re-issues. Thanks for reading.
In 2011 I had a 'vica voce' exam to decide whether I'd be awarded a PhD. At the end I was asked to leave the room so the panel could confer. Soon after, I was asked to return.
As I walked in, the external examiner welcomed me with a warm smile, a handshake and three simple words 'Congratulations Dr. Flynn".
That examiner was Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, a towering figure in Irish music and education and a kind-hearted soul who passed away yesterday 7th Nov 2018, long before his time.
I met him once more after that when he kindly agreed to give me some 'Post-Doctoral' advice. He first spent time explaining the potential educational benefits of my PhD work, yet to my surprise, he encouraged me to follow my work as a composer, rather than pursue an academic career.
He explained how the administrative demands of academia can be detrimental to composing and that my ideas around music education might be better served outside academia. I'm glad I took his advice, as this led me to stop looking for academic jobs and instead develop the Irish Memory Orchestra and its 'Apprentice Schemes' and focus on composing.
I didn't know him outside of these two meetings but by all accounts he was a wonderful man, a real force of positive energy. He was also a fantastic musician who redefined how Irish traditional music could be played on the piano. He also pioneered new ways of merging traditional, classical and jazz in his compositions.
I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to know him better, however I'm very grateful to him for being so kind and generous with his time.
R.I.P. Mícheál, your life's work lives on........
Ireland lost one of its greatest ever musicians on Friday 3rd August 2018, Tommy Peoples. Though I didn't know Tommy well, the news of his passing gradually engulfed me in a kind of numb grief I hadn't experienced since James Byrne died a decade ago. Grief not just for the gentle soul I'd briefly had the honour of knowing, but grief for the end of an incredible musical legacy.
When James Byrne left this earth a huge store of music and folklore left with him. His death created a void that will never be replaced.
The same is true for Tommy Peoples. If anything the void is greater because Tommy was not just a remarkable fiddle player and encyclopedia of tunes like his friend James Byrne was, Tommy Peoples was one of Ireland's most original composers of 'traditional' music. Scratch that limitation, he was simply one of Ireland's greatest ever composers.
The only musician to win a TG4 Gradam Ceoil as a performer and composer, he was also the only traditional fiddle player/composer to be admitted into Aosdána, the so-called 'elite' body of Irish artists. Though the merits of Aosdána are much debated, the admittance of Tommy Peoples into Aosdána in 2012 was hugely significant to many in the traditional music world. Peoples himself reacted with typical modesty when speaking with the Journal of Music.
‘It’s not something I’m very familiar with,’ Peoples declared. ‘I’ve no familiarity with procedures or for that matter behaviour. I’m hoping it’s kind of low key.’
Peoples' significance as a musician has been much spoken about since he passed away. He's undoubtedly one of the most influential fiddle players in the history of Irish music. From his fiery, edgy style with The Bothy Band in the 1970's to the delicate, achingly poignant style of his later years, few others have reached the depths of expression Tommy Peoples reached in over 50 years of music making.
I could go into an academic treatise about his compositions but, if you know and love traditional music, they speak for themselves. If you don't know and love traditional music you likely won't understand why I speak of Tommy Peoples as one of Ireland's greatest composers in any genre. That's your loss.
Instead I'd like to share a bit about my experience of accompanying him on stage and learning one of his tunes directly from him.
In 2012 I put together a tour called 'The Tune Makers' with the help of Arts Council funding. Tommy agreed to join Liz Carroll, Máirtín O'Connor and I for two dates on the tour, in glór, Ennis and Ionad Cois Locha, Donegal.
As part of the show Tommy had a solo slot of about 25 minutes. When we got together on the day of the first show I was both over-joyed and a little apprehensive when he asked me to accompany him on guitar. I'd heard from other guitarists (and seen evidence in concerts) that Tommy didn't rehearse much with his accompanists, he often decided what to play on the spot.
For a seasoned accompanist in Irish music this wouldn't usually be too difficult a task as, the more you play Irish music, the more you learn how to anticipate the harmonic changes inherent in traditional melodies. Accompanying on the fly is a common skill we develop in sessions.
The difference with Tommy was his extraordinary imagination and flair for very unusual melodic directions. When you accompany a musician like Tommy you have to REALLY listen and expect the unexpected.
I did this with him for a total of about 50 minutes over two concerts. It was a hair-raising yet magically transcendent experience. In those brief moments I felt an incredible connection to a kind of spontaneous, soulful creative genius that I've never encountered before or since.
I was particularly moved by his own compositions, some of which he didn't give a name to at the time. Often in unusual keys and modes for Irish music like F or Bb, with very unusual twists, turns and leaps and occasionally daring to go where most Irish fiddle players don't go - higher than first position. Tommy's tunes are a beautiful harmonic minefield to negotiate as an accompanist.
I didn't speak much with Tommy at the time, he was a man of few words, but the words he used were kind and knowledgable yet peppered with wry humour. There was certainly sadness in his eyes and music, but I detected an equal amount of joyousness too. A feeling reflected in these wonderful words about Irish music from Peoples the Philosopher.
“The music expresses joy, terrible loss, hope, love and defiance. It has stayed with us when we had our own people crushed by oppression, our language killed by force and intimidation… Irish music was a joy to me… it spoke to me of the people who bore all this hardship and came through singing.”
A few years before the Tune Makers tour I met Tommy for the first time at a masterclass in the Balor Arts Centre in Ballybofey, where he was musician in residence. As luck would have it there were only two other people there, so we were treated to a very intimate audience with him.
Though my own fiddle playing ability was very limited then (and the others weren't much better!) he patiently thought us a beautifully melancholy jig he composed called 'The Kinnycally'. A common trademark of an artistic genius is they are often highly self-critical and modest about their creations. Tommy came across that way as he taught us his new jig with almost painful reluctance. “You probably won't like it” he said. Little did he realise how awe-struck we were by his music and presence. After he played it with tentative humility, I sat there scratching through it with nervous embarrassment.
Shortly afterwards I asked Tommy for his permission to record it for my Contemporary Traditional Irish Guitar album. Thankfully he agreed. It's the only recording of the tune I know of, it surely won't be the last. Many of Tommy's wonderful tunes are collected in his book Ó Am go hAm - From Time to Time. Essential learning for anyone interested in the art of tune composition.
I'm so grateful to have briefly known, played with and learnt from Tommy Peoples. I'll forever cherish those intimate moments I shared with a true genius of Irish music.
Your soul lives on in your music and family
The Kinnycally Jig - Tommy Peoples
A news story today about the great actor Anthony Hopkins has triggered an interesting memory from my musical past that I'd like to share.
The story leads with this provocative headline -
Anthony Hopkins doesn’t know and doesn’t care if he’s a grandfather
The journalist goes on to detail how Anthony Hopkins is estranged from his daughter Abigail, a musician and actress.
I was interested to read that they are estranged because many moons ago, when I lived in London, I found myself 'auditioning' to be Abigail Hopkins' guitarist!
If memory serves correctly I responded to an online ad from a songwriter looking for a guitarist. The songwriter was called Abigail Hopkins. Given her surname I naturally wondered whether she might be related to Anthony Hopkins. The chance of meeting Mr. Hopkins through her wasn't my motivation for replying to the ad though. I was just looking for work as a guitarist. So I contacted her and she responded and asked to meet me. The name 'Anthony' didn't enter our emails.
A day or two later she visited my Finsbury Park apartment to audition me. As she entered the apartment I was taken aback at her resemblance to Anthony Hopkins. She looked like a young Anthony Hopkins playing a red-haired, goth drag queen. Yet still I had no confirmation she was his daughter, or perhaps niece. I kept quiet on the matter and decided it best not to mention him. After all, I was only really interested in getting work as a guitarist.
So Abigail sat down and chatted with me for a while. Very soon into the conversation, without any prompting, she confirmed her father's identity.
'In case you didn't know I should tell you Anthony Hopkins is my father' she said, 'I'm trying to make my way without using his name though.'
'Oh really that's very interesting, I didn't know!' said I in the higher than necessary pitch of a pubescent teenager.
It was clear that she didn't really want to talk about him, so I left it at that and suggested we try jamming on one of her songs.
Even though I was technically the one auditioning I sensed she was a bit nervous as she took out her pristine nylon string guitar. She made a modest comment about her limited guitar skills and then launched into a strange, atonal song.
It'd be fair to say Abigail's singing talents don't match her father's acting talents. She sang with a tormented wail, the kind that quite a lot of people seem to like for reasons I'll never understand. I remember thinking early on that her style really wasn't something I was into. The feeling was probably mutual.
We jammed away to a few songs and had a pleasant conversation but within an hour or two Abigail Hopkins was gone. I never saw her again or heard about her music again.
The Silence of the Jams.....
Afterwards I must admit my only regret was that I never got to meet Anthony Hopkins.
News reports would suggest however that even if I had ended up being Abigail Hopkins' guitarist, I still wouldn't have met Sir Anthony Hopkins!
The end of streaming is nigh
Recently I instigated a process that will remove all my albums from streaming services. This includes Spotify, iTunes, youtube, Amazon etc. Within the next month or so my music will disappear from these platforms (with the exception of some youtube videos).
My reason for doing this is simple, all these companies are ripping artists off. Music streaming, though good for record company pockets and major label artists, is not good for independent artists. The CEO of Spotify Daniel Ek is worth nearly $3 billion, yet he claims that Spotify couldn't operate if they paid more to artists.
What's really happening here is the huge income being generated through streaming is going into the pockets of executives, not artists. Record companies have cut deals with Spotify and other services that only benefit them and their major acts.
The record profits in the music industry aren't going back to artists, especially not independent artists. So if you'd like independent artists to be able to continue making records then please support us directly.
If you've enjoyed streaming my music on Spotify, iTunes etc. and would like to keep listening to it please buy it directly from me at a show or through my website
It's only the price of a couple of coffees or beers!
I'm still using CDBaby and Bandcamp to sell mp3's directly because they are independent, their sales seem to be transparent and go straight to artists.
CDs are only available directly from me at a show or my website. If you order directly from me I'll send you a signed copy too!
Without this kind of direct support from you I can't continue to make records. It's not about making profit, it's about being able to continue to make art in an aggressively anti-art digital age.
Thanks for taking the time to read this and for supporting the work of independent artists.
p.s. This isn't a publicity stunt a la Taylor Swift, the Spotify devil ain't gonna negotiate a better deal with me!!!
Tonight, 11th July 2017 at 10pm Ireland's finest radio broadcaster Carl Corcoran will, for one last time, present The Blue of the Night on RTÉ Lyric FM.
It is a sad and momentous moment for Irish music.
No other broadcaster has given so much support to Irish musicians as Carl has done over the past decade on this seminal late night radio show.
I'm just one of countless Irish musicians he has regularly played side by side with J.S. Bach, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, the Bothy Band and other musical legends from across the wide spectrum of classical, traditional, jazz, folk, pop and other music from around the world.
Beyond that, no other broadcaster I've heard has Carl's ability to mix these vastly different genres so seamlessly that you rarely, if ever, feel compelled to 'touch that dial'.
Carl's abilities as a broadcaster are literally second to none. Being a night owl who travels a lot I've heard late night radio on stations across Europe, the USA, New Zealand and Australia. Whilst there are some excellent broadcasters like Verity Sharp on BBC's Late Junction and WNYC's John Schaefer, Carl easily holds his own at the top of the list of international late night broadcasters. It's no wonder people tune into him all over the world.
Carl is a sorcerer of sound, a living sound-cloud, a masterful genre-hopper who can make sense of the muddled puzzle of a Spotify-fueled modern world so full of music it can be hard to know where to begin at times. Now that he's leaving Lyric FM, against his will, there's a huge hole to fill. I don't envy the person who has to take over from Carl. His boots will be as hard to fill as Alex Ferguson's were at Man Utd, a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. His replacement could become known as the David Moyes of Irish radio........
It's impossible for RTÉ to replace Carl and it was very foolish of them to let him go. Carl Corcoran IS The Blue of the Night. Without him it's just another radio show. No matter who they get to replace Carl, Irish radio just won't be the same. As far as I'm concerned 'The Blue of the Night' ends as a radio show on 12th July 2017.
Often, when he goes to an ad break Carl says 'don't touch that dial'. Tonight, for the last time, I won't touch that dial. But once Carl Corcoran's final 'Blue of the Night' comes to a close and Carl goes to a permanent 'Blue of the Night' break, the dial will be turned to silence.
Thank you Carl Corcoran for your many years of support and brilliant broadcasting, your warm radio voice will be very, very sadly missed. Go n-éirí an bóthar leat.............
Epilogue: Messages in a Blue Bottle
Just as a mark of the man, I'd like to share two emails Carl Corcoran sent me 'out of the blue' in 2010. I'm sure he won't mind me sharing this correspondence.
Email 1: First Contact
The first email I ever received from Carl is the first correspondence I ever received from an Irish broadcaster (unless a childhood autograph from Mike Murphy counts!). Carl's email came after my friend and former manager Eamon O'Donnell, unbeknownst to me, called into RTÉ with one of my CD's. As fate would have it, it ended up on Carl's desk and he's been playing my music ever since.
Date: Wed, Feb 3, 2010 at 2:59 PM
Subject: CD Delivery
I received a copy of your CD "Contemporary Traditional Irish Guitar"
- dropped into Donnybrook. I don't know if you arranged/did that - but
many thanks. I have enjoyed listening to it and will be adding it to
the Playlists in the coming weeks.
My first ever message to Carl in reply shares a sentiment that many other musicians will identify with -
Many thanks for your email. Great to hear from you and I'm delighted
you enjoy my CD. I'm honoured that you are adding it to your playlist.
I often drive late at night after gigs and sessions and tune into the
Blue of the Night, so I look forward to hearing myself on your show
Email 2: The Warmest and Heartiest of Praise
Carl stayed true to his promise (not all broadcasters do) and he has played my music far more than any other broadcaster. Many musicians will tell you the same of their music. His support led me to invite Carl to the premiere of my fiddle concerto Aontacht, performed by Martin Hayes and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the National Concert Hall later in 2010.
Following the concert Carl sent me this email 'out of the blue'
Date: Thu, Nov 25, 2010 at 2:07 PM
Heartiest congratulations on last night's SPECTACULAR! It was seriously excellent. Like you, I have the highest regard for the talents of Martin, and the magic of Hayes and Cahill. To hear them, and the music, in the context of orchestra was an exhilarating experience. Your composition and arranging skills captured the essence of the music and the musicians better than any such trad/classical combinations I have heard. The "marriage" of the genres was true to the spirit of the music and the tradition - well done. This was achieved mainly due to your knowledge of the music, your innate sense of music and your talent as an arranger/composer. Due praise should be heaped on the composer, soloists, orchestra and very especially for David Brophy whose enthusiasm and passion for the works infused the musicians on the stage and the audience alike.
Thanks for the opportunity of being present for this unique experience. I look forward to a recording of the works, which I hope is imminent.
Kindest regards and continued success.
I received many messages of congratulations after that concert. None were as, knowledgeable and heartfelt as Carl's. His warm, genial, velvety voice reflects the man he is.
p.s. to Carl - A recording of the works was imminent but unfortunately still hasn't seen the light of day and I don't know if/when it ever will, but that's another story involving the lack of foresight of the Powers That Be in RTÉ which you may be able to relate to!!!!!!
Greek philosopher Socrates once said 'No one ever raised a monument for a critic'.
Then Jean Sibelius famously paraphrased,
'Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic.'
Now, the critics think they have forever got one up on Socrates and Sibelius because film critic Roger Ebert had a statue built in his honour.
Yes that's the same Roger Ebert who gave bad reviews to classics like The Godfather Part 2, Blade Runner, The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Full Metal Jacket!
Apparently the critics say their 'beloved' Roger deserves his statue, but the critics, as is often the case, are wrong.
So critics, pay attention to my update of the Socrates/Sibelius critic critique.
'The only reason a statue was put up to Roger Ebert is because no statue was ever put up to a critic.'
It’s almost a week since I attended Kate Bush’s extraordinary comeback show ‘Before the Dawn’ in London’s Hammersmith Apollo and I’m still thinking about it, a lot. I don't consider this a review of the event since I couldn't bear the idea of being likened to a critic, rather these are personal reflections intended to describe the event for those who weren't fortunate enough to be there.
Immediately after the gig I had a strange kind of feeling, a kind of detachment that didn’t make any sense because the show was absolutely spectacular. My mind was processing the detachment as me being disappointed at the show but in hindsight I realise, I wasn’t disappointed, I was awe-struck and almost speechless.
The problem with being a musician attending other people’s concerts is that you always notice the imperfections and dwell on them much more than the average person.
So, immediately after the show my mind was nit-picking, being a critic thinking about the bits that didn’t quite work; the fact that she didn’t use live strings, the fact that she didn’t end the show with Dave Gilmour ripping a solo through ‘Wuthering Heights’, the fact that Peter Gabriel didn’t turn up to duet with her, feeling slight disappointment about the great songs she didn’t fit into her 3 hour show, thinking about some of the technical sound issues that occasionally cropped up.
All these are the hallmarks of a musician’s response to a gig.
But after the show my mind was just in its infancy of processing what I’d just witnessed.
Now though,thinking back to what I was thinking DURING the show I realise it’s probably the greatest pop/rock performance I’ve ever witnessed. It was astounding, unpredictable, joyous and moving.
Act I - The Unexpected Opening
It all started so unexpectedly ‘normal’. At 7.45 any fears that she might chicken-out at the last minute were laid to rest when she danced her way on stage in a conga line with several dancers as her 12 piece band launched into ‘Lily’, a lesser known album track from The Red Shoes. No one saw that coming!
Those who were used to seeing all those early sexy images of Kate Bush might be shocked with how she’s changed, but reality check needed, she’s a 56 year old Mum who has avoided the cosmetically obsessed pressures of pop stardom for the last 20 years. So, rather than being a mess of plastic surgery and insane fitness regimes like some singers of a similar age, she just looked like a glamorous, slightly eccentric 56 year old Mum, which is exactly what she is!
But the concert was never about how she looked, it was about how she performed.
First test was THAT voice:
At the start it was kinda hard to tell from where I was sitting up towards the back of the circle, her voice was a bit low in the drum-dominated mix but eventually the sound engineer sorted it out and she could be heard in all her glory. On ‘Lily’ and ‘The Hounds of Love’ she sounded a little tentative but still sounded way better than most singers, but I wasn’t comparing her to other singers, I was comparing her to herself.
Happily the adulation being thrown at her from the enraptured audience in those opening, historic moments only seemed to give her more confidence and after she sang ‘Joanni’ from Aerial and ‘Top of the City’ from The Red Shoes her voice had blossomed into that sensual and soaring powerful instrument we hear on her records. She really nailed the impassioned vocal dynamics of ‘Top of the City’, turning it into so much more powerful a song than it is on record. That highlighted part of the real beauty of this concert, all of these songs, bar one, had never been performed live by Kate Bush and the live setting gave many of the songs new life outside of the records, as so often happens.
But there was something very strange about the performance of these first few songs. After all the speculation surrounding a spectacular live show, these opening songs were presented in a simple stripped down stage presentation, just Kate singing at the front of her band of seasoned pros. The only thing that was unusual was the fact that her 16 year old son Bertie was part of the backing vocal group, which made the backing vocals sound eerily like Kate harmonising with herself.
‘Running Up That Hill’ was greeted with an enormous roar and, like several songs during the show, a standing ovation, but still it was just the normal rock n’roll show staging and this wasn’t at all what we were expecting.
The standard rock show format continued through ‘King of the Mountain’ from Aerial and I was beginning to think the show might be a bit underwhelming, but then almost out of nowhere the song started building to an ominous climax, the stage started getting dark and hey presto, the magic began. The almost bland staging of the opening six songs turned out to be an ingenious theatrical ruse.
The standard rock show setting got subsumed into the background, the band disappeared whilst still playing and instead the focus came to centre-stage where one of the percussionists brought out a strange device which he swirled around his head to create a howling wind sound. Cue spectacular light show, confetti exploding from the stage and a complete change of scenery.
From that moment until the end of the show the audience was transfixed, always wondering what the hell might happen next!
Act II - The Ninth Wave
The change signalled the beginning of The Ninth Wave, the complex suite from The Hounds of Love. The speculation had been correct. It was performed in its entirety, but no one could have guessed at how exactly it would be performed.
It was turned into a music theatre production of the most bizarre and unpredictable kind, too complex for me to explain in detail but I'll try to sum it up.
The stage was set up as a deep sea scene like the belly of a whale, waves were generated on an undulating carpet; for And Dream of Sheep a projected film screen showed Kate singing live floating in water as if waiting to be rescued from the deep sea; during Under Ice there were axes and a chainsaw used to simulate the breaking of ice until Kate emerged dramatically from a trap door; for Watching You Without Me a living room set was wheeled on stage with her son and stage husband in it, they acted out a scene with a ghostly Kate Bush in the background; for the most avant-garde section Waking The Witch there were dancers with some very odd costumes including skeletal fish masks surrounding her and a dark priest-like character taunting poor Kate. Towards the end a large rescue pod took centre stage from which Kate yet again emerged. The most spectacular bit involved a massive moving light projector in the ceiling simulating a helicopter searching for Kate, who, in the basic premise of The Ninth Wave is lost at sea.
It all sounds bizarre but most of it worked a treat. As a visual, musical spectacle it was quite astounding and the music was, for the most part, performed to perfection. My only gripe was a pre-recorded fiddle track was used on The Jig of Life which went out of synch with the band. John Sheahan would've kept in time with them!
The penultimate song of the suite, Hello Earth began with what sounded like a live uilleann piper, though it was impossible to see who was playing pipes from where I was sitting since the band was clouded in darkness.
Perhaps my favourite bit in the concert came at the end of The Ninth Wave when, after being held into the air and taken through the audience by the fish-headed dancers, she re-emerged as normal Kate, the lights came up and the band all strolled towards the front of the stage for a joyous, acoustic rendition of the last song of the suite, ‘The Morning Fog’. That, dear readers, is the bit that caused me to shed a few tears. It was just a beautiful, joyous moment. The culmination of a momentous passage in popular music history, the first ever staging of an iconic almost 30 year old concept piece. The theatrical setting really, really enhanced The Ninth Wave, it was just made for the theatre and I appreciate the piece so much more now.
Then the curtain came down and, thank Kate, it was only an interval. She could have ended it there and I’d have been happy, but no, she had a whole lot more in store.
Act III - Aerial
In my previous blog post I’d mentioned how much her 2005 album Aerial meant to me, particularly the second disc suite A Sky of Honey. After she’d played so many songs to open the show I figured there’d be no way she’d include the whole suite, if any of it at all.
As the curtains rose for the second half a new elaborate stage set up was revealed that seemed to hint at A Sky of Honey, however the initial music seeping out of the speakers was the title track of 50 Words For Snow. Was she instead planning on doing an elaborate staging of that? Was the tall disguised man in black standing at the masssive door and holding a strange boy-sized puppet actually Stephen Fry getting ready to recite the 50 Words For Snow? Thankfully, it wasn’t!
It was another ruse, Kate keeping us guessing. About 1 minute into the backing track of 50 Words For Snow the music was overtaken by birdsong and the opening sounds of A Sky of Honey. Again the rumours were true and thus began a mostly sublime, hypnotic and sumptuous staging of the piece.
Kate’s voice was so warm and pitch-perfect during the gorgeous 'Prologue', it set it up so wonderfully. She was also seated at the piano for the first time in the concert, which added to the dreamscape.
Then the question as to what to do about the unfortunate presence of Rolf Harris on the original recording was answered, completely logically. When the character of The Painter came on stage, it wasn’t Harris, it was Kate’s son Bertie who not only sang but acted throughout the show. For the most part he held his own very well, in fact, it was hard to tell for sure if it was him or a professional West End actor/singer in the painter’s outfit. It’s only after the show I found out for sure it was him. As the suite went on he had little bits of dialogue and he sang ‘The Painter’s Link’ previously sung by Harris, but Kate’s singing of 'An Architect’s Dream' and 'A Sea of Honey' which bookended 'The Painter’s Link' were just sublime and hypnotic.
In this staged version the music was accompanied by stunning visuals evoking nature and birds and muted, tasteful dancing which Kate took part in.
The one bit that didn’t quite work for me, and I think quite a bit of the audience, was a new song specifically written for Bertie to sing called ‘Tawny Moon’. It’s not that Bertie’s a bad singer, he has a fine music theatre style voice, but the new song was just too long and indistinct to justify it interrupting the previously perfectly paced suite. But I can forgive Kate her indulgence on this one, particularly since without Bertie’s encouragement this live show would never have happened. The song did however kind of kill the total immersion and enjoyment I was experiencing whilst A Sky of Honey was developing so hypnotically. The main problem was the song just went on too long, if it was a few minutes shorter it would have been fine. It was almost unfair to place Bertie in such a setting where his voice and stage presence would inevitably be compared to his genius Mum. On the other hand it could be seen as the ultimate motherly gesture of kindness, bestowing on her son a once in a lifetime opportunity that others could only dream of. In time perhaps Bertie will blossom into a bit of a musical genius himself.
Normal, abnormal service was resumed when Kate re-emerged to sing the closing songs of A Sky of Honey ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Aerial’. The suite was driven to a rousing finish with guitarist David Rhodes spouting a very quirky bird mask and dancing with Kate in typical Peter Gabriel style. Then came the climax that got the audience off their feet, Kate was transformed into a blackbird and hoisted into the air by some clever technical feat.
The crowd erupted at the end of A Sky of Honey with the realisation that we were the first people to witness a kind of show that no audience had ever witnessed before. The band and Kate took their bows and left the stage, but there was no way the crowd would let them go without an encore.
Eventually the crowd got their wish and for the first time since the 1980’s Kate Bush strode out alone onto the stage and over to her piano to sing and play solo.
She chose Among Angels from 50 Word for Snow, which wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the list of fan requests for encores. However it seemed perfect for the night that was in it. It was a truly moving moment to witness and grown men could be seen sobbing!
Then she re-introduced the band for what she said was ‘The Last Song’ and at this point the mind raced as to what it might be, there were so many great songs she’d not yet sung. I was glad of her choice of song though, it was that song that got me into her music in the first place ‘Cloudbusting’.
The performance was triumphant and sealed a truly wondrous show that quite frankly pissed all over any other comeback concert I’ve witnessed, hell I’ve never seen a show like it. As the drum driven climax of ‘Cloudbusting’ burst open through the theatre, that previously respectful, phone-free, seated audience went wild and for the first time ushers were called upon to send some over-enthusiastic people back from the front of the stage to their seats. A bit unnecessary perhaps but again it highlighted something else quite ground-breaking about the show, she had changed the notion of a modern pop/rock concert from being a boisterous affair filled with booze, cameras and tuneless crowd sing-alongs into it being more like an opera with the audience respectfully listening to every word, gazing in child-like wonder at the theatrical spectacle in front of them.
For music as good as Kate Bush’s it’s exactly the right kind of atmosphere to sample it in and there’s no doubting this show will be a game changer in the music world. She did it entirely on her own terms without giving in to nostalgia yet only the most casual Kate Bush fan could have been disappointed at her song selection. Sure it could've been nice to hear all the big early hits like 'Wuthering Heights' but perhaps she was wise not to attempt to recreate the vocal gymanstics of those songs.
The post-concert reaction has been almost unanimously positive in the media and amongst her fans. In one fell swoop, after a 35 year hiatus, Kate Bush has re-written the rule book of pop concerts just like she did with her Tour of Life in 1979. Today’s pop stars are still ripping off elements of The Tour of Life, no doubt they’ll start ripping off Before The Dawn long before the sun sets on Kate Bush’s career.
So, now I return to analysing my original post-concert mood, it was dumb-struck awe, pure and simple. There were moments in the show I could quibble about, moments of technical mistakes or momentum killing haminess that distracted me at the time but I was happy with every single song Kate sang, astonished by the stage production and moved to tears on more than one occasion.
So I guess it was a pretty good night out in London’s far West End!
It’s a show I’d go back to see again, if I could. One viewing simply isn’t enough to take it all in. But nothing will ever top that first night experience, that feeling of not knowing what was coming at any moment, that feeling of suspense, drama and joy.
35 years in the making, It was the greatest comeback in popular music history, plain and simple.
Philip Glass tells a funny story about his days as a composition student in the Juilliard School of Music in New York. At the time Arnold Schoenberg’s 12 Tone 'Serialism' Composition Method was the only legitimate path to follow if one was a composition student. The music produced by this strict, contrived compositional method is generally so alienating to audiences that it only appeals to composers and academics that get more intellectual than aural satisfaction from it.
Glass’ story perfectly illustrates this.
In a Julliard Student Composition concert one particularly dense, complex work was being performed to the general displeasure of the audience’s ears. Glass amusingly observed how he saw one student turning to another to declaim without any hint of irony ‘This is actually a much better piece than it sounds.’
Glass uses this story to illustrate that when academic composition reached this point it broke the camels back and so by the late 60’s and early 70’s many composers were breaking away from the Schoenberg method to return to tonal and modal music, thus liberating the rest of us future composers.
It’s not quite as simple as that though, since there now exists a whole subculture around this kind of Composers’ Composer music. This is music that certain types of composers, normally a large majority of those who study composition academically, tend to appreciate for the technical aspects more than the actual musicality of it. Such works are usually defined by pretentious titles, complex technical programme notes and a dry, academic approach which favours technique way above intuitive composition methods. On the other extreme of the spectrum there are ‘free improvisation’ works where anything goes and everything is left to Cageian chance.
In both circumstances 'composery' composers tend to act very interested indeed, in fact they’re often heard to say with Steve Davis like drollness ‘That was very interesting’. Very rarely will such music illicit an emotional response ‘That really moved me’, ‘That gave me great joy’, ‘That was really exciting’ etc. In this sense this kind of music is really unique in the general music world. What other form of music is composed with such an emphasis on the intellectual over the emotional? Some modern jazz is getting to this point, but it's a fine line.
If you’ve ever been to a standard symphony orchestra concert where a new work by a contemporary composer is performed there’s a 90% chance the music will fall into this category of 'composers' music'. Curiously the general audience appreciation for such music is very different in Ireland and the UK than it is in the home of classical music, central Europe.
When Irish and British audiences first encountered arrhythmic, atonal serialist based music in the early 20th Century they reacted with horror. Now, 100 years later, audiences have become so used to the fact that their evening of Mozart and Brahms will be interrupted by another ‘awful’ contemporary work that they seem to lazily accept it and politely applaud the music and musicians when it’s over. The one or two enthusiastic yells one might encounter after all such performances are undoubtedly coming from the eggheads in the crowd, the composery composers.
On recent trips to see the Berlin Philharmonic I noticed a curious difference in the audience response to more ‘intellectual’ technical music. They seemed to really appreciate the technical aspects of the music and gave a long ovation to a solo violinist who performed a hugely technical violin concerto which seemed to me nothing more than a technical showpiece devoid of any emotional depth. Upon speaking with a German colleague afterwards I raised this issue and he confirmed to me that modern German audiences not only have an appreciation for technical, intellectual music, they often have a preference for it over emotional, intuitive music.
Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, or perhaps it’s just a reflection of how the central European classical tradition has moved so far from its roots in folk music into the world of academia that audiences are losing sight of the intuitive, emotional and natural human characteristics of music. Germanic audiences it seems, place technical perfection way above the very emotional response that less technically conscious music can provide.
I’ve often found myself bored by technically ‘perfect’ performances and technically brilliant compositions because the concentration of the artist has gone 100% into perfecting the technical aspects at the expense of spontaneous, emotional responses. Classical music competition winners so often fall into this category, technical perfection is awarded over emotional genius.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this strange, scientific musical sub-culture is the dogmatism that still plagues it. Practitioners of this form of music tend to be hopelessly elitist, like Pierre Boulez. Their way is the ONLY way forward, they are the true innovators, the true composers of new music and anyone who doesn’t buy into this is either openly mocked or treated with a kind of silent, shunning disdain. They’re treated as intellectually inferior and unenlightened.
The reason I mentioned Philip Glass at the start of this article is that he is usually the number 1 hate figure for the composery composers. They can't get any intellectual stimulation from his music because it is, in relative terms to the music they appreciate, incredibly simple. When I was a composition student I found myself drawn to his music simply because I liked how it sounded, the technical simplicity of it didn't bother me.
However I did become very self conscious about the fact that it was just not 'cool' for a composition student to say they liked Philip Glass. It was something to be embarrassed about. I remember giving my first radio interview as a young composer and it took me a huge effort to overcome an almost paralytic fear of telling the interviewer that Philip Glass was one of my favourite composers. But I did and more and more I've learnt not to be ashamed of that at all. Glass is a compositional genius, he has done what so few composers have been able to do, create a distinctive, instantly recognisable and contemporary sound from the most basic of building blocks. The fact that he earned worldwide fame and fortune from it is a testament to his perserverance. He was an obscure composer driving a taxi for a living until his early 40's!
So to return to our composery composer types and their dogmatic followers, what such people often fail to understand is that composers and audiences who reject the way of the composers’ composer are often just as, if not more intelligent as they. Some of us have even gone to great lengths to try to gain an appreciation for such music, spending hours studying it in college, sitting patiently at concerts, reading the technical notes in detail, always waiting for that revelation, that Eureka moment ‘Ah yes, now I get it!’
The truth is however, for the vast majority of people, no matter how intelligent they are, they are never going to appreciate such music, no more than they’ll appreciate complex mathematical equations or other scientific theories. Composers’ composers do not compose music as 99% of humanity defines music, instead they either create scientific sound or something more akin to performance art where the theatricality and social implications of the artistic statement are much more important than the actual sound of the music. The emphasis is not on musicality, on moving people emotionally with music, the emphasis is on making a scientific or pseudo-intellectual statement through sound.
Due to this I like to make a clear distinction between what I do and what they do. I compose music, music that is meant to be listened to and appreciated on an emotional level by those who listen to it. If some fraction of the audience gains intellectual stimulation from it that’s all well and good, it’s not in any way the aim however. So if I ever compose a work where the only response from listeners is an intellectual one, then I have failed in my duty as a composer of music.
Composers’ composers do not compose music in the traditional sense. They create scientific sound or sound art which will only ever be appreciated on an intellectual level. For this reason I believe such ‘music’ should be evaluated and disseminated in a completely different sphere. Funding and support for scientific/academic music should come from the scientific/academic community, not the Arts community. Then the more theatrical, performance art music, so inspired by John Cage, should surely be supported as performance art, a form of theatre rather than a pure style of music composition.
There are certainly audiences, though small, for such forms of music, so I’m not advocating censorship of any kind. Instead, for the good of all concerned, I’m advocating the creation of a clear line of distinction between the different composition aesthetics. After all, I don’t want my music compared to Pierre Boulez’s music, it’s not just a different style of music we’re involved in, it’s a whole different vocation, he is a sound scientist, I’m a music composer. He doesn’t care if people enjoy his music emotionally, I do and I’m not ashamed to admit it either.
And before anyone levels that old chestnut that I must be therefore compromising my art to appeal to an audience, my retort is straight and simple. I only compose music that I would like to listen to myself, if the audience appreciates the music, as they often do, all the better. If I compose a piece that I don’t enjoy listening to yet composers’ composers do, then I have failed and compromised my art.
Composers like me are as uncompromising as so called ‘uncompromising’ atonal composers. We just have different ideals that we refuse to compromise.
24 June 2014
A defining moment in my life in music came when I was aged 11 or 12, sometime around 1988-1989. Iron Maiden appeared on Top of the Pops, performing Infinite Dreams from their now classic Prog-Metal album Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. It must have been my first exposure to the music style that would dominate my teenage years, Heavy Metal.
Soon afterwards I was consuming all the Iron Maiden records I could find. Then., as I entered secondary school, I found friends and solace in the Heavy Metal world. It was the perfect foil for all the teenage angst that I couldn’t avoid.
Soon I learnt about Metallica and their magnificent And Justice For All album, this led to Megadeth’s Rust in Peace, Anthrax’s Persistence of Time, Slayer’s Reign in Blood and of course I was led back to the godfathers of the genre, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
As I grew older there was an expectancy amongst my disturbed elders that I’d ‘mature’, heavy metal was just a phase and I’d grow out of it. For a while I actually followed along, even selling on some of my treasured Heavy Metal tapes in the hope that it would signal the dawning of this magnificent mecca called ‘maturity’.
This period also coincided with the decline of the golden era of heavy metal in the 90’s. For me it began with Metallica’s Black Album. Their commercial peak may have made them megastars but I’ll never forget that crushing disappointment after I’d excitedly rushed back to my Mum’s flat from the record store to play the follow up to the great And Justice For All. So much hype surrounded the album and the smash hit Enter Sandman that I expected to be blown away, but I wasn’t, in fact, I think I got angry. This wasn’t Metallica that I’d grown to love. Their new producer, Bob Rock, had turned them into stadium rock sell outs. I should have expected that from the man who produced Bon Jovi!
Soon after, when Bruce Dickinson announced his departure from Iron Maiden, it truly signalled the end of an era and the dawn of a new era dominated by sub genres of Heavy Metal that really didn’t do much for me. Death Metal, Funk Metal and the worst of them all, Nu-Metal.
So at that point the heavy metal teenager in me went into hibernation and I entered the ‘serious’ world of music academia and contemporary composition where the mere idea of Heavy Metal music is generally treated with disdain. (With the exception of this pioneering Academic!)http://www.veooz.com/photos/jGxcgx0.html
Then, in the mid-2000’s things started to change, word came out that Metallica were doing shows dominated by their great 1980’s back catalogue and they’d got a great new bass player to boot in RobertTrujillo. Living in London at the time, I decided to take my fellow composition student Shu Wang to see them. Here we were, two so called ‘serious composers’ rocking out to Metallica. Shu, being from China, had never been to a rock concert before, she almost went crazy with excitement!
Around the same time Iron Maiden had regrouped with Bruce Dickinson and another member who’d left, guitarist Adrian Smith, to herald a spectacular new version of Iron Maiden with 3 lead guitarists. I went to see them at Earls Court, something akin to seeing Thin Lizzy in Croke Park if poor old Philo was still alive. I’ll never forget the energy of the concert, sitting as I was high up near the rafters, the mosh pit below was like a scene from the Lord of The Rings!
At that moment I realised Heavy Metal isn’t just a teenage fad, it’s an addiction that stays with you for life, unless you consciously contrive to get rid of it.
Now, aged 37, I’ve come full circle and have been pleasantly surprised to discover that my youngest sister, just turned 17, is a bit like I was at that age, a devoted heavy metal teenager. (She also likes Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, but I’ll forgive her that!)
Once I found out that she enjoys Iron Maiden as much as I do I vowed to bring her to see them play. So I checked their tour schedule and found them performing at what I can only describe as the mother of all Heavy Metal festivals, Nova Rock_ in Austria. Not only was there Iron Maiden, there was Anthrax, Slayer, Sepultura, curiously The Prodigy and the Godfather’s of Metal themselves Black Sabbath, amongst a host of newer bands and some Nu-Metal survivors best avoided.
So that was it, I decided to bring her for her birthday. A big risk you might think, bringing a 17 year old to a heavy metal festival. Could I handle the responsibility? Could I keep her away from the inevitable drunken fighting and general mayhem?
Drunken fighting? At an Austrian music festival? You gotta be kidding me. Lyrical content and general loudness of the music aside, it was decidedly civilised!
You see rock music festivals in Europe are a much different proposition to those in Ireland, Britain and the USA. People actually behave themselves and trouble is rare. They go along to have a good time ‘listening’ to music and seeing their favourite bands on stage. So at Nova Rock I saw exactly zero fights, I witnessed perhaps 2 people that were obviously drunk, I saw no lewd sexual behaviour other than a couple of guys harmlessly streaking.
It was, believe it or not, a friendly, positive, happy family event. YES, a family event. You see there’s now a few generations of Heavy Metal fans. Those original Black Sabbath fans are now grand-parents, those original Iron Maiden fans are now parents and they’ve brought their kids up in the heavy metal lifestyle and, some hideous tattoos and dodgy Death Metal bands aside, the kids appear to be turning out alright.
The only worry I have is for the genre itself. It appears to be in a bit of stagnation. My sister, being a teenager, is naturally attuned to the top younger metal bands of the moment and we got to see some of them. Trivium, Arch Enemy, Avenged Sevenfold, Miss May I.
All the bands sounded to me to be too derivative of other bands I knew when I was a teenager. Originality and imagination seems to be sadly lacking. The prevalence of that grunting Death Metal vocal style that I never warmed to was particularly lamentable.
Maybe I'm just getting old, but now matter how much any of these bands grunted or wailed none of them could match the power of Slayer, whose original members are all now in their 50’s. Tom Araya may not be able to head-bang anymore due to a back injury, but my God, Slayer put in a powerful performance, perhaps the ‘heaviest’ heavy metal show I’ve ever seen. I never got to see them when I was a teenager, a big mistake given this showing. I should’ve seen them at their peak. However they’re really not far off their peak at the moment. The so-called Godfathers of Speed and Death Metal remain head and shoulders above their followers and produced the standout performance of Nova Rock for me.
The festival was an interesting test to see which of the older bands still endured. Anthrax, performing surprisingly early on the main stage, showed they still have the energy and skill of old, however their music hasn’t dated quite as well, less timeless and more of its time than Slayer. I’d be much less likely to revisit their old records than Slayer’s.
The one act that really didn’t fit the bill was The Prodigy, never a metal band, they did pioneer the use of loud, metal style guitars in Electronic Dance Music. For Nova Rock they noticeably tried very hard to emphasise this rock edge, but it just came across as dated and that they were trying too hard to please the rock-biased audience. The Prodigy is a dance music band, a classic one at that, perhaps they should stick to their strengths or just call it a day.
Iron Maiden is the one metal band I’ve never really lost touch with. I’ve bought most of their albums as they’ve come out, except the nadir that was the Blaze Bayley era, before Bruce returned to vocal duties. I’ve seen them live several times, including last year in Barcelona. So their headline performance on the Saturday night wasn’t a life affirming experience for me like it surely was to my sister. To her, she was seeing true legends of the genre on stage for the first time. They didn’t disappoint the nostalgia seekers in their set, sticking almost entirely to their classic 80’s repertoire, with the exception of their only post 80’s certifiable classic ‘Fear of the Dark’ from 1992. What’s most impressive about them is their continued energy and conviction, the band still play like men possessed, Adrian Smith and Dave Murray play beautifully melodic solos with all the virtuosity of yesteryear whilst Janick Gers is a true showman with all the rock guitar tricks in the book. Drummer Nicko McBrain is still as mad as a brush, pounding away at his kit like Animal from the Muppets and Steve Harris has hardly changed at all from the young, distinctive bassist who stood at the front of the stage in that Infinite Dreams Top of the Pops appearance. Most impressive of all though is Bruce Dickinson, he still runs about the stage with so much energy and is singing better than ever. Whilst some singers lose their range with age, Bruce still hits the high notes, and perhaps hits them with less strain than he used to. 35 year on Iron Maiden still rock, it’s official.
The real festival headliners though were the real legends of the genre without whom the festival and most of the bands wouldn’t exist, Black Sabbath.
When I was a heavy metal teenager Black Sabbath were still around, but they weren’t touring with Lord Ozzy Osbourne, they’d another singer whose name escapes me. Back then the prospect of me ever seeing Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler on stage together was practically zero. However, here, at Nova Rock, three of the original Black Sabbath members were back together on stage as part of a triumphant reunion. To a heavy metal fan that's like seeing Lennon, McCartney and Harrison on stage together again.
The one question mark over it was whether Ozzy could still cut it, after all he seems such a shambles on his dubious ‘Celebrity’ TV appearances. Once they hit the stage though most of the fears were laid to rest, Black Sabbath proved why they are the Godfathers of heavy metal.
The template of their songs is quite simple, Tony Iommi’s timeless, catchy and deeply heavy riffs mostly doubled up by Geezer Butlers powerful, pioneering, dirty bass sound are given a thunderous backing by drummer Bill Ward on the original recordings. Ward is the only original member absent from the 2014 line up however he is ably replaced by Tommy Clufetos who produced an epic, impressive drum solo in the middle of the set. Rock cliché it may be, but it wouldn’t be a Black Sabbath set without at least one drum solo!
The main question mark lay with Ozzy, could he still hold his own as the original heavy metal front man? Well, mostly yes he could, whilst he occasionally fell flat with his vocals and his timing during the slow sections of the bands title song ‘Black Sabbath’ was suspect, he’s still an endearingly crazy front man, he still can get the crowd riled up and he creates a joyous, celebratory atmosphere from the stage that contradicts the doom-laden nature of the songs, yet energises the audience and the band.
The one thing that really struck me though is exactly why the Black Sabbath sound defined the term 'Heavy Metal'. The sound they create is exactly that, 'Heavy' and 'Metalic'. Interestingly, speed seems to dominate most metal since the late 80's, however Black Sabbath play a form of music clearly derived from the blues that is rarely very fast. It's mostly a dark, loud, slow form of blues and that's what makes it feel so heavy. Sabbath provided a lesson to their proverbial Godchildren, you don't have to be relentlessly fast and aggressive to make great Heavy Metal Music.
Ozzy, Tony and Geezer may be old men in their 60’s by now, but they still have the energy of much younger men, they’re clearly enjoying this perhaps final phase of the Black Sabbath story.
One of the most telling moments of the show was when the usually stone-faced Tony Iommi hatched a smile. The old masters are clearly enjoying this twilight of their career and how could they not when they have an audience of tens of thousands cheering along and celebrating their legacy.
For me, and numerous other Heavy Metallers no doubt, seeing Black Sabbath live with Ozzy at the helm was akin to seeing The Beatles or Led Zeppelin reforming and actually defying their age by putting on a great show.
If it wasn’t for my sister following in my foot-steps by becoming a heavy metal teenager I may never have caught Black Sabbath live. But now I can tell my heavy metal grand-kids, ‘I saw Black Sabbath’!
No matter how old you get or how ‘serious’ your professional endeavours become, if you become a rock music fan in your youth there’s a rock n’roll flame in your heart that’ll never die out.
If, like me, you end up composing music for orchestras and string quartets that heavy metal influence might even occasionally crop up in your compositions. Like in this piece
Hey, Hey, My, My, Rock N’ Roll can never die……….
This is Dave Flynn's personal music blog. All posts are written by him!