Battle of the Bottle (Less is definitely more!)

The Reasoning

Image by tim ellis via Flickr

The Reasoning are a rock band who’s members have previously been part of progressive bands such as Magenta and Karnataka. They were, in 2010, a 7 piece band with Matt Cohen on bass, Rachel Cohen on vocals, Dylan Thompson on vocals and guitar, Owain Roberts on guitars, Maria Owen on backing vocals and guitar, Tony Turrell on keyboards and Jake Bradford-Sharp on keyboards. They’d released 3 original albums, a live DVD, an acoustic album of reworkings of their own material and were preparing for a short tour and recording a fourth album.

By late 2010/early 2011 they were a 5 piece band with Maria Owen and Dylan Thompson having departed to begin their own projects (Abraxas Scorn and Shadow of the Sun respectively). When I heard the news that Maria and Dyl had left I wondered how the band would survive, let alone evolve. Dylan had been an integral part of the song writing and took a lead role in many of the early vocals and live both had helped create the band’s ‘sound’.

Shortly after the departure of these two the band embarked on the aforementioned tour and the word on the street was very positive. Tighter, punchier, great new arrangements… I was unable to make any of these gigs for various reasons and so had to rely on others for reviews but the vibe was most definitely positive.

And so it was, in early 2011, that the band embarked on a journey to the USA to fulfil their commitment at RoSFest 2011. And this is where the review begins…

The Bottle of Gettysburg by Mark Wilkinson

The Reasoning’s performance at RoSFest was recorded for posterity and the band decided having heard it that there was the potential to release a live album. Live in the USA: The Bottle of Gettysburg is the result of that decision.

Having toured with the band in 2010 I knew their set as it was, the original arrangements from the albums, the layered vocals, the two guitar parts (3 when Maria picked up the acoustic) and was still unsure, despite hearing otherwise, how they would pull this off.

I needn’t have worried. At all.

After the Intro (an original composition? TT?) the band dive straight into Diamonds & Leather from Adverse Camber. I get the impression there are some ‘opening nerves’ as this track kicks in, nothing truly noticeable, but I feel it’s there. But only momentarily. By the time Owain picks his second break the band are in full swing. I’m pleased to report that the intertwined vocal parts are still there, with Tony taking on more than he has in the past. I can tell the arrangements are different, in fact I know they have to be as there’s only one guitar now, but for the life of me I can’t tell where that second guitar went!

Next up is Fallen Angels and again, the new arrangement has filled out to the point where you can’t think where anything else would go? This is a leaner, meaner and most definitely gig fit band on stage. I’m not sure if it’s just the CD mix or if it was the same live but Matt’s bass is more prominent, something I feel has been lacking both in recordings and live performances before. And it’s good to hear. The combination of Jake, on excellent form, and Matt’s beefier bass give the songs a bottom end/drive which I felt had been lacking on occasion before.

And this is where I have to be honest. (Matt, close your eyes and open them again in a paragraph!)

While I regard the songwriting of The Reasoning very highly, tracks such as Chasing Rainbows, Dark Angel, Breaking the Fourth Wall (not on this live album sadly) and Call Me God? never cease to impress, I’ve always felt the arrangements built up to something which just didn’t happen. I’m not sure how to explain it but I just felt that many of the songs which promised so much ultimately had something missing.

I stand corrected. And then some. These new arrangements are stronger, more confident and most definitely deliver. Less, in this case, is most definitely more!

And then there’s Rachel. Already regarded by many as one of the better female vocalists in the British Prog Rock scene this performance can only increase her standing. Having assumed many of the lead vocals which Dylan had previously sung there’s a  character to her voice which I’d never been aware of before. Shadow of the Mind is a perfect example of this.

In short, this album is a triumph, a testament to the abilities of the members of The Reasoning to reinvent their material and to help it grow. There isn’t one track on the album where I thought “Oh, there used to be an additional (enter instrument/artist) part in there”. Each member of the band has taken on that little bit more, expanded their role and the end result is one of the strongest live performances I’ve heard from The Reasoning.

The track listing is:

Intro / Diamonds & Leather*** / Fallen Angels* / Sharp Sea** / The Nobody Effect*** / Shadows of the Mind* / The Thirteenth Hour*** / How Far To Fall?** / Chasing Rainbows* / 14*** / Dark Angel** / Aching Hunger*

* from The Awakening
** from Dark Angel
*** from Adverse Camber

Highlights for me are Shadows of the Mind, Chasing Rainbows and Aching Hunger… and the artwork. Matt announced his excitement on Twitter shortly before releasing the album about the cover artwork, and holding it in my hands I can see why. Mark Wilkinson, he of early Marillion album sleeve fame (among many other things), has done the guys proud. (Matt, if you read this, I want the whole chill sauce story next time we meet!)

If this performance is anything to go by, and the arrangements the shape of things to come, then this weekend’s gigs at The Borderline and The Robin 2 will be great and the EP they’re currently working on (due December 2011) should be a welcome addition to any prog fans collection. I, for one, can’t wait!

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Regression – Part 1 – Held’ in Awe!

I promised a kind of retrospective of the last 19 months or so of my musical landscape, so here’s the first course… Be warned! Despite my love of all things ‘metal’ I have developed a predilection for progressive rock again over the last 12-18 months, and it shows!

I’ve decided to start with a couple of artist/band/performer specific blogs and not the usual Live/Recorded review of the year type and first up is the ‘Little Red Rock Chick’ herself, well, actually,  not much of it’s just her, but she’s definitely a uniting thread and major influence on it all.

I first came across Anne-Marie Helder in Karnataka some time ago but didn’t really pay much attention. It wasn’t until I saw her support Fish on the Return to Childhood tour, in Barnsley I do believe, that I began to sit up and take notice.

Fast forward to 2009 and, thanks to links with members of MR, I was now an acquaintance of Anne’s (she took MR’s first two promo shoots) and definitely keen to see her on stage again.

My first opportunity came at the Nick Harper gig at the Duchess in York shortly after I’d missed the Marillion convention where she’d performed to an exceptionally responsive crowd. I missed the first act that night and made it just in time to see Anne coming on stage. There was no guitar on the first track, unless you can call the rhythmic beating of its body playing a guitar? If I’d been in any doubt of her vocal abilities beforehand this one track cemented my opinion. To come on stage and open with an a cappella track like this was risky at best, to do it as well as this was pure talent. The set continued with one or two of the tracks from her The Contact EP from 2004 alongside some new material which has yet to see the inside of a recording studio. The set was a perfect mix of old and new material culminating in a track which I think may have been called ‘Wheels within Wheels’ that blew me away [think of a combination of Apocalypstick and Dark Star as a solo piece and you may be somewhere near it].

I bought The Contact that night. I’d heard it before but only once and had forgotten how much I liked the songs both in style and substance.  It now has a firmly regular place in my sound system, on my PC and my iPhone. I can’t fault any of the tracks and they are easily better live than on this accomplished solo début.

Next up was the Breathing Space appearance at A Night for Heroes.  For those of you not from York this was a charity event at The Duchess in memory of Howard Sparnenn a well-known drummer, musician and character from York whose daughter is now not only the vocal talent of Breathing Space but also of Mostly Autumn (who headed up the night)!  On this occasion Anne was performing in a supporting role only. I believe there were backing vocals and flute involved, but my memory may be failing me on this occasion. Despite several opportunities I had never seen Breathing Space and, despite the pedigree of the cast, I must honestly admit that I do  not believe it lives up to the sum of its parts. Brave words indeed!  I’m not sure what it is?  The music is well crafted and expertly performed, there is some (although perhaps not enough?) on stage presence and on paper this should be somewhat of a ‘supergroup’.  Live, it just doesn’t live up to expectations. (Please read on before you reach an opinion of this… there’s more to come!)

Following on from the Breathing Space appearance, the next time I saw Anne was with Panic Room.  This is, for all intents, one of the Karnataka successors and it more than lives up to it’s name. In fact I may even be as bold as to say that it surpasses that band on all levels.  Most, if not all, of the writing in Panic Room is undertaken by Jon and Anne and if this is a sign of what’s to come I will definitely keep up the harrassment of her until a solo album appears! Again I was sufficiently tardy to miss the first, and part of the second support acts but I care not a jot.  The night was all about Panic Room for me and it was, quite simply, stunning! Tracks such as Apocalypstick, Dark Star and Yasuni were perfectly executed while Anne lost herself in the tales being told and acted out her visions of the imagery inspired by the lyrics. I love this aspect of her performances, you can see her getting lost in her own worlds and it’s something to behold. [On a personal note, it’s something I envy and have begun to aspire to in my performances; the ability to lose myself under a spotlight in a crowded room…]

Next up should have been an absolute marathon of a weekend… with Mostly Autumn, Breathing Space and Parade performing on separate nights of the same weekend. For reasons which escape me now I completely missed the Friday night show which included a performance by Parade a band including Fish’s erstwhile guitarist Chris Johnson and Anne-Marie on vocals, guitar and keys. I then refused to fork out the money needed to see Mostly Autumn in York’s Grand Opera House and so it was to The Duchess again on the sunday night to see Breathing Space. Or so I thought.

As we arrived we bumped into Andy (Smith of Mostly Autumn/Morpheus Rising) who advised us that Anne and Chris had hurriedly put together an acoustic support set for the night.  This was a boon for me as I was more than a little hacked off at having missed the Friday night’s Parade performance and this turned out to be an acoustic set of primarily the Parade material.  Considering it had been put together in an afternoon’s warm up/sound check the resulting performance was proof that both these two are consummate musicians, there was even enough space for a little humour.  I didn’t know the material sufficiently to recognise them at the time, but I was sufficiently impressed enough to head off and buy The Fabric from the band’s site.

And then for Breathing Space… Perhaps it’s the venue (I know from experience that it’s a bitch to get the sound right on stage), perhaps not. But I still can’t get to grips with this band. Strange as this may seem there is just something lacking.  Don’t get me wrong, the music is beautiful, the performance impeccable. But that’s about it. There’s very little presence, in fact (in fear of being taken the wrong way!) if it weren’t for Livvy there’d be nothing to watch on stage at all, and after a couple of tracks it all seems much of a muchness. I will of course persevere and revisit both the albums and the live shows as I am determined to at lease realise what I think is missing if not bring myself round to liking them!

All in all I think I’ve seen Anne-Marie Helder live about half a dozen times in 2009 alone and I’d quite happily have seen her half a dozen more, under any one of her guises.  I cannot recommend either here solo EP (The Contact), the Parade album (The Fabric) or the two Panic Room albums (Visionary Position & Satellite) enough. Those people I have managed to ‘come see her’ or ‘give it a listen’ will agree wholeheartedly that she is a talent worthy of far greater things than she has achieved to date. And I’ll be there listening and watching when it happens.

Having read this back I’ll admit I considered apologising now for the apparent worshipping at the altar of AMH. But I’ve decided against it, she really is that good!

All the best,

Grae