The Marillion Christmas Poll: Instructions (Part 2 of 2)

OK. Here are the voting instructions for the other two sections of the Marillion Christmas Poll. With all the heavy lifting of the song poll out of the way, it’s on to the easier stuff!

Part 2: The Album Poll

This section is a lot more straightforward than the song poll. Basically, all you need to do here is to award each of Marillion’s 19 studio albums (yes, I said 19 – you’ll see why in a moment!) a score out of 10, where 1=poor and 10=superb.

Those 19 albums (should you need reminding!) are:

  • Script For A Jester’s Tear
  • Fugazi
  • Misplaced Childhood
  • Clutching At Straws
  • Seasons End
  • Holidays In Eden
  • Brave
  • Afraid Of Sunlight
  • This Strange Engine
  • Radiation
  • Anoraknophobia
  • Marbles
  • Somewhere Else
  • Essence
  • The Hard Shoulder
  • Less Is More
  • Sounds That Can’t Be Made
  • Fuck Everyone And Run


You don’t have a total or maximum number of points to award in this section – simply rate each album with a rating from 1 to 10. If you’ve never heard one of the albums, please award the album(s) in question a zero (0). I’m not expecting too many zeroes, but I know not everyone has everything…

And finally…

Part 3: The Other Music Poll

In keeping with tradition, the third part of the poll is something a bit different to previous years. This year, I want to hear about your other favourite music. All I need from you is a list of your ten favourite bands/artists that aren’t Marillion. No need to award them points or anything like that – just do your best to list them in rough order of preference. Remember: ten bands/artists. No more, no less. Let’s find out what Marillion fans like to listen to other than Marillion.

So, I’ve done all that. What now?

Simple – bung your completed votes for the three parts of the poll into an email, and send it to xmaspoll AT btinternet DOT com. But remember: please don’t send it before 0:00am GMT on 1st October, and don’t wait until after 23:59pm on 23rd December. Send it between these two dates, remembering to put ‘Marillion Christmas Poll 2016’ in the subject line.

If there are problems with your vote, I will be in touch. Otherwise, all you need to do after voting is sit back with your choice of Christmas booze and wait for the results to start rolling in! Once the poll is closed, I will post the results here on this blog, as well as on the poll’s Facebook page and the Marillion forum.

Aren’t I good to you? 😉 Alright, folks – have at it!

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The Marillion Christmas Poll: Instructions (Part 1 of 2)

“This one goes out to all the drunken romantics in the audience…”

Most people reading this will be very much aware that I am a huge fan of the rock band Marillion. What some of you won’t know is that for over a decade now, I’ve been the curator of what, for tradition’s sake, I continue to call the Marillion Christmas Poll.

In the late 90s, when the newsgroup was still a thing, one of the regulars – an excellent chap who went by the nom de plume of Wot Gorilla – decided to run a poll for the other regular users. He ran the poll just before Christmas, and spent a day or two drip-feeding us the results over the Christmas holiday period. We voted for our favourite ten songs, and rated the band’s records. As the results were fed back, it was a lot of fun, and also a great source of inspiration for discussion of the band’s music. Traffic on the newsgroup spiked. Friendships were made. It was so much fun that he did it again the following year.

Word spread. News of the poll made it outside the newsgroup and onto the two largest Marillion-based mailing lists, Freaks and The Opium Den. Then, once the band’s own website incorporated its own forum, it spread to there, too. It was at this point, shortly after the release of one of the band’s most beloved records, Marbles, that Wot Gorilla handed over the poll to me. It had become too time-consuming for him, and to be fair he’d been doing it for over half a decade by this point.

And so the poll has continued. A while after the band has released a new record, I run the poll again over the Christmas period. It’s run five times since Marbles was released, a little different each time as I tinkered with the various sections of the poll, collecting people’s opinions on the band’s side-projects, Fish’s solo output, people’s favourite live albums and so on.

Well, this year I’m running it again – possibly for the last time as it currently exists. The poll has always been conducted by email, but with the advent of increasingly sophisticated web-based data gathering, I suspect the poll will undergo another sizable metamorphosis soon. But I love running the poll the old-fashioned way. Receiving those emails – hundreds of them, these days – and picking through them, error-checking the votes, plumbing them into spreadsheets, reading people’s funny, sad, and often inspiring words about the band and their music, never fails to make me appreciate the band all the more. The poll invariably gets me listening intently to their back catalogue – I suspect I’m not alone – and I fall in love with the band’s music all over again. It never fails.

Last time, I’d created a Facebook page to act as a means of connecting with willing voters and notifying them of the results, and any problems along the way. Not everyone is on Facebook, though, or subscribed to the dear old Opium Den – a mailing list I created way back in 1999, not ever dreaming that more than a couple of dozen people would ever bother with it; we ended up with well over a thousand members. And so this year I’ve taken to Twitter to publicise the poll still further, and have elected to post voting instructions here on my blog, so even those who aren’t on Facebook or The Opium Den, or even Marillion’s own fan forum, can (hopefully!) join in the fun.

So here, without further ado, are the voting instructions for this year’s poll. If you love Marillion and their music, whether you’ve taken part in the past or not, please take part. Join in, send me your completed ballot. Trust me, it’s a lot of fun. And of course, if any of you feel like spreading the word about the poll to friends, that would be straight up awesome.

Right. With the poll due to open very shortly, it’s time to go over the voting procedure. That way, if there are any questions (or if I’ve cocked it up!), then there will be time to thrash things out before voting opens. It’s time to pull out that battered notepad filled with Marillion-related jottings, pull up that spreadsheet where you were attempting to work out your favourite Marillion songs to five decimal places, and start whittling that spear with which to impale the hapless administrator of THE MARILLION CHRISTMAS POLL 2016!

Please bear with me as I attempt in my own confused way to explain how the poll works. If you have any questions about the poll or how it works, please post them to the page, and I will do my best to answer them.

So what do you have to do?

OK. All you need to do is send an email to the Christmas Poll email address (xmaspoll AT btinternet DOT com), containing your virtual ballot paper. The poll falls into three distinct sections this year: a song poll, an album poll, and an ‘Other Music’ poll. The last of those sections is a new addition this year – I’m giving it a try to see how well it works. For the rest of this first post, we’re solely concerned with the song poll. It’s the most important, and also the most complicated part of the poll, so I try and spell it out as clearly as I can. Don’t worry, it’s not that complicated – but please read all the criteria carefully before entering your vote. Even if you’ve seen the poll before, there have been a few tweaks, so please don’t be tempted to simply re-submit the entry you made last time, if you took part in one of the previous polls.

Here’s an idea… SAVE THIS POST! PRINT IT OFF! Or maybe consider copying/pasting the song list into a spreadsheet – then it can do the maths for you as you edit. I’m all about making it easier for everyone, but I really don’t want to have to nit-pick peoples song votes because they don’t add up. That way lies madness and sedatives!


[1] VOTING FOR THIS POLL OPENS AT MIDNIGHT GMT ON SATURDAY, 1st OCTOBER 2016, AND IS OPEN UNTIL MIDNIGHT GMT ON FRIDAY, 23rd DECEMBER 2016. Any votes received before or after this period will be ignored. Results will be posted to the poll’s Facebook page/the Marillion Online forum/The Opium Den mailing list/this blog over the Christmas holiday period, my intake of Christmas ales permitting.

[2] All ballots MUST be mailed to the Christmas Poll email address given above, and MUST have the words “Marillion Christmas Poll 2016” in the subject header of the mail. It is extremely important that you put that subject header, ‘cos that’s what my filter operates on. PLEASE DO NOT SEND ANY BALLOTS TO THE FORUMS, LISTS, OR SOCIAL MEDIA SITES. (That way nobody will be unduly influenced by other ballots and the result hangs in the balance right up to the final announcement). PLEASE ALSO ENSURE THAT YOUR BALLOT INCLUDES YOUR VOTES FOR ALL THREE SECTIONS OF THE POLL!

[3] If you have any questions about how any of this works, leave me a message here and I will attempt to explain/reassure/hit you around the head with a blunt object/do the fish-slapping dance.

[4] Incorrectly completed ballots will be returned. You can fix them and re-submit them. It is, however, very likely that I (and others) will point and laugh at you. People have spelt “Marillion” wrong in the past, you know. They were named and shamed.

Alright. To the specific instructions…

Part 1: The Song Poll

Right, this is the biggest and most complex part of the poll! The songs that are eligible for this section meet the following criteria: this is a *track/songwriting* poll, which means that we’re not gonna worry about different versions of the song, like two different versions of, say, Memory Of Water – so apologies to those of you who are especially fond the ‘Big Beat’ version of that one.

I have also excluded the cover versions; with the exception of the studio recorded track, Sympathy (and Dry Land, which is on an album anyway). Last time around I included a handful of tracks from the EMI 2-disc remastered editions of the first 8 albums, but no bugger voted for them, really, so I’ve chosen to disregard them this time around. Ditto Margaret, which I included last time – even though it was a live recording – because it appeared on B’Sides Themselves. Well, I’m being a stickler for the word of law this time, so tough titty Madge! 😉 For the Brave fans, Marouatte Jam has been kicked into touch as well – no bugger voted for it last time out, and besides, it’s basically just an extended ‘live in the studio’ take of The Opium Den/The Slide anyhow.

Since not all fans have heard them and they’re not part of the band’s retail releases, I’ve excluded all the Web-only releases and Racket special releases etc as well. We’re only concerned about the FULL STUDIO ALBUMS & SINGLES AVAILABLE AT RETAIL here.

As usual, I was considering including the ‘hybrid’ songs on the Clutching At Straws bonus disc after several questions about their omission in previous polls. However, ultimately I felt it was redundant as they are essentially – for the most part – merely alternate versions of existing songs. So I’m sorry, but they’re still ineligible.

Less Is More gave me a bit of a headache, as it’s comprised almost entirely of alternate versions of existing songs. However, I am counting It’s Not Your Fault as eligible, as it is a studio recording and is not available in any other form.

The song section is interesting to score, designed in a way for those of you who have a hard time making decisions between best and worst. So how does this work?

[1] You have 150 points, which you must divide between your favourite songs. The advantage to this is that if you feel certain songs are equally as good, you can award them the same number of points.

[2] No selected song can receive more than 15 points. No single song can receive less than 1 point. Fractional point scores will be discarded. Fractions? Pah! Integers/whole numbers only, please!

[3] You can vote for UP TO 30 songs. However, you do not HAVE to vote for 30 songs – you can vote for fewer if you so desire. But you MUST vote for a MINIMUM of 20 songs. Alright?

[4] Any ties will be decided by which of the two tied songs had more total mentions, or, if they have the exact same number of total mentions, by which of the songs has the higher average score.

TIP: I find it helpful to narrow my list of songs down to 30, award them all a point, and then start increasing the scores slowly based on how I feel they compare with each other. If you award large points values (say, 12 or 15) here, there and everywhere, you’re going to run out of points very quickly, and it’ll

be hell trying to score everything.


  • A list of at least 20 songs, but no more than 30.
  • Each song in the list is given a point score of no less than 1 but no more than 15.
  • The points, totaled up, should equal 150.

Here is a complete list of ELIGIBLE SONGS:

  • Script For A Jester’s Tear
  • He Knows You Know
  • The Web
  • Garden Party
  • Chelsea Monday
  • Forgotten Sons
  • Market Square Heroes
  • Three Boats Down From The Candy
  • Grendel
  • Charting The Single
  • Assassing
  • Punch And Judy
  • Jigsaw
  • Emerald Lies
  • She Chameleon
  • Incubus
  • Fugazi
  • Cinderella Search
  • Pseudo Silk Kimono
  • Kayleigh
  • Lavender
  • Bitter Suite
  • Heart Of Lothian
  • Waterhole (Expresso Bongo)
  • Lords Of The Backstage
  • Blind Curve
  • Childhoods End?
  • White Feather
  • Lady Nina
  • Freaks
  • Hotel Hobbies
  • Warm Wet Circles
  • That Time Of The Night (The Short Straw)
  • Going Under
  • Just For The Record
  • White Russian
  • Incommunicado
  • Torch Song
  • Slainte Mhath
  • Sugar Mice
  • The Last Straw
  • Tux On
  • The King Of Sunset Town
  • Easter
  • The Uninvited Guest
  • Seasons End
  • Holloway Girl
  • Berlin
  • After Me
  • Hooks In You
  • The Space…
  • The Bell In The Sea
  • The Release
  • Splintering Heart
  • Cover My Eyes (Pain and Heaven)
  • The Party
  • No One Can
  • Holidays In Eden
  • Dry Land
  • Waiting To Happen
  • This Town
  • The Rakes Progress
  • 100 Nights
  • How Can It Hurt
  • A Collection
  • I Will Walk On Water
  • Sympathy
  • Bridge
  • Living With The Big Lie
  • Runaway
  • Goodbye To All That
  • Hard As Love
  • The Hollow Man
  • Alone Again In The Lap Of Luxury
  • Paper Lies
  • Brave
  • The Great Escape
  • Made Again
  • Winter Trees
  • Gazpacho
  • Cannibal Surf Babe
  • Beautiful
  • Afraid Of Sunrise
  • Out Of This World
  • Afraid Of Sunlight
  • Beyond You
  • King
  • Icon
  • Live Forever
  • Man Of A Thousand Faces
  • One Fine Day
  • 80 Days
  • Estonia
  • Memory Of Water
  • An Accidental Man
  • Hope For The Future
  • This Strange Engine
  • Costa del Slough
  • Under The Sun
  • The Answering Machine
  • Three Minute Boy
  • Now She’ll Never Know
  • These Chains
  • Born To Run
  • Cathedral Wall
  • A Few Words For The Dead
  • A Legacy
  • Deserve
  • Go!
  • Rich
  • Enlightened
  • Built-in Bastard Radar
  • Tumble Down The Years
  • Interior Lulu
  • House
  • Between You & Me
  • Quartz
  • Map Of The World
  • When I Meet God
  • The Fruit Of The Wild Rose
  • Separated Out
  • This Is The 21st Century
  • If My Heart Were A Ball It Would Roll Up Uphill
  • Number One
  • The Invisible Man
  • Marbles I
  • Genie
  • Fantastic Place
  • The Only Unforgivable Thing
  • Marbles II
  • Ocean Cloud
  • Marbles III
  • The Damage
  • Don’t Hurt Yourself
  • You’re Gone
  • Angelina
  • Drilling Holes
  • Marbles IV
  • Neverland
  • The Other Half
  • See It Like A Baby
  • Thankyou Whoever You Are
  • Most Toys
  • Somewhere Else
  • A Voice From The Past
  • No Such Thing
  • The Wound
  • The Last Century For Man
  • Faith
  • Circular Ride
  • Say The Word
  • Dreamy Street
  • This Train Is My Life
  • Essence
  • Wrapped Up In Time
  • Liquidity
  • Nothing Fills The Hole
  • Woke Up
  • Trap The Spark
  • A State Of Mind
  • Happiness Is The Road
  • Half Full Jam
  • Thunder Fly
  • The Man From The Planet Marzipan
  • Asylum Satellite #1
  • Older Than Me
  • Throw Me Out
  • Half The World
  • Whatever Is Wrong With You
  • Especially True
  • Real Tears For Sale
  • It’s Not Your Fault
  • Gaza
  • Sounds That Can’t Be Made
  • Pour My Love
  • Power
  • Montreal
  • Invisible Ink
  • Lucky Man
  • The Sky Above The Rain
  • El Dorado
  • Living In F E A R
  • The Leavers
  • White Paper
  • The New Kings
  • Tomorrow’s New Country

VERY IMPORTANT – PLEASE NOTE! I will NOT accept votes for suites of songs (i.e. you can’t vote for the This Town trilogy as one choice. It’s three tracks, folks! Same with the opening trilogy of tracks on Clutching At Straws!). So there.

I’ll tackle the other (much easier) sections in the next entry… In the meantime, questions, error-checking and abuse are welcome! 🙂

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HippyDave vs Music, Part #7

Today, at the age of 43, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where my love of music really started. My earliest memories of music date right back to my pre-school days. I lived with my mum at my grandparents house, until she married when I was in my teens. I dimly remember sitting on my mum’s lap, or lying on the floor playing with whatever my current favourite toy was, whilst she listened to selections from her stock of vinyl on my grandparents ancient Argosy record player. The Argosy unit was an absolute beast, the size and shape of a desk, standing on four metallic legs up against the wall in my grandparents lounge. I’ve tried without success to find a photo of it, or at least of a player of the same model. This is the closest thing I could find:


Imagine a radio tuner with a series of dials on top of the unit at the right hand end, the stereo speakers replaced with a large mono speaker on the right hand side and the turntable area taking up the space where the records are being stored in this photo, and you’re not far off. (The wallpaper at my grandparent’s gaff wasn’t nearly as ghastly as that featured in the photo, btw. Just in case you were wondering.)

My mum had been quite a music fan Back In The Day. Like so many women her age, when she was younger she had been mildly obsessed with The Beatles, the Bay City Rollers and the more clean-cut pop star poster-boys of the 60s. She actually has fond memories of seeing The Beatles once, when they actually came to town in their early days and played a venue that became one of the local cinemas (now long since closed). She was faintly suspicious of the flower power counter culture of the mid to late 60s however (I know, sometimes it’s hard to believe we are related, right? 😉 ), and tired of The Beatles around the time of Rubber Soul, graduating instead to singer-songwriter pop – Elkie Brooks and Neil Diamond were big favourites – and then to disco, which was what she was really into when I was old enough to realise and remember what I heard her playing at home.

There came a time when my mum realised that I was enjoying some of what she was playing. I don’t know when it happened, or what those records had been, but when I started displaying an interest, my mum started picking up some of those storybook records where favourite childhood characters enjoyed adventures interspersed with songs. Some live longer in the memory than others: I dimly remember a record that featured children’s nursery rhymes that had been tied loosely into a plot with a TV celebrity of the time cast in the lead role; I also remember Around The World with Sooty quite well, although even back then I remember being disappointed that Sooty had (a) been voiced – he never said a word on the TV show – and (b) sounded like a four year-old boy, which wasn’t how I had imagined him at all. Sweep stole the show, as always. Particular favourites, though, included Noddy’s Magic Holiday (surprisingly adult and weird; seriously, the end of side 1 gave me the heebie jeebies at the time and it’s still hardly kids fare when I hear excerpts from it now – probably why I enjoyed it so much in the first place!), Scooby Doo and the Snowmen Mystery (which got a great deal of play despite taking some slight liberties with the franchise) and Rupert and the Fire bird (wherein the titular bear had all manner of fun with his mates, a recalcitrant pet dragon and aforementioned fire bird).


However, I think the first record I got seriously obsessed with was Contour records Stories From Black Beauty. The record essentially consisted of eight chapters from Anna Sewell’s much-loved book, narrated by actress Judy Bowker, who played Vicky in the TV series The Adventures of Black Beauty. Bowker narrated the stories from the POV of Black Beauty, and her skill as an actress and Denis King’s frankly still astounding music – who doesn’t know and love the theme tune? I know I still do – made for a very involving listen. I suppose you could say it was my first concept album ;-). It was probably intended for older children than I was at the time, and some of it was pretty heavy stuff for a five year old. I distinctly remember being completely freaked out by the second and third stories (A Stormy Night and The Fire), which ladled on the peril with no regard for childhood frailty. In fact, The Fire – possessed of a spiralling urgency and with a gruesome pay-off towards the end, where you hear trapped horses burning to death in the fire – actually made me cry the first time I heard it (I always did have a soft spot for the beasties). It’s still powerfully emotive for me now. My fondness for these album-length stories probably explains a great deal about why I ultimately gravitated towards progressive rock and its tendency to make conceptual records.


That’s only one side of the story, though. My mum and I had got into the habit of sitting and watching Top Of The Pops together, which led to me picking up on all kinds of things. Abba were a huge favourite for us both, and now I was old enough to be trusted to put records on myself, I think I played mum’s Abba records even more than she did. My mum owned a few dozen albums, but had cases full of old 45s, and as my curiosity about music developed, I raided the boxes of singles regularly. I came to value a good, solid single: three or four minutes of concentrated energy and storytelling, often possessed of powerful melodic hooks that would stick in my head and stubbornly refuse to leave. I loved wallowing in my album-length stories, but I also found myself whistling or humming these memorable shorter songs to myself. And it was at this point in my musical education that 1978 arrived, and with it my true musical awakening, courtesy of the Kate Bush incident. I never looked back.

So where am I going with all this? It’s really just to make the point that whilst I identify more with rock, metal and electronica these days, I cut my teeth – like most people – on pop music; pop music featured in the singles chart, no less. It strikes me that a lot of people who identify as rock fans look down on pop music as somehow inherently less authentic or worthwhile, which is a real shame; let’s remember that the name “pop” is a contraction of “popular”, which actually says nothing about the medium, only about the number of people listening to it. As members of various rock bands have been heard to observe – especially in the sphere of progressive rock, where longer, more musically complex material is more commonplace – it’s probably harder to write a solid four minute pop song than some complicated twenty minute musical edifice, as brevity and melody become increasingly important. As a rock fan, and later a fan of metal and progressive rock, I found the dismissive attitude fellow fans had towards pop music puzzling, and ultimately infuriating. This was especially true when I happened across pop musicians who were especially good at crafting shorter, more immediate songs that were nevertheless full of drama and emotion. I learnt quickly that quite often, as soon as you mentioned a pop acts name, some prospective listeners would simply shut down and want nothing to do with their material, purely because, well, it was “just” pop music.

Consequently, although I’ve met and got to know a lot of interesting people because of rock/metal/prog/electronica, practically none of my friends have shared my continuing interest in Good Solid Pop Music. Sure, some pop music is lobotomised nonsense – rarely, even that lobotomised nonsense is entertaining and memorable – but that’s always been the case. For every Kate Bush, there is a Nicki Minaj. But the reverse is also true: for every Nicki Minaj, there is a Kate Bush; someone who can produce powerfully involving and moving music that fits neatly inside a four-minute space. Which – finally! Jeez, does he go on or what? – brings me to my final offering in this series.

I’m always evangelising about new music, and how there continues to be the most amazing music being made these days. More than ever before, in fact, I would insist: it’s just that unless you go actively searching for it, you’re unlikely to hear a lot of it. The demise of Top Of The Pops and the cookie-cutter format of commercial radio has essentially removed the regular exposure that new musicians used to enjoy, so unless you go online and search for something new, people are at the mercy of an ever-decreasing number of tastemakers and musical gatekeepers who will necessarily not be aware of everything new that’s coming down the turnpike. This state of affairs, and the music industry’s discovery that nostalgia sells, is largely responsible for the mind-set that there are no “next big thing” artists. It’s pure nonsense: there are plenty of artists out there more than capable of delivering future classics and making a name for themselves; they’re just not being given a chance to do so. Which is why it’s a particular joy for me when I discover new music – and I mean new new music, as opposed to music by a veteran act that I’ve only just got around to checking out properly.

In that spirit, I want to end this series of blogs by mentioning the most recent new musicians whose music I’ve fallen in love with. They are Electra and Miranda Kilbey-Jansson, collectively known as Say Lou Lou. You might be thinking, “Hey… Kilbey. That name sounds familiar”, and well you might, for they are the daughters of Steve Kilbey of Australian-based rock band The Church and his ex-partner Karin Jansson. I suppose their heritage alone would have eventually made me curious enough to want to check out Say Lou Lou’s music, but as it happened, I got to hear them for the first time without even realising who I was listening to.


Say Lou Lou had actually already been active for nearly two years before it happened. It was April 2015, and I was idly flicking through some playlists on YouTube. When I’m sitting at my computer working on various things, sometimes I like to cue up a playlist or two – I do it with Spotify too, but have come to especially enjoy playing random playlists on YouTube. I can set the playlist running, and then if I hear something interesting, I can nip across to the YouTube window and find out which artist I’m listening to, see any accompanying visuals, and perhaps conduct a further search to see what else they’ve done. So there I was, merrily listening away to some random playlist – I can’t even remember whose it was or the general purpose of it now; I think it may have been tagged as “dreampop” and I was on a Cocteau Twins kick and happened across it, I’m not sure – when this twinkly little song started. I remember thinking, “Aw, that’s lovely”, and then tuning out again… only to do a mental double take when this monster chorus leapt out of my PC speakers.

One of the things I especially like in a good pop song is a killer chorus. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about: a chorus that you really do only have to hear once before it lodges in your cerebellum and absolutely refuses to be evicted. This was one such chorus, and I immediately had to pop across to my YouTube window and see what was going on. It was Say Lou Lou, with their song Nothing But A Heartbeat.

I was struck by several things all at once. The chorus was wonderful; I really liked the way their voices worked together; I loved the lyrics; and… hey, what the hell’s going on in this crazy video? Nothing But A Heartbeat is a four-minute song; Say Lou Lou’s extravagant, surreal video stretches this out to over eight minutes as the song tails off and pauses to allow the video to act as a feature film and carry the narrative for the remainder of the time. It’s a thing of beauty; the sort of video that convinces you that the band that made it have bigger ideas than banging out a few singles. After one viewing I felt completely won over: this was music with heart and ideas, and a band that I felt sure could hold my interest over the course of an album. I’d had the aperitif, and now I wanted the main course ;-).

The rest I’m sure you could guess. I bought a copy of their album, Lucid Dreaming, and fell hopelessly in love with it. It’s a beautiful, dreamlike record (for once, I felt the “dreampop” label was merited) with echoes of the Cocteau Twins (if you close your eyes, Say Lou Lou’s Wilder Than The Wind could almost be a Cocteaus number; it has that same surrealistic feel and wealth of raw emotion that typifies the Cocteaus best work), married to sleek, modern pop that lends the whole thing a timeless, unhurried feel that is both exhilarating and dreamy by turns. I’ve played the album to death; it was that greatest of pleasures, a surprise hit that actually relegated long-awaited albums by other artists to the sidelines.

Say Lou Lou are currently making their follow-up. I seriously cannot wait to see what they’re cooking up. If it’s even half as good as their debut, it’ll be essential listening here at Hippy Towers. Check ‘em out (the Say Lou Lou website can be found here); if you’re open to the idea of pop music being emotionally powerful then you won’t be disappointed.

In the meantime, if anyone tells you that there are no great new artists out there making music, do yourself a favour and disregard them utterly. There’s so much gold out there, you wouldn’t believe it. Go exploring; listen to anything, listen to everything – you never know what you will find.


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HippyDave vs Music, Part #6

It strikes me that all of the blogs I’ve written in this series so far are reflecting about my discovery of bands/musicians that I was previously either unaware of or unconvinced by. Sometimes, though, the most staggering experiences with new music come about when you listen to the latest offering by a band you already know and love. Sometimes the new offering from a favourite band is disappointing – after all, we all have our favourite albums, and it’s simply not feasible that everything a band produces is better than everything you loved them for in the first place; but sometimes you’re left flailing for superlatives as your favourite musicians knock it clean out of the park, delivering something that hits home so hard that you simply didn’t see it coming. The effect is magnified if the music the band succeed in blowing you away with is especially different or unexpected in itself.

I’ve told the story many times over the years how I came to fall deeply in love with All About Eve. A chance viewing of one of their early singles on The Chart Show, courtesy of ITV, blew my 15-year old mind and I never looked back. They’ve been one of my favourite bands ever since – and when I say one of my favourite bands, I’m talking right up there with Pink Floyd; the sort of band that I long ago ran out of superlatives to apply to. What their music has meant to me I can scarcely put into words.

In 1990, the seemingly unthinkable happened, and much-loved guitarist Tim Bricheno left the band. I was devastated. Naturally, as a fan I had no idea about the reasons for his departure at the time, and – as is the case with fandom, my disappointment was more about me than about the band or Tim. Fans usually don’t have the self-awareness to stop and think that there may be very sound reasons why someone might leave a band, or be asked to leave; we’re always concerned, first and foremost, with how unwelcome it is for us to attempt to accept that something we loved is broken. Being a fan of a band in this situation is, I suppose, a bit like being a child of parents undergoing a divorce. Loyalties are divided. Often, you find yourself taking sides in some sort of gut reaction only to realise later that there’s always more than one side to a story. I will admit that I spent weeks in an All About Eve-related funk. “It’ll never be the same”, I told myself. I found myself finding it hard to play All About Eve’s music, as it seemed to be a reminder of what I had lost. I simply didn’t have the life experience back then to realise that good things could come out of change. But I was about to be taught just that by this band that I had been besotted with.

For Tim’s replacement was none other than Marty Willson-Piper of The Church, a band whose charms I had no sooner succumbed to than Marty’s appointment to All About Eve was announced. It was one of those pieces of musical news that just seemed like impossible good news, like I was walking around in a dream and would wake up any moment. My original despair at Tim’s departure was replaced with a giddy kind of excitement. But my wildest hopes didn’t prepare me for what was to come. The band’s third album, Touched By Jesus was, quite simply, astounding. It instantly became my favourite thing they’ve ever done, and it probably still is. The passion and invention invested in that album and the associated original material that was relegated to the accompanying single releases still astounds me. It was a veritable explosion of creativity, an outpouring of energy that staggers me to this day. Most bands go their entire careers without experiencing anything like that period. All About Eve were unstoppable; if they had somehow been transfigured into an archer, they’d have hit the bullseye dead centre every time. I was beyond reassured; my fandom, which I had been almost ready to lay down, burned with the heat of a thousand suns. I went to all but a couple of the band’s UK tour dates in support of the album. Every night they blew me away.

Of course, I hadn’t stopped to think about what might happen next. Obviously if they had just made Touched By Jesus II, I’d have loved it – but at the same time, I know I would have felt that they were playing it safe, that such an album was merely a reflection of something I already loved, another lap around the same racecourse that I already knew like the back of my hand. In short, it would be an echo – a beloved echo, but an echo nonetheless. That would have been my perspective. I never paused to consider how the band might be feeling about making the follow-up.

Excitedly, I kept tabs on the band’s activities as they busied themselves with making their next record. Then, in the summer of 1992, a padded envelope arrived at my gaff that contained a postcard and a cassette – a short sampler cassette with short snippets from several of the songs from the band’s new album, Ultraviolet. The bands mailing list had sent them out to everyone who had returned one of those little cards you used to find inside physical copies of albums, saying, “If you want regular updates on new releases from All About Eve…“. Naturally I had done so; this was my reward. A sneak peek. To say I was excited to hear what the band had been up to would be a massive understatement. I ran to my stereo, inserted the cassette, pressed play, and…

What. Is. This?!

The snippets of the new album sounded nothing at all like I could possibly have anticipated. The band’s usual sonic style was gone, replaced with a psychedelic wash of feedback guitar and eerie organ, Julianne’s incredible vocals floating amongst the seeming chaos. The snippets were short – between 30 seconds and minute in length – which gave little idea of song structure. The general effect on this long-term fan was complete disorientation. It wasn’t unpleasant; it was just not at all what I thought I would be hearing. I played that cassette many times. The seeming disconnect between the band’s recent material and the new songs never seemed to shrink. For better or worse, the band seemed to be re-inventing themselves, taking a new approach to writing, crafting a new sound. I felt in my bones that this was going to cause problems with some listeners, as I’d seen other bands – like Marillion – change their approach to some degree, and had seen how some of their fans had rebelled at the perceived changes. And suddenly, like a light bulb had been switched on, I realised just how ridiculous that mindset was. Even before their new album had turned up, All About Eve had taught me possibly the most important lesson I’ve learned in all my years of music fandom: that change is not only inevitable, but welcome, and only fools try to roll back the tide. That you can only judge how you feel about music by hearing what it is, not dwelling on what it is not.

Just prior to the album’s release, the band released the Phased EP, essentially a single backed with three other tracks from the sessions. I sat down to my first listen with some trepidation, but also with the freshly taught lesson about expectations running around my head. Think about what it is, not what it isn’t, I thought to myself. I pressed play, and the four songs played. Nothing had really prepared me for what I heard, not even that well-intentioned promotional cassette. And yet… Phased itself was wistfully pretty; Mine was surprisingly intense, the thrashed-out ending predating Marillion’s much-admired King by three years… and then the instrumental mix of Infrared arrived and with it the eureka moment that I had subconsciously been waiting for. This was All About Eve at their spookiest and most intense, a fusillade of lysergic guitar, crystalline organ, swirling feedback and thundering drums as the piece built into a wonderful, desolate hurricane; almost Lovecraftian in its echoing immensity. I felt a bit like the Nazi soldiers must have felt at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It certainly melted my face.

And then, a further moment of validation as the band’s pursuit of new sonic horizons took a further step into the dizzying darkness, as the closing track, Ascent/Descent, dropped suddenly away halfway through, collapsing into a vertigo-inducing free-fall that ended abruptly with a echoing thud – or was it an explosion, muffled by distance? Either way, it was a hugely dramatic way to end the EP and not at all what I had anticipated. Jaw agape, I realised that this was one of the things I especially valued about All About Eve, and indeed most of the bands that I’ve become a particular fan of over the years: a willingness to avoid the road most travelled, to try something new and unanticipated.

I played the Phased EP over and over – I don’t think much else got a look in during the brief period between its release and the release of Ultraviolet. I remember tearing down to Complete Discery the Monday of its release, having come home early from college specifically to make to the trip, and practically prying a copy of Ultraviolet out of the cardboard box in which it had arrived at the shop and showering the guy working the till with the contents of my wallet in my eagerness to pay for it. I rushed home with it, and then made myself wait until after dinner before sitting down with it, in the darkness of my bedroom, with my eyes closed, and hitting play. Phased was first up, and I was so familiar with it that had a few minutes to settle into the vibe of the album. Whether it was my constant playing of the Phased EP, or my previously explained eureka moment, that did the trick I’m not sure, but I had shaken off my expectations by this point and was ready for a wild ride. And man, did Ultraviolet deliver. In spades. Underneath the new musical skin that the band had forged for themselves, the writing was as sharp as ever, the performances superlative as usual.

The album has a dark, fatalistic beauty all of its own. Julianne has remarked that in retrospect she wishes her vocals hadn’t been mixed so low, but I think the ethereal nature of the vocals is all part of the charm. What is not up for debate, though, is just how key to the whole endeavour Marty’s guitar playing was. He’s one of my favourite guitarists of all time, a true original. It was his work in The Church that elevated him to that position in my personal pantheon of favourites, and his time with All About Eve merely cemented it (along with his solo albums, all of which I’ve enjoyed). Today, if you asked me to recommend an album that really showed off his playing, I would recommend Ultraviolet above all the other albums he’s appeared on, including all those Church albums. His playing on this album is the stuff of legend – despite the fact that most of the time he’s not playing solos, concentrating instead on building up soundscapes and playing melodic lines. His use of feedback and his keen ear for the use of a variety of effects sculpt a sonic universe which I’ve never really heard an equal to. Ultraviolet feels like it was beamed in from space. It wasn’t just an evolution, it was a complete re-invention; a bold stride into the unknown that effectively killed the band’s commercial success but in the process became a dearly beloved record for me and many others (I’m not alone in singing its praises, as this great piece from Make Your Own Taste demonstrates). Even if it had been the only album the band had made, they’d still be huge personal favourites of mine. The fact that they made it after making their previous three albums is even more impressive.

It occurs to me that this piece is more a love letter to an album and to a band than to a specific song. But there are two songs, more than any others, that exemplify what I find so totally compelling about this record. One of them is Infrared; it was the instrumental mix present on the Phased EP that really sold me on the sound of the album, but the vocals just add another layer of emotion to the whole. Here’s a video (containing the spine-chilling lyrics for those that find the vocals too difficult to decipher!):

And then there’s Outshine The Sun. It’s a fabulous song, possessed of a gimlet-eyed fatalism that tears my heart out to this day, but it ends with one of the greatest guitar solos I’ve ever heard, Marty taking it to the next level with the soloing equivalent of primal scream therapy. Dissonant lines give way to a solo that Marty barely seems in control of that finally fizzes over and destroys the song and itself along with it. It truly is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. You can imagine what it was like live.

Ultraviolet is currently out of print. It makes me crazy.

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HippyDave vs Music, Part #5

There are a vast number of things that I’m thankful to my mum for, but one of the things that she instilled in me that I’m especially thankful for is a love of reading. The one thing that my mum struggled with at school was English – I suspect, looking back, that she was dyslexic but was never actually assessed and categorised as such. It was a source of frustration for her, so when I happened along some years later, she was determined that I wouldn’t have the same difficulty. She taught me my alphabet and had me carefully write out the letters over and over again long before I started going to a pre-school group, and followed this up with daily sessions with flash cards, teaching me new words and testing my spelling. All this meant that I had a great head start, which gave me the confidence to do well at school – at the end of my first year at primary school, my mum was told that I was a couple of years ahead of most of my classmates in reading and writing.

This was reflected in my reading, and I was getting through books really quickly. Initially I was all about ghost stories and mysteries, but before long I was clamouring for new books roughly once a week, so my mum took me to the town library and for the next few years, I had up to half a dozen new books to read every week.

I was a pretty omnivorous reader. I started out with my usual fare, but soon got interested in dinosaurs, astronomy, and no end of other things. In 1981, though, I discovered something else that was to become an abiding interest: archaeology. How did I get interested in archaeology? Simply put: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of The Lost Ark. Indy Jones’ adventures in Egypt and Peru were a lot of fun – pleasingly gruesome at times for the nine-year old me, too – but what really intrigued me were the locations: the ancient tombs and temples, and the civilisations that built them. Naturally, I was soon asking for books about the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs, Incas and so forth. I was probably the only pre-teen in my town who could recite a partial timeline of Incan rulers, or name more than five Egyptian gods :-). It has remained an abiding interest for me – there was a time when I even considered taking it more seriously, but computing won out.

What’s this got to do with music, you ask, not unreasonably? Well, nothing – at the time. But I vividly remember watching a three-part BBC series called Flight Of The Condor, that aired in 1985. It was a series about the wildlife of South America, using the condor as a device to link everything together, but although the animals were the big draw – I have always loved wildlife/natural history documentaries – there was a lot more to enjoy, not least stunning footage of the South American landscape, including the mountains of the Andes, the barren wastes of the Atacama desert, and even some ancient Incan ruins, like the famous site at Macchu Picchu. Not only was it beautifully filmed, but the soundtrack was comprised of eerie but beautiful South American folk music, which I loved instantly. I watched all three episodes of the show, and was sad when it was over. I’ve long since lamented the fact that we didn’t have access to a video recorder at the time, as I’d love to see all three episodes again – a 60 minute edit of the three episodes appears to have been the only officially released document of the series. Since it’s awesome, and it’s on YouTube, I can at least post that :-).

Hey, and dig that seriously psychedelic opening BBC logo sequence. You wouldn’t see that these days. Far out, man.

Anyway, out of sight, out of mind. Time passed, and although I remembered the series – and its music – fondly, I had plenty of other things to keep me occupied. However, although I didn’t know it yet, that traditional South American music was to cross my path again in the not too distant future. My mum and were sitting watching Top Of The Pops in time-honoured fashion one week in 1982, when we saw a band playing South American folk music. South American folk  music, on Top Of The Pops?! It was the British band Incantation, with their fluke hit single Cacharpaya. I was later to discover that the members of Incantation worked for a ballet company, and to soundtrack a dance performance with a South American theme, had learnt to play authentic South American instrumentation to enable them to perform pieces for the ballet company’s shows. They had enjoyed it so much that they had continued to play outside of their time with the ballet company. Their enthusiasm for the material was infectious, and both me and my mum really enjoyed seeing this most unlikely of hit singles storm the UK top 40. The single eventually stalled at #12, but I’m sure even the band’s most ardent supporters would not have imagined it would do even a fraction as well as it did. I went out to buy a copy of the single, but the local stores had none left by the time I had scraped together the pocket money to buy it with. I didn’t hear anything further about Incantation, so presumed that the single had been a one-off.

More time passed.

By the end of 1986, my mum had married, and we had moved out of my grandparents gaff and gone to live with my new stepdad, Duncan. Duncan had a video recorder, and a sizeable stack of tapes filled with things that he had recorded. He was – and remains – a connoisseur of blues music, and he had several video tapes full of blues-related stuff that he occasionally dug out and had a proper blues session with. These tapes were kept in a separate drawer in one of the cabinets in the lounge, and when they were taken out it was a serious business. Always interested in hearing new things, I usually hung around to see if I liked what was being played.

One weekend, we were sitting watching TV when an advert came on. It was for the band Incantation, who had released a ‘Best of’ album of traditional South American music – just like the music that had been used in Flight Of The Condor! I exclaimed in surprise, recognising the style of music on the ad, and then the band’s name – and Duncan, who had been reading the paper, looked up. To my amazement, he lunged towards the TV, but by the time he had inserted a blank video tape into the recorder, the advert was over. “Damn. Oh well, it was only an advert. I expect it’ll be on again.”

I said something about Flight Of The Condor, and that I had liked Incantation’s single Cacharpaya, but hadn’t realised that they had made any albums, and Duncan told me with a smile that he had heard of the band a few years previously and had actually got some footage of them on tape from some obscure late-night TV show. “Oh, and there was a thing on not too long ago…” He dug around in his Music Drawer, and out came a tape with ‘Incantation’ written on the label. Ah, that tape… I can’t tell you how many times I watched it, with and without my folks. For, amongst a scattering of largely blues-related music programming, it contained a hastily recorded copy of a three-song set that Incantation had played on a music showcase programme of some kind (the Incantation segment was the only bit that Duncan had recorded, so I’m still none the wiser about which show it was taken from), and best of all, a glorious 60-minute documentary aired on Channel 4 entitled Incantation: Music of the Andes that followed the band as they talked about their formation and went on a musical pilgrimage to South America. Macchu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the Atacama desert, Vilcabamba… all these places I had grown familiar with without ever leaving the shores of the UK were featured in that documentary, along with more examples of that extraordinary folk music that I had loved upon first seeing the Flight Of The Condor TV series.

Of course, now I knew that Incantation existed, and had produced albums, you might think that it didn’t take me long to go and buy some of it, and you’d be absolutely right. I bought that ‘Best Of’ album shortly afterwards, and although a couple of them really took some time to track down, Incantations previous three albums of South American music also found their way home. I played them to death. Hardly fashionable for a schoolkid to be really into his South American folk music, but then the concept of fashion and me were from totally different space-time continuums, really :-).

Sadly, that hallowed video tape of the Channel 4 documentary wasn’t to survive indefinitely. Finally it gave up the ghost and was unwatchable, and both Duncan and I were gutted to see it disappear into the Black Plastic Bag of Total Entropy. We kept hoping that Channel 4 would dig it up and show it again, or – much later – that someone would upload it to YouTube or something, but I’ve never found a copy. Once I even resorted to emailing the ever-patient Tony Hinnigan, one of the founder members of the band, to find out if there was any way I could get hold of a copy. Alas, he couldn’t help either. I remain convinced that someone, somewhere, must have a copy. If you are that person, please get in touch. You’d make me and Duncan very happy!

Incantation went through several different line-ups and lengthy periods of relative inactivity, but they’re still making music. The constituent members often contribute to film soundtracks – Tony Hinnigan in particular is well-known for his film work (check out the film section at the website I linked to above, it’ll blow your mind). I’ve picked up the majority of their records along the way, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a special fondness for the South American folk songs that got them started – so much so that I’ve spent a small fortune on records by South American folk musicians (notably Inti Illimani, who were inspirational to Incantation and others along the way) to find more, all of which I’ve really enjoyed. There’s something so beautifully melancholic about the ballads, and joyful about the blustery instrumentals, that really touches a chord with me. Perhaps I was an Incan in a previous incarnation. That must be it :-).

I really wanted to post a video of Incantation performing one of my favourite pieces, Atahualpa, but couldn’t find a video that would play in the UK. So to fulfil my own criteria for this series, here’s the best-quality video I could find of Incantation performing their 1982 fluke hit single, Cacharpaya. Enjoy!


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HippyDave vs Music, Part #4

One day in 1992, I was wandering around the shelves of my local independent record store, Complete Discery. It was a Saturday: I frequently wandered into town on Saturdays after lunch to go there. I had a habit of picking through the shelves at great length, waiting for something to pique my curiosity. The store owners either tolerated my lengthy sojourns in their store, or were pleasantly amused at my constant quest for something new and exciting, so I was on good terms with all the regular staff by this point.

Always especially interesting was the singles sales rack, a whole shelf stacked with singles  – CDs, vinyls and even cassette singles (remember them?) – with heavily reduced prices; anything between 20p and £1 was the norm. Many’s the time I found something intriguing on that shelf. Sometimes I wandered home with a whole bag full of singles, choosing to spend the average CD album price of around £11 on sales rack singles rather than a full album by a single artist. That day was to prove fruitful: I picked up the CD EP of Porcupine Tree‘s Voyage 34. This blog entry isn’t about Porcupine Tree, though; I mention Voyage 34 here simply because it was the start of the breadcrumb trail that would lead me to an album that became a huge personal favourite, but is sufficiently obscure that it has almost passed from history.

I hadn’t heard a note of Porcupine Tree back then; it was the psychedelic sleeve art, and the pleasingly comical faux-philosophical cover sticker (“What are the uses of Porcupine Tree?“) that also promised 34 minutes of music. The price? A princely 50p. I was so sure that I wouldn’t find anything more interesting that day that I set straight out for home without searching through the remaining racks. Sure enough, Voyage 34 turned out to be a real treat: a two-track, 34 minute conceptual EP that fused vaguely Floydian, slightly cosmic rock with snippets of dialogue sampled from an informational record released in the distant past that offered a stark warning about the dangers of psychedelics, specifically LSD. It was an instant favourite, and I played it to death. However, I didn’t hear any more about Porcupine Tree for years, and assumed that Voyage 34 had been a one-off, a glorious shot in the dark, and that Porcupine Tree had been an invented alias for some already-known musician.

Flash forward four years. It’s now late 1996, and I’ve just got bought my first PC and got myself online. The web was an instant source of information about all sorts of things, and I don’t mind telling you I got addicted to this unprecedented flow of information fairly quickly. Back then, I was paying for my phone usage by the minute, and I clocked up some truly alarming phone bills between 1996 and 1998, before flat monthly fees were slowly introduced. Thankfully, by this point I was working full-time and, since I was still living at home with my folks, had low enough overheads that I could always cover the phone bills, which I actually took over paying.

I had taken the train into Worcester one weekend to pick over the record stores as I occasionally did – the trips to Birmingham being less fun without my wing-men – and was wandering around HMV when I did a double take as I passed the new release shelf. Sure enough, there was a CD with the words Porcupine Tree emblazoned on the sleeve: an album named Signify. I proceeded at warp speed to the checkout and then to the train station, keen to hear what this band/artist had been doing since Voyage 34. Imagine my surprise, upon getting it home, upon discovering a little flyer inside the sleeve that informed me that the band had released three previous albums that I had known nothing about. Naturally, upon playing Signify and discovering that it was even more interesting than Voyage 34 had been, I went out and found all those previous albums in short order. But I digress – because, as I say, this blog entry isn’t about Porcupine Tree.

Flash forward again to 1998. By now, I was a member of the Freaks mailing list, an email-based forum for fans of Marillion and their ex-frontman Fish. Much to my amazement, another member of the list had posted a message to the list asking if anyone else was familiar with Porcupine Tree, and if they had enjoyed Signify as much as he had. I replied, saying that I’d picked it up and loved it, and the discussion continued. To my mixed delight (at the idea of more new music to explore) and horror (at the undoubted expense), I discovered that the driving force behind Porcupine Tree, a guy named Steven Wilson, had a handful of other musical projects. Encouraged by my correspondents, I wandered over to the website of Porcupine Tree’s distributor, Delerium Records, and looked to see which of the projects they had albums by. I spent a lavish amount on that first order; so much so that I actually went nearly a whole month without buying any other music (that was a long time for me back then; in fact it’s still fairly long). I had bought six or seven albums; one of which wasn’t even originated by one of Steven Wilson’s projects. One of the things I most enjoyed about Porcupine Tree was the unusual use of keyboards and synthesisers: it was a swirling, psychedelic, yet modern and keenly atmospheric sound that I still feel was one of the key elements of Porcupine Tree’s signature sound as the band moved forward. Much to my amazement, I had discovered that the musician responsible was Richard Barbieri, late of 80s popsters Japan, fronted by David Sylvian. I had also discovered that he had worked on another project with some well-regarded musicians, including Steven Wilson, under the name Indigo Falls. Impressed with Barbieri’s work on Porcupine Tree’s albums, and appreciating the idea of Wilson’s guest appearance on his bandmate’s album, I thought it sounded interesting and had added it to my already groaning virtual shopping basket. I checked out my order, wincing at the total price but feeling that sometimes you had just had to bite the bullet, and thought no more about it.

That is, I thought no more about it until the order arrived. There wasn’t a single album in that haul – I think it was eight or nine albums in total – that I didn’t take to. I had expected to enjoy the No-Man records the most (Steven Wilson’s longest-standing musical project, one that had been active longer even than Porcupine Tree), and although I loved the three No-Man records that were in that batch and still love them today, the record that blew me away was – you guessed it – the Indigo Falls album. I put it on expecting some nice ambient noodling, something that would make for nice easy listening when I was in the mood. By the end of the second track, I found myself sitting on the floor of my room with tears running down my face.

It was completely unexpected. I hadn’t even been listening that closely to the album at first – I’d stuck it on whilst I was answering some emails, but part-way through the first track I found myself disengaged from what I was typing and soon moved into my prime listening position, sitting on the floor between my stereo’s speakers. The next thing I knew, I was sitting there weeping, just blown away by the unaffected emotion of the album. I stopped it and started the album from the beginning once again – always a sign that something special was happening. The album – simply called Indigo Falls – is like being hugged to death; it has some steel, and some ice, in its make-up, but it’s so beautifully atmospheric and otherworldly that the best word I can find to describe it is “bewitching”. As expected, Barbieri’s wondrously atmospheric keyboards were a principal ingredient, but he was ably assisted by the assembled cast. The real surprise, though, were the vocals: female vocals, pleasingly reminiscent of Kate Bush at times (you’ll remember that I had been a complete Kate Bush fanboy for nearly twenty years at this point). Their source? None other than Barbieri’s wife, Suzanne. Her vocals are astonishing throughout, none more so than on that second track, World’s End, which is the track that really sucked me in.

I played the Indigo Falls album to death. I still play it regularly now. The biggest tragedy, personally speaking, is that – for whatever reason – there was never a sequel; sales were disappointing and the album quietly disappeared without trace and was never re-pressed or re-issued. I am Indigo Falls self-declared biggest fan. As unlikely as it seems, nearly two decades on, I still harbour a wish that Richard and his wife sit down one day and decide to make the sequel. I even had a dream about it once. No, really: I dreamt that I met Richard at a Porcupine Tree show, and he invited me round for a cuppa the next day, whereupon he played me the demos he and Suzanne had recorded for the follow-up. I even dreamt the music. I can’t remember anything about the music now, but when I woke up I woke with the vivid impression that I had heard something that was, once again, purely magical.

So here’s World’s End in all its glory. I hope you enjoy it as much as I always have. And to Richard and Suzanne Barbieri, if they’re listening… I’m happy to pop over for a cuppa any time ;-).

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HippyDave vs Music, Part #3

In the dying months of 1994, I was finally starting to get myself back on track after a very difficult year. Quite honestly, I needed to: I’d spent a small fortune following Marillion around the UK on their Brave tour earlier in the year, then lavished additional cash which I really didn’t have on seeing Pink Floyd play shows on their Division Bell tour (as immortalised on the Pulse DVD and live album). These were hugely important for me, though: the Brave tour had been enormously cathartic for all sorts of reasons, and seeing the Floyd again – as it turned out, for the last time – was one for the ages, since Floyd were (and remain) my favourite band, bar none. But by the time the autumn rolled around I had taken a long hard look at my situation and realised that I could accept a spiritual defeat and wallow in my disappointments, or I could get out there and do something about it. So I was back at college – doing an administration qualification this time, as the only bloke in a group of women, but that’s a whole other blog entry right there – and getting myself back into some sort of routine. In short, things were looking up.

I was celebrating my 10th year of Rush fandom in 1994, assisted by Rush’s new album Counterparts, which in its turn had inspired me to finally subscribe to the well-regarded and established Rush fanzine, The Spirit Of Rush. It was really nice to read more insights on the album and the band and their work as a whole, as what Rush lore I’d picked up had been from old magazines and news articles – this was still years before I got online. It was also an eye-opener to read people waxing enthusiastic about other bands about which I knew nothing, bands who – like Rush – blurred the lines between progressive rock, mainstream rock and a more metallic sensibility. I started getting curious about some of them. Tool in particular is one name that stood out: they would go on to become a favourite later. Queensrÿche, who I had discovered already, were another. I noticed some bands would get mentioned more than others, and one name in particular recurred so often in the first couple of issues of the fanzine that their name stuck in my head. That name was Dream Theater.

It was the last week of October, and I was making a pit-stop at my local indie store, the much-loved and (once again) long since gone Complete Discery. The owners and staff had come to know me pretty well over the past decade – it was a rare week when I didn’t stop in once or twice and pick over the racks, or ask them to order me in something obscure. I sauntered in, exchanged nods and knowing smiles with one of the regular guys, and idly thumbed through the racks – not really looking for anything, but always looking out for that record that intrigued me, or that I’d heard a lot about and felt like taking a chance on. I had reached ‘D’, when I spotted an eye-catching cover that instantly had me curious about the contents. Picking it up, I read the name of the band – Dream Theater – and realised that I had picked up a copy of their new album Awake, which various folks had been raving about within the pages of The Spirit Of Rush. On the spot, without hearing a note of the band’s music, I decided to buy it. After all, it had been recommended to me by numerous Rush fans, so chances are I’d find something to enjoy about it. So I took it up to the counter and walked home that little bit faster.

I devoured my dinner even more quickly than normal and sat down in the twilight of my bedroom, inserted the CD into my player and hit play, not really knowing for sure what to expect. I knew it was a long album; I knew Dream Theater were considered more metallic than Rush but that their music shared a lot of the same characteristics. Beyond that, Dream Theater and their music were an unknown to me. The drum pattern that opened the first track, 6:00, rang out and I sat back and listened intently.

By the time the album had reached the climax of the third track, I discovered that somehow I had moved from lying on my bed to sitting cross-legged on the floor right by the stereo, directly between the speakers, and that I was even giggling a little, in that way you do (well, I do) when you’re really surprised and impressed by something. This was a whole lot better than I was expecting. This was amazing, in fact. What I didn’t know is that the band were just getting started.

Tracks four, five and six (Erotomania, Voices and The Silent Man) form a musical suite of their own, entitled A Mind Beside Itself. Erotomania was exactly the sort of instrumental piece that I most enjoyed: the playing was extraordinary, but it moved through a series of moods and I found it hard to predict where it was going. I was well into it. Then Voices arrived – all nine glorious minutes of it – and I was just lost. By the time The Silent Man, a pretty, short acoustic number, had finished, my jaw was on the floor. Dream Theater are frequently applauded for their instrumental skill, and although their skill with their chosen instruments was staggering, what really impressed me was the sheer ambition of what they were doing. This was unquestionably progressive rock, but it was prog rock with teeth, with a metallic edge that really appealed to me – and more than that, the songs, whilst melodic, frequently veered off at crazy tangents that nevertheless made perfect sense after I’d got over the initial surprise. I have very rarely been so impressed with a band upon first hearing one of their records. Their name seemed entirely appropriate, as their music was unquestionably theatrical and fond of the grand gesture, and yet dreamlike, surreal, introspective. Frankly, I was in love with what I was hearing. I found myself stopping the CD and taking a few minutes to giggle with delight, marvel anew at the sleeve, and start listening to the album again, from the beginning, this time poring carefully over the lyrics.

That night was the birth of a love affair that is still ongoing today. Like any band that unapologetically extravagant, Dream Theater have occasionally tested my faith in what they were doing – their first double album, the sprawling Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, released in 2002, took me a long time to get to grips with; their 2009 album Black Clouds & Silver Linings saw them perhaps get a little self-referential and self-indulgent even for me… but I always came to enjoy what they produced, even if it took me a while, and I’ve since been to see the band play live many times. They were even instrumental, in a small way, in me meeting my wife Christine, who I met online and first approached purely to compliment her on her use of lyrics from one of their songs (Trial Of Tears, if you’re curious – still one of my favourite songs by anyone, ever) on her online profile. Essentially, they have played a key role in soundtracking my life ever since that October day in 1994, and I’m as big a fan now as I ever have been.

Looking back at that first play through Awake, though, it’s my first listen to the epic Voices that sticks in my memory. It’s a truly amazing song, sung from the point of view of someone with a mental disorder, describing his paranoia and distrust of other people, his struggles with his sense of mortality and with the very fabric of existence. It’s full of drama lyrically and instrumentally, and the performances are stellar, most especially guitarist John Petrucci’s showstopping solos and vocalist James LaBrie’s awesome vocal which effortlessly moves between pleading whispers and paint-stripping power as he delivers that astounding, lurid and disquieting lyric. It’s a mini-masterpiece, right up there with the band’s best work even after all the intervening time. Listening to it again, as I am now, just reminds of me of everything I love about Dream Theater and their music, and reminds me of why I became such a fan in the first place.

Thanks, guys. And thanks for keeping the Dream Theater open for business for all these years :-).

I’m kneeling on the floor
staring at the wall
like the spider in the window
I wish that I could speak
Is there fantasy in refuge?
God in politicians?
Should I turn on my religion?
These demons in my head tell me to

(I’ve found a version of the song that includes the lyrics, as I appreciate that James LaBrie’s vocals can sometimes be difficult to decipher unless you’re familiar with his style!)

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HippyDave vs Music, Part #2

Back in the Spring of 1991, I was just settling into my second term at technical college. At the time, I was, first and foremost, into rock and metal. Rock and metal formed probably about 80% of all my listening, with the rest compromising film soundtracks, the odd pop group I liked, and electronic music. By the time the new decade rolled around, a lot of the bands I had especially liked were having a much harder time of it – and it would only get worse for the survivors of metal’s late 80s self-parodying excesses, as even the most popular of them started falling victim to the increased popularity of grunge and garage rock that really came into its own a few years later. Even as a dyed-in-the-wool metal fan, I was starting to feel that some of the bands I’d spent years listening to felt… not bad, but tired. If the musical climate was changing, I was ready for the change. I wanted to hear something new.

More than that, I wanted to escape. I wanted something more abstract and less obsessed with the machinations of the human race than a lot of rock music had become. A lot of rock and metal at this time just felt exhausted with human self-absorption: furrow-browed and obsessed with how awful we were being with each other, it seemed to me that a lot of bands had become obsessed with making grand political gestures and weren’t writing about people anymore so much as writing songs making statements that they felt they were expected to make. So much music felt so earnest, so worthy, so… dull.

Happily, after several years underground in the UK, the electronic music scene was really starting to rise to the challenge of presenting a genuinely revolutionary alternative. And I mean revolutionary in two senses of the word: revolutionary as in genuinely new, and revolutionary also in that a lot of what the electronic music scene was serving up was deliberately anti-establishment. For the first time in my living memory, here was what could honestly be termed a counter-culture movement, with a whole different worldview. Freed from the conventions of rock music, the electronic/dance music of the time was unabashedly progressive and intriguing. 40 minute single-track singles; EPs without track listings, or containing only suites of numbered parts, almost as if they were classical music; impromptu gigs/raves… these were all features of the scene which had been gathering momentum since the mid-80s and which now gatecrashed the mainstream in spectacular style.

Whilst a lot of the electronic/dance stuff that ended up in the charts was entertaining if not outright fun, much of it tended to be essentially pop music dressed in new clothing: stuff like C & C Music Factory, Snap! and the omnipresent 2 Unlimited from Holland typified this approach. They were generally big cheesy fun that I didn’t object to, but nothing that these kind of acts did really touched a chord with me. I wanted something that broke the rules, something that Just Did It’s Own Thing, not fussed if people actually went out in their droves and bought copies from Woolworths. Time passed, and I heard a lot of enjoyable but inessential things that weren’t quite what I was subconsciously looking for.

And then, unexpectedly, something dropped right in my lap. It was during an expedition to the best-loved of the independent record stores local to the technical college I was attending in Worcester, a place called Magpie Records (long since gone, unfortunately; I can see a pattern forming here given that Tempest Records that I talked about in #1 of this series has also now gone). A lot of my mates at technical college were also big music geeks – primarily metal (everyone knows that metalheads have an unerring sense of when other metalheads are nearby, sort of a metal radar. These particular birds of a feather always flocked together), but just music generally. So we spent an awful lot of time (and money) in Magpie. On this occasion, though, I popped into Magpie on my own on the way to the railway station. The place was about to close; it was Spring and the nights were drawing out, but the dim lights of Magpie barely illuminated the racks enough for me to flick through them. I had just started doing so, when suddenly a part of my brain shook itself awake and said, “Hey, Dave, like, what the hell is this they’re playing over the speakers in here?”

It wasn’t quite like anything else I’d heard before. It mixed together seeming random samples, sound effects and washes of synth with a steady electronic pulse that faded in and out of the mix, building with a steady intensity before fading doppler-like into the background. There were no vocals, just sampled speech and an occasional choral effect; there was no evident narrative or meaning. It was just… beautiful. It was about nothing and everything at the same time. It had no structure, it just ebbed and flowed without really seeming to ever develop a melody, and yet there was something immediately fascinating and memorable about it. I stood there for perhaps ten minutes, soaking it up, before I realised I wasn’t doing anything else – the racks had been forgotten – and that the guy behind the counter was watching me with amusement. So finally I had to ask, “What’s this you’re playing? It’s amazing.”

The answer was, “It’s A Huge Ever-growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld by The Orb.”

They only had the one copy of the original 12″ left, and that had been ordered in for someone, so alas I couldn’t buy it. I was gutted. But, perhaps sensing my disappointment, Mr Magpie informed me with a grin that The Orb’s album was coming out in a fortnight, and that word had it that this track would be on it. I immediately knew that I would be buying it. Even if it turned out that the rest of the album didn’t live up to what I had heard, this track alone would be worth the investment.

It was a really long fortnight. Time stretches when you’re waiting for anything, and by the end of the second week, my impatience was manifesting itself in unusual ways. Forever cavalier about my time-keeping and coursework deadlines, I had thrown myself into my college work as a distraction and actually finished several assignments days early, which was unheard of. When release day finally rolled around, I got straight off the train in the morning and went straight into Magpie. The album, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, had arrived but hadn’t yet been unpacked. “Come back in an hour”, I was told. So I went to college, sat jiggling through my first lesson, then practically ran back to Magpie to buy the album. My mind was not on college for the rest of the day. I sat there marvelling at the track titles. As well as the Huge, Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain…, we had Spanish Castles In Space, Into The Fourth Dimension, the Back Side Of The Moon and Star 6, 7, 8 and 9. And, of course, Little Fluffy Clouds, a track that rapidly became omnipresent and another huge personal favourite.

I got home, and practically barricaded myself in my bedroom so as not to be interrupted whilst I listened to the album for the first time, both discs back to back (for Ultraworld is a classic double album in the fullest sense). It was like dropping acid (not that I had the faintest idea what that was like back in 1991). It was like a waking dream, a soundtrack without a film, except perhaps of the purely internal kind. It was, in short, a trip. For the first time I experienced some dance music that completely disregarded traditional song structure, constructed without any thought of track times or conventional musical ideas. It was around halfway through the second disc that I realised that I now loved dance music, and that – like rock – the stuff that cluttered up the charts was a tiny, tiny part of what was going on at any given time. And so it was that The Orb turned me on to dance music: a dizzyingly vast genre full of contrasts and musical invention that I just hadn’t been paying attention to.

Over the years, Ultraworld became a chill-out album of choice. It was what you threw on on Sunday morning after a particularly good party, or at three in the morning as the party lost its momentum and became introspective and relaxing. When I was home on my own, it was what I listened to over headphones at night as I lay in bed. And in all the years that followed, it never once lost its shine. I still play it regularly now – and every time I play it, I smile fondly as it reaches Huge Ever-growing Pulsating Brain… at the end of the album, and marvel afresh at this truly cosmic piece of semi-improvisation, a magnificent sound collage the equal of which I still have yet to hear, nearly 25 years later.

Thanks, guys :-).

Here’s the full-length version of the track that I first heard in Magpie Records that fateful evening. Bonus points if you can spot the Floyd sample ;-).

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HippyDave vs Music, Part #1

This week I was tagged by a friend in a meme that’s been doing the rounds on Facebook for a while now: “Post seven songs in seven days that made you fall in love with music”. This sort of thing can be interesting and fun to do, but rather than post it on Facebook and see it vanish into the ether – the web equivalent of pissing in the wind, if ever there was one – I thought I’d blog about my seven chosen songs here and post links back to Facebook. At least that way I’ll know where it is if I ever want to go back and find it again :-). I’m going to try and pick a few unusual songs, too: thanks to my retrospective piece for Echoes and Dust, every man and his dog have heard about how Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights changed my life, so I’m going to pick some of the more obscure songs that introduced me to new types of music, or to some of the more obscure bands whose music had a powerful effect on me.

Anyway, here’s my first offering: Mr. Self Destruct by Nine Inch Nails, from their 1994 album The Downward Spiral. Back in ’94 I was only vaguely aware of Nine Inch Nails – I’d heard a song on the radio that I really rather liked: it was vaguely dancey but had the raw aggression and fuck-you attitude of the kind of metal I had been into, so in that sense it combined two elements I enjoyed and fused them into something quite new and intriguing. I came to realise that the song I’d heard was Head Like A Hole (from NIN’s debut album, Pretty Hate Machine), but that wasn’t until after I’d picked up on The Downward Spiral and really got into them.

Back in the early 90s, me and various of my mates used to love catching the train up to Birmingham and trawling through the various (very well-stocked) record shops – especially the independents, but also the huge local branch of HMV – picking up all kinds of stuff almost on a whim, blowing our pocket money and student grants on our drug of choice: music. It was on one of those trips that we wandered into one of the indie stores (the excellently named Tempest records, which sadly closed in 2010) and although they were playing interesting stuff upstairs, downstairs they were blasting out the newly arrived The Downward Spiral. I was descending the stairs into the basement just as the intro of Mr. Self Destruct, which was the opening track of the album, gave way to an explosion of guitars and clattering drums, and I was instantly smitten. So much so that I didn’t only leave the store with a copy of The Downward Spiral, but also with a copy of everything else that the store had under the NIN card in the CD rack: the Broken and Fixed EPs, and the band’s debut album Pretty Hate Machine, as well as a CD single of Head Like A Hole. I was absolutely delighted, upon getting my haul back home, that Head Like A Hole was the song I had vaguely remembered hearing before :-).

1994 was a tricky year for me. I had dropped out of technical college, despite finishing all of my computing qualification except the final programming project, and was actually on the dole for about eight months. My grandmother was also gravely ill and I found myself spending an increasing amount of time living with her and acting as her carer, as my mum was still working nights as a nurse and couldn’t be awake in the day to look after her. In short, I was having a fairly miserable time and was actively angry and upset a lot of the time: the stereotypical “angry young man”. The trip to Birmingham I’m referring to took place shortly after my grandmother passed away, and I freely admit to being a bit of a basket case at the time – but in that typically British way, where all the hurt and hopelessness went largely unexpressed and sat in my brain, affecting the way I viewed the world. My mates – old friends from school, and newer friends from technical college, were a great comfort to me at the time. As was my primary escape, music.

The Downward Spiral fascinated me, most likely because I felt I was on a ‘downward spiral’ of my own, where every perceived injustice, whether personal or general, ate away at me. I’m not one for self-pity, to be honest – I get angry with myself when I go full Eeyore, and tend to over-compensate by throwing myself into projects in an attempt to snap myself out of it – but 1994 was hard. Everything seemed to be a struggle, and music was my escape as it had rarely been before. I bought far more music than I could really afford, and probably went to more gigs that year than in all my previous years combined. Looking back, a lot of my favourite records that year were pretty dark – Marillion‘s Brave (the tale of an emotionally scarred young girl who had been sexually abused by her stepdad), Tori Amos‘ pretty but grimly defiant Under The Pink, Dream Theater‘s dark and turbulent Awake, and The Prodigy‘s viscerally angry Music For The Jilted Generation were the other albums I played the most that year. These were all healing records, though: it’s commonly held that listening to dark music allows you to exorcise your own demons, and I think that’s very true. These records all unburdened me of a particular kind of pent-up pressure that was building up in me, and consequently they all became records I was especially fond of (all of those are records I would cite as Desert Island Discs).

The Downward Spiral felt so personally applicable to how I was feeling, though, that it seemed written for me; it felt like my thoughts nailed down and expressed by someone with the musical talent I simply have never had. Putting emotions aside, I was also hugely impressed by the sound of the record: it’s not just a bellow of rage, there are periods of glacial calm, a surrender to the heads-down primal scream of the heavier tracks. Instrumentally, too, it’s a lot more complex and interesting than it is frequently given credit for. Trent Reznor (NIN mainman) apparently suffered with his own demons whilst making the album, and it really shows. Its power remains undimmed to this day, and I still love it, even though I think Trent did top it a few years later with 1999’s The Fragile, which to these ears is very much conceptually The Downward Spiral‘s natural sequel. That said, I doubt he could have written The Fragile without writing The Downward Spiral first.

My first hearing of Mr. Self Destruct stays with me, however much I came to love the rest of the album. Objectively it’s not the best or my favourite song from the album… but every time I hear the intro of Mr. Self Destruct, for a few seconds I am that unhappy, cynical 22 year old descending the stairs of Tempest in Birmingham, and I am blown away all over again.

I am the needle in your vein
and I control you
I am the high you can’t sustain
and I control you
I am the pusher I’m a whore
and I control you
I am the need you have for more
and I control you
I am the bullet in the gun
and I control you
I am the truth from which you run
and I control you
I am the silencing machine
and I control you
I am the end of all your dreams
and I control you
I take you where you want to go
I give you all you need to know
I drag you down I use you up
Mr. Self-destruct

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In Defence Of Enya

The way I listen to music relies heavily on the seasons. There are certain records which invariably evoke the sense of a particular time of year for me; so much so sometimes that I have real difficulty listening to them unless it’s at that time when the atmosphere of the record reflects what’s happening around me. Autumn is a time of year when that relationship between music and the changing season is especially strong, and over the years I’ve come to regard some albums as quintessential Autumn listening.

Enya is one of those artists whose mission in life seems to have been to create records that I can only listen to at particular times of the year. In her case, it’s almost exclusively autumn and winter. There’s just something about her approach to writing that evokes the sense of the change from the heat of the carefree summer to the falling leaves and cold winds of winter. I feel that change very strongly; the entropy of autumn and the drawing in of the evenings has always had a substantial impact on me. I find the last few months of the year – October through to New Year’s Day in particular, but right through to the onset of Spring if I’m honest – very spiritual. I can almost sense a sharp intake of breath from some of you reading this: “spiritual? Ooh err, sounds like he’s getting religion!” I can assure you that this is not the case, nor is it ever likely to be. I’m a long-established atheist (albeit with some sympathy for the world-view of pantheism) and cannot ever see that changing. When I talk of spirituality, I don’t mean the loaves-and-fishes, holy trinity variety. I’m talking about the natural cycle of birth, life and death.

The older I get, the more I find myself considering mortality. Not just mine, but everyone’s. I suppose that that’s perfectly understandable: at some point you realise that more days lie behind you than are likely to lie ahead. This feeling is inevitably reinforced by the number of loved ones and acquaintances whose deaths you have to face up to along the way, and the older you get, the more of those deaths accumulate. Naturally, a part – however small – of your mind starts considering mortality, and with it the life you’ve lived, and the things (often small) that you will miss experiencing.

Sobering stuff, right? But this is where Enya and her music scores. Enya’s music reflects this outlook on the cycle of life quite powerfully, I feel. Her background is in folk music, of course: for those who were unaware, she started her career playing and singing with family members in folk legends Clannad. Folk music is as riddled with unthinking, narrow-minded purists as almost any other genre of music you could name, however, and the principal group of critics of Enya’s music seem to be those who feel that her music is too far removed from the folk tradition; that in turning to synthesisers and a generally pretty introspective feel, she is making cynical, lacklustre ‘New Age’ music – the sort of stuff that people sneeringly associate with recordings of whalesong and self-help mantras; sleepy, chill-out muzak for yuppies and chintz-obsessed grandmothers. To say I feel this idea of Enya and her music is wide of the mark is the daddy of all understatements.

Enya’s music is inescapably romantic, it’s true. Any music that so heavily relies on strings – synthesised or otherwise – could hardly be otherwise, really. Her lyrics – usually penned for her by long-term collaborator Roma Ryan – are a veritable travelogue, too, namechecking destinations around the globe (and indeed beyond, with songs often looking into the heavens). That sense of restlessness, of exploration, anchors her music to reality, to the world around her and her listeners.

Here’s the kicker, though: Enya’s songs are invariably spiritual. And whilst Enya herself is religious – her Roman Catholicism has been cause for remark in the past and will undoubtedly be so again – I’m not talking about religious content here. I’m speaking of spirituality again in that sense of the cycle of life. Enya’s music is filled with meditations on mortality. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the travels she is often found singing about aren’t solely geographical; they are metaphorical, too. The journeys she sings about are those that move us through life, passing into death. I expect you can already see how I’m going to connect the dots here, but that’s the essence of why I find Enya’s music so evocative and often so moving. Her songs talk about love, loss, and of life lived well.

Another complaint often lodged at Enya’s door is that so much of her music sounds the same. This accusation is harder to argue, purely because there is a grain of truth in it. Most of her music is as much space between notes as notes themselves, and much of it is paced as slow-motion balladry. However, I would argue that Enya’s instantly identifiable approach to writing and arrangement, and the subject matter of her songs, ensures that her records always sound like Enya albums. Enya is not a musician that is ever going to wake up one morning and decide to “go metal” or make that jazz fusion album. Her focus is always going to be her extraordinarily pure voice, and the music necessarily has to have room for that voice to be used in the way Enya feels it is best employed. Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, who are the critics to complain when the results of Enya’s stylistic choices have sold millions of copies of her albums? Enya’s music doesn’t do so well commercially because it follows a trend: quite the opposite, in fact. I myself tend to reserve a special appreciation for musicians who boldly shatter stylistic boundaries and mash-up elements of their musical sound to produce the unexpected; I have a particular love for musicians who please themselves first and who decide not to limit their sonic palette. At the same time, though, I don’t think it’s artistic cowardice on the part of musicians like Enya to explore a more limited musical style if it plays to their strengths: as I always remark when people tackle me about what I look for first and foremost when it comes to music, an adventurous spirit is laudable but always comes second to genuine emotion.

And that, again, to me, is where Enya scores. Obviously we all approach music differently, and have differing tastes, but I can never help feeling that Enya’s critics – certainly those who accuse her of producing slick, soulless muzak – have never bothered to listen to the content of her records, only the gentle croon of her voice, the choral accompaniments she favours and the wash of keyboards. The effect can certainly be hypnotic, but there is so much more there to be heard, and felt, than the casual listener will ever hear, especially if they’ve already decided they want to dislike what she does.

I’m sitting here listening to her new album, Dark Sky Island, for the second time as I write this (obviously the first time was more of a full immersion scenario, as it usual for me with most of the music I listen to). I can hear the scornful cries of Enya’s usual critics already. “It sounds just like every record she’s ever made! She’s singing in a made-up language!” (That’s the Loxian language, by the way, created for Enya’s use by lyricist Roma Ryan.) Better yet: “it’s music for people who don’t like music!” Someone posted that in the comments section of an article about the album several days ago, prior to the album’s actual release, which just shows how toxic the internet allows people to be sometimes. Yes, stylistically Dark Sky Island plays to Enya’s strengths: that beautiful crystalline voice retains all its ability to send chills up and down the spine; yes, it’s frequently deployed in great choral washes; yes, there are a lot of synthesisers. In many ways, then, business as usual.

“So why buy and listen to a record you’ve already heard?” I can hear people asking. It’s a futile question, really. However familiar the clothes may be, and however typical the themes of the songs are, these are new songs, saying different things. It’s a bit like saying that Suzanne Vega’s songs are basically the same because many of them are similar in the way they’re presented: that’s a style, not to be confused with the actual content. I, like so many others, keep listening to Enya’s new music because the themes – and her evident acceptance of the nature of mortality – strikes a deep chord. Echoes In Rain, the lead ‘single’ from the album, is just the latest in a line of songs that address the difficulties of grappling with these ideas in a way that lodges in your mind and, in its reassuring way, tells you that it’s only natural to think about such things. When Enya sings of the “long journey home“, that “night comes again“, and that “here comes another new day“, there’s a whole heap of subtext going on that’s nothing to do with the diurnal cycle.

So let the armchair critics scoff. I love Enya’s music: ever since I first heard (as must be the case with so many others) Orinoco Flow back in 1988, although I confess I was always a bigger fan of On Your Shore and the truly wonderful Evening Falls which still has the power to reduce me to a puddle. A couple of listens to Dark Sky Island has only served to rekindle that affection; proof that Enya’s music remains as timeless, its themes as universal, as ever. For me, whatever Enya’s own faith may be, her music can perhaps best be summed up as modern secular hymns, affecting paens to nature, to the wonders of our world and the vast glittering emptiness beyond it, providing solace and hope in our persistent humanity. There’s a reason why her song Only Time struck such a powerful chord in the wake of 9/11: it captured how we all felt in the aftermath. That song is not unique in that sense; it’s merely an example of just how powerfully Enya can capture that sense of our temporary existence and remind us that our mortality is not something to be feared or to inspire dread; it drives us all, whether we realise it or not.

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