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Walk Into Light
Walk Into Light
Price: 9.20

4.0 out of 5 stars Underrated gem from the master of progressive rock, 7 July 2014
This review is from: Walk Into Light (Audio CD)
Surprisingly thoughtful, well made 80's solo album by Ian Anderson which has a number of stand-out classic tracks, in particular 'Looking for Eden' and 'Different Germany', which alone more than justify the cost of purchase for Tull fans. Somewhat perversely, Anderson decided to abandon the acoustic guitar completely for his first solo album, in complete defiance of audience expectations. As a result, the album bombed commercially. But despite the prevalence of electronic wizardry and use of drum machines, the trademark Anderson / Tull sound do manage to shine through - much more so than on 'Under Wraps', the band effort released shortly afterwards which was greatly inferior both in the quality of songwriting and musical arrangements. How Anderson could have produced two albums with such radically different characters within the space of a few months defies explanation. 'Walk into light' is much truer to the spirit of progressive, experimental rock and is definitely an underrated gem from this generally unsettled period in Tull's long musical career, when they were juggling commercial pressures against the demands of artistic integrity.


The Tenth (Irish) Division in Gallipoli
The Tenth (Irish) Division in Gallipoli
by Bryan Cooper
Edition: Paperback
Price: 19.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book about a neglected episode of the First World War, 21 May 2014
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This book was written during WW1 when memories of the Gallipoli campaign were still fresh in the author's mind. It tells the neglected story of the 10th Irish Division, which made a significant contribution to the British war effort at Gallipoli, as well as the Somme and other campaigns. My grandfather landed at Suvla Bay as part of the 7th Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, which contained a mixture of Irish troops and English soldiers connected to Ireland by family history. For anyone with a relative who participated in the campaign, this short and very readable book provides an extraordinary picture of how it must have felt for those involved. The focus is on the human experience rather than military tactics, but both are covered in some depth. I have read other good books about Gallipoli with a more general focus, but for a detailed account of the role of a single division, this one is difficult to beat.


Focus 8
Focus 8
Price: 11.22

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent return to form, 14 May 2014
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This review is from: Focus 8 (Audio CD)
I have reviewed "Focus 9 / New Skin" separately on Amazon and most of the comments I made about that album apply to this one as well. In terms of overall quality, there is little to choose between Focus 8, 9 and 10. They're all excellent, albeit in different ways. Despite the changes in personnel over the years these albums were recorded, they display a remarkable consistency in style and quality, and the absence of Jan Akkerman is not as noticeable as one might think.

Of the three, "Focus 8" has a slightly softer, delicate style, with plenty of acoustic guitar and quiet flute passages, as well as the fiery electric guitar solos for which Focus are rightly famous. The vocals are also less intrusive on "Focus 8", which will be a plus point for anyone who (like me) has reservations about this aspect of the group's music. The quality of the compositions, arrangements and playing is excellent throughout and much better than some of the negative reviews posted here would suggest. A must-buy for admirers of this band's best music.


Focus 9/New Skin
Focus 9/New Skin
Price: 11.20

5.0 out of 5 stars Top notch progressive rock from the Dutch masters, 13 May 2014
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This review is from: Focus 9/New Skin (Audio CD)
Focus have always occupied a unique place in the progressive rock pantheon. They were the most jazz-influenced of the great progressive rock bands of the 1970s, and in this sense their music often displayed a stronger affinity with the great jazz-rock bands of the period, such as Steely Dan and Santana. On the other hand, the strong classical influence in their music placed them squarely in the 'prog' camp. Their commitment to (predominantly) instrumental music gave them an opportunity to create large-scale, extended compositions, which is clearly a characteristic of progressive rock. But their longer compositions were often free-form in structure, with solo improvisation playing an important role alongside the more 'arranged' sections. This is very characteristic of jazz, but less so of progressive rock which is usually based on relatively conventional song structures even when it experiments with longer form composition. The way Focus combined all these seemingly disparate elements in their music gave them a very original, distinctive sound.

For that reason alone, it's very good to have them back again, making quality albums as they did all those years ago. In fact, what is most striking about all their recent albums is how little their core trademark style has changed. In particular, their continued emphasis on free-form improvisation, in a context of strong melodic invention and disciplined structural development, provides an insight into how progressive rock itself might have evolved if it hadn't succumbed to commercial pressures in the early 1980s.

If you haven't heard the newer Focus albums, you will be pleased to learn that, whilst none of them contain 'hits' comparable to 'Sylvia' or the other songs that made Focus internationally famous in the early 1970s, they are all very definitely in the same class as those early albums, the obvious comparison being with 'Focus 3'. The key ingredients are all on virtuoso display: van Leer's seemingly effortless flair for melody, his unique organ sound, and of course his prominent use of the flute as a solo instrument. These essential elements are combined with taut electric jazz guitar improvisation to create an immediately recognisable sound which is very European and very unique. The quality and consistency of these newer albums is a very nice surprise, given how long most of these guys have been on the music scene.

In my opinion, Focus 8, 9, 10 are all great albums, but of the three I like Focus 9 the best. The material is very fresh, dynamic and exciting to listen to. Sometimes, the silly vocalising can seem ill-judged rather than humorous, and anyone who found that a problem with the early Focus albums will continue to find it a problem here. However, the main emphasis is on exciting, instrumental progressive rock, with superb solo improvisation balanced by unexpected shifts in time signature and a rigorous sense of structure. With all this going on, I can forgive the occasional vocal excesses. No-one else makes this type of music as well as Focus, so we can all be grateful that they're back on form again.


Homo Erraticus
Homo Erraticus
Price: 12.99

21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Man of passion rises again, 19 April 2014
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This review is from: Homo Erraticus (Audio CD)
So what's the verdict on 'Homo Erraticus', the ambitious, bold and eagerly awaited new concept album from Ian Anderson and his band? This is a difficult album for a Jethro Tull fan to review with any objectivity, as its release coincides with the formal announcement that Jethro Tull as a band (as opposed to a repertoire of music) is no more. Of course, we all knew that from the relative lack of new activity over the past ten years. It became clear in the late 1990s that Ian Anderson was starting to save his best new songwriting material for his solo albums. The other band members must have known then, or at least suspected, that the game was up. Still, it is sad to have it formally confirmed. Tull had survived longer than most of their peer group from the late 1960s, and the world of popular music will mourn their passing as a cohesive unit.

Against this background, there will inevitably be a temptation to benchmark this new solo venture from Anderson against Tull's best work from the past. This sets the bar very high indeed. Is 'Homo Erraticus' as inspired and brilliant as 'Thick as a Brick' or 'Passion Play'? Of course not. Does this really matter? No - it is surely enough that Anderson still has the energy and creativity to even consider making a full-blown concept album at the age of 66. That it happens to be a very good one is an added bonus.

The most striking thing about 'Homo Erraticus' is that it is clearly a Jethro Tull album in all but name - much more so than any of Anderson's previous solo ventures. In fact, it is probably the best Tull album that could possibly be made without the involvement of the incomparable Martin Barre. It is sad that Martin is no longer a member of the band, but there is no doubt that this is a bona fide album from the Tull repertoire, with the authentic, unique progressive rock sound that characterised the group's best work of the 1970s. Compared to Thick as a Brick 2, the album presents a harder-rocking, more intricately woven sound. In this sense, it is more like 'Roots to Branches' than any of Anderson's previous solo albums. The band really swings and sounds far more spontaneous than on TAAB 2. The musical arrangements are also more richly ornamented, the sound production vastly superior. (This album really does deserve to be heard on a good Hi-Fi system.) There is more musical detail, and the ideas are generally fresher and full of surprise. It is an album that repays repeated listening, as there is far too much to take in on a first hearing. The melodic lines are also intriguing - you're unlikely to be humming them after a first listen, but they hook you in and you want to start listening to the album again as soon as it's finished. This is the hallmark of all great Tull music.

After reading some critical reviews here on Amazon, I approached this album with relatively low expectations of Ian Anderson's voice, but I was pleasantly surprised. He is on good form throughout, despite the fact that some of the material is lyrically very challenging.

On balance, 'Homo Erraticus' probably deserves a 5 star rating. Musically, it is the most powerful and dynamic album Anderson has made since 'Roots to Branches', whilst the grandeur and ambition of its concept and lyrical ideas actually surpass that album and are much closer in spirit to TAAB and Passion Play. If I have awarded it 4 stars rather than 5, it is because some of the songs seem a bit weighed down by the wordiness of Anderson's lyrics. This has been a problem on a number of his recent CDs, starting with 'The Secret Language of Birds' in 2000. It is not that the lyrics are obtuse; the issue is that they don't always sit well on the musical line, giving rise to a sense of over-crowding in the vocal delivery. (Joni Mitchell's songwriting often suffers from a similar problem.) I would like to give Ian some friendly advice. This band really knows how to rock. Allow them to stretch out and extemporise. You don't need to be singing all the time. The lyrics are, of course, supremely literate, as we have come to expect of Anderson. But it would do no harm for him to give his voice a rest occasionally and the band more space. The instrumental passages are superb and offer some of the best moments on the album, indeed (in the case of the stupendous 'Tripudium ad Bellum'), some of the best moments in the entire Tull catalogue.

Minor quibbles aside, 'Homo Erraticus' is solid testament to Ian Anderson's enduring genius as a musician and composer, after an amazing forty seven years in the music business. The flow of melodic invention continues unabated, like a mountain stream from an unknown infinite source, truly astounding for someone who has been writing and playing music continuously for over four decades. No-one else has such a total command of the sonic possibilities of rock music, qualities which can - in the right hands - give it a truly orchestral character, capable of expressing profound ideas and emotions. In essence, this is a suite of songs cleverly linked by common lyrical and musical themes, rather than a collection of individual songs, a point some of the one-line, one-star reviews posted on Amazon to drag down the overall rating seem to have missed. I think Jethro Tull fans are really going to like this album, and I'm looking forward to hearing it performed live in London in late May.

Postscript: 'Homo Erraticus' is every bit as impressive in live performance as it is on record. As for the album itself, it is challenging initially, but continues to get better with each fresh listen. A late classic from the underrated wandering minstrel of British popular music.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 9, 2014 9:46 PM BST


Moment To Moment
Moment To Moment
Price: 18.63

5.0 out of 5 stars Sublime late night jazz, 18 April 2014
This review is from: Moment To Moment (Audio CD)
This album is the ultimate, quintessential late night jazz album, a marvellous collection of ballads from the great American songbook, together with a few originals by Hargrove that hold their own easily with the evergreens. The mood is subdued and reflective - like the soundtrack to a film noir movie. The sound is open, spacious, and expansive, like Bill Evans at his best, with Hargrove taking most of the solos but very capably supported by members of his quintet. It is a pity that more jazz musicians don't have the courage to release albums with a single sustained mood - it works so much better than the bland, routine alternation between straight ahead up tempo numbers and occasional ballads found on so many jazz collections. 'Moment to moment' is also a singularly successful example of the use of strings in a jazz context. So often this combination sounds awkward, but here it is done to perfection.

This was a classic when it was first released, and remains a classic to this day. The perfect CD to introduce modern jazz to the uninitiated.


Gravity [DVD] [2013]
Gravity [DVD] [2013]
Dvd ~ George Clooney
Price: 9.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Technically impressive, but over-hyped, 25 Mar 2014
This review is from: Gravity [DVD] [2013] (DVD)
Ultimately it would seem churlish to give this film less than 4 stars, given its undoubted technical accomplishments. However, I must say that I found it anti-climatic and vaguely disappointing after all the media hype and Oscar success. Watching the film for a second time in a week has allowed me to pin point the exact reasons why (in my view) it's not what it's cracked up to be. In fact, I wasn't expecting a cinematic masterpiece, but I thought it would be memorable in the same way that 'Alien', or 'Apollo 13', were. Against those heightened expectations, 'Gravity' is a bit of a let down.

Why? Well first of all the whole plot turns on a cliched Cold War device of an American space mission going wrong because the big, bad Russians have made a terrible mistake and shot down one of their own satellites. Did it have to be the Russians? It's so crude, gratuitous and unoriginal. The rest of the film plays out as the usual story of Americans (or better still a young, single American female) triumphing against impossible odds through sheer strength of willpower. This worked in 'Apollo 13' because it was a true story and because Tom Hanks and the rest of the cast took their roles seriously. Here, it's completely unbelievable and, to make matters worse, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play it for laughs. This just doesn't ring true - however brave these people are you can never quite believe they would really be cracking jokes in this absolutely dire situation. They would be too focused on fixing the problem. This is a Hollywood view of the world - the idea that people are still concerned about their self-image and social interaction with the opposite sex when they're facing the prospect of imminent destruction.

It gets worse. All sorts of little technical details that the director of 'Apollo 13' paid close attention to are overlooked, raising nagging questions in the viewer's mind about the quality of the research underpinning the film. For example, we all know that a re-entry module needs to be positioned extremely carefully, at a precise angle, to avoid burning up on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. Here it just ploughs randomly through the outer atmosphere, performing several somersaults in the process. This just didn't ring true. Also, Sandra Bullock never gets cold, despite the fact that it's minus 35 out there and she's practically stripped down to her underwear once she's inside the ship.

I could go on, but I think you'll get the general idea. You just never get the sense that you're watching real people experiencing the real emotions of facing a desperate, lonely death in the isolation of space. The script and the acting (particularly Clooney's) don't convey a genuine sense of fear or danger, just bravado and false bonhomie.

Enjoy 'Gravity' for the special effects and try to see it on the big screen if you can. But don't expect a film of real quality that will stay in your mind and repay repeated viewing. It has been over-rated I'm afraid.


The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible (Sacred Activism)
The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible (Sacred Activism)
by Charles Eisenstein
Edition: Paperback
Price: 14.39

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Better at diagnosis than cure, 27 Feb 2014
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This book is well worth reading, but ultimately somewhat anti-climatic. The first chapter contains a searing indictment of the contemporary world, its materialistic philosophy and cavalier disregard for the global environment. Much of what the author has to say in the opening chapters about mankind's post-enlightenment conceit - the blithe assumption that progress through ever-increasing mastery of technology is guaranteed - is absolutely spot on, and resonates strongly in a culture dominated by smartphones and busy lifestyles. Many readers who feel trapped by a routine of long working hours and increasingly insecure employment will relate strongly to the tone of disenchantment that pervades the narrative. Eisenstein shows how this 'old story' of human progress has come to dominate policy making in most western societies, to an extent that its key dogmas go largely unquestioned, except by radical fringe groups.

However, it is at this stage of the analysis that the book starts to hit a problem - a big problem. Eisenstein's political manifesto is based on the insight that concepts of separation and individualism have traditionally dominated western thought patterns, and that to overcome this, and put humanity on a more constructive path, we need to develop a more unitary doctrine of 'inter-being' which sees us as an integral part of nature, with each part affecting the whole. As a rejection of extreme individualism, this seems altogether sound. Unfortunately though it means that the arguments developed in the later chapters of the book don't take sufficient account of the enduring reality of human conflict, specifically conflict between competing value systems. For example, at one point the author asks (rather naively) why the complete disbandment of the US 'military machine' is not on the political agenda of any US political party. The answer, surely, is obvious. The US has real enemies, such as al-Qaeda, who are hell bent on destroying the freedoms we enjoy in the West, including those enjoyed by proponents of 'alternative' culture. Surrendering one's military capability unilaterally in the face of people like that is no answer. So it is not enough to preach a doctrine of univeral love and harmony. Real politics involves the hard slog of dealing with real, unavoidable value conflicts and trying to overcome these by compromise, negotiation and a clear sense of what is non-negotiable and what (sometimes) has to be fought for. High level concepts of 'inter-being' don't get you very far when you're dealing with people like Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, who are implacably hostile to everything you stand for. So ultimately this book is a bit like Marx and Engel's 'Communist Manifesto'. It is an incisive critique of the existing system, but offers only a sketchy picture of possible alternatives - a fatal flaw.

I suspect that one of the underlying problems with books of this kind is that US political culture has never found a place for socialist ideas. As a result, alternative political movements that try to critique corporate America and replace it with something better have no solid ideological anchor for their beliefs. In the real world, hard choices have to be made. If one rejects a society based on unfettered free market forces and aggressive individualism, the alternative has to be one built on principles of human co-operation, and one way or another this is inevitably going to imply a greater emphasis on collective provision, which is something alien to US political culture. Much of what has gone wrong in the past 25 years, since the Berlin Wall came down, represents the slow unravelling of a peculiarly extreme version of globalised capitalism which was doomed to failure because it systematically over-estimated the capacity of unregulated free markets to correct themselves. Replacing this failed system with a reformed capitalism that places more emphasis on co-operative enterprise is the key priority for radical politics, and it cannot be achieved unless the objective is explicitly framed in these terms (ie. as a response to the failure of a specific model, not the whole post-enlightenment human enterprise). Also, for all its faults, the existing US socio-economic system does retain certain strengths, for example the capacity to generate the wealth needed to finance research into curing cancer. Would Charles Eisenstein be prepared to give this up? In his enthusiasm for Native American culture, would he be willing to accept the higher mortality rates that reversion to a less technologically advanced way of life would entail? The book is evasive on key questions such as these. In the end, therefore, it proves anti-climatic and slightly disappointing. It diagnoses the ailment, but is less successful in suggesting a cure. This is a shame, as the world would be a better place if advocates of alternative lifestyles could move out of the world of seminars and workshops they have created for themselves and start engaging seriously with mainstream politics, with all that this entails in terms of a focus on practicalities and setting achievable goals.


In The Time Of The Gods
In The Time Of The Gods
Price: 10.05

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poetry in song, 10 Feb 2014
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This review is from: In The Time Of The Gods (Audio CD)
If you've found this page, chances are you already know about Dar Williams and don't need to read this review. However, on the off-chance that you're new to her work, there are basically three things you need to know about her. The first is that she is one of a very small number of American singer-songwriters who continue to champion the style of acoustic guitar-based songwriting first popularised by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in the 1960s. Other outstanding examples of this rare breed are Janis Ian and Gillian Welch. Long may they continue to make great music. The second is that she is a lyric writer of genius. When I listen to other songwriters, they sometimes inspire me to pick up a guitar in the (no doubt misguided) belief that I might one day write at least one song of similar calibre. But with Dar, I feel like smashing my guitar to pieces and giving up altogether. Her lyrical ideas are just so much better than most of her contemporaries, and she has a vastly superior ability to express them in verse, with words that evoke sharp images and sit perfectly on the musical line. There is nothing trite or derivative about her language, just a succession of sharp and fresh images that tell a story or paint a vivid picture in the listener's mind. No-one on this planet has written a better, more insightful song about gender variance than "When I was a boy", and no-one has told a better rites-of-passage story about the journey from mental depression to spiritual recovery than "After all". These songs, and others in a similar vein, rank among the best anyone has written in the past 30 years. In fact, many of Dar's lyrics stand up perfectly well as poems on the written page. The third thing you need to know about Dar is that she's a complete original. Although her distinctive lilting voice bears the influence of Joan Baez and the early Joni Mitchell, her sound is instantly recognisable and can't be confused with anyone else. This is quite rare in today's popular music, and deserves praise in itself.

Given these inherent qualities, which give Dar Williams the ability to create great art, it is no surprise to find that her latest album, "In the time of gods", is well up to the standards of its predecessors. It can be strongly recommended to anyone who loves American folk music, or anyone who appreciates high quality songwriting for that matter.

One final point: Dar Williams is touring the UK and Ireland in February and March. She doesn't visit these shores very often, so if you enjoy great folk music catch her while you can!


The Harrow & the Harvest
The Harrow & the Harvest
Price: 14.13

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars They don't write songs like this anymore, 4 Feb 2014
Eight years in the writing / making, Gillian Welch's latest album is an unqualified masterpiece, and one of the best collections of original American folk and bluegrass music ever made. Most of the songs have the word 'classic' written all over them and sound as if they have been around for decades. The album is also beautifully recorded and produced, with a sparkling, crystalline guitar sound providing an evocative background to Gillian's voice and mesmerising lyrics. If you listen to this album on a good Hi-Fi system, the musicians seem to be sitting right in front of you. It is difficult to pick stand-out tracks, as the overall standard of writing and performance is so high, but 'Down Along The Dixie Line' and 'That's The Way It Goes' capture the spirit of rural America so beautifully, they almost make you want to book the next flight out to Tennessee. No-one else writes songs like this anymore. Why are people not shouting from the rooftops about this woman's amazing talents?


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