- From The Times -
January 28, 2006
"Prog rock? Just say yes"
For decades the ancient behemoths of progressive rock were the butt of critics’ jokes. But thanks to new bands like the Mystery Jets, the sound is back
By Chris Campling
The sound of 2006 will be terribly bright. It will have practised its instruments hard, will have taken lessons, and will have assimilated all the best influences from the classics, rock, jazz and pop. And lo! The sound of 2006 will be called — in fact, already has been called — new prog, prog moderne, or crazy prog, which is a funny title, but not terribly descriptive. There is nothing crazy about prog.
Fab. It’s wonderful watching the specialist music press swallowing the prejudices of decades and finally agreeing (albeit tacitly) that there is nothing wrong with being able to do something beyond the capacity of mere mortals. There is a huge amount of Schadenfreude to be derived from watching the current crop of music rags trying to wax appropriately enthusiastic about the new prog without mentioning the P-word too often. My favourite is this, from the Scots rag Clash , about the sound produced by the Reading quintet Pure Reason Revolution: “Not dissimilar to gorging on LSD and being fed to the Kraken from Clash of the Titans.” Which, as a description of music, is not dissimilar to pants.
The Band Most Likely To, however, are the Mystery Jets. Not only do they possess the media hook of having two generations in their lineup — Henry Harrison, the rhythm guitarist, is the father of Blaine, the singer. Not only are they signed to the achingly hip Transgressive label. But they sound like a prog primer — or, if you prefer, a shopping list of all that has been best about the best rock music trends of the past 30 and more years. There’s Yes in there, and early Roxy Music and Pink Floyd circa Dark Side of the Moon and a lot of King Crimson, as well as the jingly-jangly indie sound that will get the band past a lot of mental blocks. Their debut album, due for release in March, is a wonderland of memories — here a synthesizer sound first heard on Roxy Music’s first album, there the grumbling Rickenbacker bass of Yes’s Chris Squire.
William Rees is their guitarist. He plays with a clean purity of note that has led Barry Hyde of the Futureheads to call him “the new Steve Howe (of Yes)”, an encomium with which he is not unfamiliar and with which he can, to an extent, concur.
“Not because I think I’m as good as he is,” he hurries to add on the phone from the farmhouse in the Dordogne, to which the band has repaired for a little songwriting and recording of B-sides (there’s another prog staple to tick off the list — Getting it Together in the Country). No, it’s because he approaches his craft with the same care and love as Howe has done for four decades. Extraordinarily, Rees is 20, which is extraordinary not only because he plays so well, but also because he is looking forward, some time this year, to recording in Berlin because that was where David Bowie recorded Low, Heroes and Lodger in the mid-1970s, with Brian Eno as producer. Rees is a big Brian Eno fan.
It’s enough to bring tears to the eyes of a father of a certain age. Not only does a 20-year-old like the same music I do, he’s quite unembarrassed by it. In fact, it probably doesn’t occur to him to find it strange, just as he finds nothing exceptional in what some would say is the Mystery Jets’ USP — the father-and-son Harrison involvement. “It’s not just Blaine and his dad,” he says, sounding slightly niggled. “It’s my band, too.”
And it has been his — their — band since he was a child. He and Blaine Harrison met at nursery school, and were in a band together with Henry Harrison (an architect who wins every dad’s envy by not only dreaming of being in a band, but doing it) when Rees was 7.
Why does he think that his band’s sort of music — he refuses to call it prog, precisely because the name has had such a bad press — is suddenly popular or, at any rate, talked about? Rees sees a progression towards progressive beginning with the rise of the Strokes, followed by the Libertines, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, the Arctic Monkeys, Antony and the Johnsons. “It’s a good time for music,” he says, a more open-minded environment, far removed from the limited thinking of Britpop, or at any rate the thick-ear tendency that made Oasis the only Britpop band to survive, and even flourish, in 2006.
It was just such an environment that led to the rise of prog first time round. Nearly 40 years ago “difficult” pop, which was called Underground, was a singles chart staple, thanks to Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Family, Fleetwood Mac, Santana and the Moody Blues.
Is there any reason to hope for a similar golden age in 2006? Possibly not — the singles chart may be a weakened currency these days, but it still gets your mug all over the national press. Short of shacking up with Kate Moss, the Jets will have to rely on the sort of audience that once wandered around with records conspicuously tucked under their arms.
Strangely, though, it is in modern listening habits that any real rebirth may come. As any parent knows, getting your offspring to listen, let alone like, your music is difficult veering towards impossible. Just mention the words “Here’s something I think you will like” and they dematerialise. But could that be because of the format you are using? Let them find it and download it for themselves and the stigma is gone, particularly if the guitarist from Mystery Jets likes it, too.
Still, if the trend is to be shortlived, and indeed underground, let’s enjoy it while we can. Let’s savour the big thinking that led Pure Reason Revolution to release a single nearly 12 minutes long (very prog, if of the overinflated type) and call it The Bright Ambassadors of Morning, a line from Pink Floyd’s Echoes.
And then there’s the new Yes. Mew are from Denmark, which means their lyrics are written in their second language, which lends them the same capacity for opacity as Jon Anderson in his pomp.
Mew, whose celebrity fans include Bono — who will apparently give anything new the thumbs up if it might make him seem more hep to the jive — and Michael Stipe, who doesn’t care about such things and is thus to be trusted, are four albums into their career. And what you hear in their latest, And the Glass-Handled Kites (oh dear. Still, it’s not as bad as the Moody Blues’ To Our Children’s Children’s Children) can bring tears of joy to an old progger’s ears.
NME might describe their sound as “The Cocteau Twins meet jagged underground freaks Sonic Youth”, but that’s because it, too, is afraid of using the P-word. All I know is that they remind me of the rush I got when I first heard Yes’s Time and a Word (1970), track one, side one, where they take a Richie Havens song, No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed, and Steve Howe put the theme from The Big Country into it. Mew ’s music is all soaring, symphonic stuff, with the bass player following the drummer’s strokes, note for beat, the way Chris Squire does.
Just writing it down makes the heart spring with youthful joy. I think I’ll go and put on the last movement of Close to the Edge and play some massive air bass. And I see that Jethro Tull are playing Ipswich at the end of March. Note to self: book tickets.
The single by the Mystery Jets, The Boy Who Ran Away, is released by 679. An album, Making Dens, follows on Mar 6. They are also on the NME Awards Tour (www.nme.com
), reaches Edinburgh Corn Exchange tonight (www.ece.uk.com
0131-477 3500). Mew’s new single, Why are you Looking Grave?, is released by Sony on Feb 6. They play Shepherds Bush Empire, London W12 (www.shepherds-bush-empire.co.uk
020-8354 3300), on Feb 9
Friday August 11, 2006