BILLY SHERWOOD: CITIZEN

(Frontiers Music; 2015)

album_cover_CITIZEN_55f05293426d5

Billy Sherwood seems to be a guy who doesn’t rattle easily. A guy who can step in and handle enormous responsibilities without flinching. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, he stepped in to some pretty big shoes, and helped a struggling Jon Anderson-fronted Yes continue their journey on both record and stage. Sherwood’s a big part of the sound on OPEN YOUR EYES and THE LADDER, both underrated. While releasing a series of solo albums and guesting on records all over the place, both proggy and not, Sherwood became a kind of go-to guy when a band needed not just a multi-instrumentalist, but an experienced engineer. Chris Squire, the legendary Yes bassist who succumbed to leukemia last year, initially picked Sherwood to replace him on bass for a huge 2015 Yes tour that Squire knew he couldn’t participate in. That’s no small thing and Sherwood, by all accounts, jumped in ready to go. But then, Squire left this mortal coil, and now, well, we have to assume Sherwood will continue with Yes, and might even be the point man for a brand new phase, one that none of us can anticipate yet. The guy is a fantastic, versatile musician, and he’s earned good karma a-plenty.

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Which brings us to CITIZEN, surprisingly Sherwood’s seventh or eighth solo album since 1999. It’s a solid platter, with appearances by Yes members both past and present, and the last song recorded by Chris Squire (he appears on the opening track, “The Citizen”). There’s a familiarity about the sound that you can’t deny, and it wouldn’t be fair to even think in terms of “Yes-lite” or something. These are muscular, strong compositions, and why not use musicians of the caliber of YES men such as Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman and Geoff Downes if you can? This is still a Sherwood album through and through, and he sings most of the lead vocals. Among standout tracks: “No Man’s Land,” a fizzy prog confection that alternates between memorably processed lead vocals, Yes-like harmonies, and a confidently anchored arrangement. “Age of the Atom” is a stirring piece that has a descending chord progression, a hooky chorus and some zippy keyboard playing… this one definitely sticks in the ear. By the way, this and “The Great Depression” may bring another progressive behemoth to mind – Genesis. Sherwood sounds a tad like Peter Gabriel at times, and it’s worth mentioning that Steve Hackett from that band is also featured on the record (on “Man and the Machine”). “Trail of Tears” is a tune Gabriel would love… it echoes his aesthetic about indigenous peoples and the subject matter definitely takes on the famed Native American death march of the 1800s. Some very airy, charming synth work is an interesting sonic counterpoint to the theme, and you can just enjoy this track musically without worrying about the history lesson. It’s really good, plain and simple. The aptly named “Escape Velocity” is suffused with Yes DNA… if you just heard this playing, especially during the chorus, you would guess it was likely the real YES, an unfamiliar track perhaps. This is really spirited stuff, and you will swear you can hear Squire on that chorus and bass (though it’s really Billy showing the world why he was Chris’ handpicked successor). Anyway, this is one of the album’s highlights. The ending really kicks ass. And so does the ending of the entire disc, “Written In the Centuries,” which finds current Yes lead singer Jon Davison outfront on vocals. Nice, tight harmonies, chiming guitars, mystical lyrics, tempo changes… why, YES, peeps, you’ll recognize this sound! But somehow it’s also… different. Fresh. It’s the Billy Sherwood approach to prog, and it’s plenty meaty!

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

The album has a story line, by the way, something about a lost soul being reincarnated into different historical periods. There’s a song about Galileo (featuring vocals from XTC’s Colin Moulding) and all sorts of references you’ll have fun trying to catch. But you don’t HAVE to know the theme or decipher the lyrics to appreciate this album. There’s a majesty about a lot of this stuff that shows the pedigree of the players. There are melodies, no song is all that long, and the sonics are nicely balanced between what all Yes fans might expect and fresher elements that Billy Sherwood, a thoughtful musician, took care to weave into the compositions. This CITIZEN is a reliable one indeed, and deserves to take its rightful place in the ever evolving community of Yes and related prog-dom. Nice job, Billy boy. I hope your pal Chris got to hear most of this before he said goodbye.


YES-TERDAY AND TODAY: AN INTERVIEW WITH MABEL GREER’S TOYSHOP ABOUT THEIR SURPRISING COMEBACK AND SOME “UNFINISHED BUSINESS”

Mabel Greer's Toyshop

You could be forgiven for not immediately knowing who Mabel Greer’s Toyshop are. That name has not exactly been pervasive in the music press. However, hardcore fans of the legendary progressive rock ensemble Yes will recognize MGT (whom we will sometimes also refer to as just “Mabel,” as fans are starting to do) as the place Yes came from, a long, long time ago. Yes indeed, way back in 1966, founding members Robert Hagger and Clive Bayley, together with original Yes-men Peter Banks and Chris Squire, were starting to make music as MGT, something pop oriented and even a little folksy. Then, that Jon Anderson fellow had to come along and start having long, late night talks with Chris Squire, and everything got messed up. Depending on how you look at it, of course. MGT did not continue as an active entity, although material had been written and performed at the time. So, it’s more than a little unexpected that, 45 years later, they have a new album called NEW WAY OF LIFE due out, featuring Hagger and Bayley, along with Yes alumnae Tony Kaye and Billy Sherwood, and bassist Hugo Barre as the main newbie. The album succeeds in not only being eminently listenable, but in setting itself far apart from Yes-pectations (a word that might as well be officially used to describe the always-changing state of Yes fanship through the years and the rotating lineups). Such tunes as “Get Yourself Together,” “Images of You and Me,” “Singing To Your Heart” and the melodic title track are muscular, well-conceived tracks that feature pleasant harmonies, energetic playing and a joyful spirit that is almost celebratory in nature. After all this time, the band probably knew that full surrender was the best way to go with a project that has taken so long to be realized. One thing that is a bit surprising with regard to Yes is that two songs on the first Yes album, “Beyond and Before” and “Sweetness” have been totally redone here. We’ll let the band explain how that came about in the following interview, conducted via email.

Whatever preconceived notions that listeners bring to this project, it’s fair to say that if you set those aside and just listen, you’ll hear some classic old-school British rock that is influenced by its prog roots to an extent, but also straightforward in its desire to showcase the melodies and tight musicianship of this new-old ensemble, with nothing pretentious or self-indulgent to mar the result. There are a couple of instrumentals, and a few tunes that probably won’t set the world on fire, but this is just pleasant, well-crafted rock with hints of nostalgia that should make most listeners smile. Mabel Greer’s Toyshop clearly had a barrel of fun with this album, and it’s an easy bet that they will keep it going. They are doing exactly what they want to do, and the intimidating musical legacy that they’ve come from, while echoed here and there, does not straightjacket this new record in any way. It’s an admirable feat they’ve accomplished, one that is a bit unprecedented in the annals of progressive music. There were many questions worth asking the band, but the following interview tells a great deal about their unusual journey to this point:

Mabel Greer's Toyshop, 1967 (Robert Hagger, Peter Banks, Clive Bayley, Chris Squire) (photo credit: ROWAN BULMER)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, 1967 (Robert Hagger, Peter Banks, Clive Bayley, Chris Squire) (photo credit: ROWAN BULMER)

THE MULE: Although it’s not unprecedented for a group that was better known as the earliest incarnation of a more prominent group to “reunite” and release new music, it’s also not common. How did this project ultimately come about?

ROBERT HAGGER: Ironically, I think it may have been the death of Peter Banks that was a catalyst. On March 15, 2013, I was on a flight from Dubai to Johannesburg and read in a newspaper that “Peter Banks, former lead guitarist with Yes and Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, died on March 7 from heart failure at the age of 65.” THE (London) TIMES dedicated three-quarters of a page to the story. Mabel Greer’s Toyshop was mentioned in the article, although inaccurately reporting that, “the band was formed by Banks and Chris Squire.” In reality, Clive and I asked Chris to join following my audition with the band, the Syn. Chris then invited Peter and Jon Anderson to join us. Peter made a huge contribution to what we were doing at the time. I started swapping emails with Clive and we agreed to meet up in July in France at the Le Petit Maison in Nice, a restaurant opposite the opera house. It’s a surreal experience to meet someone again after 45 years! We had a lot to talk about and during the meal he blurts it out, “we should reform Mabel Greer’s Toyshop.” We all fall about laughing, but it hits a nerve, and we agreed to book some studio time in August.

CLIVE BAYLEY: Mabel was always “unfinished business” for both of us; we thought the music deserved to be carried through to a larger audience.

Mabel Greer's Toyshop becomes Yes (Peter Banks, Tony Kaye, Chris Squire, Bill Bruford, Jon Anderson) (uncredited photo)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop becomes Yes (Peter Banks, Tony Kaye, Chris Squire, Bill Bruford, Jon Anderson) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Most hardcore Yes fans will likely know of you guys, but perhaps not the prog audience at large. What would you say distinguishes the current musical style you’re creating from the 60s incarnation of the band?

CLIVE: Back in the 60’s our style was likened to a crossover of Pink Floyd and the Byrds; strong melody lines and good harmonies, albeit a little more classic rock oriented (as was carried over to the Yes incarnation). If anything, the Mabel melody lines are perhaps even stronger and heavier now and include 45 years of influences from far and wide.

THE MULE: It was a bit of a surprise to hear the tracks “Beyond and Before” and “Sweetness” redone on this record, as those tracks were on the first Yes album and heavily featured Jon Anderson. What made you decide to record those songs, and are you concerned at all that your take on them will suffer by comparison to Anderson’s distinctive style?

ROBERT: “Beyond and Before” was always the Mabel opening piece at gigs, even before Jon Anderson joined us. The song, written by Clive and Chris Squire, is part of our history, we couldn’t possibly leave it out.

CLIVE: Jon is a great singer, and we all enjoy the Yes version… but, we wanted to do the melody lines more like the original Mabel version. Regarding “Sweetness,” which I co-wrote with Jon and Chris… again, Jon’s version is great, but my voice is an octave lower and a different style. The interesting thing about the Mabel version of “Sweetness” is the lead guitar running through the song in counterpoint which twists it into another style, I think.

Mabel Greer's Toyshop rehearsa, circa 2013 (Annouchka Bayley, Alex Keren Robert Hagger, Clive Bayley, Hugo Barre) (uncredited photo)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop rehearsa, circa 2013 (Annouchka Bayley, Alex Keren Robert Hagger, Clive Bayley, Hugo Barre) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Talk about your compositional process a little: How did tracks such as “Get Yourself Together” and “Images of You and Me” originate and develop into the arrangements we hear? Then elsewhere, you have tracks that are mostly instrumental such as “King and Country” and “Oceans”… how are aesthetic decisions like that made? Does everyone have to agree on the elements of a song, or do a couple of you get to pretty much determine the direction of a tune?

CLIVE: I think songwriting and arranging really is my thing. So in a lot of the arrangements I was trying to create a fuller, more interesting sound than we had achieved on the older material. The new songs just kind of fell into place. On “New Way of Life,” Billy altered the bass line from what we had originally and this seemed to change the style of the song quite a bit. He just did it, we all liked it, so we kept it. Billy’s style worked well as he intuitively caught where the European part of the band were coming from… great job from both him and Tony Kaye.

ROBERT: “Get Yourself Together” and “Images” were, again, written back in 1967. When we went back in the studio to record them we did it from memory, which was an interesting experience in itself. It’s important to note that the only rehearsal we had was to play the numbers through once or twice and then lay down the tracks. There are advantages and disadvantages in doing it this way. We sacrificed some quality to retain the vibe and energy.

Mabel Greer's Toyshop's Clive Bayley, circa 2013 (uncredited photo)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop’s Clive Bayley, circa 2013 (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: “Oceans” makes it pretty clear that you guys are comfortable with long instrumental passages and “painterly” style soundscapes. Might you consider doing an all-instrumental recording someday?

CLIVE: The music piece determines if vocals are required… alternatively, if a strong melody line is created then the backing can be hard rock or delicate, it just kind of evolves. Yes, I would like to do an instrumental with strings and a choir sort of thing, but I suspect a melody line will creep in somewhere as a vocal. I do like Rock Opera, music telling a story. I wrote an album called KING AND COUNTRY, (which has) not yet been released, that does this. Strangely, it was based on TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, which is now about to be released as a major movie. I would like to re-record this album or update it at some point in time.

THE MULE: Clive and Robert, what was it like revisiting something you did so long ago? Were you at all concerned about being in the shadow of Yes as you embarked on this project?

CLIVE: I don’t want to emulate Yes, they are a wonderful band and they are Yes. However, you can detect where some of the Yes sound came from, and with a little imagination, you have a different take on where it could have gone if we had remained involved. I don’t rate myself as a great guitarist like Steve Howe or Peter Banks… but, I think I can write and arrange some nice sounds, and want to share that.

ROBERT: When Clive and I formed Mabel back in 1966, we knew we had something special. Even at the age of 16, Clive was writing stuff like “Beyond and Before” and “Jeanetta,” still one of my all-time favourites and also included on the new album. There is no question of being in the shadow of another band, we are just making our offering and if a few people enjoy it, then we will be happy.

Mabel Greer's Toyshop's Tony Kaye and Billy Sherwood (uncredited photo)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop’s Tony Kaye and Billy Sherwood (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Tony Kaye and Billy Sherwood are in the unique position of having played with later versions of Yes; in fact, Tony played in early AND later incarnations. Would love it if you guys could share your insights into what it was like during your particular eras with Yes, and how those experiences influenced you for this new MGT project. Do you still have contact with Chris Squire, any of you? Has he heard the new work?

BILLY SHERWOOD: I was lucky enough to tour with the 90125 (Yes) lineup in 1995, for their TALK record, after that, the band reverted back to the classic lineup as it’s known, with Howe and Wakeman. I was called in to produce/mix for that lineup during the KEYS TO ASCENSION sessions. After that phase, they broke up and it was at that point that Squire and myself began writing and sending tracks around to Anderson, who got involved in this new writing wave… which became the OPEN YOUR EYES record. This is when I joined as a full member, touring that record and the following record THE LADDER. This would be the third Yes lineup I had the pleasure to play with. I left the band in 2000 to go back into the studio production world, making many records, some of which included various Yes members… (THE PROG COLLECTIVE 1 and 2, the Fusion Syndicate, William Shatners PONDER THE MYSTERY among other records). As a result of my ongoing relationship with Yes, I was asked to come in and mix their most recent studio record, HEAVEN AND EARTH, as well as their live DVD from Bristol called LIKE IT IS. I am currently just starting to mix another Live Yes DVD from Mesa, Arizona… Regarding Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, it was a part of Yes history in that the early seeds of Yes were housed within that band in many ways. When I was asked to come on board to make their new record, it was an honor. As a Yes fan, knowing the backstory of where it all began, I felt it was something special to be involved with such history by pushing it forward into the future. I really enjoyed playing on the record and producing/mixing, it was a labour of love indeed!

(Tony Kaye was also part of the Mabel Greer’s Toyshop/Yes transition in June to August 1968 in London, and was of course the keyboard player on the versions of “Beyond and Before” and “Sweetness’ that featured on the first Yes album. Tony was very pleased to be involved in the revival album with Clive and Bob, and enjoyed playing the old material again. He has also been working with Billy Sherwood on their joint-project and new album with the band Circa… Tony was not available for this interview).

THE MULE: You are billed as an “English psychedelic rock band” on your web site. What does the term “psychedelic” mean to you. Has audience perception of that word changed since the 60s?

ROBERT: We used the term “psychedelic” with the meaning “mind-revealing” in that the music was designed to change the state of the listener’s mind by sound effects and reverberation. As an example, just listen to some of the intros and specifically to the track “Oceans” on the new album.

CLIVE: Yes, audience perception of “psychedelic” has changed. We were dressed differently then, and when we started out it was the pre-Flower Power era. The 60s were a great time of peaceful protest and desire to change the establishment, too. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, we were all breaking new ground. I think we tend to use the term “psychedelic” loosely… it could encompass a protest movement, new way of life, breakout… But, using the word “psychedelic” also brings back images of that era where all these things were going on.

THE MULE: Talking about this area a little more, progressive rock sort of had its heyday in the 70s with groups like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Pink Floyd. Then it fell out of favor for many years, partially due to punk and new wave, but a new crop of bands like Porcupine Tree, Spock’s Beard and many more proved that prog rock still had a massive audience in the 90s and beyond. What do you guys see as the importance and appeal of prog rock? Do you see yourselves fitting into that realm, even though some of the tracks on your new record are essentially straightforward pop songs?

CLIVE: I think we are flexible enough to try different styles. The title track, dare I say, is more country and western than prog rock. A bit like the last Muse album where they introduced some R&B tunes, that shocked a few people. We like to experiment a lot, which again, is that psychedelic label, but it doesn’t ALL have to sound like Flower Power… if that makes sense?

Mabel Greer's Toyshop's Robert Hagger, circa 2013 (uncredited photo)

Mabel Greer’s Toyshop’s Robert Hagger, circa 2013 (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Does it affect groups like you that made your first mark in a very different musical era, that the technology and distribution systems have changed so much? Do you think music has been devalued by mp3s and the like, or is it just the inevitable change that musicians have to adapt to? How do you personally see the music business these days?

CLIVE: Well, Bob and I are getting back in so we are seeing the music business in a new light after a long gap. It clearly has changed. I think we all have to constantly adapt quickly as the world is speeding up now and more and more will change. Go with the flow but keep your integrity and create what you believe in.

ROBERT: In the old days, musicians could not rely on record sales to make a living, they had to go out and play in front of an audience. Funny that today is the same…

THE MULE: For those who don’t know, what is the origin of the band’s name? Was there ever any thought about going out under a different name when you got together again?

ROBERT: Back in the 60s, interesting, way-out names were the way to go: Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, et cetera. So we became Mabel Greer’s Toyshop. This whole project was about reviving the vibes that we had going in the beginning, so it would have been counter-productive to rename the band, although it seems that everybody now refers to it as just plain “Mabel… ”

THE MULE: What are your biggest hopes as you launch into this new phase of the band’s career? Will you be touring a lot? Will you be doing other early Yes songs besides the ones on the record? And do you think there will be more albums down the road?

CLIVE: No, I don’t think we will do any Yes songs. We will do some showcase gigs and see what happens. I am definitely arranging the next album soon; we already have a lot of new songs for it. And I want to do that Rock Opera thing or themed album. We are happy to do a new album every year if the audience likes it. Constantly trying to create exciting music, whatever shape it takes. Let’s see where this “NEW WAY OF LIFE” takes Mabel after March 9…

Album cover

NEW WAY OF LIFE will be released as a digital download and CD on March 9, 2015 by RSK Entertainment. For more information, visit the band’s website at mabelgreerstoyshop.com.


DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS: IN EXTREMIS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2013)

Days Between Stations In Extrimis

IN EXTREMIS (a Latin phrase that means “at the point of death”) features some of the final recorded work of legendary Yes and Flash guitarist, Peter Banks. Given Banks’ resume, it isn’t in the least bit surprising to note that the music of the California-based duo of keyboardist Oscar Fuentes Bills and guitarist Sepand Samzadeh (performing under the odd moniker Days Between Stations, after the novel by Steve Erikson) is what could be classified as “neo-progressive.” There are eight tracks on the self-released IN EXTREMIS, with fully half of them clocking in at more than 10 minutes each. The title track, presented as a suite with six separate movements, is over 21 and a half minutes long. “In Extremis” features Peter Banks on lead and rhythm guitar, as well as “guitar textures.” He also features on the 12 minute “Eggshsell Man.”

Add to the mix uber-bass and stick man Tony Levin, drummer/vocalist Billy Sherwood, keyboard guru Rick Wakeman and XTC bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding and you’ve just turned an impressive progressive concept album into a formidable piece of progressive hero-worship. So, let’s look at this work track by track to learn why this is most certainly an album that you will want to add to your collection.

Days Between Stations: Oscar Fuentes Bills and Sepand Samzadeh (uncredited photo)

Days Between Stations: Oscar Fuentes Bills and Sepand Samzadeh (uncredited photo)

No Cause For Alarm (Overture),” led by Oscar Fuentes Bills’ militaristic piano and the very marshal-sounding drums of Billy Sherwood, leads into “In Utero,” which is more of a soundscape. It features some very ethereal keyboard and guitar washes by Bills and Sepand Samzadeh, as well as a cool, tinkling guitar effect and a nice Samzadeh solo. Chris Tedesco provides a long trumpet solo, adding to the Crimson-esque atmosphere of the piece.

Visionary” builds on the emotional feel of “In Utero” with more nice guitar work from Sepand. This is the first of the vocal tracks, with Sherwood’s voice reminding me of Trevor Horn’s work on DRAMA, his only album with Yes; they’re kinda hard to understand, but the power of this vocal stands more in the melody and feel. Sherwood’s drumming is rather subdued but features some very nice fills. Bills once again offers some great piano to the instrumental section. He is joined by Matt Bradford on dobro and, together, they offer one of the more emotionally charged pieces of the entire album. “Blackfoot” is a tasty piece of jazz-tinged progressive rock, especially the slower middle section. A nightmarish piano line repeats to start the song, then an equally nightmare-inducing guitar solo is added. There is a definite Mothers of Invention vibe to this song, with guitar parts that are very much Zappa influenced and drums that remind me of Chester Thompson or Ralph Humphrey and their work with the Mothers. “Blackfoot” ends with some quite nice Floydian guitar freak-outs, definitely reminiscent of the swirling, calamitous sounds of a cinematic death scene.

Colin Moulding appears on “The Man Who Died Two Times,” a song whose title sounds quite a bit like something that he would do within the confines of his band, XTC. The tune seems to be a song about revived hope – a very poppy, happy sounding song. Moulding’s voice adds just the right touch, as “The Man Who Died Two Times” is very much in the vein of mid-period XTC or early Genesis with Peter Gabriel.

Peter Banks (uncredited photo)

Peter Banks (photo credit: GLEN DICROCCO)

The Angel City String Quartet performs the short, quiet piece, “Waltz In E Minor,” which is dedicated to Peter Banks. A very fitting requiem for a major influence on the art form known as “progressive rock music.” “Eggshell Man” is a very folky sounding tune. The vocal melodies and phrasing remind one of Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding’s XTC bandmate, though they are provided by Billy Sherwood. They add just the right emotional air to the tune, as a man once drawn from the brink of death has been walking on metaphoric eggshells and realizes that he is once again at death’s door. As the song progresses, Ali Nouri solos on the tar (a Central Asian stringed instrument), Rick Wakeman offers a mini-moog solo and Peter Banks adds great atmospheric guitar “textures,” all of which give the song a very Middle Eastern sound. “Eggshell Man,” along with “The Man Who Died Two Times,” are my favorites on an album of great tracks.

Finally, “In Extremis,” is Days Between Stations’ magnum opus, the centerpiece to a highly enjoyable album. The first movement is called “Mass” and, as should be expected, is an atmospheric mass for the dead. “On the Ground,” the second movement, is very much “funeral music,” with lyrics evoking either a life wasted or a life well-lived and much missed by those who loved the deceased. This section features great guitar and keyboard work and interaction by the core duo of Samzadeh and Bills, alongside Banks. The third movement, called “A Requiem,” is exactly that, with very dark lyrics set against an almost claustrophobic musical backing. Along with the instrumental fourth and fifth movements (called “Writing On Water” and “Overland”), “A Requiem” borders on schizophrenia, perhaps hinting at the soul’s departure from the mortal coil as a battle rages between Heaven and Hell to determine its eternal resting place. “It Never Ends,” the final movement, revisits lyrical themes from the entire album, offering, at times, a gloomy overview of life, but also a pastoral, restful triumph that ultimately comes with the end of life. Overall, “In Extremis” is a song cycle that leads you through just about every emotion that you would feel knowing that your birth certificate does, indeed, come with an expiration date.

IN EXTREMIS is an album that has a little something for everybody. Whether your musical tastes tend to run to progressive or classic rock; classical music; Gothic lyrics and motifs; or just darn good music, this is the record for you!