Thursday, October 24, 2013

Albums of the year 2013

As a real-life Vicar, I was chatting with a friend the other day and we acknowledged that when the church reaches Harvest Thanksgiving, the liturgical year is on a slippery slope non-stop to Advent then Christmas, after which it is full pelt to Easter. Only then is their some respite as we enjoy (endure) weeks of green '(Extra)Ordinary time' until the cycle begins all over again...

If none of that made any sense at all, it was a Vicary way of acknowledging that the end of the year is almost upon us.

I have blogged a lot of my church life over the years, but latterly music, which runs through me like the word 'Blackpool' does through rock, has become more and more important. Is this my mid-life crisis; me grasping at the straws of life, trying to relive my teenage past? That my dear reader is the stuff of another blog.

I was at a training day the other day and we were asked to reflect on what energises us. What renews us as us to give us something by way renewing what we give back to the parish coal-face. I realised again how important music really is to me. My friend Chris McGarel describes himself as a musicophile - I can identify with that.

Anyway, back to the point.  The end of the year is almost upon us, so I thought I would blog about the albums  have been important to me this year - this won't be an entirely '2013 best of list' but will include stuff that has moved me deeply this year. Over the next few weeks expect incoherent mumblings about Steven Wilson's 'The Raven That Refused to Sing', Leprous' 'Coal, Sanguine Hum's 'The Weight of the World', Lifesign's s/t album and Days Between Station's 'In Extremis', Marillion's 'Sounds That Can't Be Made', Breaking Orbit's 'Time Traveller', Rush's 'Clockwork Angels', 'Kairos 4Tet's 'Everything We Hold', and Mark Lockheart's 'In Deep' to name but a few.

So to the first... Haken's 'The Mountain.

To say that I was excited at this release is an understatement.  A few years back I would have dismissed their combination of tight riffage, circus music, great hooks, harmonies as a cacophonous howl (great name for a band btw) but thanks almost single-handedly to my mate Matt Spall - I began to be reeled in.

Firstly the almost completeness of 'Visions' emblazoned itself on my heart and brain to find it vying for top table with it's predecessor 'Aquaris'.  Both albums full of metal credentials, hooks that sink deep, intricate riffs and all enough all round musicality in one member of the band to make whole groups weep tears of joy.

'The Mountain' does not disappoint and scales new heights (see what I did there?) It builds on it's predecessors pop sensibilities combined with arrangements to feel like they were all put in a pot and shaken up and tipped out to form songs. Atlas Stone veers from wide screen prog, to modern jazz and tips it's hat to 60's tinged Motown.

Cockroach King's acapella introduction almost bobs into slowed down reggae, before schmoozing into lounge jazz and back into the wide-screen prog with majestic vocal harmonies.

In Memorium's opening piano/keyboard/guitar riff nods at Muse and promptly bests them with riffage which forces the listen to bang their head.

Because It's There begins with a haunting solo vocal which then makes Haken sound like a monastic choir and then Queen. Amid and simple guitar, riff, funky bass playing and simply beautiful chorus, the song is deliriously poppy and yet is far from throw-away.

Then Falling Back to Earth stomps in - technically astonishing riffing more chunky than a Yorkie bar lead the listener into some pretty heavy music and some beautifully harmonised vocals and into some pretty strange musical territory indeed including referencing that circus style music again.

As Death Embraces breathes and oozes as an antidote. It's beauty is almost crystalline, carried on the simplicity of a gorgeous piano melody.

This is followed by the, quite frankly progtastic track Pareidolia - Middle Eastern melodies infused with riffs that would not be out of place on an album by a Norwegian Black Metal band and a bouzouki solo to boot.

Somebody feels an uncomplicated poppy rock song. But only the scantiest listen reveals layer upon layer to the arrangement of the song. Beguiling.

The Path Unbeaten reprises the Path's opening piano melody and feels like the perfect epilogue, but it is no reprise. Over piano, come strings and then french horns. Positively orchestral.

The album closes with Nobody. 12 string guitar invites the listener into what feels like the prog equivalent of the heart wrenching tales told by many a folk song. Piano adds texture and urgency. But this is a Haken album, and the track builds and builds into a restrained climax that would make the most hardened metal fan cry like a baby.

What more can I say? This is not an album to put on in in the background. It demands your full attention, and the listener is rewarded on repeated listens - like admiring a fine painting the viewer notices new things on repeated viewings.  The listener will be forced to return to climb 'The Mountain' again and again noticing new musical textures and astonishing chops from the members of a band at the top of their game.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sound of Contact - Pale Blue Dot (Live)

The sound distorts in places, but this track (which I understand is to be the next single (from their debut  'Dimensionaut' album) shows the exceptional quality of Sound of Contact.

SoC have been kicking around my the peripherals of my prog world for a bit and I had listened to the album but I have only recently actually purchased a copy.  It is fair to say that I am gutted that I hadn't bought it sooner! It's full of fantastic hooks, pop melodies and prog sensibilities - and with Simon Collins (son of Phil) it was always going to.

Go ahead and enjoy, and buy yourself a copy of the album sooner than I did!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Evensong - Wheathampstead Deanery Evensong

Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Catholic archbishop of Manila who played a key role in the People Power revolution there, liked to tell the story of a woman who attended his weekly audience to inform him she had a been having visions and conversations with the Virgin Mary. He brushed her off several times, but she kept coming back. Finally he said, ‘We Catholics have strict rules governing visions and message from God. I need to test your authenticity. I want you to go back and ask the Virgin Mother to ask her son Jesus about a particular sin I recently confessed in private. If you ask Our Lady and she tells you the answer, I’ll know your vision is genuine.’

“The next week she returned and he quizzed her, a bit nervously, ‘Well, did you ask Our Lady to ask her Son about my sin?’ ‘I did’ she replied. ‘And did she answer?’ he asked.  ‘Yes’ she responded. ‘What did she say?’ ‘She said that Jesus said that he couldn’t remember.’

Jesus said: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 

We are reminded tonight of the extent of the love that Christ has for each of us - we are not servants any longer, not knowing what our Master does, but we are called friends because we know for ourselves the extent and depth of His love and forgiveness for us.

Jesus gives His friends a new commandment - to love one another. Previously God’s people had been called to honour His presence in their lives with a range of thousands of rules and prohibitions, marking out their distinctiveness amongst the vast array of neighbouring peoples, languages and religions.

Questions about the heart of those commands rose from time to time. Even Jesus was asked about it once - His reply was that the heart of the matter was about loving God with all that you are and loving your neighbour as yourself.  The new commandment that Jesus gives here - loving one another - takes this all to a new, more personal plane.  If we love this way, we are called friends of Jesus.

There was someone I was at theological college with called Rita.  She had spent quite a bit to time learning with and from the Mennonites. For those of you who haven’t come across the Mennonites, they have a particular renown for teaching and living lives of non-violence and love. Anyway, after some time at the Mennonite centre in London, She and a member of the community were making their way across London on the tube. As they came down one escalator, they saw a man being mugged. As quick as a flash, desperate to put into practice what she had been learning - as the attacked man lay on the floor - Rita loved the mugger hard by beating him with her handbag. Much to everyone’s surprise though, the Mennonite brother she was with, didn’t do the same, but lay down on top of the other man, protecting him and getting a good kicking in the process.

Hearing Jesus command us to love one another may conjure up all sorts of associated images in our heads - someone ordering us us to action or of a distant God issuing written in stone rules.  Jesus commanding us to love seems a bit anachronistic until we realize that a command, like the outcome to love one another, is about gathering people.  A commandment - from the Latin comandare - is something that is entrusted to us, committed to us, enjoined to us. It’s something that flows naturally and instinctively from us - like that Mennonite brother protecting the person being attacked - literally laying down his life - our love for one another is a defining characteristic of our relationship with Jesus; through our demonstration of that love, the world can come to know what we know.

Living and loving this this way, Jesus calls us His friends - literally his philios - his beloved ones.  Our friendships can be our most intimate and enduring of relationships. They are intentional. ‘You can choose your friends. You cannot choose your family.’ Jesus chooses us and loves us. So we love in return.

Only one other person in scripture is called a friend of God - was Abraham. Moses comes a close second when on the mountain in Exodus 33, God speaks with him as one does with a friend.  Such is the love that Christ has for us that we are called His friends and there are no lengths he would not go for us - even to the cross.

For many of us, living and loving the way of God is hard - something that Jesus warns us.  The decision before us tonight is, as it was before Nehemiah concerning rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, are we prepared to continue in the face of adversity, in the face of distraction, in the face of oppression, trusting God regardless of what others may think of us? And what lasting legacy are we building - walls and masks of protection to defend us from the sniping of others, or as Jesus’ friends with hearts open afresh to His command to love to be lived and shared with all?

Sunday Podcast - a week late!

Here is last week's sermon... better late than never!

The text follows based on 2 Timothy 1:1-14...

I wonder what you would consider your treasure to be? For some of us, talk of treasure takes us away to a deserted islands and undecipherable maps.  But talk of treasure can also leap from the page of fiction into the real world - I was talking with 2 different people this week - one of whom was semi serious that their problems and that of others would be resolved if they won the lottery. The other person was telling me about a dream they had had about finding treasure in the garden whilst they were digging the vegetables - aware that they had to declare it as treasure trove, but they also decided that it would ‘help’ if they squirreled some of the horde away and declare the rest.

At the end of this part of the second letter to Timothy, he is encouraged to guard the treasure entrusted to him, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  Not a gold dubloon or diamond ring in sight.  The treasure is, of course the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Guard it well.

Perhaps I should sit down and we all say amen? This Gospel that we have received and know is an immense treasure - the resources for life in the now and in the yet to come. And yet all too often, this is how we treat the Gospel of Jesus - good news for all - as treasure to be kept hidden from others, safe to oneself.  Mostly out of concern of what others will think of us perhaps.

This talk of safekeeping of treasure is in marked contrast though to the corporate language Paul uses to talk of the treasure itself - faith in God through Jesus Christ.  Paul talks of his worship of God being a collective activity not just with others now, but in line with that of his ancestors.  Something that he does in tradition - amongst a long line of others.

He also writes of Timothy’s faith in familial terms - it being a faith first of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.  A faith that Timothy grew up aware of and surrounded by.  Paul is sure that this faith is now Timothy’s own too.
But this faith is not a treasure that can be earned or found.  The Gospel is treasure that is shared with us freely by God - and as treasure it should be preserved but not risked or innovated if you will.

This treasure is not gold or silver but news of a new reality - a breaking of the power of death, of an assurance of life and immortality, through the power and purposes of God alone - of His unmerited grace to us.  Paul encourages Timothy (and his church) to return to (to rekindle) this treasure that is within through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In 21st Century Britain, news of this sort of faith is often seen as quite frankly a bit bonkers.  In fact is always has been this way and in the most extreme cases - has led to persecution, imprisonment, torture and death of Jesus’ followers.

In a recent video posted on the Guardian website, the comedian Milton Jones reminded us that our faith is a bit weird - that the Jesus that Paul writes of here, came to identify with the poor and downtrodden,and yet His chief representatives today live in palaces and wear big pointy hats...  Yet it is the implications of this faith, it’s outworking, that Paul is really interested in and encourages Timothy to treasure.

All too often we forget this ourselves.  The faith that Paul encourages Timothy to rekindle is life changing and community transforming.  Over the centuries this lived faith lead to the beginnings of science, the abolition of slavery, began the systems of Government that we take for granted, undergirds popular notions of decency, lead to the emancipation of women, underlies the judicial system, built schools and hospitals, painted art, made music and is the basis of the moral code of many...  A bit weird maybe, but society and culture shaping.

Paul encourages Timothy to remain faithful to the teaching and experience of faith in Jesus that he received from him and his own family - to guard this treasure. To ensure that it is kept safe, untarnished, unaltered like piece of priceless jewelry, but not to be locked away. To mix metaphors, this faith, this gift of God, is to be constantly rekindled. Like a fire, if it is not tended it will go out. But if it is cared for, sticks placed on it, the right amount of oxygen able to get to it, the flames will become stronger and hotter and can be used to heat and cook -  to transform other things.

We may not see the faith alive in us as leading to history-making moments like the abolition of slavery, but with the Holy Spirit burning in each of us by virtue of our baptisms, kindled and kept through worship, reading the scripture, sharing the Eucharist - who knows what God might do? 

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Airbag - White Walls live at Borgen Studios

A much more chilled way to start the day - Norway's Airbag.

I hadn't come across this glorious noise til some friends on twitter mentioned them. One person described this song as if David Gilmore played guitar for early Porcupine Tree.

I love this...  What do you think?