Knifeworld, Godsticks and Trojan Horse

Night & Day, Manchester

10th November 2013

Prog still has a bit of a dubious reputation in some circles, but this exciting three band bill is about as far removed as you can get from the flatulent, over-orchestrated arena rock of many a youthful prejudice, including Cath Aubergine’s…

You know you’re at a prog night when the singer says “We’re going to play a trilogy now”…

OK, I know, this is Louder Than War and many of us are from a musical background that involved teenage years claiming to hate Prog Rock. If you’re of a certain age, loosely defined by one’s musical awakenings having been somewhere between punk and acid house, you probably did. I certainly did. We didn’t actually know what Prog was, we just hated it. Boo hiss prog, dinosaurs, it’s why punk had to happen, men in wizard capes with a stack of 16 keyboards and you had to be a Grade 8 classically trained virtuoso before you could be in a group and you couldn’t just make an LP it had to be a triple concept album, whatever that actually was. Though of course many of us Prog Haters were the unashamed owners of one triple concept album – “Sandinista!” by The Clash – which is one more than most of the prog-heads. Anyway…

You still hear it today from a handful of die-hards of the punk / post-punk generation, I hate prog (because thou shalt hate prog). Admittedly, if you look back at the British bands at the centre of the original seventies movement most of them do still sound like bloated, tedious noodlers and often more regressive than progressive, while the genuinely progressive rock music of the era was shoved to the back of the shelf with a racist label on it until the cooler alternative bands of the post-punk era onwards (re)discovered “Krautrock”.

As for the well-known “prog”-identifying bands of the eighties, well there’s not much progressive about rehashing a decade-old sound with contemporary rock production polish is there? Of course there were progressive bands emerging around the same time, pulling some of the wilder experimentalism of the early seventies into a post-punk template, but such was the stain left on the P word by the 1976-Year-Zero brigade that they would often actively deny any association. There was no love lost in the other direction either, as New-Definitely-Not-Prog figureheads The Cardiacs found when invited to open for Trad-Prog revivalists Marillion in 1984, provoking such virulent reactions from the headliners’ fans – including attempted arson at Manchester Apollo – they bailed out before the tour ended.

It would be a while still before Prog became an acceptable tag outside its niche: at the start of the 21st century reviewers were still writing of bands “threatening” prog or the “whiff” of it like it was some terrible historic disease. Yep, I did this too. Yet within a year or two names such as The Mars Volta and Oceansize, alongside the growing overspill from “post-rock” (and various other “post”-something genres) were establishing a new progressive order without a wizard cape in sight. To the young Nick Duke, growing up through these times and now about to take to the stage with Trojan Horse, prog was rebellion – as he told Louder Than War in early 2012, “people would say the word ‘prog’ with such a vitriolic, sarcastic sneer that I wanted to hear this ‘music that could annoy my friends WHO WERE PUNKS!’ So yeah I just got curious, we all did, and I’ve never looked back from that point.” He wasn’t the only one. Suddenly The Cardiacs seemed not the anachronism they’d been for most of their existence, but forerunners; pioneers. Their legendary annual (second Friday of) November show at London’s Astoria saw a small but significant demographic shift through the middle of the last decade, towards a younger more indie-bred crowd (and faster tickets sales year on year, too). Sadly, their day in the sun was to be all too short-lived, with Tim Smith’s heart attack and strokes in the summer of 2008 leaving the band on indefinite hiatus (and guitarist Kavus Torabi telling an interviewer a couple of years later they would never play live again). The Astoria closed its doors for the last time soon afterwards, demolished to make way for Crossrail.

This year, on the second Friday in November, Torabi was just a mile from the Astoria rubble, leading his band Knifeworld on stage at the 229 venue. Two days later he’s brought them to Manchester and invited former tour-mates Trojan Horse to open proceedings. Trojan Horse are three variably bearded brothers plus one non-bearded non-brother (of theirs, that is; he may well be someone’s) who have never been shy of the Prog label, though these days they prefer simply “Weird Rock”. They’re not kidding. Three years on (seriously? But it is…) from their self-released debut album, on which they managed the balance between wildly eclectic and actually coherent rather well from an ingredients list including not just Cardiacs-flavoured new prog but crunching hardcore, technicolour synth splatter, grungey power and nineties proto-post-rock, they’ve got a whole new set of songs earmarked for album number two early in 2014. And it’s like the Trojan Horse beloved of many in Manchester and beyond, only … more so. Songs are at once ridiculously complex and enjoyably appealing – fans of proper melodies will find plenty here, though they may well be piled up on top of each other. Bassist Lawrence takes over lead vocals from frontman Nick for a song which only serves to expand their scope. Eden’s keyboards play more of a role, even if tonight they’re maybe a little low in the mix. Overall though there seems to be much more confidence, both in their playing and their boundary pushing. Genuinely excited about that second album now, and it’s clear they are too.

Godsticks are from Wales, a country that’s consistently punched above its weight in the alternative rock stakes, and rock they certainly do, very heavily. Their foundations are the chugging guitars of nineties post-grunge and rhythms that slip a bit of funk between great metal juggernauts, while the songs themselves have something of Oceansize’s 21st century prog about them. What’s utterly remarkable, however is how they manage to sound like about seven people whilst definitely being just three – there’s incredible skill here, but not in any arsey, pretentious sense. It’s their singer who uttered those words at the start of this piece, and everybody just goes “oh OK then”. So while there are plenty of opportunities for a good old-fashioned head shake, it’s best not to get too stuck into any particular time signature as there’ll be another one along before you know it. Definitely not easy Sunday night music, this, but that’s not why we’ve come out…

 

And then it’s time for Knifeworld, and there are loads of them. And… what is that exactly? Ah, the wonder that is Google image search. I reckon bassoon. My mate briefly considers the possibility of cor anglais, but no, a couple of clicks of the phone confirms the former. You don’t see one of those on the Night & Day stage that often. Welcome to Knifeworld, a world where there’s too much going on at any given time to try to make sense of it, just fasten your seatbelt and let them whisk you off on a grand tour. Hold on tight as you hurtle down a magic cavern of psychedelia, shapes morphing either side of you; breathe out as you pass a pretty little cloud of chamber-pop; mind your head through the dense asteroid belt of polyrhythmic drumming. On the left, the joyous vocals and wayward keys of Melanie Wood, once of indie surrealists Sidi Bou Said; on the right a battalion of brass and woodwind, one of the saxophones occasionally bursting out like a surprise visitor. There are punky bits, folky bits, jazzy bits. And at the centre of it all is Kavus Torabi, wild hair flying as his finger’s twist multi-dimensional patterns out of a guitar, the ringmaster of this gloriously free-spirited circus. A Cardiacs fan turned guitar tech long before his eventual baptism into the fold, he exudes a similar visionary ethos to Tim Smith (as well as a like-minded taste in chord structures) in the way he weaves together all these weird avant-garde ideas into a much bigger picture. Under a microscope there are all manner of ridiculously intricate sub-plots, but look at the whole and what you’ve basically got is deeply unconventional pop music. You’ll search in vain for a handy chorus refrain, so don’t bother – just enjoy each little catchy hook as it pops up.

It’s probably not one of the best populated gigs of his life; it’s still a cold, damp Sunday night out there in reality land, and probably not the sort of line-up for random passing trade even if there was any; but pretty much everyone here looks like they’re experiencing something life-affirmingly wonderful. For the last song on the set list the Trojan Horse boys are back on stage with them, a melee of voices and instruments and joy to rival the big finale number of any stage musical. Doing another song afterwards kind of messes with the whole dynamic a bit, but then this wasn’t some scripted encore; they’re just not the sort of pompous types who are going to bugger off and say that’s it when the crowd wants a bit more.

Thinking back to that youthful prejudice, tonight has been about as far removed as you can get from the flatulent, over-orchestrated arena rock once indelibly (mis)associated with the P word. Next up, jazz. Actually no, forget that, even an open mind needs some limits…

~

Knifeworld and Trojan Horse reunite in London on 2nd February with previous tourmates The Fierce & The Dead at Camden Barfly and tickets are just a fiver from this link. And if you like that tune on the video you can download the track free here.

Here’s where to find the bands online:

Trojan Horse’s website and Facebook /

Godsticks’ website and Facebook /

Knifeworld’s website and Facebook.

All words by Cath Aubergine, more writing by Cath on Louder Than War can be found here.

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