The dislocation of space and time has always been a big part of the character, and attraction, of progressive – or PROG – rock. From the 70s prog of Hawkwind, Genesis and Pink Floyd to the more current prog-metal works of Dream Theatre and The Porcupine Tree, the best have always taken the listener away to a place and time far far away.
So it is no surprise that one of the strongest albums of the genre I have heard in a while comes not from London 1970 or Los Angeles 1990 but from Brisbane, Australia in the year 2012 AD. Yet Ben Craven’s Great & Terrible Potions – entirely written, performed and recorded by the artist – is no touching but provincial attempt at the genre. The album nails it down from every angle.
Great & Terrible Potions has garnered comments from no less than Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson’s lyricist on Smile (a touchstone for any experimental or wide-minded musician) who called the album “seriously well-distilled and blended”. PROG ROCK magazine (one of the UK’s Classic Rock stable) included the album track ‘No Specific Harm’ on their Prognosis 2.2 cover-mount CD, distributed internationally.
Nice words have also been earned from many international music – progressive, rock and pop – publications: Anil Prasad’s Innerviews calls Ben Craven a “heavy-duty prog-rock monster” while The Midwest Record refers to him as a “prog-rock Todd Rundgren hiding out in Australia”.
Sorry Midwest, but Ben Craven isn’t hiding out anywhere – he just might single handedly turn Brisbane into a prog-rock lighthouse, as The Saints did with punk and the Go-Betweens did with mod pop. (It must be something in the water).
Craven sets out his stall early on Great & Terrible Potions – the overture (yes! every great prog album needs an overture) that is ‘Diabolique’ opens with the surrealistic SFX couplet of an ancient door creaking open – the same door will slam shut at the end of the album – and an oldschool telephone ringing. This is followed by a repeated 5/8 piano arpeggio that could be from Mike Oldfield’s 1973 ambient masterpiece Tubular Bells, which then leads into an orchestral riff, complete with crunching bass which has to be a nod to the genre’s bass baron, YES’s Chris Squire. Some knockout Rick Wakeman-esque Hammond riffs and smears and heavy guitar’n’drums á la Dream Theatre’s John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy and our 2:27 mini prog-rock history lesson is over – and we are firmly in Ben Craven’s world.
And this is what I particularly enjoy about the album – the mix of original progressive rock flavours (Yes, Gentle Giant) and prog-metal muscle (Opeth, Symphony X) is so nicely balanced. This is definitely a 2012 album but would satisfy any lover of 70s progressive music (the era before the term was truncated to PROG). Craven’s pop smarts – face it, all the greats, no matter how far-out, always hooked us with a hook, before throwing us back into the Topographic Oceans to fend for ourselves among the time-signature weeds – together with his Swiss Army Knife musicianship make this album a delight on a number of levels.
The tracks fade/segue into each other, which together with the overture gives Great & Terrible Potions a suite-like feel. ‘Nobody Dies Forever’ is divided into two parts, split by five tracks. The instrumentals – the lush ‘Aquamarine’, the lovely ‘The Conjurer’ (dedicated to late Floyd keysman, Richard Wright, whose ‘Great Gig In the Sky’ is recalled by the piece’s major-minor melancholy) and the impeccably recorded acoustic guitar chamber-piece ‘Solace’ – divide and relieve the album’s dense, orchestral songs.
The almost pop ‘Ready To Lose’, with it’s gorgeous organ line and intriguing philosophy is balanced by the Arabic frenzy of ‘No Specific Harm’ (like Led Zeppelin jamming on Tatooine…). But the magnus opus (‘magnum’ and ‘opus’ are words that any critique of progressive rock is just begging for) is the title track ‘Great & Terrible Potions’. A nine-minute-plus sonic trip, the track has a spacey Alice in Wonderland carnival waltz vibe that pulls you willingly down the Rabbit Hole. Equating self-determination with the great and terrible potions – opportunity, will, chance – we choose to embrace or ignore in life with an Alice-like adventure, Craven leaves us completely sated musically, but with something to think about.
Listen to this album on headphones at the highest quality you can – there is talk of a vinyl limited-edition release soon – and run your eyes across the Roger Dean designed cover art. However fragrant your mental state is or is not at the beginning, no matter – by the end you will be in another place and another time. And it won’t be Brisbane.
The OrangePress put some questions to Ben Craven recently. Here are his responses:
1. Your new CD ‘Great and Terrible Potions’ is entirely performed, written and recorded by you without any other musicians. Why did you prefer to work this way?
It’s not that I necessarily prefer to work that way, but it’s the only way I could have made this album. These songs have been buzzing around in my head for a long time. Years, in fact. So I had very clear ideas about the arrangements and how I wanted them to sound. By the time I’d figured out all the parts, I’d already learnt to play them so most of the hard work was done. And I’m sure you can imagine this is not the sort of album you’d record in a hurry, so it made sense to do it, slowly, in my own studio.
Interestingly enough, I’m rehearsing these songs now in a 3-piece configuration, and the arrangements are entirely different. They’re getting a complete makeover so they’re physically possible to play live in a band. But when I make an album, the sonic palette has no limits and anything is possible. Usually I have enough trouble trying to sort through and cram in all my own ideas, let alone anyone else’s!
2. Why does a young musician decide to invest so much time and expense in a musical genre as boutique as progressive rock?
Poor planning and poor market research!
No, I didn’t set out consciously to make Great & Terrible Potions a prog rock album. The songs just took their course and the arrangements came about naturally. Great & Terrible Potions is an honest snapshot of where I’m at musically when I just let things happen. “Progressive rock” is a term that other people have used to describe my music, after the fact. But I’m incredibly grateful for that because up to that point I had no idea how to describe it to anyone. Prog rock is the genre that chose me and I’m only too happy to embrace it.
3. I can hear flavours of many great prog-rock artists in your music. Who have been the most inspiring influences?
Pink Floyd and Yes are pretty major influences. Beyond the awesomeness of their actual music, there are all sorts of lessons they’ve taught me. For example, the struggle for dominance between lyrics and instrumentation, the power of a name, and the fact that you can’t please everybody all of the time! Mike Oldfield is also a huge inspiration, especially his orchestral approach to making music and his skill as a multi-instrumentalist. Of course everybody does it now, but when he played all the parts on his albums himself it was something to behold.
On the other side of the coin, the great film soundtrack composers like John Williams, John Barry and Bernard Herrmann are incredibly influential. Their ability to take the classical form and popularise it as an instantly memorable theme is something I’m in awe of. I’ve been trying on the soundtrack hat a little bit lately, especially on songs like ‘No Specific Harm’ and the album’s title track.
One big surprise for me is the list of prog rock artists that reviewers have been citing as obvious influences on this album. A few names keep popping up, and I don’t want to mention who they are because I’d be embarrassed to admit I haven’t heard them yet. But I’m scared to start listening to them now, just in case I start second-guessing my own writing.
4. The track ‘The Conjurer’ is dedicated to Pink Floyd keysman Richard Wright who passed away in 2008. Has he been a particular influence on you?
Rick Wright is extraordinary because he managed to shine in a band which featured, arguably, not only the greatest guitar player in the world, but also the greatest lyricist and conceptualist in the world. Yet Rick somehow worked unconsciously, and almost made his absence known more clearly than his presence. If he wasn’t there, something was missing. He didn’t need to be flashy but he had the knack of choosing just the right notes at the right time.
When I was writing ‘The Conjurer’, I was vaguely aware of the significance of the gently plodding piano part and the dreamy slide guitar. It took me a long time to find the courage to leave it as an instrumental piece. I think I managed to come up with a title that described both the music, and one of its biggest influences.
5. Your album artwork and title lettering was created by Roger Dean, perhaps the most famous graphic artist of the progressive golden age of the 70s. How did his involvement come about?
As the album got close to completion, I started letting a few people listen to it. A particular friend of mine loved it, recognised it for the prog rock album that it was, and suggested that a Roger Dean cover would be a perfect combination for the music. Naturally I agreed with him, but knew it would be impossible. Unbeknownst to me, he was actually friends with Roger! So we contacted him, sent him a demo, one thing led to another, and now I find myself in this completely surreal situation of having Roger Dean artwork associated with my album.
I’ve had a few people not-so-subtly demanding a vinyl version of Great & Terrible Potions. Luckily it just so happens that Roger also designed a gatefold vinyl sleeve, and I’m expecting a shipment of LPs turning up at my door any day now.
6. What are your thoughts on the state of music in 2012 and how do you feel progressive rock fits into it all?
The music industry in 2012 is a massively complicated beast and you’d be a fool to be involved in it for any reason other than blind passion.
The most frustrating thing for me is that I know there’s great music still being made out there, but its increasingly difficult to find. Some of my greatest discoveries have been by chance. The major record companies still own commercial radio, and purport to represent the mainstream. Yet music genres and audiences are fragmenting, and it’s arguable whether there really is a mainstream anymore. Boutique genres – like prog – are suddenly becoming viable.
Prog might not have a huge audience in Australia at this time, but Potions has been received incredibly warmly in areas like Europe where the audience is big enough to dedicate entire magazines only to prog. It’s not a dirty word anymore. But I’m sure it will never again reach the dizzying heights of popularity it enjoyed in the 1970s, which is probably just as well. Once something becomes that popular, there’s only one direction it can go.
Published March 2012 on theorangepress.net