Posts Tagged ‘Ben Craven’

Queensland musician Ben Craven describes himself as a cinematic progressive-rock singer-songwriter-performer-producer. But internationally he is regarded as a true Prog Lord.

His last album – Great and Terrible Potions – was entirely created, performed and recorded by Craven. Great and Terrible Potions gained kudos from the international progressive rock community, including Beach Boys’ collaborator Van Dyke Parks. Cover art was designed by YES album-art wizard, Roger Dean and Craven’s album track ‘No Specific Harm’ was included on a UK PROG magazine cover-mount CD.

tuneleak1‘No Specific Harm’ sounded powerful and lush on its own, but set amongst the beautifully sequenced suite that is Great and Terrible Potions – complete with overture and coda-outdo – it is something else again: part of an experience as rich and dramatic as a film or novel. It is meant to be heard as part of the larger work – but in today’s world of fragmented, half-digested, fast-forward pop culture stream that experience seems almost lost.

Ben Craven has gone beyond just creating astounding, world-class music. He has applied some truly progressive thinking and some impressive web skills to creating his own digital music platform, TuneLeak – a unique hybrid of individual tracks and album-consciousness that allows listeners to absorb the album as it is being built, ever mindful of the symphonic architecture of the thing.

I asked Ben a half-dozen questions on this idea (and others). He was generous with his responses.

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1. What is TuneLeak?

TuneLeak is a release and funding platform for albums. It features albums as they’re being recorded. It allows artists to “leak” early versions of tracks, and fans to download and purchase them. When the album comes out, fans get a discount equal to the total amount they spent purchasing the leaked tracks.

2. What is the idea behind it?

I’ve been watching fan-funding models with interest for a long time. The ones I’ve supported in the past generally involve the artist asking for funds up-front, then they disappear for a while and eventually deliver an album, or a book, or whatever it might be.

I’m not all that comfortable asking people for money up-front. And I think the radio silence that can happen between funding and delivery is a wasted opportunity. I’d much rather see people get something for their money immediately, and often.

This idea fits in perfectly with the way I record albums. That is, I tend to take my time. The downside is for most of that time I’m sitting on music that I’m pretty excited about but have to keep to myself. TuneLeak is the excuse I need to release songs as I record them, safe in the knowledge that they don’t have to be completely finished yet. Plus I get to engage with people during the whole recording process, so it becomes an event rather than a secretive activity.

3. Why is the idea of the ‘album’ so important to you?

I spent an unreasonable amount of my childhood and teenage years listening to music, both in the foreground and the background. I took many long journeys, figuratively speaking, absorbing albums from start to finish and embedding them in my consciousness. Most major events in my life I can remember by which album I was listening to at the time.tuneleak2

And that was before I started recording music myself. Now I see the album as a snapshot in time of a musician’s journey through life, and hopefully an important cohesive artistic statement.

Not everyone sees it that way of course, and it was much easier when I was younger and had a much smaller music collection to invest the time to appreciate it. One thing I’m trying to do with TuneLeak is to recreate some of those circumstances where someone can get to know an album gradually over a meaningful period of time.

4. Do you think platforms such as iTunes and Spotify are hurting music – or can all platforms, yours included, co-exist in a valid way?

Unfortunately for musicians, a new generation of listeners has grown up not paying for music. The horse has already bolted. Music now has no value. Spotify reinforces this notion by tapping into what’s left of the market and making it uneconomical for people to even bother pirating music. It’s terrific for consumers and might be a useful tool for discovery. But I don’t think any artist can reasonably expect to make any significant income from Spotify unless it’s part of a greater business model that includes touring, being a judge on television shows and endorsing fast food.

Another one of the aims of TuneLeak is to get listeners involved early-on during the recording process, so they can appreciate and feel invested in the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Maybe that way we can help promote the idea that music still has value.

5. Your chosen genre of Progressive Rock has seen many changes since its inception in the 1970s. What are your thoughts on the current state of the genre form?

I don’t know what the current state of the genre really is. On the one hand we have “progressive rock” which refers to an ambitious but static style of music that peaked in the early-to-mid seventies and featured fantasy-landscape artwork. And then we have “progressive rock” which is now applied to anything from metal to post-rock, whatever that is!

Today though I suppose “progressive rock” is a rallying cry to a specific audience which enjoyed the 70’s prog bands and finds little pleasure in any music in the charts today. That audience can be incredibly loyal and incredibly demanding, not least because most of them are probably musicians themselves. It’s not hard to imagine some of the classic prog bands feeling trapped within the genre, yet they’re incredibly lucky to have such devoted fans.

But ask anyone outside of that fanbase what “progressive rock” is and they’ll probably stare blankly at you.

6. And finally, what are you thoughts on music today in general?

There is still great new music being produced. It’s just harder than ever to find it amongst all the background noise. The old adage they tell you, that in the end it all comes down to the song, is wrong. It doesn’t matter one bit if you don’t have anyone’s attention.

 

Ben Craven’s site is www.bencraven.com

TuneLeak can be found at www.tuneleak.com

 

 

Sebastian Hardie were arguably Australia’s only truly progressive-rock band of the early 1970s. Sure, there are many bands that could take your mind way, way out to the outer reaches, and more Western Suburbs Pink Floyds that you could count. But, being wild colonial Australia, all of these bands had an undertow of hard blues that dragged the music band to Earth when it threatened to touch the firmament.

Sebastian Hardie were different – the passion and power were certainly there, but the flavour was more European, with less of that Celtic/Delta skin and bones to it. Their sound seemed to mirror the hugely popular UK and Dutch rock bands such as Holland’s Focus and the UK’s Barclay James Harvest.

By the time they finalised their ‘classic’ lineup they had been joined by guitarist and musical polymath Mario Millo, whose compositions pushed the band to a more symphonic sound and huge popularity. It also helped that he was a wicked guitar player, playing a lush, romantic style that fitted beautifully with the band’s musical soundworld.

After releasing two landmark albums (the Jon English-produced Four Moments and the second, 1976’s Windchase) the band split – Millo moving onto great success with soundtrack and production work.

The world turned. And turned. Thirty-six years passed. I heard that there was a new album. An album made by the Four Moments lineup of Millo, keyboardist Toivo Pilt and brothers Alex Plavsic (drums) and Peter Plavsic (bass). I had the usual mixed feelings that one does when any artist tries to add to their perfectly-made oeuvre – an oeuvre which was made at a time when they were young, brave and hitting their straps. I was happy they were back, but I didn’t want the new one to be a disappointment.

It isn’t. In fact the new album, Blueprint, is one of the best things I have heard this year. As when Steely Dan came back after 20 years between albums, Blueprint sounds as if Sebastian Hardie never took a breath in those 36 years. From the sea-wash Hammond organ and cello-like guitar of 6/8 opener ‘I Wish’ through thrill-ride ‘Vuja De’, down to orchestral closer ‘Shame’, the entire album is a delight. Majestic, spacey, classically beautiful by turns, it is everything I expected.

Album track ‘The Art of Life’ seems to be speaking about the band and its fans and the 30-plus hiatus between albums, quoting Oscar Wilde“Life’s too important to be taken seriously”. And Blueprint, like many ‘comeback’ albums by classic bands has that ‘serious fun’ vibe about it, with all youthful ego trips banished with childhood’s toys.

It is interesting to compare this superb offering by the veteran sound-warriors of Sebastian Hardie with another excellent Australian progressive release of this year, the young Brisbane prog artist Ben Craven’s Great & Terrible Potions (https://wordsaboutmusic.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/album-review-ben-cravengreat-and-terrible-potions/). Blueprint is very cleanly produced throughout and sounds deceptively unadorned (even though there is much going on) whereas Ben Craven’s Potions sounds more ornate and has the giddying dynamics of modern film soundtracks.

Neither work sounds ‘better’ for these qualities – it is just interesting to hear the markedly different timbres of two styles in the same genre, one mapped out prior to the prog-metal revolution of the 90s and one after. This to me is a sort of proof that progressive rock is alive and well and moving into the future that it, like science-fiction literature, has imagined and soundtracked ahead for years.

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On behalf of The Orangepress I put a handful of questions to Sebastian Hardie’s Mario Millo prior to posting this review. Here are his responses:

1. Your new album ‘Blueprint’ is the first Sebastian Hardie album since 1976’s ‘Windchase’. What was the impetus for the reformation and recording?

Since the band reformed in 1994 specifically to perform as headline act at Progfest ’94 in LA, the band had often discussed the idea of doing more concerts, a new recording etc, however, we found it was much easier said than done.  As we have been pursuing our separate careers none of us had time to focus on the band, so nothing much happened until 2002 when I produced my second solo album “Oceans Of The Mind”.  This gave me the push to contact Japanese promoters to set up a tour with the intention to promote Oceans.  One thing lead to another and a complete show featuring Mario Millo Band and Sebastian Hardie was put in place.  Prior to the concert tour of Japan, I organised a one off concert for both bands at The Metro Theatre in Sydney where the debut performance of Oceans Of The Mind was filmed (DVD due for release soon).  It was also the first home concert performance by SH since we split in 1976.

Also, in the late 90s, our albums, including my solo album Epic III and Symphinity by Windchase, were re-issued in Japan through an independent label which thankfully has kept the flame burning.

After returning from the concert tour of Japan in 2003 and later that year performing as special guests on The Yes 35th Australian Anniversary Tour, we – Seb Hardie – were buzzing and felt inspired enough to embark on our third studio album.  We figured that if we wanted to continue touring, a new album would be essential. However, due to all of our separate commitments, production on the project stopped and started a number of times.   In the end, even though it did take years, we finally completed the recordings and Blueprint was finally released.

2. ‘Blueprint’ seems to take up musically exactly where ‘Windchase’ left off. Was it a conscious decision to eschew more current prog-metal flavours and adhere to the classic Sebastian Hardie sound?

As best as I remember, we were clear re the direction the music should take. We felt it was important to produce an album that reflected the definitive sound of the band and one that would hopefully stand up along side Four Moments and Windchase. Keeping in mind, when the band was a happening force in the mid 70s, we were young, passionate and determined to make our mark.

After this “lifetime between albums”, I guess we just wanted to hear that familiar sound again, this time without the need to make a mark, but we did want it to be good and the best that we could deliver.

3. What are your feelings regarding the mixture of heavy metal and progressive rock that revitalised the genre in the 80s and early 90s?

I need to digress a little –

In the early 80s my career took a significant change of direction. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I became totally focused in composing and producing music for film. I was enthusiastic and passionate writing orchestral music, totally engrossed. It was also a great feeling being welcomed and acknowledged by the industry and to be awarded many times for my work throughout the years.

So throughout those years, I sort of lost touch with what was happening in the prog rock scene. The mix of heavy metal and prog is evident to me these days, though as I’m not much of a heavy metal fan, I don’t really follow the scene. I’ve enjoyed watching the odd Dream Theatre DVD and find them fascinating, however, not what I would choose to listen to these days.

In recent years I’ve been involved in producing my daughter Jess’s band “The Vandabelles” debut album, “Outside Looking In”.  As well, producing and performing on singer/songwriter Nick Latta’s debut album, “Filling The Void”. Neither of these artists would be labeled “progressive” but their music in my opinion will stand the test of time. Both these albums are soulful and heartfelt and the sort of music that I prefer these days, listening to or producing. Both albums are soon to be released.

4. As with much progressive rock, Sebastian Hardie’s music takes as much from orchestral music as it does from rock and roll. Which classical composers are on your iPod?

Believe it or not but I don’t have any orchestral Mp3 music in my iPhone yet!  However, my favourite composer is Gustav Mahler. There are many specific compositions by various composers that I love, but in general the music of Mahler does it for me.

Looking back, SH was a great vehicle for my writing. The band was always happy to accept and follow my musical direction, performing the specific parts the music required. This, I feel, was the strength of the sound of SH.

5. Will the Sebastian Hardie reformation and recording of ‘Blueprint’ lead to further recordings and a full tour (or will we fans have to wait another 36 years?

Hate to say it, but I very much doubt there will be another album or any more performances by the band. I think we’ve all accepted that fact. Speaking purely for myself, SH was a wonderful part of my youth, great camaraderie and a significant part of my music journey/career.

Our intention was to tour and perform Blueprint, however, we’ve now accepted the release of Blueprint as a sort of finale to our journey.

6. Finally, what are your thoughts on the current state of music in general and the place of your own genre within the wider sphere of popular music?

There are so many different labels/genres in rock music these days that I actually don’t know where my music would fit, nor do I stress too much about it.  My taste in music nowadays is so broad that if I produce another solo album it’s likely to cross over into several different styles. Throughout my career, I’ve been inspired and influenced by such a diverse range of artists and composers from Hank Marvin (The Shadows) to John Lennon through to Hendrix, many of the prog rock artists of the seventies, through to Mahler, Stravinsky, Puccini, just to mention a few.

At the moment I’m very interested in songs that my daughter Jess writes and I absolutely love being involved with her projects and seeing her blossom into an amazing songwriter/ artist.

At this time in my life, when it comes to music, I do what I feel and cherish every moment. I also have a wardrobe full of unfinished and new ideas waiting for me to make happen and I’m determined to see them through one by one.

Published March 2012 on theorangepress.net

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.

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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