“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” – Plato
We will all have our own musical life stories, how we came to listen to the music we do now and our often meandering journies through the world of music (some good, some bad) that will have touched on many different styles, eras and genres. This is mine and, I hope you enjoy this little look back in history and what influenced my musical taste. Let us hark back to the 70’s and a little boy sat on the carpet in the lounge looking through his Mum and Dad’s selection of 45’s. Some powerhouses of music are there, The Beatles, The Stones, Genesis and 60’s legends like Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and Diana Ross and The Supremes. Throw in some 10 cc, Lou Reed and a liberal dose of Thin Lizzy, Rainbow and Deep Purple and you can see where my musical education was heading. A big dose of honesty now, my first vinyl purchase was The Smurfs album (no laughing at the back) but I was heavily influenced by children’s TV at this young age, once I’d got that out of my system it was watching Top of the Pops (The UK’s most popular and influential TV music show for many a year until it’s recent demise) and waiting to hear E.L.O’s Mr Blue Sky (which, typically, didn’t appear until the final credits). Fast forward a few years to the 80’s and you become influenced by your friends and the current popular music of the age, for me this was the synth-pop of Simple Minds, Ultravox and The Human League along with the harder edge of Sting and The Police, all listened to on my brilliant Hitachi mono cassette tape player in my bedroom as I went through the changes that all adolescent boys do.
The end of my educational years and the beginning of my working life coincided with a veritable sea change in my musical taste and in how recorded music would be played back and listened to. As old friends were replaced by new and vinyl was replaced, in the main, by compact discs, I started to listen to more and more heavy rock. Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Van Halen, Dave Lee Roth and the like became the new soundtrack of my life as I grew my hair long, wore tighter jeans and ripped t-shirts and went to my first ever rock concert, Def Leppard at Wembley Arena. More big changes in my personal life, as I headed into the 90’s, saw my musical outlook challenged once more and, from this, came a liking for the mellow and laid back feel of progressive rock and the technical brilliance of progressive metal. In the early 90’s I was hugely influenced by Yes (in all its iterations) and prog-metal titans, Dream Theater. At the turn of the millennium, cd’s became less popular and are now gradually being replaced by mp3’s. Music streaming websites have become much more commonplace, the advent of music streaming sites has meant that we can now try before we buy and we have the possibility to listen to new music without having to take the risk of spending our hard earned cash on something we may not like. I won’t get into the pros and cons of streaming sites here but, suffice to say, I would not have discovered a lot of the great bands I listen to now without them. For some of the independent and smaller bands, without the influential backing of major labels, this is an essential way of getting their music out to the masses.
One such band that I found through such a streaming site, and, who have become one of my current favourites, is the Norwegian neo-prog band Airbag. I can still remember hearing the first few dulcet notes of All Rights Removed in 2011 and being transfixed by the brilliance on show. I had no hesitation in buying their debut album, Identity, which offered more of the stunning and beautiful soundscapes that Airbag can weave, seemingly without effort.
Airbag was formed in 2004 by 5 class mates from Oslo, Bjorn Riis (lead guitar), Asle Tostrup (lead vocals & rhythm guitar), Jorgen Gruner-Hagen (keyboards), Anders Hovdan (bass) and Henrik Fossum (drums). The band released 3 EPs over the next 4 years before 2009 saw the release of the aforementioned Identity, the album consisting, mainly, of tracks released on 2 of the EPs. Following the release of the band’s first two long players they have garnered a string of awards and a reputation as a solid live act. November 2013 will see the release of their third full length album, The Greatest Show on Earth, the lyrics dealing with the individual and its growing feeling of alienation and distrust in society and the established authorities. At the same time, we are manipulated and kept in a comfortable state of mind, believing we’re in control of our self-centered lives.
The album starts with the brief instrumental Surveillance (part1), a single, repeated piano note makes way for a powerful, sonic wall of guitar sound that builds in intensity, backed by the solid drumming, a great sign of things to come. Redemption has a really low key introduction, the drums and guitar very muted before a soulful vocal is brought in. The tempo rises with crashing guitars and pounding drums and then, all is soft and mellow again. This trade-off between the two styles is central to the track, Tostrup’s voice rising in intensity in the harder edged sections. A great guitar break in the middle precedes another low key part of the track, atmospheric guitar making way for a heavier, bombastic feel that builds up in intensity before an epic solo breaks free, painting a massive canvas of music in your mind leaving you feeling emotionally drained. A softly strumming guitar and atmospheric keyboards lead us gently into Silence Grows, a delightfully silky vocal blending perfectly with the lilting musical notes. A strident chord and the guitar takes a harder edge and a dynamic solo takes centre stage, the song taking on a massive, room filling sound. Once again that gentle but urgent guitar holds the listener then we are treated to more of that massive wall of sound that takes away your soul, heartfelt, epic and compelling.
Call Me Back begins with more of that atmospheric feeling, subdued, muted guitar and a mournful vocal. The guitar shines with a great echoing feel to it. You feel your musical soul is lifted and carried along on a gently undulating wave of soulful and heartfelt music, another enduring vocal performance key to the beauty of the song. A break in the song leaves you waiting in anticipation for what will come next, some low key, bluesy guitar holding your attention, atmospheric keyboards and a haunting vocal accompaniment adding to the dream like vibe of this part of the song. Just as you feel lulled into a trance like state the epic guitar breaks out into another fantastic solo, this one slower in tempo and lower in tone before it lifts us up and takes off, taking on a higher intensity and heart wrenching feel. This is music you have to stop and listen to, an antidote to the fast paced lives we lead, kick your shoes off, sit down with a drink, put your headphones on and tune out the world, the song meanders gently to a halt and you are left feeling musically fulfilled. Title track, The Greatest Show on Earth, begins with a harder riff and we continue this journey through atmospheric soundscapes with another massive wall of sound, it isn’t long before a soft, acoustic guitar takes over the rhythm and more of that velvety vocal, full of meaning, takes up the story. That strident guitar takes over, once again, as we are led into an energetic chorus, the contrast between the softer verse and strong chorus works perfectly as the listener is drawn into the story. A really cool, laid back solo with a seriously bluesy edge lifts you up and takes you on a sonic journey, ebbing and flowing with the rest of the track, becoming more vibrant and powerful before the vocal slides back in and, along with the epically brilliant guitar, closes out the track. This brilliant journey through a fantastical musical soundscape is brought to a close with Surveillance (part 2-3). A gentle, mournful piano note leads in the final track, drawing you in with more of Tostrup’s heartfelt and mournful vocals, an atmospheric guitar note and gentle drums completing the perfect picture. The gentle pace of the track works perfectly as the keyboards add to the pared back, low key feel and haunting melody of the song. Another superbly constructed guitar solo strikes right at your heart and soul and you can feel it soaring high into the musical stratosphere. There is a laid back, ambient break in the middle of the song as the transition from part 2 to part 3 appears to take place, a hard guitar note and staccato riff then take centre stage and the whole track makes a u-turn with a seriously hard and forceful vibe and powerful drumming. Another break in the song complete with more of the previous ambient feel and a post rock edge racks up the anticipation and the band fire off another seriously epic guitar solo that reaches to the heavens, so much feel in the playing that it literally blows you away. Everything then comes to a gentle conclusion after which I just sat there still taking it all in, moved by the absolute brilliance of the music and the way it almost had a life of its own and had taken over mine for the last 50 minutes.
Superlatives are, often, freely given in today’s society whether deserved or not. My life’s journey through the world of music has often been enjoyable and I have ploughed many depths and crested many rises over the years whilst searching for the music I love. I can honestly say that it is not often where I am moved to call a piece of music near perfection or feel that it has had an actual impact on my life but, in Airbag’s The Greatest Show on Earth, both those statements ring very true. Not only one of the finest albums I have heard this year but, one of the finest albums I have ever heard, period!