To Creationists, evolutionary theory can be a thorny subject but, there can be no doubt that the human race has evolved over thousands of years to survive and survival of the fittest is one of the cores of Darwinism. Species that have failed to evolve have become extinct yet we stand at the top of the hierarchy of living organisms on Planet Earth.
If there had been no extinction event, would dinosaurs still hold sway over the planet? Unlikely but there are certain parallels in the musical world. Recent discussions about the merits of traditional progressive artists like Genesis and Yes have shown that some people are still living in the past, unable to adapt and evolve and, if progressive music does not move on and innovate, perhaps it will, too, become a spent force on the brink of extinction. By the way, I’m not calling Genesis or Yes dinosaurs before the tub thumpers get on the bandwagon!
Peter F. Drucker once said,
“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”
And that quote rings true today, we must move forward and innovate or the whole genre will stagnate, wither and die. Yes, it is okay to look to the past for some inspiration and to acknowledge our forebears but, as Bryan McGill says,
“If you look at today through the eyes of the past, you can never see what the present moment has to offer.”
We need more artists like The Gift, Heliopolis, Abel Ganz and Big Big Train who take the more traditional elements of progressive music and mould them into something new, their own take on the classic formula and then we need ones like Trojan Horse, Emmett Elvin, Shineback, The Fierce and the Dead and Fractal Mirror who can give the genre much needed new energy and a fresh outlook that will appeal to a younger audience.
One musician who could never be accused of resting on his laurels or turning out the same old tripe day in day out is the mercurial John Bassett. English multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and producer John hails from Hastings in Sussex. He first came to my notice as the driving force behind the Progressive Rock band Kingbathmat who are well known for their style of prog that combines cutting vocal melodies with sledgehammer riffs and psychedelia.
John has so far released eight albums with the band including the last, well received, release ‘Overcoming the Monster’ which really connected with me. This year also saw him release his first solo album, the excellent ‘Unearth’ which dazzled with its acoustic delights.
The ever-evolving Mr Bassett, as already mentioned, is never one to sit still and is always re-inventing himself and his music. Any new release from this accomplished musician will always interest me immensely and, when I heard he was working on a new project, I went into music journalist overload mode!
John’s new project is a new instrumental metal album that he has released under the moniker of Arcade Messiah and combines elements of stoner rock, metal, prog, math metal, doom and more.
John told me it was a lot of fun recording this album and goes on to say, in the press release, that,
“After writing and producing numerous Kingbathmat albums and more recently the solo album ‘Unearth’, I decided I wanted to create my first instrumental album. I wanted it to be set, audibly and visually, in dark, bleak apocalyptic aura of despair and anger.
I wanted to focus on enormous and sorrowful, yet powerful, musical refrains and place them within a terrain of unusual time signatures, interspersed by moments of psychedelic calm.”
So, let’s see if John Bassett really is the Arcade ‘Messiah’ or just a ‘very naughty boy.’
On Sun Exile the album opens with a fast paced riff that has hints of stoner and grunge rock, it sweeps you off your feet and catapults you on a mad helter-skelter ride whilst your brain tries to catch up. Hard and heavy, industrial even, there is little sign of the bleakness promised as yet. It is a chaotic monster jam of powerful riffage and huge drumbeats and you are unable to catch your breath until there is an interlude that slows things down a touch. Is this the maelstrom that created the apocalyptical world spoken off? That urgent and insistent riff spikes into your conscience holding you transfixed as this energetic song comes to a close leaving you momentarily stunned. Your Best Line of Defence is Obscurity begins altogether more leisurely with a calm and almost surreal feel. A jangling, patient guitar note is accompanied by a laid back rhythm from the drums and then a deeper riff kicks in, still measured and deliberate but with a dense foreboding of things to come, the darkness after the maelstrom perhaps? A huge soundscape that speaks of blasted lands and of things laid waste, hopeless and forlorn, hammering its message at your cerebral cortex, leaving an indelible print on your brain. Bleak and industrial at its core, it leaves you on a precipice of foreboding and despair. With a title like Traumascope you know not to expect sweetness and light, the journey into the nebulous, sinister depths continues. An incessantly sombre note leads the track before a seriously heavy riff and doom laden guitar note take up the tale, the excellence of the musicianship holding sway and shining through on this fateful journey. Ominous and portentous yet possessed of a powerful aura, there is an honesty and depth to the music that is delivered, not just music, perchance, but art.
Like a shining beacon of light in a world of dark despair Aftermath has a bitter sweet feel to it. Perhaps giving hope where there really is none, it is delicate and subtle, a feather compared to the lump hammer metal that preceded it. It lifts the spirit with its graceful guitar note but, like a dwindling island of belief and optimism, can it hold sway against the bleak, baleful world that surrounds it? Everybody Eating Everybody Else, a title that doesn’t leave much to the imagination really. Sparse and austere to begin with before a frenetic riff imbued with hunger and desire breaks free. This song has a real heavy stoner rock edge with the dense guitar note allied with the urgent tempo. You are left with a deep feeling of apprehension, a premonition that all is not well, your heart in your throat as you await your fate. A distorted guitar squirrels away from your mental grasp as the sense of expectancy is ramped up to intolerable levels. John Bassett is in true story teller mode here, your mind can unravel the narrative that the music delivers thanks to the brilliance of the songwriting and the song leaves you with a cliff-hanger of an ending.
The Most Popular Form of Escape is another doom heavy track with monstrous riffs and a sound that feels bigger than your mind can take in. It is a beautifully brutal sound in places that bludgeons your senses into acceptance. It is frenzied and obsessive with notes so forceful and potent that they almost have substance to them. The playing is so intense you feel that John’s fingers must be left in tatters after some of the more severe parts. It really does knock you back and leave you immobile, like a great wall of sound buffeting and bludgeoning you, yet there is a ruthless beauty to everything, dark despair can be attractive as well. It is a measure of the music’s ability to hold your attention and pull you in that you are surprised when the first notes of the final song Roman Resolution ring out. The initial guitar notes that ring out, gently strummed, engender hope and expectation, light and sugar coated, as they dance across your aural receptors. You find yourself in a state of contemplation, perhaps doubting the voracity of what has preceded this moment of calm reflection. As the track continues you hear touches of discordant notes taking refuge, just out of reach. Then the power is ramped up and those few moments of tranquillity begin to leech away, that familiar feeling of foreboding gently lapping up against your consciousness. The guitar takes on a fiercer note and it is not long before you doubt whether there was ever anything else but a world of half light and dread. A coruscating, capricious guitar now takes centre stage, increasing the tension, any hopefulness has been well and truly dashed and this story has no happy ending.
Arcade Messiah is endlessly inventive, a totally immersive musical experience that allows you to make your own interpretation of the story unfolding. It is almost unfeasible that this was conceived and performed by one man but, it is a testament to the undoubted skill and ability of John Bassett that it is a seamless, epic story. Dark, bleak and full of despair it may be but, when it is this good, that pales into insignificance as one of the UK’s premier progressive musicians re-invents himself with assured aplomb once again.