VARIOUS ARTISTS – A Prog Rock Christmas

Billy Sherwood is no stranger to an all star compilation. Over the years, he’s helped mastermind tributes to all manner of artists, often with mixed results. His 2019 project ‘A Prog Rock Christmas’ can seem as scattershot as many of those previous all star affairs, but by bringing together various prog legends to put their own stamp on a few familiar yuletide ditties, there are a several things to enjoy along the way, ranging from the traditional to the bespoke.

Reason enough to check out this disc, Yes man Jon Davison tackles the Chris Squire/Alan White 1981 single ‘Run With The Fox’…and it’s absolutely brilliant. While no real attempt has been made to update or change the arrangement, Davison’s vocal performance is fantastic, with his high tenor breathing life into a melody familiar to many Yes fans. Sherwood’s accompanying bassline dances throughout, weaving between stabbed keys and bell sounds. Once his backing vocal rises briefly to more of a lead role, the track is elevated further. Although this Davison/Sherwood recording markedly different from the original, it does feel a touch more festive somehow, though this is perhaps due to its inclusion on a truly Christmassy package. Equally enjoyable is a re-working of Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmastime’. Macca’s original is a truly uplifting pop ditty, but it’s basic arrangement too often sounds like something the ex-Beatle tossed off in ten minutes. Sherwood, with assistance from Patrick Moraz, takes the same melody and fleshes it out with choirs of voices, some understated jazzy keys and drums that lend more of a pop-rock punch. With everything linked by Billy’s bendy bass strings, something once of a pure pop persuasion is now tailor made for lovers of various prog tinged sounds and is destined to become a favourite.

In keeping with a Beatles theme, the sadly missed John Wetton adds a version of John Lennon’s (fairly terrible) ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’. Played fairly straight, Wetton’s voice is better than Lennon’s at every turn and the bass playing is great throughout, but the song is still terrible. Replacing the childrens’ choir with more adult voices is a step in the right direction (obviously), but there’s no escaping the fact that almost all of Lennon’s solo material was a lumpen 4/4 dirge and even with better musicians in tow, this still feels like a plod that’s just full of empty platitudes. Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse shows his more playful side on another highlight as he turns ‘Carol of The Bells’ into a slow and trippy guitarfest, full of vibrato fuelled notes and back-masked trickery. Always a fine guitarist, this prog-centric reading is vastly different to his earlier version from the 2006 Windham Hill release ‘The Carols of Christmas’. In fact, by the track’s second half, where Morse’s guitar harmonics sit atop a mechanical rhythm and punchy bass notes, there are times where things seem perhaps more inspired by ‘Carol’ than presenting a straight reading. It’s definitely another highlight.

Greg Lake’s ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’ is an all time classic. Unfortunately, Martin Turner’s slightly lumpen treatment of the song brings nothing new to the table. In fact, it removes so much of the original recording’s goodness. There’s nothing wrong with Turner’s voice, but musically it’s so uninspired – a mere run through of the tune’s basics in a “will that do” fashion. To make matters worse, someone decided the song would be served better by removing the Prokofiev elements and making the verse the featured part. Without the classical interludes, something that was once a classic becomes just a bit dull. Annie Haslam’s rendition of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ offers something far more traditional. Her voice is still great; she hits high notes with ease throughout, with an occasional trill that’s reminiscent of her more famous Renaissance works. Musically, it’s fabulous, with a fairly minimalist set up that helps to make Haslam’s voice the main feature. Sherwood appears to be channelling the ghost of Chris Squire throughout with various flexible bass runs that sound as if they’ve been sampled from Yes…more specifically, bits of the ‘Tormato’ album. It’s obviously geared more towards listeners who like a traditional carol, but it for the rest of us, maybe just four or five days of Christmas would have been enough to get the point across…

The “bravery award” goes to MSG’s Robin McAuley and District 97’s Leslie Hunt, who’ve teamed up for the perennial ‘Fairytale of New York’. Lovers of the Pogues/Kirsty original will insist that it can’t be covered effectively and in many ways, they’re right. On the basis of this, they’re definitely right. The music rarely rises beyond a drum machine and blanket sythesiser combo – everything sounds like a demo, or royalty free music for supermarkets; worse still, McAuley insists on singing half of his role in a poor approximation of Shane MacGowan’s distinctive drawl. It’s pretty nasty. The only bright spot comes from Hunt’s reasonably good voice, but that isn’t enough to make this worth hearing more than once. There are times when artists are on a hiding to nothing and you wonder why they’d even try to cover something. This is the poster child for such a theory.

Luckily, Geoff Downes is on hand with an instant mood lifter when he presents a straight cover of The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s ‘Linus & Lucy’. A lovely piano piece, it’ll be familiar to almost everyone and Downes sounds like he’s having fun tackling the bouyant melody with a great contrast between the piece’s almost motoring bottom end and the higher registers of the more familiar counter melody. [Although this is arguably Guaraldi’s most celebrated composition, his back catalogue is full of other great stuff. If you’re a prog fan who is perhaps thinking of being a jazz dabbler, check out his ‘Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus’ album from 1962.] Focus man Thijs van Leer steps in for some gentle flute sounds on his recording of Jethro Tull‘s ‘A Christmas Song’. His playing is just lovely and very understated as it joins another brilliant Sherwood bassline. With such beautiful music, it’s a travesty that it wasn’t an instrumental interlude, since the vocal is horrible. Ian Anderson’s once cheeky, folky melody is absent (as is the original tune) and instead, the lyrics are read out in a slow and dour fashion, almost as if someone has decided that William Shatner might just be on to something. It doesn’t work and ends up being a case of a lovely instrumental ruined. More obviously inspired by The Shat, actor Malcolm McDowell appears as a cuckoo in this nest, as he growls through ‘You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch’, like a man channelling Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie. It seems odd to include this among the more obvious prog-oriented stuff, but it’s…fun, if you’re happy to take things a little less seriously.
Maybe… Actually, no…it’s a bit threatening.

Elsewhere, should you wish to hear such a thing, ex-Hawkwind men Simon House & Nik Turner twist ‘Silent Night’ into a weird and almost Celtic piece full of wheezing sax noises that, at times, sounds more like a library music piece than a traditional carol; Curved Air’s Sonja Kristine (another veteran of these prog comps, it seems) turns in a very synthetic and 80s sounding ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ (it’s okay for what it is, but she’s no match for Haslam) and Utopia’s Kasim Sulton adds something of a more AOR/adult pop persuasion on the downbeat ‘Christmas Lights’ – a song that looks into the loneliness that can set in during the season. With some nice harmonies and a very layered feel, it’s a fine addition to this mixed bag of a collection.

Most people have their favourite festive ditties. Even most prog rock fans love a yuletide tune at the appropriate time of the year and with 2019’s ‘A Prog Rock Christmas’, those fans now have a few more tunes to enjoy. It’s far from a perfect festive tribute though: at its best, there’s a playful spirit – the Jon Davison, Billy Sherwood and Steve Morse tracks are superb; at worst (hey, Thijs, we’re pointing at you rather sternly), it can seem about as celebratory as sitting down for your xmas dinner and realising that someone forgot to turn on the oven. However, even with its hit and miss nature and a patchwork feel (the John Wetton and Geoff Downes tracks are previously available elsewhere), a handful of excellent recordings makes this a reasonable collection filler for the keen and festively inclined proghead.

Further reading:  Billy Sherwood – Citizen: In The Next Life

November 2019