Thursday, 2 February 2017

...laid aside for you...

The last six months have, I have to say, been some of the strangest in the 30 years I have been serving God and God's church in ministry. They began with a Sabbatical: a three month period free from the normal activities of ministry that the church gives to its ministers every seven years. That I was on sabbatical is not that strange, in that it was the third such break I've undertaken, but for a good part of the time I was away from home, and for five weeks I was in the USA, which gave me a fascinating insight into this diverse, beautiful and at times troubling nation. On the whole it was 3 months well spent, with plenty of time for myself and my particular interests, as well as for family, friends and travel.

On my return to 'normal' ministry there was much to catch up on in the lives of the churches I serve, as both the Circuit (a geographical grouping of 8 churches that I oversee) and the main church that I look after were undergoing strategic reviews, and much work in these areas had been done while I was away. But early on in that time of catching up, in consultation with the Lay leaders in the circuit, it was decided that the gifts and leadership style that I had to offer didn't quite fit with where the circuit were at the present, and that the best thing for both them and me would be to curtail my appointment (I've written more about this here). That then launched me into the church's stationing process, which came up with a new appointment for me from September 2017, based around Castle Donington.

So, December began with plans for the future, both of the churches in Kendal and for my ministry, beginning to take shape. Alongside that were preparations for celebrating what would be my final Christmas in Kendal, and starting to look ahead to the new year and the Methodist practise of renewing ones Covenant with God. At the heart of that service is a prayer, which has in it some of the hardest words we're called upon to pray (I have written a little about it here): "put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all thing, let me have nothing..."

"...laid aside for you..." Those words seemed so much to speak of those past few months. Laid aside from the normal work of ministry to explore other areas; laid aside from the work in a particular place to take up the calling elsewhere. But there was to be more 'laying aside', and I don't think I was quite ready for this.

On Tuesday 6th December I went for my normal early morning walk around Kendal, and at around 07:40 I was about half way round when I was knocked down by a van as I was crossing a zebra crossing. I know this only because people have told me, as I have absolutely no recollection of the event whatsoever - the first thing I remember is waking in Lancaster hospital on the morning of December 7th. I was left with some facial scarring and stitches to the back of my head; damage to the ligaments of my left knee which, 8 weeks on and counting, is still causing considerable pain and inconvenience; and bruising and slight bleeding to the brain, along with concussion. 8 weeks later (as I write) I am still not recovered.

What do I make of all this? As a Christian minister of 25 years experience, where is God in all this and what is God saying to me through this? These are questions that have been perplexing me in the many quiet moments I have spent on my own over the past few weeks. (I'm not after a sympathy vote, by the way, and if I come across  as a whining self-pity merchant, please forgive me - I don't mean to.)

The last 8 weeks have, naturally, been a struggle for me. I am (or have been) quite active for a 55 year-old, walking around 4 miles a day, and now I'm quite pleased when I clock up 1 mile! Consequently my weight is creeping up. As a 'religious professional' there have been a number of issues that have dominated my thoughts and prayers: why did God let this happen, especially just at one of the busiest times of the year? The selfish part of me asks 'why couldn't God stop the van from hitting me?'; the grateful part of me says 'thank God the driver wasn't going any faster!'

Although I have always looked at my role as a presbyter as being a two-fold ting of being and doing - one is ordained to the office (being) and work (doing) of a Presbyter in God's church - much of my value as a minister comes from the work - the 'doing'. Now that, for the moment at least, that 'doing' is either not possible or seriously restricted, what does that do for my self-worth and identity? Part of this 'laying aside' has been about learning to 'be' again - to see my value is in who I am more than in what I do - and not just to learn to 'be' a minister but to learn to 'be' a disciple afresh as well. There are still things that I cannot do, as there are things that I can't do as well as I used to, but I still believe I am valued and loved for who I am by the God who created me, redeemed me, called me and knows me in a way no-one else ever could.

I have had to rely on others, particularly my wife, Jude, for things that I would normally do myself, most notably transport, as I'm not allowed to drive at the moment and can't walk very far. I've had to learn how to receive rather than to give, particularly over Christmas, when for the past 25 years I have been the one giving. I have received much love and understanding from God's people, across the town, across the country and across the world, and by 'God's People' I would include those who don't see themselves in that way as well as those who do: the love and care and counsel of many friends, of all faiths and none, has been a great source of strength and hope to me. If you're reading this, thank you!

Last Sunday I preached for the first time since the accident (as part of a phased return to work which looks like taking place over many weeks), and the text was Paul's words to the Christians in Corinth: "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." That foolishness and weakness, says Paul, is seen in the Cross, and in these days I've been drawn closer to that place, for there my pain, my frustration, my weakness, my looking for answers, take on a whole different context. I appreciate that my 'laying aside' may only be for a season, but it must, for me, be seen alongside that of Christ, in whom is life, healing and hope.

I pray that this will sustain me, though it's still tough, painful and frustrating. And not just for me!

Saturday, 14 January 2017

This week's Playlist - a Bandcamp binge...

I don't have many rules when it comes to music, other than it has to be good! But one thing I tend to do is give preference in listening to material that's new to me, and I try and play everything at least 5 times before moving on (or not!). On the albeit rare occasions that there is no new music in my library, I'm not averse to shuffling the iPod (by album, of course), and seeing what comes up.

After a splurge of new stuff last week, I decided last Sunday to just see what came up for my listening pleasure. The result was interesting. First up was the Eagles' self-titled debut: great songs and musicianship which some may call a little bland, but which I love. Next was an album I'd more or less forgotten about, from 2013, by Swiss band Time Grid - their album 'Life': some quite good prog metal with some depth and melody to it. Then there was one of the better albums of 2016, though perhaps a little neglected: Kristoffer Gildenlöw's 'The Rain', exploring beautifully themes of loss and grief - a hidden gem of an album. Finally came the somewhat bonkers folk-tinged progressive stylings of Norway's Tusmörke and their debut album, 'Underjordisk Tusmorke', with its Tullish overtones.

I'd been suitably impressed, so I took a similar course on Monday. New day, new feel, and we kicked off with the classic 'Birth of the Cool' by Miles Davis: cool jazz, 60 years old this year, at its finest! This was followed by more jazz of a later era, 1972's 'Crossings' by Herbie Hancock which departs more into fusion, but does so with the same clarity and inventiveness that Hancock has always shown. From jazz  we departed into the realms of folk, with Roy Harper's early masterpiece 'Flat Baroque & Berserk' - timeless tunes from the troubled troubadour. Then another change, as we moved to the powerful, atmospheric, instrumental post-rock of Spencer Bassett's Flicker Rate EP. For a lad of 16 this is accomplished work and it really hits the spot! The day was rounded off with the self-titled debut from Canadian proggers Machines Dream, a great collection of intelligent rock music.

After 2 days of delving trough the archives, however, the urge for new music was strong, and I went on a bit of a binge, catching up on stuff I had missed from the latter part of last year on Bandcamp - one of my favourite places to go to find new and exciting music. Most of the music there is available to stream, but I like to have it for myself if I can (it's just the way I am), and although in the past I've got a large amount of music digitally I have a preference these days for physical copies if possible and practicable. As it happens 4 of the 6 albums I bought were only available digitally!

I mentioned Spencer Bassett earlier, a musician from a talented family, as his father, John, has produced some excellent tunes in recent years in his own name, as King Bathmat, and also as Arcade Messiah. In November 2016 John released the third Arcade Messiah offering, a collection of hard-hitting, atmospheric, instrumental guitar-based rock music, easily on a par with his earlier albums, which grows in your appreciation of it with every listen. Then there's a collection of songs old and new (as they gear up to a new album later this year) from the aforementioned 'Machines Dream' - Record, recorded live for a show at the end of November last year. If the band are new to you this may be a great place to start, and it's available for 'name your price'. In a different vein is the more pastoral sound of 'Cirrus Bay', from Buckley, Washington, who seem to release an album every 2 years of evocative, melodic, old-school progressive rock, and 2016 saw the release of album number 3, 'Places Unseen', which pushes all the right buttons for me. From the east coast of the US, Mechanicsburg, PA, come 'Clark's Secret Identity', who I was introduced to (musically) through progrock.com's 'Check It Out' show earlier this year. Their second recording and first album (their first offering was an EP of 4 tracks) came out on 6th December (the day I was knocked down crossing the road), and was interestingly entitled 'The Promise of a Wonderful Future'. This is intelligent both musically and lyrically and has a rawness at times that is refreshing.

My physical purchases were firstly a pre-order of A Formal Horse's 3rd EP, 'Made in Chelsea', which will be released on 31st March but the title track is available now and is a hard-hitting, heavy piece, subtitled 'Apocalypse in 15/8', which offers the third female vocalist in as many EPs, Hayley McDonnell, who seems to have a more operatic feel to her voice than previous incumbents - not as relaxed, certainly. We'll have to wait until March to see how it pans out over the whole EP. Secondly was an album that I'd only just become aware of, chiefly because it recently went straight to Number 1 in the Progressive chart: the new album 'World of Grey' by The Aurora Project. This is an outstanding record, touching on dark themes of dystopia and the death of democracy, but doing so in a style that draws on the best of the neo-prog tradition of the 1980s, producing echoes of Twelfth Night, IQ and others for me. This is one of the stand-out recordings of 2016 that passed me by until the new year. This is the third year in a row that this has happened, with Tiger Moth Tales's 'Cocoon. in 2014 and I Am The Manic Whale's 'Everyting Beautiful In Time' in 2015.

It's been a busy week, but it didn't stop there. Two further albums came to hand this week. First was last year's 'Eros & Thanatos' by Syndone, an Italian symphonic prog band who seem very much in the Italian tradition. Despite language issues, this is an album that is growing with each listen. And finally I received an early copy of Tim Bowness's upcoming release, 'Lost In The Ghost Light'. Bowness's last two albums impressed me a lot, and the new offering continues the fine tradition. This is quiet music of great pedigree, and Bowness's voice, with its moody, breathy, ethereal quality is perhaps stronger here than previously. It strikes me as music that needs to be listened to rather than simply heard, and I think I need to give it some more focused attention in the coming week.

It's been quite a week, but it's been good to share it with this great music!

Saturday, 7 January 2017

This Week's Playlist - a lot of jazz, a bit of Prog

The first week of a new year has seen me at a bit of a loose end. As some of you may be aware early in December I was knocked down crossing the street, and consequently have been somewhat incapacitated. One thing I've managed to do, though, is listen to some music, and I thought I would let you know what I've been listening to (just in case you're interested!)

Much of my listening has been catching up with pre-Christmas purchases, though I did indulge myself a little the other day with some classics from the collection. Quite a bit of my music discovery comes through the medium of Bandcamp, a wonderful way to meet, listen to and even purchase a wide selection of sometimes great music! One band that I came across during last year was the Seattle Jazz combo of the Jason Parker Quartet, initially through a tribute album they released to the work of the late Nick Drake in 2011, which is well worth checking out. More recently I've gone back to their self-titled debut, a wonderful example of the best of modern bebop in the tradition of the classics.

Still in a jazzy vein are first the Oakland, CA trio of The Once and Future Band, who bring a fusion and proggy sound, with echoes for me of Yes and BJH without being derivative. Well worth checking out their Brian EP! Second is the Canterbury-based quintet The Thirteen Club, whose album So Yeah is jazzier and brings a wonderful late-night fusion feel to its lush instrumental melodies. This is good modern jazz rock, which stays with you. Thirdly is an album released towards the end of 2016 on the (for me) increasingly influential Edition Records label. Through exploring their catalogue I have enjoyed the work of Jason Rebello, Tim Garland, Jasper Høiby, Phronesis and Dinosaur, but this particular item came from the guitar-playing hands of Stuart McCullum and Mike Walker. The album The Space Between creates some beautiful soundscapes and textures using acoustic and electric guitars, and is a quiet, thoughtful album that puts me in mind on many occasions of Pat Metheny.

At the more progressive end of my musical diet are a couple of albums that ring a whole lot of musical bells, both by musicians who might be considered on the slightly eccentric side of life! Both of them are also presenters on Progzilla Radio, too: coincidence? The first takes me back to the autumn and to the Summer's End Festival in Chepstow, as it is a recording of one of the sets from this year - that of the multi-talented Peter Jones, aka Tiger Moth Tales. In an exceptional weekend for music, theirs was one of the stand-out sets of the festival, and thankfully it was recorded for posterity, and it is impossible to isolate a stand-out track: they're all fantastic! The second is the final release of many for 2016 from the wonderfully eclectic Bad Elephant Music label, this time a second volume of archive songs from the delightful Simon Godfrey: the Black Bag Archive volume 2. This is a collection of re-worked songs dating from 1999 - 2016, showing a tremendous range of song-writing from Simon and leaving me eager for the new Shineback and Valdez material that should be due shortly. Finally in the new music is an album that's not actually out yet, but which I've got an early copy of: the latest album from Blackfield - Blackfield V. The work of Steven Wilson and Aviv Geffen, this is a wonderful collection of short, thoughtful songs that draw on Wilson's solo work and even his work with Porcupine Tree, but with Geffen's voice it seems to remove the gravitas without removing the earnestness. The band's earlier work is not that well-known to me, but this seems to stand out from what I do know (Welcome to My DNA) as an album to return to many times.

The 'classics' from my collection that I mentioned earlier again look quite jazzy. (No links, as these are CDs) The Impossible Gentlemen's third album, Let's Get Deluxe has a great collection of modern jazz tunes (written by the aforementioned Mike Walker). Miles Davis has always featured highly on my all-time greats list, and last year Don Cheatle did a biopic of the great man, Miles Ahead. The OST gives a wonderful feel for the film (still to be seen!), and even features Cheatle himself on trumpet, as well as playing the man. I've also always had a soft spot for the cool jazzy stylings of Walter Becker & Donald Fagen in Steely Dan, and the other day I gave possibly their best two albums a spin: their debut, Can't Buy A Thrill and the beautiful Aja - both offering music of the highest order. Finally, and a little more proggy, was Motivation Radio by Steve Hillage: maybe not the best thing he's recorded (of his solo work, that's probably a toss-up between Fish Rising & L), but an evocative album that has its moments.

So that's how that last week has panned out musically (along with various podcasts!). I hope, if you're not familiar with them, that you'll find the music interesting. Let me know!

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Repulse: Europe at war 2062-2064

So, as 2016 draws to a close, I've spent the last day's of the year reading about the future, and here's a very brief review of it!

What does the future hold? This is a subject that many have speculated about, but when the matter is considered in a combination of science fiction and war reporting it takes on a whole new complexion. In this book, Chris James reports the 'history' of a conflict in Europe between NATO and the Persian Caliphate which lasted (will last) from 2062-2064, told in a narrative style which draws on many 'contemporary' sources; politicians, military leaders and ordinary folk caught up in this troubling conflict.

This is a very believable tale - disturbingly so at times, excellently and engagingly told, but losing none of the horror that such a conflict should rightly engender. I would highly recommend this work (as I would some of the other stuff that Chris has written, which is very different), though be warned, the language can be a little emotive and near the knuckle sometimes.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Music of 2016

Another year end approaches, and I'm conscious this year that it has taken quite a heavy toll on the music world. From David Bowie & Keith Emerson to Leonard Cohen & Greg Lake, many icons of progressive music have passed from this life, but they leave with us a lasting legacy of years of material and of influence for subsequent generations of artists and musicians.

2016 has offered many opportunities to me for enjoying music, both recorded and live. Having a sabbatical of 3 months earlier this year meant that I was free to attend a few gigs that would otherwise have been impossible for me, and the summer was nicely full of live music and its associated camaraderie. Good music seems to have been reasonably profuse this year: I have acquired 127 albums released this year, the top 50 of which I will list below.

Before then though, I usually have 3 shorter categories in my year-end review.

Live Albums of the Year
5. Snarky Puppy - Family Dinner vol 2
4. Heliopolis - Epic at the Majestic: Live at Rosfest
3. Steve Hackett - The Total Experience Live in Liverpool
1=. Tigermoth Tales - Live at Summer's End (Official Bootleg)
1=. Big Big Train - A Stone's Throw From The Line

Discoveries of the Year
Acts that I've only become aware of in the past 12 months, that have stood out for me.
3 from the world of jazz:
Christian Scott, whose trumpet playing is just sublime;
Jason Rebello, a pianist whose album 'Held' is simply stunning;
Dinosaur, a 4-piece of Laura Jurd, Elliot Galvin, Conor Chaplin & Corrie Dick, who together show that the future of the genre is particularly bright.
2 from the Progressive field:
Firefly Burning, who draw together folk, prog, world music and their own particular style, and who brought a particular light to the Sunday morning of Summer's End;
I Am The Manic Whale, who would probably have been Top 3 last year for me if I'd found them in time. Inventive, modern yet rooted progressive music up there with the best of the genre.

Gigs of the Year
As I mentioned above, I've attended a few more gigs this year than in previous years, but here's my Top 5:
5. Soft Machine @ Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal
4. The Power of 3 @The Lexington, London
3. Yes @ Sheffield City Hall - proving that there's life in the old dog yet since the demise of Chris Squire
2. Geoff Banks Memorial gig @ Boston Music Rooms, London - an excellent evening with The Gift; Alan Reed; Andy Tillison. Matt Stevens & Theo Travis; and Francis Dunnery
1. Summer's End  @ Drill Hall, Chepstow

And so to my favourite albums of 2016. Bubbling under the Top 20, in alphabetical order:
Lee Abraham - The Season's End
Aisles - Hawaii
Jacob Collier - In My Room
Edensong - Years in the Garden of Years
The Far Meadow - Given The Impossible
Fractal Mirror - Slow Burn 1
Kristoffer Gildenlow - The Rain
Glass Hammer -  Valkyrie
Steve Hughes - Once We Were part 1
Iamthemorning - Lighthouse
Lazuli - Nos Ames Saoules
Mice on Stilts - Hope for a Mourning
Mute Gods - Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Opeth - Sorceress
Matthew Parmenter - All Our Yesterdays
Tony Patterson - Equations of Meaning
The Pineapple Thief - Your Wilderness
Rikard Sjoblom - The Unbendable Sleep
Damien Wilson & Adam Wakeman - Weir Keeper's Tale
Steven Wilson - 4½

The Top 20
20. Neil Cowley Trio - Spacebound Apes
19. Body English - Stories of Earth
18. Snarky Puppy - Family Dinner volume 2
17. Half Past Four - Land of the Blind
16. Tim Garland - One
15. Farmhouse Odyssey - Rise of the Waterfowl
14. Jason Rebello - Held
13. Frost* - Falling Satellites
12. Dinosaur - Together, As One
11. The Gift - Why The Sea is Salt

10. David Bowie - Blackstar. The final, portentous offering from the rock & roll chameleon, still as sharp as ever.
9. Mothertongue - Unsongs. A gentle melange of madness from Manchester's finest
8. Karmakanic - Dot. More genius from Jonas Reingold and company.
7. Southern Empire - Southern Empire. One up-side to the demise of Unitopia is the appearance of both UPF & Southern Empire from the ashes. Some excellent antipodean prog!
6. Red Bazar - Songs from the Bookcase. A simply delightful collection of songs delivered as only Peter Jones can.

5. Knifeworld - Bottled out of Eden. Sublime progressive music delivered as only Kavus & co can do, building on their success with The Unravelling
4. Andy Tillison Diskdrive - (Machte Es) Durch. Some of the best ambient electronic music around at the moment.
3. Colin Tench Project - Hair in a G-String (Unfinished but sweet). In turns beautiful, sublime, bonkers, lyrical, rocking; some of the best guitar-based prog you'll hear in a long time, and it has Peter Jones' hand all over it too.
2. Big Big Train - Folklore. One of 5 releases by the band this year (including a BluRay, a live album, live audio from the BluRay, and a re-release of English Electric), this collection of new material continues to cement this band's place at the forefront of the English progressive scene. Some quite outstanding material here, particularly 'The Transit of Venus across the Sun'. More to come, along with live shows, next year!

1. Anderson/Stolt - Invention of Knowledge. Progressive music as it has historically been produced, by two of the the finest proponents of the art still with us, yet not fixed in the past. This is, to my mind, the finest music anyone associated with Yes has produced since 'Awaken'.

That was 2016 - bring on 2017!