From Aural Innovations #43 (October 2011)
The Higher Craft - "The Quest into the Steppingstoneage" (Big Yellow Taxi 2011)
A bit of disclosure before I start gushing about this album: I make a couple of very brief narrative appearances as The Controller. I consider my contribution to be sufficiently minimal as to in no way influence my opinion and I'm comfortable with writing an unbiased review.
Now that I got that out of the way I'll tell you that the new album by The Higher Craft (THC) - The Quest into the Steppingstoneage (QSSA) - is one of the most ambitious albums of 2011. The debut THC album - Magic Box - was a highlight of 2008 that I gave a Highly Recommended to (see AI #40). But with QSSA the band have seriously raised the bar. QSSA started life as scripted multi-media musical stage play written by THC singer Christina Poupoutsi in 1995. You'll read details in the interview below, but while the production never got off the ground at that time, Christina resurrected the project as a THC vehicle and the result is the mind-boggling adventure that is The Quest into the Steppingstoneage.
Taken as a whole, the music defies simple categorization, but I would describe it as a rock 'n roll science fiction fantasy theatrical production that incorporates elements of Metal, Prog Rock, Space Rock, and Psychedelia. The album opens with a surreal introduction of voices - "tickets, get your tickets", "have a safe journey!" - ambience, instruments tuning up… "fasten your seat belts", applause, and then we are in the Audiotorium and the warning: "Open hearts and minds are encouraged throughout this journey", "THC will be held accountable for what you are about to experience.", "We are ready to begin". And then they launch into Acid Man, a searing sci-fi dance grooving song with Metal guitars, alien electronics, and a driving rhythm section, which in its last minute morphs into a spaced out Prog swirl. Then our hero - Star - finds herself in a world that seemingly can't be real. I could do a full play-by-play but suffice it to say that across the 19 tracks on this album there are numerous narrative interconnecting bits that help to tell the story.
The major difference from the music on Magic Box and QSSA is the Metal influences, which can surely be attributed to the addition of second guitarist J.D. Tait to the lineup, who many readers will know from The Meads of Asphodel, and is also in Ebonillumini with Christina. Standout tracks include Tribal Dominions, a chunky slab of Metal that starts off Goth infused and then blazes away at a furious pace. The Control Room is a varied track that is part Metal and part rock anthem and even swings at times. It goes from mile-a-minute head spinner to acoustic calm, and then back again, leaving the listener in a daze. Memory Slides has a sassy, soulful, jazzy edge. City Life features dreamy, trippy, otherworldly psychedelia. Tidal Wave is full blown Prog theater. I Saw The River is acoustic driven floating psychedelia with Raga grooves. And The Star Garden is a powerhouse track that's continually shifting from hyper-intense Metal to meditative cosmic dream sequences and kick ass Rock.
So yes, there are lots of great songs on Quest into the Steppingstoneage that can be considered as stand-alone tracks, and in addition to the transitional bits between the songs the story is told during many of the songs as well. Bottom line, though, is that to really appreciate this album you've got to join in the quest and listen to it in its entirety as an ALBUM.
Wanting to know more about the band and the album I conducted the following interview.
Aural Innovations (AI): My first communications with Christina was when she sent me the Peyote Mothership EPs some years ago, which also included Craig. One was a single experimental space-noise-lysergic excursion. But the other consisted of four songs that aren't far from the music that was to come the next year on THC's debut, Magic Box. Do you consider Peyote Mothership to have been the roots of THC?
Christina Poupoutsi (CP): Umm, not sure it was me that sent you the PM ep's, it was more likely to have been the PM founder. I was a new entity to the scene in 2006 and wouldn't have known where to start or had the knowledge of who was who or how to network and promote the work on-line or otherwise back then. The comparison of sounds you make is no surprise as vocal, guitar and drums did go on to form THC. I don't necessarily consider the PM ep's to be the root of THC's vision, as musically the PM ep songs were not written by myself or Craig. However the track Reply was born from a jam and housed my lyrics, this track I'd say would be the truest root of what was apparently possible for THC as free flow improvisational musicians.
AI: I was a Magic Mushroom Band fan and even have a few of the old cassette albums. But I've been unaware of anything Craig was involved with between the time that band wound down and Peyote Mothership/THC. Were there any musical activities in the interim?
Craig Twining (CT): After leaving the Mushroom band, I was involved briefly in the early 90's with a short lived project called Last Surviving Dinosaurs which did a little recording and a couple of gigs. Some of the tracks from this project are on http://count-zero.soundawesome.com . I also did an amount of solo stuff which was pretty much for my own amusement; again some of this is on the Soundawesome. There were no other collaborative projects until joining Peyote Mothership in 2007/8.
AI: Tell us about your background and activities Christina, prior to Peyote Mothership and THC.
CP: "THE LITTLE GIRL"
1/2 Greek Cypriot, 1/2 Cockney, born within the sound of Bow Bells, I remained and grew up in Inner City London, on Pie Mash & Liquor ;) However I spent my summer holidays in a tiny village high up in the Troodos Mountains, in Cyprus. It was quite a contrast!
"THE BALLROOM DANCER"
Like most mothers with their little girls, I was signed up for dancing classes at the age of 10. I continued for 2 years learning Ballroom, Latin American, disco and old time dancing.
I have always written to the page since I was very young, 8 yrs old to be precise. I somehow managed to keep my writings safe, and have never thrown away a single scrap of paper. My life experiences documented in poem form within a creative writing medium have been stored in a box for the past 32 years.
At 13 yrs old I decided to join my local Music Hall Theatre! (Hoxton Hall, Shoreditch) I started acting classes with the youth theatre, I was hooked and a career in acting was my goal. I remained at Hoxton Hall for the next 13 years, it became my second home.
Upon leaving school with an A Level in Drama (& no other qualifications) I set off for college on a 3yr community Theatre course whereby I studied Opera, video, music, stage craft, lighting, mime, Circus Skills, costume design, and just about every aspect of the theatre that there was to learn. I performed in various scripted plays and improvisations from the age of 13-26 in fringe theatres all across London, The Battersea Arts Center, Saddlers wells, The Hackney Empire to name a few.
I also spent a brief period at the ENO in the props dept and worked as a stage hand at The English National Opera in 1989. My development was guided by my acting directors and fellow band of brothers and sisters within the creative family I had found to nestle in. My imagination had a home thru my mentor Bruce Bayley Ph.D RAsT. http://www.brucebayley.co.uk
Bruce narrates the role of 'The Guide' in the album'Quest into the SteppingStoneAge'
Becoming a mother lead me into a different phase of my life and I was absent from the stage for a decade. I continued to write whilst devoting my life to my son.
I began the art of Mosaic's to free my fix for creativity and exhibited my work at galleries and events.
After my son began Junior School I had much more time on my hands than I'd liked, so I decided to get back into acting by applying for a degree course in performing arts. As part of the audition process I was asked to provide a song and sing from sheet music. Egh? I had never sung, nor did I ever envisage myself as a singer. I spent an entire day in the library browsing the sheet music books on offer but to no avail, Les Miserables & Chicago, just wasn't me, so I returned home empty handed and not quite sure which way to turn next to honor this audition.
The very next day something BRILLIANT HAPPENED! (or maybe it was a curse? Lol)
A major turning point & change to my creative journey began.
Well, laying alongside the rubbish bins on the High Road where I lived, sitting in the pouring rain was an opened cardboard box. I walked by it and from the corner of my eye I noticed a shining glimpse of light which flashed into my eyes. This made me stop and look to see what it was. I looked down and saw contained inside the cardboard box was a book, an old looking blue bound book, with a single gold gilt word on the cover reading;
Curious I opened the book, (even though I knew I was completely exposed to the public and was seemingly looking to be rummaging thru the trash)
I knew of Christina Rossetti her poems & songs. I had admired her work & the work of her brother, revolutionary artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I had been a lover of the Pre-Raphelite art movement and always gained great creative inspiration from that period.
I lifted the book from the box & to my surprise I found another beneath it, this time a red book with the golden word Songs written on it. Underneath the red book was another & another and yet another. Besides the 1st cardboard box I suddenly discovered another and besides the 2nd box was yet another again. Besides the 3rd box I found a bag, also full with music and besides this was another and another full to the brim with sheet music. I was blown away. Contained within boxes and black bin bags, discarded on the street waiting for the dustmen, open to my view & to the pouring rain, I had stumbled upon an entire original sheet music collection dating from
What should I do?
What would you have done?
Well, in haste there was no decision to be made, I opened the boot of my car and I rescued the books from the falling rain and took them home.
It took sometime and the next few weeks saw all my time consumed as I dried the musky old paper (can still smell it) and gently blew away all spider mites. I cleaned the music sheets as much as I could, each & every page and placed them in clear plastic covers for preservation.
A legacy had been placed into my hands and with that the year ahead saw me begin a humongous research project to discover who the mystery owner of this collection had belonged too. I found myself in contact with curators, conductors, composers, museums, writers, sheet music collectors, a vicar, The D'oyly Carte Operetta, The portrait keeper of The Royal Academy of Music, The British Library & Christies auction house. The performing arts degree course I was set to explore had been cast into infinity never to return. Eventually I discovered more & more about whom my legacy had belonged to. Most of the music was signed and dated with her name & also extra pieces of evidence lay hidden in the boxes such as ephemera and photographs.
This women's name was Dorothy Tillet. Dorothy had, like me been a performer, however she was a singer! A Soprano singer, successful in her field she sang in front of the Duke of York in 1930. This regal chap would later become King George VI.
Dorothy Tillett was also discovered listed in the 1935 edition of Who's who in music.
This information was obtained thru communications developed at the time between myself and British conductor/Historian/Musicologist;
Mr Christopher Fifield, whom at this point in time was gathering information for a book he was writing, titled;
Ibbs & Tillet
"The rise and fall of a musical empire"
Ibbs & Tillet were a musical agency which ran from 1906-1990.
The connection with Dorothy's surname and that of the agencies founder were not connected by bloodline, however she was listed on the books of Ibbs & Tillet in 1939 for her involvement with the D'oyly Carte Opera. Christopher and I had both obtained extra knowledge thru our connection about the research we were both seeking to complete our individual tasks. In 2003 I was faced with no more leads & faced a brick wall. After data basing the 2000 strong collection there was nothing more I could do, I had exhausted all the avenues. There was only one way forward from here.
Thank You Dorothy!
In 2003 I began to learn Piano, music theory and Music technology. I had always had a love of the piano and always dreamed of owning one. I had owned a small electronic organ when I was young which I spent many an evening having conversations with. Now I had found all this wonderful music, but did not know how to play it, to me this was sacrilege, so I studied hard for 3 years and reached my piano grade 3 and music theory grade 5. I'd also learnt how to produce my music using modern music technology and built a home studio.
In 2005 I teamed up with my music technology college tutor to create "Nyquist" (an electronica duo)
I had now begun my recording singing path.
Nyquist released an e.p. in 2006 and played one live gig in 2007 at The Vibe Bar, Brick Lane in London's Eastend. We also gained a 2nd place position in 2006 Xmas edition of Future Music magazines demo of the month.
Whilst at Music Tech College I met up with bass player Joel Letort, who informed me of a band requiring a female fronted vocalist. I was asked to try out and I got the position & joined my second band Peyote Mothership in 2006. The rest is history as they say ;)
AI: Magic Box was one of my favorite albums of 2008. For me it's a high energy psychedelic rock experience that, genre labels aside, is also a damn good ROCK album. I read on your web site that the rest of the members, other than Christina and Craig, left after this album and even preferred to remain nameless. Despite the personnel issues, did the album meet your expectations of what you wanted THC to be?
CP: I don't think we had any expectations of what we wanted THC to be, it was more a case of excitement and wonder about what we could create together, and we couldn't get it out fast enough. The Magic Box album was recorded live in just 4 hours after just two rehearsals. I and Craig were happy with it. I still have no idea about the other members and why they wished not to continue, I've learnt answers are not always necessary and I've come to accept this as part of the course, weird stuff happens around these parts, always has, always will!
AI: Your new album, The Quest Into The Steppingstoneage, is a full album tour de force. Let's start with the story. While preparing these questions I saw on the THC Soundawesome page that it's "A concept based upon a scripted multi-media musical stage play written by Christina Poupoutsi in 1995." So the concept preceded THC by many years. Tell me more about your original vision for the story vs. what it became. (Is this some kind of spaced out Alice in Wonderland tale?)
CP: The play did indeed precede THC and was created in 1995 whilst I was still a member of The Hoxton Hall Youth Theatre. Upon completion of the writing of the play (1995), I approached my fellow artisans with the project and we set forth to create our own theatre troupe. The original script did require the music to be played live with a full band of musicians creating the soundtrack throughout the show. The set design/visual aspects and its structures were designed specifically to work inside Hoxton Hall's theatre space, however keeping in mind the touring element I also kept it simple to ensure flexibility of construction and deconstruction and of course the logistics of it's transportation. The set design ideas I had were influenced by my time at the ENO and working alongside Tom Castle, an amazing sound and lighting technician at Hoxton Hall.
The set is constructed of a huge covering of a 180 degree screen from floor to ceiling which envelopes the audience. This screen would act as a cinema/film backdrop with projections of pre-recorded footage running simultaneously with the music and live actors.
As I had been a member of Hoxton Hall (for almost 13 years by this time), I had been given express permission and was able to host the show in Hoxton Hall's Theatre. I had all the elements in place, everything was perfect!
However, it was not the right time!
Unfortunately in the end, lack of commitment and interest from the many hands needed to help manifest the work into reality saw the whole event collapse in on itself. No one was showing up for rehearsals and there was no choice for me but to abandon the idea and place the work into the Magic Box where it sat with many writings below it and as the years past (16 to be precise) many writings would be placed on top of it.
There were aspects of the play from the original script that needed adapting and these lay in the live visual aspects of the show. I now needed to change these parts to an audible interpretation which mainly stemmed from the intro and bridges. Here I had to adapt the script accordingly,
For instance: The Audiotorium
In the live interpretation of the play the audience would be in complete darkness and silence, guided only by words appearing on the screen that surrounds them. This of course was now impossible to achieve on record without voice instructions. Similarly the scenes of the play and the dialogue now had to be interpreted into songs, and the dialogue now became the lyrics, whilst the bridges in between became the audible story.
No, there was never a thought for Alice when I wrote the play, however to my surprise when I re-opened the work I did realize some similarities in the story. I.e. The protagonist 'Star', a young girl lost in a strange dimension, whose journey begins by her falling into the underworld, which screams of Alice falling down the rabbit hole. This was a brilliant find for me and gave me a way of tying all the threads together and making it accessible to THC'S audience with some familiarities of my adopted alter ego Alice Wonderland.
AI: Did you envision a rock music element when this was first conceived in 1995, or did THC just seem like a good vehicle now for bringing the story to life?
CP: The rock band element was always present. I had friends in a rock band at the time that were apart of the project and the plan was to go on tour with the play. The live band was always paramount in its creation, designed to host live music, actors and film, a live multimedia experience.
When I presented the idea to the other band members of THC and suggested we could use the work as a concept album and create it's manifestation as an audible story instead of a visual one, this was a challenge we were all up for.
AI: I've listened to the album several times and I have to believe it was a monumental task to bring the album to completion. How long did it take to record the album?
CP: I still have the email for the concept proposal I sent out to the guys, it's dated 02/04/09. The QSSA was released on the 21/07/ 2011, I'll let you do the math ;)
AI: Musically this is in a whole other realm from Magic Box. There's so much going on. Psychedelia, Space Rock, Metal, Goth, Prog... yet if you listen to the album in its entirety it all flows seamlessly.
CP: That's good to hear Jerry, it was a concern we faced exploring the polarities of some many moods and atmospheres including genre shifts and changing musical climates. However the brilliance of J.D.'s arrangements is what makes the album seamless and full credit must go to him for this. I gave each band member a copy of the script to work from and section by section we began its construction musically.
AI: The biggest musical difference from Magic Box is the Metal elements, which I would guess has to do with J.D. Tait's influence. He's got his fingers in a number of projects. How did he come to join THC? Was it an outgrowth of the Ebonillumini collaboration with Christina?
CP: In 2008 after the exit of the original THC line up, I was asked to be guest vocals for Alan Davey's Gunslinger.
Gunslingers line up at this time (2008) consisted of JD.Tait and Sunhil Jolly from the experimental black metal band
'The Meads of Asphodel'
www.themeadsofasphodel.com with whom Alan Davey is also bass player of course.
This is where I met first met J.D. and alongside our personnel relationship we began a musical partnership creating the avant-garde black metal band 'Ebonillumini'
In 2008, Ebonillumini released its 1st demo ep 'The Ebon Channel' which was received better than we could have ever anticipated. 2011 sees Ebonillumini now with a completed album ready for release, however since The Higher Craft's inclusion of Andre Thung on drums, and Ebonillumini in need also of a drummer, Andre has now joined ranks with Ebon as well as THC.
With this we have now decided to re-record all programmed drums that were present on the debut album and will be replacing them with live drums. In the interim we will be releasing a split e.p. with J.D.'s other project the Atheist Black metal band 'The Worms of Sabnock'. http://www.myspace.com/wormsofsabnock
This will be released thru the Godreah record label and should be ready for release sometime late autumn 2011. The debut Ebonillumini album is now expected mid 2012.
In April 2009 J.D. joined THC along with bass player Charlie Noakes, and this saw The Higher Craft begin its journey as a live band for the very first time.
AI: Quest Into The Steppingstoneage really needs to be heard in its entirety to fully appreciate, which made me wonder how you handle this in live performance. Have you thought about playing the entire album live? Lots of interesting opportunities for performers too.
CP: Ah Yes, of course. And I very much look forward to seeing you Jerry, aka 'The Controller' playing your part in 'The Quest into the SteppingStoneAge' live!!! As previously stated, the sole purpose of the concept is to be performed as a 80 minute show from start to finish which has always appealed to us. However for this to emerge as originally intended with 100% full effect, using the multi-media platform, actors, dancers, etc, it will only ever be a reality with much time, hard work, and many hands of help! Oh and a very LARGE pot of gold to finance it.
AI: Do you get to perform live often? It seems like you've played at a number of festivals this summer. And have you ever played outside the UK?
CP: We have played 10 gigs this year, all around the UK, 6 of them being festivals. We have never played outside of the UK but would love to do so!
AI: Other than promoting the new album, is there any other news or future plans we should know about?
CP: The next cd release from THC will be an e.p. titled Moon Beams & Marbles, which was inspired by close friend Harry Collison. This will be ready in time for summer solstice 2012.