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A REVIEW AND INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN Mc CABE discussing “Kicking the Olive Branch” and a Christmas album (!) called SAD TIDINGS (2023)

When originally released as a digi-pak, “Kicking the Olive Branch” sold out within two weeks. It was recorded in the studio and on locations in France, Italy, the USA and Israel over 2016/17.

Nathan Madsen’s lusty sax enhances an impressive opener while the keyboard rich ‘Dying Shadows’ has a strident bass line from Brandon Meeks and some gutsy violin from William Stewart; there is a distinctive folk element here, then a return to jazz territory as the sax sails in to take a solo, then a step change involving soaring synths: there’s a lot going on here. Steven’s wonderful guitar invokes ANDY LATIMER on ‘Lovotics’; the sustained organ chords have echoes of PROCOL HARUM; Noam Goldstein’s flute also graces this piece along with synth work reminiscent of the late great PETER BARDENS, and a nice bass cameo as well. ‘Inconsistent Echoes’ is an unexpected change of direction – a funky bass line as the band goes disco prog fusion (?): it’s great fun with more exhilarating guitar from Steven. Parts of ‘Mood #12’ reminded me of JETHRO TULL’s “Aqualung”: although the flute interludes are not in the style of Ian Anderson – love the bass playing on this one.

All my comparisons are being rather unfair to Elegant Simplicity who have carved out their own place in prog rock history, but another great number ‘Quantum Spin’ made me think of MANFRED MANN’s EARTH BAND and the great Mick Rogers (for the unacquainted his solo on ‘I’m Gonna Have You All’ is a classic). We’re not finished yet as there as the epic 20-minute title track to come with some apt recorded dialogue from Bertrand Russell, the famous analytical philosopher.

I asked Mr. Elegant Simplicity, Steven McCabe, about the album:

You started off with tapes as I remember – things were very different back then with lots of prog fanzines and a growing sub-culture, which led to a renaissance in Prog after the Punk and New Wave era of the 80s. What was the inspiration for you making music that seemed unfashionable at the time, but in the long run has proved that the ‘Old Wave’ (if I can call it that) is more enduring?

When I was younger, I had pretty much zero interest in music. Occasionally, I would listen to the radio or something, but there was nothing that I recall as ever standing out or being inspirational until I heard ‘Comfortably Numb’, long after it had been released; that made me want to play guitar, even though I had no idea how to go about it. Truly, I was magnificently ignorant!

To that end, as I had zero knack for playing other people’s tunes, I started writing my own. I soon figured out some rudimentary recording techniques on cheap and nasty equipment and lo . . .  a lifetime of tunes was underway!

It was a few years after I had started selling tapes that I came to the attention of the Progressive Rock world. Up to that point, I sold my wares via musicians recording magazines and adverts in Record Collector! I had no idea I was making what could be termed progressive rock: I just did what I did. Some of the very early reviews of the cassette releases never mentioned any prog rock leanings - it was just instrumental rock. Categorisation came much later, around (maybe) the time of the first CD release’ The Nature of Change’, probably on account of it having a 43-minute instrumental track, despite the rest of the album being more pop than anything else!

When I read that “Kicking the Olive Branch” had sold out first time around, I went – wow! – but when I heard it, I can totally understand why. An instrumental prog album is difficult to pull off, but I think you nail it here. How did recording in different locations come about and how on Earth did you manage to pull it all together in such a coherent and cohesive manner?

As is usually the case when I involve outside musicians, I do super detailed demos of everything. Once that is done, I mix the songs down: one version with my outlines and the other one with just the click track, guitars and keyboards. I always do drums first, then bass. I send these off to my cohorts with the brief to play what they want and to only use my bits as reference. The last thing I want is them mimicking my parts, else there would be no point in the exercise. Once the drums are back, I mix them in and do another mix down; this time without the bass. That goes off with the same brief to the bass player. This time, as he has real drums to play against, things start to pop rather nicely! Once the bass is back, I then concentrate on the non-guitar or keyboard parts. Again, unless I am requiring some unison stuff, all the instrumental solos (sax, flute, violin etcetera) are improvised and I select the best take.

Eventually, once I have everything recorded, a period of re-arranging comes in where I might add more guitar, take some away, replace keyboard parts etc. The aim is to get a cohesive live band feel and for me it always starts with the drums and bass being locked down - get that right and everything else falls into place.

Turning to “Sad Tidings” I can’t normally stand Christmas records as a whole (although I have to admit that some of them have been pretty good and stood the test of time well). I do have one personal favourite in JETHRO TULL’s ‘A Christmas Song’ and one personal yuck: that is WIZZARD’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday” (imagine – we’d all be dead within a year, maybe a week!) Are you into Christmas yourself and why the title “Sad Tidings”?

Ah, yes, Sad Tidings! For me, there is only one Christmas album I can stand and that is Tull’s The Christmas Album. Even Mrs Mac likes it! What a beauty! Everything to do with Christmas leaves me baffled and bemused in equal measure. As we hurtle towards the dreaded day I get further and further out of sorts - causes lots of grief with the nearest and dearest, but I really cannot abide it or anything surrounding it. Drives me several shades of daft.

Which brings me onto the Sad Tidings album! It’s called ‘Sad Tidings’ because that is how I feel at Christmas. I certainly feel no Glad Tidings! People find it difficult to comprehend. I mean, shouldn’t we all be happy at Christmas?

Anyway, the album eventually came about because I had been asked to record a Christmas song way back when and I flatly refused. You know, saddled up on my high horse of principles and all that! I have absolutely no beef with the idea of Christmas, per se (actually, I do, but that can wait), just the execution of it and the fact that it is 2023, and we go around behaving like we are living in the Middle Ages. It’s totally irrational. But some of the tunes are rather good and very appealing. And I do like some Christmas movies (hello,’ Jingle All the Way!’). So, I thought, why not give it a bash and see what happens! And it turned out to be very rewarding. I don’t do covers or anything like that (except one Moody Blues song some years ago) and the tunes are easy and quick to record. They are approached with the same gusto as anything I tackle and I am very proud of them, especially ‘Joy to the World’.

You certainly take a few risks on “Sad Tidings”: Holst’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ for example taken at a faster pace loses some of the Dickensian pathos normally associated with it. I liked the takes on ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’; also, the upbeat ‘Good King Wenceslas’ with guitar solos you describe as “cool” and “bonkers”; the singing by Farah Rogers is nice on ‘Silent Night’, but for me this must be sung in German (don’t really know why that gets me!) It’s quite unusual for a prog rocker to be releasing Christmas singles (between 2016 and 2022 you say) although I seem to remember buying a Marillion one once. Was there any particular reason for you embarking on such a path?

The thing about Christmas tunes is that they are by design meant to be simple and memorable8 given their intended purpose! So, when you take them apart, most versions are pretty much like every other version except for the style or instrumentation. You might get a metal version, a prog version, a disco version or something but it is still defiantly what it actually is.

That is not how I approached the project, though. In the main, melodies are performed broadly as written but I also add a shedload of original music to it as well. A lot of them have extended middle sections, huge new codas and stuff so that once you get past the sing-along parts, you are effectively listening to me doing my thing. Albeit with a twist! One day I might take out all the original stuff and edit them together into one almighty 30-minute epic or something!

Talking about influences your guitar playing on “Sad Tidings” sound more MIKE OLDFIELD whose style certainly suited Christmas and Medieval music in general. I mention a few in my review of “Kicking the Olive Branch”. Are you conscious of particular artists influencing you, remembering that you play keyboards, bass and flute in addition to guitar, or do you just assimilate what you have heard into a new melange, if I can put it that way?

On the ‘Joy to the World track’, towards the grand finale, I do bring out the Oldfield big guns. It wasn't intentional, but once I started slapping the mandolin and Leslie guitars and what not on it for a really big orchestrated sound, I thought why not! Oldfield is an absolute hero to me but the guitarists who I find most compelling and influential have aways been John McLaughlin and John Lees of Barclay James Harvest. You couldn’t ask for two more disparate players, of course, but there it is! As for keyboards, I’m afraid it is not to Wakeman or Emerson I doff my cap, but to Manfred Mann (so pleased you mentioned the Earth Band earlier on). Ever since I heard him cut loose with Uriah Heep on ‘July Morning’ he has probably been my number one influence: that man really knows how to make a Mini Moog sing like no other player. Apart from Manfred, Richard Wright, Jon Lord, Ken Hensley and Woolly Wolstenholme are where my keyboard mojo is at, really.

Why the title “Kicking the Olive Branch”? (In common with many others I sense a certain disillusionment with the ‘state of things’)

I forget the details, but I remember way back in 2015/2016 when I was writing the songs for the album there was some conflict or something somewhere in the world (as always), and there was a move towards conciliation that never came to fruition. It just seems to me that we are always kicking the olive branch instead of planting it. The human race will die off unless we simmer down and stop being such greedy, superstitious holdovers from the dark ages. That thought stuck and it became the title of the album.

Is there anything else you would like to say about “Kicking the Olive Branch”, perhaps about the other musicians’ contributions or about the messages you were trying to convey when making the album?

‘Kicking the Olive Branch’ is one of my favourites, primarily because everything fell into place so easily and I almost nailed a perfect guitar solo (for me!) in ‘Lovotics’, along with a Moog solo I am immensely proud of. All the musicians did stellar work, too. I think it’s a cool album that would appeal to many different types of music fan.

What’s next for Elegant Simplicity?

Well, as you know, I never have a shortage of material, so, in 2024 we will be kicking off with a full band song called ‘Northbound Flux’. I have three albums fully demoed and a fourth almost completed. I just need to decide which one to go for. One is a very interesting 43-minute musical concept piece based around the locrian mode and another one is the natural successor to “Don’t Look Down” (all the tunes were written around the same time). What comes first will largely depend on musician availability and that old chestnut of getting time to do it!

Thanks for your answers and please feel free to add anything you wish to say to existing Elegant Simplicity fans or those curious about your music.

Do you know, I still have people on my mailing list that have been with me since the very first cassette album? That means so much to me and I am very grateful for that support and the support of all the new fans I have gathered over the years. It is really gratifying that someone other than me likes my music! If you are new to our music, don’t be put off by the arbitrary genre tag: we don’t do inscrutable hyper frenetic or complicated displays of musical prowess: my music continues to be focused on what it has always been focused on - jolly good tunes. And as most of my output has been instrumental, that is super paramount. What is the expression? Oh, yes, ’come on in, the water’s lovely’!

Thank you, Phil, for the questions and letting me waffle on!

There has been no waffle. This is one of the most illuminating interviews I have ever been part of. Good luck for the future.

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