“On VHS” – The Fierce & The Dead

I’m not a rock musician. I’ve always believed that I have a fairly extensive and broad knowledge of music; but there are blind spots. ‘Rock’, as a genre, covers a lot of ground, but I have very little knowledge about it. ‘Prog Rock’, as a genre, is probably the one area of music which I have little or no understanding of at all. In fact, apart from a teenage dalliance with the music of Mike Oldfield, I’ve never listened to, or been enthusiastic about, prog at all.

My (mis)preconception is that prog rock tended (note: the past tense) to be produced by ex-public school boys (Canterbury is no Manchester, Detroit, Sheffield or 70s New York). It was produced by Musicians (capital M). It wasn’t iconoclastic like post-punk. It wasn’t particularly avant-garde or modernistic; drawing on past musics (rhythm & blues, jazz, folk and classical) and melding them in a fairly obvious way, albeit experimenting with structure, timing and theme; it was post-modern and politically neutral.

So, what has this got to do with a recent independent release by a group of musicians based in London?

Well, I know a couple of things: Matt Stevens (the guitarist and, I assume, main writer for the band) is a musician who, with his solo releases, has developed a body of work which draws on a wide variety of influences, but people tend to assume his main area of interest is prog, describing it as ‘proggy’ or ‘neo-prog’ (though he often descibes his music as Post-Rock, which is a description I can more easily identify with). Along with Kevin Feazey (bass and production), Stuart Marshall (drums) and Steve Cleaton (guitar), Stevens has co-founded The Fierce & The Dead (ampersand, or no ampersand?), a powerful quartet whose music has elements of what I would understand to be prog-rock, but also has elements of so much more.

TFATD’s music contains experiments with tonality, pallette and time signature. But rather than being inward-looking self-indulgience, it is outward-looking, futuristic guitar music. And while extremely accomplished, it does not wear it’s musicianship on it’s sleeve, in fact, one hardly notices timing changes or weird keys and scales, the music flows.

The music on the ep ‘On VHS’ is, appropriately, cinematic. TFATD’s name alone conjures images of pulpy, straight-to-video movies of the early 80s. In fact, ‘The Fierce & The Dead’ could almost be the title of a yet-to-be-made Tarantino-produced, Robert Rodriguez-directed homage to the same period. Whilst the name also alludes to horror-master Sam Raimi’s bigger-budget post-modern western, ‘The Quick And The Dead’. There are elements on the ep which bring to mind John Carpenter’s arpeggios (albeit on the guitar) and each track builds to, and decends from, crescendos which suggest dramatic action and then calm counterpoint. The influence of classic TV and neo-schlocky cinema is always apparent. To see what I’m talking about, take a look at the fine and funny video for album-opener “666.6”.

This is modern music. It’s “progressive” but not ‘prog’; it shares as much with Radiohead or Stereolab than with King Crimson. This is the kind of rock I can relate to. It is not ‘about itself’, it’s not self-indulgent noodling or self-aggrandisement. What it is is thoughtful, imaginative guitar music which knows where to place the light and where to place the shade, which doesn’t take itself too seriously, which can be atmospheric but also rocks hard. It has a concept and is complex, but doesn’t let that complexity overtake the entertainment value of the music. As you can probably tell, I really liked it.

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