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“Heaven Knows” It’s Time For Ian James Stewart – (TCP)CHICAGO

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By Brian Sidler – Former Music Writer for Chicago Music Magazine

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Subtitle:

Ian James Stewart’s Album “Junk DNA” Anything BUT Junk

(TCP)Chicago 23 JANUARY 2014 – First off, normally we do not publish album credits in our articles. We’re making an exception here because the effort deserves all credits posted. Hat tip to all the folks involved. Now, let’s get to it…

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bandportrait1

Prologue

Anyone curious as to why retro traditions of song arrangements and mixing rock music is back in a big way? Read this.

Now…I’m almost done ranting about how terrible the noise from most of the world’s musicians has been. Everyone who reads my critiques over these many years knows exactly how I feel about what happened to popular music in all its forms.

We started changing the vibes seven years ago with these articles originally marketed through MySpace when that social network was relevant. These days we’re taking on the radio podcast and terrestrial radio community, so folks can discover what great programming actually is and how it sounds, instead of what is still the prevailing winds. We’ll see how long this takes.

Now…

Once upon a time, producers and their artists, especially the Brit’s (which is everything from the commonwealth, though these guys are their cousins from Scotland) had a sense of what created the kind of album where you could just start the damn thing and let the sucker play. There are certain traditions that had been formed in terms of the mix and the overall sound of an album in the broad genres of rock, blues, jazz, R&B/Soul, funk and country recordings.

Every ten years since the 50’s there’s been a new mix/engineering sound being born due to advances in technology but, after say around 74, though other new sonic expressions had found form and lots of it pure garbage, the field of electronics in studio recording had already found their heights.

Though it’s true, engineers and producers were finding new mixes and effects to be used differently than previous schools of aural thought, there weren’t too many more worthy places to go. Popular music culture could only degenerate from there and, that’s what happened. Songs weren’t crafted because of meaning, they were crafted to sell. Disco was the beginning of the end. As well, there are too many consumers too dense to respond to anything without an incredibly loud incessant beat pounding into their ears (blame it on alcohol consumption) which is why it succeeded.

However, once upon a time, engineers and producers adhered to a tradition of editing the truly “great” artists to the degree that, no matter what the genre, there was a continuity to the album format as one complete and satisfying, all encompassing piece of art. Also, even back then lots of producers never “got” what made “an album” great, let alone the tunes comprised within and that’s why, today, iTunes sells just singles except for the odd occasions. Most albums aren’t worth buying as a completed work of art. Yet, slowly but surely a certain tradition of great progressive rock mixing, has been trending back into the mainstream of rock.

The alternative sub genre is tired. The organic raw mix leaves nothing for the imagination to ponder or the ear to grab. Fuzz effects for guitar are tired too and way, way overused. It’s too easy to hide mediocre musicianship with fuzz tone effects. They’re excellent when used properly but, most all guitar based driven bands are not professional and they’re shallow imitations of their influences. So in that sense, most all bands, period, are uninspired. Hobbyists piss me off. Know what I mean?

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Which brings me to the subject of this article…Ian James Stewart.

It takes a bit of time for a band without huge PR cash muscle to get noticed these days. Even with it, it takes a while for the streaming community to push it into multi-platinum status. Look at Adele’s “21” which has just made it to the 3 million digital sales plateau as an album. It took three years for that to happen, not six months like things did back in the day when online digital didn’t exist as a mainstream delivery system.

Well, anyways…

Ian James Stewart once upon a time, tasted the beginning of greatness with a band called Strangeways. Strangeways toured intensely supporting Europe, Bryan Adams and Meat Loaf. Some described their album “Native Sons” as one of the greatest AOR albums of all time. If you were a Steve Perry fan, you’d have loved this unit. Their first lead singer, Tony Lidell was trying to be a vocal copy and just a tad off pitch for my ears. He was replaced soon after their first release by Terry Brock who was just a stones throw away and better than Lidell.

They saw a great deal of notoriety in Europe but they never broke here in the states. If their album company had spent the cash on a powerful publicist back then, it is quite likely by now, Ian James Stewart would be a household name but that didn’t happen. Probably because; how could the PR folks get paid by the corporate channels to rave about something as close to Journey as Strangeways had originally manifested in their opening efforts? It would have been market suicide for an investment that had been made into Journey’s career. No doubt about it, Strangeways would have cut into Journey’s pie and given them quite a run for their money. Strangeways was a better band, in style and substance.

Given that Strangeways in their beginnings was so pegged to Journey’s sound because their producer was the same cat, and the vocalist was a Steve Perry almost twin, I actually think it overshadowed who they really were. Journey? Loverboy? Foreigner? Night Ranger? Forget it…ain’t my gig, babes. Overly commercialized tripe!

For my monies worth, I’m glad that Ian stepped into the lead vocal slot for this present work because NOW they’re entirely a different thing altogether and that’s what they needed.

Presently, I wish I had the management cash, I’d take this new album by Ian all the way. Easy, peasey. All you rock bands from the last twenty five years move the fuck over. If these guys get a good tailwind from this present effort…the band – Ian James Stewart has produced an album that can single handedly bring back a sound that’s been missing in most of rock for a very long time.

That’s why I started this article pining for certain traditions. It’s what I’ve been starving for and for the longest time. Great progressive rock is my absolute favorite stuff. It lets the imagination take hold of something “inside”, unlike most everything else in popular music culture. It’s ethereal and it lifts the spirit.

Let’s put it this way; for every 10,000 albums released by independent artists through the “do it yourself” platform, or the major corporate transnationals, there’s only about a dozen that are probably worth your time. That’s one helluva ratio. 12 to 10,000.

So what’s this all about, eh? It’s about a new album by Scotish performer/writer/producer/engineer – Ian James Stewart called “Junk DNA”.

albumart

If you trust my ears, which I hope you do by now, I’m telling you this album stands up to the toughest scrutiny. It deserves your undivided attention. It deserves your money. I have dropped the frikken needle on this puppy several times and I’m still not bored yet. Usually, I’ll get bored (even if I like it) after about the fourth spin and most often I can’t get through an album without skipping the next tune in line after 15 seconds into any particular cut. Not this time.

So here’s why I love this platter.

Ian James Stewart is an artist that not only can produce himself well, he can edit himself. To my way of thinking, that’s the hardest part of the whole process. As a producer and writer he’s superb. As a tenor vocalist, he’s distinct and likewise a great singer. His sense of taste for atmospherics is spot on. Not only that but, the way this album is structured in terms of song order, has a pace that works well enough for Grammy consideration. It crescendos when it needs to. It dials down when it needs to. One more thing that’s crucially important… to my ears, not since Gilmore of Pink Floyd has there been a guitar I could pick out of a crowd. I think Stewart’s lead guitar is distinct. It’s his. It ain’t no overdriven piece of fuzz. The only way I can describe it, not that it will help you understand why I use the description but there’s a certain nose, or snort in it that I really dig. Also, Stewart doesn’t try to blind you with a bunch of meaningless speed. He’s lyrical. The damn thing talks. All you have to do is listen to the last track Slow Burn Dance, that’s where it is!

The only thing I wish about this album is that it was mixed in Nashville. He may not know it, or maybe he does but, the Nashville reverb plates from the 50’s would melt this thing into something worth pure gold and that’s the only place they exist, to my knowledge. Even without them, Ian got as much as he could from the studios he’s working at. I could have used the vocals turned up just a very slight smidgen. His voice is that good and I want more of it.

Give Stewart a hundred g’s of budget in production and this baby destroys just about everything I’ve heard in the last fifteen years. At least fifteen years, maybe more. Even without those reverb plates it’s head and shoulders above 99.9% of everything else. Problem with that is, the market’s so flooded with crap, in my opinion, it ain’t that hard to do. It’s a pretty low threshold – these days.

Entry costs for production has taken a huge nosedive which is a double edge sword. The aggregate effect is too much garbage dilutes the audiences attentions because too many folks, who are mostly hobbyists, can try to game the market with uninspired, low quality writng/recordings.

Before you read further enlarge this video with the widget embed…and dig this!

In a moment we’ll get to the message in the lyrics but first, I’m not the only one that thinks this puppy has legs. Before you read all these raves, let’s get something straight about this sub-genre classification in rock.

This term “AOR,” though everyone in the music critic/writer community seems to have been using it for the longest time, like since the mid 80’s, I think, well…it’s a bullshit description. Progressive rock was always “album oriented” for G-d’s sakes! Leave it to music writers who know nothing but the lint in their navels to screw something up. They’re not musicians for the most part, so what do they really know? When artists cut albums, shouldn’t the album always have continuity to them? So from now on, when you read the term description “AOR” just think progressive rock and you’ll be spot on. – Sidler

Yes there’s the cats from the 80’s and except for Enuff Z’Nuff, most of them, eh…who cares? Hairbands? What in hell’s name does that describe but hair with too much spray? Exactly what the hell is so important about the style of dress used onstage or having ridiculous makeup all over your face? It has nothing to do with music! Did Clapton need a special wardrobe? No.

Movin’ along…

Well…so far, there’s enough testimony from others. Check this stuff out:

aorreview

By ABe – AOR Website (translated from Italian) IAN JAMES STEWART’s “Junk DNA” – For Those Who Listen: Soft Rock, Jazz, Pop Ian James Stewart’s name will not be unknown to several of you, having been an important part of Scottish Strangeways in which provided his contribution as a guitarist. I admit to having lost sight of him for a while and now I find him with this solo album. I was blown away as it has little to do with his past hard rock / AOR, indeed, the thirteen songs ranging in various musical fields, all treated with a remarkable maturity. Atmospheric The “Phosphorus”, for example, is sweet and delicate as they knew to be Dire Straits and Sting solo, yet it’s eight and a half minutes and absolutely does not weigh, while flowing, stroking ears and hearts.

By Steven Reid (Sea Of Tranquility) – Best known as the guitarist and chief songwriter for Scottish AOR outfit Strangeways, Ian James Stewart has also released a number of solo albums. Junk DNA is his latest and one which the man himself describes as an album he’s always wanted to make. It is easy to hear why, with this album having a really personal and emotional feel through a few variations of styles and approaches which still work tremendously well together.

By Heavy Paradise – Ian James Stewart is a guitarist, composer, singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer, but, basically, the general melodic public knows him as the lead guitarist and main songwriter of the legendary AOR act Strangeways in the mid 80’s. In his new release which is entitled “Junk DNA”, Ian put all his influences that he grew up with and he mixes them in such a way that in the end he succeeds to release a solid album that may not excite but it certainly does not go unnoticed.

By E Holmes – Having been a fan of IJS’s talent for many years, this album demonstrates superb creativity in Ian’s song writing and the sounds are fantastic which will not disappoint. Brilliant guitar riffs you can’t get enough of! Incredible vocals and story telling of the tracks makes his music so interesting and addictive. Title track ‘If this is life’ is just one if my favourites. Highly recommend buying this album.

Well…how much do you need?

So I went online to see what was going on with this music in terms of Internet metrics. From what I can tell Ian’s getting ripped off by a whole mess of download sites. JERKS! Though that’s not good for his pocket, it does go a long way at telling you, the audience, this thing is a sought after piece of art because Stewart is an artist that’s in demand and that’s a tremendous start.

I want to stop here and tip my hat to the rest of the band. All of them except Warren Jolly are holdovers from the original unit, Strangeways. Jim Drummond on drums is one of those rare “skins cats” that finds just the right amount of lag to hang in a pocket that’s so large, a deaf man could find it! When you listen to the track “Heaven Knows” (featured above) that’s where you can hear what I’m talkin’ about. Paired with bassists Warren Jolly and/or Dave Stewart on these tunes, I don’t think it’s possible to get any better. David “Munch” Moore on keyboards fleshes this effort out with an ethereal mist that’s tantalizing and memorizes. The background vocalists are great (see credits below) and feathered in at just the right volume. What can I say? Perfect is, as perfect does. Perfect. This kind of album recording only comes once in a great while, from great writing/arranging and guys who know each other really well.

So I guess you could say, I love these guys. Basically, this is Strangeways, they just dropped the name and put the PR into Ian as the lead and, dammit, he deserves it but, I don’t think Ian would be Ian James Stewart without them. Plain and simple as that. This unit has history behind them and lots of it.

The message for this album is part political complaint and part a love affair with solitude and atmospherics. It has a somber walk to it. This is a sort of progressive rock mix that I’ve loved since I first heard it many moon ago. Stewart puts his spin on it, to be sure. It’s very plain who his influences were but I won’t insult this unit by saying, they sound like this one or that one because it would hamper the PR surrounding what this art work is and really, they don’t sound like anybody but who they are. That’s important for me because I crave originality. Not for its own sake but because the rules which confront great artistry as an effort demands that boundaries are nudged further down the road to new expressions worth the time admiring them.

Still, as an idiom, progressive rock has had many children who were born from artists admiring the pioneers who blazed the first trails. So in a way, these guys were born a bit later to the game. However, it doesn’t mean they’re late.

Things are very retro these days and, why’s that? Because that’s the good stuff. It’s a solid foundation as a tradition, and it won’t ever be wanton of practitioners like Ian and this band of brothers.

My favorite lyric on this album is from the video above, “Heaven Knows”. Written by his brother David Stewart, it shows where Stewart’s heart and center is. It’s a haunting testimony. Also, where the video is concerned, the editor and producer captured the essence of this band and done in black & white was a great production choice because it accentuates the mystery which is the great, Ian James Stewart. As a writer, as a producer and, as onstage artists…this band along with their leader is at the pinnacle of their power.

Heaven Knows – Lyrics by David Stewart

Heaven knows what’s wrong, Heaven knows what’s right,
I was standing alone in the daylight, was to bright for my eyes…

Heaven knows this face, Heaven knows this place,
I was standing alone in the moonlight, was to bright for my eyes…ahh…

Heaven knows my kind, Heaven knows my mind,
I was standing alone in the daylight was to bright for my eyes…….
I had to realise…

Isn’t it incredible that, so few words could say so much?

Needless to say, I could go on and on about why this hits me right where I like to be hit. When great lyrics meet a consummate melodist and singer/guitar player something magical occurs. That’s what happened on this album.

These guys deserve at least a half million in PR cash and that’s what will put them where they belong, on the arena concert stages all over the world. I hope someone with big pockets in Europe or the USA wakes up and finds this unit and helps to syndicate them in a much broader federation. If they do, they’re going to make oodles of moolah with ’em. More importantly, a whole mess of folks who’ve been waiting for the next big thing, will have finally found what they’ve been looking for. That’d be this band. They adhere to and uphold for all to see, one of the enduring traditions of rock. They testify as sonic witnesses and practitioners, why this tradition should continue to push the vista’s, boldly going where only very few bands can do so effectively.

Next stop? 50,000 albums sold. There’s a start and, it should happen.

The album “Junk DNA” by Ian James Stewart is Sidler’s pick of this decade so far.

Buy it!

iTunes freaks, buy it here…and…

Why does this band and Ian James Stewart deserve the title of genius? It’s because they “get” us. Thanks guys! I wouldn’t be “hear” without you.

I’m Brian Sidler and I write about music, et al.

Here’s the tracks:

1. Junk DNA
2. Phosphorus
3. Big White Monkey
4. One more time
5. Path of Lightning
6. Charlie Parker **
7. So far so good **
8. No Water ****
9. Heaven Knows ***
10. Know is Nothing
11. If this is life

Bonus tracks:
12. When U Love Somebody featuring Robert Wyatt on lead vocals and trumpet
13. Slow Burn Dance

Album Credits:
Album recorded at Red Dog Studios Lincolnshire – Engineered,Produced and Mixed by Ian James stewart except for * Mixed by Ian James Stewart and Erik Thompson.

All songs written by Ian James Stewart except ** written by David Stewart and Jimmy Fisher and *** written by David Stewart. **** Ian James Stewart / Chris Skinner

Ian James Stewart – guitars,vocals,keys and bass.
David Stewart -bass guitar on “Know is Nothing”,Charlie Parker&So far so good, Harmonica on Big White Monkey
Robert Wyatt – backing vocals on “No water” and lead vocal and trumpet on “When u love some somebody”
Warren Jolly- double bass on “when u love somebody”
Sonti Ramirez – backing vocals on “No Water’ Path of Lightning” Junk DNA” and If this is Life”
David “Munch” Moore – keys on “Phosphorus” and “Know is Nothing”
Jim Drummond – Drums and Percussion.
Extra vocals on “Path of Lightning: Luke, Totty, Chris, Big John, Dave, Jo, David Selvey, Steve Girling.
Artwork by John Smith.
Photography – Ilona Sadler

Thanks to: Ilona,Ruben, Chris and Cath, Big John, Bob Potter,The Stewart Clan, Dave Selvey, John Dryland,UAD,Dave and Jo,Totty, Steve, Engl amps, Tad, Jim, Munch and Dave, Warren, Sonti, Jimi, Erik, Jasper and Astrid, Norman, John, and everyone at Old Hat Guitars , Horncastle, Frank, Bren, Celtic Texan and everyone that helped with making of the album.

Special thanks: John Lee and Robert Wyatt.

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