Cosmograf - Live At The 1865 (The Official Bootleg)

Cosmograf – Live At The 1865 (The Official Bootleg)

Robin Armstrong is releasing an unexpected live album of one of Cosmograf’s rare performances, in May 2023 at the 1865 venue in Southampton (now firmly established as one of THE essential Prog venues in the U.K.) ‘The Official Bootleg’ subtitle indicates the nature of this release, but such was the quality of the recording and performance Robin Armstrong decided to release it. It is a worthy document of a fine band in action with a range of Cosmograf’s material across the last decade or so.

Cosmograf’s publicity about this release explains:

‘There was no original intention for the gig to be recorded, but a decent soundboard stereo mix was made available after the show, that had captured something very interesting. Much of the set played that night provided too much intention not to share some of that experience with a much wider audience. What it lacks in polished presentation, it more than makes up for in the performance and vibe of a live band in its raw grass roots environment.’

This release does exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak, presenting an unfiltered (and ‘untouched up’) live document of a band in full flow. To listeners of a certain age ‘Live’ albums can make us rather misty eyed as we recall happy moments from our earlier years listening to some classic live albums. We all have our favourites, whether it is the muscular HEAVY rock of Made in Japan by Deep Purple (a favourite band of Robin), the polished gem of Genesis’ Seconds Out, or even the frankly muddily produced Yessongs. Live albums used to come only every few years ‘back in the day’ and as such they were much treasured and eagerly anticipated for audiences without easy access to live recordings. In truth many of these live recordings were considerably ‘polished up’ (particularly Thin Lizzy’s legendary but considerably ‘improved’ Live and Dangerous album.) These days virtually every major artist routinely releases impeccable live recordings of each tour – it’s part of the business model for which you can hardly blame them in a streaming dominated market. Consequently, live albums do not really elicit the same excitement or great interest as they once did, which is a pity as such releases presented bands in a different light to their studio incarnations.

In that context it is interesting that Cosmograf have decided to release an album in such a raw state. There is no mistaking these songs as simply carbon copies of their studio versions. What comes across is that live Cosmograf are a considerably ‘heavier’ outfit musically than they are in the studio. Generally, a Cosmograf studio album is a sonic landscape, mixing rock passages with sound effects and samples. Obviously, these live versions reflect those origins with some sound effects and samples still embroidering the songs, but Cosmograf have injected a sharper edge into these songs with some hefty solos and some impassioned, distinctive live vocals from Robin Armstrong. He has assembled a fine live outfit around him including Alistair Martin, a skilled bass player of various tribute bands, Kyle Fenton, whom has been Cosmograf’s excellent studio drummer for a lengthy period, and the dazzling guitar talent of Lee Abraham, who aside from his own outstanding solo career also plays with fellow South Coast Prog veterans Galahad.

One of the standout songs from Cosmograf’s most recent album Heroic Materials is the stirring British Made which focuses on Robin Armstrong’s love of classic cars. Lee Abraham brilliantly conjures up a sense of speed with an electric guitar solo oozing the power and majesty of an E-type Jaguar. Heroic Materials is again later represented by Regretful Refrain introduced by subtle but melancholic sounding electric guitar work from Robin Armstrong. Robin also gives one of his more emotional vocal performances, conveying the words of a very old Spitfire pilot looking back regretfully at his life, embellished with some more classy guitar work and some very solid bass Alistair Martin, anchoring the song.

This review will not dissect each song’s meaning. The Progressive Aspect have thoroughly reviewed virtually every Cosmograf album since 2011’s When Age has Done its Duty (albeit in it’s 2018 re-release format). The actual concert from which this album is recorded was two hours long but only 80 minutes is presented here, so sadly we hear nothing from 2019’s dark and powerful Mind Over Depth or the more cinematic Rattrapante released in 2020, which did have songs played that night. Choosing the songs for this release must have been tough for Robin, but he has managed to choose a selection which covers most of Cosmograf’s career. The excellent title track to The Man Left in Space, the 2013 album which really promoted Cosmograf into much higher recognition, comes up next and features a lithe solo from Armstrong. It is some achievement that the more atmospheric and subtle passages are presented with great delicacy as the song closes. My love of Cosmograf can be traced back to hearing the wonderful Bakelite Switch on a Prog magazine sampler CD which induced me to buy the outstanding When Age has Done its Duty album – still my favourite Cosmograf song and album. Armstrong employs the unique sound effect of the titular Bakelite Switch and the band builds a wall of sound. Martin’s fluid bass underpins the nostalgic lyrics of the middle section before Lee Abraham throws in a blistering guitar solo which segues into some great organ work from the multi-talented Robin Armstrong. The song harks back lyrically to Armstrong’s childhood in the early 70’s and the music also echoes that era.

The Capacitor album is represented by two songs on the album. First up is the ghost story of White Car which commences very moodily with Armstrong intoning over a piano, synth effects and a bass line. Lee Abraham lifts the piece with some ethereal sounding guitars. Mid-way through the song there is a much grittier guitar sound with some titanic drumming from Kyle Fenton. Abraham’s guitar continues to soar above this dramatic song. Capacitor’s The Ghost Gets Made provides the final encore with an atmospheric keyboard opening with echoing effects and voices eerily resonating across the stage before the whole band thrust in forcefully and Armstrong bellows into the maelstrom. When I saw the band, I was surprised at the choice of this song (assuming the encore would be something like Bakelite Switch) but hearing it again now I can hear why Armstrong intuitively chose this blockbuster of a song to blow away the crowd, and Lee Abraham dazzles with the rippling final solo. It’s a truly dramatic and satisfying way to end the show and album.

Earlier, the paranoia of The Unreasonable Silence, my favourite album of 2016, is well represented with the coupling of Four Wall Euphoria and Arcade Machine. Robin introduces the first of these songs stating it is about ‘the absolute joy of shutting the world out and not having to go out’. A rather funky electric piano (I think?) solo from Armstrong is great fun in the middle and then the pace and power picks up with recorded voices echoing around the venue. Abraham elaborately plays a rather baroque guitar solo, before the rather abrupt end. Video game sounds tells us we are about to enter the Arcade Machine and a synth pattern gradually builds into the song which Armstrong sings with increasing feeling. The synth recedes and the organ work takes over and the song steps up a few notches as the whole band powers in. This is very definitely more muscular than the studio version. The great mixture of lithe organ work, fluid guitar work, rock solid bass and pile driving drums is reminiscent of Deep Purple in their heyday. It’s a real highlight of the show and album for me, especially with Abraham’s incandescent final solo.

The main set ends majestically with The Motorway from the more pastorally tinged The Hay-Man Dreams of 2017, commencing with acoustic guitar. Robin introduces the song telling us the story of a scarecrow wishing for a life he cannot have, stuck to a pole within sight of a motorway, and dreams of getting in a car and driving off with his girlfriend. After the power of the previous two songs there is some relief with a more subtle opening pastoral passage… but as the story suggests the song accelerates onto another level with the band pounding out a joyous celebration of the freedom of just getting in a car and driving away, with Armstrong singing with great force. A brief pastoral interlude is just the song catching breath before Armstrong goes stratospheric with a glorious final guitar solo to bring the show to a brilliant conclusion. Cosmograf are truly blessed as a live outfit to have two such talented but different guitarists.

Let’s be clear here, as Robin Armstrong has transparently stated, this recording was never really meant for commercial release so it it’s by no means perfect as a live album. This is a straight stereo board recording which has not been ‘tarted up’ or had bits re-recorded (which is the case for so many so-called ‘live’ albums). Consequently, sometimes the sound can feel a little flat with insufficient distinction between instruments, such as the ending of the British Made which feels to me like the guitar and keyboards are a little muffled. However, these are minor quibbles in the context of the overall excellence of composition and performance by this excellent band. Cosmograf only play rarely so it is remarkable that in the short time they had to rehearse they somehow managed to perform with such aplomb and skill. What is a little disappointing to read in their publicity is that the crowd who saw this outstanding show is described by Cosmograf was ‘small and enthusiastic’. It is to be hoped that the next time Cosmograf play live that they get the sort of crowds such quality musicianship deserves… I will certainly be willing to travel see them again.

Buy this live bootleg album with an open mind and open ears – it’s not perfect sonically, but what it lacks in crystal clarity, it more than makes up with real grit and atmosphere. Robin Armstrong is an artist who values authenticity and this is Cosmograf out there in all transparency. As a way to maintain our attention whilst Cosmograf creates a new album Live at the 1865 is a success and great value. It may also be a good way for those unfamiliar with Cosmograf to explore their music… and before they know it, they will be exploring the back catalogue!

Live at the 1865 (The Official Bootleg) is definitely a rough diamond from Cosmograf – it may have some rough edges, but it sparkles with excellent performances and great compositions.

01. British Made (5:55)
02. The Man Left in Space (10:10)
03. Bakelite Switch (8:28)
04. White Car (10:03)
05. Regretful Refrain (6:58)
06. Four Wall Euphoria (6:28)
07. Arcade Machine (9:22)
08. The Motorway (11:16)
09. The Ghost Gets Made (8:52)

Total Time – 77:32

Robin Armstrong – Vocals, Guitars & Keyboards
Kyle Fenton – Drums & Vocals
Lee Abraham – Guitars & Vocals
Alistair Martin – Bass

Record Label : Gravity Dream Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 12th April 2024

• Live at the 1865 (The Official Bootleg) (2024)
• Heroic Materials (2022)
• Rattrapante (2020)
• Mind Over Depth (2019)
• When Age has Done its Duty (2018 Remix Version)
• The Hay-Man Dreams (2017)
• The Unreasonable Silence (2016)
• Capacitor (2014)
• The Man Left in Space (2013)
• When Age has Done its Duty (2011)
• End of Ecclesia (2009) – (CD no longer available) – Available as download
• Freed from the Anguish (2008) – No Longer available

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