Rodney Matthews Studios [Release date 13.12.19]
Renowned fantasy artist Rodney Matthews, illustrator of over140 album covers, is also a jazz/rock/prog drummer of note, and has previously recorded solo and with guitarist Jeff Scheetz. Here he teams up again with Scheetz and former Yes keyboard player Oliver “Son of Rick” Wakeman. There are also a number of high calibre guests, including Pete Coleman, Asia’s John Payne and Magnum’s Tony Clarkin. There’s also an appearance of Rick “Dad of Oliver” Wakeman.
Many will know Matthews’ work through his long time relationship with pomp/prog rockers Magnum, with his work also appearing on albums by Nazareth (the iconic No Mean City), Scorpions, Asia and Praying Mantis. And of serious note are German progressive rock band Eloy, whose Time To Turn and Planets albums musically matched Rodney’s artwork perfectly. And don’t forget the early 90s Christian Metal scene.
This largely instrumental album (there is some narration) paints a picture that showcases not just Rodney’s ability but just how much his graphic style matches the music he plays (as much as the bands he works with). But it’s not just about Rodney’s influences, each musician makes a notable contribution.
Opener ‘Heavy Metal Her’o (also the name of Rodney’s train that adorned a Diamond Head LP) features some thunderous drumming, jazz undertones, and some great guitar work. Between guitar solo work, the drums, keyboards and guitars come together nicely. There’s also a keyboard solo between some crunchy guitar work that stands out, as heavy as anything Yes ever would have done. Some good riffage going on here.
Running at well over 8 minutes, ‘Mirador’ (get the Magnum connection?) is more a soundscape, and progressive too, with some heavy moments and some much gentler long periods too. Female vocals over piano and acoustic guitars between segments of heavy prog, majestic on every level.
‘The Granite Curtain’ is one of the jazzier tracks, interesting rhythm, it’s quite an uplifting rock tracks in places. The switch between jazz, rock and marching band rhythms is done cleverly, the guitar work over the top matches nicely. Nice saxophone work too.
There’s some classical influence on ‘Night Of The Bare Mountain’, another wonderful track.
The whole album rocks and is uplifting. A variety of soundscapes, there’s a smooth feel throughout and more than enough to satiate the progressive rocker too.
Wonderful, inside and out. ****1/2
Review by Joe Geesin
Joe Geesin recently caught with Rodney Matthews to ask him about the album, the various guests that appear on it and his drumming…
Hi Rodney, how are you?
I’m okay, thank you.
How did this album come about?
That Sir is a long story. So long, that I can trace it back to the advent of the flexible vinyl long playing records that replaced the 78 rpm discs of my father’s time! In the late fifties and early sixties, I was a great fan of the guitar based instrumental bands such as The Shadows and The Ventures. The very first LP record album I bought was by The Shadows, and with my limited (art college funds) I also bought albums by Sandy Nelson (of ‘Let There Be Drums’ fame) and copied his drumming religiously. ‘Wouldn’t it be great to make albums like this myself’, I thought. I could even paint the cover images! Since that time, I have played drums in several of my own rock bands and done some jazz stuff but the magical record deal always alluded me, for various reasons, not the least of which was the sudden success of my art career in the mid 1970s.
My album vision languished in the nether regions of my mind until sometime in the 90s when I met American Jeff Scheetz at a four-day rock event in the UK. Jeff was attending as a star guitarist demonstrating his considerable skills. To my surprise, he was familiar with my artwork from my posters on sale in the US, and we discussed the possibility of recording an album of tracks influenced by my images. At first I didn’t reveal to Jeff that I wanted to play drums on said album, that came later, when after another of his UK visits, we had become good chums.
To cut a long story short, after many years of problems, disappointments and false starts – twenty-five years in fact – we stand at the threshold of our dream, which is now underwritten by some wonderful musicians including Oliver Wakeman, John Payne, Tony Clarkin and Rick Wakeman.
How old were you when you started drumming?
I must have been around fifteen when I discovered one of my dad’s old drum kits assembled in our living room. Thinking, this might be a good way to become a rock star and impress the chicks, I got down to thrashing the ancient kit.
You’ve worked with Jeff quite a bit in the past, tell us about that.
Not a lot actually, it’s just that what we have done, has covered many years. That said, we did release our Christmas single ‘I saw Three Ships’ several years ago. ‘Trinity’ itself I’d say commenced in earnest in 2014.
Is working with Tony Clarkin and two Wakemans as much a dream as it sounds?
I can say yes to that, although in the case of Tony Clarkin it was an unexpected pleasure, in that Tony happened to be present at M2 Studios when I was recording drums for ‘The Leavetaking’ and hearing me ask “who can I get on bass for this track” he volunteered “I’ll do that for you.” He picked up a bass guitar that happened to be lying around and in next to no time had played a wonderful session before my very eyes! This led to me asking later if he’d do a couple more.
Rick has always been a great hero of mine, but being the busiest man on Earth, he is difficult to tie down, even though in principle he had agreed to play some stuff for me many years ago. It was not until Oliver cornered him in his own studio that the job was done on the title track ‘Trinity’. Rick played harpsichord and church organ with his customary brilliance – although, because of a misunderstanding, he played the harpsichord in the wrong section of the tune. Credit to him, it worked perfectly and was retained – just as well, after all, who’s going to rebuke Lord Wakeman to his face.
Oliver Wakeman’s involvement with the album was indeed a dream. He really did go the extra hundred miles. Each keyboard track that he sent me was accompanied by a detailed description of how he had arrived at his arrangement, having absorbed the essence of my relevant piece of artwork, which is exactly what this album is all about! Oliver actually wrote the piece ‘November Wedding’ (and played it for Sarah and I on the day of our marriage), as a surprise wedding gift. He also co-wrote other tunes on the album. Taking in his impressive musical career, I have not heard Oliver play better than on my album!
Did your work with Diamond Head and Magnum inspire the tracks Heavy Metal Hero and Mirador?
As with all the tracks on Trinity, the inspiration for each came from one of my artworks. Everyone who composed or arranged on the album had access to my images and was guided musically by what they saw before them. I made a point of steering clear of images that I’d been commissioned to paint for other bands. Although ‘The Heavy Metal Hero’ and ‘Mirador’ had appeared on the album covers of Diamond Head and Magnum respectively, these were on a second rights basis, having been painted for other purposes many years before – so those were fair game!
Must have been nice to get behind a drum kit again?
Yes, but there were some cobwebs to be cleared, and now and then I had to admit there were things I couldn’t play like when I was twenty-five!
Who are your drumming influences?
These go back to the swing jazz age, with my great admiration for Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and others, not forgetting the modern jazz drummers like Connie Kaye (MJQ) and of course Joe Morello (Dave Brubeck Quartet). Incidentally, last year I witnessed a performance by Dan Brubeck on drums (yes, Dave’s son) and was thunderstruck by the man’s ability! I’m also a fan of Bill Bruford, Neil Peart and numerous other ‘proggers’.
When we first met, you told me about your interest in nature and photography, close ups of insects for example. Is this still as much an influence now as it was then?
Most of the work I produce of my own accord depicts a critter of some kind, and of course with the Praying Mantis album covers I am allowed some insect elbow room. I still find wildlife fascinating and draw in influences where possible.
How important are your beliefs in your work?
Privately, my Christian faith is of the highest importance to me, however as far as my artwork is concerned, the majority contains no Christian content. That said, I have in the past done a series of images from The Revelation and some allegorical stuff here and there. While the Trinity album is largely instrumental there are spiritual statements in some of the images, such as the cover art – the three swans represent Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and perhaps the “David and Goliath” like theme, adopted for ‘Night on the Bare Mountain’. I try not to preach to people and have worked with those who hold varying belief systems without any problems.
Who have you most enjoyed working with as a musician?
If you are referring to the ‘Trinity’ personnel, I must say that all concerned are top class musicians. It was a joy to hear each one of them adding their parts to the album. I would be reluctant to elevate any one person. Of course, there was the customary jostling for dominance at the mixing session – ultimately, I failed to convince Jeff Scheetz (guitarist) that we needed to make the album one long drum solo with a little subdued accompaniment in the background!
Who have you most enjoyed working with as an illustrator?
There are some notable names that come to mind: Michael Moorcock was a great inspiration back in the 1970s, as we worked together on designs for posters, book covers, a calendar and an illustrated short story; Bob Moon, publisher of Picture Sales, who routinely risked losing his shirt when financing our numerous and varied merchandising projects during the 1980-90s; Peter Ledeboer of Big O publishing, who was just as crazy as me; and the mighty Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), who bought my originals and is still commissioning stuff to this day; but the one person who, in my memory, towers aloft, is the late Gerry Anderson. I worked with Gerry for two years designing our childrens TV series ‘Lavender Castle’, which I must say was one of, if not, the most enjoyable parts of my career. Gerry gave me a completely free hand in all design work, placing me in a position of authority over all design and set construction personnel (after himself of course). We worked well together and ultimately became very good friends with practically no contentious moments.
Incidentally, ‘Lavender Castle’ and its synopsis, was based upon the lyrics of a song I wrote for my band Squidd back in the early 1970s.
From who you have worked with, whose music do you most associate with?
Difficult choice here, but it must come down to Magnum and in particular the lyrics written by Tony Clarkin. It was Clarkin’s words and his general worldview that attracted me to approach him for album art in the early 80s. We’ve had a long and enjoyable working relationship, resulting in some of my best album cover artwork. Runners-up might include Eloy and Asia.
Do you have much work (as a musician) in the archive?
Not much worth the mention. There are a few soundtracks I’ve recorded for personal projects and intellectual properties, and some ideas that I intend to re-visit as time (and money) permits – mostly ‘proggy’ stuff and music for children’s entertainment.
Who have you worked with that fans may not know about?
In 2016 I was commissioned by Republic Records to paint an album cover for, wait for it, American rapper Post Malone. Definitely not a genre of music I’m associated with, but apparently the then 21-year old, gold-toothed, heavily tattooed rapper liked my stuff. I painted his likeness in my fantasy style, complete with sword breaking through the Earth. Then, awaiting the release, I found out that the label pulled it, much to the disappointment of myself, his art director and by all accounts Post Malone himself, who liked it. Still it paid well and they bought the original.
As a musician, it is probably not common knowledge that, with my bands Originn and Squidd, I played support to Cream, Eric Clapton, Gary Moore’s Skid Row, Deep Purple and so on and even did a one night stint as drummer for Graham Bonds Magick, by personal request of Bond himself, when his band (Paul Kossof and Simon Kirke of Free and Trevor Burton of The Move) got their van stuck in traffic.
What next for Rodney Matthews?
I’m reluctant to make great proclamations. However, I will not be taking on so many record cover commissions as in past years, so that, working with my wife, Sarah, we will develop our IP for books, animation and possibly games. Music will be part of our vision, but now applied to our own ideas rather than those of others.
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