Titanium Flag: Remastered & Expanded Edition
Released 28 April 2017 on Market Square Records
Available in physical and digital form (iTunes, Amazon, et al.)
Background: the 2010 Recordings
At Christmas 2009, Colin Harper took a friend’s advice, borrowed some money and bought, for the first time, a really fine instrument: a handmade Avalon acoustic guitar. Having created no music – barely picked up an instrument – for two years, the instrumental pieces for Titanium Flag and also a host of vocal pieces’came’ really quickly. It was quite a cathartic experience…
In August 2010 Titanium Flag slipped out digitally and in a pressing of 100 copies in card wallet. An all-instrumental CD, veering between chamber music, folk-blues, progressive rock and cool jazz, it was inspired by two books on Arctic history and travel: Joanna Kavenna’sThe Ice Museum: In Search Of The Lost Land Of Thule (Viking, 2005) and True North: Travels In Arctic Europe (Polygon, 2008) by Gavin Francis.
The album was sent to only a handful of broadcasters in 2010 and yet the reaction was more than edifying – with ongoing airplay and listeners getting in touch as a result. Musically, it was inspired by artists ranging from Keith Jarrett to Arvo Part, Martin Carthy to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with instruments used including guitars, clarinet, flugelhorn, violin, piano, string quartet and Hammond organ.
The response from friends was gratifying too…
Brush Shiels, founder of Irish prog-rock legends Skid Row, said: “There is so much energy coming off Titanium Flag that it has to be contributing to global warming! In some small way you will definitely affect people who care about the state of our planet, which is something that Skid Row never did. Beautiful piece of work.”
Former Mojo editor and acclaimed author Paul Du Noyer got in touch to say: “I am thoroughly enjoying this music – some new texture, or feeling, strikes me with each listen.”
Horslips keyboard/flute legend Jim Lockhart phoned to say how much he was enjoying the album and that it had inspired him to focus on composing more music himself.
Folk/blues maestro Brooks Williams emailed: “The tunes are indeed beautiful – very spatial and evocative! The guitar sounds fab!”
Former Focus guitarist Jan Akkerman – a major inspiration for the album – took the time to critique every track in detail, declaring ‘Rachelle’ “beautiful”, ‘The Last Place On Earth’ as “my thing – great!” and ‘To Sail For Eternity’ “a masterpiece”.
The 2017 Remastered/Expanded Edition
At the very moment of pondering, at his home in Belfast, a remastered edition of Titanium Flag in the wake of Sunset Cavaliers’ warm reviews and airplay, Harper received an invitation, in Dutch, to join someone’s professional network on LinkedIn: Jan Akkerman.
Harper: ‘Suitably inspired – by the karma, not the invitation to join LinkedIn – I emailed Jan with an idea and ‘Greenland: East To West’, inspired by 19th Century Norwegian adventurer Fridtjof Nansen, is the result. Jan’s epic solo is the imagined sound of a man raging against the howling snowstorms of the pre-Victorian Arctic, single-handedly creating the ‘heroic age’ of exploration. It transpires that Jan is still the master of improvisational and inspirational guitar. But I have no intention of joining LinkedIn.’
Harper reassembled the original ‘Titanium Flagorchestra’ – jazz broadcaster/bandleader Linley Hamilton (flugelhorn, trumpet), orchestral musicians Alan McClure (violin) and Rachelle Stewart (clarinet), and céilí band drummer/closet rocker Jim Cuthbertson (drums) –and added Irish jazz pianist/bandleader Scott Flanigan and local bass maestro Ali MacKenzie along with Jan in Volendam and flautist Premik Russell Tubbs (ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra) in New York. Further cyber collaboration, between Belfast and Australia, was going on with producer/recording artist Martin Tinson and guitar legend Martin Cilia. The result is three new pieces of music, added to the start of the album.
Four vocal tracks, recorded during the original Titanium Flag sessions in 2010, are added at the end. Other guests on the album include Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones (ex-Quintessence) and Andy Roberts (ex-Liverpool Scene, Plainsong). The audio was remastered by Denis Blackham and the package comes with a detailed 12-page booklet and a fold-out pair of vintage maps of the Arctic regions.
Harper: ‘It transpires that it’s rather expensive to include a second insert in a CD. I believe that Titanium Flag is the best thing, musically, I’ve done, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to make it widely available. But I’m also hoping I don’t have any more musical inspiration for a while!’
The Music: Track by Track
1. On The Ocean
Martin Cilia (lead guitar), Mark Tinson (acoustic and electric guitars), Linley Hamilton (flugelhorn), Scott Flanigan (piano), Peter Gray (bass), Dane Baldwin (drums)
Some years ago, inspired by Kerryn Tolhurst’s beautifully filmed 2006 DVD documentary Delightful Rain on Australia’s surf music history, I wrote a piece of music called ‘The Duke Out On The Ocean’. The title was a nod to legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku, who introduced the activity to Australia in 1915. Yes, for some reason I am drawn to out-of-the-way bits of history. During 2016 Mark Tinson was working on his own homage to the classic surf music era and very generously offered to produce a version of my tune. It became a collaboration by email: Scott and Linley in Belfast; Mark’s guys in Oz. The track is electrified by guitar legend Martin Cilia, who joined Australian icons the Atlantics in 1998 and remained until the group’s retirement with a 50th anniversary tour in 2013. Their 1963 hit ‘Bombora’ is the gold standard of Australian surf music and the energy in its live performance in Delightful Rain is sensational. By happy coincidence, the title of Pytheas of Massila’s lost book on his fourth century BC travels to the far north (see below) was On The Ocean. Leaving the Duke out, we now have an opening track that seems so simultaneously easy on the ear and in keeping with the wistful aura of the North Atlantic muse that I would be an idiot not to use it.
2. Prelude: Greenland 1888
CH (guitar), Alan McClure (violin), Rachelle Stewart (clarinet), Linley Hamilton (trumpets), Cormac O’Kane (piano)
Norwegian explorer, diplomat, oceanographer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) was an extraordinary man, a godfather of the ‘Heroic Age’ of Arctic exploration. One of his many achievements was the first crossing of Greenland, in 1888, from the largely uninhabited east to the sparsely populated west. On 17 July 1888 his ship was near the Greenland coast, a little south of 66° north, and small boats were launched; 25 days of frustration later, having been driven far to the south by ice and then rowing north again, Nansen’s team found a place to land at Umivik Bay, just above 64° north.
3. Greenland: East To West
CH (acoustic guitar, intro electric guitar), Jan Akkerman (lead guitar), Premik Russell Tubbs (flute, Tibetan singing bowl), Scott Flanigan (piano), Ali MacKenzie (bass), Jim Cuthbertson (drums)
After several days of battling violent weather and treacherous terrain on a route north-west toward Christianhaab, 69° north on the west coast, Nansen accepted that the plan was impossible and turned west toward Gotthab, on the same latitude as Umivik Bay. By 11 September they had reached the highest point of the ice cap, nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. Temperatures during the march dropped as low as -46°C. On 3 October 1888 they reached Gotthab – a trek of around 275 miles in extreme conditions. Nansen’s party of six spent the next seven months in Gotthab waiting for a ship to return to Norway. Within five years he was off again, this time with the North Pole in his sights. And he nearly got there. Roland Huntford’sNansen (Abacus, 2001) is recommended.
4. Six Days North
CH (acoustic guitar), Alan McClure (first violin), Molly Stevenson (second violin), Rachelle Stewart (clarinet), Jim Cuthbertson (drums)
In 325 BC Pytheas of Massila became the first writer from what was then the civilised world to explore the North Atlantic, sailing around Britain and north past the Shetlands. ‘Six days north’ of Britain he discovered a populated place – never identified with any certainty by subsequent commentators – which he named Ultima Thule.
5. Years Of Regret
CH (acoustic guitar), Cormac O’Kane (piano), Jim Cuthbertson (drums)
Like many written works from the ancient world, Pytheas’ book, On The Ocean, is lost to posterity, known only from a handful of quoted fragments and sceptical remarks in the surviving works of subsequent Greek and Roman geographers. His mysterious land ‘beyond the north wind’ grew into a totem of myth and yearning, implicated as the spurious source of the Nazis’ master race concept. It has remained a metaphor for something mysterious and wonderful that is always just beyond reach.
6. Frozen Ocean
Cormac O’Kane (piano), Jim Cuthbertson (drums)
In Pytheas’ words, a day’s sailing beyond Thule the sea congealed.
7. To Sail For Eternity
CH (acoustic guitars)
During the sixth century AD, according to the later ‘immram’ of his voyage – a medieval form of religious mythologising within which glimpses of historical and geographical truth may just about be gleaned – Brendan the Navigator, an Irish monk, perambulated around the North Atlantic with a small band of followers in search of ‘The Isle of the Blessed’. He encountered a number of wondrous things, including a pillar of light in the ocean (an iceberg, perhaps), a ‘paradise of birds’ and an island of fire, which he believed to be the entrance to hell. It is possible that he had, in fact, chanced upon the isolated volcanic island of Jan Mayan – 400 miles north of Iceland and not subsequently ‘discovered’ by Europeans until 1614. Another possibility is that he witnessed the rise of an undersea volcano off Iceland, which became the isle of Surtsey.
8. Novaya Zemlya
CH (electric and acoustic guitars, programmed drums), Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones (chanting, didgeridoo),
Known from the eleventh century, Novaya Zemlya (‘new land’) comprises two giant islands lying between Russia and the North Pole, extending the line of the Ural Mountains northward. Forced on to land by encroaching ice, Dutch explorer Willem Barents and his crew overwintered on the northern tip in 1596, on a failed voyage to find the North-East Passage between Europe and China. Barents himself died within days of escaping the place the following year. During the Soviet era Novaya Zemlya became a desolated test zone for atomic weapons.
9. The Last Place On Earth
CH (keyboard, real-time electronic drum fills), Linley Hamilton (flugelhorn)
The Svalbard archipelago, discovered in 1596, lies halfway between Norway’s North Cape and the North Pole. In an iron vault deep underground the world stores the seeds of 1,400 varieties of things that grow, as insurance against global calamity. Both geographically, and in terms of the survival of humanity, it is the last place on Earth.
10. Titanium Flag
CH (electric guitar), Cormac O’Kane (Hammond organ), Jim Cuthbertson (drums)
In August 2007, long after Europeans had ceased careering around the world claiming vast tracts of Earth with a flag, the Russian navy planted a titanium flag on the seabed underneath the North Pole. A giant, ridiculous gesture, it lays down the gauntlet for the future mining of natural resources in the Arctic, when the ice has gone. The possibility of commercially viable arctic oil extraction is the Ultima Thule of the early twenty-first century.
CH (acoustic guitar), Rachelle Stewart (clarinet)
In the summer of 2009 I was at a low ebb. I remain grateful for my friend Rachelle’s practical and moral support. This is a little vignette for her.
12. Passing Away: For the Dodo and the Great Auk
Alan McClure (first violin), Una Donnelly (second violin), FintanMcMorrow (viola), Kerry Bryson (cello)
There is a great deal of sadness and regret in life, some of it avoidable. Making music is a kind of therapy for it. I hope that listening to something made in that spirit can also be a source of uplift or consolation.
Bonus Tracks (2010):
Carol-Anne Lennie (vocals), CH (acoustic guitar), Andy Roberts (electric guitar), Cormac O’Kane (keyboards), Ali MacKenzie (bass), Jim Cuthbertson (drums)
CH (vocal, acoustic guitar), Karen Smyth (vocal), Cormac O’Kane (keyboards, bass, programmed drums)
15. Gold Rush
CH (vocal, acoustic guitar), Cormac O’Kane (keyboards, bass)
CH (vocal, acoustic guitar), Karen Smyth (backing vocal), Cormac O’Kane (electric guitar, electric piano), Ali MacKenzie (bass), Tony Furnell (drums)
A number of songs were recorded during the Titanium Flag sessions with producer Cormac O’Kane. He liked the songs – outworkings of a crisis of confidence, mostly – and disliked the instrumentals, which was quite amusing. I recall one occasion when, having just endured a couple of intense days with somebody else’s project going badly wrong, he pinned me against a wall and accused me at length of writing all these great songs and then shelving them in favour of a load of progressive rock instrumentals that no one in the world would be interested in. It was like being smashed around the head with a barrage of compliments. Curiously, Cormac had already proven himself to be a brilliant progressive rock organist with a stunning performance on the one-take epic that became the album’s title track. I’m sure there must be some kind of moral in there.
I was thrilled to have my friends Carol-Anne and Andy Roberts play on ‘Squirrel’, each adding magic to it. I don’t think Carol has recorded anything else, which is a situation that needs rectifying, but Andy has an amazing body of work to his name, beginning with the Liverpool Scene in 1968 and continuing to the present day. He is a man who has played with everyone; even me. My own voice is very limited, and my guitar playing idiosyncratic, but Cormac was insistent that I avoid my usual tactic of involving female guest singers and give it a go myself. He is a producer who manages to get the best possible performance from his clients, and who often goes extra miles in creating a finished product. His arrangement ideas and playing on ‘Gold Rush’ were typically inspired, as was his suggestion to ask Karen Smyth to add vocal support to a number of songs.
Having inadvertently not involved my regular collaborator Ali MacKenzie on the instrumental material that became Titanium Flag back in 2010, I am delighted that his playing of two of the vocal recordings from those sessions can be heard here. While Titanium Flag betrays, perhaps, how much I have been inspired by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Pentangle and Jan Akkerman, ‘Squirrel’ completes – with a doff of its furry-tailed cap to the Who – the quartet of influences that permeate most of what I do in music. It’s not deliberate; it just comes out that way, so I might as well enjoy it.
Colin Harper – acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards (9), vocal (14-16)
Cormac O’Kane – piano and organ, bass (14-15), electric guitar (16)
Ali MacKenzie – bass (3, 13, 16)
Jan Akkerman – lead guitar (3)
Andy Roberts – electric guitar (13)
‘Ulster-Scots Jim’ Cuthbertson – drums (tracks 3-6, 10, 13)
‘Late-Night Tony’ Furnell – drums (16)
Rachelle Stewart – clarinet (2, 4, 11)
Linley Hamilton – flugelhorn (1, 6), trumpets (2, 13)
Alan McClure – violin (2, 4, 12)
Molly Stevenson – second violin (4)
Una Donnelly – second violin (12)
FintanMcMorrow – viola (12)
Kerry Bryson – cello (12)
‘On The Ocean’ features a quartet of musicians recorded in Australia: Martin Cilia (lead guitar), Mark Tinson (acoustic and electric guitars), Peter Gray (bass) and Dane Baldwin (drums). My grateful thanks to all four.
‘Novaya Zemlya’ features a didgeridoo/chanting sample from Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones’ recording Meditation Om Chant, used with the permission of the great man.
String arrangement on ‘Six Days North’: Belinda Larmour with Alan McClure
String transcription (from a keyboard demo by CH) on ‘Passing Away’: Anita Mawhinney
The original Titanium Flag and the associated vocal recordings were recorded between February and April 2010 at Rhubarb Recordings, Belfast, except for ‘Passing Away’, which was recorded at Rhubarb Recordings, Belfast, 2006. Cormac O’Kane engineered all tracks save for ‘To Sail For Eternity’ and ‘Novaya Zemlya’, which were engineered by Bernard Flanagan. On ‘Squirrel’, Carol-Anne Lennie was recorded in Luton and Andy Roberts at his home studio in Brighton.
Of the three 2016 recordings (tracks 1-3), ‘On The Ocean’ was produced by Colin Harper & Mark Tinson, with most recording and all mixing by Mark Tinson at Steelville Studios, Newcastle, Australia; Linley Hamilton was recorded at Red Box Studios, Belfast, by Cormac O’Kane; Scott Flanigan was recorded at Brian Houston’s home studio, Belfast. ‘Prelude’ was recorded largely at Red Box Studios by Cormac O’Kane with additional recording – violin and clarinet – at Late-Night Tony Furnell’s as yet unnamed studio (and, curiously, during the daytime). ‘Greenland’ was recorded at Red Box Studios, Belfast, by Cormac O’Kane; Jan Akkerman’s sensational guitar solo was recorded at his home studio in Volendam, Netherlands; Premik Russell Tubbs’ flute and singing bowl were recorded at his home studio in New York, USA.
Of tracks 4-16, ‘To Sail For Eternity’ and ‘Novaya Zemlya’ were produced by Colin Harper. All other tracks were produced by Colin Harper & Cormac O’Kane.
The original album design was by Alex Smee: www.alexsmee.com
The extended edition design was by Mark Case: www.whitenoisestudios.com
The album was largely recorded by Cormac O’Kane: www.redboxrecording.com
Mastering was by Denis Blackham: www.skyemastering.com