Archive for the ‘classical’ Category

Album Review: Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia

Friday, August 21st, 2015

On one hand, the existence of this album makes perfect sense. Among many Who fans (myself most assuredly included), Quadrophenia ranks among the most celebrated work from Pete Townshend and/or The Who. While Tommy was arguably more groundbreaking – often (and incorrectly) cited as the first “rock opera” – Quadrophenia remains a more musically and lyrically satisfying work. While it’s true that Quadrophenia‘s story line remains more than a bit murky, it’s far more straightforward and linear than that of Tommy (or, to be sure, the never-finished Lifehouse project).

And as an expression of Townshend’s understanding – both emotionally and intellectually – of the Mod phenomenon (what Pete Meaden described as “clean living under difficult circumstances,” or something like that), Quadrophenia represents one of the composer’s most fully-realized and deeply textured works.

When The Who attempted to mount a tour in support of Quadrophenia, it didn’t really work. Between songs, Roger Daltrey(!) would attempt to explain the songs and story line, and while his intentions were good, the narration destroyed some of the flow. One can easily imagine an early 70s concert crowd responding with something along the lines of “shut up and rock!” The Quadrophenia tour-as-such was quietly abandoned in favor of a hit-laden set that featured a few Quadrophenia tracks.

But Townshend was demonstrably not finished with Quadrophenia. Though having moved on (into what we might call the post-Who era) to working on a stage version of Tommy, as well as the vastly underrated solo rock opera Psychoderelict, Townshend still wanted to put across the Quadrophenia material in its original, complete form.

The late 70s film went some way toward realizing that goal; it’s a far more nuanced movie than the overblown Tommy could have ever hoped to be, and the film version made some linear sense out of the muddled, slightly obscure story line.

But that wasn’t enough. In the early years of the new century, a reactivated Who toured the Quadrophenia material, enlisting guest vocalists to flesh out the characters. With the advantage of being able to draw upon modern sound technology, the group was able to put Quadrophenia across onstage in a way impossible a few decades earlier. They did it again on their 2012-2013 tour as well.

But even that wasn’t enough, which brings us ’round to what’s billed as Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia. Proper operatic-type vocalists (and then some) are backed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Oriana Choir in a new version of the extended work. Townshend’s significant other, Rachel Fuller, took on the daunting task of adapting Townshend’s material into the classical idiom.

How much one enjoys this new reading of Quadrophenia will depend to a great degree upon what it is that one liked/likes about the original 1973 double album. If John Entwistle‘s powerful bass work and the propulsive, barely-reined-in drumming of Keith Moon were among the highlights for you, then Classic Quadrophenia might feel like a letdown. As thrillingly bombastic as the orchestra can be, there’s simply no way to channel the power of the original Who’s rhythm section using classical/orchestral instrumentation.

And if Townshend’s slashing guitar and glistening, lyrical piano were big parts of what you enjoyed in Quadrophenia, you still might be disappointed in this new reading. Townshend is present on guitar here and there, and in voice. But not unlike his role in the (now greatly maligned) 25th Anniversary tour, Townshend’s presence is not a central component of Classic Quadrophenia. He’s more akin to a celebrity guest in his own work.

And finally, if Roger Daltrey’s expressive vocals were what caused you to appreciate Quadrophenia, then you’ll miss the vocals greatly on this new set. Taking the lead vocal here is Alfie Boe, a tenor most closely associated with musical theatre (Les Misérables, La bohème). Boe’s vocal performance doesn’t stray too far notes-wise from Daltrey’s version, but Boe definitely adds a “showy” and operatic shade to his reading that would be completely out of place on a rock recording.

And in fact, as rendered on Classic Quadrophenia, the material isn’t really rock at all. The orchestral trapping don’t seem at all out of place, and in many ways one suspects that this version might be closer to what Townshend originally had in mind for the material; it may well have been that since in 1973 The Who was his primary musical vehicle, that’s the route he took.

A few other vocalists of note appear on the album. Billy Idol had been involved in some of those early 21st-century performances of Quadrophenia, and few could argue that he’s the wrong choice to assist on “Bell Boy,” picking up the baton once held (shakily) by Keith Moon and then more assuredly by Sting.

And the star of Franc Roddam‘s film version of Quadrophenia, Phil Daniels, is now all grown up (56 in fact!) and lends his vocals to “Helpless Dancer” and a few other tracks. His presence establishes some conceptual continuity between this and those earlier versions of Quadrophenia, even though he’s not playing the “Jimmy” role in this new version.

To those weaned on a steady diet of rock’n'roll, Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia might – upon first listen — seem mannered and a bit stiff. But if one can open one’s mind to hearing the material presented in a classical-cum-stage idiom, there are many joys to be found.

Note: the album is available digitally, on CD, and on vinyl. This review is based upon the vinyl-format release.

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Next, it was drone time. The minimalist work of the duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen (joined by three additional musicians) was delivered in the bright, daylit room at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The hypnotic vibe of the group’s work lent itself to simply sitting back and closing one’s eyes. But AWVFTS was having none of that: mid-set, they stopped (“Usually, we never stop playing during a set,” they told us) and asked everyone to stand up instead. Fair enough, but I for one found it more enjoyable when relaxing.

Apparently the Kronos Quartet (described elsewhere as “the hardest working act” at the festival, and rightly so) didn’t have the opportunity to rehearse much with avant garde legend Laurie Anderson before their set. You wouldn’t have known it, though. A near-capacity Tennessee Theatre audience witnessed the somber “Landfall,” a work by Anderson that recounted her personal experiences with Hurricane Katrina. There’s always a winking, slyly humorous undercurrent to Anderson’s work that belies her reputation as an avant garde performer, and the Quartet conveyed a similarly informal approach, even while following a written score.

Max Richter is a modern classical composer, and his “The Blue Notebooks” is a piece performed on piano with string accompaniment, and a seated woman in formal evening dress reading brief written passages in lovely “RP” English. Modern classical has an undeserved reputation for being solely atonal, angular and jarring; Richter’s work is nothing of the kind: it’s elegiac, stately, beautiful and evocative. “Infra” did not feature the spoken-word component but was equally enjoyable. The intimate setting of The Bijou (an old theatre that has been home to many great performances I’ve enjoyed in the past) was the perfect setting for Richter’s work.

Unfortunately, by this point in the weekend, the cold that I had been denying was starting to overwhelm me. I stuck around long enough to take in part of tUnE-yArDs‘ set, and I am sure that had I been able to stay for all of it, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly. Brightly-colored costumes and a stage setup that put percussion out front (literally) were the hallmarks of their lively, uptempo set. They reminded me of a less-mannered Talking Heads with far more appealing vocalists, and their playful manner seemed focused squarely on having a good time and sharing that with the gathered audience.

By the time Sunday rolled around, it was all I could do to stay vertical, the head cold having overtaken me completely. I ventured down by the railroad tracks to the funky Standard for a performance (“installation” might be a more apt term) by Tyondai Braxton, presenting a work he calls “HIVE.” Braxton’s avant garde bona fides are without question: his father is jazz multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. The younger Braxton’s work is based equally on percussion and modern technology. “HIVE” was originally commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, but its arty beginnings belie its modern, techno-leaning qualities. Five musicians, each seated atop a table-sort-of-thing, are armed with all manner of sound-producing devices. Lights and fog are part of the scene, too, placing “HIVE” somewhere between highbrow art installation and all-night rave soundtrack. And it was very loud.

Unfortunately, after that, it was home and bed for me. As a result, I missed sets by Bill Frisell and others, but my overall impression of Big Ears Festival 2015 was one of awe. Big Ears is easily the best-run major music festival in the region. Bringing together the best characteristics of a festival (wide variety of artists in a compact area and timeframe) while minimizing or even eliminating its less-appealing aspects (crushing crowds, intimidating security, AC Entertainment and everyone else involved with Big Ears continues to do an amazing job, and in doing so they attract not only discerning music fans, but top-notch talent the likes of which are rarely seen nor heard in such a setting.

Bringing together this caliber and variety of notable and groundbreaking musical artists is in and of itself a staggering feat. Doing so outside, say, New York or San Francisco is even more impressive. Taking the expertise gained from successful staging of massive festivals (Bonnaroo, for example, takes in more than 80,000 concertgoers) and applying those skills to a relatively small-scale, city-based festival, AC Entertainment has created and sustained one of the most remarkable festivals ever in Big Ears. For anyone interested in where “serious” music is headed in the 21st century, a springtime trip to Knoxville Tennessee can provide some clear direction. I hope I attend again in 2016.

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 1

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Typically, I don’t make a point of attending “kickoff events” at the start of music festivals. My thinking is that they’re generally an opportunity to spotlight the event sponsors and so forth. That’s all well and good, but it’s not, strictly speaking, entertainment. But since I had gone to Moogfest 2014‘s opening event and enjoyed it, I figured, why not do the same in Knoxville. Plus, I was there, and no other music events were scheduled until later.

Lucky me. True, the event did include some speeches, but even those were worthwhile. Festival organizer Ashley Capps (he of AC Entertainment, the outfit behind Bonnaroo and many other high-profile festivals) gave a heartfelt speech that helped attendees understand the answers to two reasonable questions: Why Big Ears? And why Knoxville?

But the real highlights of the opening event were four musical performances. First off, Kronos Quartet and pipa virtuoso Wu Man staged a “popup concert.” Rather than make use of the stage, they set up their stools and music stands on the floor in front of it – all of six feet from where I had situated myself – and played a brief, unamplified set. It was sublime, and held the audience (a near-packed room at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Ann and Steve Bailey Hall) spellbound.

After that, we were treated to onstage performances from Hildur Guðnadóttir (futuristic-looking cello and vocals treated by sonic effects and looping), a sight-impaired teenage pianist Tate Garcia (an exceedingly clever mashup of his own arrangement of works by Scott Joplin, George Harrison and Chopin), and finally vocalist Breyon Ewing. In less than an hour’s time, the gathered audience had the essence of Big Ears Festival laid out in front of them. Things were off to a superb start.

Igor Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” is one of those classical pieces that you know, even if you don’t know you know it. A reading of the work formed the centerpiece of the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, and the onscreen visuals that accompanied it (dinosaurs, not Mickey Mouse) seared it into the memory of those who witnessed it. The work remains popular, and received perhaps its most innovative and outré reading by The Bad Plus on their 2014 album The Rite of Spring. The group (pianist Ethan Iverson, upright bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King) is nominally a jazz trio. But they’re jazz musicians playing classical music, and playing it with a rock (or progressive rock) level of power.

Whole sections of the Bad Plus’ take on Stravinsky’s work might be unrecognizable to those familiar with the original work, but the trio’s reinvention of the piece was thrilling; one couldn’t turn away. The interplay between the three was remarkable; even though they were working from sheet music (as did nearly every Big Ears performer I saw, yet another thing that makes this festival unlike any other I’ve witnessed), there was a jazz musician’s mentality of unspoken communication at work.

The trio followed up Stravinsky’s work with a set of their own original material; avant garde rarely gets as accessible as The Bad Plus.

Later on Big Ears’ first night, I caught a set at The Square room featuring guitarist Steve Gunn and his band. Musically conventional – at least compared to most of the other acts on the bill – Gunn and band showcased the guitarist’s impressive fretwork. Gunn’s not a flashy guitarist, not at all. But his powerful music was the closest thing to rock music on the entire three-day schedule. It was also plenty loud, not that that’s a band thing. (No doubt Swans were much louder, but having witnessed part of their punishing set at 2013′s Bonnaroo Festival, I made the decision to avoid a repeat.)

After a visit to a local used record store (something I try to do in every city I visit, because every town has its own used-record character), my Saturday list of performances began with Kronos Quartet onstage at the massive and beautiful Tennessee Theatre. Joined by Americana artist Sam Amidon on vocals and banjo, the Quartet applied their multigenre-spanning expertise to folk songs. At this point I thought to myself, “I don’t think I’ve ever taken in so much live classical instrumentation at one time before.” But it was lovely, and I even sat still for music that included banjo (one of my least-favorite instruments).

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Album Review: Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble — Officium

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

This double-album – originally released in 1994 – is a transcendent, compelling work that combines jazz with choral/classical music. Featuring vocals sung in Latin by The Hilliard Ensemble (countertenor David James, tenor Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor John Potter, and baritone Gordon Jones), Officium is nearly an all-vocal album. But the haunting saxophone work of Jan Garbarek (on soprano and tenor saxes) adds a dimension to these performances that takes them well beyond the realm of devotional choral performances.

The performance was recorded in an Austrian monastery, and the result certainly sounds like it. It’s unlikely that the ambience captured by producer (and ECM head) Manfred Eichler could have been captured in any conventional recording studio, no matter how high quality. The echo-against-stone aural texture gives Garbarek’s tenor a yawning quality that sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish from a cello. In fact, the Norwegian saxophonist’s instrument effectively becomes a fifth voice, blending as he does into the vocal milieu of the Ensemble.

This initial collaboration between Garbarek and the vocal quartet was so successful that they mounted a series of tours, and followed up the release of Officium with further recorded cooperative efforts. Officium may well have been the inspiration for the release of Chant, the album of Gregorian chants featuring the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, also released in 1994. There’s little doubt that Officium – the more modern and sophisticated work of the two – helped renew interest in the musical form of the Middle Ages.

In the expansive booklet that accompanies this 2LP reissue, Eichler comments on the genesis of the session, noting that the idea came to him initially as potential accompaniment to a movie he had planned to make in Iceland. The music of 16th century composer Christóbal de Morales (which figures largely in Officium) so moved Eichler, though, that in the end, as he writes in the booklet, “No longer able to reconcile the intensity of the sounds with the figure of Geiser [the film's central character], I later decided on other music [for the film]. The vision remained. And now this recording.” Potter adds, “What is this music? We don’t have a name for it.”

The libretto includes all of the Latin lyrics to Officium‘s fifteen tracks, but no English translation is provided. That notwithstanding, the power and the majesty of the performances transcends words and, perhaps, meaning.

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Best of 2014: Concerts

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

One of the many pleasures associated with living in the small mountain city of Asheville NC is access to great live music. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Atlanta, where going to a concert often meant traveling to a sports arena, and watching the tiny performers from the nosebleed seats (where you’d get a “contact high” from the pot smoke).

Here in Asheville, I go to shows that have anywhere from a few dozen to just over a thousand people in the audience, and the bands are up close and personal (especially when I have a photo pass). Because my town is such a go-to destination for touring acts, I get the pleasure of seeing high profile performances in small venues. That just wouldn’t happen in other cities.

I go to a lot of shows here in town. That said, I travel to regional festivals fairly often as well. Looking back on 2014 – an especially eventful year for me all ’round – three of my four favorite concert events were festivals.

Big Ears
Designed as a relatively small-scale festival with a decided emphasis on the edgy, this Knoxville TN festival presented a long list of fascinating acts, few of whom do the festival circuit as a rule. The scale of the event meant that it felt almost like a series of house concerts. Highlights included Marc Ribot, David Greenberger, Steve Reich, Television, Dean Wareham, Rachel Grimes, and Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood.

This one’s a sentimental favorite: it takes place in my hometown; it honors the late, great Robert A. Moog (a man whom I was lucky enough to meet a number of times), and it features some great music. Without a doubt the highlight of 2014′s Moogfest for me was meeting and interviewing Keith Emerson, but the three-day event (all within walking distance of my home) was packed with memorable experiences.

Musical Box
For me, Genesis lost their magic not long after the departures of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. This Canadian tribute group recreates said magic in a most authentic fashion, both visually and aurally. It’s a total experience, and from the packed house at The Orange Peel that night, I’d say that classic 70s progressive rock still has a significant following.

In celebration of ten years of success, Asheville’s Harvest Records staged a festival that leaned toward the delightfully eclectic. For me the highlights were Quilt (modern psych), The Clean (Antipodean janglepop), Reigning Sound (garage rock), and Lee Fields & the Expressions (soul). Transfigurations featured all of the best things about a festival, and none of the negatives.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make note of the Zombies show here in Asheville as well. Four decades on, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (and their bandmates) have still got it.

More 2014 best-ofs to come.

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Album Review: Clearlight — Impressionist Symphony

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

With precious few exceptions, attempting a classical-rock hybrid is at worst a fool’s errand, at best a thankless task. All too often, this most ambitious of goals – bringing together fans of intricate, densely layered orchestral work and searing, heavy rock – ends up pleasing no one. At its most insipid, the result is something not unlike Mannheim Steamroller: lite (as opposed to light) classical music with late-period ELO style backbeat grafted on, a sort of Stars on Classical. At its best and most challenging, it’s the work of someone like Glenn Branca, who combines the sheer monstrous power of electric guitar with the sonic complexity and bombast of 20th century classical composition (Krzysztof Penderecki, Conlon Nancarrow).

But on the other hand, considering only those two extremes presents the listener with a false choice: commercial pap versus unlistenable (to most) clatter. In the right hands, it is quite possible to combine the two genres into something that is aesthetically and artistically rewarding while remaining tuneful and accessible. Jeff Lynne did it with the aforementioned Electric Light Orchestra, especially on the group’s second album ELO II: do yourself a favor and listen again to their long version of “Roll Over Beethoven.” And the under-appreciated, backlash-suffering Klaatu created a lovely rock-meets-classical work on Hope, their second album: “Prelude” has the instrumentation of orchestral music plus what Spinal Tap might call the majesty of rock.

Plenty of progressive rockers have made forays at bridging the gap: Yes and the group’s on again off again keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman have both enjoyed some serious success in the genre. And of course The Moody Blues made a career out of the style: their first and best Days of Future Passed is a classic, even if at their worst they may well have inspired Mannheim Steamroller.

Keen readers may note that nearly all of the artists mentioned so far in this essay did their most notable work roughly between 1967 and 1977. For the most part, the goal of hybridizing classical and rock went out of style around the time new wave presented a hybrid of its own (mainstream rock and punk). But the concept’s not dead: the new album Impressionist Symphony breathes some new life into this thought-moribund genre.

Clearlight (no relation to the 60s group on Elektra whose bassist played on The Doors‘ albums) is the nom de musq of Cyrille Verdeaux and the assemblage of musicians who join him in this latest venture. After his music was described to him as “impressionistic,” he decided to create a work that paid homage to the work of visual artists most closely associated with the painting style.

What this means from a programmatic, literal standpoint is that listeners will find eight tracks, each with a bad-pun title referencing one of the masters (sample titles: “Lautrec Too Loose,” “Time is Monet”). My advice, however, is to ignore the silly trappings of the concept and instead enjoy the music and its successful, wordless implementation of its goal. The instrumentation is largely built around Verdeaux’s Kurzweil 2600 keyboard (a real winner at recreating the textures and sonority of classical instruments) plus acoustic violin, joined in strategic places by rock guitar (courtesy of Steve Hillage) and flute (from Hillage’s old Gong bandmate Didier Malherbe), bass, Chapman Stick, Theremin, and assorted percussion in both rock and classical idioms. Oh: and more synthesizers, plus the occasional Bösendorfer piano.

The result is warm and organic, avoiding the large prog/classical pothole of becoming sterile. The music evokes a wide array of emotional tones, and while it’s nice enough as background music, Impressionist Symphony is best enjoyed when given full attention.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 2)

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

After getting (respectively) a headache and a power nap, my sweetheart and I headed back to the Tennessee Theatre, remarking all the while how well-thought-out Big Ears 2014 is as a whole. The four primary venues all lay in a straight line in downtown, the farthest apart being no more than about six blocks. And while the lack of crowds might not have exactly been part of the game plan for the organizers, it sure made things nice for those of us who were attending. No lines, no jostling…just music and good vibes.

Wordless Music Orchestra
I wasn’t altogether sure what to expect from this outfit. The festival guide described it as performances of film music, mostly by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), and mostly from a handful of critically well-received films, There Will Be Blood and Norwegian Wood among them.

Greenwood himself wouldn’t figure into this particular performance (that would come on Sunday), and what concertgoers got instead was a smallish ensemble mostly made up of violinists (with some celli, some basses), seated in rows facing each other. The sight of a projection screen above the musicians led me to anticipate scenes from these films flashing by whilst the players ran through the scores, but that was not to be. Instead, the screen merely indicated the name of each piece, its composer, and the film from which it came (if it was a film piece; some weren’t).

Overall, it was a bit monochromatic. The musicians were all fine; excellent, probably. But the music was less varied than I might have hoped, and a good portion of it was melancholy, sometimes almost dreary. The Greenwood pieces were the best; some of the other pieces bordered on the unpleasant. As a way to spent an hour on a Saturday afternoon, it was worthwhile, but the excitement quotient was largely nonexistent.

Steve Reich’s Drumming
Another case of the putative marquee name not being part of the performance, this one was nonetheless a stunning showcase. Featuring a pair of ensembles called So Percussion and nief-norf Project, this concert was one nonstop piece of percussive music. The work started from nearly nothing – one person hitting some small tuned drums – and built to a climax. Then it ebbed, flowed, swelled and receded. Players were added. Players sat down. The music never stopped, and the audience was held in thrall.

Occasionally vocalists were added to the mix; while the piece was totally scored, it had an organic, seemingly improvised feel to it. The vocalists, for example, seemed to seek out the patterns and melodies as opposed to merely react to them. A recognizable pattern would emerge, and then as soon as a listener such as myself started to groove on it, it would disappear into the percussive maelstrom. I’d never seen nor heard anything like Drumming before (and no, the drum circles here in Asheville don’t compare), and felt honored and awed to be in the presence of such an amazing performance.

It was quite a temporal shift, then, to remain in our seats when the next act came out. New wave / no wave/ punk heroes Television took the stage at the Tennessee Theatre. With three-fourths of the classic lineup – guitarist/vocalist Tom Verlaine, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith – the band was joined by longtime Verlaine associate Jimmy Rip (guitarist Richard Lloyd left the band amicably in 2007).

Television have long held an odd place in rock history; they’re often (rightly or wrongly) lumped in with the late 70s NYC scene that included The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and the like. But with two stellar lead guitarists (there’s rarely any “rhythm guitar” in Television songs) the group came on more like the era’s answer to Thin Lizzy. Or something.

Guitar heroics without all the histrionics and posing: that was a big part of what made Television great then, and it’s what brought the house down this night. Rip is an ace player, and did a great job of both satisfying those who wanted to hear the songs done the way Lloyd woulda done ‘em and making sure that people knew he’s his own man with plenty to say in his own playing.

The songs were long, but never meandering; the guitar dialogue between Verlaine and Rip was electric, and Ficca and Smith provided a thrilling yet rock-solid foundation for the guitarists. The group even pulled out a new song that will hopefully show up on a new Television album…some day.

Stay tuned for more Big Ears 2014 coverage.

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Album Review: The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays the Music of Rush

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Normally, I don’t write negative reviews. Yes, I will point out those qualities that make a work less than it could be, but if a release is mostly or wholly without merit (in my estimation) I don’t bother to cover it. This is especially true if it’s by an artist who is not well-known.

But sometimes an album comes along, and just seems to beg for me to comment. This is such a situation, and the album in question is The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays the Music of Rush. Now, I’m on record as not liking Rush. And my reasons are twofold. One, I think Geddy Lee has one of the most annoying voices in all of rock music. Two, I think Neil Peart‘s lyrics rank among the most pretentious, empty twaddle ever, and when you’re talking about progressive rock, that’s saying something.

But I do appreciate their instrumental, compositional and arranging abilities. All three band members are amazing, expressive players. In fact, not long ago I had Pandora piping through my house (as I often do), set to my Porcupine Tree “station.” A really cool and unfamiliar piece came on, and I was really digging it. After about five minutes or so, however, the singing started. It was Geddy Lee. It was all downhill for me from there. I remember thinking, ‘If Rush ever issues instrumental remixes of their albums, I’d buy those.”

I also have a grudging admiration for their covers album (2004′s Feedback). While it still features Geddy’s pipes, it does show that the trio has good taste in influences. It’s more effective than The Ramones‘ very similar outing Acid Eaters, too.

I mention all of this to provide the background for why I would even bother to listen to a Rush tribute-of-sorts album. My thinking was, this won’t have Geddy’s warble, and it won’t have Peart’s clunky (and occasionally Randian) lyrics. The part of the band that I like – their arrangements – would likely be highlighted. Now, it wouldn’t have Alex Lifeson‘s guitar work – it’s an orchestral album after all – but that would be replaced with some interesting classical motifs.

Or so I thought. The truth is a bit more gruesome. First off, there are vocals. If you’re actually a fan of Paul McCartney‘s Liverpool Oratorio or Roger WatersÇa Ira, you might actually dig the parts in which choral/operatic-style vocalists intone “In the shopping malls…” and whatnot. Me, I find that the classical trappings only add to the vapidly pretentious (yes!) feel of Peart’s lyrics.

And then there’s the matter of guitar. While Iron Maiden‘s Adrian Smith and Marillion‘s Steve Rothery are both fine guitarists in their own right, they are not Alex Lifeson. The decision to feature electric guitar solos on an orchestral record leads the listener to compare them to the originals. Suffice to say neither Rothery nor Smith wins these battles.

On The RPO Plays the Music of Rush we do get the typical orchestra lineup: cor anglais, flutes, piccolos, lots of strings and so forth. And having been recorded in the venerable Abbey Road Studios – a place originally designed for such things – the sound is peerless. But the arrangements aren’t especially inventive. The album really lacks anything to make it all that special, and suffers fatally from the deficiencies I’ve pointed out. I view it as an opportunity missed: had the arrangements been a bit more gutsy, the guitars left at home, and the chorus told to go have tea, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays the Music of Rush would have been a far better album. Instead it’s just more Rush-related material that I’ll be passing by from here on out.

P.S. The album’s Roger-Dean-meets-Jurassic-Park cover artwork is just plain silly.

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