Archive for the ‘prog’ Category

Video Review: Genesis — Sum of the Parts

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

One could say that The Beatles did it first, and thus set the tone and standard for future official biographies. Their Anthology documentary series afforded them the opportunity to tell their story the way they wanted: they could put in what they wanted in, and leave out what they didn’t care to discuss. Creative control coupled with hey-we-were-there access to archival material made for a very satisfying and comprehensive historical document.

It’s fitting that Genesis would get around to mounting a similar project of their own. Though the band splintered several times – they went so far to as call attention to it by titling one of their albums And Then There Were Three… – they seem to have remained on relatively cordial terms with one another.

And so it is that Tony Banks (keyboards), Phil Collins (drums), Peter Gabriel (flute, vocals), Steve Hackett (guitar), and Mike Rutherford (bass, and later, guitar) came together to star in, and oversee, Sum of the Parts. Released theatrically and then on DVD and Blu-Ray, this documentary covers the band’s history, its fractiousness, and its popularity. As Tony Banks is quoted in the accompanying liner notes booklet, “Let’s just put it all out there and people can make up their own minds.”

The film provides plenty of content to allow viewers to do just that. Speeding through the group’s formation and early days, the film chronicles – in chronological order – the band’s history. The footage of the Gabriel-era band is fascinating; truly odd stuff that – whether one likes the music or not (and I very much do) – must be recognized for its adventurous, often groundbreaking nature.

For the most part, Sum of the Parts is a rather candid look at the stress points within the band, issues that would hasten the departures of (most notably) Gabriel and Hackett. When current-day footage of the reunited group (reunited for the film, not to make music) is shown, there’s a pretty clear remaining undercurrent of tension between Banks and…well, the rest of the band. It’s handled with a typical English understatement and reserve, but it remains palpable.

Since their 1974 double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway looms so large in the band’s legend, it makes sense that so much time is spent in the film discussing the album, its development, its tour, and its eventual fallout. The band’s earlier and later material all gets comparatively less screen time. The solo career of Peter Gabriel (who these days looks to all the world like Burl Ives‘ snowman in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) gets some discussion, but Collins’ solo work is covered in greater depth. That, too, makes perfect sense, since Collins released his solo albums while remaining in Genesis. (Prog jazz fans: if you’re wondering, Sum of the Parts makes no mention of Brand X.)

A few characters outside the band do weigh in with their onscreen contributions. None is so out of place, however, as Jonathan King. Though the impresario was an important part of the band’s early days, his reputation is so tarnished (Google him if you must) that his appearance onscreen competes with making that “I Can’t Dance” video for MTV as the worst idea the group has ever had.

Lots of live footage and archival photographs help tell the story. Even for those with only a passing interest in the band, Sum of the Parts never drags. The latter-day lineup (specifically Collins, Rutherford and Banks) get just a tad defensive on the subject of having largely ditched their progressive musical approach in favor of a (some would say cynically) radio-ready sound and image (complete with those dreadful MTV-era videos), but it’s hard to see what other approach they could have taken in the film. They couldn’t very well ignore the subject, could they now?

Good question. A wag might suggest that this video would be more accurately titled SOME of the Parts: no mention at all is made – not even in passing – of the group’s 1997 album Calling All Stations. Ray Wilson had taken Collins’ place as vocalist, and guest drummers (including Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard) took Collins’ place on the throne. But despite the fact that Genesis mounted a 47-date European tour in the first half of 1998, the entire era – and most notably, Wilson’s name – seems to have been purged from the group’s collective memory bank.

Instead, Sum of the Parts blithely skips over the period between 1992 and 2007 (as if to say, “and then – suddenly! – fifteen years passed”) and lands on the group’s semi-reunion tour and live album featuring the Banks-Rutherford-Collins trio plus longtime Genesis drummer Chester Thompson and guitarist Daryl Steurmer. To the band’s credit, both get some additional screen time.

That mild criticism notwithstanding, for fans of the band – or, really, anyone with an interest rock music’s arc of history in the 1970s and beyond – Sum of the Parts is a satisfying, engaging and entertaining video.

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Album Review: Jethro Tull – Minstrel in the Gallery, 40th Anniversary La Grande Edition

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

The latest example of Ian Anderson‘s ongoing twofold mission (to encourage a modern-day reconsideration of Jethro Tull‘s back catalog, and to provide be-all-and-end-all versions of those albums) continues with Minstrel in the Gallery: 40th Anniversary La Grande Edition.

The 1975 album spawned only one single a-side release (the title track, briefly appearing at #79 on the charts) but did include one of the group’s best-ever – if lesser-known – cuts, “Summerday Sands,” included on the 1979 pirate/bootleg various artists compilation T’anks for the Mammaries.

Following the established and successful format of the earlier Jethro Tull box/book releases, the new Minstrel in the Gallery provides a Steven Wilson stereo remix. The first disc also includes a handful of alternate/early takes of songs from the album, and a three-song appearance on BBC radio. (As he makes plain in the liner notes, Anderson is not fond of the band’s performance on that BBC session.)

While Wilson’s remix is reliably superb — bringing to the fore previously-buried sonic subtleties – the real jewel of this new set is the second disc. Live at the Palais des Sports, Paris, 5th July 1975 is reason enough to purchase the set. The extremely well-recorded concert has been mixed for release by Jakko Jakszyk (now of King Crimson). While the audience is all but inaudible, this set provides a terrific document of the band’s live onstage prowess in the middle of the 1970s.

Curiously – at least with the benefit of forty years’ perspective – the concert features hardly any music from Minstrel in the Gallery (only the title track). Perhaps the more acoustic-flavored music of Minstrel was thought not to be of sufficient power to carry live onstage. Whatever the reason, the show is best thought of as a greatest-hits-up-to-now concert by prime-era Jethro Tull. (During its heyday, the band wouldn’t release a live disc until 1978′s Live – Bursting Out in 1978.)

The first DVD in the set follows what is by now a predictable pattern: it provides high-bitrate versions of the album (Surround 5.1), the original stereo mix, and a flat transfer of the 1975 quadrophonic mix.

The fourth disc is something of a red herring. The packaging suggests it contains an audiovisual version of the Palais des Sports concert; in reality it has the Jakko audio mix plus a slide show featuring hundreds of stills from the concert and related visuals. But no moving images.

But wait! That DVD does include nearly nine minutes of video footage from the concert, professionally filmed. It’s superb, and will leave viewers wishing the rest of the footage could be found.

Much is made in the liner notes of the supposed limited musical abilities of bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. But to my eyes and ears, there’s little evidence to support such carping. Jethro Tull’s music has always been demanding, and both in the studio and live onstage, Hammond always seems up to the task.

The massive liner notes booklet is of the high standard to which all of the Tull reissues subscribe, and it features plenty of discussion of Ian Anderson’s codpieces, for those who are interested in such matters. An essay/interview about the band’s mobile recording unit is of great interest, too, even for those who aren’t fascinated by technical details.

Though it boasts fewer outtakes than most other entries in the Jethro Tull 40th Anniversary Series, the new Minstrel in the Gallery earns its status as the definitive version of the album. The live concert, the images, the remixes, and the booklet make it the comprehensive document of 1975 Jethro Tull.

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Album Review: Jethro Tull – WarChild, 40th Anniversary Theatre Edition

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Jethro Tull‘s 1974 album WarChild occupies a curious place in the band’s history. Their previous album, 1973′s A Passion Play, had been roundly shellacked by critics. That album certainly had its fans; it made #1 on the charts, though that might have been a coattail effect of their earlier albums. But by the time of WarChild, the critical honeymoon was over, and the knives were out.

History (revisionist and otherwise) has been kinder to WarChild, however. A contemporary look at it shows that all of the traditional Jethro Tull elements are in place: Ian Anderson‘s provocative lyrics; a degree of thematic unity; lots of flutes; and a generally sardonic musical attitude. And a deeper exploration into classical instrumentation was a hallmark of the WarChild sessions. Moreover, shorter songs were the order of the day.

What those sessions didn’t have, however, was any music that seemed suitable for a single release. For that purpose two songs from the album (but recorded much earlier) were put out as singles, and they remain among Jethro Tull’s most popular and well-known numbers: “Bungle in the Jungle” and “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day.”

Plans for WarChild originally involved a film, the ambitious premise of which was a battle between Good and Evil. Though a lot of effort went into the initial planning, nothing ever came of the film. Financial difficulties played a part in scuppering the WarChild multimedia production. In the expansive liner notes of the new Anniversary Theatre Edition, Anderson tells readers about the 83% tax rate levied by the UK government, and the band’s failed attempts to avoid having to pay.

But in the end, it’s all about the music. WarChild has plenty of that; not unlike their previous efforts, the album was designed to be taken as a whole. Though as with all of their albums, the linear narrative matter can (if one wishes) be ignored, and the listener can just dig the theatricality of the music itself.

Over the years, as various related bits of music have been unearthed from the vaults, scattered tracks for the WarChild era have found their way onto reissues and compilations. But the entire approach of this 40th Anniversary series of Jethro Tull albums is to set things right, and (where possible) render all previous releases of the materiel as moot.

Anderson largely succeeds in those efforts with this new WarChild release. The first CD provides a new stereo mix from Steven Wilson, now generally accepted as the master of such things (he’s done similar duties for King Crimson, Yes, Caravan and other 1970s progressive legends). The second disc is filled with related recordings: alternate versions, outtakes, and songs that simply didn’t make the cut of what was originally planned as a 2LP set. It’s worth noting that these tunes are in most ways every bit the equal of the already-released material. And the production values (no doubt aided by Wilson’s remix skills) are first-rate. The hard-rocking “Saturation” is a standout among these. And though he pretty well disowns it these days, Anderson’s saxophone work is impressive. And Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond‘s rocking and idiosyncratic “Sea Lion II” shows that Anderson wasn’t the only one who could write lyrics that fit the Tull mold.

The vibraphones and classical trappings of the ambitious “Quartet” aren’t exactly commercial (from a rock-fan point of view), but they’re fascinating nonetheless. But perhaps the most fascinating part of this new set’s audio portion is the ten tracks of orchestral pieces, only one of which (“Waltz of the Angels”) has been released previously. In fact with the exception of the orchestral “The Third Hoorah” and bits of “The Orchestral WarChild Theme,” none of the orchestral tracks are directly related to the WarChild album as originally released. But taken together, they make a fairly substantial classical (or pseudo-classical) work. At times these tracks feel a bit like film music, which makes sense when one knows that the original project envisioned a film.

A pair of DVDs rounds out the audiovisual component of the new WarChild box (book) set. As is now customary, these include a Surround 5.1 mix (the modern-day equivalent to quadrophonic) as well as a transfer of the original quad LP from 1974. The first DVD also includes silent color footage from the band’s press conference in Montreux, Switzerland, with new (and predictably droll and witty) audio commentary from Anderson. A multi-camera live shoot of “The Third Hoorah” is included, but the blurry footage features studio audio applied to it; no attempt is made to sync the audio and video, but it’s clear that the band is actually playing that song. The fourth DVD includes high-bitrate audio versions of the material from the second CD.

An 80pp booklet provides all of the detail one could ever hope to place WarChild in its historical context, along with lots of photos and additional relevant material. Detailed discussion of (and by) the bewigged female string quartet that joined Tull on the WarChild tour dates will give readers a flavor of what 70s touring was like.

The net effect of this new set is to effectively rehabilitate WarChild, to lead modern-day listeners to reconsider it and its worth. Listening, watching and reading, you may well decide that WarChild is a far, far better thing than you had thought before.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 10

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Over the last nine business days, I’ve surveyed 45 albums of new, reissued, and/or archival music from a wide array of artists in jazz, prog, soul, rock and other genres. Each review has been exactly 100 words. Today I wrap up that series of capsule reviews with a quick look at five video releases.

Jack Bruce – The 50th Birthday Concerts
Though it’s long been in the archives of German television program Rockpalast, this set was presumably rush-released in the wake of Bruce‘s October 2014 death. A wildly varied set in terms of musical styles, this 2DVD document of 1993 concerts shows off the amazing versatility of the vocalist/bassist. Opening with a solo (acoustic) bass reading of J.S. Bach’s “Minuet No. 1,” switches to piano (with vocal) and then brings on supporting musicians (including multi-instrumentalist Gary Husband and Bruce’s sparring partner, drummer Ginger Baker.) All involved are in fine form as they tear through Bruce solo material and several Cream favorites.

Queen – Live at the Rainbow ’74
On the strength – or rather the lack thereof – of their 1979 double LP Live Killers, I decided that Queen were pretty dreadful live. Not Rolling Stones dreadful, but simply unable to draw upon the balance of refinement and energy that made their studio albums so rewarding. This set from a few years earlier (in other words, at the height of their powers) has set me right. Live sound reinforcement in the mid 1970s was primitive by today’s standards, but you’d never know it from this performance and recording. If anything, these versions are better than their studio counterparts.

Yes – 35th Anniversary Concert: Songs From Tsongas
Even a semi-hardcore Yes fan has to admit that they milk their repertoire pretty thoroughly. As Jon Anderson admits toward the end of this set, “We seem to get together so many times over the years.” This 2004 performance in Massachusetts was part of the Magnification tour, and featured the more-or-less classic lineup (Anderson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Alan White and Chris Squire) halfway through the final period they’d all make music together. A bit mannered – as are all Yes shows – it shows the five in full possession of their sharp musical faculties. An excellent show on Blu-Ray.

The Rutles – Anthology
Long before The Beatles got around to making their Anthology, some of the guys from Monty Python made a Beatles history (a “mockumentary” that predated This is Spinal Tap), All You Need is Cash. (They had help from one Hari Georgeson, as well.) It’s now legendary as one of NBC-TV’s lowest-rated specials ever broadcast (I saw it). This new Blu-Ray reissue greatly improves the audiovisual quality over earlier versions, and adds relevant bonus material (some earlier, some much later) to create an Anthology of their own. The packaging art alone is wickedly clever, as are the bits on the disc.

Various – A MusiCares Tribute to Paul McCartney
In 2012, the nonprofit organization MusiCares honored Paul McCartney as their Person of the Year. The gala event included a superstar lineup of artists paying tribute to Sir Macca. And while rock fans might be disappointed in the soft lineup (only Duane Eddy, Dave Grohl, Neil Young and Joe Walsh can be called rockers), the performances are nuanced and often quite good. Alison Krauss & Union Station win the night as they capture the beauty of “No More Loney Nights,” a highlight of the hour-long Blu-Ray. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, however, are in wobbly, old guy garage band mode.

See you next week as we return to one-a-day full-length reviews, features and interviews.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 8

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Today, it’s five more capsule reviews. It’s great stuff all, dating from the 1970s.

Stories – Stories Untold: The Very Best of Stories
The, um, story of Stories in inextricably tied up with that of the Left Banke (“Walk Away Renee”). The music on this set from Real Gone Music draws not only for the band’s (rather slim) catalog, but from relevant solo work by Steve Martin (no, not that one) and Ian Lloyd. The only thing more remarkable than the quality of the music is that little of it charted. Sure, you remember “Brother Louie,” but do you recall “Mammy Blue”? I was nine when it briefly hit charts (#50) and hadn’t heard it more than twice in the next forty-plus years.

Todd Rundgren and Utopia – Live at the Electric Ballroom
This radio broadcast recording of an October 23, 1978 show in Milwaukee documents the entire show. Even if one doesn’t count the nearly countless live bootleg recordings in circulation, there are quite a few Rundgren/Utopia live sets available. But if this one circulated among hardcore collectors before now, it’s news to me. At this point in Utopia’s history, they had settled into their core quartet lineup. That said, the set list draws more from Rundgren’s superb solo catalog, with only a few Utopia tunes (mostly from Oops! Wrong Planet). Performancewise, it’s tight, though bassist Kasim Sulton drops an occasional clam.

Sweet – Level Headed Tour Rehearsals 1977
By this point in their career, Sweet had fought to extricate themselves from the strong grip of the ChinniChap musical empire; they had also sought to shed the bubblegum image that accompanied it. Their Level Headed album introduced a progressive-leaning sound that was equal parts Alan Parsons Project and hard rock; the result – exemplified in the hit “Love is Like Oxygen” – might be termed bubbleprog. This home tape of a rehearsal finds them with an ace keyboardist, and a sound that clearly presages the L.A.-based hair metal sound of the 80s and onward. Don’t hold that against them.

Gentle Giant – Live at the Bicentennial 1776-1976
Few progressive-era bands engender the sort of divided opinion that Gentle Giant can claim. One is either impressed by their technical and vocal skills, or completely put off by the decidedly European musical sensibilities of the UK group. This double CD set documents a July 3 show in Hempstead, NY. Sound quality is excellent, and the band is in fine form as they run through material from throughout their career. The set boasts no post-production fixing or fiddling. Sadly, the encore mentioned in the liner notes (a rare cover of Wilson Pickett‘s “In the Midnight Hour”) didn’t make it to tape.

Various – Local Customs: Cavern Sound
When the small Numero Group releases something, you can count on excellence. This set focuses on recordings made for the label in the period 1970-73. More varied stylistically than many Numero comps, this one features little-known bands who coughed up the relatively modest session fees. There’s soulful hard rock a la Rare Earth, but the real oddity is American Sound Limited‘s “Aunt Marie.” It shamelessly rips off the signature melody of Status Quo‘s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” plus some of the lyrics and phrasing. And when they do it, they sound like a cross between Billy Joe Royal and BS&T.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 1

Monday, May 4th, 2015

Once again, it’s time for me to review several handfuls of CDs. Today’s five all fall (more or less) into the progressive rock bag, and are decidedly European in sensibility. Here we go.

Metallic Taste of Blood – Doctoring the Dead
Perhaps the first thing you should know about this international collective is that it counts Australian bassist Colin Edwin as a member; he’s the eternally-bemused looking bassist from the still-on-hiatus Porcupine Tree. The other three musicians are from Italy, the USA, and Great Britain. This instrumental quartet crafts brooding yet melodic soundscapes. Very much on the accessible end of the progressive/art rock scale, Metallic Taste of Blood might be better severed by a less gothic moniker; don’t let the name (or the impossibly gruesome cover art) scare you off. The group’s music is super-heavy yet soaring and full of grandeur.

Obscured by Echoes – Avidonia Part 1: The Escape
Never let it be said that this space/psych unit doesn’t make their influences clear: with a band name that references works by Pink Floyd (those being the 1972 LP Obscured By Clouds and the epic “Echoes” from 1971′s Meddle). Based – like so many current psych bands – in Austin TX, the group aims for the multi-part suite approach favored in the early 70s. Their sound leans closer to Hawkwind than Pink Floyd, though, with a plodding (in a good way!) and menacing approach that leaves plenty of room for bone-crushing riffage, bloopy synth fills and the like. Excellent stuff.

Mollmaskin – Heartbreak in ((Stereo))
When the average 21st century rock fan thinks of Norway, the first subgenre that springs to mind is black metal. That particularly Scandinavian style is foreboding and – in its own way – evokes the bleak and endless night that is Winter. But Mollmaskin is actually a solo project featuring only Anders Bjermland, member of psychedelic outfit Flashback Caruso. The sound is closer to the softer, dreamy side of Dungen‘s best works. The impressionistic tunes are beautiful, and Bjermland sings variously in Norwegian and English. The sprawling 2CD set will thrill lovers of Mellotron, Fender Rhodes and yearning vocal harmonies.

Kaukasis – I
Heavier and more foreboding than the previously-mentioned disc, this Norwegian group featuring Rhys Marsh on vocals, very much in a Jim Morrison / Ian Astbury vibe. Which is to say that while it’s metal-leaning progressive rock, it’s very much song-based. Full of melodrama, the hypnotic songs approach symphonic prog in their scope and arrangement, and there’s a strong middle eastern flavor along the lines of Led Zeppelin‘s “Kashmir.” Fans of Steve Hackett-era Genesis will find a lot to like here as well. Theirs is a big sound, consider that the group is a trio. This is a disc worth settling into.

E Gone – All the Suns of the Earth
Another solo effort, E Gone is Sweden’s Daniel Westerlund. As at home with trip-hop and electronica as he is with psychedelic and garage styles, Westerlund crafts intricate, highly hooky songs that employ a kitchen sink approach. In the first two minutes you’ll hear sitar, bouzouki, banjo, sampled beats, and analog synth. Some pieces are songs, while others are ambient works. I’m behind the curve on this one, having been meaning to review it long ago; the follow-up (Where I’ve Been Is Places and What I’ve Seen Is Things) came out this week. This disc (available on vinyl) is highly recommended.

More to come.

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Rick Wakeman, Cannonball Adderley, and Me

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

Today I’m going to indulge in a brief change of pace. I’d like to tell you about a pair of reissues with which I am involved. I won’t be reviewing either title – what would be the point? – but suffice to say that if I didn’t think they are superb albums, I wouldn’t have written the liner notes.

The first, reissued earlier this week, is Rick Wakeman‘s final album for A&M Records, Rhapsodies. This 2LP set capped his association with Herb Alpert‘s label; the Yes keyboard player’s first album – The Six Wives of King Henry VIII – remains his best-selling (and arguably best) album, but Rhapsodies is a successfully varied lot as well. Though he had employed vocalists on some of his earlier A&M albums (even Rick Wakeman’s Criminal Record, another album reissued with liner notes by yours truly), for Rhapsodies, Wakeman stuck to his strengths: piano, organ and synthesizer. A crack band is on hand, and as often as not they play in what might be termed a disco fashion, but the results are not nearly as gruesome as that description might suggest. Flashes of humor are shot through the album, and save for an interesting misstep (a bizarre reading of Gershwin‘s “Rhapsody in Blue”), Rhapsodies is a highly recommended album. My liner notes contextualize the album and even sort of review the tracks therein.

Out next week is an album that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve written often about how the music of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley changed my life, serving as my adult gateway into jazz. (Audrey and I even had “Mercy Mercy Mercy” played at our wedding last year.) Adderley’s final project was also his most ambitious: a sprawling double LP that combined Broadway, blues, folk tale, avant/free jazz, funk and more. Big Man: The Legend of John Henry was met with mixed reviews upon its release shortly after Adderley’s untimely death. But it’s a fascinating album, with a modern-day allegory that (to my mind, anyway) spoke to the Black Power concerns of the early 1970s through the retelling of a Reconstruction-era folk tale about the “steel drivin’ man.” Famed actor Robert Guillaume (known to a generation as Benson, a core character on Soap and later a self-titled sitcom) got one of his first big gigs providing vocals for this album. And Mr. Guillaume consented to an interview with me, which formed the basis of my extensive liner notes. I also did the package design for the reissue (which includes the entire work’s libretto) and got my first (co-) producer’s credit on an album.

At present I’m writing liner notes for another upcoming reissue, Iron Butterfly‘s classic Ball LP, which will be out later in 2015. With luck, there will be other projects to tell you about in future days.

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Album Review: Todd Rundgren — At the BBC 1972-1982

Friday, March 20th, 2015

Several years back, Todd Rundgren took a proactive approach to the myriad live recordings that exist documenting his long and varied career. A true renaissance man who engenders fierce loyalty in his fan base, Rundgren may still be a “cult artist,” but he’s one of the most well-documented ones. For many years (during the tape- and CD-trading era) a surprisingly large network of Rundgren fans recorded, collected, cleaned-up and traded recordings of nearly every show the man ever did. So there’s a massive list of live shows dating back to the very early 1970s, and including Rundgren’s various guises: solo artist, member of the early progressive-phase Utopia, member of the more pop-leaning Utopia lineup, collaborator with Bourgeois Tagg, Hello People, Ian Hunter, Joe Jackson and many others…on and on.

But there aren’t just audience bootlegs out there. From his earliest post-Nazz days, Rundgren has appreciated and embraced television and radio performances as a means for reaching potential fans. As such, there are “board tapes” and/or professionally recorded documents of pretty much every tour he’s ever done. And as he sought to have the best among these released officially, the trading market has somewhat died down (by and large, Rundgren’s fans are an ethical lot; they want him to profit from his work).

The latest entry in the “Todd Rundgren Archive Series” is a near-comprehensive collection of his work for the British Broadcasting Corporation. At the BBC 1972-1982 is a 3CD + 1 DVD set documenting four concerts (three in audio, one audiovisually) and various other related bits and bobs.

The first disc showcases an early solo gig Rundgren did for BBC’s Radio One. An excellent quality mono recording from 1972 finds Rundgren at the piano, using backing tapes to accompany himself. An experienced studio rat even then, he created “karaoke” versions of his hits, allowing him to present them in a live onstage manner that combined the precision and arrangement of a recording with the spontaneity of a live show. Of course such an approach is old-hat now, and has been since the dawn of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), a digital means of syncing multiple sounds sequences. But in 1972 it was innovative stuff.

Even with the confining nature of the backing tapes, Rundgren delivers an off-the-cuff, intimate performance, most notably on the Something/Anything? tune “Piss Aaron.” Few would count the tune among Rundgren’s best, but his onstage delivery of it is undeniably entertaining. And the inclusion of “Be Nice to Me” from his early album The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is a rare and welcome delight. Rundgren even rocks out at the end, turning in a performance of “Black Maria.”

The first disc also includes two songs from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program(me). These feature the seven-piece Utopia in 1975, performing “Real Man” from his solo album Initiation) and “The Seven Rays,” a highlight of the Utopia Another Live LP (The package’s DVD also features a/v versions of these same two performances).

Speaking of Another Live, the second disc of At the BBC 1972-1982 is similar but expands upon the content of that set. Utopia’s set of the time (1975) included material from Rundgren’s solo albums in addition to their own songs. The BBC disc features a full concert (or at least something approaching one) in excellent stereo, and as such includes songs that weren’t on the single LP Another Live set (recorded elsewhere). Rundgren introduces “Freedom Fighters” as “the first Utopia single” that was never released. The studio version of the tune was on the group’s debut LP; at nearly six minutes, the live reading here is nearly half again as long as its studio version. Live versions of “The Last Ride” and “Sons of 1984” showed up on other Rundgren albums (Back to the Bars and Todd, respectively), but here they’re presented in the context of a full Utopia concert. And “Sunset Boulevard / Le Feel Internacionale” from A Wizard / A True Star hasn’t been released in a live version before (possibly excepting other archival releases), and it’s a highlight of this set.

By 1977 and time of the Utopia Radio One “In Concert” set documented on disc three, Utopia had pared down to a foursome: Rundgren on guitar, Roger Powell on synthesizer, John “Willie” Wilcox on drums, and Kasim Sulton replacing John Siegler on bass (“all four boys sing,” as they say). Touring to promote both the transitional album Ra and the more mainstream-rock oriented Oops! Wrong Planet, the group performed newer material from those albums, with a quick dip into Rundgren’s solo catalog (“Love of the Common Man” from Faithful) and the set closer “Utopia Theme.” The tighter, compact lineup meant an emphasis upon shorter, more concise songs, but the band still stretches out instrumentally on some longer pieces.

As previously mentioned, the fourth disc in the At the BBC 1972-1982 box set is a DVD. All three sets included are sourced from the TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test. The first (mentioned above) features two songs from a 1975 broadcast. The second (from May 1978” documents “The Bearsville Picnic” (the Albert Grossman-headed Bearsville Records was Todd’s and Utopia’s label at the time) and features the extended “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale)” from the proggy Ra album.

And the final set of performances on this set brings things full circle in a way, featuring Todd solo in 1982, this time without the gimmicky backing as he winds his way through a solo material set. The performance – featuring Todd variously on acoustic piano and 12-strong acoustic guitar, and even electric “Fool” Gibson SG on “Tiny Demons” – highlights songs from his Hermit of Mink Hollow LP, and includes the innovative “Time Heals” promo video, one of the earliest clips ever broadcast on MTV (the cable channel had premiered the previous fall). Two songs are included that were recorded but cut from the original broadcast: “The Song of the Viking” (originally on Something/Anything?) and “Lysistrata” (a full group performance of which could be found on Utopia’s Swing to the Right album). His reading of “Compassion” (one of his best but least-known songs) is a highlight. Because of the vintage of the video material, it is presented in old format (4:3 ratio) as it was originally broadcast.

Each of the four discs is encased in a mini-LP style sleeve, and the whole affair is in a box slightly larger than a double-CD. A sixteen-page booklet includes photos and an informative essay by Mark Powell.

Taken as a whole, At the BBC 1972-1982 is essential for the Rundgren fan who must have it all, and recommended equally to the relative novitiate looking for an entry point into Rundgren and Utopia’s large catalog.

You may also enjoy: my career-spanning critical look at all of Todd Rundgren’s output (now quite outdated, but worthwhile nonetheless).

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Album Review: Supertramp — Crime of the Century (Deluxe Edition)

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Among fans of progressive-minded 1970s rock, Supertramp have rarely gotten a fair shake. And the reasons are difficult to discern. Could it be the high-pitched lead vocals of co-lead singer Roger Hodgson? That’s doubtful; many prog fans took a strong liking to Jon Anderson‘s upper-register vocals in Yes (and please don’t get me started on Geddy Lee). Could it be the fact that Supertramp scored some Top 40 hit singles, most notably during the Breakfast in America era? That’s more likely to have been a factor, one potentially damaging their prog street-cred.

But their music remains. And once the group found their musical footing (though good, their earliest albums find them struggling for a defined sound), Supertramp produced some of the finest and most accessible prog-leaning “album rock” of the 1970s. And their high water mark came with their third LP, 1974′s Crime of the Century. By that point in the band’s career, all of the musical pieces of the puzzle had come together effectively. With a pair of singers (guitarist/keyboardist Hodgson and founder/keyboardist Richard Davies), neither of whom greatly enjoyed the spotlight(!), onstage the band’s spokesman and focal point was sax/reedman John Helliwell. The disparate influences upon the two primary songwriters (Hodgson and Davies) might have given the group’s sound a split personality, but somehow the two blended effectively.

Crime of the Century sports one of the era’s most seamlessly effective first sides. One wonders if the atmospherics that open “School” impressed Roger Waters; with a schoolyard scream leading into the song, “School” presages a similar approach used on Pink Floyd‘s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two),” a centerpiece of The Wall, a 1979 concept album with not-dissimilar subject matter. And the song’s dynamics – especially the slow-burn buildup to the delightful electric piano solo – are nothing short of thrilling.

“Bloody Well Right” is the earliest among the band’s well-known songs, and was released as a single (U.S. #35), but even it is a bit “progressive” for the singles charts. While the chorus is pretty well a singalong, the power-chording verses are another thing entirely.

“Hide in Your Shell” is this writer’s all-time favorite Supertramp song. Combining all of the sonic elements that make the band special, the melancholy yet uplifting lyric is a thing of beauty. And a good portion of its run time (nearly seven minutes) consists of hypnotically repeated musical motifs. Saxophone – an instrument with a mixed pedigree as part of a progressive rock lineup — is used to exceedingly good effect here and throughout Crime of the Century. Side One ends with “Asylum,” a lament that’s (again) melancholy, but that also possesses the widescreen grandeur one might expect to find on a Queen album of the era.

It would be difficult to top the first side of the album, and Side Two doesn’t really do that. But it’s effective enough, and carries forth the aesthetic established in the album’s first half. “Dreamer” kicks things off with its memorable and insistent Wurlitzer electric piano. In fact, “Dreamer” was the first single released off of Crime of the Century, but it failed to dent the charts in the USA (it reached #13 at home in the UK). But the determination that “Dreamer” was a commercially viable track wasn’t exactly wrong; it was simply a bit ahead of its time: a live version of “Dreamer,” released as a single off of 1980′s Paris, reached #15 on the American charts (and #1 in Canada).

“Rudy” is another melancholy number, providing contrast with the side’s opening cut. With Davies’ plaintive lead vocal and soulful, nimble acoustic piano work, the tune might remind some of Billy Joel at his best. The contemplative ambience continues with “If Everyone Was Listening,” another piano-led number that has a feel not completely removed from The Beatles‘ “Fool on the Hill.” As the song progresses and instruments are added, the arrangement unfolds into something quite lovely.

Back in the 70s, artists didn’t feel the need to extend their albums to eighty minutes; the album closes with the title track, a melodramatic number featuring arrangement and production flourishes that recall/foreshadow Bob Ezrin‘s work for Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and…Pink Floyd’s The Wall. (Crime of the Century was in fact ably produced by the estimable Ken Scott with the band.) Some lovely twin lead guitar work – a feature not in great supply on this keyboard-centered album – is a nice touch. The track’s soaring string arrangement is the cherry on top.

The 2015 Deluxe Edition of Crime of the Century includes the original album in a digipak that features an excellent and lengthy liner note essay by Mojo editor-in-chief Phil Alexander. And a bonus disc provides an audio document of a March 1975 Supertramp concert in London. The live disc serves to illustrate a couple of key points about Supertramp of that era. One, they were very, very good live onstage, succeeding at recreating the sonic landscape of their studio album with only their five-piece lineup. And two, Supertramp had some seriously high-caliber live sound reinforcement. The mid 1970s are not remembered as a golden era for live concert sound, and the subtleties of electric and acoustic pianos, saxophones, harmonicas and the like could often be lost onstage. But not on this night, and not with this band.

The concert as presented here includes the entirety of Crime of the Century, played start to finish in order, with five additional songs inserted in the space where home listeners would have flipped over their vinyl LP. All of these (save an impromptu reading of “A – You’re Adorable”) would appear on the group’s next album, Crisis? What Crisis?, released six months later, but at this stage they most likely had not yet been recorded in any form.

Sometimes Deluxe Editions offer up little in the way of an upgrade over the original release. But Supertramp’s Crime of the Century: Deluxe Edition effectively supplants earlier releases of this classic album, and is recommended in the strongest terms.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 4

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Prog, jazz, blues: there’s something for most musical tastes in today’s roundup of hundred-word reviews.

Mark Wingfield – Proof of Light
If there’s a common raison d’être among the varied acts signed to Leonardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune label, it’s to explore the sweet spot at which jazz and rock convene. Wingfield’s disc features a trio format – electric guitar, upright bass and drums – but what you’ll hear suggests the presence of other instruments. Imagine a low-key Joe Satriani with less flash and more of a jazz sensibility — albeit with plenty of skronky electric guitar texture – and you’ll be on the path to what this all-instrumental sounds like. The arrangements are subtle, but listen closely and there’s a lot going on.

Winter in Eden – Court of Conscience
Just when I finish a piece in which I assert that there are pretty much no women in prog, along comes this disc, by a UK symphonic progressive act. Soaring Mellotron-sounding keyboards (on the “choir” setting) are met by thundering bass lines, and the requisite tricky time signature work from the drummer. Lots of sonic light and shade means that graceful piano lines are met by crushing, edge-of-metal arrangements. The one-sheet tells us that the band is popular at “various Femme Metal Festivals.” That such a thing exists is news to me. A worthy purchase for fans of the genre.

Mississippi Heat – Warning Shot
I’m always a little guarded when I stumble across an album that sports of a picture of a really large band. It makes me think of those terrible horror-metal bands like Slipknot: does it take nine people to make that sound? To be fair, while the Warning Shot credits list thirteen players, the photo only shows seven. What we have here is traditional, Chicago-styled electric blues with harmonica and vocals out front. Nothing new, really, but then “new” isn’t what most people want from a blues outfit. It swings, and for fans of the harp-through-the-Green-Bullet vibe, it’s just the ticket.

Tony Joe White – The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings
The early 70s music scene seems to have been filled with white singers who could traffic in a credible southern soul style. Louisiana-born Tony Joe White was one of the best, often outshining guys like Elvis Presley (no slouch himself). With a style that sometimes sounds very much like Creedence Clearwater Revival fronted by Mark Lindsay, White turned out three fine albums for Warner Brothers. His guitar playing is pretty impressive, too, in an understated rhythm-guitarist kinda way. Nearly every track here is a White original. No “Polk Salad Annie” (that was earlier in his career), but many other gems.

The Soft Machine – Tanglewood Tails
Canterbury legends The Soft Machine are one of the genre’s best-loved groups. With their jazz meets rock aesthetic, they were an early bridge between the then-disparate styles. Their first several albums are legendary, and deserve to be part of every serious music lover’s core collection. The 2CD set Tanglewood Tails, however, is really a for-the-faithful set of rarities, outtakes and other lo-fi oddities from the group’s earliest days. Studio tracks (such as the delightful “Clarence in Wonderland”) are cracked pop that will appeal to fans of Syd Barrett, as long as one can overlook the consistently distracting dodgy sound quality.

This series of hundred-word reviews wraps up tomorrow.

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