Archive for the ‘prog’ Category

Hundred-word Reviews: New Rock/pop

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

More albums that deserve your time, but that I haven’t the time nor space to cover in a more in-depth fashion.

Levin Minnemann Rudess – s/t
This project brings together three of the busiest, most in-demand players on the scene today. Tony Levin (King Crimson) has played on literally thousands of sessions. Marco Minnemann is a sought-after percussionist who has lent his expertise to numerous projects. Jordan Rudess is the keyboard player in Dream Theater. So, yes, this is a prog album, of the most kinetic and imposing kind. The dizzying lead lines often suggest the presence of guitar where there is one. Uber-heavy, but also rooted in a high level of tunefulness. If you dig previous work by any of these men, you’ll dig this.

The Well Wishers – Dunwoody (EP)
The provenance of this EP’s title is a bit strange to me, seeing as I lived in the place called Dunwoody (Georgia) from 1972 to 1988. The disc’s connection to Dunwoody isn’t made clear, but I do know that these five tunes by Jeff Shelton – who is The Well Wishers – are fresh, breezy, Southern-flavored jangle pop, a bit like Pure Prairie League crossed with R.E.M. The tunes lean more upon acoustic guitar than the lion’s share of Shelton’s previous recorded output; the disc gets more rock-flavored as it goes along, pulling back to the all-acoustic closer “Butterflies.”

Matt Boroff – Sweet Hand of Fate
The music here is nearly as dark as the album cover. Boroff plays nearly everything, enlisting occasional guests on some tracks. This record is moody, atmospheric and has the feel of a concept album, regardless of whether it is one or not. Plenty of artists have crafted one-man bands; few have come up with something that sounds as unified and coherent as this. Bits of The Church and Soundgarden seem to inform his work, and it’s full of hypnotic beats that bubble under soaring, feedback-drenched guitar lines. Did I mention that Sweet Hand of Fate is moody? Well, it is.

Kate Tucker + The Sons of Sweden – The Shape The Color The Feel
Part of – the basis of, in fact – an ambitious multimedia project, The Shape The Color The Feel is a collection of catchy midtempo pieces. The songs really do scream out for video interpretations; I haven’t seen any of the clips, but I suspect that tracking shot over an expanse of sea with a grey sky would figure largely in the presentation. Press for the album focuses on the videos (not included as part of the album package) but the ten tracks stand on their own, with an approach redolent of A Camp and underrated 80s band Wire Train.

Sam Phillips – Push Any Button
This Californian creates music that steadfastly refuses to be categorized; on this, her ninth album, she self-produces the nine tracks, her first collection of new material since 2008 (an eternity in the music business). Nominally a singer/songwriter, but that’s only because she sings and writes songs. There’s a sonic connection between her work and other edgy/fascinating female artists (see also: Suzanne Vega, Marti Jones, Aimee Mann), but she never sounds like anyone besides herself. The tunes are intentionally timeless; they neither evoke the past nor suggest the present; they simply are. Heavy friends help, but it’s resolutely Phillips’ show. Recommended.

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Hundred Word Reviews: February 2014, Part One

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

The backlog of music here at Musoscribe World Headquarters has gotten massive; it’s nearly overwhelming. Anyone who tells you that there’s no good new music out there clearly doesn’t deserve your attention. These albums, however, do. That said, the only practical way for me to cover them is to do so in a truncated fashion. Don’t assume from the brief coverage that the music referenced below merits only a quick listen; there are some truly fine albums here. To help in my mission to give these releases at least a portion of the attention they deserve, here are 100-word capsule reviews. Today’s batch mostly falls into a prog-rock or fusion bag.

SimakDialog – The 6th Story
Try to imagine a Rhodes keyboard-led outfit that plays instrumental music that sounds a bit like some of Frank Zappa‘s early 80s material, but with a subtle world-music flavor (like several of the artists covered today, they’re from Indonesia). In places there’s a bit of Tool-like stop-and-start, but mostly this intriguing album floats by. Listen closely or casually; it works on both levels. Closer in many ways to jazz than to progressive rock, The 6th Story features no less than three percussionists. They’re fully integrated, never noisy. (That role falls to the occasional guitar bits delightfully peppered throughout the album.)

I Know You Well Miss Clara – Chapter One
The long band name conjures images of heavily-eye-makeupped pop punk boys, but that’s a red herring; this Indonesian quartet traffics in an atmospheric, jazzy progressive style. Think hard-bop meets atonal, skronky, Buckethead-at-his-weirdest metal. Renowned King Crimson biographer/spokesman Sid Smith gives the album his enthusiastic thumbs-up in the liner notes, and while song titles like “Pop Sick Love Carousel” continue the band’s mission of misdirection, this sometimes-challenging album is quite a rewarding listen. Assured playing is the order of the day here. The photos suggest these guys are very young, and the album title portends more to come from them.

Marbin – Last Chapter of Dreaming
Big-guitar, arena-rock attitude meets jazz chops and ambitious arrangements. Last Chapter of Dreaming might just be that album that leads fans of shredders like Joe Satriani into jazz territory. Not exactly fusion, Marbin’s music is perhaps best described as hard rock with jazz sensibility (often in the form of sax and trumpet). The music swings hard, but pig-squeal guitar and knotty Discipline-era King Crimson styled guitar figures keep it firmly in rock territory. And strong hook-filled tracks like “Inner Monologue” show that this band is interested in songs, not merely showcases for dazzling musical brilliance. This one’s highly recommended.

Dusan Jevtovic – Am I Walking Wrong?
Guitarist Jevtovic was born in Serbia, but he and his band mates (Bernat Hernández on fretless bass and drummer Marko Djordjevic) are based in Barcelona. This is heady prog power-trio stuff, with bass lines that threaten to loosen your innards, delightfully sludgy drums, and dissonant-yet-hooky guitar runs. Think of it as jazz with the aggression of metal folded into the mix. Djordjevic shows off his impressive percussive chops on “Drummer’s Dance,” but even there listeners will find a tune upon which to hang their musical hats. “One on One” is a prog-blues hybrid, with shimmering sheets of feedback.

Dialeto – The Last Tribe
Continuing our musical travelogue, Dialeto is from São Paulo, Brazil. Though they’ve released three albums, The Last Tribe is the first to receive international distribution. A trio featuring guitar, touch guitar and drums, Dialeto creates music that will please fans of (him again!) Joe Satriani. Sometimes the tracks are high-speed, skittery affairs; “Sand Horses” seems well-suited to a movie’s chase scene. Occasionally, the guitars are treated to sound like vibraphones and whatnot; such detours make this album only more interesting than it would already be. It’s melodic yet adventurous, with enough crunch to keep hard rock fans fully engaged.

The Wrong Object – After the Exhibition
This and all the above releases are on the internationally-minded (though NYC-based) MoonJune label; The Wrong Object are from Brussels. This five-piece (augmented with other players on some tracks) creates a playful jazz-rock sound reminiscent of Gong and Soft Machine. Too often, music of this sort is ill-served by the addition of vocals; not so here. The gentle yet assured vocals of Antoine Guenet and Susan Clynes provide lovely texture to the band’s original compositions. That said, with its deft musical pyrotechnics, the instrumental “Jungle Cow, Part III” is a heady mishmash that will impress the most jaded listener.

Sky Architect – A Billion Years of Solitude
The artwork on this album seems designed to target Star Wars fans; the cover painting depicts a sort of Boba-Fett-in-space tableau, and the back cover riffs on the “long ago in a faraway galaxy…” schtick. This five piece is based in Rotterdam, and their sound bears the hallmarks of Genesis, Marillion and other proggers. Dreamy keyboard pads and soaring guitar leads are contrasted with herky-jerky rhythms more associated with Gentle Giant. But despite that 70s name checking, Sky Architect sounds modern. Not quite in the league of Porcupine Tree, they’re nonetheless worth checking out by fans of the style.

Chris Forsyth – Solar Motel
One of two American artists covered today, Chris Forsyth describes his style as “cosmic Americana,” but I hear more of a rock-centric rethink of Brian Eno‘s work. He doesn’t sound like Eno; his busy, distorted guitar lines owe more to Television, and the four extended pieces build and fade away like Russian Circles‘ best work. The tracks might best be thought of as heavy guitar tone poems: more rocking than Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but with a similar Glenn Branca-influenced drone approach. Arty and most assuredly not background music, Solar Music is challenging yet worth the effort it demands.

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Concert Preview: Welcome (Back) to The Machine

Monday, January 6th, 2014

New York-based Pink Floyd tribute band The Machine have long made Asheville NC’s Orange Peel the first or an early stop on their annual winter tour itinerary. The group routinely attracts a packed crowd to the venue for its sound and vision spectacular, a live recreation of the music of one of rock’s best-loved and most influential bands. Once again, this week (Thursday, January 9), the four-piece band will time-travel through the catalog of Pink Floyd, unearthing rarely heard gems (you might hear “Childhood’s End” from 1972′s Obscured by Clouds) right alongside everyone-knows-the-words tunes like “Wish You Were Here.”

And that mix is a key component of The Machine’s appeal. The band strives to put together a set list that satisfies the people who come to hear the well-known hits, and they also manage to please hardcore fans – including this writer – who want to hear relative obscurities such as “Cymbaline.” And in some ways, that could be a real challenge: after all, The Machine is working with a body of music that hasn’t been added to since 1993. Agreeing that they couldn’t get away with playing any given little-known Floyd song every night (say, “Green is the Colour” from the 1969 More soundtrack), drummer and founding member Tahrah Cohen admits, “you can play ‘Comfortably Numb’ and ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ every time. Because those songs transcend time; they’re so relevant in every way to so many people’s lives.”

Continuing on that thought, Cohen explains that for the musicians in The Machine, the goal is to “get your own ego out of the way. When you play great music, you’re just the conduit for that music. When you’re onstage and you play ‘Comfortably Numb’ for the 2000th time, and the entire crowd is going absolutely crazy, you feel alive, too. Get your ego out of the way, and let the music do the rest. It’s not that hard.”

The Machine has experienced some lineup changes since its inception in 1988. While keyboardist Scott Chasolen has been with the group since 2007, and guitarist (originally bassist) Ryan Ball has been in the band for fifteen years, only Cohen remains from the original lineup. But she views those changes as a strength, not a weakness. “Everyone who comes and goes brings something new to the group,” she says. “And it’s very inspiring. Certain people, their forte might be improvising. Some people might be better at groove-oriented playing. Some people are powerful singers.” She goes on to note that in addition to his considerable skills on bass, relative newcomer Adam Minkoff (who joined in 2012) “happens to sound unbelievably like David Gilmour.”

Cohen also makes the point that what the various members bring to the group is less a Pink Floyd influence than an overall musical influence, something that helps keep things fresh. And a visual approach that, er, echoes Pink Floyd helps a great deal as well. As stage personalities, Pink Floyd were never very concerned with how they looked; it was about the music and the visuals – lighting effects, projections, films, and (on the 1980/81 dates, the in-concert construction of The Wall).

The Machine takes a similar approach. The band has its own smaller version of the round “Mr. Screen,” and they use a number of motion picture visuals associated with Pink Floyd. Cohen says that Ryan Ball did “a lot of the video editing” that the band uses onstage, and notes that The Machine “keeps adding lighting effects and films to change things around” from tour to tour. And expressing a sentiment that the Pink Floyd members likely would share, Cohen notes that “it’s nice not having the pressure of being [onstage] individuals. It’s nice to be overshadowed by the music and the aesthetics.”

This week’s show isn’t the only 2014 date for The Machine in Asheville: in May the band will return for an outdoor show where they will be joined by the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, performing an orchestral/rock arrangement of Pink Floyd’s landmark 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. “We have been so lucky in that we have performed with the country’s top orchestras for the past five to seven years. We’ve played with The Atlanta Symphony; Detroit’s symphony, which is renowned; Philadelphia…we’ve played with some heavy hitters,” Cohen says.

“May times when you see a band accompany an orchestra,” Cohen observes, “the orchestral arrangements are a little bit fluffy, a little bit silly. You can see Metallica with an orchestra and say, ‘Okay, that’s very cool,’ but [in our case] Maxim Moston did the arrangements for [The Machine's live reading of] The Dark Side of the Moon. And they’re brilliant; the show is fantastic.”

And while she laughs off my playful suggestion that the group should tackle “Atom Heart Mother Suite” while they’ve got the classical players on hand, she does allow that the May 24 show will include some bonuses, among those “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.”

But Floyd fans shouldn’t play games and wait for May: this Thursday’s show at The Orange Peel presents a ready opportunity to see and hear The Machine.

(Doors 8pm / Show 9pm / Tickets $16 Advance / $18 Day of Show)

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Digital December

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Longtime readers will know that I review digital releases only in the rarest of cases. Only slightly more often will I cover physical releases for which I have access only to a download (or even more rarely, a stream). However, on special occasions, I’m happy to make exceptions. Said occasions are generally this: the music is worthy of comment – positive, negative or middling – to the extent that I don’t mind not having the disc in my hands. Of course these situations generally (but not always) preclude my commenting upon such matters as packaging, album art, liner notes and so forth. So with those caveat-type statements out of the way, here are brief (150 word) reviews of a clutch of noteworthy 2013 releases.

Steve Hackett – Genesis Revisited II
Hackett was a prime mover of Genesis‘ early sound, in the days before they went pop. His progressive stylings added a lot of color to their music. And his post-Genesis solo material (especially 1980′s Defector) showed him expanding his horizons beyond his old group’s already expansive sonic palette. But he’s returned to the well twice, in 1996 and again with this second volume. He enlists a who’s who of famous guests (Steven Wilson, Neal Morse, John Wetton, Mikael Åkerfeldt) and expands the self-covering exercise to include some of his solo material. “Dancing with the Moonlit Night” – one of Genesis’ best songs – is close to the original, right down to It Bites singer Francis Dunnery‘s Peter Gabriel vocal impression, but where it differs (more medieval, somehow) it’s wholly fascinating. Redundant by its nature, it nonetheless remains – thanks to Hackett’s playing and musical choices – enjoyable and worthwhile.


Mike Keneally – You Must Be This Tall
I first discovered Guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Keneally through his involvement with Frank Zappa‘s late 80s and early 90s releases. That musical kinship (I hesitate to cal lit influence, as Keneally’s his own man) is clearly evident on this album’s opening title track. “You Must Be this Tall” sounds like Jazz From Hell era Zappa with the addition of some actual (if wacko) guitar. The triumphant horn (or “horn”) arrangement that opens “Cavanaugh” sounds a bit like Zappa’s “Easy Meat,” but the smooth, tuneful vocals add a more pop sensibility. Well, they would, if they weren’t applied to such knotty melodic lines as these. “Cornbread Crumb” sounds like 70s funk/jazz filtered through a prog worldview. The slower and midtempo cuts work better than the more manic ones (like “Kidzapunk”). Other musicians – most notably, drummer extraordinaire Marco Minnemann – help out, but mostly this is Keneally’s show.


The Poster Boy – Bonjour, c’est Pop Deux
On their debut album, 2012′s aptly-titled Melody, this Budapest-based group crafted one of the best albums of the year, with a sound that recalled World Party, Crowded House and The La‘s. In other words, ear candy of the highest order. On their second outing, they’re aiming for a bigger sound, a bit heavier and more ambitious. “12:01” draws influence from equal parts Ben Folds Five and Wings (specifically “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-five”), while still sounding fresh, new and thrilling. They want you to dance – or at least nod your head in time – on cuts like “Spectre.” The ballad “Another Person” has an oddly overdriven vibe. This album might take a tad longer to reveal itself than did the debut, but its overall quality suggests that – with a soupçon of luck – The Poster Boy could break out internationally in a very big way.


The Flower Kings – Desolation Rose
Modern-day fans of modern progressive rock tend to like The Flower Kings, and with good reason; their sound is both backward- and forward-looking at once. Traditional prog fans will like that they sound a bit like Genesis (see above), especially in their ambitious arrangements. Those more inclined toward harder-rocking sounds will note that their sound compares favorably to Spock’s Beard. A strong emphasis on melody and grand, sweeping musical melodrama means that this deliberately-paced album provides enjoyment both in the moment (as in, the songs themselves) and in the big picture (as in, the album as a whole and on repeated spins). Accessible, heartfelt vocals from Roine Stolt sound more British than Swedish, and when it comes to prog, sounding like you’re from the UK is almost always a good thing. Memorable melodies and muscular playing abound, all delivered with subtlety. Bonus points for huge dollops of Mellotron layered throughout.


Boston – Life, Love & Hope
It’s too easy – shooting fish in the proverbial barrel – to make light of Tom Scholz‘ interminable tinkering between album releases. So instead let’s move directly to the music on this, Boston’s sixth album since 1976. First off, it sounds exactly like you’d expect: the chorused/overdubbed signature guitar sound Scholz perfected in the 70s is right here like (one supposes) it ought to be. And though Brad Delp is no longer alive, his vocals are all over several tracks on this album. The opener “Heaven On Earth” sounds like it could have been a middling track on the first record, or a strong one on the third. However, Scholz’ enlisting of a female lead vocalist on some tracks results in a curiosity: musically it’s vintage Boston; vocally it’s something else entirely. Equally as troubling is his recycling of a composition from the band’s fifth (2002) album, Corporate America.

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Album Review: RPWL — A Show Beyond Man and Time

Monday, November 25th, 2013

The last time anything truly new was released underneath the Pink Floyd banner (not counting expanded reissues of 70s albums) it was way back in 1994. That was almost twenty years ago. So if a newer band puts out music that strongly echoes (heh) the Floyd, the argument can be made: hey, nobody else was using the sound.

In fact, RPWL got their start as a Pink Floyd tribute band, not unlike The Machine. This German outfit (originally a foursome: the band’s name represents the first letter of the founders’ surnames) got its start in 1997, and evolved into making their own music on their debut God Has Failed only three years later. And while their music has undeniable shades of the Floyd (most specifically the Roger Waters-less David Gilmour-led aggregation of 1987-94), RPWL has more to offer than merely delivering Floyd readymades or retreads.

Their 2012 studio album Beyond Man and Time represented a slight realignment of their sound, though the influences and approach remained fundamentally unchanged. And now in 2013, a live document of the supporting tour has been released: A Show Beyond Man and Time, in both DVD and 2CD configurations.

Right out of the gate, the narration of “Transformed” has more to do sonically, stylistically and thematically with Ray Thomas or Graeme Edge of The Moody Blues, or perhaps with Alan Parsons Project. And then as “We Are What We Are” unfolds, listeners will find bits of influence that brings Porcupine Tree (especially their earlier work circa The Sky Moves Sideways) to mind. Certainly, Kalle Warner‘s sinewy, soaring guitar lines owe a lot to the Gilmour school of lead guitar playing, but when the brief metallic thunder of the song’s midsection kicks in, it’s clear that RPWL are not stuck in the 90s.

Yogi Lang‘s smooth vocals have that plaintive, heartfelt quality that Gilmour is known for (and that Waters has always lacked), and his vocal texture and enunciation belie that fact that he and his bandmates are from Bavaria.

The instrumental passages in”Unchain the Earth (The Scientist)” are strongly reminiscent of “What Happens Now?” from Porcupine Tree’s 2007 EP Nil Recurring. And “Somewhere in Between (The Dream of Saying Yes)” feels like (and subtly quotes musically) from “Summer Elegy” on Richard Wright‘s 1978 solo LP Wet Dream. Yet because RPWL’s pop sensibility is the equal of Steven Wilson‘s, the songs don’t feel at all like ripoffs or pastiche.

Having two keyboard players (Lang plus Markus Jehle) helps a lot in developing the song textures in a live setting. And while some reviews of RPWL’s overall sound suggest that more backing/harmony vocals would improve them, on this live set there are indeed some vocals beyond Lang’s, courtesy Jehle and bassist Werner Taus). The five-piece approach the songs as an ensemble: while the playing is ace, none of the songs – unusual for a live set – turn into showcases of individual instrumental prowess.

And for this concert – shot in February 2013 in Katowice, Poland – the band are joined for an encore by Ray Wilson. The ex-late-period-Genesis vocalist lent his guest vocal (making him, one supposes, RPWL’s Roy Harper) to their 2004 hit (in Europe) single, “Roses” on their 2004 album World Through My Eyes, and he shows up here in Poland to sing it live.

Customarily, live albums are not the ideal entry point for newcomers interested in a band’s catalog. But thanks to its sonic clarity and spirited delivery, A Show Beyond Man and Time works quite well as an introduction to RPWL. Though the live set and studio album upon which it’s based is a concept-piece, it’s not necessary to follow along with any sort of story line to enjoy the music. If you liked Floyd and you dig the sort of progressive/classic rock nexus exhibited in such modern acts as Blackfield, then you’re all but certain to enjoy a couple of hours spent with this flawlessly-recorded live document.

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Progtastic Capsule Reviews for November, Part 1

Friday, November 15th, 2013

I am unashamed to admit it: I like progressive rock. I like it a lot. And yet I can’t trot out the boilerplate statement, “The fourteen-year-old boy in me loves his prog,” because at fourteen – even at seventeen – I didn’t really like the stuff. Which is a bit odd, seeing as those years were when prog was in its prime era (well, the decline of its prime era, anyway). But my tastes for King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant and their ilk developed soon thereafter, and even today I rarely go more than a day or two without spinning some prog on the turntable or CD player. Or Spotify or Pandora, where I often learn about the newer stuff.

And, to be honest, because I’m one of a dwindling number of prog-friendly reviewers still fogging a mirror, I do get the stuff sent to me from time to time. Here, then, are quick looks at two nominally progressive releases, new for 2013. This time I’m stretching to 250 words per album.

Prog Collective – Epilogue
Have you ever wondered, dear reader, what might happen if you took Big Generator-era Yes, put XTC‘s Colin Moulding on lead vocals, and added a saxophone player? Yeah, neither had I. But we have the answer on this album. “Are We to Believe?” indeed sounds like 80s Yes, and perhaps that’s because – despite the putative name of this outfit – this nine-track album is really another Billy Sherwood solo album. Once again, Sherwood writes a bunch of tunes, lays down the instruments and vocals, and then gets out his Rolodex. This time, the emphasis is a bit more on vocalists, but there are plenty of celebrity solos layered atop Sherwood’s tracks. And the man deserves credit: he’s got some heavy (if aging) friends: a mere two tracks in, you’ll have heard Rick Wakeman, Steve Hillage, Mel Collins, John Wetton, Derek Sherinian and John Wesley. And you’ll hear none of ‘em again on Epilogue: the guest list simply goes on. Whether this is a good idea remains to be determined. Sometimes it works, but elsewhere it seems that Sherwood is tailoring sound-alike tunes (“Adding Fuel to the Fire” features Fee Waybill and sounds like a Completion Backward Principle outtake). If these cats were actually in studios together (and most assuredly they are not), they’d be tripping all over one another. Instead, it’s a (literally) phoned-in jumble appealing enough to be worth a listen, yet it’s never especially memorable. Also, it must be said: the cover art is positively dreadful.

William Shatner – Ponder the Mystery
The title alone invites obvious jokes: One mystery is, why? Clearly, The Shat is no singer. His “Rocket Man” is a camp classic, and while his ersatz (he’s no Ken Nordine) word jazz hit the mark with his Ben Folds collaboration “In Love,” 1998 was a very long time ago. As his long-time co-star might have summed up, this project is “highly illogical.” Still, what we have here is – wait for it – another Billy Sherwood project. He wrote the music (and, natch, played all the basic tracks) while Shatner actually wrote the lyrics. And they’re fun, in a new-agey, inscrutable, Desiderata kind of way. This time the Rolodex spinning yields guest spots featuring everyone from Zoot Horn Rollo (Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band) to The DoorsRobby Krieger to – believe it or not! – Al DiMeola. Yes: Al-fucking-DiMeola plays on a William Shatner album. One almost begins to wonder if Sherwood has blackmail files on all these time-honored musicians. But Shatner remains the undisputed star of this particular project. As he over-emotes “Give it back!” on “Where It’s Gone…I Don’t Know,” it’s quite impossible to tell if he’s serious, or (as the British so memorably say) taking the piss. Either way, his readings are set against sympathetic, melodic prog backing, with Sherwood singing along in a sort of Greek chorus way. The packaging deserves mention, depicting Shatner wandering through what looks like the Hieronymus Bosch-inspired cover of C.A. Quintet‘s A Trip Thru Hell.

More progtastic reviews coming soon, including some absolutely cracking stuff from RPWL and Marbin, among other names you might not recognize.

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What’s Old is New Again in November 2013, Part Two

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Three more capsule reviews of new-to-you live albums, continuing from yesterday’s blog entry.

The Modern Jazz Quartet – Lost Tapes: Germany 1956-1958
Where modern jazz is concerned, taste and restraint need not be synonymous. And there’s no better exemplar of the first without the second than The Modern Jazz Quartet. Throughout its forty-plus year history, the MJQ created some tasty, vibes-centric jazz that was classy yet never staid, adventurous yet rarely abstract. And their fame and influence extended beyond the borders of jazz: even The Beatles were fans, releasing a pair of MJQ albums in the late 1960s on their signature Apple label. This newly-released collection of early Modern Jazz Quartet sessions features studio (Stuttgart 1956 and Baden-Baden ’56 and ’58) and live (Pforzheim) recordings from the period that heralded the group’s European breakthrough. As ever, Milt Jackson‘s warm and mellow vibraphone is the centerpiece, though John Lewis‘ piano work is prominently featured. But perhaps the most fascinating tracks here are the three numbers on which the MJQ is backed by orchestra and/or a large ensemble; “Midsömmer,” “Bluesology” and “Django” are all afforded more nuance and greater texture by such arrangements. And at the behest of Joachim-Ernst Berendt (to whom the MJQ’s “J.B. Blues” is dedicated), Milt Jackson turns in a solo reading of Walter Gross‘ “Tenderly.”

Flash Featuring Peter Banks – In Public
Even the notoriously truculent Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979) gave Flash props, comparing them to Yes: “Anyone hearing Flash in 1972 would have given them equal chances for success.” In fact this British group – led by Yes’ original guitarist Peter Banks – sounded a lot like Yes, although Banks was a more aggressive player than Steve Howe. This recording of a 1973 Kansas City date shows Flash living up to their name. With Colin Carter, a strident vocalist in the Jack Bruce mold, and Ray Bennett playing (of course) a thick, trebly Rickenbacker 4001, Flash deliver the goods. This set is quite well recorded, though Banks’ liner notes (penned days before his fatal heart failure at age 65) make needless apologies for the sound quality. In places, Flash sound a bit like Islands era King Crimson, balancing technical prowess with thundering, ballsy 70s rock approach. The songs are knotty and complicated, yet still heavy; the playing never feels like filigree, and it always moves the song forward. Michael Hough‘s drums are mixed surprisingly loud for an early 70s set, but that’s a good thing. The prog tropes of fast/slow, heavy/light, loud/quiet are all used to intelligent ends here.

Update: From the flurry of emails I’ve received, seems there’s disagreement amongst involved parties as to the ownership/legality etc. concerning this release. I’m staying out of it. — bk

Steve Hillage – Live in England 1979
Sure, in 1979 Steve Hillage looked like – and almost certainly was – a dirty hippie, but his wide-eyed brand of rock successfully combined progressive chops with the proto-jam aesthetic of Gong (a collective of which Hillage was a member 1972-76, 1994-1999, 2004-2006 and 2008-2012, effectively making him the Rick Wakeman of space rock). This 1979 audiovisual document was filmed at The University of Kent, and while the audio sounds indeed like the feed from a video, it’s not bad at all listeningwise. Miquette Giraudy shows off her impressive synth skills, and her vocals work well on the tunes alongside Hillage’s lead vocals. John McKenzie‘s bass lines are extremely effective as well, laying down a groove over which Hillage and Giraudy slather their ethereal psych leads. A couple songs from his then-current LP Open are featured, along with perennial cover favorites “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (Donovan) and The Beatles‘ “It’s All Too Much.” Modern-day fans who dig Ozric Tentacles should know that for however great the Ozrics are, many of their ideas can be found right here, a full half decade before Erpsongs. A bonus DVD features many of the CD’s songs plus other goodies, including a 2006 interview.

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Fall Capsule Reviews, Part Three

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I wasn’t kidding when I wrote of having a massive backlog; here are four more capsule reviews. Don’t infer that these releases are somehow lesser than those receiving more in-depth coverage; these are all worth further investigation. As per usual, 150 words per review is my limit here.

Breaking Laces – Come Get Some
This one is kinda hard to pin down. On the opening track, “Better Than Me,” this trio sounds a bit like 1990s alternarock. Good stuff, I mean, like Fountains of Wayne, Goo Goo Dolls and so forth. Billy Hartong‘s carefully enunciated lead vocals are backed up with power chords and tight harmonies. But then on “Be a Hammer,” they head in a wholly different direction; the tune’s rubbery riffage is more redolent of, say, Soundgarden. “When the Lightning Came” is almost a power ballad. Elsewhere you’ll hear echoes of Gin Blossoms (“Before you Drown”) and Jellyfish (“Extra time”). Have you noticed a theme yet? Yep: 90s. Not that that’s a bad thing. With the exception of the Cakelike “I Used to Be a Boy Scout,” the last half of Come Get Some is weighted toward ballads. Summary: if you like 90s FM rock, you’ll enjoy this.

Update October 10, a mere nine days after posting this review: The band announced today that they have broken up.

Dewa Budjana – Dawai in Paradise
Looking at the cover and sleeve notes of Dawai in Paradise, one might expect the album to be an excursion in a sort of George Harrison/Ravi Shankar kind of vein. The song titles would reinforce that notion: “Lalu Litas,” “Rerad Rerod” (Yeah, I dunno either). Listen to the CD and you find something a bit unexpected. Yes, it’s progressive rock, mostly (but not completely) of the instrumental variety, but there’s a strong sense of melody at work here. Dewa Budjana (electric, acoustic and synth guitars) is ably joined by a loooong list of players: many of them are drummers or bassists, but you’ll also find some left-field instrumentation too. Violoncello, bamboo flute, and even harmonica. Mellow and jazzy in places, it’s knotty and angular in others, but that sense of melody is the foundation upon which the songs are built. The Eatern-centric vocals reinforce the album’s worldbeat flavor.

Jackson Scott – Melbourne
As happenstance would have it, Jackson Scott lives here in my hometown of Asheville NC (pop. Around 70,000). But neither I nor anyone locally I’ve asked had heard of him, and he doesn’t play here much. His album Melbourne has elements of psych-folk and just plain psych; he’s clearly absorbed influences ranging from Cluster and Eno to Sufjan Stevens (what ever happened to him, by the way?). The cracked folk thing has been done to death, but Scott manages to bring a fresh sensibility to it. Melbourne has a guy-with-guitars-and-effects-and-a-recorder-at-home vibe, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. Some of the tracks (“Never Ever,” for example) feel like the soundtrack to a bad acid trip, with chirping tape experiments that recall early Frank Zappa by way of Ant-Bee (another Asheville gem). But then “Sandy” is shimmering 60s folk pop a la Jackie DeShannon. Confusing yet worthwhile.

Antoine Fafard – Occultus Tramitis
Skating along on the knife-edge that is the border between progressive rock and jazz, bassist/guitarist Antoine Fafard has crafted an alluring album in Occultus Tramitis. Enlisting the aid of some heavy hitters (but using them in a way that further his aims rather than allows him to be overwhelmed), Fafard delivers eleven tracks of varying mood and texture. Jerry Goodman – an esteemed violinist with his own style – channels Jean-Luc Ponty‘s 70s work on “Peace for 4,” the opening track (and one of the disc’s best). An all-star list of drummers (Dave Weckl, Chad Wackerman, Gavin Harrison and others) always does more than hold down the beat. On cuts like “The Chamber,” a trio lays down a thick, menacing groove. On “Good Reasons” Goodman’s violin sounds more like Joe Satriani‘s guitar. When Fafard takes an extended bass solo (“Sum of 6”) it’s tasty, and never indulgent.

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Directed Energy: The Joe Satriani Interview, Part Two

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: You’ve used keyboards before, of course, but the new album (and the last couple) features Mike Keneally, as opposed to on some of the earlier albums where you sometimes overdubbed keys yourself. Does having Mike on board allow you to expand what the keyboard is able to do in your music?

Joe Satriani: Oh, absolutely. I still play keyboards on the album, but it’s easy to pick my stuff out: mine is the slow-moving keyboard kind of stuff – the odd noises and things like that – and Mike is a full-on keyboard player. He’s a virtuoso musician.

BK: I remember him from his days with Frank Zappa.

JS: Right. So if you take a song like “Lies and Truths” form the new record, there are some weird sustaining synthesizer notes going on throughout; that’s my performance, from my home studio. But all of the really cool moving keyboards – organs and harmonic synthesizer stuff going through the choruses – that’s all Mike, ’cause I can’t play that kind of stuff.

And Mike can improvise: he can give you unbelievable performances one after the other. You’re always spoiled.

BK: Following on that point, to what extent do you map out what you want Mike – and the other players, for that matter – to play on the records, and to what degree do you leave it up to them?

JS: Some of the songs come with quite a lot of recorded information that I prepare in my home studio. And we record along with the prerecorded tracks. I’ll play the melody and solo live, and we’ll be listening to my rhythm guitar tracks from the home studio. It might be that there’s already an organ part, and I want Mike to play grand piano live, or there might be a song where there’s almost nothing. In that case we’re playing as a live band in the studio. So it really depends song to song.

I’ll play the music for them in the morning; we’ll listen to it two or three times. Then they’ll make their own charts, and go out and fiddle with their gear to find the instruments and amplifiers that they thing are going to work best. And then we start recording impressions; I guess that’s what you’d have to call it. And I give them the freedom to do something to the song that they think would make it better. They listen to each other, and bounce off what they’re hearing. And then after about seven or eight takes, generally we’ve got something that’s worth hearing. It’s that easy.

BK: If pressed to put into words how Unstoppable Momentum differs from your previous work, how would you respond?

JS: Well, it might be…it’s hard for me to say. Because that’s a critic’s view, and I don’t have that perspective. I’m too close to it.

But I can tell what I went into it trying to do. I tried to make it my most melodic record, and I wanted to break free even more from the constraints of the instrumental guitarist. So I felt like, “If I want to do a song like ‘I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn,’ or I want to do ‘Three sheets to the Wind,’ or I want to have songs like ‘Jumpin’ Out’ and ‘A Celebration’ on the same record, I’m just gonna do it.” I’m just gonna let it happen; I’m not going to let any exterior force make me think that I have to make all the songs sound the same…the same guitar sound, or playing a certain way.

So in that way, if I try to distill the answer into the smallest sound bite, I’d say it was really a melody-driven record. I tried to create some new contexts for myself as an instrumental guitarist.

BK: I interviewed you in 2006 when Super Colossal came out. At that point you mentioned that for your G3 series, you had hoped someday to get Jeff Beck to participate. Do you still hold out that hope?

JS: We’re still bugging him!

BK: Last question, completely out of left field. But I’ve always wondered about this. You’re credited as a backing vocalist on the first (1986) Crowded House album. How did that happen?

JS: I was in a band called The Squares. It was a three-piece out of the San Francisco Bay area. A guy named Andy Milton was our bass player and vocalist, and I was sort of the second lead vocalist and guitarist. We were almost produced by an up-and-coming producer named Mitchell Froom.

So Mitch ended up producing Crowded House, and he was in L.A., working on that record and trying to figure out who to get to be background singers for this band. And he didn’t want the usual L.A. guys. He remembered the vocal blend that Andy and I had, and he gave us a call. We flew down for about three days, and we sang background vocals on about six songs.

I think it’s the only time I’ve ever been paid to sing! That was the beginning and the end of my career as a singer.

It’s a wonderful album; you can really hear Andy’s voice; he had a beautiful voice. I just kinda blended with the drummer [Paul Hester], and Andy would sing along with the lead vocal [Neil Finn].

BK: Thanks for answering that, because I know it’s about as far off-topic as we could possibly go.

JS: You’re right!

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Directed Energy: The Joe Satriani Interview, Part One

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Joe Satriani is that unique guitarist who is both revered by the crowd that digs technically amazing musicians, yet possesses a great deal of mainstream appeal. That success is a function of the fact that he writes accessible, catchy and memorable melodies, as opposed to merely crafting vehicles upon which to lay a bunch of dazzling fretwork. His latest album Unstoppable Momentum continues in that vein while pushing the boundaries in several directions. I recently spoke with Joe about the album and other topics. – bk.

Bill Kopp: Unstoppable Momentum seems like a perfect title for the new album; it’s something like your fourteenth album of new material. I have often wondered: when one removes the lyrical component from a song – or, rather, never puts it in to begin with – it’s up to the texture and melody to convey the thoughts and emotions associated with the song. When you’re writing a song, do you have a story or ideas, so to speak, in your head? Put another way, even though there are no words, are your songs “about” things?

Joe Satriani: Absolutely. I guess I took my cue from classical composers, jazz composers, and film score giants of the last few hundred years; they wrote amazing instrumental music about very specific things. I’m writing music about people I know, people who I interact with, things that happen to me, things that I witness, things that I read about, and even things that are just fun to daydream about, to imagine. The songs are always about something.

BK: I have your first two albums and the Dreaming #11 EP on vinyl. And I love those records. Your guitar playing is timeless, and – at least from the perspective of the record buyer – seems to have exploded onto the scene fully formed. Two questions about that. One, how would you characterize the changes in your style, or approach to playing, since those early albums?

JS: I like to think that in certain areas – if I can go a little guitar-geeky here – that I’ve gotten better at a number of things that I started working on when I was extremely young. A lot of that has to do with misdirected energy; when you’re really young, you’re full of energy, and sometimes…y’know. Some of it gets burnt up in no direction at all. And you can keep at not only the composing, but the quest to be technically more effective. Because you don’t want people to really be reminded of the technique; I prefer that it’s hidden. I don’t want people to think of me that way; I just want my technique to serve the song.

Sometimes, in other fields, you want to be rewarded for the display of technique, but that’s actually the opposite of what I’m looking for.

The trick is to be able to have all that quality in your execution, but you only want your audience to hear the story, the emotion behind the playing. And that’s what I hope I’m getting better and better at with each record: at conveying music and emotion while the technique gets better.

BK: The only thing about those early records that sounds dated is the drums; on the earliest material, it’s a little stiff and less “organic” than your later material. Would you agree, and if so, is that a function of (a) using real or non-electronic drums now, or (b) your loosening up in terms of your composition?

JS: It’s important to know that the very first EP that I did on my own label (Joe Satriani, 1984), there were no drums. There was no bass guitar, no keyboards. It was all guitar; a very avant-garde approach to making a guitar album. This was my reaction to trying to carve a new road out without stepping on accomplishments made by Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin, and other guitar instrumentalists who were very popular when I started learning to play. So I came at it from a really outside point of view. And then the second record I did was a full length record called Not of This Earth (1986), which got licensed by Relativity; that was the first full-length record that I did where I brought in some real drums, some drum machines, and I played bass and keyboards as well as guitar.

I suppose that I – and John Cuniberti, who engineered the record and co-produced with me, and drummer Jeff Campitelli – we were always looking to do something a little bit strange. We were purposely saying, “We’re not gonna have a regular drum kit playing drum fills here and there. We’re going to do, let’s say, a drum machine kick drum, a real snare drum and hi-hat cymbals, and no drum fills.” So in a song like “Not of this Earth” or even “Flying in a Blue Dream,” there are no drum fills at all. That might seem bizarre, but stylistically we were fans of Kraftwerk and unusual computer music as well as Hendrix and The Beatles.

So what came out of that was a really strange combination of what you just mentioned, basically a stiffer rhythm section. What it was, was creating a different canvas for the guitar. And of course we’ve released so many live DVDs with all of those songs done in the human way, and it’s a very stark contrast, isn’t it? “Flying in a Blue Dream” from Live in San Francisco (2001) and the version from the album are very different in their feel.


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