Archive for the ‘prog’ Category

Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 3

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Five new releases are the focus of this clutch of hundred-word reviews.

Analog Son – Analog Son
The name might conjure mental visions of a synthesizer outfit, but the sounds that this duo-plus-friends (guitarist Jordan Linit and Josh Fairman on bass) produces is some fresh and uptempo funk. Seven of the ten tracks are instrumentals that satisfy on multiple levels: there’s plenty of hot soloing and musical interplay, but both groove and melody are deftly woven into the mix. The studio guest list includes members of The New Mastersounds and Dumpstaphunk among others, but Analog Son never sounds like a jam. Linit wrote or co-wrote all the tunes, and was involved in the horn arrangements as well.

Wishone Ash – Blue Horizon
Wishbone Ash are one of those hard-working second-string bands who never quite hit the big time. Enjoying some chart success in the early 1970s, the band has gone through myriad lineups – both John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia, UK) and Trevor Bolder (David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars) have passed through the band’s ranks. Today only Andy Powell (guitarist on the group’s more than two dozen albums) remains. The group’s sound is radio-ready, making their lack of high profile success more perplexing. Fans of melodic meat’n'potatoes rock with hooks, appealing vocals and twin lead guitars shouldn’t let Blue Horizon go unheard.

Focus – Golden Oldies
On one hand, it’s mystifying that a band that’s been around forever would record new versions of their best material: aren’t the originals still available? (Yes.) Do the arrangements differ wildly from those originals? (No.) But considering that the 2014 lineup of Focus features only two members of the classic lineup – leader and multi-instrumentalist Thijs van Leer and drummer Pierre van der Linden – it makes some sense to show that a band now fitted with a pair of young axemen can still play the intricate, jazzy, loopy prog that has always been the band’s trademark. Surprisingly, refreshingly fun.

The Bamboo Trading Company – From Kitty Hawk to Surf City
A breezy, laid back and highly polished sound reminiscent of early 70s Beach Boys is the chosen style of this aggregation. And in fact Beach Boys connections abound on this song cycle about a cross-country biplane journey: Matt Jardine (son of Al) is one of the vocalists; Mark Linett mastered the recording; Randell Kirsch and Gary Griffin used to back Jan & Dean. And Dean Torrence himself guests on the so-odd-you-gotta-hear “Shrewd Awakening.” The production and arrangements are intricate but not overly fussy, reminiscent of that other former Beach Boy, the one who had a sandbox in his living room.

Marshall Crenshaw – Red Wine
The fourth in Crenshaw’s excellent series of EP releases follows the same format as the previous three. As his website succinctly describes it, Red Wine “features a new song (‘Red Wine’), a cover (James McMurtry’s ‘Right Here Now’), and a new take on an old Marshall classic (‘Hey Delilah’).” The title track features a spare arrangement in support of Crenshaw’s characteristically evocative vocals. The reverb on those vocals here and there will transport listeners back to Crenshaw’s self-titled 1982 debut. Electric sitar on “Right Here Now” is a delight; the stripped-down reading of early 90s “Hey Delilah” is ace too.

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Album Review: Magma — Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï / Live 1974

Monday, August 4th, 2014

To some – okay, to most – the idea of a progressive jazz-rock group performing music in an obscure language of their own making might seem, laughable, pretentious, or…laughably pretentious. But science fiction based concepts weren’t all that unusual for bands of the 1970s, especially European prog outfits. So if one can set aside reservations about the lyrical approach, then the music retains its potential to impress on its own merits.

It’s relatively easy to take this more open-minded approach when it comes to a band such as Magma, because that group – founded in 1969 by Christian Vander – probably would have sung in French, which you probably don’t speak and more than you do Kobaian. So for Anglophones, the music of bands like Grobschnitt (and, to a lesser extent, Gong) and Magma can be judged from a musical standpoint, which makes more sense anyway.

Magma’s convoluted story-songs concern themselves with the story of refugees from the planet Earth, searching the galaxies for a new home in the wake of their old planet’s ecological catastrophe. But to these ears, Magma’s music is instrumental with, let’s say, some odd vocalizations.

In the period 1970-1978, Magma released six or seven studio albums (depending on how one counts), and a pair of live sets. The first of these, Live/Hhaï, documented a 1975 Paris concert that included two of the six movements of their 1973 opus, “Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh.” That extended piece never appeared in a complete version on a live Magma album until this newly-released 2CD set, Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï – Live 1974 (yes, Magma makes things quite difficult for anyone attempting to cite song or album titles in print). The sprawling “MDK” runs in excess of thirty-five minutes, so for fans of the group, this new set represents the first opportunity to hear it in its entirety.

As with many of their European prog forebears, Magma’s music is heave on strident percussion. As the group’s leader, visionary and lyricist and drummer, Vander was in the ideal position to push the group in the direction he sought. The particular lineup that is featured on Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï would never make a studio album; by the time they entered the studio to record a followup to MDK, guitarist Claude Olmos had departed, to be replaced by – of all people – Welsh guitarist Brian Godding, late of Blossom Toes.

So there’s at least two reasons for any fan of Magma to want this album: the rare set list and the rare lineup. But what about the rest of us: why would we be interested? The answer is pretty straightforward, if one is a fan of that challenging nexus wherein rock, jazz and experimental music all convene. Intricate meter changes, hypnotic and dexterous electric piano lines, and unpredictable shifts in tone and volume: all of the characteristics that make up the best (and, true, the worst) of progressive rock are all here in copious amounts. After a few minutes of listening to the music, the obscure vocals – though quite prominent in the mix – take on the role of just-another-instrument. Vander does introduce each piece in Kobaian, his voice treated through what sounds like a ring modulator. It’s odd stuff to be sure, but also oddly alluring.

The second disc features two more extended tracks: “Kourusz II” is a lengthy drum solo that would not appear on record in any form until a 2000 CD of the same name collected two and half hours of Vander solos. The space-rock-meets-space-classical a la Holst piece “Theusz Hamtaahk” is even longer; it, too would remain unreleased in any form until the early 1980s.

The 2CD set was originally recorded for and broadcast by Radio Bremen (Germany), and that should tell most listeners all they need to know about the recording quality of this set: it’s excellent.

Put simply, Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï is some crazy stuff, but for the adventurous, it’s well worth the trip. And for those already familiar with the weird and wonderful world of Magma, it’s an indispensable addition to the shelf.

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Concert Review: The Musical Box, 22 July 2014, The Orange Peel, Asheville NC

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

When most modern-day listeners think of Genesis, their thoughts turn to the Phil Collins-fronted trio that released a string of pop albums and singles in the late 1970s and early 80s. Or, to riff on the old Beatles joke, they refer to Genesis as “the band Phil Collins used to be in.” But to those who paid attention in the early 70s, Genesis is, at least, the band Peter Gabriel used to be in. And that Genesis was a highly theatrical outfit, with Gabriel onstage in an assortment of outlandish costumes, introducing the lengthy story-songs in his trademark clipped, back-of-the-throat manner. And Genesis’ albums of that era – most notably, 1973′s Selling England By the Pound – featured musical flights of fancy that capitalized on the instrumental prowess of Tony Banks (keyboards), guitarists Steve Hackett and Mike Rutherford, Gabriel on vocals and flute, and the (too-often forgotten) superb drum work of Phil Collins.

All photos © 2014 Audrey Hermon and Bill Kopp

The work of that classic era lineup is treasured among many Genesis fans, and save for a few one-off reunion projects, no new music was released by that configuration after the 1970s. Those who wanted to enjoy the live spectacle that was early-mid Genesis had to content themselves with a Peter Gabriel concert (though Gabriel didn’t and doesn’t perform Genesis era material) or track down one of the handful of unofficially-released films documenting Gabriel-era shows.

One group of people who have most assuredly seen those films is the five-man group calling itself The Musical Box. This Montreal-based quintet formed over twenty years ago with the express mission of bringing that classic-era Genesis back to present-day audiences. The group’s current tour features alternating set lists: one night centers around material from the 1972 album Foxtrot; the next builds a setlist around songs from Selling England By the Pound.

As it happens, the latter is both my favorite Genesis album and the basis for The Musical Box’s July 22 performance at Asheville’s Orange Peel. I scored a front-row seat for the spectacular show, but made a point of not watching any Youtube clips of the group ahead of time; I wanted to be surprised.


Indeed I was surprised, and delightfully so. From the moment we arrived, it was clear that The Musical Box takes great care to faithfully re-create the visual components of an early 70s Genesis show. A pre-concert look at the equipment onstage showed that vintage (or, at the very least, vintage-looking) instruments and amplifiers would be in use wherever possible.

The “Steve Hackett” guitarist (François Gagnon) would be seated on a stool stage-right, with amp controls and pedal at his easy disposal. “Mike Rutherford” (left-handed player Sébastien Lamothe) would, for most of the evening, be sporting a custom Rickenbacker double-neck axe containing both bass and six-string guitar. The drum kit of “Phil Collins” (Marc Laflamme) was large but made use of older, less-substantial hardware, the kind that can tip over when the drums are hit hard. And while there was a concession to modern technology in the form of a digital keyboard (with its nameplate airbrushed matte black), most of the keyboards played by “Tony Banks” (Guillaume Rivard) were the real thing: a Mellotron, an organ with pedals and Leslie cabinet were prominent onstage fixtures.

None of that technical information would mean a thing if the music wasn’t right. And it most certainly was: as the band ran through selections from the early Genesis catalog (not, in fact, playing Selling England start to end, but instead peppering the set with album tracks), the audience was provided with a true Genesis experience.

The single most important component of that experience was vocalist Denis Gagné (“Peter Gabriel,” of course). His purposefully stilted, bird-like onstage demeanor captured the essence of Gabriel’s public persona of the 70s. Making ample and effective use of costume changes, Gagné led the band on a dizzying trip through the early part of the Genesis catalog.

Other than Gagné (who remained firmly in character the entire time), none of the band members addressed the audience during the performance, though all provided backup vocal support. If any of the band have French-Canadian accents, no one in the audience could tell. The fanciful backdrop and occasional projected images helped make the illusion complete.

Little details helped, to be sure: the group’s long history as a tribute band has clearly afforded them the opportunity to hone the presentation to perfection. Laflamme wore a pair of white overalls with no undershirt, just as Collins did onstage in the 70s. And the overall white-clothing theme of the band helped keep visual focus directly on the flamboyant visual spectacle that was Gagné.

A few songs from Selling England By the Pound were left off the night’s setlist (most notably the beautiful, heart-rending Collins spotlight number “More Fool Me”), but it’s difficult to imagine anyone having come away disappointed from an evening that featured the keyboard-centric “Firth of Fifth,” the melodrama of “The Battle of Epping Forest” (both from Selling England) and an encore that included “The Knife,” from Genesis’ 1970 LP Trespass. As it was, the setlist provided each band member ample opportunities to show off (a) their instrumental chops and (b) their skill at re-creating the sound of Genesis studio albums onstage, a feat that even the original band could rarely manage.

For those who saw and loved Genesis with Peter Gabriel, The Musical Box are a vivid present-day re-creation of that era. And for those who are too young to have seen Genesis the first time ’round, this feels like the real thing.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Five

Friday, July 25th, 2014

All this week, I’ve been working to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels; these are the last five of 25 albums in that effort, each review adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all reissues – are all over the map stylewise.

Mike Keneally & Beer for Dolphins – Sluggo!
Mike Keneally shares a rather unique quality with fellow Frank Zappa alum with Adrian Belew: the ability to straddle two camps: angular, progressive rock and catchy, hook-filled rock. Nowhere is that ability more on display than on Keneally’s 1997 album Sluggo! Reissued after being out of print for more than a decade, Sluggo! is perhaps the one album that prog fans can play for their ostensibly prog-hating friends. This reissue offers an improved, Keneally-approved remix, plus a second (DVD) disc featuring the album in all sorts of hi-res formats, plus yet another DVD with a bunch of related audiovisual goodies.

The Bats – Volume 1
There was a time when (cough) some people thought that Kiwi rock was going to be the Next big Thing™. Despite the fact that few New Zealand bands wormed their way into global pop consciousness, they left behind some lovely music that drew from the tuneful end of rock’s spectrum. And one of the most enduring of all the acts in that category is Christchurch-based quintet The Bats. Their 1987 debut Daddy’s Highway has been compiled with 1990′s The Law of Things and Compiletely Bats (itself a compilation of the band’s first three EPs), yielding this splendid tidy 3CD set.

Gary Windo – Steam Radio Tapes
I had seen Windo’s name on albums by The Psychedelic Furs and Todd Rundgren, but I had never heard any of the music released under his own name. Playing tenor sax, alto sax and bass clarinet, Windo’s solo material bears a passing resemblance to the sole album made by one of his associates, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. On the posthumous compilation, he’s joined by a long list of heavy friends including Julie Tippets (neé Driscoll), Soft Machine‘s Hugh Hopper, 801‘s Bill MacCormick, and Mason himself. Those artists are a good signpost indicating what this delightfully eclectic set sounds like.

Gary Windo – Dogface
Along with the above title, a reissue of this 1982 album has been part of Gonzo Multimedia’s campaign of interesting, previously-overlooked releases. This is an (instrumental) concept album: each track features a different lineup with its own fanciful moniker (Gary and the Woofs, Gary and the K9s…you get the idea) playing primarily instrumental tunes with related titles (“Guard Duty,” “The Husky”). The guys from the then-current lineup of NRBQ back up Windo on three tunes. Some tracks are one-chord workouts laying the groundwork for Windo’s impressive soloing (“Puppy Kisses”). The trebly, lo-fi production values detract from an otherwise splendid album.

Ned Doheny – Separate Oceans
Numero Group has a well-deserved reputation for digging deeper than your average cratedigger in search of material for release. Ned Doheny isn’t a name you’re likely to recognize, despite the fact that he recorded and released a half dozen albums between 1973 and 1993. Part of the California singer/songwriter mafia (The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt et. al.), Doheny never achieved success on a par with any of his mega-famous pals. This new collection draws from his catalog, imbued with a sort of discofied cocaine cowboy vibe that calls to mind a hybrid of Stephen Bishop and “Lowdown”-era Boz Scaggs.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Three

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all new music – can all be labeled as progressive, though they differ widely from one another.

Curved Air – North Star
Founding members Sonja Kristina (vocals) and Florian Pilkington-Miksa plus once-and-again member Kirby Gregory on guitar are joined by three younger members who have been with the group for more than five years on this latest studio album. Paul Sax‘s violin is very much in the style of departed founder Darryl Way, and Kristina’s voice remains very much an acquired taste (Kate Bush fans take note). The album’s production values could be be termed intimate and unadorned by fans, and demo-y by those less inclined toward the group’s music. “Puppets” is tough going, but the hazily rocking “Images and Signs” is better.

Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope
This band has long suffered from the tension between their ambitious progressive music and the inescapable religiosity of keyboardist Neal Morse. To some degree, Transatlantic has addressed that issue: The sprawling “Into the Blue” fills nearly a third of the run time with long instrumental passages full of doom abd grandeur. Still, all compositions are group-credited, so who knows to what degree Mike Portnoy, Pete Trewavas and Reine Stolt can be held responsible for crypto-Christian lyrics like “There’s a deeper meaning if you want to know.” If you don’t care to know, the playing and arrangement are still pretty ace.

Pray for Brain – None of the Above
Imagine funk if it were played by musicians with a prog/metal sensibility. Some will find that mental image irredeemably gruesome; other will be intrigued. For the latter group – however small – there’s Pray for Brain. This trio features upright bassist Christine Nelson, drummer/percussionist Jefferson Voorhees and Mustafa Stefan Dill on guitars..and oud. Yes, oud; there’s a world-music undertone to these deliberate (but not plodding) instrumental numbers. In places the group’s tracks feel like the guitar solo passages on late-period Frank Zappa albums. The aptly-named “Sufisurf” hints at the group’s stylistic mashup of disparate genres. Challenging but worth the effort.

Matte Henderson with Marco Minnemann – The Veneer of Logic
Henderson’s CD+DVD comes to me with a presskit that includes a recommendation from no less an authority than Robert Fripp. That should be a tipoff that The Veneer of Logic is an uncompromising sonic excursion, and indeed it is. With a rip-roaring guitar tone reminiscent of King Crimson‘s Thrak, it’s recommended only for those who appreciate the harder end of the prog spectrum (my fianceé and the cats are cowering in the corner, hoping I’ll soon move onto the next CD). But for those who dig the style, it’s an embarrassment of riches with a staggering lineup of guest stars.

Ian Anderson – Homo Erraticus
Live concerts notwithstanding, flautist/vocalist Ian Anderson seems to have retired the Jethro Tull brand. But his music – now released under his own name – hasn’t changed that much. On Homo Erraticus, Anderson’s brand of rock, informed as ever by medieval and European folk – will sound warm and familiar to Tull fans. Anderson’s flute playing is as expert as ever, but his vocals sound winded, labored. Onstage he’s worked around his diminishing vocal power by adding a second vocalist; on this record he employs this back-up approach little if at all, and sadly, the excellent music suffers for it.

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The Universe of Captain Sensible, Part Two

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: Your album The Universe of Geoffrey Brown is very “visual,” in that it creates a mind movie in the listener’s head, much like old radio programs. Were you looking to put something together that was in line with radio dramas of old, or did that not figure in to your thinking?

Captain Sensible: Yes, I love radio. But I don’t care for film and TV too much, it has to be said. You sussed that did you? Movies did hit all up for you: you’re a passive sponge soaking up whatever you are given, reacting in exactly the way the film creators intend, and your emotions are prodded and controlled at will.

I feel very strongly that we should all be more aware of how we are being manipulated by what we watch. Audio leaves more to your own imagination and your thoughts can wander into areas of your own choosing. Much better, in my opinion.

I listen to BBC Radio 4′s Archers soap about rural English farmers. It’s a bit boring at times, but it’s brilliantly done and it makes me laugh. Some of the characters have been going for 40 years or so! Not the cows, though; they all ended up in pies years ago.

BK: You played some of the Universe songs in the concert documented on Live at the Milky Way. Did it ever occur to you to mount a live-performance version of Universe?

CS: Yes, the songs worked great live. But I feel the audience needs to know the story for interest to be held in some of the more meandering pieces, so I will probably only perform the album in its entirety if we’ve either staged the whole thing theatrically or – cue cries of “hypocrite” – gotten Geoffrey Brown made as a movie prior to gigs.

BK: Copies of The Universe of Geoffrey Brown are not easy to find. For that matter, none of your albums is particularly easy to locate in North America. But of course you’ve enjoyed much greater success in the UK. What do you say to the argument that your work it “too English” to be assimilated by American audiences? (The same argument is sometimes leveled at The Kinks, Small Faces, etc. so you’d be in good company.)

CS: Maybe…I dunno. You won’t find me complaining that I could’ve been a contender or whatever though, as I’ve had a pretty fun time as a muso over the years. I was crap at getting up in the morning, so the jobs I attempted upon leaving school generally only lasted a few days owing to poor timekeeping on behalf of my laziness. Thankfully I am not usually asked to work until the evening these days…although I have missed a few flights over the years.

BK: Your last studio release was in 2002. What are you up to musically these days?

CS: Funny you should ask, as I’ve (laughs) just made a concept album with ex-Damned bassist Paul Gray entitled A Postcard From Britain. It was written and recorded with the aid of some of the acoustic instruments hanging on his living room wall, like bouzouki, sitar, mandolin, et cetera.

We decided to write a bunch of songs which have as their theme things about the UK that we find annoying, amusing, or plain daft. So there’s plenty of potential for material there! The lyrics were mainly written in Paul’s local pub, so as you can imagine we had a real laugh naming names and poking the occasional accusing finger.

Plus of course being a closet progger there’s no shortage of acid tinged guitar solos on the record! Postcard was recorded in a garage in Wales; we love the finished lo-fi feel. Vinyl copies are now available from Easy Action Records. Or as is more normal these days, MP3s from Amazon and iTunes.

BK: What was your reaction when you learned that Aggronautix was doing a Throbblehead of you? Do you think it’s a good likeness?

CS: Yes, not too bad at all! They got the nose right, anyway (laughs). They worked from a picture of me onstage, giving the audience the finger.

But doing one of Captain Sensible? What the makers were thinking, I dunno. But it gave me a good laugh when I saw the Throbblehead for the first time, as can be seen in the video on Aggronautix’s website. And to be in the company of maniacs like GG Allin, Roky Erickson and Jello Biafra is good stuff in my book.

I dig the sales pitch too: “Let the good Captain tell you to ‘sod off’ on a daily basis as he gives you the ole two finger salute. Limited to 1000 numbered units he’s accurately sculpted right down to the beret, seething sneer, and leopard-print pants.”

My own one will blend nicely in a display cabinet with current residents the Dalek, Zippy, Dennis the Menace, Betty Boop, some Homepride Flour men, Doraemon and Commander Shore from Stingray. Which dates me nicely, as you have to be a certain age to know most of those!

Once described by a music paper as “one of the world’s most disgusting slobs,” I see myself as a possible antidote to the slick choreographed mainstream so-called entertainers that make you wanna hurl a brick at the TV screen every time they appear. So with that in mind, I wholeheartedly endorse this excellent new Sensible figurine. Every home should have one.

The Captain Sensible Throbblehead is available from Aggronautix.

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The Universe of Captain Sensible, Part One

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Concept albums have been around for quite awhile. Opinions differ as to which was the first of the lot: some say The Pretty ThingsSF Sorrow, while others pick the most obvious and high-profile release, The Who‘s Tommy. Still other insist that Freak Out by Frank Zappa‘s Mothers of Invention deserves the nod.

All of these are valid choices, as each holds together – to varying degrees – in one form or another. And the “concept” form remained semi-popular through rock history, applied to projects as diverse as Rick Wakeman‘s all-instrumental The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The TubesRemote Control, and XTC‘s Skylarking. But one thing that all of these albums mentioned so far lack is a narrative story line. The interspersing of dialogue between songs is thought by many to diminish the flow of a record, and to make it something other than a standard “album” that can be listened to while driving, working out, whatever.

And when artists have attempted to go that music-and-dialogue route, the commercial and critical response has been divided at best. Jeff Wayne‘s War of the Worlds employed an all-star cast including Richard Burton, and the resulting 2LP set has its fans (me among them). But it didn’t sell in droves. Pete Townshend gave it a serious go with his 1993 Psychoderelict, the (fancifully autobiographical?) story of a washed-up rocker’s attempt at a comeback. Most critics went on record characterizing Psychoderelict as dreadful; me, I loved it and thought it quite entertaining.

Townshend himself thought enough of the work to mount a stage presentation of Psychoderelict, complete with actors reprising their spoken bits onstage. But he (or his record company) also thought little enough of it to release an additional “music only” version of the album, stripped of all the narrative. (I found that version to be stripped of its power and impact as well.)

But the most notable – and for me, successful – of all attempts to fuse story and dialogue with rock music came from a somewhat unlikely source: Captain Sensible, then best known as bassist for seminal UK punk group The Damned.

The Universe of Geoffrey Brown (like Psychoderelict, released in 1993) wasn’t a massive commercial success, and perhaps it didn’t even do well enough in the marketplace to be labeled a cult favorite. But it remains one of my favorite albums. A few years ago, I got the chance to speak with Martin Newell about his role in the creation of the album. And now, I’ve gotten the opportunity to speak directly with the man behind the project – Captain Sensible, aka Ray Burns – about The Universe of Geoffrey Brown. We also chatted a bit about his latest project, and a new limited-edition bobblehead that immortalizes the good Captain in plastic resin.

Bill Kopp: There’s really nothing – at least nothing of which I’m aware – in your music prior to The Universe of Geoffrey Brown that tips your hand as having interest in the sort of concept-album that Universe is. How did the original idea for the album come about?

Captain Sensible: I consider myself incredibly lucky as a music fan to have grown up in the 60s / 70s at a time when rock n roll had just grown up – via Dylan and The Beatles, mainly – and some incredible records were being made. Bands pretty much did whatever they wanted in the studio, which cannot be said of today. Even The Damned had visits from label A&R people occasionally, but we usually sent them off with a flea in their ears.

The first time I heard The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow, I was transfixed. The concept nature of the album took me on a musical journey…a mind trip, even. It was hugely engrossing, and I started seeking out other records of this kind – like The Moody BluesDays Of Future Passed and Tommy. “One day I will make an album like this,” I promised myself. And that’s how Geoffrey Brown came about.

I took my inspiration from the Cold War rhetoric of Reagan and Thatcher. The question the album asks is, “How did we go from the beautiful love and peace dream of the summer of ’67 to public acceptance of the Dr. Strangelove world of mutually assured nuclear annihilation?” My main character Geoffrey works at the Ministry of Defence, plotting targets for destruction in a nuclear attack. He considers his job normal until his head is turned by a hippie chick one day on a bicycle ride; he decides to do something more creative with his department’s missile tracking technology.

My poet chum Martin Newell – being of the wordy persuasion – brought the characters to life with some excellent scripts, and we got proper actors to perform the between-song dialogue. It all works splendidly if you ask me, although the whole project took two years or so to complete!

BK: When I asked Martin Newell about the album, he told me that you did the one song and then decided to flesh it out to album-length work. Did you find it difficult to put songs together that – along with the spoken bits between – moved the story along?

CS: No, once we had the story mapped out the song ideas flowed easily. In fact, I recommend the concept album idea to all musicians, as it’s a massively creative and fun way to make a record, and connect with your audience by telling a story.

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Art is Long, Car Rides are Short: The Keith Emerson Interview

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

At age 69, keyboard legend and virtuoso Keith Emerson has slowed down his pace, but ever so slightly. He no longer tours on a level commensurate with his 70s work in Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In fact, his recent performance at Moogfest 2014 here in Asheville was a one-off show, not part of any tour.

Emerson remains vitally involved in music, to be sure. His witty and eminently readable autobiography Pictures of an Exhibitionist was published in 2004, and in the years since ELP effectively ceased operations (save for a reunion concert – another one-off – in 2010), he headlined Moogfests in 2004 and 2006 when the festival was held in New York City. His most recent projects of note include albums and tours with the Keith Emerson Band (featuring Marc Bonilla on guitar and vocals) and an ambitious 2012 album with that group called The Three Fates Project.

At times feeling a bit like a paparazzo, I followed Emerson for much of Moogfest; a mutual friend had promised to do what he could to secure me an interview, though the where-and-when would remain very fluid until the last moment, owing to Emerson’s packed Moogfest schedule. He sat for an extensive Q&A in front of a large audience, did a full concert, attended a press release to announce the unveiling of a modular synth that clones his own Moog, and met with his friend and sometime sound technician André Cholmondeley for a podcast interview.

In what would end up being his final few moments in Asheville this trip, I managed to score several one-on-one minutes with him while we were in a car being driven from one of his appointments to the next. I asked him if – back in the early days – the monophonic nature of the modular Moog (the capability to play only a single note at a time) forced him to rethink or otherwise modify his fast and fluid playing style.

“Not much further than if you were a solo violinist,” Emerson told me. “You can squeeze a lot of things out of the Moog. But it’s just a question of knowing the instrument. It is monophonic, but it does augment the normal keyboard rig, whatever a normal keyboard rig would consist of. And it doesn’t have to be anything exotic.” He noted that the Moog occupies an important place in music history. “Quite honestly, I think the Moog has defined what has become known as progressive rock music today. There’s an awful lot of bands who really want to have a Moog synthesizer. Because it just completes the sound.”

“But,” he replied, circling back to the original question, “I had no problems in thinking that the Moog synthesizer would be able to endorse all of the qualities in music which I was aiming for.”

Having experienced several days straight being barraged with questions about synthesizers and other keyboard instruments, Emerson was happy to talk about his prowess on other instruments. “I did dabble at an instrument that I found in Turkey, something called the zurna, which is a double-reeded instrument. It’s very difficult to play,” he laughed, “mainly because you need the lungs of someone who could blow up a truck tire. So that didn’t last very long.”

He also plays a bit of harmonica, but “I wouldn’t say I’m a very good harmonica player. I can play a bit of blues, which is quite handy sometimes.” He also claims the ability to strum “a few chords” on guitar.

But being Keith Emerson, after all, the conversation soon came back ’round to synthesizers, specifically the Moog, invented by the man who would go on to become a close friend and associate of Emerson, Dr. Robert A. (Bob) Moog. Emerson shared his thoughts on the Moog synthesizer. “It is an innovation. And it’s now coming to be more acceptable not only by the classical orchestra but by most bands.” He recalled that “in the beginning, the Moog synthesizer was considered a threat, because the Musicians’ Union reckoned that it could replace a lot of their players.” And, he added with a sly grin, “I don’t think audiences really understood that what was coming out of that keyboard was actually being played by someone. I think a lot of people in the sixties thought that it was coming out of a tape recorder or something!”

Emerson’s voice won’t be familiar to most fans, as he never sang on ELP records. But he did sing on record…once. He laughed heartily as he recounted the story. “On the soundtrack for Nighthawks with Sylvester Stallone. Sly, as he allowed me to call him, said, ‘I want you to do a version of “I’m a Man.”’ And I said, ‘Why not get Steve Winwood to sing it?’ He said, ‘No, no no.’ I suggested a lot of people, but nothing came up. So in the end, I said, “Well, I’ll sing it.”

Emerson continued. “So I went into the studio, and it was a big party, actually. They made a party out of my recording “I’m a Man.” After about the fourth take, and after about the second glass of wine, I began to think I’d missed my true vocation. I was definitely a great singer!”

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RPWL in Color and in Black and White: The Yogi Lang Interview, Part Two

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: From the beginning, RPWL has always sung its lyrics in English. I assume that is because English is more or less the language of pop and rock music, and you can be better marketed that way. (Foreign-language music almost never gets played in the USA, for example.) But to date you haven’t had the sort of breakthrough in the American market that I believe you deserve.

Yogi Lang: Thank you. I take that as a compliment. As you know, we come from Germany. I grew up musically in the 70s. And you had two possibilities in Germany: listening to English [language] music means being young, and listening to German music means being old. There was really nothing in between, I swear. So we really grew up with this English and American music. The German market is not a small one: it’s a big market for America and England. And I think that my emotions, musically, are really keyed to the music that came across the ocean and from England. I have got a lot of English friends – and with their help, I can do a lot of complicated things like Beyond Man and Time.

It’s so interesting, since we’re talking about language. There are certain thoughts that are really hard to express in English. Because the thoughts are very European. Finding out that language has something to do with the understanding of thoughts, that was a real experience for me. Learning other languages is a really important thing, not only for your brain, but for understanding other cultures, other thoughts.

BK: Here in the U.S., we’ve actually started using the German word schadenfreude, because we don’t have a single word to describe “delight in the misfortune of another person.” We have to use eight words to say what you can express in a single word.

YL: This is only one point. The other is that you have words that don’t express the same idea. And thus the danger of misunderstanding.

BK: Have you ever toured in the USA? Will you ever?

YL: We have been there, not on tour but for several festivals. We played RosFest, a great festival. The amazing thing about the U.S. Is that it’s always fun playing there. The audiences really listen to the music. In any moment that you play, you have the feeling that they’re following what you say, what you play. They’re really with you. And this is a thing that I really love about the U.S. whenever we play there.

BK: There are so many really, really good progressive rock groups in Europe right now. RPWL is at the top, as are, I think, Riverside from Poland, Knight Area from Holland, Sweden’s Agents of Mercy and Pär Lindh Project, and of course several British ones. Progressive rock – whether we like the term or not – is alive and well in Europe, but in the USA it’s almost a cult or specialist genre, like jazz. Why do you think it appeals to people in Europe, and why do you think it’s not as popular in the USA?

YL: First of all, it’s very complicated to define what prog rock is. If you clap your hands to the music and it doesn’t feel right, that has to be progressive rock.

You know the story with our band; its a classic story. When we started off in the late 90s, we just tried to make fun out of being onstage. It was just what we really wanted to do. We jammed over old Pink Floyd songs. But we also did a demo tape. And a label guy heard it, and he wanted us to do an album. So we went into the studio, had fun there, and we had to find a name. And that is where the silly name RPWL came; we had no other thought. [RPWL represents the first letters of the surnames of the four original band members. – bk] We had to be really quick, because the label said, “We won’t distribute an album with no name.”

The album [God Has Failed, 2000] came out, and two months later, in the biggest German progressive rock magazine, there was a story about us. We didn’t even know about it! The label called us and said, “Congratulations!” We thought, this is cool, but are we doing prog rock? This was the first time I had heard the term, because when I was growing up in Germany, it was just rock music. There was also pop music, which was the three-minute entertainment style. And there was a lot of categories, but in a record store, there was only a “rock” category.

But that is how we learned that what we do is progressive rock! And I think we are still doing it, because we are still the same band.

Maybe progressive rock is more coming out of an English way of music rather than an American one. I don’t know.

BK: Well RPWL doesn’t do a lot of music that’s in 11/8, and the melodies are strong. So in some way, you could be considered pop.

YL: I could live with that.

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RPWL in Color and in Black and White: The Yogi Lang Interview, Part One

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Freising, Germany-based RPWL came together in 1997, initially as a Pink Floyd cover/tribute band. But the group quickly moved beyond the limitations of covering Floyd, creating their own original music in the process. Since their debut, the group has release twelve albums (three of those live albums); their latest is Wanted.

Despite their accessible, melodic style, the band hasn’t gained much of a profile in the USA. Progressive rock fans might know about them, but their polished and accessible sound hasn’t gotten a wide hearing stateside. I discovered their music while listening to a Pandora “Pink Floyd” station I had created, and my introduction to the band was several tracks from 2008′s The RPWL Experience. I later reviewed their third live album, A Show Beyond Man and Time, a live reading a a 2008 studio release. With the release of Wanted, I took the opportunity to speak with keyboardist/vocalist Yogi Lang, one of two founding members still with the band. Here’s our conversation. – bk

Bill Kopp: It sounds like you’re making some changes to your stylistic approach on Wanted. “Revelation” opens up sounding a little bit like Radiohead or The Pineapple Thief, or Porcupine Tree at their most metallic. Did you feel a need to consciously move away from the more – dare I say it – Pink Floydian sound of your earlier albums, at least on some tunes?

Yogi Lang: Absolutely, I know what you mean. But there’s another point: we always try to be very, very close to our lyrical content. You can see that Wanted is like a follow-up of the previous album, Beyond Man and Time. That album was full of pictures, a colorful story about life and our role as individuals going into this world. And so it was full of allegories, so of course the music was more colorful.

And now Wanted tries to get the thoughts of Beyond Man and Time into a story of our here-and-now. So the music is getting rougher and more direct. The life in the here-and-now is of course a [different] life than the one in Beyond Man and Time. Musically, we tried to get at the simplicity of the songs. Beyond Man and Time has all those production [techniques] that you need to draw that picture; on the other hand, Wanted is more black-and-white. [We would ask ourselves,] “Where is this one guitar part that works here? Where is the one bass line that carries the song?”

BK: I suppose those considerations affect the stage presentation of the music as well…

YL: The Beyond Man and Time stage show was colorful, too. We tried to bring onstage all of the figures that are on the album. With Wanted, we want to [convey] the idea of being chased. So there will be more tempos in the show, anyway.

BK: That said, there are still some lovely keyboard textures on the album, a hallmark of your sound. Do you use a real Mellotron, or have you gone the sample route?

YL: I use samples. When I start a song, I always use the keyboards in the computer using the plug-ins. It’s really a comfortable thing when working on demos, on the basics of production. But then I always change to real keyboards for the final version…with the exception of the Mellotron.

I had a Mellotron many years ago, and it was [laughs heartily] a real pain! It never worked really properly.

BK: I had an old Moog that had pitch drift problems, so I know what you mean.

YL: My main keyboard that I use is a Memorymoog!

BK: An old one?!

YL: Yeah. Fifty percent of all the keyboard sounds on the album are Memorymoog. I love it, really. Besides a couple of Roland and Korg pads, I use the Moog. In fact, I try to double every keyboard part that I play with a Moog sound. This brings presence to the music.

BK: Opening the album with an instrumental like “Revelation” seems to point the way to an overture, like one might find on Quadrophenia or Tommy. I know there’s a thematic linking/concept to the songs from a lyrical point of view, but did you work to make Wanted a unified musical statement, or was that not really a concern?

YL: Yes. The music follows the lyrics as closely as we can. That is what we have tried to do since World Through My Eyes in 2005, to move in this direction. But that doesn’t mean [it has to be] a concept album, you know. We never wanted to do a concept album. It was just that with Beyond Man and Time, the work itself forced us into this track. And since Wanted is a follow-up, it was clear that the lyrics would tell a story.

There are a lot of people who are talking of progressive rock as being a category that has to invent a new kind of music, has to go in new directions. I absolutely disagree. What we try to do is find new combinations, new ways to emotionalize lyrics. And this can be something new: what we have to say, combined with the music. And I don’t like this category, prog-rock, anyway. We have to bring in new ideas, but it doesn’t have to be only in the music.

I’m a big Residents fan; they have the ability to bring something new to the music, something that I had never thought about. They create new worlds based on the music. But we just want to connect music to an idea, a thought. And this combination has to be the new thing.

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