Archive for the ‘prog’ Category

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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Album Review: Clearlight — Impressionist Symphony

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD Review: I Dream of Wires, Hardcore Edition

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

The producers of I Dream of Wires‘ “Hardcore Edition” weren’t kidding when they named the film. The original film is a lovingly detailed and insightful feature-length documentary look at the analog synthesizer: its genesis, birth, evolution, demise and subsequent surprising rebirth. Drawing on history and contemporary interviews with synth fiends you’d recognize (Skinny Puppy‘s Cevin Key, Nine Inch NailsTrent Reznor), I Dream of Wires successfully explains the appeal and intimidation factor of the mighty beast that is the analog synth.

Though I consider myself more than a casual aficionado of the analog synthesizer (I own several, though none are the impossibly expensive switchboard-panel looking modular design), I learned quite a bit watching this film. You know those stories where two people are working concurrently, yet independent of one another, racing toward a similar end? You know, like Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison? Well, Bob Moog (“east coast”) and Don Buchla (“west coast”) shared a similar story. Buchla’s approach was – his adherents would arguer – more “pure,” as he didn’t wish to limit/encumber his synthesizer with anything so drearily commonplace as a keyboard. Moog, on the other hand, thought in more practical – yet equally groundbreaking) terms, so even his earliest monophonic modular synthesizers were controlled by a keyboard that would render the machine at least nominally familiar to a pianist or organist.

I Dream of Wires gets into much more than that, though, as it charts the decline of the analog synth in favor of the sterile Yamama DX-7 in the 1980s. In that period, old Moogs could be picked up secondhand in pawn shops for next to nothing ( to wit: I bought a Moog Rogue in 1982 for, I think, $125). But as the 90s unfolded, select musicians began to rediscover the joys of “real” synthesizers (there’s an oxymoron for ya) and things have been on a slow, gradual upswing ever since.

The new “Hardcore Edition” expands on all of this, and may be more than the average viewer wants (or can handle in a single sitting). But if one views it more as a series or miniseries, the four-hour DVD makes for excellent watching.

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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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