Archive for the ‘prog’ Category

Six Years of Musoscribe: King Crimson

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

My retrospective continues on this, the sixth anniversary of my Musoscribe blog.

One of my favorite groups – like so many others, I discovered ‘em during my college years – is King Crimson. The pioneering progressive rock band that started in England is, these days, an Anglo-American outfit. One of the very few musical acts that consistently loves forward – no nostalgia for this lot – King Crimson rarely sound like the same group from album to album. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to interview (and in some cases, even meet) several current and former members of the group. (Of course when a band has had so many musicians pass through its ranks, one could argue that the odds are in my favor.) Not counting the time when Robert Fripp complained on his own blog about something I wrote, I’ve collected quite a Crim-related mass of writings. Herewith:

The Crimson ProjeKct

While KC was on one of its many hiatuses, three members of the group put together a double-trio that performed King Crimson material. Originally called Two of a Perfect Trio, they later became an officially-sanctioned Crim extension and dubbed themselves The Crimson ProjeKct. Here’s my feature/interview with Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, and Pat Mastelotto. (And here’s more.)

Adrian Belew
Belew is no longer involved in King Crimson; his attention is now applied to his solo career and (sometimes) the ProjeKct. I interviewed him in 2014. Here’s my Adrian Belew interview.

Pat Mastelotto
Pat Mastelotto is also in another Crim-related group, Stick Men, with Tony Levin. I interviewed Pat in 2013.

Tony Levin
Levin is one of the busiest men in music; I chatted with Tony about his Levin Brothers project in 2014.

Trey Gunn
Gunn played guitar in King Crimson alongside Robert Fripp for several years. Here’s my interview with Gunn, focusing more on his solo work.

John Wetton
Wetton was King Crimson’s bassist and vocalist in the mid 1970s, a time during which the group recorded and released what might be their best album, Red. Here’s my interview with John Wetton.

Greg Lake
King Crimson’s first vocalist/bassist went on to greater success with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer. But when I interviewed Greg Lake, we talked about King Crimson, too.

Steven Wilson
Wilson has been at the center of King Crimson-related activities these last several years. His Porcupine Tree bandmate Gavin Harrison is one of three(!) drummers in the current Crim lineup; he’s borrowed the band’s original Mellotron for use in his own music; and he’s heading the remix/remaster/reissue project of the Crimson catalog. I’ve interviewed Wilson multiple times; this interview focuses on his King Crimson-related work.

I have also reviewed a number of King Crimson (and related) albums and videos. Here’s a rundown; I may well have missed some, but this list is close to complete. (All King Crimson except as noted.)

More of these reminiscences to come.

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Hundred-word Reviews for July 2015, Part 2

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Five releases from five acts from five different countries (Poland, The United States, Germany, Belgium and Sweden) are the focus of today’s brief reviews.

Lunatic Soul – Walking on a Flashlight Beam

Bassist/vocalist Mariusz Duda seems to be taking a cue from the astoundingly busy Steven Wilson; he’s involved in several musical projects all at once, and each is both unique and very worthwhile. His primary band, Riverside, has been slightly less active of late (new album coming later this year), but as Lunatic Soul, Duda has released four albums. Walking on a Flashlight Beam continues the project’s avoidance of electric guitars, and Duda sings and plays everything except drums. The music is ambient-leaning melodic progressive rock; it’s deeply textured and contemplative music that holds up well to active listening. DVD included.

Hildegard – Hildegard
I’ve occasionally wondered why hardly anybody has come up with music that spans the divide between accessible, electronic-leaning vocal pop and more adventurous progressive-minded rock; it seems as if that could – if it’s done right – be a winning combination. To my delight, I’ve found that such a thing does exist. And it comes from an unlikely place: New Orleans. Hildegard is guitarist Cliff Hines and vocalist Sasha Masakowski, and on their self-titled debut, the seamlessly blend a dizzyingly wide variety of musical styles. The subtle, quieter moments are a slow burn; the many rocking parts do indeed rock.

Camouflage – Greyscale

It’s my firm belief that the musical styles of the 1980s aren’t all used up; while the MTV era gave us untold amounts of by-the-numbers synth-pop and -rock (and then moved on to other things), there’s a lot that can be done with the musical tools and aesthetics of that period. The cool synthesizers of that period represented the gradual displacement of analog by digital machines. On Greyscale (their eighth studio release), Camouflage continues their winning approach of sturdy, moody music. The German group’s sound suggests a less bloodless Human League, or a less melancholy Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark.

Brainticket – Past Present & Future

Originally a (sort of) krautrock band of the early 1970s, Brainticket released two of the odder entries in the genre, 1971′s Cottonwoodhill (reissued in 2013) and 1972′s Psychonaut. The prime mover of the group was keyboardist Joel Vandroogenbroeck. Now it’s more than forty years later, and while everyone else involved with the 70s lineup is long gone, Belgium-born Vandroogenbroeck has enlisted members of non-German krautrockers Hedersleben to craft a new album. Past Present & Future features hypnotic works a la Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd; it’s dreamier and less insistent than the early stuff, and thus more accessible. Quite enjoyable and recommended.

Last Days of April – Sea of Clouds

It’s a peculiarly American perspective to think of ourselves as the center of the pop-culture universe. But the truth – of course! – is that there’s some great pop coming from places that don’t have English as their primary language. As I’ve just now discovered, Sweden’s Last Days of April is one of these acts. They’ve been around for two decades, and their sound is one that should please American ears. Singing in non-accented English and featuring simply lovely use of pedal steel guitar, they trade in an engaging, hooky, country-flavored timeless pop. A serious contender for best of 2015.

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Album Review: Yes — Like It Is: Live at the Mesa Arts Center

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

2015 sees the release not only of YesProgeny recordings, but another live set, Like It Is: Live at the Mesa Arts Center. The latter was recorded in the summer of 2014, but features complete performances of the same albums that the Yessongs tour promoted: 1971′s Fragile and 1972′s Close to the Edge.

A lot had changed for Yes between 1972 and 2014. But then 44 years is a very long time in the life of a band. Members came and went (and came and went), and everyone involved got a whole lot older. By the time of the show documented on Like It Is, Yes featured only three of the players from 1972: bassist Chris Squire, drummer Alan White, and guitarist Steve Howe. Keyboardist Geoff Downes had returned to the group in 2011 for their Fly From Here album and tour, and then stayed on. And new vocalist Jon Davison served as Jon Anderson‘s third replacement vocalist (after Trevor Horn and Benoît David).

While Fly From Here had marked a return to form for the band, 2014′s Heaven and Earth was a decidedly low-key affair, and it featured little of the fiery, rocking arrangements that endeared the band to generations of progressive rock fans. Even the milder moments of that album – and most of it is pretty mild – lacked the memorable melodic lines that kept tunes in listeners’ heads.

So for the 2014 tour, Yes played only a couple of tunes from Heaven and Earth, focusing instead on complete, start-to-finish versions of two of their very best releases from nearly a half century ago.

The feel of the versions on Like It Is varies substantially from the way Yes played the songs back in ’72, but the fire is still there. On one hand, having played these songs night after night should have made playing them yet again somewhat easy. But tunes like “Long Distance Runaround” and “Heart of the Sunrise” were never easy songs to play to begin with.

Davison is quite good here; unlike Benoît David — who sounded like what he was, a Jon Anderson tribute singer — he has his own voice. So while Davison hits all of Anderson’s notes, he sounds subtly different doing it. To those who insist that “No Anderson equals no Yes,” Davison’s singing will be viewed as some kind of abomination. To most everyone else, he’ll sound like a very good singer deftly walking a tightrope between singing the songs the way people expect them to be sung and holding on firmly to his own vocal identity.

Occasionally, the songs’ arrangements are streamlined a bit. For all their undeniable talents, neither Alan White nor Geoff Downes is quite the technical match of their respective predecessor in Yes. So while White does a perfectly creditable (impressive, really)  job with Bill Bruford‘s arrangement of “Cans and Brahms,” it’s only very, very good rather than stunning. And Geoff Downes is not Rick Wakeman, and his precise attack on the keyboards is a notch or two less, shall we say, daring than what The Caped One was giving the world in ’72.

As it stands, though, Like It Is: Live at Mesa Arts Center looks to be the final recorded statement for Yes. After more than twenty studio albums and more than a dozen live sets (don’t even get me started on Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford and Howe), Like It Is is a perfectly serviceable live set featuring some of the group’s best songs in a live context. It’s not perhaps the ideal final musical tribute to the just-departed Chris Squire, but for that we have Progeny.

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Album Review: Yes — Progeny: Seven From Seventy-Two

Monday, July 6th, 2015

It was just a bit more than three years ago today that I got the opportunity to speak with Chris Squire of Yes. Though he was never put forth as the “leader” of the group – more than most any other group of the era, Yes never really seemed to have one out-front, in-charge member – he was easily the foundation of the group from its beginning to what may well be its end. On June 27, the bassist passed away after a short battle with a rather aggressive form of leukemia.

The group’s membership was a constantly-shifting lineup, but for most fans, the “classic” lineup featured Jon Anderson on vocals; Squire on bass, Steve Howe on guitar, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, and either Alan White or Bill Bruford on drums. It was during the transition between Bruford and White on the drum throne that the group recorded the music that would be put together as the sprawling 3LP live set, Yessongs.

Through 1972 and into ’73, Yes toured the UK and the USA, and selections from those shows were used to compile Yessongs; the film was not a straight duplicate of the album, as Yessongs-the-movie was the document of a single December ’72 performance in London. Though the playing on Yessongs was predictably impressive, the sound quality was not. Other live albums would follow, but Yessongs was pretty much all Yes fans had in the way of official live recordings of the classic lineup in their prime.

But just like the situation surrounding The Who‘s Live at Leeds, it turns out that other shows from the Yessongs era were recorded. As producer Brian Kehew explains in the liner notes for Progeny: Highlights from Seventy-Two, there were serious technical problems with those recordings. But thanks to modern technology, by 2015 there existed a way to correct those issues without changing the nature of the music as played and recorded.

The result of those efforts is the new, exhaustive 14CD set Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two. With a title that explains exactly what is contained, Progeny presents the complete documents of seven Yes shows. And while Yes didn’t offer much in the way of spontaneity when it came ot their set lists – every night features the same songs in the same order – their performances varied enough from night to night to make a massive set like this worth hearing.

Worth hearing for fans of Yes, that is. But if you’ve read this far, chances are good that describes you. With sound quality that is far superior to anything heard on Yessongs, Progeny captures the band once they had settled into having White as their drummer.

In the early 1970s, opening one’s concert with a taped playback of some classical piece was the thing to do. Elvis had “Also Sprach Zarathustra” played over the PA. Yes opted for a clip of Stravinsky‘s ‘Firebird Suite.” But unlike on Yessongs, the Progeny versions let us hear the band use the playback as a reference for tuning up their instruments. Squire’s bass and Wakeman’s by-its-very-nature-finicky Mellotron can clearly be heard.

The Progeny recordings present the concerts the way they were played, whereas Yessongs rejigged the song order. But what really matters is the music, and the high quality recordings thereof. Throughout these hours and hours of tapes, what one hears is a tightly focused yet “breathable” ensemble who could bend and sway with the song arrangement without breaking.

Anderson’s voice is crystal-clear on these recordings. And while everyone’s impressive, Wakeman’s keyboard and Squire’s bass guitar parts benefit the most from the imported sonic clarity. The throaty, trebly-but-not-trebly Rickenbacker bass work of Chris Squire positively thunders while acting as an additional “lead” instrument alongside Wakeman’s synth lines and Howe’s guitar runs.

The differences between the various shows – mostly recorded in the deep south of the USA – are sometimes subtle, but on the solo spots, the performances vary to a much greater degree. Besides the improved sonics, Howe’s “Clap”is remarkable for the ways in which the guitarist alters the song for each show. The same is true of Wakeman’s spotlight number, “Excerpts from The Six Wives of King Henry VIII.”

Unlike The Grateful Dead – another band who released a 1972 triple-live album (Europe ’72) and followed it decades later with a box set of more shows from the tour – Yes didn’t noodle onstage. The nature of their music was tightly structured pieces. Those pieces went places for sure, but the five band members went there together, not apart. And following along on their journey – especially now that there’s zero chance for that lineup to make music together again – is an experience that’s rich both in nostalgia and in just plain great listening.

For those disinclined toward the large investments in time and money required by Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two, the 2CD Highlights set presents a sampling from the set, and in doing so, provides an audio document that one could consider a sort of Yessongs 2.0. So hold onto your copy of Yessongs for the groovy triple-gatefold album art, and spin Progeny: Highlights from Seventy-Two to make yourself feel as if you are there.

Tomorrow, a look at yet another new live recording from Yes.

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Video Review: Genesis — Sum of the Parts

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 10

Friday, May 15th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 8

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 1

Monday, May 4th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come.

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