Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 5

August 15th, 2014

My week-long run of hundred-word reviews wraps up with five new and recently-released jazz albums.


Michael Bellar and The As-is Ensemble – Oh No Oh Wow
Keyboards anchor this varied release that goes in many directions at once: even on the opening (title) track, Bellar alternates between creamy, fusion-y electric piano and Vince Guaraldi-styled acoustic piano runs. Too melodic to be prog, too rocking to be jazz, too adventurous to be labeled rock’n'roll, Oh Now Oh Wow is delightfully all over the map. The ten instrumentals – all Bellar originals save a reading of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile” and a Bob Marley song – show a dizzying command of instruments, the studio, and arrangement. Your ears might fool you into thinking you hear guitars. (You don’t.)


Elias Haslanger – Live at the Gallery
This disc features tenor saxophonist Haslanger’s quintet at their weekly haunt, Austin Texas’ Continental Club Gallery; the gig is known as “Church on Monday.” And the group does testify, as they blow their way through a mix heavy on standards (“Watermelon Man,” “In a Sentimental Mood”). Jake Langley‘s electric hollowbody guitar runs are alternately mellow and biting. Dr. James Polk’s B3 adds a soulful foundation to the mix. The inventive yet solid rhythm section (Scott Laningham on drums, bassist Daniel Durham) take their turns in the spotlight as well. The appreciative but unobtrusive audience adds the right amount of texture.


Alessandro Scala Quartet – Viaggio Stellare
I’m still working to be as well-versed in jazz as I’d like to be; I suspect it will be a lifelong process. But the opening strains of “Mood” sound to these ears like a hard-bop reading of something off of Dave Brubeck‘s classic 1959 Time Out LP. It’s more than the 5/4 meter; there’s a vibe that this Italian quartet-plus-two seems to achieve effortlessly. But then that’s the trick, isn’t it: making the difficult seem effortless. Perhaps it was: the entire eleven-track album was cut in a single Summer 2012 session. Fun fact: the album title translates as “Star Trek.”


Yves Léveillé – Essences du Bois
This light, airy and gentle album is full of classical-leaning instrumentation (flute, oboe, Cor Anglais, clarinet and bass clarinet) along with instruments more readily identified with jazz (piano, upright bass, saxophones and drums). The result is pretty, impressionistic and contemplative, but not really adventurous or exciting (the subtle and varied drum work of Alain Bastien is a notable exception). Only on the strutting “Monarque” (with a very nice bass solo and some skittering piano) do things get inventive. Extra points are happily given for the fact that all eight pieces by this French Canadian ensemble are pianist Léveillé’s original works.


Vincent Gagnon – Tome III Errances
This 2013 Québec concert date showcases the compositions of bandleader and pianist Vincent Gagnon (plus one cover). The small band consists only of Gagnon plus two sax players, a double (upright) bassist and drummer. But that quintet makes the most of what they have, and the result feels like refined yet swinging Eurojazz, occasionally leaning in a big band style (if not arrangement). There’s a pleasing groove even when the rhythm section is blowing in something outside the 4/4 format. Plenty of tasty solos abound on this seven-track collection culled from the best of a three-night stand at Palais Montcalm.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 4

August 14th, 2014

This set of five 100-word reviews focuses on new music, some of which is from familiar names; others might be new to you. All are worthwhile and enthusiastically recommended.


Murali Coryell – Restless Mind
This son of legendary fusion guitarist Larry Coryell is charting a musical path quite different from his dad: he plays tasty blues with a clear melodic rock sensibility and a well-developed playful sense of humor (see the Sammy Hagar-ish “Sex Maniac”). Fans of Robert Cray and Eric Johnson will dig this well-produced (but not slick) album. Not as fiery as Steve Ray Vaughan, this guitarist prefers the slow burn. The disc features a nice cover of Marvin Gaye‘s “Let’s Get it On.” Bonus points to Coryell for titling his album with a sly reference to one of his pop’s records.


Worldline – Compass Sky
Compass Sky is the kind of music they rarely make any more. Worldline creates alluring melodies with that hint of melancholy you might find in a Pink Floyd record (or a Porcupine Tree CD). Brian Turner‘s synth lines don’t aim to dazzle as much as they help carry the song along, and Andrew Schatzberg‘s strong vocals bear the influence of most any great band of the 70s you can think of, but they’re more classic (in a good way) than retro. The record’s strong start to finish. They’re from my hometown (Asheville) but sadly I’ve yet to see them live.


The Verve Pipe – Overboard
I can almost hear you thinking, “weren’t these guys a 90s band?” Yes: they scored a few chart singles in the second half of that decade, but haven’t charted since 2001. As is too often the case, the music is better than the chart performance suggests. While the album artwork is derivative (Storm Thorgerson? Bill EvansUndercurrent?), the music is fresh. Only leader/producer/songwriter Brian Vander Ark remains from the 1990s lineup. Their breezy, heartland-styled rock is vaguely reminiscent of fellow midwesterners Semisonic; the melancholy “Crash Landing” is nearly anthemic in its arrangement, but there’s lots of varied texture throughout. Recommended.


Global Noize – Sly Reimagined: The Music of Sly and The Family Stone
Sylvester Stewart didn’t fare too well on his most recent comeback/self-tribute, but there’s no denying the strength of his 1967-73 material. This aggregation, put together by producer/keyboardist Jason Miles, shows the enduring power of Stone’s songs, interpreted here for modern audiences by a long list of players. The marquee names here are Family Stone drummer Greg Errico (on four cuts), Nona Hendryx (lead vocal on three cuts), Roberta Flack (sultry vocals on “It’s a Family Affair”) and – for the young folks – turntablist DJ Logic. Sly Reimagined is the next best thing to the originals, and that’s saying something.


Ian McLagan & the Bump Band – United States
Former Small Faces and Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian McLagan told me about this forthcoming album last year when I interviewed him about the Small Faces box set. Long having relocated to Austin TX, London-born McLagan shows influence of American musical forms more than British ones. A New Orleans flavor is shot through his bluesy tunes; using the widest interpretation of the term, the music on United States can reasonably be termed Americana. Mac’s always-engaging keyboard work (acoustic and electric pianos, organ) are the highlight but never steal the show: this really is a band, not some guy with faceless sidemen.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 3

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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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 2

August 12th, 2014

Today’s set of five 100-word capsule reviews looks at recently-reissued, previously-unreleased, and/or compilation albums.


How to Stuff a Wild Bikini: Original Stereo Soundtrack
What we have here, in my estimation, is a fascinating and extremely well-written essay that happens to include a CD. How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is not anyone’s idea of great cinema, but the 1965 American International Pictures release has its period charms. This record – originally released on The Kingsmen‘s Wand label – is the only soundtrack LP from the string of Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello vehicles. Tom Pickles‘ liner notes put the soundtrack into perspective and context, explaining the musical contributions of The Kingsmen, Lu Ann Sims, Harvey Lembeck(!) and Mickey Rooney(!!). Skip the film, dig the soundtrack.


Spanky and Our Gang – The Complete Mercury Singles
Often thought of in the same category as The Mama’s and The Papa’s, this group, fronted by vocalist Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane, had deeper roots in a sort of Tin Pan Alley style. This collection presents 21 songs in their original punchier-than-stereo monaural mixes. The group’s hit “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” – a tune that rivals any single of the era for its transcendent mix of melodrama and shimmering vocal arrangement – is here, but many of the other tunes are nearly as good. Of special note is the group’s cover of The Beatles‘ “And Your Bird Can Sing.”


Billy Thermal – Billy Thermal
This band, led by Billy Steinberg, cut an LP in 1980 full of uptempo, nominally new-wave tunes. For various reasons, the disc went unreleased at the time, but the tapes served their purposes as songwriter’s demos: Steinberg’s “How Do I Make You” would be a hit for Pat Benatar Linda Ronstadt, and brought the man’s talents to the attention of The Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston, Madonna, etc., all of whom would score hits with his songs. This collection includes bonus tracks, but the whole package – now rescued from obscurity by Omnivore Recordings – can be thought of as a bonus.


Stick Against Stone – Live: The Oregon Bootleg Tapes
At first hearing, this Pittsburgh group sounds like they’re from a provincial city (perhaps Leeds?) in working class, Thatcher-era England. Truth is, the era is the only detail that’s correct: this 1985 live set – long thought lost but recently discovered – sounds like a cross between Gang of Four, the two-tone ska movement, and Living Colour. Any written description of their complex sound will fall short, but I hear angular funk with plenty of assured polyrhythmic percussion, rubbery bass, and saxophone backing the Lene Lovich-sounding vocals of Sari Morninghawk. A modified lineup of the band (SASO) still performs today.


Buddy Rich – The Solos
The idea of a compilation of live concert drum solos might strike some as a surefire way to a headache, or at least folly. But when the drummer in question is the legendary Buddy Rich, the idea makes some kind of sense. Endlessly inventive and always swinging, the man with a bad haircut and a worse temper may have been sixty years old when these tapes were made, but what you’ll hear sounds like a man half his age. Power, finesse and humor can all be found in Rich’s solos. Background music for a cocktail party? Perhaps not. Essential? Indeed.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 1

August 11th, 2014

Some familiar names and some true obscurities are highlighted in this, the first of five sets of five capsule reviews. This week I’ll review 25 albums, arbitrarily limiting myself to exactly one hundred words each.


Gene Rains – Far Away Lands: The Exotic Music of Gene Rains
Exotica – that early 60s genre featuring wide-panned stereo, vibes, “jungle” percussion and all manner of whoops, bird calls and such – was a big seller; the genre’s two primary exponents were Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. The lesser-known Gene Rains cut three albums that are in the same league; all are long out of print and rare. This new compilation from Real Gone Music collects the best from those LPs, and adds an excellent new liner note essay from Randy Poe (and a lovely cheesecake cover featuring MeduSirena). This disc should be considered essential for fans of the genre.


Pete Seeger – Sing Out America! The Best of Pete Seeger
There seem to have been at least sixty compilations that have attempted to provide some sort of overview to the musical legacy of folk master and American treasure Pete Seeger. Some are long out of print; other remain available. Well, here’s another one. Sing Out America! features fifty tracks, variously credited to The Almanac Singers (an aggregation that also included Woody Guthrie), The Weavers, and Seeger solo. One can’t assail the quality of the music herein, but lack of liner notes and/or discographical info (recording date?) means that this set is a great listen, but unsatisfying as a historical document.


Peggy Lipton – The Complete Ode Recordings
Those of a certain age remember Peggy Lipton as a star of TV’s The Mod Squad (“One black, one white…one blonde!”). But they may well be surprised to learn Lipton had a recording career. And unlike some artists-turned-singers (see: Clint Eastwood), the recordings Lipton released on her self-titled 1968 LP and a handful of later singles show her to be a commanding vocalist. The nineteen tasteful Lou Adler-produced sides (including four previously-unreleased songs) owe a lot to the Laura Nyro school. Lipton composed a number of the tunes, and they hold up nicely alongside readings of classics like “Stoney End.”


Eric Clapton – Behind the Sun
Some insist that Eric Clapton should have hung up his guitar after 1970′s Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs. Clapton didn’t often rock very hard after that (the brief Cream reunion notwithstanding). This 1985 album – newly reissued on SACD – has its rocking moments, though it more often veers toward breezy, easy listening. Behind the Sun is easily identified as a product of its era: Simmons drum sounds abound; prominent synthesizer sounds are equally dated. In places it’s reminiscent of Roger Waters‘ 1984 The Pro and Cons of Hitchhiking (on which Clapton played). Not bad, but definitely not great.


Various Artists – Chicago Bound: Chess Blues, R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll
England-based Fantastic Voyage has carved an excellent niche in the world of compilation albums. Their thoughtful collections have provided tidy surveys of long-lost music, more often than not from the USA. The legendary Chess label was home to a staggering list of classic artists, and this 3CD set brings together some of the best sides from artists including Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters. It also highlights the work of lesser-known acts including J. B. Lenoir (“Eisenhower Blues”) and Bobby Saxton (“Trying to Make a Living”). Chicago Bound is up to Fantastic Voyage’s typical high level of quality.

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Album Review: Steve Hillage – Rainbow 1977

August 8th, 2014

This week of archival, previously-unreleased live sets wraps up with one that’s both accessible and of excellent sonic quality. In 1977, guitarist Steve Hillage (erstwhile of Gong) was near the apex of his commercial ascendancy, on the heels of the Todd Rundgren-produced L album. This date, captured at London’s Rainbow, finds Hillage and band wheeling out several songs from that album onstage. The perennial Hillage concert favorites that bookended LDonovan‘s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and George Harrison‘s Yellow Submarine-era Beatles track, “It’s All Too Much” – get some of their earliest live performances here.

While Hillage’s voice isn’t the strongest instrument, he holds his own vocally amidst the swirl of his guitar, backed ably by his longtime partner Miquette Giraudy (synths), drummer Joe Blocker and bassist Curtis Robertson. The band previews more than half of the songs that would appear on L‘s followup, 1977′s Motivation Radio; that LP ranks with L as among the best of Hillage’s long and varied career. With its oh-me-oh-my vocals, “Light in the Sky” makes the best of Giraudy’s voice, while – as every song here does – highlighting Hillage’s fluid and spectacular guitar work. “Radio” is among the set’s most subtle pieces, and among its most musically effective as well. A pleasing mix of short, snappy tunes and longer (but not meandering) pieces renders Rainbow 1977 the second next best thing to having been there. (A concert DVD would be the next-best thing, of course.)

There’s a fair amount of overlap between the tracks on this live set and with those on Hillage’s live compilation 2LP set Live Herald from 1977; the primary appeal of this set is that it (purportedly) represents a single show rather than picking-and-choosing from a tour’s worth of recordings.

Space rock with mystical hippie trappings and ecological subject matter was and remains the metier of the multifarious Hillage, and it’s all shown to good effect – and excellent fidelity – on Rainbow 1977.

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Album Review: The Move — Live at the Fillmore 1969

August 7th, 2014


Here’s another case of a long-circulating bootleg finding official release (see also: yesterday’s review of an Iron Butterfly live set). The Move were big in the UK, but went largely unknown in America. At least, that is, until they shifted personnel a bit and rebranded themselves as Electric Light Orchestra.

The band certainly knew all about America, though. Many years before its inclusion on Lenny Kaye‘s influential Nuggets compilation, The Nazz‘s “Open My Eyes” was a staple of The Move’s live set. Though the group had an impressive string of hit singles, on this night in 1969 at San Francisco’s Fillmore, they chose to open with a tune released two years earlier (to no great sales) by the Philadelphia group featuring a very young Todd Rundgren. The Move’s excellent live version does overextend the excellent tune just a bit, however.

On this recording – sourced from low-generation copies of that circulating tape* and/or subjected to some expert sound clean-up – The Move turns in exciting covers of Tom Paxton (“Last Thing on My Mind”) and relatively obscure art-prog group Ars Nova (“Fields of People,” included on The Move’s 1969 Shazam LP). The Carole King and Gerry Goffin tune “Goin’ Back” gets The Move treatment as well. The sound isn’t quite up to standard release quality on this 2CD set, but the music is good and important enough to give the audio quality a pass.

The band were big fans of American rock: their sets often included The Byrds‘ “So You Want to Be a Rock’n'Roll Star” and Moby Grape‘s “Hey Grandma,” though neither were performed on this Fillmore date. Rick Price‘s super-heavy bass lines and Bev Bevan‘s drums presage the approach used by Black Sabbath, but Carl Wayne‘s lead vocal plus Roy Wood‘s keen harmony vocals add a pop sensibility that leavens the heaviness. “Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited” is perhaps the best example of all of the Move’s strengths in a single tune: gentle guitar parts, a capella vocal harmonies, and thunderous backbeat; the song’s suite-like character may remind some listeners of The Who‘s “A Quick One (While He’s Away).” They also manage a clever juxtaposition of a classical theme (you’ll recognize it) into the tune, before doing such things was (for a time) a de rigeuer part of rock performance. The Move manage to convey power and subtlety onstage without the use of keyboards or acoustic guitar.

The Move’s set closes as it began, with another Nazz cover: this time it’s “Under the Ice,” from Rundgren’s group’s then-current Nazz Nazz LP. The tapes as circulated among collectors purported to document a set from October 1969. As presented on this official set, the recording features additional performances of “Don’t Make My Baby Blue, “Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited” and “The Last Thing on My Mind,” plus a contemporary recording – more than ten minutes in length – in which drummer Bevan recalls the ’69 tour.

Completists note: If you have the bootleg version of this tape, you might want to hold onto it: most copies include a live version of The Move’s Tchaikovsky-meets-psychpop classic, “Night of Fear” that’s not found on this new official set.

Live at the Fillmore 1969 is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates late 60s hard rock, British variant, done with a deft combination of panache and excessive volume.

* A quote in the liner notes suggests that vocalist Carl Wayne was in possession of the original tapes.

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Album Review: Iron Butterfly — Live at the Galaxy 1967

August 6th, 2014

There’s been a spate of previously-unreleased live albums released of late; this week I’m focusing on five of them. The first, a 1975 set by Magma, offered way-out music and excellent sonic quality. The second, a 1980 Captain Beefheart set, showcased equally strange (but quite different) music in terrible audio quality. Today’s entry features much more accessible music, from psychedelic -era heroes Iron Butterfly, in sound quality that falls somewhere in between the previous two.

In 1967 Iron Butterfly were still several months away from recording and releasing their classic “In-a-gadda-da-vida,” so listeners who give Live at the Galaxy 1967 a spin won’t hear that tune. What they’ll find instead is a club gig heavy (ha) on tracks from the band’s debut LP Heavy which hadn’t even been recorded at the time of this set.

In addition to the hypnotic “Possession” (featuring Doug Ingle‘s husky vocalizations atop a lockstep riff that is equal parts his Vox organ and Danny Weis‘ fuzztone lead guitar), perennial closer “Iron Butterfly Theme” and “Gentle As it May Seem,” the set offers up a few standards along with some tracks that wouldn’t surface until the band’s third LP Ball (the excellent “Filled With Fear,” “Lonely Boy”). The lineup that is documented on this set wouldn’t remain together long enough to tour behind their debut album; buy that point in the band’s lifespan, Ingle had recruited new players to join him and drummer Ron Bushy.

Live at the Galaxy 1967 seems to be a soundboard recording (albeit an nth generation dub of one); between tracks, when Ingle addresses the crowd, his voice is clear and distinct. But when the band all launches in (this seems to have been an extremely loud performance at the band’s regular Hollywood hangout), Ingle’s vocals are largely obscured by the instruments. His Vox survives the onslaught, however: his simple but effective keyboard riffage rises above the thunder of the bass, guitars and cymbal-heavy drumming. The recording has circulated for years among bootleg collector circles; I’ve had a copy going all the way back to the days when we traded cassette dubs. It’s likely that this official release was sourced from one of those unknown-generation tapes.

Iron Butterfly’s music has often been described as riffs in search of songs: as exemplified on this recording, the band often hit its mark. While the vocals can’t easily be followed, the tunes never meander; built around solid and memorable riffs and allowing space for effective solos, tracks like “It’s Up to You” (a good tune they’d never release) make their point in rather economical fashion. Ingle introduces “Gloomy Day to Remember” (which is quite reminiscent of The Blues Magoos) as another of the band’s original tunes; it, too has gone unreleased in any form until now.

As a document of the band’s earliest incarnation, replete with songs you won’t hear anywhere else, Live at the Galaxy 1967 is recommended to fans of the band as well as to fans of that particular brand of 60s psych that bridges the gap between heavy and poppy.

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Album Review: Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band — Live From Harpo’s 1980

August 5th, 2014

The late Captain Beefheart is one of those rare creatures. The casual music fan is unfamiliar with his name; a subset of those who know of him have actually heard him; fewer still can make a reasonable claim to actually enjoying his music.

Appreciate it, yes: I know of quite a few of my friends (certainly not a cross section of American pop music fans) who own Beefheart’s classic Trout Mask Replica. I have an original vinyl copy myself. But neither they nor I play our copies all too often. Beefheart’s music is challenging at best, making few if any concessions to musical convention. Beefheart’s music can be described as a sort of wild, unhinged free jazz/blues hybrid, often featuring the man’s growling vocals (he reportedly had a five-octave range), along with his saxophone. While his band lineup (generally dubbed The Magic Band) followed the standard rock configuration, Beefheart’s music can’t be called rock, not by any reasonable understanding of the term. That said, Beefheart’s critical reputation is stratospheric.

By 1980, Beefheart (born Don Van Vliet) had entered the second of his most highly-regarded phases; the string of albums released between 1978 and 1982 rank among his best, and those three records – Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow actually sold in some quantities as well. Around the time of Doc at the Radar Station, Beefheart and band were the musical guests on Saturday Night Live. And it was days after that SNL performance – December 11, 1980, that Beefheart and The Magic Band appeared onstage at Detroit’s Harpo’s Concert Theatre. The good news is that someone recorded the show: very few legitimate Beefheart live albums exist, and none of those (up to now) date from this fertile period in his career.

The bad new is that the sound quality is awful. Bootleg enthusiasts – a group that includes myself – may not have such a tough time sitting through this boomy audience recording, but those whose ears are more attuned to studio albums and professional recording techniques might find Live From Harpo’s 1980 tough going. And there’s nothing here that approaches the accessibility of such Beefheart cuts as “Zig Zag Wanderer” (included on the Where the Action Is: Los Angeles Nuggets compilation) or “Diddy Wah Diddy” (featured on the 4CD expanded version of the original Nuggets set).

Those who do endure or tolerate the dreadful audio quality will, however, find their reward: on this night, Beefheart and band (Eric Drew Feldman on bass and synthesizer, drummer Robert Williams, and three guitarists: Richard Snyder, Jeff Tapir/White and Jeff Moris Tepper) tear through a set that draws both from new and old material. Tunes from his first three albums are performed right along with newer material, including about half of the songs on Doc at the Radar Station. The night’s lineup is quite close to the personnel that recorded Doc six months earlier.

The brief liner notes offer a capsule history of Beefheart’s career, noting that the man retired from public performance in 1982, less than two years after this recording was made. The liners also assert that “this CD catches the Captain at his best.” That may well be true, but the capture itself is dodgy; owing to the execrable sound quality, Live From Harpo’s 1980 is best left to completists only; everyone else should stick with Beefeart’s, um, more accessible studio output.

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Album Review: Magma — Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï / Live 1974

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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