Swallow the Sun
“Emerald Forest and the the Blackbird”
One of the most interesting aspects of being into music is suddenly finding yourself immersed in a genre you may never have gone anywhere near previously.
Most of us here are musical inquisitives I guess.
We like to be challenged and are constantly on the look-out for new music to seek out.
I liken this search to many of my trail runs out on my Pennine doorstop.
A labyrinthian web of dead ends, marvellous open valleys, mist-shrouded mountains, tracks twisting round tortuous cliff-edges, sheep-trods leading to vast open moorlands – this is how I visualise my own journey through the musical vista. The scenery constantly changes, a steady run on a gentle track can suddenly turn into a monstrous climb with leg-sapping rocks, roots and sheer cliff edges …..
This is how I’ve come to enjoy a genre I never thought I would.
Running along that relatively gentle path, listening to quality metal such as Riverside, Dream Theater, Haken and Headspace for example, led on to other bands such as Enochian Theory where, on their stunning album “Life … and all it Entails” a few death/doom metal growls are subtly introduced, cleverly and almost delicately.
These fit the music perfectly and made me go back to Opeth’s “Blackwater Park” to re-discover this fine album, growls and all.
Then I was put on to an English Band called Twilight’s Embrace who have released two stunning EP’s – “Reflections” and “Traces” – which are tight, immaculately played minor miracles with not a single note wasted.
As usual, a good few twitter conversations followed with my ‘metal guru’, Matt Spall (@ManofMuchMetal) and he suggested a Finnish band called Swallow the Sun. Matt is obviously adept at spotting tastes and trends in other people and he suggested I listen to their “Emerald Forest and the Blackbird” album thinking I would enjoy it.
Some albums need a few listens to, some albums grab you by the throat, others you could quite happily never listen to again.
This one fell into a new category : the ‘wtf’ category.
I like my music with a cinematic scope, with an atmosphere and feel that could quite easily carry a whole movie. One of my favourite and totally unconnected artists, is Craig Armstrong. This Scottish composer has produced some stunning work that is widely used in commercials and film soundtracks. It can often be heard tinkling away in documentary backgrounds but stands proud as music for music’s sake. I highly recommend Armstrong’s “The Space Between Us”. Sigur Ros are another band who straddle the music, art and film worlds with their ethereal soundscapes.
In a similar way, Swallow the Sun are the soundtrack to Lord of the Rings, to the mighty battles for Middle Earth, to heavy medieval swords, to monstrous fog-laden valleys and to dark forbidding Scandinavian skies.
Track titles such as “Cathedral Walls”, “Silent Towers” and “Labyrinth of London” suggest a grand scope to this music and that is certainly what you get.
Multi-layered guitars, powerful riffs, beautiful keyboards, pneumatic percussion, heavy growled vocals interspersed with clean vocals – it’s all there in a huge, and sometimes overwhelming, sound that is simply epic in it’s vision and execution.
The key to their style is, I believe, the melody and harmonies they employ with the instruments rather than the vocals. Yes, the growling can be hard to take at first but give it time and a few listens then suddenly the vocal style simply becomes a part of the overall sound and it is soon hard to avoid the sublime melodies soaring all around the generally Gothic vibe.
Another essential aspect to the Swallow the Sun sound is the tempo. It is not frantic, there is a calmness (despite the hell being unleashed) and an elegance to their compositions that is common in many Scandinavian bands. Airbag, Gazpacho, Leaves and Lorien are all bands from this part of the world who allow time and space into their recordings unlike anywhere else in the world.
Matt has also recommended other bands to discover in this doom/death or whatever you want to call it scene that are similarly dramatic. Bands with names such as Omnium Gatherum, The Foreshadowing and In Mourning hint at further delights to delve into.
But for the time being, Swallow the Sun are my new favourites in this genre and I would recommend them to anyone looking for elegant, soaring, epic doom metal …………
After supper comes dessert. Pudding. But “how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”
Bringing up “Supper’s Ready” means rattling that dangerous chain of signifiers that includes Bible, religion, Revelation, apocalypse. In the mid 1970′s, we knew about zombies, by there was not yet any strong popular associative tendril between zombies and apocalypse. A more likely association, at least in my neck of the woods, was with Hal Lindsay’s popularization of dispensationalist theology in The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970) and other books (precursors to the more recent Left Behind series).
What comes after (ooh, we need a Terje Rypdal soundtrack here!), or the end (Doors?), in this case is the eschaton, the culmination, the “last things” in the argot of Christian theology. The supper of the Lamb that is the last one. Not “the last Supper” before the arrest of Jesus, but the LAST supper, when time shall be no more. THE LAMB of the biblical Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation (please don’t add an ‘s’ to the end; in the biblical text, it’s THE REVELATION of the Christ, not a book of predictions!), it’s THAT LAMB whose Supper is ready on 1972′s Foxtrot.
What comes After Supper, then? What’s the dessert? Selling England by the Pound (1973) would rightly be called pudding as opposed to dessert (arguably motivated in part by a desire to keep Genesis’ image veddy British), but what we’re worried about here is The Lamb, the one that Lies Down on Broadway. Off to America with a vengeance? No, I won’t chase any speculations of posturing in relation to The Pond. The connection that stands out here is THE LAMB. Having any knowledge of “Supper’s Ready,” how could one possibly avoid bringing to Rael’s story an ear prepared for the continuing adventures of that same Lamb, the true dessert course after The Lamb’s Supper? If we consider this as one possible gaze (regard), what do we see?
“Religion” is such a problematic word. It probably originally meant something like “binding,” and this probable meaning still seems to echo loudly when its friends and foes both react to the various ways, both good and bad, in which we might think ourselves “bound.” But let’s use it for the moment. Sure, we can find some religious themes in The Lamb, even besides the obvious figure of the title, but aren’t they much more subtle, more muted? And isn’t the climax this time much more clearly in tune with Eastern religion, where “you are that” (Tat Tvam Asi)?
What does The Lamb have in common with “Supper’s Ready” that might be construed in “religious” terms? I’ll cut to my chase. One central figure, but in each case the canvas is made of relationships. Lovers. Sex partners (casual or not). Siblings. Others whom one wants to trust. Others who might deceive, who might betray one’s trust. Others who comically conform to stereotypes, or who fail to conform. Others with whom one might belong, or with whom one (hopefully) does not belong. Must experience be solitary and lonely, or can it be shared? Can’t you feel OUR souls ignite? Or do others end up as silent sorrow in empty boats?
Remember that, for some streams of Christian theology, God is the “Wholly Other.” Mightn’t Otherness be considered THE “religious” question, or problem? THE site of the opening of the “religious”? If it is not Other, then I cannot love it. If it is not Other, then neither calling nor command could issue from it.
Now step slightly to your left. Keep that same basic gaze, but shift it over here, ever so slightly. Here are lyrics that we might call “religiously loaded.” There are lyrics about love and longing for an Other. Do you see any line of demarcation, any dividing boundary between the two? I don’t. I suspect that one of the places this will eventually lead us is a meeting of two Doctors (Dyper and Freud); the lack of separation here has always been palpable as far as I can tell. But that meeting will have to do with “sex,” which we will treat under a separate gaze (at least one). The differences between the gazes is provisional and strategic.
The Lamb is a sacrificial figure. It is The Lamb that is slain (lies down). (Death is here, and will be a more vocal visitor in gazes to come.) When The Lamb lies down, is it not with The Lion?
Suppose “religious” has everything to do with Otherness, longing and love. Suppose, under the provisional shade of “religion,” that I (or You, or Rael) could not be God. (Leave aside, for the moment, that heroic/pathetic voice in the Third Impression of “Karn Evil 9,” desperately intoning: ”I am all there is!”) Suppose that dessert cannot be eaten alone, that pudding must be shared.
Suppose the Last Things are Others. Listen to the Lamb, with Rael as background rather than foreground, with Others as the foreground. Have you ever noticed how many there are, other than Rael, or how his story is as much a story about those Others? About Otherness? It is that which I am recommending here as a “religious” gestalt, a gaze at The Lamb that comes after Supper.
Some of the other gazes may spring from some of those Others, but perhaps it will be helpful to see them first from here.
Rocco Pendola argues that “Pandora has done more for local and indie artists in the last 30 minutes than the music industry has in the last 10 years”.
Further, he envisions a way that Pandora can really revolutionize the music industry:
Pandora can leverage the massive amount of data it collects—for example, what do people listen to and where do they live?—to do more local concert promotion, but also front the costs a band has to pay to get into local venues. And/or it can take over the chore of selling those tickets. Organize it as a massive contest. Make it a way of life. I don’t care. But set up a situation where Pandora does the dirty work for the local musician.
If it’s truly in Pandora’s DNA—and I know it is—if Pandora really cares about independent music—and I know it does—it will take the next step. There’s no reason not to. Pandora has everything to gain, nothing to lose. There’s little risk and much reward … if Pandora goes all-in with local music, starting in Hollywood and other major markets.
And his argument is worth reading all the way through to his conclusion:
If Internet radio—a rapidly growing and primary mechanism for spins, sales and promotion of music of all types—is healthy, artists of all sizes benefit. A healthy Internet radio can put more resources into providing the best user experience possible and sales and marketing, which will pump up local music scenes, sell concert tickets and drive digital record sales.
Internet radio—no matter how they pay their royalties (compulsory like Pandora or through direct deals like Spotify) and no matter how they deliver their music to listeners—needs to band together. They must form a bloc to expose the music industry for what it is—a short-sighted bunch of connected entities committed, more than anything, to keeping things exactly as they are, even as they see patterns of consumption and engagement change around them.
The wonderful iamthemorning from Russia are running a Kickstarter campaign to fund professional recording of piano and vocals for their second album. It looks like they’ve made their target already, but there are some cool rewards on offer to backers.
If you are curious about their sound, check out their Bandcamp page, where you can pay what you want to download their first album. Or have a look at the video below!
Years ago, before I was old enough to know better, I gave myself a gift: I didn’t sell, trade, or give away my LPs. Not that I treated them that great. They spent a season or two in a damp garage, and then were loaned for a decade to my nephew, to do with what he would — he just wasn’t allowed to get rid of them. That nephew is now getting close to graduating from college, and last fall my wife and kids and I moved just down the street from his parents, who graciously stored (and moved, on occasion) those four or five hundred LPs longer than anyone should have to. So I’ve now recovered them — although I think, and my sister isn’t denying it, that there may be another box of records lurking somewhere — and put them in the old cabinet my dad built for his LPs back in the 1950s. I’m going through them slowly, alphabetizing, cleaning, playing. It is a satisfying process, and a relief from the digital melee life has increasingly become. What was once cutting edge technology now appears quaint, matched up against things like randomized online playlists and noise-cancelling headphones. A side of an LP takes some patience and some tolerance: pop and rumble can lead to madness or joy, depending on the baggage one’s ready to let go of.
The increased hipness of vinyl amongst the cognoscenti (such as they are) is for me a mostly marvelous thing. It means I continue to have access to old records, and in some cases to newly minted ones, and also to things like styli and cartridges and cleaning tools. I’m jazzed, too, that this seems driven by an impulse towards the physicality of the medium — music has always been something in the ether, but the grooves in a phonodisc, as a mechanical representation of sound, not to mention the marvel of the gatefold sleeve, is a very tangible and human-scaled thing. It is not digital and it is not nano, and for many of us its immediacy has beauty and warmth. However, I’ve found that the new vinylistas have inspired a kind of fetish cult, something I relate to to some extent, I’ll admit, that worships the process over the music. The revival is a retro-geek early tech adopter kind of thing, except in this case the technology is a Rube Goldberg version of something the digital crowd (which I’ll own to being a part of as well) thought they’d exterminated. Like I said, I get this and relate to it, but mostly, my return to the LP has been an experience in nostalgia — a reliving of the days where I would put on a record without a lot of fuss and listen to an album side — and an awakening to an appreciation of the sound that I never would have been able to define in the era before compact discs.
That sound is not quantifiably better, as some would have you believe (IF you have a $3,000 turntable, IF your stylus fits the disc, IF your preamp and amplifier are tube-driven, and on and on and on…). It misses a point, rarely addressed, that music is mastered for vinyl differently, that equalizations are important at that stage to avoid mechanical failure, that is, the needle popping out of the groove. You’re left with a high-end that can veer towards sibilance with wear or if the disc was not mastered well, but also with muscular, defined lows that lend rhythm sections a rounded bounce. The rest, really, is all mojo. This is different for everybody, but for me it is a combination of a couple of things: the vision of the lazily spinning phonodisc, like a river unwinding its story, touches my sense of the real and palpable. And then there’s the presence, that constant background, made up of rumble and clicks and pops, instantly identifiable, unavoidable, reflecting a mechanical process that is not perfectly replicable. Replicability is the stuff of the digital world, the download, the OS. That the LP, with all its noise and uniqueness, seems to coax from me an emotional response that approximates a sense of comfort and familiarity, is something I’m still attempting to wrap my head around. Maybe it’s better that I can’t fully articulate it.
As real worlds and humans are imperfect and usually a little cracked, so is the world of my LPs and my own behavior with regard to them. I am enjoying them immensely, finding deep joy and satisfaction in what they hold and in the memories I have of when I first bought and played them, when the world, not that long ago, was more analogue and still just that much more slowly paced. I am also…digitizing them. Ha! Ironies abound, as friends have observed. I am converting full sides of LPs, taking care NOT to break them into their constituent songs, as a deliberate attempt (as a midlife crisis?) to recapture the original experience I had with many of them. So yes, progress is slow but more and more my iPod is playing back crackle and pop and Rush.
For Immediate Release
Purple Pyramid Records To Reissue Seminal 1971 Debut Album By Krautrock Legends Brainticket ‘Cottonwoodhill’ On CD May 7, 2013
Warning! Only listen once a day to this disc. Your brain might be destroyed!
Los Angeles, CA – Much to the excitement of Krautrock fans and music collectors worldwide, Purple Pyramid Records will be reissuing the seminal 1971 debut album and psych-groove masterpiece by legendary Brainticket titled ‘Cottonwoodhill’ on CD May 7, 2013. Featuring full digital remastering for superior sonic clarity and packaged with extensive liner notes by music historian Dave Thompson!
Brainticket is the brainchild of Joel Vandroogenbroeck, a Belgian based in Switzerland who grew up studying classical piano before switching to jazz. He received the Art Tatum prize as “youngest jazz pianist” at the tender age of fifteen, and was soon touring around Europe and Africa. By 1967, Joel was still playing jazz but he found new inspiration in the sounds emanating from German Krautrock artists Amon Duul II, Can and Tangerine Dream.Under the influence of these groups, Joel and guitarist Ron Byer recruited drummer Wolfgang Paap and formed the trio that would become Brainticket. The group’s 1971 debut album ‘Cottonwoodhill’ immediately ran into a storm of controversy for its association with psychedelic drugs. The album came with a warning label that insisted you should “Only listen once a day to this record. Your brain might be destroyed,” which led to the album being banned in several countries including the USA.
From then on, Brainticket’s reputation as a band of experimentalists at the forefront of underground, avant-garde music had been solidified. Following the death of Bryer, Joel began exploring electronic sounds, moved to Italy and met an American woman named Carole Muriel. A pair of Swiss musicians, guitarist Rolf Hug and bassist Martin Sacher, followed and the group released 1972’s ‘Psychonaut’. A rock opera collaboration with Academy Award winning film composer Bill Conti (‘Rocky’) followed before Joel began work on a new Brainticket album based on the ‘Egyptian Book of the Dead’. The new album, ‘Celestial Ocean’, told the after-life experience of Egyptian kings traveling through space and time, from the desert land to the pyramids. Released in 1973, the album was hailed as the definitive Brainticket experience and earned the band their greatest acclaim.
Joel has continued to explore new creative avenues over the decades, releasing two more albums under the Brainticket moniker, including 2000’s ‘Alchemic Universe’. Recently, he teamed with Cleopatra Records to release the first ever Brainticket box set, ‘The Vintage Anthology 1971-1980′, a 4-disc compilation containing the complete first three albums along with several rare recordings. The box set is a celebration of Brainticket’s enormous contributions to electronic and ambient music that would provide inspiration for progressive bands from Emerson Lake & Palmer to Yes as well as modern acts such as Radiohead.
Joel recently discussed Brianticket with writer Dave Thompson, “We were not a group, we were a place where creation was made and this place was Cottonwoodhill, even if it was never mentioned in the later albums. Besides myself trying to keep this together, every recording has different people. In general, it did work to our advantage. There was an encounter, an inspiration, a production and after that everyone went away on his own path. I believe that this concept is what made Brainticket so original as we never were the ‘perfect concert band.’ We had something different to offer.”
They still do. In 2012, Brainticket went out on the road, touring the US with a set that reached all the way back to these magnificent beginnings. And when he was interviewed at tour’s end, Joel was still flying high. “At the start I didn’t believe that this would be possible, but I can say now that this was one of my best experiences with Brainticket. New blood flew in my veins. I was invited all over the place and the concerts were a huge success. People my age that were still huge fans of Brainticket mixed with young generations that wanted to learn from me, what I knew, and experience what I had done with music. It was like a dream. A space rock invasion!”
And now, with the re-issue of Brainticket’s debut album ‘Cottonwoodhill’, fans can experience where it all began!
Advice… After listening to this disc, your friends won’t know you anymore!
To purchase Brainticket’s Cottonwood Hill CD: http://www.amazon.com/Cottonwoodhill-Brainticket/dp/B00BSHYWMQ/ref=tmm_acd_title_popover
For more information: http://brainticketband.com
I’ve never been a huge follower or fan of Sacramento’s music scene. Even with popular groups such as Cake and Tesla hailing from my hometown, the only local group ever I really dug was ’80s eclectic pop group Bourgeois Tagg (I highly recommend their two albums).
So, some 25 years later, it was a lovely surprise to see that Tim Morse’s second CD, ‘Faithscience,” the follow-up to his 2005 debut album, “Transformation,” was generating buzz among fellow progheads.
I’ve known of Morse for years through his involvement with Parallels, a Yes tribute band that I believe I once spoke to him about drumming for (but regrettably skipped out on). Since then, Morse has occasionally popped up on my radar either for Parallels or for After The Beatles, a group that covers the solo work of the Fab Four.
So, it’s fitting and with a strong dose of local pride that “Faithscience” is my first album review.
Initially conceived as a concept album about the life of Charles Lindbergh, the themes on “Faithscience” grew to include themes of love, spirituality and loss taken from Morse’s real-life experiences. It kicks off with an instrumental opener, “Descent,” calling to mind a Neal Morse/Spock’s Beard overture. It’s clear that Morse has no shortage of ideas to present and here he makes a bold statement about his progressive rock prowess.
“Voyager” feels much like a a two-movement track. The first part combines traditional prog stylings with a tight, song-oriented arrangement, leading to a dense, anthemic solo section – a chill-inducing moment. As the section gradually winds down, one would think the next song is about to begin. Rather, a second section of “Voyager” begins, fueled by a melodic bass line, leading to some fine soloing before an intricate synth sequence picks up an earlier acoustic guitar pattern and leads us out.
“Closer” is another prog showcase with its many twists, tuns and tones, and just when I think the track might leave us in a sonic place far from where it began seven minutes prior, Morse reprises the song’s intro to wrap things up nicely.
Morse provides a soft landing to the thrill ride that are the first three tracks with “Window,” a nylon-string guitar interlude that immediately reminded me how Steve Howe’s “Masquerade” on Yes’ “Union” – yes, a “Union” reference; sue me – broke up “I Would Have Waited Forever” and “Shock To The System” on one side and “Lift Me Up” on the other. The accompanying crickets provide a dreamy background for the guitar to lull us into a daydream, which Morse then extends with “Numb,” the companion to “Window,” that features wonderful piano/acoustic guitar interplay accented by strings and oboe.
“Myth” shakes us from the daydream with an arena rock intro, haunting verses sections and even a touch of “prog swing” – Progarchists, I hold a copyright on that term – to lead us out. ”Found It” and “Rome” are tracks where Morse’s songwriting skills really stand out. He kicks off “Found It” with a MiniMoog-esque solo over a synth soundscape, then thunders into the track with arguably the heaviest riffs on the album, plus we’re treated to fantastic guitar soloing over the last half of the song.
“Rome” gives us a lyric delivery reminiscent of the late, great Kevin Gilbert in the verses and chorus. Again, Morse has no shortage of ideas in his “prog arsenal” but I found these more traditional song arrangements more to my taste. The track closes with a fine violin solo courtesy of guest David Ragsdale of Kansas, blending soulful playing with technical prowess.
Morse throws the proverbial kitchen sink at the instrumental “The Last Wave,” kicking off with a Beard-like section of stops and starts, along with syncopated melodies and rhythms. A quieter guitar section takes over in the vein of “Thrak”-era King Crimson with its chorsed, delayed guitar parts, and from there it’s more prog goodness to the end. This one is really all over the place yet Morse makes it work, ending with a heavy riff we heard at the start.
The album closes on emotional notes, first with the soulful “Afterword,” a tribute to those who help shape one’s life, beginning as a ballad and ending on an more upbeat tone. Finally, Morse brings us to ”The Corners,” inspired by the tragic death of a former student of Morse’s and somewhat structurally reminiscent of “Exit Song,” the emotional epilogue to It Bites’ “Map Of The Past.” An oft-quoted passage from Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town,” is spoken over a moving piano part – perfectly fitting for this – then transforms into an anthemic, symphonic conclusion, taking us from grief to a sense of hope…all in just under two minutes. Beautiful.
The fine collection of progressive rock songs on “Faithscience” showcase Morse’s command of the genre. My hometown is all the much better with a talent like Tim Morse making great music in it and we’re all better off that he shares his talents with us. Do give it a listen.
A “weekend treat” has just appeared on the Frost* website – a demo of new track Heartstrings.
(Incidentally, my review of performances by Frost* and other bands at last weekend’s Celebr8.2 festival is coming soon…)
Kscope Music puts out an entertaining and informative monthly podcast featuring conversations with and performances by the label’s artists. It’s free, and you can subscribe to it via iTunes, or listen to it here.
This month’s podcast focuses on Nosound’s new release, Afterthoughts (see our review of this extraordinary album here). It features interviews with Giancarlo Erra and Chris Maitland, and we’ve embedded it below for your convenience!
The young pianist Eldar Djangirov (website) has already released several exceptional albums, featuring a wealth of stunning virtuosity and musicality. Dave Brubeck, who knew a thing or two about jazz piano, called him a “genius”, which gives you a sense of his talents. His early albums were sometimes criticized (and fairly so) for being heavy on flash and flair and light on interpretive depth and emotional resonance. But his work has matured with each release and I think his new album, “Breakthrough”, is his finest work yet. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that he took a page from the great Brad Mehldau and performs a Radiohead tune, the lovely “Morning Bell”. Here it is: