Author Archives: Craig Breaden

Neil Peart on NPR

Nice piece on Neil Peart on NPR this morning.

http://www.npr.org/2015/01/06/375171736/mystic-rhythms-rushs-neil-peart-on-the-first-rock-drummer

Hello Cleveland: Rush ’74

718es2ZKoML._SX425_Whether it comes down to talent, musical choices, or the genius of their management, Rush continues to pull off an inspired feat:  embedding themselves in the rock mainstream while maintaining a reputation as music biz outsiders and, deceptively, cultural dark horses.  It’s a trick most rock and punk bands would kill for and it actually does come down to a question of honesty.  Rush never cared about being one of the cool kids and guess what, turns out the world’s not made up of cool kids after all.  And those un-cool kids want to see their band live.

Based on the evidence of Rush’s officially released live catalog, you’d be hard pressed to find a better, or better-documented, live “stadium” rock band.  For its consistent onstage delivery the band itself credits its grind in the clubs of Toronto in the early 1970s.  As that decade wore on and they began writing increasingly complex studio material, their live shows became acrobatic technical workouts showcasing tremendous talent (and perhaps some excess too).  But when they first started touring in support of studio albums, their music and their onstage act fit somewhere between Humble Pie, Led Zeppelin, and Ted Nugent.

Rush: ABC 1974 captures the band in Cleveland on its first American tour, with a few bonus tracks, also from Cleveland, the following year.  The shows are notable because they were recorded by WMMS, famously instrumental in builiding Rush’s career, and also because the show in August 1974 was the first U.S. broadcast of the band.  More importantly, though, the ’74 show includes new drummer Neil Peart.  It’s something of an awkward moment:  Rush’s first album is a riff metal powerhouse, anchored by drummer John Rutsey’s straight ahead hard rock pounding and suggesting as much Black Sabbath as Led Zeppelin.  Peart’s still finding his feet on this set, busy-ing up songs that maybe can’t sustain his presence.  Still, given they’re from the band’s early days as professionals, the performances are outstanding, with early album hit “Working Man” the obvious crowd pleaser and “What You’re Doing” as mind-bendingly great a piece of stoner rock live as on record.  The duds are all songs Rush wisely never put on an album and a cover of “Bad Boy” that doesn’t really go anywhere.  The three bonus tracks from 1975 suffer from poor audio quality while offering a glimpse of Fly By Night.  That title track, the first real success of Rush mach II, bristles with their new sound, and is genuinely exciting to hear despite the muddy recording.  The other songs from Fly By Night (including Anthem and Beneath, Between, and Behind) also distinguish themselves by containing an energy of a sort entirely different, as well as a lyrical focus stretching beyond the rock tropes that characterize Rush’s first.  It’s pretty clear that the band has re-set its course.

I can’t tell you what the deal is with this record, if Rush actually has any say over its release or not, but there’s nothing here that doesn’t speak well of the band in its formative days; and, if you’re a fan of that era, then the heaviosity on display in Cleveland in ‘74 is pretty much guaranteed to take you to church.

Not That You Should Care, But…2014

Year-end best-of lists are a drag.  Right? Day after Christmas, look out.  Flip channels from one mega news station to another and you’ll get some dude(tte) with a list.  Well, look no further than Progarchy for the same schlockfest.  Because that’s what it is.  There’s a great line from John Le Carre’s The Russia House: “I don’t like lists. Lists tell you too much about the people who make them.”  And it’s true.  So before I get on with it, expose my short list, know this: I make no assumption that it should have any meaning for you.  I would like to send a thanks to my kids, 7 and 9, for insisting we listen to pop radio in the car, for I have found some true and unexpected pleasure there this year, in Lorde and Hozier and Pharrell Williams.

III by Mariachi El Bronx
I’m not going to eff around and pretend that I can construct a reason that Mariachi El Bronx’s latest could be considered progressive music, but consider: the alter ego of L.A. punk band the Bronx, MEB makes original, poppy, mariachi-style music sung in English.  It is a sincere mashup of styles that could easily come off as kitsch, but avoids that pitfall with serious musicianship, lyrical directness, and a genuine love for the music they fuse.  Their third full length is something of a leap, approaching a breezy grittiness, its horns, strings, and vox raising Arthur Lee’s ghost.

Arktika by Pelican
If you haven’t had a chance to hear John Bassett’s Arcade Messiah project, you should give it a listen.  It’s a fine instrumental record from the genius behind King Bathmat and an edgier, heavier complement to Bassett’s more sublime “Unearth.”  Arcade Messiah led me back to Pelican, who I’d listened to long ago on the recommendation of the tattoo artist who first inked me.  Arktika is a live recording that captures Pelican’s mojo: layers of instrumental metal with a live, dirty approach masking mammoth structures.

Demon by Gazpacho
Demon is the most important album in a long time.  It’s a sleeper, a heavy record full of light, melodically beautiful in its moody shadows.  It defies genres.  From its basic concept to its execution, it is unequalled by anything else that came out this year and in most other years.  Its day in the sun is not done.
Reviewed here

Iceberg Soul by newspaperflyhunting
A tremendous album from a Polish band who builds songs out of jams in the grand tradition of krautrock and the Velvet Underground, Iceberg Soul is a mind blower that could school a lot of more experienced prog bands in the art of messiness.  Makes me thankful for the reach of the internet.
Reviewed here

Garden of Ghosts by Fractal Mirror
An unexpected pleasure, Garden of Ghosts shows the value of looking back while moving forward, both musically and lyrically.  Combining the sound of classic new wave melodies — check “House of Wishes,” which kicks off the album, for its rich suggestion of Modern English — and progressive rock flourishes, Fractal Mirror has a sound that I look forward to exploring further in 2015.

Lullaby and…the Ceaseless Roar by Robert Plant
What I like about Robert Plant is that he’s a mover.  Having been a part of the mighty Zep, he could easily let that continue to define him, and while he doesn’t shrug his heritage off, his solo records have always worked against the grain while showing his aesthetic contribution to his former band came from deep springs. His latest album is really nice, and suggests in its laid back daring a smoothness that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bryan Ferry record.

City of the Sun by Seven Impale
As if Sonny Sharrock rather than Robert Fripp steered King Crimson.  Seven Impale bring the heavy jazz, their modal metal killing it, without a whiff of any wankery shenanigans.
Reviewed here

Sunshine of Your Love: Thoughts on Jack Bruce and Cream

Jack Bruce SB 326_1In 1968 Jimi Hendrix took the stage at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, and as part of the set introduced a song that had worked its way into the repertoire:  “Right now we’re gonna do a song by some real groovy cats, it’s too bad they are breaking up, it’s one of the heaviest groups in the world . . . it’s not sayin’ we can play the thing better than them, it’s just sayin’ we dig the cats and dig this song and we’d like to do it our own way, which will be an instrumental jam.”  The song was Sunshine of Your Love, and the group Hendrix referenced was (The) Cream.

Hendrix’s powerful instrumental take on the song caps a double tribute:  Cream wrote Sunshine of Your Love on the heels of seeing Jimi Hendrix perform in London, as a response to the jaw-dropping challenge he proposed as a performer and songwriter, and in its riff and melodies the song holds at once the past and future of rock and roll.

The song was penned by Jack Bruce, Cream’s bass player, chief vocalist, and lead songwriter.  Bruce led the life of a musical prodigy, a force that pushed and pulled his similarly-gifted peers, to such an extent that Ginger Baker, arguably Britain’s most influential drummer and certainly one of Bruce’s few musical equals, left one band (Graham Bond Organisation) because of him and started another band (Cream) despite his presence.  Guitarist Eric Clapton — another equal — insisted Bruce be a part of Cream, and Baker relented because, as he noted, both Clapton and Bruce had the same innate gift of “time.”

Since Jack Bruce died last week, I’ve thought a good deal about what Sunshine of Your Love, Cream, and this firebrand musician have meant to me through the years.  Cream had hits, lots of hits, scattered across their three studio albums, but Sunshine of Your Love stands out among their work (“Crossroads,” rightfully still played on classic rock radio, being the highpoint of their live recordings).  The riff is simple, as if, yes, they were taking cues from Hendrix, who disassembled the blues root of rock and roll, slowed the rhythms down, emphasized their laziness while adding blistering solos and an African funk.  Separation of bass and drums and guitar became important, as if the transformation was about creating rather than filling space.  In Sunshine of Your Love, Cream takes the Hendrix aesthetic and writes it large, in four minutes and ten seconds mapping Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and most Heavy music for the next half century.  It’s a blues made universal, and because of Hendrix’s own reaction one doesn’t get the idea that Cream was somehow playing Elvis to Hendrix’s Little Richard but, on the contrary, like Hendrix, actually embodied a much-needed cultural embrace.  This wasn’t just heavy music for white boys.

Cream chugged hard and burned hot for two years before they couldn’t stand it or each other any more.  Their recorded live work is mind-blowing but not for the faint of heart, and while Clapton became the superstar, with some justification, it was Bruce and Baker that ran the engine, driving each other mad while simply driving Clapton to greater heights.  Sunshine of Your Love became ten then fifteen minutes long, the jams endless, the power draining as quickly as it had mounted.  Clapton left for Blind Faith, not expecting Ginger Baker to follow even though he did, and Bruce was on his own.  He released a fabulous solo record, Songs for a Tailor, with very non-Cream arrangements and approaches, and then from the perspective of a Cream fan like myself kind of drifted.  He landed in projects like the one where he became the bassist for a power trio that Cream inspired, Mountain, hooked up with Robin Trower in yet another power trio, rid of Cream but not rid of Cream, and played various so-so groups with the jazz rock dudes of his era.  He reunited with his Cream mates in 2005 for a set mostly plagued by the adult rock smoothness Clapton’s purveyed since 1972 (the stellar Pressed Rat and Warthog, a Baker chestnut that will never die because of sheer weirdness, notwithstanding).  The grit, the volume, the burn were regrettably, inevitably, flattened.  As with Clapton, as with Baker, Bruce’s best work was when he was a journeyman, with Cream.

It is a catalogue every bit as thrilling as it is brief.  Those core Cream records remain embedded in the rock psyche, the elephant in any rock and roll room, their centerpiece Sunshine of Your Love.


Some Favorite Jack Bruce Moments

The Coffee Song

NSU

Sunshine of Your Love

Tales of Brave Ulysses

Deserted Cities of the Heart

Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune

Tickets to Waterfalls

Theme from an Imaginary Western

Congratulations to Seven Impale

Seven Impale release their new album, City of the Sun, today.  Progarchy reviewed the album here: http://progarchy.com/2014/08/21/seven-impale-basking-in-the-city-of-the-sun/ , but continues to be so dazzled that in honor of the occasion thought we’d post a live performance of Extraction, which blazes with energy.  City of the Sun, indeed.

Amazon’s got the MP3 album for a very reasonable price ($4.95 at this writing).  You could do worse than head on over and get a copy: http://www.amazon.com/City-Sun-Seven-Impale/dp/B00N2GS44S/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1409922998&sr=8-3&keywords=seven+impale

Interview with Seven Impale

Seven Impale - City Of The SunLast week on Progarchy I reviewed the new Seven Impale album, City of the Sun (http://progarchy.com/2014/08/21/seven-impale-basking-in-the-city-of-the-sun/).  It’s a tremendously creative record with energy to burn, worthy of the accolades it’s getting as its early September release date approaches.  The band graciously granted an interview, which I am including here and in the original review.

Progarchy: City of the Sun is an impressive full-length debut, following a fairly tremendous EP in Beginning/Relieve.  It feels like a leap forward.  How did you get from the EP to the LP, and what kind of progress has it been for the band?

Seven Impale: We feel that we’ve come far, both as musicians and composers, in the ~4 years we’ve been playing together. Even though it has only been a year since Beginning/Relieve was released, the material was made in the space between when the band was formed and when our current line-up had just been assembled. Wind shears, the second track on the album was actually composed around that time, but it’s been revisited and rearranged many times since then. The best thing is that we feel like the process has just started when we continue working together, making music that we enjoy, which challenges both the listener and us.

Progarchy: There is a lot going on in these songs.  What’s your writing process like, and how would you describe the narrative of the album?

Seven Impale: It differs a bit between the songs, but generally we start off with some guitar riffs or a rhythmic idea, and we jam for a while. Each of us gets to know the new parts and start to find our places, while we figure out what kind of musical landscape we are aiming for. And the songs take their form, one way or anther, often over the course of a few months.

Progarchy: City of the Sun makes the connection between modal jazz and heavy rock seem effortless.  The spirits of both inhabit this record seamlessly, as if John Coltrane and Deep Purple are smiling down benevolently.  This is what I hear, and it’s wonderful, but was this your intention?

Seven Impale: We have always enjoyed a lot of different music, but I think the progress and musical direction of Seven Impale has been more based on randomness than intentions. It has been our intention from the very start to make complex and exciting music, but the sound we have today has more to do with the individual musicians and what they bring to the table. A lot of details on the album came about through experimenting and/or “mistakes” during the recording process.

Progarchy: How did the band come together, what are your backgrounds?

Seven Impale: Fredrik and Benjamin are brothers (that’s the obvious one), and have grown up in the same area as Håkon and Tormod. The four of them have worked a lot together in various projects for a long time. Fredrik got to know Stian and Erlend through mutual friends, many years before Seven Impale, and the rest of the story is mostly random and about being at the right place at the right time, with the right instrument.

Progarchy: Is there a story behind the band’s name?

Seven Impale: Stian found the name before the band even existed. It came about kind of randomly when he was thinking about what to call the next project, and thought it has a nice feel to it. Also the number seven is often associated with religion, and the word “impale” brings more of a dark or heavy feel. And we are all somewhat critical towards religion, so it fits quite nicely.

Progarchy: What music are you listening to?

Seven Impale: We listen to a lot of different things, and we agree on most things musically. Stian has a bit more of the opera/classical music side, he is currently studying to be a classical singer. We listen to alt./prog rock like Mars Volta, King Crimson, Zappa, Motorpsycho and Porcupine Tree as well as heavier stuff like Tool, Pantera and Meshuggah. And then there’s the weird avant-garde/jazzy side of it, with Jaga Jazzist, TrioVD, Shining(NO), WSP, Ephel Duath, Nik Bartsch’s Ronin. In between there is some hip-hop: Hopsin, Side Brok, Bustah Rhymes and then there’s the electronic music like Noisia, Justice, Aphex Twin, Todd Terje and Venetian Snares.

Progarchy: Do you see yourselves as a Norwegian band, that is, do you have a sense that geography makes a difference in your music?

Seven Impale: Not really. But being from Norway means that we’re probably more exposed to and inspired by Norwegian bands, adopting what has been known to be the “Scandinavian sound”. Otherwise I don’t think it is significant, but what do we know?

Progarchy: Is there a city of the sun?

Seven Impale: There is a fictional book about a “City of the Sun”, by a 17th century Italian philosopher. In reality, I don’t think it ever will be.

Progarchy: What’s next for Seven Impale?

Seven Impale: Get rich or die tryin’

Progarchy: Please don’t die. We like your records too much.

Seven Impale – Basking in the City of the Sun

sevenimpaleOne of the many strands of the golden hair of art rock is rooted in John Coltrane’s epic India, where the mighty ‘Trane and Eric Dolphy so caught the attention of a young Roger McGuinn that the Byrd lifted the song’s theme whole, filtering it through his twelve-string Ric and overlaying it on his band’s psych pop masterpiece, Eight Miles High. It was a sincere embrace, in spirit, of modal jazz, and helped launch rock into territories beyond the blues, to points further east, to lands that Coltrane remapped as an astral plane. Four years later and three after Coltrane’s death, the Soft Machine’s album Third became the purest rock expression, from what remains art rock’s best “fusion” record, of what Coltrane had been searching for. Side-long pieces of heavy fuzz bass, driving organ, wailing horns, and Robert Wyatt’s inimitable drumming. This kind of music, like Coltrane’s, is hard, riffy, insistent, will not be denied.

It’s metal.

And it’s little wonder that progressive bands with a harder edge often integrate jazz phrasing in their music, particularly in terms of unfathomably weird time signatures and a reliance on a degree of technical proficiency that can solo across maddeningly complex changes. What we don’t hear much is the actual sound of the kind of hard jazz Coltrane and his generation created, a focus on the free and open tunefulness, or dense walls of sound, that their modal searching could create. Disciplined, melodic, challenging, lovely. All of this Norwegian band Seven Impale offer on their new album, City of the Sun. It is a masterpiece debut, its complexity never out-shouting its tunefulness, its heaviness wound round a shimmering swing, and its vocal lines, from singer Stian Økland, beautifully integral to the songs, soaring but with a vulnerability heavily reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, at times even containing the kind of emotional anger/terror that Roger Waters brought to Pink Floyd. Coming on the heels of (fellow Norwegians) Gazpacho’s heavy, heavy Demon, City of the Sun charts a similarly individual terrain anchored by a strong singer who treats his vox like a stringed instrument, with gorgeous results. This is a leap forward from Seven Impale’s EP, where Økland tended more towards a Robert Plant wail that, while powerful (and quite wonderful in its own right), lacked the tonal subtleties he brings to City of the Sun.

And while Økland’s vocal delivers its organic and shivering moods, the band reels and dances in great rotational swirls, aligning before spinning off into distinct orbits. Økland’s and Erlend Vottvik Olsen’s thick guitars join Håkon Vinje’s growling organ — screaming like a malevolent Jon Lord one moment, a whorling Mike Ratledge the next — and Benjamin Mekki Widerøe’s wall of saxophones, to create a tumult as rapturous as the rhythmic foundation of Fredrik Mekki Widerøe’s drumming and Tormod Fosso’s bass. I’ve extolled the virtues of a good Ben Allison record in the pages of Progarchy before, and as a point of reference I would mention Allison again, in the sense that if what Allison has been doing lately is taking his version of jazz closer to rock, what I hear in City of the Sun is a band taking their unique vision of rock closer to jazz, finding the metal possibilities within. The comparisons to Soft Machine hold up, I think, although a parallel might also be early 70s German band Out of Focus, who saw in the free jazz maelstrom a beautiful design, which City of the Sun’s dynamics and melodies generously provide. Take for example the alternately gentle and keening Oh My Gravity!:
https://soundcloud.com/karisma-records/seven-impale-oh-my-gravity

This fitting opener segue’s into the mellowing Wind Shears, a breather before the noodly, Zappa-esque Eschaton Horo. Extraction follows, unfolding like an existential Highway Star, full of dark female mystery and a weird groove that persists and tumbles and turns. God Left Us For a Black Dressed Woman continues the theme established in Extraction, and closes the album across fourteen minutes of terrain as intentional and intense, and catchy, as Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black. Økland’s dry vibrato wrings and works his words, and Jeff Buckley turns to Tim Buckley turns to Billie Holiday and back towards Zeppelin swagger. But far from imitative in its eclectic-ness, this music is instead far ranging, expressive, and whole.

I’m glad albums like City of the Sun are still possible, where you know that the artists have been to the well but that they’re also joyously creating their own thing, and making something real and new, something you want to hear more of.

Seven Impale generously answered some questions for us, about how this album and their music come together.

Progarchy: City of the Sun is an impressive full-length debut, following a fairly tremendous EP in Beginning/Relieve.  It feels like a leap forward.  How did you get from the EP to the LP, and what kind of progress has it been for the band?

Seven Impale: We feel that we’ve come far, both as musicians and composers, in the ~4 years we’ve been playing together. Even though it has only been a year since Beginning/Relieve was released, the material was made in the space between when the band was formed and when our current line-up had just been assembled. Wind shears, the second track on the album was actually composed around that time, but it’s been revisited and rearranged many times since then. The best thing is that we feel like the process has just started when we continue working together, making music that we enjoy, which challenges both the listener and us.

Progarchy: There is a lot going on in these songs.  What’s your writing process like, and how would you describe the narrative of the album?

Seven Impale: It differs a bit between the songs, but generally we start off with some guitar riffs or a rhythmic idea, and we jam for a while. Each of us gets to know the new parts and start to find our places, while we figure out what kind of musical landscape we are aiming for. And the songs take their form, one way or anther, often over the course of a few months.

Progarchy: City of the Sun makes the connection between modal jazz and heavy rock seem effortless.  The spirits of both inhabit this record seamlessly, as if John Coltrane and Deep Purple are smiling down benevolently.  This is what I hear, and it’s wonderful, but was this your intention?

Seven Impale: We have always enjoyed a lot of different music, but I think the progress and musical direction of Seven Impale has been more based on randomness than intentions. It has been our intention from the very start to make complex and exciting music, but the sound we have today has more to do with the individual musicians and what they bring to the table. A lot of details on the album came about through experimenting and/or “mistakes” during the recording process.

Progarchy: How did the band come together, what are your backgrounds?

Seven Impale: Fredrik and Benjamin are brothers (that’s the obvious one), and have grown up in the same area as Håkon and Tormod. The four of them have worked a lot together in various projects for a long time. Fredrik got to know Stian and Erlend through mutual friends, many years before Seven Impale, and the rest of the story is mostly random and about being at the right place at the right time, with the right instrument.

Progarchy: Is there a story behind the band’s name?

Seven Impale: Stian found the name before the band even existed. It came about kind of randomly when he was thinking about what to call the next project, and thought it has a nice feel to it. Also the number seven is often associated with religion, and the word “impale” brings more of a dark or heavy feel. And we are all somewhat critical towards religion, so it fits quite nicely.

Progarchy: What music are you listening to?

Seven Impale: We listen to a lot of different things, and we agree on most things musically. Stian has a bit more of the opera/classical music side, he is currently studying to be a classical singer. We listen to alt./prog rock like Mars Volta, King Crimson, Zappa, Motorpsycho and Porcupine Tree as well as heavier stuff like Tool, Pantera and Meshuggah. And then there’s the weird avant-garde/jazzy side of it, with Jaga Jazzist, TrioVD, Shining(NO), WSP, Ephel Duath, Nik Bartsch’s Ronin. In between there is some hip-hop: Hopsin, Side Brok, Bustah Rhymes and then there’s the electronic music like Noisia, Justice, Aphex Twin, Todd Terje and Venetian Snares.

Progarchy: Do you see yourselves as a Norwegian band, that is, do you have a sense that geography makes a difference in your music?

Seven Impale: Not really. But being from Norway means that we’re probably more exposed to and inspired by Norwegian bands, adopting what has been known to be the “Scandinavian sound”. Otherwise I don’t think it is significant, but what do we know?

Progarchy: Is there a city of the sun?

Seven Impale: There is a fictional book about a “City of the Sun”, by a 17th century Italian philosopher. In reality, I don’t think it ever will be.

Progarchy: What’s next for Seven Impale?

Seven Impale: Get rich or die tryin’

Progarchy: Please don’t die. We like your records too much!

https://soundcloud.com/sevenimpale

https://www.facebook.com/sevenimpale?sk=wall

New demo from Ezekiel Graves/Gravaphone

artworks-000087721505-fnusjh-t500x500Ezekiel (Zeke) Graves has a new demo out under the name Gravaphone.  Graves’s music, which I’ve reviewed on the pages of Progarchy before (http://progarchy.com/2013/11/15/chthonic-journey-by-ezekiel-graves/) emerges from his North Carolina upbringing but is also informed by deep soundings of electronic music, British folk, and Krautrock.  I saw him perform this song live a few months ago, accompanied by a Fender Rhodes and fiddle, which gave the song a unique coloration, but I like what he’s done with it here as well, made it darker, spare, and electric.

Moving Pictures: Rush on Film

movingpicturesBTSLet’s face it, it’s hard to bottle lightning. Rock docs, whether they’re concerts or biopics or even music videos, succeed when the veil is lifted and performers face their own vulnerability. Because this is a state of being for Rush, the films about them, even non-descript concert videos, are generally quite good. This list is really a starter for myself, and I share it in hopes that in the comments below our readers will add other favorites.

1. La Villa Strangiato at PinkPop, 1979. Smoking. This is Rush live in the 1970s at their very best. Thank the prog gods someone had the presence of mind to film it. La Villa Strangiato is one of their most popular pieces, but the band attributes the complexity of it and the album from which it came, Hemispheres, to their shift toward shorter pieces as the 70s turned into the 80s. This appears to be the only clip from the show, although the entire concert is available as audio on YouTube as well.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78D00dYOBrM

2. Beyond the Lighted Stage. Beyond the Lighted Stage is a successful long-form band documentary, a rarity in rock, which as a performance art often fares better in conceptualized concert films. The film benefits from the full participation of its main actors, a well-selected and articulate supporting cast of fellow musicians, family and fans, and most importantly a directness and honesty that neither discounts nor over-rates Rush’s place in popular music. Of course it’s no surprise given the band’s history and its members’ personalities that such a project should work, but when Geddy Lee announces at the end of the film that he warned the production crew, “Don’t be surprised when you discover how boring we really are,” the takeaway is two-fold. First, many rock docs manage to show little beyond how mundane the rest of a rocker’s life is, as we find that most great musicians are successful by virtue of their absorption in their art and have little to say outside of it; second, that the depth of their integrity as an artistic entity and the basic good-guyness of each of the members of Rush as individuals — nothing more, nothing less, as they would tell you — sets them apart, and compared to many of their peers in the rock world makes them truly unique.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zb-MwVUUy3g

3. Classic Albums: 2112 and Moving Pictures, 2010. The Classic Albums series, first broadcast on VH1 umpteen years ago with hour-long profiles of albums by the Band, the Grateful Dead, and Fleetwood Mac, remains a marvelous program dedicated to the dissection of key albums in rock history. I never saw one that didn’t have something to add to what I knew about an album already. The series turns its eye to not one but two of Rush’s records, and runs almost two hours. Made around the same time as Beyond the Lighted Stage, it amplifies the details of Rush’s most famous albums. While much of the story of these records is known, it’s refreshing to see Rush sitting at the mixing board with producer Terry Brown, talking about how the tracks were actually laid down.

4. The Colbert Report, 2008. I think many fans value this appearance by Rush on the Colbert Report as a recognition that those of us who love Rush will not be denied. Colbert gets it, in the same way he has the measure of the rest of American culture. Although marginalized by the music press, Rush was never a cult band — their album sales and sold-out concerts put the lie to that idea. What is maddening is the casual dismissal of the band by hipster rock journalists and others who just don’t get it. Not getting it is cool — in fact, few Rush fans get into all of Rush’s records (there are, after all, many sides to this band) — but given their substantial influence there was something more than a little insidious in their barring from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 14 years. As Colbert comments in his inimitable way, “That’s bullshit.”

https://myspace.com/james_yyz/video/rush-on-the-colbert-report/50001106

5. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech, 2013. Equal parts grace, joy, and humor, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better set of speeches accepting the rock and roll honor of honors. Lifeson’s now infamous, hilarious “Blah blah” performance underscores what both Peart and Lee are getting at, that for an award that wasn’t supposed to mean so much to them, it actually meant a lot.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKuO1FpCWRI

6. Xanadu, Exit Stage Left, 1981. Rush have been documenting their live shows every few years, starting in 1976 with All the World’s a Stage. I’m including this version of Xanadu because, beyond being among my favorite Rush songs, it captures the vibe of a Rush show and was recorded for the film in a less than polished manner, so really has a live grit to it. This is full on double-neck splendor.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JAA90BRp6o

7. Come On Children. Google around and you’ll find various clips of this Allan King documentary, released in 1972 and featuring a 17-year-old Alex Lifeson. Documenting a fabricated months-long social experiment, in which teenagers are sent out to live on a “farm” without any adults, Come On Children is certainly a product of its era, and while now more associated with Lifeson and his renown, the film very effectively provides a window into the larger environment from which Rush emerged.

8. Halo Effect, Dallas, 2012. There are worse things in rock than the modern concert video — the swoopingly overwrought crane shots, vast stages, the polished cosmeticism — but I can’t think of many. The bland emotional impact is rarely rewarding. I’m including this performance from Dallas from 2012 because even though it suffers from some of those problems, it shows what a great live band Rush still is as well as the maturity of songwriting on “Halo Effect,” from Clockwork Angels. It’s a beautiful song, full of love and regret, a personal song, and not typically Rush even though Peart is writing in a typical mode for him, through an invented first person. Hearing Geddy Lee singing in a register fitting the new songs is nice, since a lot of the older material finds him straining these days (no discredit to him, mind, those songs are age challenging). Alex Lifeson’s intro, not on the studio version, is masterful, an overture that touches on the themes in the song without being just the song, and is redolent of Jimmy Page’s live electro-drone folk outings with Led Zeppelin.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlKsMYsb47s

****

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Pillage and Plunder – The Show Must Go Wrong

pillageIf you have occasional fond thoughts of 90s art rock bands like the Monks of Doom you may also recall, while waxing nostalgic about the dear old 1990s, that there was a golden moment, after the commercial breakthrough of punk/grunge/indie rock in America but before the advent of Napster, when bands that had been toiling in musical nether regions for years finally had their moments in the sun.  The MoD were an offshoot of Camper Van Beethoven, the most palatably inventive American band of the 1980s and early 1990s, and like the great Camper Van approached American prog — delegated generally and unfortunately to the backwater of “jam” band categorization — with a firm belief that dumping every damn thing they could think of into the musical kettle and bringing it all to boil would work.  And it mostly did.  We’re talking about music that went deeply into the spirit of blues and other “ethnic” musics as processed through Roky Erickson, Captain Beefheart and, later, performance art bands like Butthole Surfers and the Flaming Lips, a twisted and distinctly American edge-of-the-frontier wildness that would make a great novel if Cormac McCarthy ever chose to write it.  In the pages of Progarchy I’ve before referenced the spectacular Metal Flake Mother out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who sailed these same waters and with the same ethic in the 90s, and my notion is that regionally there were many bands following a similar path, nodding to the blues, jazz, European folk, surf guitar, 50s lounge music, Tom Waits, and punk all at the same time, as if the real guitar heroes in the room were Django Reinhardt, Marc Ribot, Dick Dale, and Sonny Sharrock.  In the post-punk pre-internet age, these bands sold records, sometimes lots of records, and could sustain careers lasting, well, months.

Pillage and Plunder brought this short-lived and extremely satisfying era to life when I spun up their new record, The Show Must Go Wrong, for the first time.  Mixing an eclectic take on Belew-era Crimson with an Esquivel-via-Cake loungeyness, Pillage and Plunder map a journey that’s less highway than exit ramps, and across its 35 minutes The Show Must Go Wrong takes every possible detour, sightseeing on the outskirts of modern music.  The breathtakingly inventive “Beetlejuice” opens the record, with its furious and metallic nod to prime Oingo Boingo, and with “Boogeyman” the music maintains its carnival-esque darkness, backed by big riffs and chops.  “How Did It Come To This?” follows, and the album turns in mood, which got me to thinking that the precocious musicianship here on display presents a problem for Pillage and Plunder, though it’s not a bad problem to have: while the songs are composed and concise (a big plus), as an album The Show Must Go Wrong comes at times dangerously close to living up to its title, as it suffers at points from a lack of curatorial will in favor of showcasing musical dexterity, favoring breadth over depth.  So the promise of sideways-tilting, reach-deep, dark humor at the top of the album — and revisited in such songs as the excellent “Moocow” and “Nutcracker” — turns into an occasionally studied oddball-ness as the record unfolds.  But it’s a small complaint for the kind of record this is supposed to be, not to mention that the songs have a way of turning themselves into earworms that simply will not leave the head and hum alone.  Check for instance, “I Will Drink The Ocean When I Go There,” which premieres here on Progarchy:

The assured pop classicism and working of the tropes is skilled, while the power trio of guitarist/vocalist Gokul Parasuram, bassist Hsiang-Ming Wen, and drummer Noah Kess flexes its axe-wielding abandon with a kind of Les Paul meets Alex Lifeson glory in big guitars, impossible drums, and killer bass.  Pillage and Plunder has the skills to create great music, and while the successes on The Show Must Go Wrong may be qualified by work that is less focused than it could be, the promise of the record suggests we should keep listening.

Hsian-Ming Wen graciously sat down with Progarchy and gave us some answers to our burning questions.  I’ll say right now that name-checking Television’s “Friction” alone could sell me on the the band, and I’m impressed with the way Pillage and Plunder sees themselves and their work.

Q: Given your youth, Pillage and Plunder has a long history — what keeps you together and what inspired the new record?

A: Before the band started, we were already best of friends, so making music & being around each other all the time came pretty naturally. Our songwriting almost always stems from whatever is prevalent in our lives at the moment. So, for the new record, inspiration drew mostly from themes of personal relationships, struggles with self-worth, and existentialism. I had just graduated college when I wrote “Summer Days” and couldn’t find a job, and was just thinking, “shit, what do i do with my life?” It was me dealing with the frustration of trying to meet my personal goals, and “Moocow” deals with the idea of self-doubt when it comes to your personal talents — questioning when people pat you on the back and tell you how well you’ve done. It actually has the line, “I’m screaming at the world for tricking me into thinking I had a purpose, a gift that’s rare.” So we ask ourselves if it’s a fluke, or do we/you actually possess that talent?

Q: Who would I find next to Pillage and Plunder on Pandora? What songs would you imagine coming before and after “Beetlejuice”?

A: We’d like to imagine we could tango with the likes of Muse, Deerhoof, King Crimson, and Weezer. “Friction” by Television and “Drug Ballad” by Eminem would be a fun juxtaposition for “Beetlejuice.” We like to think that our music is universally acceptable as we draw from so many different wells, where post-punk enthusiasts, indie-rockers and the hip-hop heads could each find something enjoyable to take out of it.

Q: There are several nods to traditional pop song structures — thinking the tarantella-ish “I Will Drink the Ocean When I Go There,” the music hall  of “The Last Date,” and the noir jazz of “Hit & Run” — what took you down these roads?

A: We grew up listening to a variety of music styles, Charles Mingus & Art Blakey, Green Day & Weezer, and traditional pop like Sinatra, and just like learning a language, we started out imitating what we heard until we began to understand the different structures & nuances. Then we start putting our own spin on things and developing a personal songwriting style, the fruits of said efforts being what you hear on the new record; a blend of homage and trying to carve out our own little corner in the musical world.

Q: While this is a very guitar-forward record, the drums and bass really push and pull the songs in a way that makes the musicianship of all the band members clear.  What are your musical backgrounds, and how do you find a balance so all the voices are heard?
A: Gokul & Noah are both jazz-trained and listened to a lot of progressive rock & hip-hop growing up, while I was classically-trained and listened to primarily pop rock & folk. Being just a three-piece band challenges us to get creative with our parts, and I think our definition of “interesting” music is instinctively geared towards more acrobatic, spacious, and diverse parts. Like in “Moocow” the three of us play distinct poly-rhythmic time signatures with Noah keeping down the basic beat on drums, me hitting a constant up-and-down bassline, while Gokul plays a series of single note riffs on guitar. And we move together. As the guitar simplifies the bass becomes more complex and vice versa. And on “Hit & Run” we built a weird, offbeat, syncopated rhythm. It almost sounds like it’s tripping up some stairs. It’s so different from most pop-rock songs.

Q: You have a gonzo vocal approach to offbeat lyrics — how do you think about words in songs, and how would you describe the balance of words and music when writing?

A: 99% of the time the music comes first, including the vocal melody, and the lyrics come in to play last, with things like cadence, alliteration, & rhyme schemes kept in mind while we write out the lyrics. However no rules really exist with our songwriting; it changes from song to song based on the mood we take from it. For example “Keep Dreaming” and “The Last Date” are sonically like siblings, but the vocals were written in completely different ways. “Keep Dreaming’s” chord progression was worked out first. Then, the lyrics came more as a narrative without worrying too much about how it fits while keeping things simple and melodic without too many syllables or rhyming. Where on the “The Last Date” I wanted to write a short pop song that adhered to a traditional rhyme scheme.

Q: As a narrative, is The Show Must Go Wrong a novel or a collection of short stories?

A: We’d consider TSMGW more of a collection of short stories about different personal struggles. There is however an overall theme of always moving forward and trying to pick yourself back up when you get knocked down. Even if things don’t go as planned, nothing gets accomplished unless you do something about it.

Q: Do you think of Pillage and Plunder as an Atlanta band? What other bands there hold your attention?

A: We all grew up in a suburb just outside of Atlanta called Alpharetta, but Pillage & Plunder as a collective has lived in the city for years and we definitely considers ourself an Atlanta band. We love this city. Atlanta has seen a lot of exciting developments & growth in recent years, with everything from architecture & film to theatre & food, and we’re proud to be a part of it. As far as the music scene goes, you can find a little bit of everything here. Some personal favorites, in no particular order, include Slowriter, Mice in Cars, Baby Baby, Noel Stephen & The Darlings, Clibber Jones Ensemble, Hello Cobra, Places to Hide, Futo, and SEX BBQ.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: We’re going to keep writing music and try to contribute what we can to this funny thing called life.

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