Author Archives: Craig Breaden

Gazpacho – Raising Demons

ImageThis bombing went on for five years. The Supreme Court never passed any judgment on it and the military speaks with pride today that five years of the bombing of Cambodia killed 16,000 of the so-called enemy. That’s 25% killed, and there’s a military ruling that says you cannot kill more than 10% of the enemy without causing irreversible, psychological damage. So, five years of bombing, a diet of bark, bugs, lizards and leaves up in the Cambodian jungles, an education in Paris environs in a strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau, and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime — including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America — set the Khymer Rouge out to carry out the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history. Spalding Gray, Swimming to Cambodia, 1987

These papers were supposedly some sort of manuscript or document or diary.  According to the story, he had been tracking a demon throughout history.  If the manuscript exists or not I have no idea.  That’s not the point.  It got me thinking, what would this manuscript look like, what if the story was true? What happened to the guy? It was supposed to be us trying make an album of what we thought that manuscript would look like and at the same time use that opportunity to look at evil. Thomas Alexander Andersen, Gazpacho, 2014

One of the albums that is so good that after the initial listens it has to wait for me to have time and peace of mind to give it a proper listen. Michał Pawłowski, guitarist/vocalist of newspaperflyhunting, on Gazpacho’s Demon, 2014.

Gazpacho’s Demon lives in shadowy place, vector-connected to other works in my head, where history seems to open up and then close back down, leaving the created work seemingly alone amidst a sea of ordinariness.  Set against the elegantly melodic, mid-tempo electric arrangements typical of Gazpacho’s other works, particularly Night and Tick Tock, and the elongated notes of Jan Henrik Ohme’s vocal, Demon is Gazpacho’s most effective demonstration yet of their approach to a music that is less concerned with genre and more interested in expression of thought.  Mikael Kromer’s accordion and violin interplay lend an earthy, acoustic grounding to the mix, while the rhythm section of Kristian Torp and Lars Erik Asp continue Gazpacho’s penchant for the deep groove, revealing a jazz past more commonly prized by generations of musicians growing up in Europe than in the States.  Combine these with the power brought by the electric core of the band, Thomas Alexander Andersen’s keyboards and Jon Arne Vilbo’s restrained, powerful guitar, and the heady result is a drama of sound, the actual sonic imprint furthering the narrative as voiced by Ohme.

Demon is nominally about the memory of a journal left by a man pursuing a demon across geographies and chronologies. This creates an interesting triple remove for the songwriters, as the story is less about the man or demon than the idea of the journal.  The brilliancy of Gazpacho taking this tack is hard to overstate.  The purity of a demon, a universal among religious or moral systems, balanced against the uncertainty principle that is humanity…and the messiness of a human chasing his devil as filtered through a diary (of a seer or a madman?).  What would such writing look like? How would I perceive it and where would I locate the demon, in the memory, the journal, the man, or the malignant spirit itself? How would I express it to someone else without becoming a demon chaser or a hellhounded man? I think what is so immediate about this record and the way Gazpacho engages its subject is that the story is entirely impressionistic, the images suggestive of the mirrors within the non-narrative.  I comprehend what’s going on in this album lyrically as a next-century response (or sequel) to the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.  Yet I would venture that our evils feel perhaps more deeply woven than they did five decades ago, our inability to find our demons and our continued need for the chase leading inexorably back to ourselves.

The tendency to dark drama in European metal is present, but in the place of a gray/black is a kind of constant waning light, a colored gloaming.  I’m consistently astounded by the ability of Scandinavian musicians to conjure qualities of light in the sounds they create, and Gazpacho’s talent for this on Demon is peerless.  As the lengthy I’ve Been Walking begins unfolding, with its crushing guitar matching the lyrical denial of our various versions of paradise, we see internal arguments on faith and evil’s meaning within it.  The Wizard of Altai Mountains follows, a radio-friendly reflection on following someone/something wearing “red pants and the ghost of a grin,” having to follow, despite a bone weariness and a sense of revulsion.  The accordion-driven outro to the song, given as much space as the lyric, reinforces the feeling that Wizard could easily be a Tom Waits tarantella, but where Waits would bring irony Gazpacho goes for something else entirely, a folksong sincerity that we’ve all but lost in modern music, except in progressive rock, which is one of that genre’s key strengths.  I’ve Been Walking then continues, embedding even more deeply folksong, like treasure in the buried, scratchy 78 verse:

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”

Not this tide.

“When do you think that he’ll come back?”

Not this tide.

“Has any one had word of him?”

Not this tide.

“When do you think that he’ll come back?”

Not this tide.

…and in its second section, with a guitar intro suggestive of Alex Lifeson’s intro riff on Rush’s Xanadu, the song contains one of the most richly gorgeous vocal melodies I’ve heard, delivering words like disconnected pieces of a puzzle.  Much is made of Ohme’s similarities with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, but Ohme’s voice is more a bowed instrument, sustaining notes and finding variations in them as they decay.  The sympathy between Ohme’s approach and the band’s is quite remarkable, and the album’s conclusion, Death Room (on the CD there is a “bonus track,” Cage, that isn’t on the LP), is where the risky length, over 18 minutes, pays off precisely because the band knows how to arrange its material with such great dynamic effect, including the most tasteful use of a gospel choir out of context I can remember.

This is a great record from a great band who remains at a summit of creativity, and leaves them to grapple with a demon of their own: what next?

Note:  A beautiful and thematically rich record deserves the kind of packaging Kscope has given to Demon.  For the CD version, its yellowing journal look, courier typeface, and booklet of lyrics does justice to the music.  I cannot comment on the LP.  I was going to pony up for it, but the bonus track Cage was not included, and unfortunately at this writing Kscope doesn’t clarify if LP buyers will receive the MP3 for free if they aren’t buying through Burning Shed, their distributor.

Pono, Hawaiian for Snake Oil

ImageI wrote a scree yesterday indicting Pono for all kinds of crimes.  I put it aside.  Like one of Lincoln’s unsent letters, it will cast its heat alone, sitting on my google drive like a hot stone, until that too passes into ether.

Much of my anger came from frustration — in my professional life as an audiovisual archivist I have some sense of the limited capabilities of high resolution audio — and also a lack of information.  I had believed Pono, the high-res audio player Neil Young is backing to rectify what he regards as decades of digital’s abuse of music, was set to use a proprietary format, and would essentially be a platform for selling new releases of old albums that could only be played on Pono.  This is not the case.  PonoMusic will be using FLAC, an open-source audio codec that’s been around nearly as long as folks have cried “foul” at MP3.  FLAC is known as a “non-lossy” compression scheme, meaning that while it will compress the source audio file (whether that file is a high-resolution WAV or merely CD quality), the information it dumps in compression isn’t the actual audio data but rather the metadata that describes the audio and makes it work on various playback systems.

So it’s not in the music file but in the guts of the Pono player, with its advanced circuitry and digital-to-analog conversion system, where the magic happens that Young and Pono’s engineers are claiming.  Which, given the range of gadgetry out there to reproduce sound, makes me shrug my shoulders.  What’s nice to know, though, is that Pono will play those higher-res FLAC files that often inhabit a bandcamp page (as well as WAVs and, for those of us who are unwashed, MP3s).

While I’m no longer out for blood, Neil Young and his Pono provoked my ire in a couple of other ways.  In interviews regarding Pono, Young has suggested that if you’re not listening to high-res audio, and doing so on a player like Pono, that you’re not really listening, that you have a tin ear that can’t truly enjoy the music because of the digital garbage in lower-res files.  There are a ton of counter-arguments here, but I think Neil’s old man snarky-ness in itself is disappointing.  Despite his reputation, he IS a part of the big music business, and has sold to dedicated fans the same record on LP, then cassette, then CD (often multiple re-masterings), then MP3.  To tell them now they need fork over another $15-$25 for the new high-res release and $400 for a player compromises his integrity and smacks of money grab.

It also ignores the fact that most people treat music as a part of a larger experience, whether they’re cranking Pandora through the earbuds at work or enjoying a Sunday morning with a Zeppelin gatefold.  Listening context and setting are everything.  But let’s say you do want to experience what Neil’s talking about.  Good luck.  The real elephant in the room not being mentioned here is the playback system, and by that, I mean the amp and speakers (and listening space, for that matter) Pono might use to reproduce the audio, to actually push the air to your ears.  Without good reproduction, and I mean very, very good reproduction (and in this context headphones just don’t count), Pono’s reproduction of high-res audio — and we’re talking about a sampling rate up to 4x CD quality — is no better than my iPod shuffle.  Will PonoMusic sound great? Sure, if your playback system has a few thousand dollars in it.  Would it hold up to a taste test against a well-mastered CD or higher-quality MP3 played back on a solid but cheaper system? That’s a shootout I’d like to see.

Further reading from the stalwarts at CNET:

http://www.cnet.com/news/sound-bite-despite-ponos-promise-experts-pan-hd-audio/

Ben Allison, Lost in the Stars

ImageJazz at its best is about creating situations where its musicians, and sometimes its editors and producers, can perform a moment, a flash of form out of maelstroms of sound, its tinder a weird mix of blues, marching band music, and dime-turning improvisation.  It takes chops and intention to make this happen, and it doesn’t always work, or runs the risk of being admired simply for being difficult.  Perhaps because of this and the common belief that jazz’s golden era is behind it, it is a music that finds itself increasingly in the academy; cast out by pop culture for nearly half a century now, it has found solace and refuge in Deep Thought rather than in the visceral response that fed its early fires.  Ever the home of restless artistry, however, jazz does continue to flourish in its original state, an outsider, a dirty and punk-ish thing, much like its ugly, addle-brained cousin, rock and roll.  They make an uneasy pair, reminding each other of lost youth, which is why “jazz rock” in all its fusion can be a hateful muzak-y thing that is one’s reward for waiting for the doctor or being put on hold.

Or it can be the hands that lift us to ascension.  Which is why I’m writing this.

Ben Allison’s latest record, The Stars Look Very Different Today, continues the bassist’s journey into composing acoustic/electric jazz for a band that, consistently since 2006’s Cowboy Justice, has rocked behind the work of guitarist Steve Cardenas.  Cardenas is joined here by guitarist Brandon Seabrook, furthering I think Allison’s intention at broadening his palette, and this is not jazz guitar in the sense of Christian, Reinhardt, Farlow or Metheny.  Far more Sonny Sharrock or Marc Ribot, spacey and distorted, jagged, chunky and riffy.  Completed by the marvelously sympathetic drumming of Allison Miller, it is the territory of Tortoise and Pell Mell, and makes me believe that Ben Allison might be the guy, the one who is reviving jazz for those of us who never saw it as separate from other music, putting it in the context of seasoned cats while retaining a kind of indie band ethic, casting a wide and wild — even grungey — net, letting go.  Watch this band in action — jamming on “Roll Credits,” originally on Allison’s 2008 album Little Things Run the World, and you’ll get it:

Is he a jazz prophet? A rock and roll savior? I’ve been listening to Ben Allison’s work for a decade now, since Buzz (the one jazz album I can put on in a party and always expect the “Who IS this?” question — it is a fantastic, lovely record, and contains as its finale the only Beatles cover that to my mind ever worked), and to hear an artist progress as he has is a rare pleasure.  His early albums are wonderful examples of fairly straight post bop, but the long view is more bracing; it’s about an evolving musician and composer who challenges both jazz and rock form, as well as the artist’s role in creation, targeting in particular the shrugging status quo of social media’s — and its consumers’ — casual attitudes towards artists (see Ben’s blog for his search for justice for artists and their work, starting here: http://benallison.com/my-youtube-experiment/).

Contrary to what its title suggests, The Stars Look Very Different Today does not contain a David Bowie cover.  Instead it riffs on the themes in Space Oddity, and the space odyssey era that produced it and which it signified.  Like all Allison’s work, this is less constraint than starting point, so the album isn’t a sci-fi adventure as much as it is a feel, which is why we hear “The Ballad of Joe Buck,” a banjo-led homage to Jon Voigt’s character in Midnight Cowboy, tucked amidst the record’s more electrometal (!) explorations (“D.A.V.E.,” “Dr. Zaius,” “Neutron Star”).  The hallmark of all of Ben Allison’s records is present, intact, and sacred, and that’s a persistence towards beauty.  As a composer, his talent is an unafraid embrace of melody and a willingness to push at its seams and against its textures, to find the heart of the muse.  It’s why his music inhabits its own era.

Ben Allison’s no jazz prophet or rock and roll savior.  I think he’s going for something else entirely.

newspaperflyhunting offering first EP for free

Our friends in newspaperflyhunting are offering their first, 4-song EP from 2008 for free at bandcamp.

(from Facebook): “Our first EP – ‘Storytelling’ is out of print now and we’re planning no reissue, so we’ve decided to let you download it for free here:  http://newspaperflyhunting.bandcamp.com/album/storytelling-ep. You can also dowload our e-single ‘My Iceberg Soul’ for free athttp://newspaperflyhunting.bandcamp.com/album/my-iceberg-soul-single. We’re a cool and thoughtful band, aren’t we?”

It contains an early version of “The Third Sun,” which appears on their latest record, Iceberg Soul, which I reviewed here.  Remember, free on bandcamp also means you can give them money for it, so if the spirit moves you, then you too can be a freely giving patron of the arts.

Interview with newspaperflyhunting

ImageOver the weekend I had the pleasure of having my mind blown by a record, something that seems to happen less and less as I get older.  newspaperflyhunting is a Polish group with two full length albums, and their latest, Iceberg Soul, is a stone cold classic already (forget future prognostications, it already just is).  I reviewed it here, but felt compelled to know more beyond just what my ears were telling me, to get to know the artists.  So I contacted Michal Pawłowski, one of newspaperflyhunting’s guitarists and vocalists — he’d lent us the album for review — and he graciously agreed to present the following questions to the group.  They have responded generously.  Note that an email and twenty bucks will yield you one stone-cold-already-a-classic rock and roll record, and the one preceding as well, which, measured by the tracks I’ve heard, may also be well on its way to Proghalla.

How did the band get together? How did it find its name?

The band started in the summer of 2006 as two teachers (Michał Pawłowski and Krzysztof Gryc, both guitarists) and a student (Krzysztof Sarna – drums) from the same language school decided to improvise together a bit. Gradually, it all began to take shape, Gosia Sutuła came in on bass, later Krzysztof Gryc left to be replaced with Jacek Bezubik. Beata appeared and here we are – a brief history of newspaperflyhunting! It is also worth mentioning that earlier, in late 2004-early 2006, Michał and Jacek had had an acoustic project named we! wtorek, whose repertoire regularly finds its place with npfh. And the name? First official version: we wanted something simple and straightforward! Second official version: why, this was the first word that came to our minds! The truth: we don’t really remember. There were many ideas for a name, most of them probably better than newspaperflyhunting, but somehow this one was chosen.

Are you full time musicians (this question could also be interpreted as, who are all of you, anyway?)

None of us are full time musicians. Michał and Jacek are English Philology graduates, Gosia is a medicine student, Krzysiek and Beata are architects. Krzysiek is a painter, too. So as you can see, our backgrounds are quite diverse. We all love music, books, cinema, and art.

Who are some of your influences?

We could write a book on that *laughs*. Let’s keep it short. Pink Floyd, we have to mention them first. Pearl Jam and the grunge movement. Post rock. Post-black metal and drone (yes, we’re glad you noticed it in your review). Classical music. Modern classical (Philip Glass). Jazz. Literature (Vonnegut, Dukaj, Bret Easton Ellis, and many many others plus SF/fantasy in general). Cinema (Fellini, Kubrick). Art (Vermeer, Dali, Beksiński). Life. Failures. Successes. Stupidity. Serendipity. Insanity. Quantum Physics. Dreams. Anything that is able to play with your mind. Music comes from various sources and it’s great not to know how it really works, how the sources blend together in the form of a song, or an album.

Your arrangements are startling dynamic, in the way light cuts through dark. Like chiaroscuro. Is this the kind of music that just comes out of the group, or are you following a particular aesthetic to make it happen?

We do not follow any aesthetic, that’s for sure. The sound comes naturally, we never consciously think “this should sound like this and that”. Maybe the only ‘rule’ we follow is trying not to repeat ourselves. Some members work really hard to prevent that;) It’s a mix of the aesthetics we are naturally inclined to as both listeners and musicians. This light and darkness thing is a very important matter for us. As are dynamics and contrast, like chiaroscuro indeed. (We could go on for hours – or pages – on how compression kills dynamics and music in general.) We are rather minor-key people, but not one hundred percent, and this contrast is crucial to our sound. This also comes from the simple need to vary things, not to sound monotonous. In other words, we play what we feel and the aesthetics appears as if by accident, because well, there’s no other choice, is there? It’s probably impossible to play ‘outside’ an aesthetics of one kind or another. But still, it’s completely secondary.

Why sing in English?

It’s a tough question. It might be mainly because it’s difficult to write good lyrics in Polish. We have fewer adjectives/adverbs, the rhymes are often cliché-sounding, there are many unpleasant-sounding consonants. Most importantly, it’s difficult to strike the perfect balance between sounding too lofty and too trite. Also, Michał and Jacek are English Philology graduates, so they are used to literary English maybe even more than to literary Polish. So we ended up with English lyrics. However, as Krzysiek writes good lyrics in Polish, it’s possible that future projects will include lyrics in Polish. Well, we only hope the English lyrics do not offend native speakers;)

Is everybody in the group writing, or is there a primary songwriter?

Although Michał and Jacek are the primary songwriters, the arrangements are worked out by the whole group. Michał says that when he comes up with song ideas they usually have the verse/chorus structure, then, in rehearsals the band turns them upside down and inside out. This is basically how it works, whoever comes up with the main idea, the end product is always the band’s creation, the input of an individual member depending on the song.

Where and how do you record? Are you doing your own producing/engineering?

The two full-length albums were recorded by Wojtek Bura, our friend, in his studio. The difference between “no12listen” and “Iceberg Soul” is that we pretty much produced the latter ourselves, with Wojtek acting more as an engineer. Generally, we want to have as much influence on our sound as possible and when making an album we learn new things about the production process, so you can expect the tendency to have more control over the recording process to continue.

What is Bialystok like as a music town?

Very metal *laughs*. There is a burgeoning metal scene and although there are many other bands, there is no other ‘scene’ to speak of. This is why we find it quite hard to organize gigs. There are some bands that we are friendly with, such as Obywatel NIP, Tempelhof, Rock Minotaur, Divine Weep, Pokrak or Ikebana but their music is not very similar to ours, or totally different. Well, we probably also have to mention disco polo, the truly awful genre of dance music that Białystok is infamous for;) However, if you are interested to hear impressive music from Poland, we recommend Riverside and Hipgnosis, two truly excellent bands. The former is quite well know worldwide, by the way, so you might have heard it.

How do you think Iceberg Soul differs from no12listen?

The main difference is that “Iceberg Soul” is a more conscious effort. “no12listen” was a snapshot of a transitional period in the band. This was the first record Jacek played on, and he still had to find his footing in the group. The songs themselves were written at different times, when the sound of the band was in the process of evolving. And, perhaps most importantly, we didn’t know what we wanted it to sound like. There are many overdubs on “no12listen”, you know – a band let into the studio trying out stuff. With “Iceberg Soul”, on the other hand, we had an idea of what we wanted it to be. We wanted it to sound as close to the band live as possible, to maintain a certain rawness, so there are very few overdubs, the guitars are much grittier, and the mood is darker and more melancholy. There is also a different approach to vocal arrangements. The ‘less is more’ philosophy is visible also in the decisions concerning when not to play. For example, on “Stop Flying” only three of us play, because this sounded just right. This approach is harder to grasp than one may think. There is also a difference in the lyrics, which are now more personal. Anyway, in the end, we are much more satisfied with “Iceberg Soul” than “no12listen” because it’s just us.

Fender Rhodes…Awesome…tell us about this and the genius process of bringing it to Iceberg Soul.

The idea appeared during the sessions for “no12listen”. Our producer and Gosia came up with the idea of adding keyboard parts to the album. Gosia played the keyboards, so to reproduce it live – as Gosia can’t play the bass, the keys, and sing at the same time… yet!;) – we decided to have a permanent keyboard player. We knew from the beginning that we wanted a Rhodes-type sound. Beata is Krzysiek’s colleague from work – she came in and stayed with us. The fact that a friend of ours had left his Fender Rhodes piano in our rehearsal space for some reason really helped. We just adopted it;)

Who do you consider your contemporaries in music, art, cinema?

A difficult question considering the band’s demographics *laughs*. Krzysiek was born in the 1950′s, Gosia in the 1990′s. Need I say more?:) But somehow this doesn’t affect us in any way. We all feel very much in tune with the late 1960′s-early 1970′s period, as well as the early 90′s. That is to say the periods in music that encouraged experimentation and self-expression. So our musical contemporaries are surely Pink Floyd and King Crimson. Beksiński as far as art goes. Cinema? Maybe Tarantino. We have to mention Vonnegut too, he is indeed our mental contemporary, if that makes sense;)

Do you think of yourselves as speaking to a certain audience?

Yes, to an audience that finds something for themselves in our music. We do not aim at any ‘genre’ audience. We categorize ourselves as ‘prog rock’ more for lack of a better term than any affinity with the genre. We would like to get to as many people as possible, but we don’t want to ‘force’ anyone to listen. If the listener feels connected with the music – we are happy people.

How do you feel about being heard online rather than on CD or vinyl or in front of an audience?

We are traditionalists in this matter – a physical release is crucial (be it a CD or vinyl, or tape). Of course there is nothing wrong with listening online, and it’s pointless to sail against the wind in this matter, but if an album is Internet-only, well, that’s not the same. So, we think that if somebody likes a band’s music, it’s a good idea to purchase the physical album to experience it in full (in addition to supporting the band). This is what artwork is for.

What are your thoughts on marketing your music? How do we get full copies of your records, and do we need to make our own newspaperflyhunting tshirts?

First of all, there are the Facebook and Bandcamp pages. There is also Myspace, but the site is almost dead, isn’t it? For the time being, we wish to get some feedback/reviews of the album and make people interested in it. We will also have a track featured on a sampler issued by an American indie label Custom Made Records. There is some minimal airplay, too. Well, promotion is easier abroad than in Poland. Here it seems that reviewers/journalists expect you to fit into a certain genre or category. For example, if you play prog rock you should sound like early Genesis. Or Pendragon. If you don’t, then they don’t know what to make of your music. Also, it’s more difficult to get people to just sit down and listen to stuff here, it seems that people abroad (especially Americans) are more open to new experiences. In any case, our aim is to be heard by people who might like us.

You can get physical copies of our album directly from us. We sell it for 10.00 USD (including postage). Just write an e-mail to npfh@op.pl. “no12listen” is still available for the same price too, and soon there will be another special limited release for our greatest fans only;) T-shirts? Yes, we will have them too, we just have to get down to it. As you can see, we are a very DIY band.

What’s next for you?

More music, that’s for sure. There’s no shortage of ideas with us. There is an idea for a concept album based on a novel by the excellent Polish SF writer Jacek Dukaj, and other stuff too. Generally, we will continue the direction set out by “Iceberg Soul”. 

Iceberg Soul by newspaperflyhunting

ImageThere is a source in some high valley at the top of the earth that spills out sound like a breached dam every time the earth tips a little off its crooked course.  I’ve never been but I hear it.  It’s in the music that sounds instantly familiar while being new, carrying an exoticism that is self-defined, so that as I wonder at what I hear, what I hear comes to define the place of its source, unknowable until the moment of that thing, that liquid spirit, that exceeds the recognizable patterns of the simple modulation of air pressure inside my head.

Which is to say I now know something of Poland.

That something is newspaperflyhunting, whose new record Iceberg Soul flooded the Plain of Progarchy this weekend.  It’s hard to make a record this strange and good, one tethered to its bit of earth while allowed to float free, to feel realized and yet maintain the rough edges of exploration.  If Iceberg Soul compares favorably to certain predecessors — I hear an odd pastiche of Amon Duul II’s Carnival in Babylon and the Cranberries’ Everybody Else is Doing It, and even a touch of Lal Waterson’s Once in a Blue Moon — it may outdo these worthy companions in its marrying of songcraft and texture, where the resemblance to the great bands of California’s psychedelic revival of the 1980s and 1990s — Opal, Rain Parade, Mazzy Star, Thin White Rope, Green on Red come to mind — seems more apropos.  Noisy electro-acoustic freakouts punctuate beautiful melodies and uneasy lyrical flights, the accented English toughening the song in just the same way Nico could, not fearing to sound lovely and unpretty.  Repetition and drone play important, alchemical roles, and the opening “My Iceberg Soul” is bookended by the closing of “Your Iceberg Soul,” where the repeated title phrase turns through my head and into “your eyes burn so.”  A slight black metal or goth current shades the music towards darkness, but the arrangements, which include Fender Rhodes piano, artfully blended vocals drifting in and out of harmony, and one of the most perfectly balanced mixes I can think of (maybe Gazpacho’s Night comes close), leaven the ultimate results back to something far more complex than any monochrome mood.

Not knowing anything about the Polish music scene or even its broader culture is, I recognize, a shortcoming in approaching Iceberg Soul, but I gotta tell you is also something of a thrill.  I feel like there may be territory to yet explore, and in exploring perhaps I stumble upon a certain high valley….

Get it at bandcamp: http://newspaperflyhunting.bandcamp.com/

Rush’s First

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Early Rush: John Rutsey, Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson

Rush landed in my life like a broken window when I was thirteen, that weird, shard-like spiral guitar intro to The Spirit of Radio busting things open for me in 1980.  It wasn’t an easy sell at first — Rush is a studied taste and I’d still say on most Rush records for every moment of musical or lyrical poetry there are two that are just brainy.  What maybe distinguishes the band, though, is their absolute, all-in commitment to THEIR muse as a trio.  It’s been mentioned in these pages before, but worth reiterating: Rush is as powerful now as they were 40 years ago, despite just about every obstacle you can throw at an artist.

Forty years ago next month Rush released its first, self-titled album.  In its way it’s one of the most intriguing records in their catalog because, unlike almost every other one of their albums, it is a product of its time and shows it.  That it’s also a prime example of early 70s hard rock is often lost in the various fanboy legends of Rush, where all songs are anthems and where first drummer John Rutsey is alternately pitied or maligned for not being Neil Peart.  Rush the album is a tight, finely-walked tour of guitar rock, a thick, sludgy, power trio slab that screams North American midwest, 1974.  There are odes to hard working folks, stoner rock birds flipped at the Man, ballads and blues boogie admonitions to the ladies, and hard luck stories from the rock and roll road.  This was not a lightly-traveled terrain: Mountain, Robin Trower, and armies of Uriah Heep-ish bands were all pounding to dust the path blazed by the Yardbirds then Cream then Zep, and Rush was very much a part of the meat-and-potatoes rock circuit that included bands like REO Speedwagon and the Amboy Dukes.

But Rush intrigues for a number of reasons, not least of which because as a record it shows a working rock band fully constructed.  They were young but had paid their dues, there was no doubt, witnessed by the super tight performances.  And looking back at the record 40 years on, there are moments when Alex Lifeson’s chord voicings or Geddy Lee’s bass patterns seem to jump forward to their present work.  They had a kernel of a sound and a whole lot of chops, and I’d argue that when they replaced Rutsey with Peart they possessed an uncommon strength, which allowed them to deconstruct their sound and build it up again, to eventually realize a vision absolutely unique in rock.

Technically, too, the record has a lot to recommend it.  Working with limited technology, even for the era, the band created an album with a saturated, present guitar sound that was clearly evolving with what could be reproduced on a record.  The separation is very good, although the drums don’t always pop like they could, probably as a result of the guitar’s appetite for bandwidth, rather than Rutsey’s playing, which swings with the best hard rock records of the time.  The extended soloing space, too, is defined and disciplined, guitar-focused and deriving more than a little from the studio recordings of Led Zeppelin, one of Rush’s early beacons.  Rush had their ears on this recording, and I don’t think it’s any mistake that more recent stoner and heavy rock records have a lot in common sonically with Rush’s first.

Thirty years after Rush released its first record, they recorded Feedback, an homage to their influences.  Played back to back with Rush, the two albums almost seem of a pair, their respective sounds not that unlike, and as if the songs on Feedback might have made up the rest of the set had you seen the band in ‘72-73.  Feedback arrived two years after Vapor Trails, when Rush re-asserted its harder, guitar-focused edge, and began a phase of fine work that continues up to their most recent record, Clockwork Angels.  As the title of that album suggests, this is a band that appreciates the spiral and the cycle of their art, the seed of which can be heard, if you’re listening for it, on Rush.

Chthonic Journey by Ezekiel Graves

ChthonicThe blues moves like a river. It rolls deep, and long ago breached the banks of its Mississippi creation myth.  If you ask where the real blues lives today, you’ll find as many answers as there are street corners, but I see one version as a line running through the Kinks, Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, the Ramones, shouting back at Charley Patton, hollering towards Dock Boggs — anyone drawn to its punky bones, the rattlesnake shake embedded in its progressions.

Ezekiel Graves approaches his electric blues along this continuum, through the drones embedded in the banjo and guitar tunings he grew up around in western North Carolina, and these blues are all over Chthonic Journey, his new record of solo electric guitar available on bandcamp (http://ezekielgraves.bandcamp.com/).  The songs are meditations, skeletal structures where rhythm lazily lopes after the beat.  There’s no hurry, though the pieces are short, and the relaxed progress of the album satisfies and stirs.  If you’ve ever wished Richard Thompson’s intro to Calvary Cross lasted longer than its fifty seconds, then this might be your record.  Thompson is a key here, and Graves’s other work has shown his influence more directly — on Chthonic Journey, though, Thompson only occupies a room adjacent to a distinctly American blues.

But while I think there’s an honest authenticity of experience to Chthonic Journey, I’d hesitate to call the record or Graves’s playing American Primitive or Old Weird America or whatever the hell America was before it became less apparently interesting — that’s gazing on this music from a remove, an imagined distance of something past (and which plagues so-called “oldtime” music) — and besides there’s way more here that snaps and buzzes and denies, reminding me of the way Miles Davis played off Pete Cosey, snake charming riffs and using electrical wah itself as a voice and a texture, conjuring memories deeper, more present, than nostalgia.  And still calling it blues.

Records like Chthonic Journey are elemental because they capture an artist in motion.  It reminds me of the Billy Joe Shaver lyric, “moving’s the closest thing to being free.”  I think Zeke Graves is moving, putting an edge to his map.

Some gracious insight from the artist himself:

What was the genesis of the songs?

I had been trying to adapt Southern old-time fiddle tunes to electric guitar–as an exercise and a way to introduce some new patterns and phrasing into my playing, but also as a jumping off point for improvisation.  I liked the idea of starting with something very traditional and taking it to a completely different and out-there place.  Fiddle tunes are typically comprised of two alternating sections (that can potentially cycle endlessly)–each a melody or riff that is enhanced by drones played on open strings.  I thought this would translate well to guitar in an open tuning.  It’s enough musical raw material to keep things interesting, but harmonically simple and static enough that you can go in a lot of different directions without worrying about a lot of chord changes or things getting too cluttered.  This led to the first piece, “Twin Sisters” which is a haunting, modal fiddle and banjo tune from Southwestern Virginia.

I kind of abandoned the fiddle tunes thing at that point (although it will be popping up again from time to time), but I kept the idea of starting with simple, modal themes and improvising from there with an emphasis on space and dynamics.  I wanted to hear how sounds began and ended, the attack and decay.  Once I had that approach in mind, I would just get my guitar into a tuning I liked (mostly ones used by country blues artists of the 1920s and ’30s or modifications thereof), play around until I had a riff or two to start with, and let it spin itself out from there.  I tried to be patient and be as much a listener as a player.

How did you record the album?

I did it all in my little studio loft at home.  Initially, I was using a Tascam stereo portable recorder to capture things, just because it was easy to grab it and press record whenever I had an idea.  I would record for as long as I felt like, and then transfer that over to my computer/audio workstation for listening on studio monitors. Once I realized I was working on a project, I switched over to recording with a Shure SM57 microphone running into Cubase software.  As simple as things can possibly be.

Once I had a large batch of recorded material to work with, I had a few sessions where I would listen and take notes–marking down beginning and end times of sections that sounded compelling with brief descriptions of the sounds.  I pulled those shorter sections out (there were maybe 20 or 30) and then did the listening process over again and whittled them down again to 9 or 10.  I liked the extreme spareness of what I was hearing, but felt that some of the selections could use additional sounds.  Not because I wanted to fill up the empty space or I thought something was missing, but because I thought another tonal color would actually cast things into sharper contrast and make the initial guitar tracks pop out at you even more starkly (to use a visual metaphor).  For these overdubs, I would quickly get a sound I liked with my guitar, amp, and effects and then play along with as little premeditation as possible, focusing on texture, letting accidents happen.  That’s pretty much the whole process.

Tell me about the title of the record.

I was reading some fiction that used a lot of mythological allusions.  In researching those a bit further, I came upon the word “chthonic” (as in “chthonic deity”).  It means “subterranean” or “having to do with the underworld”.  I liked the strangeness of how the Greek word translates into English–it just looks and sounds wrong.  It also sounds like a mispronunciation of “sonic”, so it’s kind of a pun.  More associations came to mind.  The trope of blues as the devil’s music or the fiddle as the devil’s box.  Blues and folk as “low” music as opposed to “high” culture.  “The underground”, as in underground music or movements.  The idea that you have to go beneath the surface to find what is really there.  So I ended up with “Chthonic Journey”, kind of a quest to find something that was lost or stolen.  This is my first attempt in a while to actually release any recorded music, and I have been through some weird places during that gap…so maybe that has something to do with it.

Six of the tracks are called blues.  Definitions, inspirations?

I overused the word “blues” in the titles to call attention to it and question whether any of this stuff could possibly be called blues, or whether a person like me in this day and age could play something you could call blues, or whether that genre name could mean anything so far from the social and historical conditions that created it.  I wanted to show some self-awareness and a sense of irony or humor about my appropriation of these gestures, idioms, and techniques that I use in my playing.  But I also wanted to leave open the possibility that blues is just an expression of life and feelings, and that sounds can go beyond anything material, political, or worldly.

There’s a lot here to think about, musical roots and branches.  Are you working in a tradition?

I think so, or at least engaging it in different ways.  I grew up hearing a lot of what you might call very traditional Appalachian music and still play it with my family and some different groups of friends.  You could see it as being limited or anachronistic from the outside, but once you get inside it it opens up and you see how strong and deep and regenerating it can be.  I learned to play banjo and some fiddle in the last few years and it has completely changed how I play and think about guitar.  I’m particularly interested in these points where the traditional and the experimental music worlds overlap:  raw and gritty timbres, drones, modality, open tunings, the spaces in between the intervals of equal temperament, rhythmic complexity rather than harmonic development.  I don’t feel any conflict in bouncing between those two worlds and feel like I draw a lot of energy and inspiration from that dynamic.

Who would you consider your musical contemporaries?

Really, anyone who is filtering the traditional (or more broadly, American Music) through a personal prism and coming up with something of their own.  In the past five years, I’ve played shows with Marisa Anderson, Chuck Johnson, Daniel Bachman, Glenn Jones, Jack Rose, The Black Twig Pickers, Steve Gunn, and a bunch of others who are roughly scratching in the same dirt.  That is the kind of company I aspire to musically.  I always want to play with and dip my toes into other sounds and scenes though, and am somewhat wary of pigeonholing myself into what is increasingly being written about as a sort of new “American Primitive” scene.  That’s a whole other piece of fat to chew on though.  When it comes down to it, I am just suspicious of genre names and always want to question why and how they’re being used.

What’s next?

Well, I have a bunch of songs that I’ve written over the past few years (like with singing and chord progressions) and I’ve started working with some other musicians to arrange those and have an electric band that can play out.  The idea is to merge the original songs with the kind of guitar playing you hear on “Chthonic Journey” and also bring in some traditional tunes and motifs too.  So I want to develop and then record that.  It’s been a lot of fun so far and I’m excited to see where it leads.

Lou Reed

I’m probably not alone on Progarchy in feeling the loss of Lou Reed.  His death reminds me that there was a time when the wider world considered rock’n’roll the domain of the artless, or that its limits were Dylan’s increasingly obscure folk-based lyrical flights over standard electric blues workouts.  Lou Reed changed this, and along with others like Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, and Arthur Lee virtually created the idea of rock music as a postmodern art form, a concept so outrageous it was called punk.  His band, the Velvet Underground, harnessed both an essential primitivism and a cultivated, even academic, new music approach, backboning lyrics of doper despair, sun-drenched love odes with dark clouds hanging ‘round, and downtown cool cruelty. His solo work, hit and miss as it is, never smacks of giving up.  He was an uncomfortable icon, combative with fans and critics, yet his humanity had a profound impact on his words, his music, and the countless musicians who followed him.  He was inspired, and an inspiration.

If his wasn’t an art, I don’t know what is.

A Guitar Zero: Steve Hillage and System 7

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The Gong tribe having “tea” — Hillage and Giraudy at left.

Gong was one of prog’s dark horses — too droney for the shredders, too silly for the serious, too jazz for the rockers and too rock for the jazzers.  A moving target, their sound sprung mostly from self-styled pothead pixie Daevid Allen, a founding member of Soft Machine who, abandoned by that band in France due to a bum visa (it was 1967, how bad could it’ve been?), created a web of musical partnerships and produced a set of jazz-driven psych records, culminating in the trance-soaked Radio Gnome Trilogy (1973’s Flying Teapot, 1974’s Angel’s Egg, and 1975’s You).  Evaporating into its disparate parts shortly thereafter, Gong and its many members to this day hover like clouds, appearing and disappearing with their seasons.

But that trilogy of albums remains a grail of sorts, a kind of rebuke to prog either as bacchanal for sci-fi bikers on the one hand or as outpost for conservatory-trained longhairs on the other.  They indeed smell like early Soft Machine, but way more fragrant.  The knotty songs sing like bop, but usually, around mid-point, lift off into breathy, woman-moaning space jams that have a lot in common with contemporaries like Cosmic Couriers/Jokers, Amon Duul II, and like-minded European bands that came late to the acid party but then stayed long past last call.

If Gong made any money at all it had to have gone right back into the drugs, but for at least one of their members Gong was less a destination than an early stop on the journey.  Steve Hillage, a Canterbury regular, jumped ship from Khan and landed on planet Gong long enough to stamp the Trilogy with his signature fluidity and tone, driving the songs into a direction that would later, with the rise of trance electronica, appear prescient.  With his partner, Miquette Giraudy, who along with Gilli Smyth provided Gong with its siren cooing — for how else to describe it? — Hillage split from Gong soon after Allen did, and made a bunch of records in the late 70s, not altogether unlike the Gong records he contributed to, that ended up having a big impact on British beat mechanics like The Orb.  With such recognition, he and Giraudy put together System 7 in the early 90s, producing both beat-heavy and ambient records featuring Hillage’s guitar textures and Giraudy’s burbling synths.  While it wouldn’t be fair to say these records — Gong, Hillage solo, System 7 — don’t have any wasted notes, they all have way more to recommend them than not. “Master Builder” (from You) remains a favorite, a far-reaching and future-seeing ommm drone that morphs into a breathtaking jazz jam with Hillage, on fire, heaving the whole mess past the summit.  The influence of Miles Davis’s electric bands is palpable.  Hillage never lost sight of that kind of funk, and saw the relationships between the deeply groovy and the deeply abstract.

Two recent albums, featuring Hillage then and now, go a long way towards making this point.  Live in England 1979 finds Hillage at University of Kent, playing a well-chosen selection of some of his better known songs.  Taped for broadcast, the sound is good, and the playing is energetic, the killer rhythm section giving Hillage plenty of room to showcase his always tasteful, melodic soloing.  At its best, such as on “Salmon Song” and the clutch of other driving, George Clinton-filtered-through-Frank Zappa funky tracks, Hillage has no peer except perhaps Adrian Belew in the King Crimson of that same era.  The guitar is angular, the singing gonzo, the funk is there. (Hearing this, I think it would have been fascinating had Brian Eno or Robert Fripp gotten ahold of Hillage in one of their productions at the time.)  Contrary to how you might imagine an ex-Gong sounding in the wake of punk, the music is surprisingly fresh, with “1988 Activator” even admitting Johnny Rotten happened.  The only dinosaur-betraying moment is a cover of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy” Man, which had been a minor hit for Hillage several years earlier and which he was probably obliged to play.  It’s a drag on the set, and when in the midst of the solo he breaks into the main riff of “Master Builder” it makes Hillage sound like he’s out of ideas, which he clearly wasn’t.  The CD adds a couple of studio tracks, what sound like demos from his 1977 album “L,” so as a whole the album’s pieced together and not without flaws, but a fun listen and, in its live moments, has some booty-shaking space power.

You can watch the entire show here — it’s really worth a look:

More coherent in its conception and execution, Phoenix Rising finds Hillage and Giraudy, as Sysem 7, paired with Japanese post-rock/electronica/space outfit Rovo, and is a nice example of electronic/analog jazz fusion.  The opening track, “Hinotori,” lays it all out.  Two drummers, two guitarists, violinist, bass, keyboards, lots of processing.

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If this suggests a Mahavishnu Orchestra obsession, you’d be right on.  John McLaughlin’s fabled band and its Inner Mounting Flame is directly quoted, as Hillage and Rovo cover “Meeting of the Spirits.”  Now, the problem with covering McLaughlin is similar to the problem of covering the Beatles — how to do it and make something else out of it that’s your own while also reminding all of us why the song’s so great in the first place?  While I’m not certain this is achieved, and have been on the fence about whether the track belongs on Phoenix Rising given the strong writing in the other compositions here, it does fit the spirit of the record, which mostly makes me think of what a Santana album would sound like if Carlos decided to make a smooth electronica record but keep half his band in analog mode.  Are barriers being broken? No.  Am I going to put this in my McLaughlin mix? Sure.  Does it work? Absolutely, and it’s an enjoyable listen all the way through.

What impresses me about Steve Hillage is his journeyman’s approach to his music.  He’s a gifted musician with that most cherished of attributes, an identifiable sound, but I have a feeling he’s never been terribly happy resting on his laurels or going for a money grab.  He participates in the occasional Gong one-offs, but I think is more at home in the kind of environment Rovo provides on Phoenix Rising.  Not the star, not the solo soloist, but an integral part of a larger group.  In “Unzipping the Zype,” on Live in England 1979, Hillage sings “I ain’t no guitar hero, I just want to be a guitar zero.”  I doubt that wish will ever come true for him, but his drive to find a level stage has been a benefit to those of us listening.

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