Author Archives: Craig Breaden

In Vaults by District 97

District97-InVaults-Frontcover-Preview2_0There are times on District 97’s new album, In Vaults, when a “because it’s there” vibe rises like a Himalayan peak from the Plain of the Killer Riff: a successful descent doesn’t always follow the climb. But that’s what this band has signed itself up for, and the risk-taking on record plays, happily, with the irony of vocalist Leslie Hunt’s American Idol background. All the nonsense that is associated with Hunt’s alma mater plays a like a game of One of These Things Is Not Like The Other, as the singer, evidenced by her work with District 97, is about the last thing you’d expect to come out of the Idol scene but simultaneously the kind of artist you’d want to actually win. So, In Vaults is downright, and mostly satisfyingly, weird, something that maybe could only come out of a Chicago-based metal band with a conservatory pedigree and an Idol runner-up with some serious jazz chops. It is an exhaustive — at times exhausting — record that, despite its bumps and its occasional tendency for showing off chops over songs, brims with an energy that damns torpedoes and old dudes like me.

It’s no surprise that the band has been embraced by the likes of Bill Bruford and John Wetton, with whom District 97 has toured and recorded. King Crimson and Yes is in the lineage for sure, but Soft Machine, Opeth, and Abbey Lincoln all have a claim to some of the ground District 97 has planted its flag on. The lurching, Coltrane slabs of sound erupting from Jim Tashijian (guitar), Patrick Mulcahy (bass) and Jonathan Schang (gonzo drums) back-and-foreground Hunt’s jazz phrasing and hard rock smarts with an inventiveness that can move instantly from crushing doom metal to modal jazz and all stations in between, not least of which is strong affinity for pop melody in (often too) small doses. Rob Clearfield’s keyboards are like a less bitchy version of Roxy Music, less self-important than Kansas or ELP — for the volume of notes he pumps out, none seem wasted.

In Vaults ups the ante on District 97’s more melodically charged Trouble with Machines. This is a band not short on ideas, and Jonathan Schang’s songwriting is up for articulating a range of lyrical emotions over arrangements that don’t let up. There’s no getting bored, although there’s also little room to slip into a groove of any duration, something that would build tension in songs as long as these, and something I think the group would be really good at (when it happens in “Learn From Danny,” the moment really pops). What we do get, though, is a hyper-shifting Zappa-fueled jazz rock buffet that goes to new places on the shoulders of giants, so that in “Takeover” the nod to Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” is like Zeppelin nodding to Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” There is a lot going on in In Vaults, and District 97 is on to something fairly unique in the prog scene, matched really only by Seven Impale (and perhaps it is the youthfulness of both bands that accounts for this): a palpable search for that seam that both delivers the goods while not dwelling on long-worn paths.

http://www.district97.net/

Finding Sublime: Tim Bowness And The Things That Matter

Press_Cover_01

For such a uniquely talented vocalist and musician, Tim Bowness doesn’t need to fill the frame.  As his band Henry Fool hinted on 2013’s excellent and slyly-titled Men Singing (http://progarchy.com/2013/08/12/men-singing-by-henry-fool/), what a voice is and what it has to say is as elastic as what we’re willing to hear.  His long partnership with Steven Wilson in no-man likewise produces soundscapes that find a wholeness in laying back and cherry-picking essentials.  Getting to the heart of what matters and why is a recurring theme in Bowness’s work, and It is fitting that Bowness’s new album begins with a song titled “Electric Teenage Dream,” the video for which sets images of jurassic 1950s technology against words echoing our slippery grasp on the electronic toys that so demand our attention. 

Stupid Things That Mean The World is rich with rejoinders to a world running over with unfiltered shadowplay.  Teasing out the meaningful from the stupid things (sometimes finding they might be one and the same), trying to jump start a false life on found truths, to, as one song says, “press reset,” is a central struggle, and Bowness’s emotive, low-key delivery makes the struggle immediate, engaging, and deeply moving.

With a voice embedded in British folk and art rock but defining a space entirely his own, Bowness sings towards a quiet grandeur.  And yet while that stately-paced slow burn colors much of the record with the torch-driven songcraft common to his work (thinking particularly of no-man’s Returning Jesus), the album ignites under the heat Bowness brings to “Stupid Things That Mean The World,” “The Great Electric Teenage Dream,” and “Press Reset,” their detailed observations accompanied by taut arrangements moving from the apocalyptic to the pop.  The moods he summons join together seamlessly, so this is indeed an album rather than a collection of songs, a conjuring of Johnny Hartman entwined with Nick Drake and Radiohead and autumn leaves falling.  Jarrod Gosling’s artwork nails the vibe, with its feel of a classic EG Records album cover mirroring the hidden edges and complexities of the music within, and the credits are a who’s who of cross-generational art rock, including Bruce Soord, Peter Hammill, Phil Manzanera, Pat Mastelotto, Colin Edwin, Anna Phoebe, David Rhodes, Rhys Marsh, and members of the no-man live band  (Stephen Bennett, Michael Bearpark and Sanguine Hum’s Andrew Booker), with Andrew Keeling providing string arrangements.  It makes for a complete and satisfying experience, and again shows the kind of standard we’ve come to expect from the music Bowness creates.

Progarchy sat down with Tim via email to talk about the new album, his music and career, and what’s next for him.

The production on Stupid Things That Mean The World is immediate, it feels live, and you are upfront in the mix. What sort of decisions did you make to have this record sound the way it does?
I’d have offered opinions about mix/instrument levels, treatments and so on. Pretty much as I usually do on any project, except on my solo works no-one argues with me and I get rejected less! :-)

I have ideas about sounds and approaches to music and inevitably I pursue those (for better or worse). I quite like live and direct approaches to drum, strings and vocal production in particular, and I also like allowing quieter elements to dominate busy arrangements.

Tell us about the title of the record, and what brought you to the themes you explore, particularly in “Electric Teenage Dream,” “Press Reset,” and the title track?
The title song is about a relationship, but not necessarily a romantic one. It could be about a collapsed close friendship, or life in a band or a business with a sort of kindred spirit.

The title concerns the small and seemingly trivial things that make us who we are or help us through our lives. It could be an old toy, art/music, shared intimate language, a belief system, an annual holiday, the image or idea of someone you loved in your youth etc etc. I was also thinking of something like the significance of the seemingly insignificant Rosebud in Citizen Kane.

Press Reset and At The End Of The Holiday are my two favourite lyrics on the album and have more of a short story quality about them. The first is a depiction of someone desperate to escape the pressures of their life, while the second is about a temporary escape from domestic difficulties. Press Reset’s theme is something that has interested me for a long time – people consciously disappearing from their own lives and families – and something that in retrospect I realised had happened in my own family.

The lyric to The Great Electric Teenage Dream is part of a larger project called Third Monster On The Left, which is about what it’s like for musicians of a certain age to make music at this point in the 21st Century. A few tracks from it appeared on Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and I’m hoping to present it as a complete project at some point in the future.

Know That You Were Loved was the last song written for the album and it’s possibly the most emotional song on the album. To an extent, it deals with death bed reminiscences and has roots in the work I used to do with the elderly at old people’s homes in the 1980s.

Cheery!

3) What’s your favorite song on the new record?
For very different reasons, Know That You Were Loved, Press Reset and The Great Electric Teenage Dream are my favourite songs on the album. Partly because they either achieved or exceeded my ideas of what the songs could be and partly because they were developing all the time due to some really nice contributions from the guest musicians.

4) You’ve said that this record and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams constitute a new chapter for you. Why do you think that is?
Due to my input in terms of writing and production, ADD and Stupid Things feel more like ‘solo’ works than anything else I’ve done.

In both cases, there was a lot less co-writing than on most projects I’m involved with. Also, with both these albums everything had to begin and end with strong input from me. I assembled the collaborators, booked the studios, provided the material, suggested the sonic approach and so on.

While I might contribute a fair amount to no-man, Henry Fool or Bowness/Chilvers, my input is still being filtered through somebody else’s wishes, opinions and organisational ability, so they’re very much collaborations.

5) What’s your approach to arranging on your solo records as opposed to other projects like no-man?
I think my approach to arranging varies from project to project and song to song as arrangements have to work for the benefits of the song or the musicians involved in the recording.

A good example of differences between projects would be the piece Press Reset. If I’d have presented the song to no-man (for example), Steven would have most likely complicated the final section’s chords and not allowed through the more simplistic pummelling coda rhythm. Conversely, Steven may have simplified compositional aspects of Know That You Were Loved while suggesting a more dense arrangement. Basically, if I’d have presented Press Reset to no-man, Peter Chilvers, Henry Fool or Memories Of Machines, the finished result would have been different and in some cases radically different due to the involvement of other people.

6) You have a distinct, instantly recognizable style, and a signature delivery. What/who shaped your development as a singer?
Ultimately, as with the music, what comes out is instinctive and natural. It may sound corny, but my singing’s my emotional response to whatever music I’m singing over really.

When I started out, my singing inspirations would have been the likes of Kevin Godley, Peter Hammill, Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. Later on, I really liked Paddy McAloon, John Martyn, Nick Drake, David Crosby, Mark Eitzel and others, plus female singers such as Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Kate Bush.

I hope I’ve developed my own voice over time. It’s something I don’t think about much when I’m actually singing, so I’m not sure how much influence from others comes through.

7) How would you describe your writing process?
Anything that works basically.

Songs can come from me writing on acoustic guitar or playing on my synth or programming within GarageBand or Logic. I can either start with a strong sense of something I want to create, or an idea can naturally emerge out of the process of just playing.

Songs like Know That You Were Loved, I Fought Against The South and Everything You’re Not/Everything But You developed out of me playing on the guitar. The likes of Press Reset and Smiler At 52 came out of programming and then making the pieces more organic and loose with instrumental additions. The Warm-Up Man Forever came out of a combination of looping, playing keyboards and programming.

When I co-write, it can be in real time (generally me with a pianist or a live band) or retrospectively working from existing backing tracks.

8) Can you talk a little bit about Jarrod Gosling’s artwork for Stupid Things and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams?
I think Jarrod’s got a really distinctive style and I used him in order to distinguish the look of my work from the look of no-man’s, and also to reinforce the sense that the solo albums represented a new chapter for me.

Artwork is important to me. I started buying music in an era when the imagery of album covers was a significant part of the music experience and I’ve never lost that fascination with attention to detail or the evocative link between sounds and image.

Jarrod’s a lovely guy and very easy to work with. He listens to other people’s ideas without compromising his own singular style.

9) As someone who is not only an artist but also involved in the business of music, what’s your take on the way music is distributed today?
A big and complex issue!

The internet has been a blessing and a curse to musicians. It’s allowed Burning Shed to thrive internationally in a way that would have been difficult before, so the immediacy of access has mostly been a positive thing for the company. I’ve always felt that Burning Shed has pushed forward traditional ideas – elaborate packaging, physical product, conceptually intentional albums – via an innovative, contemporary medium.

On a personal level, I feel extremely lucky that I can still release music I believe in and that there’s still an interest in what I do. Also, the internet has allowed Burning Shed to thrive internationally in a way that would have been difficult before.

10) What are you reading? What’s a current favorite record, and why?
I tend to read several books at the same time, so at the moment I’m reading Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, Clive James’s Sentenced To Life, Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night and Pete Townshend’s Who I Am. I recently finished Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel which I enjoyed, but the best book I’ve read in recent years is E L Doctorow’s Homer & Langley. It’s a brilliantly written chronicle of obsession and retreat from the world.

Musically, I go through phases of listening to back catalogues by artists (currently David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Bill Nelson/Be Bop Deluxe and The Who) and new things. Of late, I’ve liked albums by Sanguine Hum, Keaton Henson and Troyka (a really interesting contemporary UK band who are carrying on the Progressive tradition of 1970s Rock influenced Jazz).

What’s next for you?
Immediately, a new Bowness/Chilvers album. We’ve completed 90% of a follow-up to California, Norfolk and it really feels like a progression from that album. Lyrically it’s more dense and musically it really shows how Peter’s work has evolved since he’s been working with Brian Eno and Karl Hyde. I’m looking forward to hear how it develops.

Tim Bowness, Stupid Things That Mean The World (Burning Shed/Inside Out Music, available July 17, 2015: https://www.burningshed.com/store/timbowness/product/71/6640/).

“The words are stones in my mouth”: Katatonia’s Sanctitude

A beautifully-conceived live album and concert video, Sanctitude (Kscope) finds Katatonia going mostly acoustic in a well-curated exhibition of songs sympathetic to the quieter spaces.  Yes, there are candles, and yes, they play in a church, but this is not an overwrought episode of MTV Unplugged; rather it’s an essential expression for Katatonia and its songs, an approach they explored at length on their Dethroned and Uncrowned album, where they offered the entirety of Dead End Kings in similar stripped down fashion.  Sanctitude is a complement to last year’s Last Fair Day Gone Night; where that live set, issued on CD/DVD last year, offered a rocked-out, straightforward career retrospective, the new album demonstrates why Katatonia is Katatonia.  Because they’re a death metal, no a black metal, no a doom metal, no a shoe-gazey rock band — or are they? — that has the chops and the artistic will to deliver an environment rather than a category, to see the value in reinterpreting their own work.  I find this fascinating because so often rock and the subgenres associated with it forget about personal context and mood, depending heavily on delivering the album as recorded, to keep the adoring fans adoring.  Vocalist Jonas Renkse and guitarist Anders Nystrom, the persistent heart of the band, have consistently created terrain for their music that didn’t exist before.  It can have hooks and riffs, but texture and, importantly, a dependence on the sounds words make, rule the day.  Classic goth is a touchstone, along with the dynamics of Nirvanaesque grunge, and I also find myself thinking Disintegration-era Cure is seated deep in Katatonia’s grooves.  Sanctitude throws into relief the band’s reach for such delicate shading — an element that’s been in their music at least since Discouraged Ones (1998) — allowing luminance into the screen of permanent twilight their mood and lyrics often inhabit.  In the film of the show, they put Union Chapel in London to great use.  It highlights the importance of space in Katatonia’s music, and adds intimate warmth rather than gothic solemnity to the concert.  The band — this iteration including the Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord, bassist Niklas Sandin, and percussionist JP Asplund — and the crowd are clearly having a good time.  The performances are solid, generally relaxed despite an admitted nervousness and a new band, and Jonas’s lead guitar lines, the only overt nod to electricity outside some subtle keyboarding, are a kind of revelation, their snaky simplicity conjuring the same spirits Opeth raised on Damnation.  The highpoints are many, from the opener “In the White,” from the Great Cold Distance, to the finale, “The One You are Looking for is Not Here,” a duet with Silje Wergeland that originally appeared on Dead End Kings.  In between the band covers fifteen other songs, from Viva Emptiness (“One Year from Now” really killing it with a slide guitar, tarantella figure, and bluesy vocal break), Brave Murder Day, and Last Fair Deal Gone Down.  Because the songs are so weighted with the sonic emotion Jonas brings to his vocal approach and Anders to his playing, the edge of the songs is never lost; as Katatonia has long demonstrated, heavy music is much more than volume fraying to distortion.

Whereas the documentary accompanying Last Fair Day Gone Night is a fantastic oral history of the band, Sanctitude’s doc is a detailed analysis of this particular tour and the state of the band at present, very simply presented, with Jonas and Anders answering questions that avoid what you might expect:  these aren’t simply softballs, but address aesthetic decisions and processes, band and artistic partnerships that have disintegrated, fan-base issues and future possibilities for the 25-year-old Katatonia.  As rock documentary Katatonia’s films work because of their thoroughness, and provide portraits of not only the band but of Swedish metal over the past quarter-century, its vernacular.  DVD bonus packages aren’t always a bonus, but Katatonia delivers, and a lot of bands would do well to speak so honestly and openly of their music in this context.

Along with Swedish peers Opeth and northern neighbors Gazpacho, Katatonia is creating a body of work that suggests their influence will be long felt, with a music that feels organic and electric, identifiable and unique, personal and expansive.  Who wouldn’t want to see what happens next?

R.I.P. Daevid Allen

News has reached Progarchy that Daevid Allen has left us.  Sad, yes, but as founder of both Soft Machine and the inimitable Gong he brought a lot of joy in his long life. Oh, you pothead pixie! Play on….

“What are we gonna do man?”
“Eat that phone book”

Now if you want to know just how to tune into the vibes of the planet
Nobody else can tell ya everybody got their own way to do it
Oom papa zoom de zoom
a hubba hubba gubba oom sticky stucka
Oom papa zoom de zoom
a cuppa hubba dubba oom sticky stucka
Bum chicky bum chi bum
a trippa cup a trippa om boppa maia
Bum chicky bum chi bum
a trippa cup a trippa om boppa maia

Oom papa zoom de zoom
a cuppa hubba dubba oom sticky stucka
Bum chicky bum chi bum
a trippa cup a trippa om mama maia
All that you got to do is get yourself together
Don’t dither, do it
Then when you’re gong you can’t go wrong
‘Cause you’ve become the songs and the planet

Yesterday I climbed a tree
Nearer to the Gong to be
The planet was I realized,
One of the spots before my eyes

Mama maia I pray for banana
Na na na na banana bad yada da

Bo bo bo yo I pray for banana
Banana na na banana bad yada da
O mama maia he he oh oh banana
Banana na na na banana bad yada da
Ya na ne na na…

At the end of the day
When there’s nothing left to play
And you’re all alone ‘cept for radio gnome
Here’s your angel’s egg for breakfast in the morning

Bye bye

(from Eat That Phone Book Coda)

Rounding ‘80: The Reinvention of Three Bands

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, hard rock and progressive bands were taking serious stock, re-inventing sounds that had sustained them and, for fans, defined an era.  The list of bands who turned the corner of the 1980s influenced by punk and disco and new wave is long, and includes many touchstone bands of prog and heavy rock: Yes, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, The Rolling Stones, REO Speedwagon, Supertramp, Moody Blues, Chicago, Judas Priest.  Songs became shorter, tighter, glossed in reverb and electronics.  In an odd way the 1960s really ended around 1979-80.  It was a death knell for bands unable to adapt to the FM version of the pop single.

Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s hindsight, but looking back at those handful of years I find it fascinating that three of rock’s great survivors — AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Rush — issued essential work in this time of transition.  You won’t find three bands on the harder side of the rock spectrum to be more different, but the creative spark feeding each of them isn’t dissimilar.  Aussie rockers AC/DC, considered up to this time mostly a snotty and raucous punk band (believe it or not), issued their landmark Highway to Hell in August 1979, redefining the sound of hard rock.  Lead singer Bon Scott promptly made good on his self-destructive promise in February 1980, and the band turned on a dime, hiring Brian Johnson and releasing their best record, Back in Black, that July.  Black Sabbath had jettisoned Ozzie Osbourne in 1979, and taken on Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio, releasing the pop metal beauty Heaven and Hell in April 1980 and its equally excellent follow up, Mob Rules, in November 1981.  Rush, on the heels of its long-form prog titan Hemispheres, cut song length, distilled their pop hooks, and issued Permanent Waves in January 1980, to be followed by their widely acknowledged masterpiece, Moving Pictures, in February 1981.  That each of these bands continued producing consistently good and sometimes great work, and toured, well into the 2000-teens, comes down to the dynamic that kept them artistically and commercially viable in 1979-1981.

AC/DC’s output in the 1970s was unique, an amplified, dirty, dangerous version of Chuck Berry roots rock as set in a Down Under pub. Bon Scott considered his group a punk band, with good reason.  Their sound, stripped and lean, had little to do with the increasingly orchestral tendency of European prog or the overt commercial leanings of softening American rock. Brothers Malcolm and Angus Young’s wiry electric playing punctuated Scott’s leering Puckish howl, and had way more in common with the Stooges or the New York Dolls than the Stones or Zep.  Songs like “TNT,” “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap),” and “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock’n’Roll),” say it all.  1979’s Highway To Hell was a massive leap, bolstering the sonics and tightening the pop songcraft, always in their songs while losing none of the visceral dirty-ness, lyrically and musically.  AC/DC’s stock-in-trade innuendo was always meant to make you blush, make you laugh, and make you mad (objectification of women in rock is, no doubt, a double-pronged devil), all trumped by making you rock.  Scott’s ode to miscreantism, the title track brims with cocksure attitude, and was echoed 11 months later on Back in Black’s “Hell’s Bells.”

“Hells Bells”and “Back in Black” were both tributes to Scott and a declaration of a new direction.  Where Highway to Hell and its predecessors were all punk-ish attitude and like Scott teetered on a precarious edge, Back in Black had a metal edge, was decidedly mid-tempo, ready for the sports bar and dance floor. Producer Mutt Lange, who had also shepherded Highway to Hell, mined gold.  Back in Black was the second best-selling record of the 1980s, and for certain, it contains some of the best straight-ahead riff rockers you can imagine, facing its detractors without blinking.

Black Sabbath’s first six albums are legendary things indeed.  In recent years they’ve come to signify the creation myth of heavy metal, and continue to be the genre’s gold standard.  Sabbath’s last two records of the ‘70s with Ozzy Osbourne, though, were a mixed bag — tired, coked up, a bit lost (nothing against them: let’s recall this was still the era where, if you weren’t the Eagles, you took two weeks a year to make an album then toured the other 50).  So while Ozzy regrouped with Randy Rhoads, Iommi, Butler, and Ward brought in Deep Purple producer Martin Birch and vocalist Ronnie James Dio, who had worked together in Rainbow.  One of the most interesting singers in rock history, Dio was already 37 years old, had fronted the band Elf across several very decent rock records then, along with Ritchie Blackmore, helped reinvent the Deep Purple sound in Rainbow, bringing full-on fantasy-inspired lyric writing to heavy rock.  This approach was a knife’s edge, and for the rest of his career Dio, a consummate singer and a terrific performer, didn’t always succeed in steering the fantasy metaphors toward the sublime.  The two records he made with the newly Ozzy-less, and rudderless, Black Sabbath, however, showcase his strengths as a singer, songwriter, and a bandleader: pop vocal melodies soar over the metal undertow that could be conjured only by Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler.

This iteration of Sabbath was short-lived, as Dio went on to huge success as a solo act in the 80s, but it would be hard to overestimate the inspiration he brought to the band when it was seriously on the ropes in the late ‘70s.  They’d make two more studio records together, the less-than-stellar Dehumanizer in the early ‘90s, and then the true return to form in the 2000s, under the name Heaven and Hell (naturally), with a tremendous live album and then an equally great studio effort, The Devil You Know.  Their 2007 tour leaned heavily on that 1980 album that gave them their name, and it’s clear the energy Dio could still bring:

For Rush fans of my vintage, who were teenagers in 1980, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures were the gateway drugs to the Rush back catalogue.  Turns out those two records are the two-way mirror of the rest of Rush’s records, encapsulating the best of its past and future.  Rush fans know these records intimately; I would guess since I was fourteen I’ve listened to them both several hundred times, and I revisit the pair of them every few months.  For me they are inseparable, the first really heavy and difficult records I enjoyed as a kid, difficult because they were so different from anything else out there.  Listening as an adult, and having experienced lots of other kinds of music since that time, I’ve been struck by several things, the first being, they are still in their way difficult, but just more familiar.  Alex Lifeson’s solos, always unique in their sound, really pop with an almost avant garde tone and approach.  The intro to “The Spirit of Radio” almost doesn’t make sense (almost), the solo of “Freewill” is like free jazz, and their biggest hit, “Tom Sawyer,” bristles with an angular, angry middle passage that spikes and careens over Geddy Lee’s crazy, funky bass.  It restores some of my faith in humanity that these songs still get regular rotation on radio, and that Lifeson was given a gift he shared with the rest of us.  The tendency on these albums — produced by Terry Brown, as were the previous Peart-era Rush records — towards shorter pieces shows growth in the sense that making a brief statement is often a greater achievement than going long.  And yet the lengthier songs are among Rush’s best, “Jacob’s Ladder” containing a powerful lyric by Neil Peart, whose simpler meditations I’ve always found more compelling.  “The Camera Eye,” Moving Pictures’ epic, at turns breezy and moodily dark, breathtakingly blends new wave and progressive rock.

Rush’s journey from Hemispheres to Moving Pictures is well-documented, and I think they acted as a bellwether for other bands making similar leaps, particularly Yes.  Like AC/DC and Black Sabbath, Rush adapted, progressed, for quantifiable reasons (for instance, commercial survival, enlarging their market) and certainly for ones more fuzzily defined, to push boundaries that limit artistry, to feed inner fires.  And in the end that’s why these bands are where they are today.

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

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