The young pianist Eldar Djangirov (website) has already released several exceptional albums, featuring a wealth of stunning virtuosity and musicality. Dave Brubeck, who knew a thing or two about jazz piano, called him a “genius”, which gives you a sense of his talents. His early albums were sometimes criticized (and fairly so) for being heavy on flash and flair and light on interpretive depth and emotional resonance. But his work has matured with each release and I think his new album, “Breakthrough”, is his finest work yet. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that he took a page from the great Brad Mehldau and performs a Radiohead tune, the lovely “Morning Bell”. Here it is:
Note: No one will mistake Van Morrison as a “prog” rocker, but everyone acknowledges he is one of the most important popular musicians of the past fifty years. He has long been one of my five or six favorite musicians, ever since I first heard his music back in the summer of 1991. I wrote the following article in 2002 for Saint Austin Review, and since it has never been available online, I’ve decided to foist it onto Progarchy readers. I’ve made a couple of minor corrections, but otherwise it is unchanged and so it is, of course, somewhat dated. — Carl E. Olson
Ask most people (at least here in America) if they’ve heard of Van Morrison, and they will likely mention “Brown Eyed Girl,” the late 60s hit with a catchy chorus of sha-la-la-la-la-la-la’s. Although it’s a fine pop song, there is, fortunately, far more to Van Morrison than “Brown Eye Girl.” Since 1968 and the release of his classic album Astral Weeks, Morrison has created an impressive body of popular music that defies categorization. Using elements of folk, rock, jazz, soul, R&B, traditional Irish music, and even country music, the Belfast Cowboy molds songs that are earthly, emotional, spiritual, and, at times, transcendent.
Legendary for his difficult personality and his dislike for the press, Morrison has often sent confusing signals about his religious affections. Yet his finest work can rightly be called incarnational. This is not to say it is strictly “Christian,” but that it is rooted in reality (uncommon in much pop and rock music) and seeks to incarnate spiritual truth and meaning in concrete forms, themes, images, and narratives. Morrison is not interested in proselytizing, creating propaganda, or lecturing, flaws common in “contemporary Christian music” (mostly evangelical Protestant) and in the music of rock artists attempting serious statements about ecology, politics, and social ills. Such ends irritate Morrison, who seems to appreciate the power and limits of popular music. Once asked about fans looking to musicians for political guidance, he responded with irritation, “Why do people expect us to solve the world’s problems? It’s absurd. I mean, if politicians can’t do it, how . . . . can musicians?”
Although he has produced some mediocre albums and has occasionally alienated his fans and the press, Morrison has maintained a remarkably consistent artistic vision. His music is worth considering, I believe, for several reasons. As music, apart from message and lyrical themes, most of it is very good. Morrison’s mastery of styles and his ability to mesh seemingly divergent musical forms is impressive. The best of these stylistic marriages have a timeless quality, conveying a spiritual longing that is honest, vulnerable, and often moving. This mixture of earthy, cerebral, and spiritual is uniquely its own, providing Catholic musicians who work in popular music much to consider and appreciate.
The Childlike Vision
Born in Belfast in 1945, Morrison had an ordinary boyhood, with the notable exception of his father’s passion for American jazz, R&B, and early rock and roll. He spent hours listening to the records of legendary artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Little Richard, and various blues singers. By the age of fifteen he was playing full-time in a skiffle band, eventually putting together the group Them in the early 60s. After releasing the hits “Here Comes the Night” and “Gloria,” Morrison went solo and eventually landed in New York City. Although “Brown Eyed Girl” was soon a hit, Morrison was miserable. Feeling trapped in his recording contract and misunderstood by everyone around him, he still managed to record Astral Weeks in two days – this despite not knowing the session musicians and (according to those musicians) not communicating with them.
Although it produced no hits and didn’t sell well, Astral Weeks soon became legendary within musical circles. The twenty-two year old Morrison had created a song cycle that was timeless, poignant, and spiritual, combining folk, rock, and jazz in open-ended compositions. Multi-layered and elusive, the lyrics describe people and places in Belfast, impressionistic sketches imbued with a mystical longing free of nostalgia and sentimentality. The songs are loosely structured around Morrison’s emotive vocals, the singer wrapping his voice around keenly detailed lyrics. In “Beside You”, he describes the approaching evening with minimalist precision, “Just before the Sunday six-bells chime, six-bells chime/And all the dogs are barkin’.” He then follows a mysterious woman as she moves down the roads and “way across the country”:
Past the brazen footsteps of the silence easy
You breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out . . .
And you’re high on your high-flyin’ cloud
Wrapped up in your magic shroud as ecstasy surrounds you
“Sweet Thing,” a more obvious love song, is also filled with images of walking the countryside, seeking and experiencing a timeless wonder: Read the rest of this entry
Someone with time on their hands and prog trivia on their brains should do some careful historical research in search of the answer to this question: “Which prog group has the most line-up changes all-time?” Three groups come to mind immediately: Yes, Asia, and King Crimson. And the three are, of course, bound together by all sorts of personnel connections and such, as well as having been around for decades, which surely is part of the ongoing drama of departing, returning, reuniting, breaking up, reforming, guesting, and so forth. Anyhow, legendary guitarist Steve Howe has announced that he is leaving Asia so he can concentrate on solo work and (it appears) his commitments to Yes. Just as (or more) interesting are his remarks on playing guitar. From the ProgRockMag.com site:
The pressures of attending to the requirements of two large-scale acts was also getting to him, he admits. “Over the last year I started to think, ‘Boy, when Yes extend a tour then Asia start a day early, I’m the guy getting squeezed.’ I couldn’t do it much longer without feeling that I was running on autopilot. I want to be in control of my musical direction and follow my calling.”
That calling will include the Cross Styles Music Retreat, during which Howe hopes to share his passion and experience of guitar with attendees. But he’s wary of the “unique” label: “It sounds like I’ve set myself up for a fall there,” he laughs. “All I’m saying is: I’m not educated, I don’t read music, I didn’t go to music school, I don’t have the theory. All I have is my experience, and presumably people want that, otherwise I wouldn’t be selling any tickets.
“I’ve done these things before. I walk in and say, ‘Don’t talk to me about demi-semiquavers. Don’t talk to me about time signatures.’ I play. Everything I do and everything I’ve learned is by ear.
“You don’t have to drive yourself mad reading dots. If you want to play classical music you should; but where I’m coming from, improvisation, composition. I’m bringing in an unschooled – I wouldn’t say rebellious, but individual – approach to guitar.
“I’m not going to pose that it’s going to be anything else. You get me, I play tunes and I talk about guitar. I’ve managed to make that interesting for myself for over 50 years, so there must be something!”
Howe states that he’s never believed in straight-out practising. “Playing scales would have driven me stark raving bonkers,” he says. “That’s not what I call music. It might be an essential part of keeping your muscles and fingers in good order and I don’t say it’s terrible. But my central thing is improvisation. Play stuff – make stuff up. That’s how I keep interested: by interacting with it, not just being a mechanical, physical observer.”
He didn’t enjoy his school days, finding London’s Holloway School “oppressive, violent, mixed with racial and religious prejudices.” But he’s never found that a lack of a “proper” musical education held him back – except when he tried to learn to play flute and discovered it was too distant from guitar to make the transfer comfortable.
As a result of being self-taught he does encounter people who are better technicians than he is. “But I don’t feel particularly threatened,” he explains. “What I feel is: ‘They’re very advanced in their technique – how advanced are they in their general view of music?’
“Guitarists can get fanatical about guitarists; but in the end we’re musicians. We make sound. It’s the sound that’s got to be pleasing – not how you made the sound. Who cares how you play it? What’s important is what comes out the other end.”
And one of the key lessons he hopes to impart at Cross Styles is: “Musicians are lucky; we can break the rules. There’s no such thing as the ‘music police’ – they’re not going to come round and say ‘You shouldn’t have played a D-flat, it should have been a D. You can do what you want – live and die by the musical sword!”
In addition to the retreat he’s planning a solo tour and a new Steve Howe Trio album and tour. “We’re just about to launch some dates. I’ve got two or three weeks of solo dates in June, which I haven’t done in a very long time due to my demanding schedule of keeping two bands happy. In September we’re doing the trio again. We should have a new recording before that.”
His desire to move away from the band environment is much more than just a whim, Howe notes. “My solo guitar work is pretty central to my musical existence. I’m not a blues, rock or jazz guitarist – I’m a guitarist, and the central thing is solo playing.
Read the entire piece. Glancing over his bio on Wikipedia (yes, I know, forgive me), I was a bit surprised to learn that Howe was the first player to be inducted into the Guitar Player Hall of Fame, and one of the few in the GP’s “Gallery of Greats”, which comes with being selected best overall guitarist at least five times (although it appears the criteria has now been modified). Howe’s playing has long intrigued me because of the obvious jazz influences; he was influenced by Wes Montgomery, as well as Chet Atkins, whose mark on Howe can be seen in Yes songs that have a country-type feel to them, quite unique within the prog realm.
I’ll skip my usual apologia attempting to explain my long absence from this fine blog and instead spend my limited, if not valuable time, remarking on four recent prog and proggy albums that have been found a home on my regular iTunes rotation. I may write longer reviews of a couple of these albums, but some short remarks are better than none.
• Asia — Resonance (The Omega Tour, 2010; released 2012): After Kansas, Asia was the group that first introduced me into the world of prog, back in the early to mid-1980s, when I was an innocent small town Montana boy making my way through high school. I recall seeking out books and magazines that explained the musical pedigree of Downes, Howe, Palmer, and Wetton, and thus being introduced to early King Crimson, ELP, Yes, and more. I know that Asia has been a source of debate among prog fans, some of whom dismiss and even deride the group; I’ll just say that I really liked and still do like the first two albums, Asia and Alpha, and make no excuses for the warm and gratifying nostalgia they bring to the surface whenever I play them. And, truth be told, I’m partial to the third album, Astra, which marked the first of two billion line-up changes (Mandy Meyer took over guitar from Howe, who had departed), as it is actually a good, hook-heavy example of what might be call “arena prog” or “pop prog” or something similar. Anyhow, the original line-up has been back for a while—and getting solid to excellent reviews—and this live album documents the group’s 2010 tour. I’ve heard cuts from earlier live albums by Asia, and have found most of them disappointing, especially in the vocal department. But this album, dare I say it, is rather stunning, both in terms of the outstanding sound quality and the amazing power and clarity of Wetton’s voice. Wetton, to my ear, sounds just as good as he did on the studio cuts from the early and mid ’80s, which is saying something. The playing is excellent, of course; my only small beef is that the drums seem a bit back in the mix, although there is an extended and fine drum solo on “The Heat Goes On”. Otherwise, a great mix of cuts, with some nice acoustic-oriented variations of old hits such as “Don’t Cry” and “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes”.
• Proto-kaw: Forth (2011): Speaking of Kansas, the group Proto-kaw was the second of three early incarnations of what eventually became simply “Kansas” in 1973. The key constant in those groups was songwriter, lyricist, guitarist, and keyboardist Kerry Livgren, who conquered the world with Kansas in the 1970s (“Dust in the Wind”, anyone?), had a run of contemporary Christian rock albums in the 1980s (both solo and with the group AD), and then reformed Kansas and Proto-kaw in the 1990s. (Fun fact: metal legend Ronny James Dio sang lead on two songs on Livgren’s first solo album, “Seeds of Change”, in 1980.) All three of the newer Proto-kaw albums are worth checking out, and that is especially true of Forth, the most cohesive and fully realized album yet by the group. What strikes me, as a longtime fan of Kansas, is how much classical influence there is in Livgren’s writing, as his songs often have a suite-like quality that builds on either strings or keyboards/guitars that act as a strings section. Proto-kaw, like all Livgren-led bands, has dual lead singers (yes, Steve Walsh was a the primary singer in Kansas, but Robby Steinhardt sang lead or co-lead on numerous songs), and features excellent and often complex harmonies, masterfully constructed arrangements, and strong songwriting. One distinctive element is the presence of saxophone and flute (John Bolton), used to great affect in song such as “Pilgrim’s Wake”, one of my favorite cuts on Forth. A must listen for anyone with a soft spot for 1970s Kansas. And, speaking of Kansas (again!), this year marks the 40th anniversary of the group’s founding; I plan a couple of posts about the group and some of my favorite Kansas albums and songs.
• Mystery: The World Is a Game (2012): How embarrassing it is to admit that prior to the Yes album, Fly From Here (2011), I had no idea who Benoît David was. Having replaced Jon Anderson and toured with Yes—and then having himself been replaced due to his own respiratory issues—the talented vocalist worked on his third album with veteran Canadian proggers Mystery, a group he had joined in 1999. Having not heard any of his work with Mystery (which my iTunes annoyingly tagged as “The Mystery”), I was surprised—in a good way—that David did not sound like Anderson and that the group does not sound much like Yes, although the influence is present. In fact, at times David sounds more like another great Canadian singer, Geddy Lee. The two words that keep coming to mind after repeated listens of this exceptional album are “melodic” and “soaring”. The vocals soar, the guitars (by band founder, guitarist, lyricist, and producer Michel St-Père) soar, and the songs soar with a wonderful sense of discovery, melancholy, joy, and introspection, a not-so-easy mixture to navigate. And then there is the drumming of Nick D’Virgilio, who is rightly revered as one of the finest drummers in the prog/rock world. His drumming is, in a word, orchestral, and it is reason alone for buying this fine release. But, for me (a vocalist junkie), it is David who is the revelation here, especially after hearing his solid but rather emotionless performance on Fly From Here. In the words of a reviewer on ProgArchives.com, “Finally vocalist Benoit David proves what a versatile and commanding singer he is, a million miles away from the Yes/Jon Anderson clone dismissals. It’s also great to hear his voice so full of human feeling and compassion again after being so over-produced and rendered mostly lifeless on the Yes album `Fly From Here’!” Exactly right.
• Godsticks: The Envisage Conundrum (2013): Here is a group (from South Wales) I knew nothing about a week ago, but has captured my attention in a way that only a few groups have on first listen. Explaining why is a bit difficult; the difficulty arises, in part, from the most enjoyable fact this is a group that is very hard to describe or label or situate in the universe of prog/rock music. Nearly every review I’ve read says the same, and rightly so. One of those reviews, by Adrian Bloxham, puts it well: “ The world of Godsticks is not straightforward; they seem to have baffled other reviewers trying to pigeon hole them. They make their own brand of what they describe as ‘progressive rock/pop, but it is very much their own take on the sound. You get the idea that this is exactly the music they have inside their heads trying to get out and if you like it they will be pleased but that’s not why they do what they do.” The one influence I hear is later King Crimson, but even that is hard to pinpoint, although the angular, often astonishing guitar work by guitarist/singer Darran Charles brings it to mind in several places. None of the songs are longer than seven minutes in length, but some of them pack in more twists, turns, veers, swerves, and surprises in five or six minutes than many bands can pack into songs three times as long. The title cut is a perfect example. It begins with a chugging, almost “boogie” riff out of which emerges a spider-like flurry of notes, leading into a wall of harmonized vocals over a heavy, grunge-like riff backed by the tight, slightly funky, never quite straight forward rhythm section of Steve Roberts (drums, keys) and Dan Nelson (bass). Charles’ voice is part of the mystery here, a strong, clear instrument that manages to be intense, detached, soulful, and slyly humorous (and occasionally darkly smirking) all at once. There is an abundance of odd chords, meters, notes, and harmonies, sometimes, to my ear, sounding like a Robert Fripp-inspired space alien sibling of Soundgarden. And did I mention the album features a 3:49 piano solo by Roberts that could easily have made it onto one of Keith Jarrett’s solo albums? Followed by a three-part suite—”Borderstomp”, parts 1-3—that sometimes calls to mind Steve Vai? Not straightforward, indeed!
January was incredibly busy. And February was incredibly surreal. When you edit a magazine titled Catholic World Report and the pope resigns while you are fighting the nastiest flu known to mankind, it is really surreal. And a new pope will soon be elected. Whew!
But I’m putting all of that on hold for a few moments so I can write what is apparently my monthly—or is it bi-monthly?—post. I have grand plans to post much more often, but for now it is a monthly splurge. I intended (and promised, I’m ashamed to admit) to review the recently released Lobate Scarp album, “Time and Space”, several weeks ago. Russell Clarke has already penned a Progarchy.com review, but I wanted to also share a few thoughts about the album, in part because Russell and I have different takes on a few things about the album and because I have, at the moment, nothing to add to the many reviews of the excellent new Big Big Train album.
Upon first listening to “Time and Space”, my initial impression was quite positive. I’m happy to say that having now listened to it another 10 or 12 times, that impression remains and deepens.
Three things stand out. First, the production is exceptional. This album sounds fabulous: the sound is clear, warm, rich, and with a lot of depth and “room”, if that’s the right term. This album is worth getting just to listen to with headphones, volume up, in order to enjoy the variety of tones, the tasteful cello passages, the top-notch rhythm section, the robust harmonies, and lots of nifty details.
Now, beginning a review with praise for production values is usually the kiss of death, with a big, fat, “But…” to follow. But, no—there is no “but” to follow as, secondly, the music is also exceptional. Russell mentioned Spock’s Beard as a point of comparison, and I would add Neal Morse and Transatlantic. Considering that Adam Sears, the band’s leader, is the main lyricist, singer, and keyboardist, it seems apt that the group might draw some comparisons to Morse. The band’s site states, “From progressive rock influences like Genesis, Yes, and Phish, to the rock sensibilities of bands like Kansas, Muse, Faith No More and Styx, and a pop infusion of catchy vocals like Simple Minds, The Killers, The Police, Queen, and Foreigner; Lobate Scarp’s unique Progressive Space-Opera Rock music will surely take you on a musical journey you won’t forget.” That’s an interesting mix of musical influences and comparisons, and I can best hear Kansas, Styx, and Queen in the mix, as well as some Pink Floyd, especially in some of the guitar work by Hoyt Binder. The “space-opera” connection is, however, mostly lost on me; in fact, it is a bit confusing, because to my ears there isn’t much in the album—at least musically (more on they lyrics later)—that warrants such a description. Then again, I’m not exactly sure what a space opera is in a musical context, although the album that comes to mind for whatever reason is ELO’s “Time”, a personal favorite. While we at Progarchy.com rightly disdain most labels, or at least treat them as necessary evils, I would hazard that “Time and Space” is much more of a cross-over prog, or neo-prog, album, if only because the songs—while fairly complex and played with obvious skill—have an immediate accessibility. In fact, one of the real joys of this album is the presence of very good melodies, all of which stick with you and don’t become tired or stale after a few spins.
Third, and closely related to the first two, is the playing. The band’s promo material highlights the abundant contributions made to the album:
Over 50 musicians were involved in this progressive space-opera rock extravaganza. Guitars, Drums, Synths, Organs, Trumpets, Saxophone, Viola, Violin, Cello, Theremin, Glockenspiel, and a Latin singing choir were all recorded on this one. Peru Percussionist Alex Acuña (Weather Report) appears as a special guest percussionist and Rich Mouser (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Tears For Fears) mixed and mastered the album.
One might understandably think the resulting album would be overly busy, with endless layers of keyboards, guitars, strings, and whatever else. Surprisingly—and happily—this is not the case, at least not until the climax of the final cut, “The Mirror”, which features a full-blown choir (and to good effect, I think). As mentioned, this album has a lot of room; it breathes well, and part of that is the restraint shown by Sears and Company, who are clearly aware that there is a time and place for a wall of sound approach (at the Big, Choral-Driven End!) and a time for a less-is-more approach. The majority of the album features a very tight four-piece rock group that uses proggy time changes and proggy solos, but without being overtly, relentlessly proggy. This approach, I suspect, might annoy the more purist prog fans, but I think the band demonstrates they know what they want to do, and they do it very well. Besides, the mastery of various styles—notably jazz, classic rock, and some Latin based motifs—is obvious and adds a lot of flavor to the proceedings.
For instance, “Save My Soul” begins with a prog-icized classic rock riff that eventually works into a muscular bass line before Sears enters with a steadily gaining vocal line that finally releases into a big, power-chorded chorus. Then, at about the 3:20 mark, the song breaks down into a funky, fusion-ish segue with vintage keyboards that brings to mind late ‘60s albums (“Bitches Brew”, etc.) by Miles Davis, before eventually works back into a ripping rock song with horns and organ joining the chaotic fray at the end.
And while all of the playing, again, is exceptional, I must single out Sears for his fine vocals (clean and pure in many places; rocking and more raw in others), Binder for his tasteful guitar playing (the sequence in the middle of “Beginning of Us” stands out), and Andy Catt for some dynamic, propulsive bass playing.
Finally, the lyrics. Contra Russell, I heard (and read) the lyrics as working on a couple of different levels: one inter-relational and the other spiritual, or metaphysical. This was confirmed by Sears, who shared the following in an e-mail regarding the song, “The Contradiction”:
I’m sure one may look at it and think that it is about a struggle in a relationship. While this can be true, the deeper meaning of “Contradiction” is about the connection of the spiritual world and the physical world. It is spoken from the point of view of the soul which exists in the spiritual/metaphysical world and this soul is talking to its physical world inhabiter, who is struggling with the contradictions of existing in both worlds. For instance, if there is indeed a spiritual or meta-physical world, this computer I’m typing only exists in the physical world and doesn’t exist at all in the meta-physical world. So it exists, yet doesn’t exist at the same time. If you respect and accept the contradiction your physical self and your soul will be brought together in a strong bond, but if you think too much about the contradiction or try picking it apart, it can drive you mad. “The Contradiction will bring us together or tear us apart.”
I’m not sure I’m on board with the metaphysics outlined here (they sound neo-gnostic, but that’s for another discussion), but the seriousness of the searching is hard to overlook (also readily evident in “Save My Soul”); this is not an ordinary love song. And I suppose the lyrics are what are most obviously “space opera” about the album. Regardless of the descriptive used, I think “Time and Space” is a very good album by a young and talented band that rewards repeated listens—especially loud and with headphones!
A couple of years ago I was talking music with two good friends. One of them, apparently moved in some way by my relentless (and surely annoying) blathering about my music library, my favorite artists, ad nauseum, said, “Carl, you have such discriminating taste!” The other, a devotee of Bach, chant, and other great tried-and-true music, dryly responded, “On the contrary, Carl, you seem to have no discrimination at all!” Touché! How true. And yet I keep on foisting my picks upon anyone who dares to listen or read.
My choices here are emphatically “favorite”, not “best”, as I am all too aware of the rather subjective nature of such an enterprise. I’ve tried to have some fun with it, but I’ve also worked over my lists more than a few times. I’ve made my choices from roughly 4,000 songs, give or take a couple, all of them (with a few noted exceptions) released in the past year. With that, here goes, beginning with my “12 Favorite Albums of 2012”, regardless of genre:
12. I Like To Keep Myself In Pain by Kelly Hogan. A toe-tapping, head-shaking, “yeah”-inducing combination of soul, R&B, Southern, country, jazz, and a few more flavors for good measure, with legendary Booker T. Jones on organ. Hogan’s voice can do it all, without a needless or self-indulgent note.
11. Blue Moon by Ahmad Jamal. One of the true legends of jazz piano, whose dynamic use of space had a huge influence on Miles Dave—in the 1950s! Jamal is now in his eighties, but his playing is not only lively and crisp, it continues to develop. Check out his fabulous cover of “Blue Moon”.
10. 3 Pears by Dwight Yoakam. Here’s what I wrote on this site a few months ago: His music has always been lean and his lyrics dry, but the new twist is subtle: a warmth in both content and sound. An example of the first is “Waterfall”, which is playful, with a wry and wistful sense of joy. The second comes through in Yoakam’s superb vocals, set in arrangements that are fat-free and feature just the right amount of twang and reverb, with tasty touches of organ and piano. The man is a superior songwriter and this set is further proof that country music can be twangy and contemporary without being shallow and trendy.
9. Bear Creek by Brandi Carlile. I saw her live this past August (our third Carlile show) and she and her band were stunning. That such power and presence comes from such a petite woman is amazing; think of her as Johnny Cash channeled through Janis Joplin. She is also a very good songwriter. And she is from the Northwest (Seattle), just up the I-5. If you’ve never heard her live, watch her singing, “Raise Hell”.
8. Corner of the World by SOLUS3. This is the first of my more proggy picks; it was released in late 2011, but I didn’t discover it until early last year. SOLUS3 is a sextet that has been described as “prog dubtronica”, which is an apt description for music that is ethereal, intense, beautiful, jazzy, and very, very distinct, capped by the often searing vocals of Krupa. A keeper.
7. Where Do You Start? by Brad Mehldau. Mehldau makes my list nearly every year, which speaks to his production and quality, which never waver. He is one of the finest jazz pianists in the world, and this past year he released two albums: Where Do You Start?, consisting of covers, and Ode, with all original tunes. Both are outstanding, but I went with this one because no one covers a tune like Mehldau and Company (his 2006 “Live” album has a version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” that is almost 24 minutes long!).
6. The 2nd Law by Muse. This one took a while to get into, in part because I think it is a bit disjointed. In fact, I don’t even listen to the final two (mostly instrumental) cuts that often. The irony, it seems, is that while this is supposed to be a concept album, its strength is in the individual songs, especially “Madness”, “Panic Station”, and “Follow Me”. But the pinnacle here is the snarling anti-Wall Street tune, “Animal”, which starts out with a Radiohead-ish bass line and electric piano and then builds into what singer/guitarist Matthew Bellamy has described as “face melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia”, featuring some mighty tasty fretwork. Whatever you call it, I think it is one of the best rock songs of 2012.
5. Albatross by Big Wreck. From my earlier review: I was oblivious to this fine group (a “neo-prog hard-rock outfit” according to AllMusic.com) until I stumbled upon this new release on emusic.com. Singer Ian Thornley brings Chris Cornell to mind with his powerful, expressive vocals, but is hardly a clone, nor does he try to be. Three successive songs—”Wolves”, “Albatross”, and “Glass Room”—are worth the price of admission. “Wolves” (see YouTube video), especially, is a dynamite track, a perfect four-minute modern rock song, with top-notch playing and subtle melody.
4. I Am Anonymous by Headspace. My top pick of what can rightly be called prog. This captured me immediately and repeated listens have only deepened my appreciation for it. The combination of Damian Wilson’s emotive, powerful vocals and Pete Rinaldi’s guitar work is winning, and even more so because the compositions and production are top of the line, with much credit going to Rick Wakeman’s son, Adam, who formed the band and handled keyboard and production duties.
3. The Calling by Romain Collin. My favorite jazz album of the year is a gorgeous, mature, and evocative set by a talented French pianist that combines traditional jazz piano and a variety of classical influences (Collin is classically trained) with tasteful, dynamic electronic flourishes. This is what I imagine Radiohead might sound like if they were a keyboard-based jazz band.
2. Flying Colors by Flying Colors. Okay, this is certainly proggy in places, but I see it as more of a rock album featuring fabulous musicians with rich prog backgrounds. I’m been in awe of Steve Morse for years, and the combination of he and Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, and Dave LaRue not only works, it works spendidly. And vocalist Casey McPherson was an inspired choice. This one will not soon gather dust.
1. Was there really any doubt?
And now, the best of the rest, by categories both usual and custom-made.
— “I’ve been away for too long …” — ”Been Away Too Long”, opening song from King Animal
— “Don’t know where I’m going/I just keep on rowing” — ”Rowing”, closing song from King Animal
I suppose that first lyric could, alas, be applied to my postings on this fine blog. The past few weeks have been incredibly busy, with each day passed the cause for more muttering on my part about all of the brilliant, world-changing posts I should be foisting upon Progarchy readers. But since brilliant, world-changing posts are difficult to write, I’ll settle for writing a long and highly subjective review of the new Soundgarden album, King Animal, to be followed later this week with my “Favorite Music of 2012″, which I’ve now narrowed down to less than a hundred releases.
But before the review, a note of thanks. First, to the amazing Brad Birzer, the Sleepless and Tireless One, whose leadership and energy have really made Progarchy.com into the fabulous, progressive site that it is (and, yes, that’s the only time I’ll write “fabulous, progressive site” in my life). Thank you, Brad. You took the flimsy whim of my fleeting brain drizzle and turned into a lively, robust, and darned fun site. Hat’s off! And, secondly, to everyone who has contributed, thank you. I’ve tried to read every single post, and I’ve never been disappointed. The variety of perspectives, insights, tastes, eccentricities, and musical journeys has been fabulous to behold. Kudos!
One problem I have writing a review of King Animal is that I am tempted to turn it into something far more: a rambling, semi-coherent tribute to one of my favorite bands ever, late discovered (c. 2005) but perpetually played since; a sprawling rant about the word “grunge” and why Nirvana is (ahem) an incredibly overrated band and Pearl Jam leaves me completely cold (although I acknowledge that group’s abilities); a circling soliloquy about how Soundgarden—despite not being “prog”—has managed to do something that great prog bands do: create music that is restless, impossible to pin down either musically or lyrically, and incorporate a bazillion different influences and styles while producing a sound that is so distinctive that any rock fan worth their salt will shout, “Soundgarden!” after hearing just a handful of notes of any given song.
I’ve now listened to King Animal over three dozen times, and here, in short, is my take: it is not a perfect album, but it is a great album (a 9 out of 10, if I used such a system). And when you consider the thirteen-year long break (sixteen years between new albums), the fact that most reuniting bands play it safe and easy, and that the band members have always had quite different musical perspectives and approaches, it is a really great album. And, in fact, it has received solid to glowing reviews, as it should. I won’t bother pointing to this or that review, although there have been some good ones. However, if you want a great track-by-track description, here the place to start. And if you want to listen to the album online, here you go. Or, if you just have time for a single, defining moment from the album, be sure to here the song, “Bones of Birds”, which is perhaps the most stunning track among several stunning tracks.
Chris Cornell, the legendary voice and primary lyricist for the band, said recently, “The album is a story. It has a lot of twists and turns.” That jumped off the page (well, screen) at me because as I’ve listened to the album and reflected a bit on the lyrics, I keep coming back to (ready for it, Brad?) my favorite T. S. Eliot poem, “Ash Wednesday”. That poem is about spiritual struggle and ascent, the tension between the past and all of its failures and demons, and the future, which is filled with hope (ultimately eternal and God given) as well as fraught with peril. It refers to twists and turns, to the mystical ladder of ascent:
At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.
At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.
One of the reasons Soundgarden has fascinated me over the past few years is because so many of their songs explore and reflect the spiritual struggle and existential crisis so evident in the modern/post-modern world. And rather than being trite, didactic, preachy, posturing, or narcissistic, those songs have tended to be both very honest and very fragmentary, as if Cornell (primarily) is looking into a shattered glass and trying to put it back together, like a mosaic both broken and coveted. Think, for example, of their huge (and unexpected) hit, “Black Hole Sun”, from the masterwork, Superunknown (1994):
In my eyes,/Indisposed,
In disguise/As no one knows.
Hides the face,/Lies the snake,
And the sun …
In my shoes,/A walking sleep,
And my youth/I pray to keep.
Heaven send Hell away,/No one
Sings like you anymore.
Like who, exactly? The brilliance of such lyrics is, again, the shard-like ambiguity and artful lack of full resolution. But there is no denying the longing, and how that longing is rooted in a quite Catholic perspective, even if it resists any and all systematic explication. Cornell was raised in a Catholic home, and while he had, by all accounts, a fairly miserable childhood (alcoholic father, etc.), he has repeatedly used Catholic motifs and more generally theistic language in his songs. Some of more overt references can be found on the first Audioslave album, as in the song, “Show Me How To Live”: Read the rest of this entry
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has officially announced next year’s inductees: Rush, Public Enemy, Heart, Randy Newman, Donna Summer and Albert King will all join the class of 2013, with Summer, who passed away this May, and King, who died in 1992, earning the honor posthumously. Lou Adler and Quincy Jones will both receive the Ahmet Ertegun Award for non-performers.
“It’s a terrific honor and we’ll show up smiling,” Rush’s singer and bassist, Geddy Lee, tells Rolling Stone. “It made my mom happy, so that’s worth it.” Lee is especially happy for Rush’s army of hardcore fans. “It was a cause they championed,” he says. “I’m very relieved for them and we share this honor with them, for sure.”
More from the Q&A with Geddy Lee:
I’m sure some small percentage of your fan base will say, “They should protest the whole thing by staying home.”
I never got too hot and bothered about the subject, and I don’t think that’s a very gracious way to respond to an honor.
Axl Rose stayed home last year, and the Sex Pistols refused to come, too.
We’re nice Canadian boys. We wouldn’t do that.
It’s a pretty eclectic lineup this year. Are you fans of the other inductees?
I certainly have worked with Heart and I know them well. I’m very happy for them. I have great respect for Albert King and for Randy Newman. I don’t know the music of Public Enemy very well, but I know they have a very strong fan base. They’ve certainly played a role in the development of that style of music for sure, so it’s a nice group.
To be frank, I am disappointed that Deep Purple is not included in that group. Certainly Heart and Rush would not sound the way we sound without Deep Purple.
I’m sure they’ll get in soon.
Yeah, I hope so.
I keep saying this to everyone, but I can’t picture the jam at the end of the ceremony.
Yeah, that’s for sure. What do you jam to? “YYZ?” I don’t know. [Laughs] That’d be pretty fun.
The following was originally written in May 2011 for the Insight Scoop blog. I’ve decided to share it here as a very modest homage to Dave Brubeck, who died this morning, one day shy of being 92 years young. It sounds like Brad has more about Brubeck on the way. Anyhow, here goes!
I just read a fun post, “The Catholic Roots of Jazz?”, by Joe Trabbic on the “End of the Modern World” blog, and wanted to blather about it for a bit. Joe writes:
Jelly Roll Morton was a key figure in the early development of jazz. Some people even regard him as the first real jazz musician, the man who brought together various musical forms into the new thing that we now know as jazz. Jelly Roll’s real name was Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe and he was raised Catholic, but the dissolute life that he began leading as a teenager, when he secretly took a job as a piano player in a New Orleans brothel, quickly made his Catholicism unrecognizable. But who knows the hearts of men save their Maker?
He goes on to mention early jazz giants Dominic “Nick” LaRocca and Louis Armstrong, and then remarks upon Dave Brubeck, one of the finest (and longest-performing) jazz pianists, saying, “Well, if jazz didn’t have anything Catholic about it, why did one of the greats of later jazz, Dave Brubeck, decide to enter the Church of Rome?”
He admits he is having fun with it, but the two questions are interesting: “Does jazz have Catholic roots?” and “Is jazz Catholic?” The first one, it seems to me, is bound up to a large degree with the history of jazz, which is a complicated matter. But it is pretty evident that jazz, to put it rather simplistically, has roots in both the European cIassical tradition and very American forms of music—ragtime, blues, early country, spirituals, gospel, dance music, etc.—harkening back not only to New Orleans, but Chicago, New York, Texas, and a variety of other places, especially throughout the southeastern United States. Elijah Wald’s How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (Oxford University Press, 2009), offers a fascinating and slightly iconoclastic version of that history, especially in the first seven chapters. Jazz was, in the beginning, very much dance music, and was usually associated with a less than upstanding life-style. And that image was hardly helped in the 1940s and ’50s when many jazz musicians came under the spell of heroin and other drugs.
One of my heroes, G. K. Chesterton, had nothing good to say about the jazz of the 1920s and 1930s. I beg to differ with him, but I’m sure it was an unusual and even jarring thing for the Englishman to hear. It was a music filled with great energy, imbued with a beguiling combination of rawness (sometimes sexual in nature) and sophistication (often classical in origin), being both very rhythmic and melodic, with an ever-increasing harmonic complexity. I own dozens of books on jazz (and close to 11,000 songs classified as “jazz” on my iTunes), and they all agree that defining “jazz” is a very difficult matter. Barry Ulanov was one of the first great jazz critics (he was also a Catholic scholar—more on that in a moment), the author of A History of Jazz in America (Viking Press, 1954) and A Handbook of Jazz (Viking, 1960). He wrote, in the latter book, “The harder one listens to jazz, the more one hears European rather than African influences—the folk songs of England, Scotland, and Ireland, of France and Germany and even the Balkans, rather than the music of the jungle and the coast settlements from which the slave ships came.” Read the rest of this entry
Once again, the AllAboutJazz.com site has another great piece about a prog musician: “Trevor Rabin: All Colors Considered”, by Ian Patterson. The focus is on Rabin’s outstanding new solo album, Jacaranda (one of my favorites of 2012), which is Rabin’s first solo excursion since his exceptional 1989 album, Don’t Look Away, which I played incessantly back in the day and revisit on occasion. Patterson begins by putting Rabin’s impressive career in perspective:
Whether taking a stance against apartheid in the early ’70s in his native South Africa or turning down the opportunity to play in super group Asia for artistic reasons, Rabin has always done things his own way and stuck to his principles at every step. Rabin is perhaps best known around the world for the mega-hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and his 12-year stint with progressive rock giant Yes, but there are a surprising number of strings to the musician’s bow.
While it would have been easy to carry on touring and recording with the legendary British group, Rabin felt that after a dozen years a new challenge was needed, and he said no to Yes. So it was in the mid-1990s that Rabin embarked upon another career as a composer of film soundtracks. In a little over 15 years, Rabin has recorded 40 film soundtracks of varying genres, winning numerous awards in the process.
Just when it seemed as though Rabin’s music would only be heard in cinema houses around the world, he’s back with another surprise in the form of his sixth solo album, Jacaranda (Varese Fontana, 2012). It’s his first solo album of original material since Can’t Look Away (Elektra, 1989), and it’s an inspired collection of guitar- based instrumental compositions.