Author Archives: eheter
The waiting continues to be the hardest part with respect to the release of the next Tool album. This Rolling Stone piece explains some of the reasons for the delay. There are also some tantalizing details about what might be forthcoming:
So far, the process has yielded one song that Jones describes as “pretty much done.” Carey says the yet-untitled track is at least 10 minutes, in which it “goes through lots of changes and it’s got really heavy elements.”
In fact, “heavy” is a word both band members use to describe their new sounds. “Sometimes I feel we get a little too proggy or too into exploring time signatures but not getting heavy enough for my taste,” Jones says. “There are some good nose-bleeding riffs happening, and I’m really happy about that. It’s not out-of-the-gate crazy heavy, but there are these little journeys with nice paths that end up very heavy.”
“It’s all a little more ‘metal’ sounding, if I may,” Carey says with a laugh. “I’m having fun drumming on it. There is one other song [beyond the 10-minute tune] that I would say is pretty much there. It’s another one that’s pretty gnarly with some good double-kick [drumming] going on in it.”
Ok, so I’m sitting at work today just minding my own business and getting things done when an email comes in from WordPress. It asks me to approve a couple of pingbacks to a piece I had written about the incredible Rush album, Moving Pictures. Well, the next thing you know, I’m seeing several posts about Rush’s top 10 albums, as well as a few regarding top prog albums or top long-form prog pieces. So now, instead of working, I’m spending at least an hour reading Progarchy posts instead of working. You guys are destroyers of discipline!!!
Although I’m usually not one for lists that require ranking, the invitation to rank the top 10 Rush albums has proven to be irresistible to me. So, without further ado, here we go:
1) Moving Pictures: I’ve written extensively about this one, so I’ll just add the link here.
2) Grace Under Pressure: When this album came out, I was a few months shy of 20 years old, and in the Navy. At the time, I was stationed in Newport News, VA, as the submarine upon which I would serve, the USS Olympia, SSN 717 (Este Paratus) was under construction in the docks at Newport News Shipbuilding. While an attack submarine and not a ballistic missile sub, the Olympia would be configured to carry Tomahawk land attack missiles with nuclear warheads. The Cold War was heating up, and our main adversaries, the Soviet Union, had three submarines for every one of ours. And my job, as a sonar technician, was going to be to find theirs before they found us. In short, there was a certain “heaviness” in my life at the time. That made the timing of this album absolutely perfect. Lyrically, this is the heaviest album Rush has ever done. The pressures of life, both great and small, weave their way through this album. Indeed, like many of my shipmates, I felt like “the world weighs on my shoulders” at that time. This album resonated. It also has some outstanding music on it, and like Moving Pictures, it has an almost perfect balance between guitars and keyboards.
3) 2112: The theme of resonating continues here. There are a number Rush albums other than those listed that I like better than this from a musical perspective. But this one resonates on a different level and thus gets a high ranking on this list. As I recounted here, around the same time I first heard this album, I had numerous conversations with my maternal grandmother, who along with the rest my mother’s immediate family, was a refugee from what was then communist East Germany. The individual vs. the state, freedom vs. tyranny, individualism vs. collectivism – all those themes of the conversations with my grandmother were echoed in the lyrics of the title suite. This was the first time I had really contemplated lyrics that were about larger things in the world. And because of this, I always paid more attention to Rush lyrics than I would with other bands, always looking for deeper meaning and larger truths. This carried over to side 2 of the album, as the messages contained within Lessons and Something for Nothing led me to realize that while I was fortunate enough to have been born in a relatively free country, it was my own responsibility to make the most, and best, of that freedom.
4) Clockwork Angels: I am simply gobsmacked that a band that has been around as long as Rush can be this creative this late in their career. My first true prog love, Yes, was a great band for a while, but they haven’t been creatively great in decades, instead mostly living off of past glories (although what incredible glories they were). Rush on the other hand, despite having some incredibly glorious moments in their own musical past, has never rested on them. Instead, they pushed themselves forward and continued to create great music, and really hit a home run here. I love the lyrics in this album, which open themselves to a number of interpretations. Whereas Brad has found themes of small-r republican liberty and individualism within them, I have found a lot of Stoic wisdom weaving its way through Neil’s words, particularly in the latter half of the album as the protagonist starts to have one epiphany after another. I have little doubt that Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius would readily understand messages contained within The Garden. Throw in some great guitar work, the excellent bass work, and the always stellar drums, and you’ve got a recipe for greatness, age of the cooks be damned.
5) Power Windows: Controversial to some because of the keyboards, but not to these ears. This is a great collection of songs. With all of the malfeasance in the financial markets and corruption of the political system, The Big Money seems even more relevant today than when it was released. Middletown Dreams is a great meditation on the quiet desperation of some ordinary lives. I loved Marathon when this album was first released and the wisdom contained in the lyrics has only become more evident as I have piled on the years. And Grand Designs is a great critique of lowest common denominator pop culture and the struggle to maintain integrity within. There is some great playing on this album, such as Geddy Lee’s bass during Marathon and some blistering guitar work by Alex Lifeson on The Big Money. This album has definitely earned its place in the top 5.
6) Hemispheres: This is the most overtly prog album Rush ever did, at least in the 70’s sense of the word. The title suite that encompasses the side 1 of the original LP was a thing of beauty, with excellence in all phases: guitar, bass, drums, and lyrics. In the overarching theme of Hemispheres, Peart provides more wisdom to latch onto and live by. The Trees is a great metaphor for the perils of enforced equality. And La Villa Strangiato is one of the most fascinatingly complex instrumentals ever done by any rock band.
7) Permanent Waves: Like Moving Pictures, this is a transitional album, as the transition of Rush from the 70’s to the 80’s really took two steps. The first step was here, as they pared down some of the excess of the previous three albums. The most well-known song is, of course, The Spirit of Radio, about the tension between art and commerce and maintaining one’s integrity through the same. Several other great tracks are here too. The thunderstorm imagery invoked by Jacob’s Ladder is a thing of lyrical beauty, while Free Will, Different Strings, and Entre Nous are all excellent in their own right. But it is the mini-epic Natural Science that really puts this album over the top for me. I was finally able to witness the performance of this song live on the Snakes and Arrows tour, and it was one of those moments I will never forget.
8) Vapor Trails: This album just screams TRIUMPH!!! After the well-documented tragedies, travels, and searching for answers, Rush returned from a near death of their own with a spectacular album. One Little Victory taught us to take joy in even the smallest victories, while the title song reminds us of our transitory nature. Ghost Rider takes us on the road with Neil, while Secret Touch implores us to have the fortitude to endure. The underrated gem and favorite track for me on this album is Earthshine, with it’s amazement at nature’s beauty. This is a statement album by Rush, and that statement was, emphatically, “we are BACK!”
9) A Farewell to Kings: The title track, Cinderella Man, Cygnus X-1 and Madrigal are all excellent tracks in their own right. But the two tracks that really make this albums are the anthem Closer to the Heart and the epic Xanadu. These became two of my favorite Rush tracks upon initially hearing them and they remain so to this day. That being said, the one downside of this album for me is the production, which was a bit harsh and dry. Particularly with Xanadu, I’ve always preferred the live version from Exit Stage Left over the studio version.
10) Signals: This is a difficult album for some, mainly due to the fact that it is probably the most keyboard dominated Rush album, and thus Lifeson’s guitar often gets lost in the mix. That’s still not enough to knock it out of my top 10, as the songs are still just too good. Subdivisions is another Rush anthem, one full of great insights and even more wisdom. For guitar excellence, The Analog Kid and New World Man are two tracks where it didn’t get lost in the mix. And while few others would mention it, the heart of my inner space geek is warmed to no end by Countdown, which ultimately celebrates humanity’s ability to create and do great things.
Looking at the other lists of best Rush albums here, it’s evident that each of us differs somewhat from one another in our preferences. And I myself will agonize over some of the albums left off the list. I’ve listed ten albums above which I consider to be truly great albums, and I’ve had to wonder if I should have had others on the list. But how many bands ever release ten great albums? Neither The Beatles, nor prog-gods Yes, nor 70’s icons Led Zeppelin can claim to have ten great albums in their catalog (Zeppelin didn’t even get ten studio albums total, unless you count the posthumous Coda). In comparison, some of the albums that didn’t make my list (or that of others) are truly great albums. And therein lies yet another testament to the true greatness, the unparalleled excellence that is Rush.
I. Blown Away
At least so it seemed. The calendar said it was still February, so officially we were still in winter. But Winter 1981 in Lexington, KY, was unseasonably warm.
On that fateful afternoon, I met up with my friend Greg Sims at the end of the school day. We hopped into his Chevy Monza (or, ‘The Monza-rati’ as we called it) and he drove me over to the K-Mart on New Circle Road. I went in, quickly located a copy of the new Rush album, Moving Pictures, made my purchase, and headed back out to the car. Greg gave me a ride home, and then took off, as he had to work while I had the night off from my job.
I don’t remember the exact day it was when I made this purchase, but it likely was the same day the album was released. While that detail is fuzzy through the haze of thirty three years, I can say with confidence that I hadn’t heard so much as a single note of the record yet. At that time, listening to FM rock radio was a big part of my music consumption, and songs from Moving Pictures (especially Tom Sawyer) were in heavy rotation almost as soon as the album was released. Knowing that I had not heard any of the album before I listened to it on that fateful day tells me that it most likely was its release date.
I opened the window in my bedroom to get in some of that nice spring-like air and then quickly removed the cellophane from the album cover. The vinyl record was removed from its sleeve, and put on the turntable. I set it in motion to start playing before quickly but comfortably implanting myself into an oversized beanbag chair I had in my room. As I pulled out the liner to look at the lyrics, I heard the needle make contact with vinyl, hearing the first few cracks and pops that were so common to music lovers of that era. And then …
… the synthesizer the intro to Tom Sawyer, the drums pacing things underneath. Oh my God.
Right then and there I knew I was listening to a great album – Rush’s masterwork. To some, it might have seemed like I was jumping the gun. But there are some things you just know. And based on nothing more than the first few seconds of Tom Sawyer, I knew. Oh man. This is going to be a great album.
A modern day warrior
Mean, mean stride
Today’s Tom Sawyer
Mean, mean pride
Duh duh duh duh duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnhhhhhhhhhhhh
(oh man, this is AWESOME!!)
Duh duh duh duh duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnhhhhhhhhhhhh
Duh duh duh duh DUUUUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNHHHHHHHHH
I was soooooo hooked and I wasn’t even one minute into the first song. With every Alex Lifeson power chord, with every pluck of the Geddy Lee’s bass, every keyboard note, with every drum beat from Neil Peart, my conclusion of greatness was confirmed and reconfirmed.
Today’s Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the space he invades
He gets by on you
And then came the synthesizer solo. There are no words that can describe my state of mind at this point. ‘Ecstatic’ … ‘thrilled’ … ‘mesmerized’ … all were inadequate. The rapture of a Rush fan.
Nevertheless, the rational part of my brain was still fully functioning. As I listened through the rest of Tom Sawyer, it was clear that Rush was in the process of making a quantum leap forward. This didn’t just sound like any other Rush album … it sounded like all the Rush albums. But I knew would have to distill that thought a bit to bring it into focus.
Red Barchetta was up next. I loved it immediately. It was more guitar driven than the previous song, but still had a certain refinement not heard on some of their earlier guitar-heavy works. And it didn’t take long to recognize the lyrical themes of freedom vs. tyranny, the individual vs. the collective, and the free man vs. the state that I had first encountered on 2112 (discussed here). One of the things I had loved about Rush when I first heard them was all right here in one neat little package.
Then came YYZ. Another instrumental, just as they had done on Hemispheres with La Villa Strangiato. However, this one was much more focused, much tighter. It certainly could not be called “an exercise in self-indulgence” as the band had referred to its previous instrumental. Full of great riffs and great playing, this one is still instantly recognizable all these years later, and still one of their live centerpieces.
Side one drew to a close with Limelight, and again I knew I was listening to an instant classic. The music included some thick power chords from Lifeson’s guitar, not unlike some of their earliest works. Yet, it still seemed very fresh and new. The whole feel of this song was great. Something new and yet something familiar. The song ended and the needle returned to the resting position, but my state of euphoric shock continued.
After flipping the vinyl record over and starting the turntable for side 2, I noticed that the first song, The Camera Eye, was a bit extended in length. Not a sidelong suite like 2112 or Hemispheres, but more comparable in length to the excellent Natural Science from their previous album, Permanent Waves.
I kicked back again to the comfort of the beanbag and listened to the city noises that preceded some random synth buzzing before some proper keyboard lines made their appearance. Eventually, Lifeson joined the party, as the song moved forward with some heavy grace. A brief pause intervened, and then a more frantic keyboard line announced “here we go!” And just like that, Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were off to the races.
Duuuuuuuun dun dun DAAAAAN dun dun
Duuuuuuuun dun dun DAAAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
(Yeah, we are cruisin’ now, baby!!)
It was as if we were being transported somewhere. We arrived when the instrumental section gave way to Geddy’s vocals. He delivered lyrical imagery of life in New York City from the point of a detached observer contemplating it all. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but I loved it nonetheless.
After that, the cycle repeated, and off we were transported to London for some images and observations of that city, and a contrast with New York.
A more fantastic beginning to Side 2 would have been impossible. Five songs in, and my hastily drawn conclusion of the album’s greatness didn’t seem so hasty now. On the contrary, my initial gut feeling had been right on target.
The mood of the music definitely took a shift with Witch Hunt. With this song, I followed the lyrics more closely than I had with any other. While I was never one to be particularly rebellious, I have long had a skepticism for authority and for others who “knew what was best” for me. Thus, when Geddy delivered the line “those who know what’s best for us must rise and save us from ourselves,” it hit home.
I had some ideas of the particular intolerant a**holes to whom the lyrics referred at the time, but as I’ve learned over the years, the lyrics are broadly applicable to intolerance from all across the political spectrum.
Six tracks up, six tracks down. Every damn one of them incredible. Only one left to go.
Vital Signs made it seven for seven. A quirky synthesizer and guitar with a reggae beat? Who can pull that off? Well, Rush can. I laid back and enjoyed the music as the album I had dubbed a masterwork in its opening bar raced to its conclusion.
The familiar cracks and pops returned for a few seconds before I heard the needle lift and the arm move to its resting spot. I sat there and contemplated what I had just experienced, and drew a few more conclusions.
I knew this album was going to be huge. Every Rush fan and their grandmother was going to want a copy, and it would also bring in legions of new fans. While the hipster critics would hate it (but who cares about them, anyway?), the fans, both new and old, were going to love it. I knew Tom Sawyer would be their signature song. It was played at each of the four Rush concerts I witnessed subsequent to the release of Moving Pictures and appears on every video concert of Rush that I have watched. I knew that this would be the end of one era and the beginning of another for Rush. And I definitely knew that in my little bedroom on Marlboro Drive, on my modest stereo, this album was going to spend a lot of time on the turntable. Through the remainder of 1981, there was not another album that even came close.
Rush albums generally take a few listens before they truly sink in with me. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, it’s something I like about Rush. Having the various layers revealed through multiple listens can be very rewarding it its own right. This album, on the other hand, did not. It strongly resonated with me right out of the gate. Just one listen, and I truly was blown away.
II. The Sum and The Whole
Moving Pictures was many things. For one, it was an album that took the best of everything Rush had done before then, combined it, and distilled it into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. It was a culmination of their previous work in the same way that Close to the Edge was for Yes; it was the album that made the statement “we have arrived” the same way Dark Side of the Moon did for Pink Floyd.
The music of the first few Rush albums were centered around heavy guitar. As the band honed their chops, they began writing extended pieces, first with The Fountain of Lamenth and then hitting big with 2112. In A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, the role of keyboards in Rush music changed from simply providing atmospheric background to a more prominent role in the melodic discourse, often times being a featured instrument for sections of songs. In the meantime, the band took a more experimental approach, both musically and lyrically. And on Permanent Waves, the band pared back some of the excesses of previous albums while tightening up their songwriting.
Moving Pictures takes something from all of the previous Rush albums and combines it into something new – and greater. Here, Rush took pieces from every one of their previous albums and put it together into something that sounded both fresh and familiar. On the outstanding documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, Peart states “As I define it, that’s when be became us … I think Rush was born with Moving Pictures.” He further states “It represents so much that we learned up to that time about songwriting, about arrangement, that’s when we brought our band identity together.” Both statements – but especially the second – really hit home for me. Moving Pictures pulled it all together into one package that is both synergistic and perfect.
III. And Ending and a Beginning
Given that Moving Pictures is a culmination of everything the band had produced up to that time, it represented (at least to me) an ending to the first phase of Rush music. But as much as it was an ending, it was also a beginning. Moving Pictures also served as a segue to and a launching pad for Rush’s output in the 1980’s. Particularly notable on Moving Pictures was the integration of the keyboards into the music. To be sure, most Rush albums prior to Moving Pictures had included at least some keyboards. However, keyboards seemed to be featured primarily when the other instruments stopped, most notably evident in keyboard solos that appears in songs such as Xanadu, Circumstances, and Jacob’s Ladder. This has been the source of a significant amount of controversy among Rush fans, with Moving Pictures being the dividing line. Nevertheless, anecdotally anyway, most Rush fans I have known like this album, irrespective of where they stand on their prior or subsequent work.
For my money, Moving Pictures was the first in a sequence of four albums that marked a portion of Rush’s career that was creatively very fertile. Following with Signals, Grace Under Pressure, and Power Windows, the tighter integration of the keyboards that began with Moving Pictures continued even further, while the number of outside influences that made their way into the music continued to increased. This trend eventually played itself out in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Rush began to return to a more guitar-centric sound, with 1993’s Counterparts being most emblematic of that shift. However, in the twelve years leading up to that album, the echoes of Moving Pictures could be heard in every intervening release.
IV. Lasting Impact
I’ve heard every album of original Rush music (I have not heard Feedback, their album of remakes … but I’ll get to it). None of them are bad, most of them are at least good, and a number of them are truly great. I’ve been astonished at their ability to produce so much good music over the course of their career. I’m even more astonished that they have been able to produce such excellent music so late in their career (Clockwork Angels, anybody?) at a time when other bands are typically doing nothing more than rehashing their glory days or producing sub-par output.
Still, no Rush album has ever had an impact on me that is as lasting as Moving Pictures. If I had to choose only one Rush album to take to a desert island with me, this would be it and it wouldn’t even be a tough decision. Now as you can guess from what I’ve written above, that is not a criticism of any of their other albums. It’s just a simple recognition that not only did Moving Pictures have an immediate and powerful effect on me on that February day in 1981, it’s that the effect has never faded. Higher praise than that is simply not possible.
I love “rockumentaries” as they are called. A short while back, I watched one of the best rockumentaries I have ever seen, History of The Eagles: The Story of an American Band. As these things go, I have to give this one two thumbs way, way up.
Before I go on about it, I did want to say something about objectivity here. Mainly, that I am very confident in the objectivity of my review on this one. If I was reviewing something like Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage or YesYears: A Retrospective, it would be more than fair to question whether I’m capable of being objective in my review. After all, I am both a huge Rush fan and a huge Yes fan. As for the Eagles? While I’m not exactly Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude”, who (ahem) “hates” the Eagles. I generally liked a number of their songs that I frequently heard on the radio during my youth, when they were at both their artistic and commercial peak. At the same time, they were never a band who I followed closely or whose next release I waited for with baited breath. I did drop about $15 to see them in concert in 1979 on their tour supporting The Long Run. But prior to seeing this documentary, my music library included a grand total of three – 3 – Eagles/related songs: Dirty Laundry by Don Henley, The Confessor by Joe Walsh, and Get Over It by the Eagles themselves. And while I’ve purchased about 10 Eagles songs in the wake of seeing History of the Eagles, I still don’t own any full albums of theirs. You’d be hard pressed to call me a fanboy.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I can objectively say … this is a fantastic documentary, one that I strongly recommend unless you just absolutely despise The Eagles. Part 1 covers the band’s history from their origins to their break-up in 1980. Part 2 covers their post-breakup solo careers, re-uniting in 1994, and career since then. While I like Part 1 much better than Part 2, the latter concludes with footage from a 1977 concert in Washington, DC. Altogether, eight songs are performed, including their biggest hit, Hotel California. The highlight of that part is the camera work toward the end of the song, focusing on Joe Walsh and Don Felder as they play off one another in some of the most iconic guitar soloing of the 1970’s, if not the rock era altogether.
Part 1 included a number of anecdotes regarding the creative genesis of a number of different well-known Eagles songs, including Take It Easy, Lyin’ Eyes, and Life in the Fast Lane. Former Eagle guitarist Bernie Leadon explains to us why Take It Easy became such a big hit in the context of its time and place. Jackson Browne explains to us why he got stuck on that song, and the understated brilliance of the way Glenn Frey filled in the rest. Frey explains how an observation one night at a bar gave rise to one of the hits mentioned above, and how a crazy car ride with a drug dealer resulted in another. He also explains how an overheard coordination exercise being performed by Joe Walsh became one of the most recognizable guitar licks of the late 1970’s. And finally, there is an absolutely hilarious anecdote involving Walsh, John Belushi, and an upscale restaurant in Chicago during an Eagles visit to that city. Ferris Bueller, you’ve got nothing on these guys.
My only lament here is personal. It seems that their late-70’s producer, Bill Szymczyk was a former navy sonar technician, as am I … perhaps I missed my true calling. Sigh.
In summary, I’ll restate what I said above – unless you absolutely despise The Eagles, unless you have a Dude-like hatred for these guys (more notable since The Dude wasn’t a hater), then you really owe it to yourself to see this. I will have to warn those with small children to put them to bed first, as there is a brief bit of nudity (when a crazed female fan runs on stage) and a few F-bombs scattered throughout. Don’t let that stop you, though.
If there is anything that is a testament to the excellence of History of The Eagles, it’s that despite having at most a moderate interest in this band, I was completely mesmerized. I’ve encountered a similar phenomena once, reading the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis. That book is about baseball, a sport of which I only have at most a passing interest. And yet the book was so well written and so fascinating that I could not put it down. This documentary is akin to that. It is so well made that I couldn’t stop watching it, even though the band that was its subject is nowhere near close to being my favorite. If you are an Eagles fan, I don’t need to tell you to watch this, but even if you’re not … you still owe it to yourself. Happy viewing.
By the way, here’s the trailer:
While “pax” literally translates as peace, people generally use the term “Pax Romana” to refer to a golden age of Imperial Rome. Well, if that’s the case, then the year 2013 has left no doubt that we are in another golden age for progressive rock.
Now, you will have excuse me a bit for the “Progorama” thing in the title, but that’s the closest thing to alliteration that came to mind. “Pax Progtopia” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well. There were a few other ideas I had, and none of them were very good … “Pax Progorama” worked the best, ok? Hyphens added upon request.
The other question is this – do I have the best, most appropriate historical metaphor? Could the current era be just as well described as a prog renaissance? Probably. We could liken the 1970’s as the original Pax Prog-O-Rama … the punk rockers as the barbarians who finally toppled a weakening empire … the 1980’s and early 1990’s as the Dark Ages (with of course, the neo-proggers being the Monks/Byzantines that preserved the flame of Western Civilization) … the rise of the Internet being equivalent to the Gutenberg printing press … and the late-1990’s and beyond representing the Renaissance and the spreading of new ideas, knowledge, and in our case here – art. Maybe I should go back and rewrite the beginning of this post. Then again, as Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber says …. naaaaahh (start at the point about where 1:00 minute remains …).
No matter what metaphor you choose, the resulting conclusion is still the same: Anno Domini 2013 was an incredible year for progressive rock, quite possibly the best ever. I don’t say that lightly. This year also gives weight to the opinion (mine, anyway) that our current Golden Age of prog has surpassed the previous one – and I don’t say that lightly, either. The past few years, and 2013 in particular, have been nothing short of an embarrassment of riches for prog lovers. Just how good was 2013? Let’s take a look. Read the rest of this entry
I like a variety of instrumentation in my music. In addition to the usual guitar, bass, and drums, I’m quite fond of a variety of keyboards, enjoy orchestral arrangements added where appropriate, and on occasion, woodwinds and brass. One of my favorite “unconventional” instruments is the mandolin.
However, the impetus for this piece is not itself the fact that I like the mandolin. Rather, somewhere back in time I remember someone (I can’t remember exactly who) telling me the mandolin wasn’t a versatile instrument. I balked at this assertion then, and I still do now. Having a forum as I do here at Progarchy, I’m now going to debunk that assertion, using different pieces to demonstrate the versatility of this wonderful instrument. While each of these songs feature the mandolin to one degree or another, by the time you have progressed from the beginning to the end of the list, you will have encountered several different musical styles that are markedly different from one another. Despite that, I will have barely scratched the surface of the mandolin’s versatility.
So, let’s get to the list.
Ian Anderson, Water Carrier
This song appears on Ian Anderson’s solo album ‘The Secret Language of Birds’. As many know, Anderson’s main band, Jethro Tull, features the mandolin prominently on a number of songs (‘Fat Man’ is one of my favorites in that category). This song features an uptempo mandolin front and center from start to finish. Underneath though are some very prominent Middle Eastern motifs – not exactly the kind of music you initially think of when you think of the mandolin. And yet, here it is, integrated perfectly.
Led Zeppelin, The Battle of Evermore
This is one of two songs on Led Zeppelin IV featuring the mandolin (‘Going to California’ is the other). Like our previous entry, this song has a somewhat mystical feel to it. However, instead of the Middle Eastern influences, this piece is more folk-inspired. Throw in Sandy Denny’s vocals, some Tolkein-esque lyrics, and you’ve got yourself a great song.
Heart, Sylvan Song/Dream of the Archer
There are a number of songs by Heart that I like, but these two (or this one, depending on how you look at it) are by far my favorite. This is basically one song divided into two parts each having its own title. The first part is instrumental, the second part includes Ann Wilson’s incredible vocals. This song remains somewhat within the realm of folk music as the previous entry, but has more of a “renaissance” feel to it, right down to the sounds of the forest at the beginning before the mandolin quietly makes its entry. It’s quite different from our first two pieces on the list, and yet it’s probably not a stretch to say that it was influenced by ‘The Battle of Evermore’ … as witnessed by Heart’s performance of the same here.
Drive-By Truckers, Bulldozers and Dirt
Now we make a big, big shift. Geographically, we’re moving from the Pacific Northwest where Heart originated down to Northern Alabama, from where the Truckers originally hailed. Genre-wise, some people call this band southern rock, others call it alt-country, and still others call it Americana. Whatever you call it, it’s a great song. Steel guitar appearing later in the song gives it a bit of a country feel, but the mandolin remains the dominant instrument. The strong ties to its geographic region are evident throughout, as is the bright, upbeat tone. From their album entitled ‘Pizza Deliverance’ (one of my favorite album titles of all time), this mandolin-driven song about what amounts to an overgrown kid that likes to play in the dirt is a gem.
Black Oak Arkansas, Digging For Gold
Now we move from Alabama to Arkansas, and there isn’t much debate about whether or not Black Oak Arkansas or their music falls under the umbrella of Southern Rock. The song begins with a chirping bird, an acoustic guitar, and a barking dog before Jim Dandy’s raspy voice makes an entry. The mandolin enters at about the 0:51 mark and is persistent through the remainder of the song. As a bit of unrelated trivia, lead vocalist Jim Dandy, he of the long, blonde locks and flamboyant presence was alleged to be the inspiration for the stage persona of David Lee Roth. Watch any live video of these guys from the 70’s, and you’ll believe it.
Led Zeppelin, Boogie with Stu
Now we’re taking another significant shift in musical style – from Southern rock to the blues. Here Led Zeppelin brings us one of two blues songs from Physical Graffiti that utilize the mandolin, the other being Black Country Woman. The mandolin is more persistent in the latter than in the song posted here (it doesn’t enter the picture until the 2:38 mark). That’s beside the point though – in both cases, the mandolin – an instrument invented in Italy of all places – is being featured in blues songs, and fitting in as seamlessly as a harmonica.
Arjen Anthony Luccassen, When I’m A Hundred Sixty Four
We started this list with one of the giants of the classical period of progressive rock, now we’ll end it with one of the giants of prog’s current renaissance. Luccassen here gives us a nice little romp that includes the mandolin and acoustic guitar with some strong Celtic influences adding extra flavor. This is a great song, possibly my favorite off of this album, ‘Lost in the New Real’, which is chock full of great songs. And speaking of great songs, Luccassen pays homage to another song on this list by doing an excellent remake of ‘The Battle of Evermore’, which you can listen to here if you are so inclined.
So let’s recap the list a little bit here. We started with music that had some strong Middle Eastern influences, moved to a couple of different folk songs, then took a journey down South with some Americana/Alt-Country/Southern rock, moved onto some blues, and finally to some full-blown progressive rock. Quite a variety, and as I said predicted above, I’ve barely scratched the surface of different musical styles into which the mandolin can be easily integrated. So does anyone still want to tell me that the mandolin is not a versatile instrument? I didn’t think so … :)
Thirty years ago this month, after being presumed dead in the wake of the ‘Drama’ album, Yes came roaring back into the music scene with ‘90125’. Commercially, ‘90125’ was a spectacular success, yielding their only #1 single as well as several other staples for that era of rock radio. ‘90125’ also brought in scores of new Yes fans, and became a gateway to progressive rock for many who were previously unaware. However, with established Yes fans, ‘90125’ proved to be a lighting rod of controversy.
For some established fans, myself included, it was a joy to have Yes back as an active band, even if their new album wasn’t a full-blown prog album. But to many established fans, this music simply wasn’t Yes.
At the center of the controversy was the new guitarist, Trevor Rabin, who was the only Yes rookie on the album. Rabin, while a fantastic talent in his own right, had significant stylistic differences with his predecessor, Steve Howe. As a co-writer of every song on the new album, his imprint on the new music was larger than that of any other member. And this music was a sharp departure from anything Yes had previously done. Thus, with the membership change and the change in musical direction, many older fans declared “this is not Yes”.
So was it Yes? Was it Yes save for the new guitarist? And what to make of this strange new music (in Yes terms, anyway)?
Yes, it was definitely Yes
A cursory examination of the membership makes it hard to declare the band that created ‘90125’ anything other than Yes. Four of the five members on the album were Yes veterans. Three of them – Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, and Tony Kaye – were original members of Yes. The fourth, Alan White, had originally joined Yes more than a decade prior, and was firmly established in the band. Calling the band Cinema, as they were before Anderson’s return, would have been odd, to say the least. In fact, I’m willing to bet most of the “it’s not Yes” crowd would have said “well, it’s really just Yes” had they tried to get away with calling the band Cinema. Four established Yes veterans with Jon Anderson on vocals is, for all intents and purposes, Yes. And thus an album created by such a band is, for all intents and purposes, a Yes album. When Anderson reconnected with Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, and Bill Bruford in 1989, they may have called themselves Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe for legal reasons, but everybody knew is was really just another incarnation of Yes. Otherwise, why call the shows on your tour ‘An Evening of Yes Music Plus’?
One person who was decidedly a fan of the new band – Rabin himself – was also against calling it Yes. I have sympathy for Rabin’s position, given that he took the brunt of the criticism from the established Yes fans. Still, there was nothing else you could call this band, with four veterans in the lineup including Anderson on vocals. It simply would not have been credible to call it anything else but Yes. With a different vocalist – or with the pre-Anderson lineup, the Cinema name would have worked. Once Anderson came on board, Yes was the only name that would do. The band that did ‘90125’ was not Cinema. It was Yes. Yes with a new guitarist? Sure. A Yes wherein the newest member had the most impact on his first recorded output with the band? Undoubtedly. But still Yes. There is simply no other credible band name for the lineup that recorded ‘90125’.
Even with as radical a departure as this album was from its predecessors, it’s hard to think musically of ‘90125’ as anything other than a Yes album. Certainly, it had a heaviness that was rarely heard on previous Yes albums. The intro to ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ telegraphed early on that this was going to be a different kind of Yes music. ‘Hold On’, ‘City of Love’, and ‘Changes’ produced more power chords than had been heard in any previous Yes album. The music also had much more of a 80’s feel to it, and Tony Kaye’s description of it as sometimes being dimensionally sparse was fitting.
Still, there were more than a few common threads with previous Yes works. And despite Anderson’s late entry into the project, there is no doubt that his creative impact on the final product was second only to Rabin’s. No other song exemplifies this more than ‘It Can Happen’, in particular when the Cinema version is compared to the final Yes version. The Cinema version of ‘It Can Happen’ appears, among other places, on disc 4 of the YesYears box set. The lyrics on that version were those of a rather sappy love song. Even keeping in mind that this is more or less a demo version, the music was relatively mundane. In contrast, it is clear that Anderson had completely rewritten the lyrics by the time the final version was recorded. The rewritten lyrics have much more of the trademark cosmic mysticism that infuses so much of Anderson’s output. Moreover, the music has much more in terms of ‘Yessy’ touches to it, beginning with the sitar intro. If a Yes fan had entered a cave in 1979 and emerged in early 1984 to hear ‘It Can Happen’ on the radio, he or she might have concluded that Yes had never broken up or had gone through the turmoil of the intervening years. The final version of ‘It Can Happen’ clearly sounds like a Yes song, and, 80’s production values notwithstanding. It would not be out of place in the earlier Yes catalog.
Various vocal arrangements on the album also tie in nicely with Yes music past. In ‘Hold On’, a multi-part harmony is sung on the verse that begins with “Talk the simple smile, such platonic eyes …”. This bears a lot of similarity to the final chorus of “Does It Really Happen” (“time is the measure, before it’s begun …”) from ‘Drama’. And of course, ‘Leave It’ is a vocal tour de force that begins with a huge five-part harmony that is unmistakably Yes (this was the second song I heard off of this album, and the one that told me “Yes is back!”). In the previously mentioned ‘It Can Happen’, Anderson and Squire alternate on lead vocals, with Squire singing lead on those portions that serve as a transition from the verses to the chorus. And finally, Anderson’s delivery on the album’s finale, ‘Hearts’, is not something that sounds unusual to the experienced Yes listener.
Other notable connections to previous Yes music includes the ebb and flow of ‘Hearts’, Squire’s bass work on ‘Our Song’ and ‘Cinema’, and the keyboard intro to ‘Changes.’ Had this lineup of musicians released these same songs under the guise of Cinema, I would have scratched my head and asked “why didn’t they just call themselves Yes?”, and I doubt I’m alone in that aspect.
What Rabin Brought to the Table
As we’ve already noted, ‘90125’ represented a significant shift in direction for the band, possibly more so than any other shift in their history. And there is little doubt that much of that shift is due to the presence of Rabin. It’s one thing to bring a new member into a band. It’s quite another that the new member has such an outsized creative contribution to the finished product, and this was certainly the case on ‘90125’.
I’ll start out by saying that I like Howe’s guitar work better than Rabin’s. In his book ‘Music of Yes’, Bill Martin described this difference perfectly, noting that Rabin divided his lead and rhythm guitar work in a fairly conventional manner, as opposed to Howe, who most decidedly did not. As a prog fan, it shouldn’t be surprising that I prefer the unconventional to the conventional. But that does not change the fact that Trevor Rabin is an exceptional guitarist in his own right. Nor does it change the fact that Rabin brought certain things to the table that Howe did not.
One thing Rabin brought through his guitar playing was a much harder edge (or heaviness, if you prefer) than Howe ever did. Much of ‘90125’ flat out rocks, as Rabin had a knack for delivering a bone-crushing power chord at precisely the right moment. There were occasions on previous Yes releases where I wish Howe would have unleashed, one notable example being ‘Release, Release’ from the ‘Tormato’ album. Listen to Shadow Gallery’s version of this song on the tribute album ‘Tales from Yesterday’, and you’ll probably understand what I mean. Comparing live versions of ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ with Rabin to those done with Howe (sans Rabin) provide another demonstration of what I mean here.
The heaviness of Rabin’s guitar in Yes music was a good fit for its time and place. Yes was not going to survive as a band by doing the epics of the 70’s. They were going to survive by other means. And while this did pull them closer to the mainstream, they never fully jumped into it the way their prog-rock peers Genesis did in the 80’s. While Genesis largely ditched their progressive past to become to pursue top-40 hits, Yes under Rabin merely dipped their toes into the water a few times (with ‘Owner’ being the prime example on ‘91025’) while otherwise producing album-oriented rock that was just outside the mainstream.
Another of Rabin’s strengths was his capability as a multi-instrumentalist. Although not known by many, Rabin did most of the keyboard work for the three albums that featured what we call the Yes-West lineup. While he was no Rick Wakeman (but who is?), I am comfortable saying he was actually a better keyboard player than Kaye. This stood out to me while listening to Rabin’s piano solo on the ‘Talk’ tour, in which he demonstrated a dexterity that Kaye never did during his time in Yes. While ‘90125’ is more of a guitar-driven album to be sure, it does feature some interesting keyboard work, and the most interesting parts thereof were almost certainly played by Rabin.
However, where Rabin’s contribution to Yes really shines in comparison to Howe is in his abilities as a vocalist. Rabin was much more than a merely capable lead vocalist. With a rather smooth voice, he was indeed quite a good one. This gave Yes a previously unknown vocal versatility which was used to great affect on songs like ‘Leave It’ and ‘Changes’, where he and Anderson take turns singing lead. Rabin’s backing vocals on other songs like ‘It Can Happen’ added to the overall vocal picture in a synergistic manner. And on harmony vocals? Wow. Rabin’s voice fit with those of Anderson and Squire so perfectly it’s almost frightening. While I have no qualms saying Howe was a better guitarist, I similarly have no qualms saying that Rabin’s voice was a much better fit than Howe’s in harmonies with the voices of Anderson and Squire. From a vocal standpoint, the version of ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ that appears on ‘9012Live’ is far and away my favorite, as the harmonies of Rabin, Anderson, and Squire are very powerful. Overall, the vocal dimension brought to Yes by Rabin infused the songs, both old and new, with an energy previously unknown to them.
When I look at the above and assess Rabin as a member of Yes, I can say two things for certain. Number one, he fit into Yes in a manner much different than that of his predecessor. Number two – he did so with virtual perfection given the time of his joining the band.
The Final Verdict
I’ll close out here by discussing two points that are seemingly contradictory. The first is that ‘90125’ is not a progressive rock album, the second being that ‘90125’ is a very important album to the overall history of progressive rock.
I described ‘90125’ earlier in this piece as a work of album-oriented rock that was just outside the mainstream. Indeed it’s hard to imagine any work which includes the creative imprint of Anderson being within the mainstream, and even the band’s big hit from this album was unconventional compared to other #1 singles. The common threads with Yes music past as noted above also keep this album out of the mainstream of rock music. In contrast, the hard rock playing of Rabin and simplification of the other instruments in the band (most notably, Squire’s bass on several songs) push ‘90125’ closer to the mainstream – and further away from prog – than any previous Yes album.
Despite the direction of the music, ‘90125’ nevertheless earned its place as being an important album in prog history. Due to its popularity, ‘90125’ literally brought millions of new fans to Yes. Not all of these fans became progressive rockers, but many did. It is not by any means uncommon to come across a prog rock fan who first came to the genre through Yes and ‘90125’. I’ve met more than one fan who first became aware of Yes through this album, and subsequently took a liking to their back catalog. The connections to the old music within ‘90125’ certainly helped in this aspect. So too did their willingness to respect their past during their live shows by playing many of their 70’s classics, such as ‘Roundabout’, ‘Starship Trooper’, and the previously mentioned ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’, among others. Contrast this with Genesis, whose 80’s music bore virtually no resemblance to their 70’s output, and who almost dismissively reduced their progressive past to nothing more than a medley during their live shows.
It is undeniable that ‘90125’ served as a catalyst for introducing a new generation of fans to progressive rock, even if it was not itself full-blown prog. Moreover, it gave Yes a new (and rather long) lease on life. Love it, hate it, or feel somewhere in between, ‘90125’ and the Yes lineup that created it are both owed a debt of gratitude for doing their part – no small one at that – in keeping the prog flame alive. And therein lies the true, lasting impact of this controversial album.
Brad’s post below on his Top 101 albums of the rock era got me thinking about my favorite albums of the same era. And given his hopes that we all do a similar post, I’m only too happy to oblige now given a few free hours and an overwhelming urge to write something (that’s not job related, which I get enough of Monday-Friday and often times on weekends).
I’ve discussed elsewhere that coming up with a list of five or ten desert island discs would be nearly impossible for me. If I was a secret agent under interrogation, a knowledgeable interrogator could easily get actionable intelligence from me by simply trying to force me to come up with such a list. Thus, I’m not going to restrict this list to any particular number of albums.
On the other hand, I am going to put one restriction on this list – I’m not going to list anything I’ve first heard in 2013. For me, it takes time to fully digest great works of art, and thus all of these albums here will be ones that have stood the test of time for me. This will eliminate some great albums from the list, such as English Electric 2 by Big Big Train, Riverside’s spectacular Shrine of New Generation Slaves, and other great releases from a year that is shaping up to be one of incredible abundance for excellent prog rock. It will also eliminate albums such as Spirt of Eden by Talk Talk and Tick Tock by Gazpacho, neither of which I had actually heard until a few months ago. Nevertheless, all of the releases mentioned in this paragraph are extremely likely to end up on a future edition of this list.
Finally, here and there, I will add a few notes about some of the albums on the list. Maybe to give some insight as to why I like them, maybe an interesting fact about them … who knows. The reasons will hopefully be self-evident.
Genre-wise, the list will cover a lot more than just prog, but generally will stay within the realm of rock. This will eliminate some other favorite albums, such as two excellent releases of instrumental flamenco guitar by the late Italian guitarist Gino D’ Auri. It will also eliminate some classical guitar oriented albums by Steve Hackett that I otherwise like very much.
Anwyay, without further adieu, my list:
AC/DC – Back in Black
Aerosmith – Toys in the Attic
Aerosmith – Rocks
Aerosmith – Rock in a Hard Place (this is a *very* underrated album among Aerosmith fans, in my opinion, probably since it was the only one without Joe Perry. But Jimmy Crespo did a bang-up job in his role, and this album flat out rocks. As an Amazon reviewer noted, it’s “criminally underrated.”)
Arena – The Visitor
The Beatles – Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Big Big Train – English Electric, Part 1
Big Big Train – The Underfall Yard
Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Black Sabbath – Sabotage
Black Sabbath – The Mob Rules
The Cult – Electric
The Cult – Sonic Temple
Days of the New I (sometimes referred to as ‘Yellow’)
Days of the New II (sometimes referred to as ‘Green’. This album came out in autumn, 1999, around the time I was going through a divorce from my first wife. As you can imagine, I was a whirlwind of emotions. This album both resonated with me and grounded me during that time. It’s also spectacularly good).
Drive By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera
Drive By Trucker – The Dirty South (If you’ve ever lived south of the Mason-Dixon line for any extended length of time and like raw, gritty music, then these two albums are for you).
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – Trilogy
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – Brain Salad Surgery
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (one of the best pop albums ever. It showed that ‘pop’ and ‘quality’ need not be mutually exclusive. I swear my opinion here is in no way swayed by the fact that Stevie Nicks was a strong celebrity crush of mine in the late ’70’s … no, really … ok, maybe a little)
The Flower Kings – Space Revolver
Gazpacho – Night
Genesis – Selling England by the Pound
Genesis – A Trick of the Tail
Genesis – Wind and Wuthering
Glass Hammer – Perilous
Grateful Dead, Charlotte, 3-23-1995 (This isn’t officially an album, but rather a bootleg recording of the only Grateful Dead show I ever attended. While I was nothing close to being a Deadhead, it was a great show, and I can certainly understand why The Dead had so many dedicated fans. One additional note – Bruce Hornsby sat in on piano that night).
Heart – Little Queen
Iron Maiden – Piece of Mind
Iron Maiden – Powerslave
Jane’s Addiction – Ritual de lo Habitual
Jefferson Airplane – The Worst of Jefferson Airplane (yes, a greatest hits album, but what a great collection of songs here).
Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick
Jethro Tull – Warchild
Jethro Tull – Minstrel in the Gallery
Jethro Tull – Songs from the Wood
John Cougar Mellencamp – Scarecrow
Jon and Vangelis – Short Stories
Jon Anderson – Olias of Sunhillow
Jon Anderson – Song of Seven
Jon Anderson – Change We Must
Judas Priest – British Steel
Kansas – Leftoverture
Kansas – Point of Know Return
Kerry Livegren – Seeds of Change
King Crimson – In The Court of the Crimson King
Led Zeppelin – III
Led Zeppelin – IV
Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti
Led Zeppelin – Presence (It would seem strange to call a band as lauded as Led Zeppelin ‘underrated’, but I think the label applies. They did music that falls into so many different genres, from bluesy music such as ‘When The Levee Breaks’, to prog-tinted stuff such as ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Kashmir’ and ‘In The Light’, to folky stuff such as ‘The Battle of Evermore’ and ‘Gallows Pole’ to flat out rockers such as ‘Rock and Roll’ and ‘Out on the Tiles’ … and they did them all extremely well).
Lone Justice – their self-titled debut. (Their cowpunk sound was a little bit ahead of it’s time, and if they had debuted in the mid-90’s or later when the alt-country wave hit, they might still be around. Also, it’s entirely possible my opinion here is swayed a bit again by the celebrity crush thing, the object of which being lead singer Maria McKee)
Marillion – Script for a Jester’s Tear
Marillion – Clutching at Straws
Marillion – Brave (this was an album that didn’t click with me on the first few listens, and I set it aside. Years later I picked it up again, gave it a good listen, and was blown away, wondering how I missed it the first time around. A true masterpiece).
Montrose – their self-titled debut.
The Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed
Mother Love Bone – a self-titled album. (One really wonders how music history would have been different if the lead singer of this Seattle-based band, the flamboyant Andrew Wood, hadn’t succumbed to his demons and died of a heroin overdose on the verge of releasing their debut album in 1990. There almost certainly would have been no Pearl Jam, and I wonder if the grunge thing would have ever taken off, given that Mother Love Bone’s sound was nothing like that of the other bands of the same time and place).
Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Live Rust
Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Weld (both live albums, and thus compilations, but both are very good. In fact, I think most of the songs on these albums sound better live than in the studio).
Paul Simon – Graceland
Pearl Jam – Vitalogy
Pete Townshend – Empty Glass
Pete Townshend – White City (a ridiculously underrated album)
Pink Floyd – Meddle
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
The Police – Syncrhonicity
Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet
Queen – News of the World
R.E.M. – Life’s Rich Pageant
Renaissance – Novella
Renaissance – Turn of the Cards
Riverside – Rapid Eye Movement (I thought of this album as pretty good when I first listened. I’ve re-assessed lately, and now realize it’s great, the best of the ‘Reality Dream’ trilogy in my opinion).
Riverside – Anno Domini High Definition
The Rolling Stones – Some Girls
Rush – 2112
Rush – A Farewell to Kings
Rush – Hemispheres
Rush – Permanent Waves
Rush – Moving Pictures
Rush – Grace Under Pressure
Rush – Power Windows
Rush – Clockwork Angels
Rush – Exit Stage Left (a great live album)
Saga – World’s Apart
Simple Minds – Once Upon A Time (Another album that proved ‘pop’ and ‘quality’ need not be mutually exclusive. This album had some exceptionally strong melodies).
Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
Steve Hackett – Voyage of the Acolyte
Steve Hackett – Spectral Mornings
Tool – Lateralus
Tool – 10,000 Days
Trevor Rabin – Can’t Look Away
U2 – War
Van Halen – Fair Warning (another very underrated album)
Wang Chung – To Live and Die in LA Soundtrack
The Who – Tommy
The Who – Who’s Next
The Who – Quadrophenia
The Who – Who Are You
Yes – The Yes Album
Yes – Fragile
Yes – Close to the Edge
Yes – Going for the One
Yes – Drama
One of the great things about getting to know some of the other contributors to this site is the discovery of bands that were previously missed. One such band that I had missed out on was Gazpacho, of whom I did not learn of until 2011. At that time, I took mental notes that I would check them out one day. After reading this fantastic review of their 2007 album ‘Night’, I knew it was time. Literally within minutes of finishing my reading of that review, I had purchased the album and was giving it a first of many listens. I was not disappointed, and will definitely vouch for all the good things written about ‘Night’. It is truly is one incredible album.
After such an excellent and absorbing introduction to Gazpacho, I knew I would have to explore some of their other works. I read a few reviews and asked around a little bit, and finally settled on the follow-up to ‘Night’, ‘Tick Tock’ from 2009, as my next foray into the world of Gazpacho. I knew this album would be a big challenge for the band, as is any follow-up to such a masterpiece. And once a again, I can say I was not disappointed. In fact, I can and will say a whole lot more, as ‘Tick Tock’ is an incredibly brilliant work in its own right and most certainly belongs on the shelf right next to ‘Night’, not just for being from the same band, but for being an album of the same level of artistry. In other words, ‘Tick Tock’ is an absolutely fantastic album, and could end up being the tipping point that turns me into a Gazpacho junkie.
A short summary of Gazpacho’s music is in order (at least as I know it from the two albums I have heard thus far). Unlike a lot of progressive rock, and certainly unlike most 70’s prog, you won’t hear a lot of instrumental fireworks in their music. If you are looking for self-indulgent soloing, Gazpacho is not your band. On the other hand, much like one particularly popular 70’s prog band – Pink Floyd – Gazpacho’s music give the listener a lot of room for contemplation (this is not to say they sound like Pink Floyd – they most certainly do not). ‘Spacious’ is one adjective I would use to describe their music. Two other adjectives I would use are ‘subtle’ and ‘meticulous’. Because Gazpacho relies on subtlety instead of flashy instrumentals pushed to the forefront of the mix, their music often requires more work from the listener to fully ‘get’ it. Ah, but what rewarding work it is! Repeated listens with undivided attention reveals the meticulous attention to detail in their arrangements.
One final adjective I would use to describe Gazpacho music is synergistic – the whole is much, much greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Getting back to the subject of this review, ‘Tick Tock’ is a concept album based on the story of the airplane crash of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his navigator during a Paris-to-Saigon air race, and their subsequent walk through the desert. The walk nearly ended in tragedy, but both were saved by Bedouins in the nick of time. The album is divided into four separate compositions (in order), ‘Desert Flight’, ‘The Walk’, ‘Tick Tock’ and ‘Winter is Never’. The middle two compositions are relatively lengthy, with the first being divided into two tracks, the second being divided into three.
Taking into account my basic summary of Gazpacho music above, ‘Desert Flight’ goes and makes a liar out of me. It begins as a straight ahead rocker. Musically and lyrically, it conveys an adventurous spirit:
We can be the first
Tie a ribbon all ‘round the world
We’ll make it a gift to us
From the start with a wind-flapped officer’s scarf
Like a ghost in the wind
Eventually, the mood of the music shifts a bit to give the listener a sense of trouble. Toward the end of the song, the pace picks up again in the same manner the ground would appear to move by faster as the airplane loses altitude. And suddenly, the pace grinds to a halt, with the mood of the violin and piano letting us know that we are now on the ground – but alive nonetheless.
The trek across the Sahara then starts in earnest with ‘The Walk’. Our heroes are lost, but nonetheless confident that they will get out of their predicament relatively unscathed. Musically, the acoustic guitar and drums dominate, with other instruments making brief appearances before stepping back into the shadows (a classic example of the meticulous arranging I discussed above). Midway through Part I, the violin steps to the forefront with a Middle Eastern motif, with the other instruments carrying this motif through the end of Part I. As the music segues into Part II of ‘The Walk’ we can feel the doubts creeping into the minds of our heroes, and maybe a little loss of coherency of their thought processes. We’ve now transitioned from adventure mode to survival mode.
Part I of the title track begins with the percussion indicating the ticking of a clock, and this ticking carries on throughout the entirety of the piece. The lyrics in Part I of ‘Tick Tock’ begin to really bring home the predicament our heroes are in as they trek through the sands of the Sahara:
You beg for time
She’s china white
There’s no cure
Nowhere to hide
A Gregorian-sounding chant appears near the end of Part I, and the mood becomes even darker as Part II begins. The sheer drudgery of walking through the hot desert is conveyed through the music, while the lyrics have one of our heroes (probably the pilot) beginning to question his own life. In Part III, the trek is taking its toll on our pilot and our navigator, as they apparently begin hallucinating as their survival hangs by a thread:
And what do you think they’ll do?
The ground is a pendulum
The continent is gravel
Humming in your shoe
The final track is ‘Winter is Never’, which occurs chronologically after the rescue in the desert. It is a reflective track, appreciative of the present and hopeful for the future in light of the recent past in the desert. It’s a fitting conclusion for a fantastic album.
Like its predecessor ‘Night’, ‘Tick Tock’ is a must-own masterpiece. I won’t go so far as to say this album is better than ‘Night’, but in this reviewer’s opinion, it is every bit as good. The number of bands out there that can put out an album of the artistry of ‘Night’ and ‘Tick Tock’ is small; the number of bands that can do it on two consecutive albums is even smaller. Everything about the music of ‘Tick Tock’ is utterly flawless, as is the delivery of the lyrics by Jan Henrik Ohme. It’s the kind of album you want to listen to eyes shut through headphones as you get lost and absorbed into it.
If you had previously missed out on Gazpacho, as did I, now is the time to go back and explore some of their back catalog. Start with either one of ‘Tick Tock’ or ‘Night’. Drink it in fully, and then move on to the other one. You will quickly find that what they have done as a band is to create a sound like no other. While you may hear an influence here or there, those influences have been amalgamated into something completely unique. Like the best progressive rock bands, they have pushed the boundaries back to create something new. As ‘Tick Tock’ indicates,, along with its predecessor, these guys need to be in any conversation regarding the best progressive rock bands, not only for the present revival, but for the entire history of the genre.
Now, onward to ‘Missa Atropos’!