Author Archives: Erik Heter

Demon – A Love Story (or: My late, yet very timely review of Gazpacho’s latest offering)

The Demon Part:

Most of the reviews of Gazpacho’s latest album, Demon, are already in (including Progarchy’s own reviews). Mine here … well, it’s a little late, considering the album came out in spring and we are demoncovernow on solidly in autumn. Nevertheless, I am going to pat myself on the back and say I’ve made quite an improvement for timeliness for Gazpacho reviews. You see, in June of 2013, I reviewed Tick Tock on this same site. Considering that album came out in 2009, my review was approximately four years after the fact. Now, I’ve whittled my Gazpacho review time down to mere months from release – an order of magnitude improvement! Note: you are not allowed to mention that I’ve never reviewed Missa Atropos or March of Ghosts, capisce?

So, about Demon itself? Haunting is one word that can be used to describe this album. Strange is another one. This album … it’s out there. At times it gives me the creeps, the willies, and the heeby-jeebies. You know what else? It’s damn good, brimming with excellence on par with the other great albums they have released beginning with 2007’s Night.

Demon takes us on a journey through the ramblings of a disturbed individual descending into outright madness. The idea behind the album originates from the writings of an unknown apartment dweller in Prague, with the lyrics based on these ramblings. I’m not going to pretend to have any deep understanding of these lyrics; I don’t. I’ve read through them numerous times and followed them through a few listens of this album. Sure, I have my own ideas as to various possible interpretations. But I do not grok them at this point.

Musically, the album has a very experimental feel to it, or at least more so than the typical Gazpacho album. Sonically, it has a sound quite different than any of their previous works, and yet it is unmistakably Gazpacho.

The album kicks off with I’ve Been Walking. The introduction is light, with a sound effect and some soft vocals before ever so slightly picking up the pace. Throughout the track, slower, mellower, minor key parts alternate with occasional louder, wall of sound bursts. Piano, choral arrangements, mellotron, and the smooth vocals of Jan Henrik Ohme all take their turns as the feature instrument. The track closes with some melancholy solo violin which has become a trademark of Gazpacho. This track is extremely effective in setting the mood for the album as a whole.

Next up is The Wizard of Altai Mountain.   This song is almost whimsical sounding in it’s first of two very distinctive parts. At about the halfway point, the music takes a noticeable change of direction, to a folky accordion that reminds me of some traditional, Eastern European music. It fills me with the urge to drink vodka – no small feat with me being much more of a whisky/beer man. My mind’s eye can picture someone dancing the kazachoc, a traditional Slavic fast dance in which the dancer squats and alternatively kicks out his legs (yes, I had to look that up).

I’ve Been Walking (Part 2) follows, with a much different mood, one of a resigned sadness. Jan-Henrik Ohme’s vocals are excellent throughout the album, but they are especially great on this track. They are particularly effective in expressing the melancholy realization that comes with shattered illusions:

There’s no Altai Mountain

No eternal chord

Lost a diamond

No El Dorado

There is no reward

In the background of this piece a remote, old 78 plays to great effect. The mood of the track shifts a little bit toward the end, maybe as to signal some acceptance that there is “no El Dorado.” It’s one of the lightest parts of the album, along with the first half of The Wizard of Altai Mountain.

The final track, Death Room, is where the strangeness of this album comes to a head. The track announces itself with subterranean rumblings and electronic buzzing before settling into three note mandolin figure which produces some unbelievable tension that is occasionally punctuated by short saws of dissonant violin. This is one of the creepiest, strangest parts of an album full of them, and I can imagine Edgar Allan Poe feeling right at home listening to this as he spun out another macabre tale. Percussion soon joins and pulls the music along, until the piano announces itself and changes the mood with a sudden subtlety that nobody can pull of like Gazpacho. From there, the music progresses through a series of different moods, all suggestive of the unknown apartment dweller losing grip on his sanity. The track and the album proper ends with some very strange percussion that suggests the grip has finally been lost.

Earlier I offered a lame explanation in an attempt to justify the tardiness of my review, considering the album’s springtime release. But let’s get to the real reason. Currently, it’s Autumn – October to be specific. And this album is absolutely made for fall listening. The name Demon conjures up images of that most famous of October celebrations, Halloween. The CD case is a fall color, not unlike one you might see on a dying leave that is going out in one last blaze of colorful glory. And the music … well, it’s hard to define, but it’s definitely fall music. Recently, on Brad’s Facebook page, I saw 6pqvnqf00n6jghv9p3c3o39sj6544affaa7f81ahim shout his love for the month of October, describing it as “purgatorial twilight.” I cannot think of a better light in which to listen to this album. Not the dark, certainly not the bright light of mid-day sun. But late in a fall day, when the last gasps of sunlight collide with the spectacular fall colors that both marvel our sight but also portend the cold grayness of winter is approaching? There could not possibly be a better time to listen to Demon.

If you are one of those lucky souls that lives in an area with a noticeable change of seasons, this is the time you need to get out this album and give it another listen (or a first listen if you haven’t heard it yet). Put the CD in your car’s player, grab your iPod, whatever. Just make sure you are outside toward the end of the day in the light described above … and immerse yourself in the beautiful madness that is Demon.

 

The Love Story Part:

It’s a little over two years now since I heard my first Gazpacho album, Night to be specific. Since that time, I’ve worked my way forward through their catalog, listening to and owning everything right up through Demon. While I still haven’t perused any of their pre-Night catalog, I’ve definitely heard enough to have seriously fallen in love with the music of this incredible band.

Describing the music of Gazpacho to someone who has never heard it is a bit of a challenge. In my review of Tick Tock, I described them subtle and meticulous. While those adjectives certainly ring true, they only convey a small part of the story. Another time recently, while introducing someone to Gazpacho, I described them as a cross between Pink Floyd and late-era Talk Talk. That also conveys part of the story, but by no means does it in full. On another prog site I occasionally visit, I have seen them described as crossover prog … I still have no idea what that means. And I’ve seen a number of other descriptions of Gazpacho, many of which give part of the picture, but none that quite give the whole. It’s not like describing a band such as Iron Maiden as heavy metal. That description gives you a pretty good idea of what they are about, at least in a musical sense. With Gazpacho, giving a two or three word description is never going to be sufficient.

In fact, even describing them as being progressive can be problematic. Don’t get me wrong, I would classify Gazpacho unequivocally as being prog. But they are unlike any other band in the genre.

With so much of the prog to which I listened on my initial discovery in the late 1970’s – Yes, ELP, Rush, Jethro Tull – there were always virtuoso musicians setting off instrumental fireworks. Gazpacho seems to have turned this ethic completely on its head. You don’t hear long, flashy guitar or keyboard solos, the pyrotechnic drums with a beat that is both discernable and just out of reach, and so on. Much of Gazpacho’s music is built in some very simple riffs. And yet as a testament to their supreme skill and artistry, these simple riffs are combined and arranged into a much greater whole, one of dizzying complexity that gets hidden ever so slightly below a veneer of simplicity. Using a sports metaphor, much of progressive rock could be analogized to professional football or basketball – an obvious complexity accompanied with dazzling theatrics. Gazpacho on the other hand would be more like professional baseball – a simple, subtle game on the surface with a world of complexity underneath for those willing to dig deeper.

Architecturally, their songs defy any conventional structure, unfolding instead with a brilliant logic that becomes apparent by the time you’ve reached the end. It all adds up to a mixture that is challenging to grasp, but easy to love – and one that is progressive rock at it’s absolute, boundary smashing best.gazpacho-demon-cover2-2014

It’s when I survey the current prog landscape that it really hits me, the incredible brilliance of this band. Myself and others on this site have written much about how blessed us fans are in the current age of prog. I loved how the proggers of the 1970s pushed the envelope of rock music to new artistic heights. And yet in what may be the ultimate compliment the previous generation, the best prog bands of today are showing us how their prog ancestors were only scratching the surface. Bands such as Riverside, Porcupine Tree and their leader, Steven Wilson, The Tangent, Big Big Train, and so on – all have taken prog in various directions previously unimagined. So to has Gazpacho. But more than all of these bands, Gazpacho, at least for me, is the most difficult to describe in words. And what really makes that so is this – they are simply the most unique and original sounding band in a golden age of prog that has produced many unique and original sounds. Is it any wonder I’ve fallen so in love with these guys?

The Stoic Wisdom of Neil Peart

Seneca. Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius. Neil Peart.Rush Discourses

(This is where you do a double take).

No, that wasn’t a misprint.

Rush lyrics (penned almost entirely by Peart from their second album onward) cover a lot of ground. Individual songs meditate on the dreariness of the suburbs, the balance between heart and mind, the individual vs. the collective, intolerance, the perils of fame, nationalism, the tensions of art vs. commerce and so forth.   When you step back a bit to take a wider view, themes that stretch across a number of songs or even albums begin to emerge. Among those that emerge over the course of Rush’s output are themes of Stoicism. So let me just proclaim that Neil Peart is a Stoic and that Stoicism is a significant component in his philosophical approach to life itself.

I should probably give a brief primer on Stoicism here, and will do so with a bit of trepidation, as there are several other contributors to this site whose knowledge of this school of thought and philosophy (or any philosophy) vastly exceeds my own.

The Stoic school of thought originated with Zeno of Citium, who began teaching it in Athens around 300 B.C. It was later adopted by the Romans, including the famous three listed above. A fundamental tenet of Stoicism is to live in agreement with nature, i.e. “the way things are.” Another one is to learn to distinguish between those things which are under one’s control and those things that are not – and to not worry about the latter. A exceptionally difficult goal to attain to be sure, but one well worth striving for. Contrary to popular opinion, Stoicism does not teach the suppression of emotions, but rather that emotions are instinctive reactions to events, while our judgments of the same can either arouse or cool those emotions. Balance is key.

So how does all this tie in with Rush lyrics? Let’s take a look.

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I Come Here Not to Bury AC/DC, But to Praise Them

In recent days, the news has broke that it doesn’t look like rhythm guitarist Malcom Young will be returning to AC/DC due to an undisclosed illness. We wish you well, Malcom, and hope for a full and speedy recovery from whatever it is that ails you.

Now before I continue on, you are probably saying “why is there a post about AC/DC on Progarchy, of all sites?” Well, let me explain.

First of all, it’s true that AC/DC is nothing close to prog, nor are they the most artistic band in the world to put it mildly. But every yin needs its yang, and as much as I love the complexities and artistry of good prog rock, there are still times when I want to simply put the pedal to the metal, so to speak, and listen to something that is loud, simple, and just flat out rocks with no pretension of being anything else. AC/DC certainly fits the bill for that.

I’ve always thought of them as “audio testosterone.” As far as their sound, well, it hasn’t changed much over the years. To quote Malcom’s more visible brother Angus from an interview years ago:

I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.

Most of their songs are loud, rhythmically simple, and rely on a progression of three or four power chords or some other repetitive arpeggiated riff. There is some decent guitar soloing by Angus Young, made all the more impressive during live shows by his constant gyrations resembling something like that of an highly active four year old boy who just downed a double shot espresso from Starbucks.  But mostly, it’s simple chords, simple bass, simple drums, 4/4 and all that.

Still, these self-imposed musical limitations matter not. As comedian Jim Breuer once stated, they could do the Hokey Pokey and tear it up (totally safe for work, and very funny):

How about lyrically? Well, here’s a phrase that has never, ever been uttered before in all of human history:

I’m not familiar with Greek mythology, therefore I don’t understand AC/DC lyrics.

Let’s face it, the song Hard as a Rock is not about the myth of Sisyphus. What Do You Do For Money, Honey is not a meditation on the writings of Adam Smith. And Hell Ain’t A Bad Place to Be has absolutely nothing to do with Dante’s Inferno.

And you know what? I don’t care. I love these guys anyway. If I was in my 20’s, back in college and heading for a party to blow off some steam after a hard week of studying, there are few bands whose music I would like to hear blaring from the speakers more than AC/DC.

I could go on and on trying to extol the virtues of AC/DC, but as the old saying goes, a video is worth a thousand words (it appears something was garbled in the translation). So indulge me here for a few minutes and watch this, or at least part of it. And what I want you to pay particular attention to is the crowd. After the break, I have a few more thoughts.

So let me ask you a few things about the people in the crowd? How many of them appeared to be wallowing in existential despair? How many of them were having a dark night of the soul? How many in that crowd are lamenting the injustices of life, indulging in self-pity, or stressing out about the next mortgage payment? The answer to all of those questions is a big, fat ZERO! No, what they are doing is having fun, getting their butts rocked off, and just simply living – truly living – in the moment. As the character Miles says in Risky Business, sometime you just gotta say what the … well, you know.

Getting back to the impetus for this piece, I again wish you well, Malcom. For those of you that include prayer as part of your daily lives, please send one or two his way. And to the rest of the members of AC/DC who plan to carry on and release another album later this year, what else can I say but … for those about to rock, I salute you!

The Other Bookend – Talk and the end of the Yes-West Era

Earlier today, Brad had an excellent post on Talk, the final album of the Yes-West era, as it is sometimes called. After submitting a comment on the post, I was invited to expand on it with a full post of my own. I am only too happy to oblige, so let’s go.

Talk is a difficult album to analyze, at least for me. The context for my own evaluation of this album pre-dates its release by some three years, with another big event in Yes history – the Union era. I’m not a big fan of the album itself (and prefer the Trevor Rabin-penned Lift Me Up and Miracle of Life over all other songs on that record), but I am ever thankful for the eventual tour it spawned. My first Yes concert (discussed here) was in 1979. After that there was turmoil, break-up, re-unification, more break-up, and re-re-unification. I had had two near misses with Yes concerts, one in 1984 and the other in 1988. And after Jon Anderson departed for ABWH, my thoughts were that I would not get another chance to see them live. So when I became aware of the Union Tour, I was very happy, and I was elated when their show at the then-named Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh, NC was announced. Tickets were purchased as soon as they were available, and on July 10, 1991, I finally caught up with my favorite band again. After thinking I’d never get another chance to see them, being there that night was very emotional for me. It was the best of both worlds, the classic Yes lineup and the Yes-West lineup, all in one. And it was an utterly fantastic show, the best of the six Yes concerts I’ve had the good fortune to attend.

In the wake of the Union-era, I had hoped that something more permanent would come out of it. Surely they could find some way to work together as a band, couldn’t they? With that in mind, the revelation that Talk would mark a return to just the Yes-West lineup, I was a bit disappointed. That disappointment was made more acute when I became aware of rumors that Rick Wakeman wanted to work on the album, and the band itself wanted the same. But apparently, lawyers and record companies got in the way, or so I am told. If so, a pox on their houses, as one of my unfulfilled Yes fantasies is that Rabin and Wakemen never worked on a Yes album together. It was pretty clear during the Union show I attended that they had some real chemistry together, particularly when Rabin would jaunt onto the stage during Wakeman’s keyboard solo and the two would trade licks. And Wakeman was one ex-Yes member who had great respect for what the band had accomplished with 90125.

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Some Tool News

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.”

Let’s hope they get these delays sorted out and get this album out soon … because the anticipation is killing me!

If I Can Only Pick Ten, Well Then …

 

rushat40

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.

Synergistic Perfection: First – and Lasting – Impressions of Moving Pictures

I. Blown Away

ImageIt was a beautiful spring day.

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.Image

 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.

Image 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.

 

A Quick and Dirty Rockumentary Review – History of the Eagles: The Story of an American Band

ImageI 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:

2013 – The Pax Progorama

 Image

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

The Magical, Versatile Mandolin

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 … :)

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