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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

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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 … :)

90125 at 30 – A Retrospective

149178_f_1Thirty 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′.

 Musically?

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′.Trevor+Rabin+rabin

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.

jjhODespite 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.

Yet Another Top Albums List

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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

Ticking and Tocking Through a Back Catalog: Gazpacho’s ‘Tick Tock’

ImageOne 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. Image

 

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

A pendulum.

 

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’!

 

Staring into the Abyss: Darkness, the Ugly Truth, and Comfort in the Lyrics of Tool

Tool2One of my favorite books is ‘The Prince’ by Niccolo Machiavelli.  Anyone having even a passing familiarity with this work knows it is a lightning rod of controversy, with some hotly-debated interpretations.  To say that I like this work is not to say I am a fan of methods that are referred to as “Machiavellian” or that the “ends justifies the means” (an interpretation that I would hotly dispute).  What I like about Machiavelli’s writing in ‘The Prince’ is his stone-cold sober look at human nature – warts and all, and more generally, the unvarnished truth.  Machiavelli has no time for such pieties that people are basically good and, left to their own devices, will do the right thing.  He knows better.

 If Machiavelli were alive today, I’m guessing he would certainly identify with the lyrics of some of Tool’s work.  Heck, he might even write their lyrics.  Aside from the fact that there were not many hippies in Florence during the early 1500’s, it’s not hard to imagine Machiavelli the lyricist penning this verse from Tool’s ‘Vicarious’:

Credulous at best, your desire to believe in angels in the hearts of men.

Pull your head on out your hippy haze and give a listen.

Shouldn’t have to say it all again.

The universe is hostile. So impersonal. Devour to survive.

So it is. So it’s always been.

Machiavelli would have certainly understood the sentiment in the above verse.  And like Machiavelli, Maynard James Keenan and Tool have no illusions about whether or not there are “angels in the hearts of men.”  They know better.

 Tool lyrics range from very disturbing (‘Stinkfist’, ‘Prison Sex’), depressing (‘Schism’), occasionally weird (the Area 51 acid trip of ‘Rosetta Stoned’), and often times take a generally dark view of humanity.  If you are looking for happy, sunny lyrical themes, Tool is most decidedly not your band.

 Before I get into this too much further, I do want to note that I am going to practice a little self-censorship in this piece, as certain Tool songs contain enough F-bombs and S-bombs to cause a collective nervous breakdown of Tipper Gore and her staff at the PMRC.  I’ll simply insert asterisks into the F-bombs and S-bombs.  My reasoning is that I don’t know who reads this site and I don’t want to overrun it with curse words, particularly if any minors are reading.  Well, that, and the fact that the Dept. of Swearing has informed me I used up a significant portion of my lifetime curse-word quota during my six years in the U.S. Navy, and thus need to save the remaining portion of my quota for when it could really come in handy (for example, when my piece of @#*& printer keeps &#!*<?% up).  Rest assured, this is not an editorial decision by anyone else on this site, the decision here is mine and mine alone.

 And one other thing – I’m not going to get too much into the music of Tool itself, which is typically excellent.  Justin Chancellor is an outstanding bassist, and Adam Jones is an exceptionally innovative guitarist.  No discussion of the best drummers in the business today is complete if Danny Carey is not included.  And few vocalists can convey emotion with the sustained intensity of Maynard James Keenan.

 Now, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled programming.

 Our Darker Selves

 When we look at the history of the Rome, we like to think of ourselves as better than those Romans who flocked to the Colusseum.  We would never indulge in viewing such violent spectacles, would we?  We don’t want to see people die or get hurt.  Tool isn’t buying it, as spelled out in the above-mentioned ‘Vicarious’:

Eye on the TV

’cause tragedy thrills me

Whatever flavor

It happens to be like;

Killed by the husband

Drowned by the ocean

Shot by his own son

She used the poison in his tea

And kissed him goodbye

That’s my kind of story

It’s no fun ’til someone dies

While ‘Vicarious’ may appear to some to be more directed to the media and the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos, stepping a little farther back reveals that it’s more about what lurks in the hearts of people everywhere.  Now, in fairness, not everybody wants to watch people die, at least not in real life … but I think more of us are at least insensitive (if not outright desiring) to the witnessing violence we will admit.  In my own personal life, my two favorite spectator sports are American football and boxing – both of which are violent and can take a frightening toll on the participants.  The issue of concussions and their after-affects is an ongoing story that presently puts a cloud over American professional football.  With respect to boxing, most of us are familiar with the plight of once quick-witted Muhammad Ali, now saddled with a severe case of Parkinson’s disease.  And yet I was thrilled, absolutely mesmerized by his titanic battles with Joe Frazier, especially 1975’s Thrilla in Manila, which I have re-watched on numerous occasions despite knowing Ali’s current condition.

Don’t look at me like

I am a monster

Frown out your one face

But with the other

Stare like a junkie

Into the TV

Stare like a zombie

Let me repeat that sentiment – don’t look at me like I am a monster.  Several years ago in a conversation with an acquaintance I mentioned that I liked boxing.  He asked me how I could watch something like that where the only object (in his view anyway) was to “beat the s**t out of each other.”  That was on a Friday. The following Monday he was raving about a hit from one of Sunday’s football games, one in which a player returning a punt was wiped out and carted off the field.

Why can’t we just admit it?

Why can’t we just admit it?

I also remember, later that year, being over at a friend’s house along with dozens of others to watch the heavyweight title fight between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson.  When in round 7 a huge right hand by Lewis momentarily separated Tyson from his senses and put him on the canvas for the 10-count, a deafening roar of approval erupted.

You all feel the same so

Why can’t we just admit it?

Human beings are quite good at not merely watching others fight, but becoming participants themselves – at least at the scale of nation-states and other large organizations having political goals.  This lamentable characteristic is explored in ‘Right in Two’:

Angels on the sideline,

Puzzled and amused.

Why did Father give these humans free will?

Now they’re all confused.

Don’t these talking monkeys know that

Eden has enough to go around?

Plenty in this holy garden, silly monkeys,

Where there’s one you’re bound to divide it.

Right in two.

 …

 Monkey killing monkey killing monkey.

Over pieces of the ground.

Silly monkeys give them thumbs.

They make a club.

And beat their brother, down.

 …

 Fight over the clouds, over wind, over sky

Fight over life, over blood, over prayer,

overhead and light

Fight over love, over sun,

over another, Fight…

The creator has endowed us with a planet having more than enough for everybody, with plenty to spare and in defiance of the most dire Malthusian predictions.  While some of our drive to acquisition and the defense thereof is undoubtedly springs from deep seated survival instincts (not easily discarded, even in times of abundance), much of our conflict is still driven by greed, lust, envy, and ideology.  In the last century, literally hundreds of millions were slaughtered, fighting over blood, prayer, ideology, whatever.  So far, this century doesn’t look like it will be much different.  For that matter, previous centuries weren’t that much different either.

Repugnant is a creature who would squander the ability to lift an eye to heaven conscious of his fleeting time here.

Indeed.

 This is not to say that I condone pacifism (I most certainly do not), nor that there is no such thing as a just war.  But still, look at us …

 Destruction of Others, Destruction of Self

 One of the seven deadly sins is wrath.  From Wikipedia (stop laughing), wrath “may be described as inordinate and uncontrolled feelings of hatred and anger.” Wrath, in its purest form, presents with self-destructiveness, violence, and hate that may provoke feuds that can go on for centuries.”  Tool deals with this deadly sin in ‘The Grudge’.

Wear the grudge like a crown of negativity.

Calculate what we will or will not tolerate.

Desperate to control all and everything.

Unable to forgive your scarlet lettermen.

Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.

Justify denials and grip ‘em to the lonesome end.tool 3

Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.

Terrified of being wrong. Ultimatum prison cell.

Saturn ascends, choose one or ten. Hang on or be humbled again.

Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.

Justify denials and grip ‘em to the lonesome end.

Saturn ascends, comes round again.

Saturn ascends, the one, the ten. Ignorant to the damage done.

 …

 Wear your grudge like a crown. Desperate to control.

Unable to forgive. And we’re sinking deeper.

 Defining, confining, controlling, and we’re sinking deeper.

There is so much truth and wisdom in those few verses it’s really hard to know where to begin.  I’m sure most of us have held at least a petty grudge at some point in our lives, particularly when we were kids.  With maturity, some will outgrow such grudges and avoid their self-destructive effects.  Others will not, or will develop new ones, and will be consumed by them.  That’s what grudges do to their holders – they consume them.

 And it’s not just individuals that hold grudges.  Groups of people, from small clans to the largest of civilizations may also hold grudges.  Hatfields and McCoys, anyone?

 And is it any wonder why wrath is among the seven deadly sins?

 Greed, Gluttony, and General Decadence

Greed and gluttony are two more of the deadly sins, and are among the themes explored by Tool in Ænima.  While Ænima on the surface appears to be an indictment of that “hopeless f**king hole we call LA”, it could just as well be an indictment of the current state of western culture.  LA just happens to be Maynard’s example (via his friend, the late Bill Hicks) of a “bulls**t, sideshow, three-ring circus of freaks” that best exemplifies our decadence.

Fret for your figure and

Fret for your latte and

Fret for your lawsuit and

Fret for your hairpiece and

Fret for your Prozac and

Fret for your pilot and

Fret for your contract and

Fret for your car.

       …

 F**k L Ron Hubbard and

F**k all his clones.

F**k all these gun-toting

Hip gangster wannabes.

Learn to swim.

F**k retro anything.

F**k your tattoos.

F**k all you junkies and

F**k your short memory.

Learn to swim.

F**k smiley glad-hands,

With hidden agendas.

F**k these dysfunctional,

Insecure actresses.

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, isn’t it?

 It’s been said that politics is downstream from culture.  Cue ‘Intolerance’, from the ‘Undertow’ album.

I don’t want to be hostile.

I don’t want to be dismal.

But I don’t want to rot in an apathetic existence either.

See

I want to believe you,

and I want to trust you

and I want to have faith to put away the dagger.

But you lie, cheat, and steal

lie, cheat, and steal

you lie, cheat and steal

And yet

I tolerate you.

Veil of virtue hung to hide your method

while I smile and laugh and dance

and sing your praise and glory.

Shroud of virtue hung to mask your stigma

as I smile and laugh and dance

and sing your glory

while you

lie, cheat, and steal.

How can I tolerate you?

I can’t speak for what goes on in other countries, but for my own, does this not hit the nail on the head as to the state of our current political climate (please, though, no political debates on this site)?  While the lyrics above could apply to a number of different institutions, they lend themselves particularly well as a scathing indictment of the current state of American politics and the two wretched parties in control.

 Alas, we can’t just point the finger at the politicians, when we are the ones that keep putting them in power – and willingly give them even more after we’ve put them there.

Our guilt, our blame,

I’ve been far too sympathetic.

Our blood, our fault.

I’ve been far too sympathetic.

I am not innocent.

You are not innocent.

Noone is innocent.

Why?

So why listen to these kinds of lyrics?  Why take in so much negativity, so much anger, and so much darkness?  Isn’t listening to music supposed to be some form of joyful experience?  Isn’t it supposed to be entertainment?

Well, no, not necessarily anyway.

 Science attempts to explain the physical world around us. Technology can help us harness the physical world for our benefit. But it is the humanities that grow our minds and convey to us the realities of life that are beyond the reach of science and can’t be addressed through technology.  Literature, poetry, and film, and other art forms fall under this larger umbrella – as do song lyrics such as those discussed herein.  Particular ones of Tool’s lyrics are particularly good at illuminating certain realities of life.

 It is essential to see the world as it is, warts an all, if one wants to obtain any sort of comfort or inner peace.  The great Stoic Epictetus instructed his students to not avert their eyes from the painful events of life, but rather to look at them squarely and contemplate them often.  To do so is to free one’s self from illusions and thereby avoid the unnecessary pain that otherwise occurs in the inevitable collisions with reality we all have.  The world is what it is, not what we want it to be.  And as we have already been reminded, “the universe is hostile, so impersonal.”

Some might choose to descend into cynicism and misanthropy upon contemplating the ideas within the lyrics presented.  But that is taking the easy way out.  Do you actually think Tool is going to let you off easy?  Ha. Pffft.  Think again.

The Way Out

Nope, Tool isn’t going to let you take the easy way out.  They aren’t going to let you fall into the cynical trap.  You’ve still got work to do.  We’ve already discussed some of the lyrics of ‘The Grudge’ above.  But even in a song that explores the deadly sin of wrath, Tool lets us know that it is still a choice – and that another path is there to be taken:

Saturn comes back around. Lifts you up like a child or

Drags you down like a stone

To consume you till you choose to let this go.

Give away the stone. Let the oceans take and

Transmutate this cold and fated anchor.

Give away the stone. Let the waters kiss and

Transmutate these leaden grudges into gold.

Let go.

You can be consumed by a grudge, or you can let it go.  Your choice.  One choice is harder to make than the other one … but the harder choice is the only beneficial one.

 The “learn to swim” lyric noted above in the discussion of Ænima above presents an interesting juxtaposition within that song.  At first glance, it appears to be a reference to saving one’s self when LA falls into the ocean.  But reading between the lines, it could just as well refer to learning to be one’s self instead of denying that and becoming consumed by “stupid s**t, silly s**t.”  Indeed, while we cannot control the culture or society around us, we can certainly make a conscious choice to not let it drag us down.  We can “learn to swim” to maintain our own personal integrity and dignity.

The album ‘Lateralus’ has a number of songs with lyrics that point to the way out of despair.  Take ‘Parabola’ for example:

Twirling round with this familiar parable

Spinning, weaving round each new experience

Recognize this as a holy gift and celebrate this chance to be alive and breathing

A chance to be alive and breathing

This body holding me reminds me of my own mortality

Embrace this moment, remember, we are eternal

All this pain is an illusion

We all deal with pain in our lives, but so much of our pain is indeed illusory.  Often times with certain events it is our own perceptions that cause the pain, rather than the events themselves.  And sometimes changing those perceptions can do wonders.

Continued growth of mind is one message to take away from the title track of ‘Lateralus’:

Black then white are all I see

In my infancy,

Red and yellow then came to be,

Reaching out to me,

Lets me see.

As below, so above and beyond, I imagine

Drawn beyond the lines of reason.

Push the envelope.

Watch it bend.

 ….

 Feed my will to feel this moment

Urging me to cross the line.

Reaching out to embrace the random.

Reaching out to embrace whatever may come.

I embrace my

Desire to

I embrace my

Desire to

Feel the rhythm,

To feel connected

Enough to step aside

And weep like a widow

To feel inspired

To fathom the powertool spiral out

To witness the beauty

To bathe in the fountain,

To swing on the spiral

To swing on the spiral

To…

Swing on the spiral of our divinity and

Still be a human.

             …

 Spiral out

Keep going

Spiral out

Keep going

Spiral out

Keep going

Spiral out

Keep going

The lyrical pattern established in the beginning of ‘Lateralus’ and carries through to the very end is one that instructs the listener to keep expanding the mind, to step beyond the ‘black and white’, to ‘spiral out’.  ‘Embrace the random’ also encourages the listener to accept those realities of life which are beyond ones control and not subject to change, and to accept events as they occur.

 While ‘Parabola’ and ‘Lateralus’ are both fantastic songs, it is the 11-minute plus tour de force of ‘Reflection’ that really points the way out from the cynicism and misanthropy that is too easy to fall into when contemplating some of the harsher realities expressed in songs such as ‘Vicarious’, ‘Right in Two’, and ‘Ænima’.  ‘Reflection’ starts with us being at rock bottom:

I have come curiously close to the end, down

Beneath my self-indulgent pitiful hole,

Defeated, I concede and

Move closer

I may find comfort here

I may find peace within the emptiness

How pitiful.

But even at the bottom of the hole, even when it all seems lost and hopeless, there is still a glimmer:

And in my darkest moment, fetal and weeping

The moon tells me a secret – my confidant

As full and bright as I am

This light is not my own and

A million light reflections pass over me

Its source is bright and endless

She resuscitates the hopeless

Without her, we are lifeless satellites drifting

And it is from that glimmer the direction is revealed.  There is a way out of despair, a way out of the disillusionment, the cynicism, the negativity, out of the darkness that will consume us if we let it do so.

And as I pull my head out I am without one doubt

Don’t wanna be down here feeding my narcissism.

I must crucify the ego before it’s far too late

I pray the light lifts me out

Before I pine away.

So crucify the ego, before it’s far too late

To leave behind this place so negative and blind and cynical,

And you will come to find that we are all one mind

Capable of all that’s imagined and all conceivable.

Just let the light touch you

And let the words spill through

And let them pass right through

Bringing out our hope and reason …

before we pine away.

As much as anything, ‘Reflection’ is about a maturation process, a maturing of the soul and the acquisition of wisdom that comes with it.  But, that too is a choice.

tool1As stated above, it’s easy to fall into a trap of cynicism.  It’s easy to hold grudges, and easy to just go along with the wider culture instead of “learning to swim.”  It’s definitely easy to take a dark view of humanity while forgetting what is on the other side of the ledger – art, architecture, a civilization that is more humane with more abundance than anything imagined by our ancestors, and so on.  But taking the easy way out rarely leads to anything good, nor does it get you closer to the truth or lead to real peace of mind.

 During the writing of this piece, I received an email from a friend with a quote from C.S. Lewis that I think really sums up the message in the lyrics of a number of Tool songs when taken as a larger body of work:

“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”

You certainly will not find comfort in the lyrics of Tool, if that’s what you are seeking.  If you wish to seek comfort directly, go listen to something else, mindful of the quote above.  On the other hand, if you seek truth and are willing to face it, even when it’s dark and unpleasant, then the lyrics of the various Tool works discussed above should not bother you.  Not only will you get a good dose of the truth, you may also find a little bit of comfort as a result.  And most assuredly, you will also hear some incredible music by some exceptionally talented musicians.

You Can Do a Lot in a Lifetime, If You Don’t Burn Out Too Fast – Rush, April 23, 2013 at the Frank Erwin Center, Austin, Texas

ImageJust one week after a long-overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rush opened the second leg of their ‘Clockwork Angels’ tour – and fortunately for myself and thousands of other Texans, they did it right here in Austin.

For long-time Rush fans, a Rush concert is more than just an event where we see musicians performing their catalog in a live setting.  For us, it is something that gets into us the way dye gets into a shirt and alters its color; something that affects each of us right down to the molecular level.  This show certainly did that for me, more for reasons I will get into below.

The steampunk aesthetic of the stage setup was spectacular.  It was refreshing to see a big visual presentation to accompany the music, which is a rare thing these days.  In contrast to the 70’s, when progressive rock was bigger and had more backing by the record companies, most contemporary prog shows are played in smaller venues without the type of visuals as were present in some of the gargantuan shows of that earlier time (think ‘Yes’ on the ‘Relayer’ tour).  Rush is the rare band from that era that can still play large venues with a corresponding stage set and light show that turns the presentation into more of an event than just a live music performance.

After a long break from the road, the band seemed rested, recharged, and ready to go.  Some of Rush’s typically humorous opening video greeted the audience when the lights went down, featuring the band’s trademarked slightly bizarre humor.  The concert proper then opened with a rousing version of ‘Subdivisions’, followed a number of 80’s works.  In the first set, they did three songs from ‘Power Windows’, including ‘The Big Money’, ‘Grand Designs’, and ‘Territories’, while also managing to squeeze in ‘Limelight’, ‘Force Ten’, and ‘The Analog Kid’.  After the latter tune, the band moved into the 90’s with ‘Bravado’ and ‘Where’s My Thing’ and then into the 00’s with ‘Far Cry’, which closed out the first set.

After a short break, the band returned to the stage, this time with eight additional musicians collectively known as ‘The Clockwork Angels String Ensemble’.  This tour has been the first in which Rush has brought extra musicians on stage, and they were used to good effect here.  The string ensemble filled in some spaces while enhancing others, remaining on stage throughout the performance of ‘Clockwork Angels’ and for several songs afterwards, including a blistering performance of ‘YYZ’, which is captured through a smartphone (not mine) here.

Beginning with another entertaining bizarro-humor video (with Neil, Alex, and Geddy playing dwarfs) the second half of the show kicked off with ‘Caravan’, and followed through with most of the songs from ‘Clockwork Angels’.  Regrettably missing from that list was ‘BU2B’ and ‘Wish Them Well’, the latter being a favorite of mine not only for the music but for the life lesson within the lyrics.  A guitar snafu during ‘The Anarchist’ was a minor hiccup that left Geddy alone without melodic accompaniment for a moment, but Alex and his guitar tech had the presence of mind to quickly swap out instruments.  The performance of ‘Clockwork Angels’ concluded with a spectacular performance of ‘The Garden’, the visuals of video working great with the music here.

After concluding ‘Clockwork Angels’, the band went back into the 80’s again, with ‘Manhattan Project’, a short drum solo, ‘Red Sector A’, and ‘YYZ’.  The string ensemble exited the stage and the band closed out the set with ‘The Spirit of Radio’.  The band returned for an encore including ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘2112’ (‘Overture’, ‘The Temples of Syrinx’, and ‘Grand Finale’) before calling it a night for good.

I don’t have much to critique for the show, but I do have to say that the soundman could have done a better job with the mix.  It was very bass-heavy, and this caused a bit of muffling of notes, particularly on a few of Alex’s guitar solos.  But overall, that wasn’t enough to dampen the experience, which was still overwhelmingly positive.

All in all, an outstanding show, played with the energy and intensity that belied their age.

ImageAfterward, according to their Facebook page, Neil, Alex, and Geddy got in touch with their inner cavemen by devouring some Texas barbeque, as shown in the photo.  At this point of the review, you’ll have to excuse me while I go off on a tangent, but there is something in that photo that I think I need to address with the band members.  Geddy, Alex, Neil – I’m glad you enjoyed your barbeque during your most recent visit to the Republic of Texas.  The ribs and brisket are hard to beat.  However, I have to say I am a little disturbed in looking at some of the bottles on the table.  You three are Canadian boys, and therefore have Canadian genes – which means like other great Canadians, such as Bob and Doug McKenzie, you are drinkers of hearty beer.  Thus, seeing several bottles of Corona on the table gives me pause.  Corona is more or less a summertime beer – I could give you a pass on this if the gig was an outdoor gig during the sweltering months of July or August.  But last night was an unseasonably cool April night, and thus I just cannot understand the Corona.  Even more disturbing is what appears to be a bottle of Bud Light on the table.  Perhaps one of you reached for a water bottle and didn’t notice the difference?  Now, in fairness, toward the upper right corner, it does appear that some redemption is present, as I am about 90% confident that’s a bottle of Shiner Blonde.  I’ve compared the portion of the label I can see in the picture to an actual bottle of the same in my refrigerator, and the lack of a bar code on my bottle appears to be the only difference.  I’ll do more research of the label tomorrow night as I watch the NFL draft – just to be sure, you know.  Nevertheless, Shiner Blonde is a beer befitting of your Canadian DNA, guys, so I would recommend you use that to wash down your next Texas barbeque dinner.  Ok, tangent over.

This Rush concert was special in a way that says something both about Rush and their fans alike.  Not only was this my fifth Rush show, but it was the fifth different decade in which I had seen them.  Previously I had seen them in 1979 (Rupp Arena, Lexington, KY, Hemispheres tour), 1984 (Hampton Coliseum, Hampton VA, Grace Under Pressure tour), 1990 (Charlotte Coliseum, Charlotte, NC, Presto tour) and 2007 (Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, San Antonio, TX, Snakes and Arrows tour).  The 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s. Now I can add the 10’s.  I’m comfortable in saying that I’m not alone among the Rush fan base, and in fact know there are fans that have seen many, many more shows than I have, and moreover, within the same five decades.  There are not many bands out there that one can say the same about.  There are even fewer (if any bands) that one can say that about while also saying that it was with the same lineup each time.  That’s a testimony to their longevity, as well as to the loyalty of the fans that have stuck with them all of these years.  As many of you will recognize, the title of this piece is drawn from the lyrics of ‘Marathon’ off of the ‘Power Windows’ album.  And those words, written by their philosopher-drummer nearly 30 years ago, appear to be even more true now than when that album was released.  Rush, despite some serious ups and downs, has persevered and continued to make great music far beyond the time when most bands lose their creative edge.  And fans like myself and countless others, we’ve lived our lives and had our own ups and downs for all of these years, and yet we kept coming back, keep buying the albums, and keep going to the concerts because we appreciate the excellence, the professionalism, the creativity, and the wisdom inherent in the lyrics. That neither Rush nor their fans have burned out, that both have shown the endurance to stick with one another throughout the decades only proves the wisdom of the lyrics from which this review draws its title.

Thanks, guys.  Not just for last night’s show. But for everything over all of these years.

A Desert Island Disc List of (Going For the) One

ImageOne of the hardest things a serious music fan is ever tasked with is coming up with a list of five or ten desert island discs, i.e. the albums without which he or she cannot live.  In fact, trying to put such a list together can be torture.  I’m pretty sure that somewhere in the Geneva Convention is a prohibition on forcing prisoners of war to assemble a desert island disc list under duress.  Such a thing could cause serious and irreversible psychological damage, and would thus be inhumane.

 

The trouble with desert island disc lists is that our moods – and thus our musical preferences at any given moment – are so incredibly varied.  One moment you might want to listen to the intricacies of a well-played classical guitar piece, the next moment you crave the audio testosterone known as AC/DC.  One moment you may want the sunny joy of Led Zeppelin tracks such as ‘The Song Remains the Same’ or ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’, the next moment you want the dark, brooding heaviness of early Black Sabbath.   One moment you want the folky feel of some acoustic Jethro Tull, while in another moment you want the cathartic release of an angry Tool song.  These examples are just the tip of an infinitely large iceberg.

While I would have to inflict great pain upon myself to assemble a definitive desert island disc list, there is one album I can say would be on any final version that I came up with  – Yes’s 1977 masterpiece, ‘Going for the One’.  

“Why ‘Going for the One’?” you ask.  The consensus on Yes albums like ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘The Yes Album’ is that they are great albums, if not outright masterpieces.  On the other end of the spectrum, albums like ‘Union’ and ‘Open Your Eyes’ are generally considered somewhere between awful and God-awful.  And then there are those Yes albums that are lightning rods of controversy – ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’, ‘90125’, and to some degree, ‘Drama’.  ‘Going for the One’, while generally viewed in a positive manner, doesn’t fall into any of these categories among the majority of Yes fans.  But if you ask me, it is a masterpiece as much ‘Close to the Edge’.  It crystallizes the essence of Yes – not to mention some artistic goals of first-wave progressive rock. 

To really ‘get’ this album, it helps to understand the context in which it was recorded, both within the band’s history as well as musical trends at large.  Recording for the album began in earnest in the fall of 1976 – the same year that the punk movement exploded onto the scene, in no small part as a reaction to progressive rock.  The genre of progressive rock itself was beginning to show some signs of wear and tear – Peter Gabriel had left Genesis, King Crimson had disbanded, and the general excesses of the genre were beginning to turn the music-buying public looking in other directions.  Meanwhile, punk was raging and stadium rock’ was beginning to step into the place formerly occupied by the proggers.

Within the band, Yes had gone through a tumultuous few years, including the release of the controversial ‘Topographic Oceans’, Rick Wakeman’s resulting departure, ‘Relayer’, a number of solo albums, a significant amount of touring, the easing out of Patrick Moraz and the eventual return of Wakeman.  There was a need for the band to catch its collective breath, to reflect.

‘Going for the One’ has a very introspective feel to it.  This is borne out in no small part by the album artwork, including the cover (shown above) as well as the inner gatefold.

Image

A first thing to note is that none of the Roger Dean artwork is present –neither on the inner gatefold or the outside cover – save for the famous Yes logo.  The front cover shows the backside of a naked man, intersected by varying geometric shapes of different lines, against the backdrop of two modern skyscrapers, symbolic of standing naked against modern world.  On the inside gatefold is an idyllic scene of a lake at sunset.  From the liner notes of the re-mastered CD, I am taking an educated guess that this is Lake Geneva, Switzerland, not far from where the album was recorded.   Some sort of island (quite possibly man-made) having a rather large but bare tree sits in the middle of the lake.  Individual pictures of each band member are also shown, with all but Steve Howe’s having a lake (the same one?) as a backdrop.  The contrast between the front cover and the inner gatefold would suggest taking refuge of some sort, turning inward and reflecting. 

In addition to its introspective feel, ‘Going for the One’ also very much has a classical music-like sound as well.  In his excellent book ‘Rocking the Classics’, author Edward Macan describes progressive rock of the 1970’s as attempting to “combine classical music’s sense of space and monumental scope with rock’s raw power and energy.”  ‘Going for the One’ accomplishes this spectacularly, better than any other progressive rock album of the 70’s, other Yes masterpieces included.  The introduction of the harp and the church organ, the latter from St. Martin’s Cathedral in Vevey, Switzerland, are instrumental in the sound of this album.  The sound here exemplifies the term “symphonic progressive rock.”  Interestingly enough, this was the first Yes album since ‘Time and a Word’ that did not feature Eddy Offord in the role as a producer.  There is little doubt Offord’s absence affected the overall sound. 

The title track kicks off the album, and it is an outlier with respect to the remainder of the tracks – a straight ahead rocker.  In yet another “first in a long time”, the title track of ‘Going for the One’ is the first Yes song under eight minutes in length since Fragile.  Between ‘Fragile’ and ‘Going for the One’, the shortest Yes song was ‘Siberian Khatru’, clocking in at 8:55.  Musically, the song is propelled forward by Howe’s pedal steel guitar.  This is interesting in itself, as the instrument is most closely associated with country music, yet Howe makes it rock and rock hard here.  Wakeman’s keyboard work, both on the church organ and piano stand out here as well.  In general, every instrument here, as well as the vocals, proceeds at an up tempo pace that maintains itself from start to finish.

There are a two other things to note on the title track that are true for the entire album.  One is that the production here is very crisp and clean.  The second (which undoubtedly plays on the first) is that the soundscape is not as dense as on the album’s predecessor, ‘Relayer’.  Instead of choosing to fill up every available recording track, the band has scaled things down a bit from their previous effort.  This is done to good effect, as it gives the music a little more chance to breathe.

The classical-like sound referenced above makes its first appearance on the next track, ‘Turn of the Century’, and is prominent from here on out.  The music begins with some light, exquisitely played acoustic guitar work by Howe.  Jon Anderson has stated the song was inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’, and lyrically it tells a story of a sculptor creating his lover in “form out of stone” after her death.  Both music and lyrics convey a sense of deep loss, making this the album’s most emotional piece.  The loss is most poignantly conveyed in the first half of the song, when the music is very melancholy.  Around the halfway mark, Wakeman’s piano makes an appearance, along with Howe’s pedal steel guitar.  This evolves into a very tumultuous transition.  But what emerges on the other side, in the latter half of the song is bright and joyful.  Howe takes over on a standard electric guitar with some very sunny lines, while Squire’s bass line does a great job of playing off of Anderson’s vocals.  Moreover, this portion of the music is very joyful, indicating that our protagonist has emerged from his grieving and can once again experience happiness.  Perhaps the sculpture of his lover has given him solace and peace, coming to life metaphorically if not in reality.  The ending of the song has a bittersweet feel to it, as if again to acknowledge the loss while also acknowledging the ability to find joy in life once again after such a tragedy.  All things considered, this is a very beautiful and delicate composition both musically and lyrically. 

‘Parallels’ is up next, and is an underrated gem of the Yes catalog.  This song features spectacular performances by Howe, Wakeman, and Squire, who take turns in showing off their chops on their respective instruments.  Still, they never descend into self-indulgence or stray from the song’s logical progression.  The song introduces itself proper with Wakeman’s billowing church organ from St. Martin’s Cathedral ( this is best played LOUD to get the full impact).  Squire and Howe then chime in, the former with a typically excellent bass line, the latter with some crisp, clean lead guitar.  From there, the song takes on a straightforward structure of two verses and two choruses, before transitioning into the middle section led by more of Howe’s crisp lead guitar.  After another verse, the song segues into an instrumental section in which Wakeman and Squire are at the forefront.  The interplay between Wakeman’s soloing on the church organ and Squire’s bass line is nothing short of brilliant.  The transition out of this instrumental section is announced by the return of Howe’s guitar.  After one final chorus, the song begins barreling toward its conclusion.  Howe again steps to the forefront, his guitar firing burst after burst of clean, high notes.  This is some of my favorite Howe guitar work in the entire Yes catalog – bright, sharp, and technically brilliant.  Squire and Wakeman remain in the mix here with some fantastic playing of their own. 

Another defining aspect of ‘Parallels’ is its conclusion – one of the best endings to a song I have ever heard.  That ending is more easily described in non-musical terms.  Imagine 18-wheeler, barreling down the highway at full speed.  Now imagine that 18-wheeler not just coming to a full stop, but stopping on a dime.  And imagine that 18-wheeler doing so with the grace and finesse of a ballet dancer.  That’s the ending of ‘Parallels’ right there.  It’s an extremely difficult combination to pull off, which makes its flawless execution here that much better.

If J.S. Bach had a rock band, it would sound like ‘Parallels’.

Moving on, we next come to ‘Wonderous Stories’.  It’s the shortest song on the album, but also the brightest.  It also marks the return of Howe on a guitar-like instrument called the vachalia, which last appeared on ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’.  Like ‘Parallels’ before it, the song includes a verse-chorus structure, with the choruses featuring some of Yes’s trademarked harmony vocals.  The middle section is marked by a rather vigorous Wakeman keyboard solo including synths that emulate a string section.  The song resumes its verse-chorus structure once again, while a thick bass line underneath propels the music forward.  Howe and Wakeman continue to supply the melodies on top.  The vocals, which include both harmonies and counterpoints here, are stunning.  As the vocals fade out, Howe enters the scene again, this time with some jazzy electric guitar to close out the song. 

Finally, we come to ‘Awaken’.  There are numerous superlatives which could be used to describe this piece.  All of them are inadequate.  Somebody will have to invent new ones.

Much like the album ‘Moving Pictures’ did for Rush, ‘Awaken’ brings together everything that is great about Yes and distills it into one coherent work of art.  It has the epic scope of pieces such as ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Gates of Delirium’.  It has the virtuoso instrumentation of numerous Yes classics such as ‘Heart of the Sunrise’, ‘Yours is No Disgrace’, and ‘Siberian Khatru’.  And it has the classical feel of the preceding tracks on the same album.  Moreover, it pares back some of the excesses of previous albums without paring back any of the artistic ambition.

To the uninitiated, Wakeman’s piano lines that open ‘Awaken’ could be mistaken for something from a piano concerto.  After a few vigorous runs, the music begins a dreamy sequence, as Anderson’s vocals begin.  As the introductory verses closes, a note of dissonance sounds before Howe takes over using a guitar riff that has a decidedly Eastern flavor (incidentally, the working title for ‘Awaken’ was ‘Eastern Numbers’).  Anderson begins a chant, and the music takes a more serious tone.  The most remarkable thing about this section is the drumming and the bass work.   Alan White’s drumming with Yes has never been better than on this album, and on this particular track.  Squire’s bass plays off of both White’s drumming and Howe’s guitar.  The odd time signature here keeps things more than interesting, as it is difficult to predict when the next bass note or next drum beat will fall, and yet it’s also clear that there is a logical pattern behind the playing.  It’s the kind of bass and drum work that sucks the listener in and keeps them hooked.

After two verses and two choruses of the chant, the music breaks into a blistering Howe guitar solo.  Much like the guitar work on ‘Parallels’, the soloing here is full of bursts of sharp, high-pitched notes.  However, the mood here is entirely different, expressing a sense of inner turmoil and urgency.  This is another section of brilliant virtuoso guitar playing that illustrates why this album is among Howe’s strongest, either in or out of Yes. 

As Howe gracefully exits the solo and returns to the main riff, another verse and chorus of the chant follow before the music begins a slow transition away from the Eastern motif.  Wakeman’s keyboards step to the forefront, first mirroring Howe’s riff before segueing into the “Workings of Man” portion of the song.  The church organ leads the way into this section, which has a much more European sound and texture, not to mention the lyrics.  The tension builds here to a peak before Wakeman puts the brakes on the whole thing with a series of ever quieter notes, effectively bringing the first half of ‘Awaken’ to a close. 

ImageThe transition to the second half of the song begins with a split-second of silence, before a single note of White’s tuned percussion blends into the first pluck of a harp by Anderson.   From an initial quiet beginning, the band begins to slowly and painstakingly build tension in what is a textbook example of the technique.  White’s percussion and Anderson’s harp start this section, soon to be joined by Wakeman, who is initially playing singular notes on the church organ. 

 

A layer is added to the tension when Wakeman begins playing slightly longer (but still relatively quiet) runs.  Squire also quietly enters, playing singular high bass notes, most likely on the six-string neck of the monster triple neck bass he uses for live performances of this song. These bass notes intensify and push the music forward, while Wakeman’s runs on the church organ slowly begin to lengthen, increase in volume, and sound more orchestral.   Choral singers also join the fray, further building the intensity, which builds like a wave to a first peak before receding somewhat.  At this point, Howe re-enters the picture on electric guitar, and leads the music to a second peak and a transition into what may be called the ‘Master of Time’ section of the piece.  The build-up from the initial plucks on the harp to this point is powerful stuff, very mesmerizing and very emotional. 

I have a personal anecdote I would like to share to illustrate the emotional punch of this section.  In 2002, I attended my sixth Yes concert at an excellent Austin venue called The Backyard.  I went with several former co-workers, including a friend of mine named Cheryl.  While Cheryl is not a prog rock fan per se, she is much more of an astute listener to music than the vast majority of people.  Musically, she is “switched in”.  Toward the end of the concert, Yes performed ‘Awaken’.  During the portion described above, I was mesmerized as normal, but for some reason I looked over at Cheryl standing next to me to gauge her reaction.  Tears were streaming down her face, which was transfixed to the stage as she was as absorbed in the music as I had been just before turning my head.  Amazing.  I remember thinking “she gets it”, and was very impressed at that.  Among my friends and acquaintances, I have musically usually been an outlier, as few of them have been interested in prog, and certainly not anywhere to the same degree as me.  Some of them have even heard ‘Awaken’ in my presence and have given me strange looks that say “what the heck is this?”  Yet here was Cheryl, on her first listen to ‘Awaken’, completely getting the gist of this incredible composition.  As someone who had known this little secret for a long time, I found it very gratifying to see her reaction with no prompting or no explanation from anyone else – only the music was talking.  It’s a moment I will not soon forget.

As the music progresses through the ‘Master of Time’ section, Anderson sings several verses and the tension continues to build, finally resolving itself with a shattering climax, with Wakeman’s church organ and the choral singers at the forefront.  The dreamy section from the beginning is then reprised, and the final line of lyrics is one of my favorites from the entire Yes catalog: “Like the time I ran away, and turned around and you were standing close to me.”  Howe then brings ‘Awaken’ to its final conclusion with some playful electric guitar lines.

Wow.  What a piece of music.  In my opinion, the finest fifteen minutes plus of music Yes ever committed to any recording medium.  This is not to take away anything from some of their other masterpieces (and there are several), but to extol the virtues of this incredible piece of music.  And by the way, I am in some good company when I surmise that this is Yes’s best work.  None other than Jon Anderson himself has stated “at last we had created a Masterwork” with regard to Awaken.  On the 1991 documentary ‘Yesyears’, Anderson refers to “the best piece of Yes piece of music, Awaken” and further states that it is “everything I would desire from a group of musicians in this life.”  I’d say that’s a pretty strong endorsement.

In progressive rock circles, many references are made to the various sub-genres. Yes music (at least their 70’s output) is most often classified as symphonic progressive rock.  No album exemplifies this term more perfectly than ‘Going for the One’, and no song exemplifies it more than ‘Awaken’.  Other Yes works, such as the previously mentioned ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Gates of Delirium,’ possess the same scope but not the same instrumental timbre.  ELP had some symphonic works that were their own interpretations of existing classical compositions while their own magnum opus, ‘Karn Evil 9’, sounded high tech for its time.  ‘Thick as a Brick’ by Jethro Tull is certainly symphonic in its scope, and while great in its own right, has more of a folky feel than symphonic.  In contrast to all of these, on ‘Going for the One’, Yes has created original compositions that, in many parts, could be easily mistaken for classical symphonic music by those not otherwise familiar with this type of music.   A perfect fusion, you might say.

I’m still struggling to come up with the other four or nine or however many albums I need to complete my desert island disc list.  And being immersed in the midst of a second golden age of progressive rock as we are now, completing that list will only get tougher due to the cornucopia of excellent new releases.  But I can say without any hesitation, without any equivocation, whatever final form that list takes, it will most definitely include ‘Going for the One.’

Self-Imposed Slavery: Riverside’s ‘Shrine of New Generation Slaves’

Image    Riverside’s recorded output began with three albums that are collectively known as the Reality Dream Trilogy (‘Out of Myself’, ‘Second Life Syndrome’, and ‘Rapid Eye Movement’).  These are all very good albums, although I wouldn’t call any of them great albums.  However, in 2009, Riverside took a big leap forward with ‘Anno Domini High Definition’ (ADHD).  The music took a noticeably different direction from its three predecessors, and reflected well on the album’s subject matter, i.e. the frenetic pace of modern life and accompanying dissatisfaction that sometimes goes with it.  After a two-and-a-half year wait (with the EP ‘Memories in My Head’ thrown in during the meantime), Riverside has returned with ‘Shrine of New Generation Slaves’ (SONGS).  And once again, they have taken a big – no, huge – leap forward.  Quite simply, this is Riverside’s best album to date.

Conceptually, the album relates to dissatisfaction with modern life, so much so that many people feel that they are slaves to something beyond their control.  Thematically, there are some common threads with various lyrics on SONGS predecessor, ADHD (in particular, the lyrics on the excellent ‘Driven to Destruction’).  Nevertheless, the lyrical (and thus conceptual) content extends beyond that to into areas such as stagnant relationships, the depravity of celebrity culture, surrender to nihilism, and ultimately, redemption.

Musically, the album is just fantastic.  In contrast to its predecessor, it does not feature a barrage of notes and thus gives the listener a little more space to contemplate the lyrics. That being said, I wouldn’t call it dimensionally sparse either, as there is plenty going on.  The music is probably the result of a different approach.  Bass player Mariusz Duda stated in a recent interview:

I had some problems before as I was a little bit tired of the formula that we had in the past and I didn’t want to do another album with complicated structures. I just wanted to finally focus more on the arrangements and the composition. To focus on some details, like a way for playing drums, a way of playing guitar. I really, really wanted to focus simply on songs. Simply songs, ambitious songs should be the foundation of this album. The metal parts I skip and replace them with hard rock elements.

Confident in the chops honed on previous albums, the band has taken more of a big picture approach to the music on this album – an approach that seems to have served them very well.

‘New Generation Slave’ opens up the album, featuring a heavy guitar riff interleaved with verses of Duda’s protagonist lamenting his life and dissatisfaction with it:

Ain’t nothing more to say

Your Honor

Don’t look at me like that

The truth is

I am a free man

But I can’t enjoy my life

The tempo then picks up, and keyboardist Michał Łapaj announces his presence in this piece by getting in touch with his inner Jon Lord (RIP), and repeats this a number of times throughout the album.  The opening track segues into ‘The Depth of Self Delusion’, which is less heavy and a bit slower, but no less good.  The use of acoustic guitar and atmospheric keyboards make their first appearance.  I don’t recall this much use of acoustic guitar on any previous Riverside release, and it’s great to hear them expand their sonic palette in this manner.  The song includes some interesting bass work in the latter half and closes with light acoustic guitar.  The band then blasts into ‘Celebrity Touch’ as Duda offers his critique of our Kardashian-ized culture and the pathological need some have for attention and approval from others:

I can’t afford to be silent

I can’t afford to lose my stand

What matters is to be in view

I am seen therefore I am

I can satisfy my hunger

I can satisfy my thirst

What about the feeling of importance

Now I’ve got my chance

In the center of attention

TV
Glossy magazines

My private life is public

I sell everything

Days are getting shorter

They’ll forget about me soon

So I jump on the bandwagon

With no taboos

The song includes a nice juxtaposition between a heavy riff that accompanies the above lyrics, to a less heavy, more reflective section:

But what if we start to talk

Not only say out loud

What if we sift the babble

From what really counts

What if we disappear

Go deeply underground

What if we hide away

From being stupefied

‘We Got Used to Us’ follows, and is yet another slower track that has somewhat of a Porcupine Tree-like vibe as our protagonist ponders a stagnant and dissatisfying relationship.  This one is pretty emotional.

Next up is the punchy ‘Feel Like Falling’, a song with crossover appeal having upbeat music that belies the lyrics, as our protagonist begins to realize the path he has chosen in life has led him astray and left him wanting to simply give up:

Had allowed that life to drift

For I’ve chosen a different trail

When light fades

I feel like falling into blank space

‘Deprived (Irretrievably Lost Imagination)’ is up next with music that is slower, mellower, and decidedly more melancholy than the previous track.  The music includes a nice, Floyd-ian interlude at about the halfway mark leading into a jazz-infused instrumental section in the latter half featuring some excellent sax playing.   Our protagonists dissatisfaction seems to be so intense at this point that they have gone beyond the mere desire to give up as in ‘Feel Like Falling’ – now we have a full fledged surrender to despair:

Curled up

Deprived
Curled up

Deprived
I shut away

Please don’t call my name

‘Escalator Shrine’ begins as another slower track, but picks up the pace after a few minutes.  Once again we hear the Hammond organ with the Leslie cabinet, some excellent bass playing, and some heavy (but not necessarily metal) guitar.  Like the previous track, it includes another Floyd-ian interlude at about the halfway mark.  Lyrically, ‘Escalator Shrine’ approaches the new generation slavery from more of an intellectual level than an emotional one, as our protagonist channels Albert Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus:

Dragging our feet

Tired and deceived

Slowly moving on

Bracing shaky legs

Against all those wasted years

We roll the boulders of sins

Up a hill of new days

‘Coda’ is the final track on the album, and maybe the most emotionally heavy, even though it is instrumentally the lightest – a single acoustic guitar.  Perhaps our protagonist has read some Epictetus, or maybe the serenity prayer, but it appears he has realized that his happiness and satisfaction with life is ultimately in his control and his own responsibility:

Night outside grows white

I lie faceup in my shell

Open my eyes

Don’t feel like falling into blank space

Indeed, for all of its darkness and all of its sadness, SONGS ends on an upbeat note, as our protagonist casts off his self-imposed chains:

I won’t collapse

I’m set to rise

It’s interesting to note that, although ‘Coda’ is the final track on the album, it is also numbered as Track 1, as is ‘New Generation Slave’.  Indeed, our protagonist has hit the reset button and is starting over.

I simply cannot say enough good about this album.  As thrilled as I was with ADHD, my response to SONGS is in a completely different realm.  Musically, the album has a perfect blend of heavy and light, of complex and simple, emotional and intellectual.  Nothing is overdone, nothing is incomplete.  The lyrics have a strong message, and as dark as the album’s atmosphere, it’s ultimately a message of hope for those that get it.  And if this album is an indication of what we can expect in the future from Riverside, then it’s another strong piece of anecdotal evidence that we are in the midst of a progressive rock golden age heretofore unseen.

Oh, and in case you didn’t get it, I strongly recommend this album :)

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