Author Archives: Thaddeus Wert
Well, this is certainly a surprise! Gavin Harrison, drummer par excellence of Porcupine Tree, has recorded an album of reworked PT songs, and it is not what you would expect. Rather than stick to a rock format, Harrison has entirely re-imagined these songs as big band jazz performances. And you know what? It works!
The key to Cheating the Polygraph’s success is that these are not note-for-note reproductions of the originals, but rather soaring flights of swing that use the original melodies as jumping off points. Freeing Steven Wilson’s melodies (and very few can write a melody as seductive as he can) from the strictures of rock, Harrison and his band really stretch out and explore the implications of Wilson’s chords through the harmonies and rhythms of jazz. And this is jazz that goes way, way out there. If Duke Ellington were alive today, he would probably be making music like this.
According to Harrison, the songs he selected are his personal PT favorites, which is fascinating. They aren’t the obvious choices, and most come from relatively obscure sources: “What Happens Now?” and “Cheating the Polygraph” are from the Nil Recurring EP, “So Called Friend” and “Futile” are from Recordings II, “Mother and Child Divided” is off the Arriving Somewhere soundtrack, and “The Pills I’m Taking” is a section from “Anesthetize” that I have from a BBC Radio One Rock Show Session (it may be available elsewhere; I’m not an obsessive PT collector!). So for many casual PT fans, Cheating the Polygraph may be the first time to hear these tunes.
A standout performance is “Heart Attack In A Layby”, where the somber mood of Wilson’s original performance is preserved, but marimbas and bass clarinet add an exotic element that is simply beautiful. Another highlight is “The Pills I”m Taking” which Harrison transforms into a suspenseful brass blast that would be right at home as the theme song for a 1950s TV crime drama. “Hatesong/Halo” begins with a marimba workout that soon morphs into an edgy flute-led arrangement; it sounds like a long-lost Stravinksy composition. The transition from “Hatesong” to “Halo” is masterful; pairing those two songs into a suite brings out the best in both.
What about Harrison’s own performance? Well, when I first saw the DVD of Porcupine Tree’s Anesthetize concert, I posted a review on Amazon, stating, “For me, this production highlights how indispensable Gavin Harrison is to Porcupine Tree. His drumming is simply phenomenal. Despite PT being Steven Wilson’s baby, Gavin is the true star of this DVD.” On Cheating the Polygraph, he has not lost one bit of his drive and grace. Every song is built on the foundation of his propulsive percussion. Harrison remains a master of energetic cross-rhythmic drumming while never sounding “busy”. He is to rock what Tony Williams was to jazz – always pushing the boundaries of what percussionists can do.
Cheating the Polygraph may not be “rock”, but it is challenging and very satisfying music. In my book, that makes it prog, and excellent prog at that!
Here is a preview of the album; Kscope Music plans to release it on April 13th:
Update: I should have mentioned Gavin’s collaborator, Laurence Cottle, is responsible for the marvelous arrangements of these songs. Let’s hope their partnership is not a one-shot deal!
Robin Armstrong’s (Cosmograf) latest post on his website is a must-read defense of Steven Wilson’s hard-won popularity. Here’s an excerpt:
Well here’s the rub, you, like me and thousands upon thousands of people making music in the world today are entitled to precisely nothing. We have no right to be heard, no right to earn a living from our art and certainly no right to success. For the mere mortals, these things have to be earned, slogged at, and when some little successes arrive, appreciate them.
The truth is, that making a record now has never been easier. Making a record that people will listen to got harder, much harder. When someone makes a record that people are falling over themselves to listen to, in a genre of music that’s similar to yours, be bloody inspired, I know I am…
Read the whole thing here.
As Brad Birzer mentioned in another post, Eric Gillette is the lead guitarist for The Neal Morse Band, having contributed to their album The Grand Experiment and currently touring with them. Before he hooked up with Neal, Eric released a self-produced album, Afterthought, which certainly deserves to be recognized in its own right for the excellent slab of prog it is.
It begins with three very heavy guitar-based instrumentals, “Afterthought”, “Change”, and “You’re Full Of It”. Fans of Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson will eat these up, as they showcase Eric’s phenomenal guitar skills. Eric’s gift is his ever-present melodicism, regardless of how crunching the riffs are underneath.
The fourth track, “Lost” (featuring long-time Neal Morse collaborator Randy George on bass), is something very special. A 22 minute epic that begins with a fast Crimson-like guitar intro soon settles into a keyboard section reminiscent of classic Todd Rundgren while Eric sings, “Can you hear me? Is there anyone out there? I could use a helping hand…I will find my way; I won’t be afraid. I can feel you next to me.” After three blistering instrumentals, it is a startling and inspiring moment to hear his pure and strong vocals. “Lost” is a tremendous track, with not a note wasted during its entire length.
“Rising” is another instrumental, this time featuring fellow NMB member Bill Hubauer on keyboards. “Bring You Down” is another heavy track with excellent vocals. It brings to mind Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor at his best. Unlike NIN, though, Gillete’s lyrics are more positive: “You don’t have to face it alone/Don’t let it bring you down.”
“Out Of Control” is another guitar showcase that would give Jeff Beck a run for his money. As a matter of fact, if you miss those classic Jeff Beck/Jan Hammer jams, then “Stagger”, “Blue Sky” and “Miles Away” will satisfy. The latter song, in particular, is simply gorgeous, and I am sure it was no accident that the title suggests Miles Davis’ balladry.
The album closes on a gentle note with a piano-based acoustic tour de force, “Above The Sky”. Eric’s multitracked harmonies sing a song of hope and redemption: “Darkness turns to light/Now you can finally see what this all meant/ No more questions why/The answer’s right in front of you, so open your eyes/Above the sky”.
It is an extraordinary achievement for a young musician to produce a debut album of such high quality. It’s no surprise Neal Morse included him in his new band – Eric Gillette is the real deal, and we will be hearing a lot more from him in the years to come.
Last Night in Nashville, TN, The Neal Morse Band kicked off their tour in support of their new album, The Grand Experiment. Performing in the intimate confines of Rocketown to a very enthusiastic audience, Neal and his cohorts tore through an energetic set that lasted more than 2 hours and included some surprises in the set list.
They got things started with the a cappella opening to “The Call”, with every band member nailing his vocal part perfectly. Eric Gillette, a veteran from the Momentum tour, is on lead guitar, while Bill Hubauer (another Momentum vet) plays keyboards, clarinet, and sax. Of course, no Morse band would be complete without longtime collaborators Randy George on bass and Mike Portnoy on drums. I brought a friend with me to the show, and he was blown away by Mike’s performance, saying, “I haven’t seen anyone play drums like that since Keith Moon!” Eric was incredible throughout the show, singing occasional lead vocals and playing some absolutely shredding guitar. Bill’s instrumental and vocal versatility give the band almost two musicians in one person, and Randy George holds it all together with his fluid bass runs. As Neal proclaimed at one point, “Randy with the bass pedal solo – how prog is that!”
The band played every song from The Grand Experiment except (surprisingly) “Agenda”. Highlights included Neal playing a beautiful instrumental on acoustic guitar that led into “Waterfall”, as well as the Kings-X-sounding title track. They also played “Into the Fire” from ?, “The Creation” from One, and they got a roar of approval when the intro to “In Harm’s Way” (from Neal’s Spock’s Beard days!) boomed out.
This being the first gig of the tour, there were some inevitable glitches, but Neal took them in stride – even stopping “The Grand Experiment” to restart a tricky vocal section. The audience loved it, and once they were back on track, they never looked back.
There are few performers who can connect with their audience the way Neal does – conducting them during singalongs, raising his arms in appreciation, and even jumping off the stage to sing and play among them. He and the entire band gave all they had, every minute. As my friend exclaimed to me in the middle of a song, “It sure is nice to see a band just having a great time playing together!”
Neal asked if we could handle “one more epic” (of course we could), and then launched into “Alive Again”. Neal has written many, many epics, and this one is near the top. It rocks, it soars, it ebbs, and just when you think it’s over, it comes roaring back for an incredible finale.
As far as the encores, I won’t be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that there are some really fun surprises, both in terms of performance and song selection!
It’s been said (I have no idea if it’s true) that Keith Richards was once asked what it was like to be the world’s greatest rock and roll band. He replied that on any given night, there was a band playing in a club, somewhere, and for that night they were the world’s greatest rock and roll band. Last night, Rocketown hosted the world’s greatest.
You can get details of the rest of the Alive Again Tour at Radiant Records. Don’t miss this one.
Update: I mentioned above that “Alive Again” is one of Neal’s best epics. Actually, all of the songs on The Grand Experiment are a group effort, and Neal, Mike, Randy, Eric, and Bill all deserve credit for them.
In honor of Rush’s upcoming R40 tour, PJMedia’s J. Christian Adams ranks their top 6 albums. The list may surprise you!
Here’s an excerpt:
Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart have been producing music since they they first took the stage together at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena in August 1974. Peart was the new guy in the band then, but has since become its voice, penning lyrics that made hipster critics cringe – touching on, in chronological order – Tolkien, male baldness, the Solar Federation, starship Rocinante, forced equality of outcome, FM rock, automobile bans, Space Shuttle Columbia, concentration camps (Lee’s parents survived Auschwitz), Enola Gay, China, clever anagrams, chance, AIDS, the internet, expectations shattered by 9-11, more expectations shattered and finally, carnies. It’s hard to find a list of rock’s greatest drummers that doesn’t include Neil Peart.
Over the decades, hipster critics praised acts like Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and the Talking Heads while they mocked Rush. But 40 years later, Rush fills arenas and tops album charts, forever reinventing a sound that defies categorization. It’s just Rush.
You can read the whole thing here.
It’s never too early to start making a wish list for next Christmas, and this is one item that will be on mine. :)
I recently discovered this song by Alan Stewart that the good people at Numberphile posted. It’s a prog tune based on the digits of pi and tau. Now, before you turn up your nose at the thought of combining random digits with music, give it a listen. It’s quite good and packed with mathematical puns. For example, the camera makes a complete circle as the tune unfolds.
A kaleidoscope takes a mishmash of glass bits, pieces of plastic and paper, and combines them into symmetric images. Random elements are jumbled together and reflected into scenes of beautiful harmony and balance. Just like the kaleidoscope’s mirrors create beauty from seemingly incompatible pieces of broken glass, Transatlantic takes four exceedingly talented and strong personalities and combines them in ways that generate some of the most beautiful and powerful music today.
Transatlantic has just released a mammoth live set from their European tour in support of their recent album, Kaleidoscope, and it’s a scorcher. There are several different editions, and the smallest consists of 3 CDs/1 DVD (which is a steal at 23 USD). The CDs document their more than 3-hour-long show at Tilburg, The Netherlands, while the DVD covers their Cologne, Germany concert. The Tilburg show is really something special – Transatlantic and Neal Morse (as a solo artist) have performed there many times, and an obvious bond exists between the band and the audience. The DVD is very nice, because throughout the concert here is a huge screen behind the band with continually evolving kaleidoscopic/fractal patterns that enhance the viewing experience.
Transatlantic have grown tremendously as a group. For the uninitiated, it is a “super-group”, with members coming from some of the most successful prog acts ever: Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard, Flying Colors, solo), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Winery Dogs, Adrenaline Mob, Flying Colors, etc., etc.), Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings), and Pete Trewavas (Marillion). Their first couple of albums, SMPTe and Bridge Across Forever were great, but one got the sense that the various members brought their own songs to the projects, and not a lot of collaboration happened. The musical interaction on their third album, The Whirlwind, was excellent, but the music had a sense of familiarity that was getting worrisome.
Fortunately, on Kaleidoscope, Transatlantic have truly come into their own as a group. It’s hard to tell where one member’s influence ends and another’s begins; they have established their own unique sound, and when all the parts lock together and take off, there isn’t another band that can touch them. The DVD documenting the making of Kaleidoscope confirms the collaborative nature of the songs – I had assumed that Neal Morse was the primary creative force, but surprisingly, Mike Portnoy comes across as the main driver of the composing and arranging.
For KaLIVEascope, the boys are supported by multi-instrumentalist Ted Leonard, which frees up Roine to concentrate on his gorgeous lead guitar lines. Mike Portnoy has to be the hardest-working drummer in show business – he is indefatigable through hours and hours of incredibly complex and lengthy songs. Neal Morse is the primary lead vocalist, and in both the Tilburg and Cologne shows he again demonstrates his uncanny ability to reach out and connect with the audience. Finally, both the CD and DVD mixes give bassist Pete Trewavas the prominence he deserves. I’m a sucker for energetic and melodic basslines, and Pete does not disappoint.
Both shows open with “Into the Blue”, off Kaleidoscope. Then comes “My New World” from their debut. Their performance of this song is a revelation, as Roine sounds like a fire’s been lit under him. It’s now one of my favorite songs from their extensive catalog. “Shine” follows, which is one of their most straightforward “pop” songs. There’s a 30 – minute “Whirlwind” medley, then Neal sings a brief “Beyond The Sun” alone. They immediately segue into the epic “Kaleidoscope” which is performed exceptionally well on the Cologne DVD. A highlight is a jazzy section where Neal and Roine bring to mind the classic live work of Jan Hammer and Jeff Beck.
At this point, most bands would call it a night and leave the stage utterly spent, but there’s much more music in store. Neal and Roine perform a beautiful duet on acoustic and electric guitars. Next is the perennial crowd singalong, “We All Need Some Light”, and then the show proper concludes with an electrifying performance of “Black As The Sky”. I’ve seen all of Transatalantic’s live DVDs, and on this song they are at the absolute top of their game. (Video is below)
For encores, the Tilburg and Cologne setlists diverge: Tilburg includes “Nights in White Satin”, and Focus’ “Sylvia/Hocus Pocus”, featuring Thys van Leer himself(!). The evening finally concludes with a rousing medley of “All Of The Above/Stranger In Your Soul”. The Cologne show skips the covers, and goes straight to the medley.
Transatlantic is not a super-group; they are a cohesive unit. They are far greater than the sum of their parts, and it shows in these performances. Even earlier material sounds new; they’ve achieved that mysterious ability of gifted musicians to anticipate each others’ next move, and push themselves to higher and higher levels.