Author Archives: Pete Blum
A knock at the door.
Aren’t there too many stories that begin with a knock at the door?
I open it, and see exactly what I expect to see: Me.
Now, it won’t do at all to have you confused all the way through, so let’s say that the “me” at the door is played by Gary Oldman. No, I don’t have a particular reason for that. I just like Gary Oldman. Think of him as he appeared in The Book of Eli, but wearing jeans and a t-shirt. The shirt is emblazoned with a reproduction of the front cover of The Lamb.
I (at least I’m pretty sure that I am “I” rather than “me,” but don’t think too hard about that) can be played by anyone you fancy. Whatever you do, however, please don’t envision me as Rael from that album cover.
Me (Oldman) has been looking at me blankly. I see that he’s holding five playing cards in his hand, arranged as a hand, as if he’s playing a card game. I look back, just as blankly.
Finally, he speaks. “So… What’s up?”
I know what he means, but play dumb. “Not much. What’s up with you?”
“Where the hell have you been?”
I can’t think of a good response, so I just continue looking at him.
“You haven’t posted since July.”
This time a response seems appropriate. “Yeah.” I didn’t promise it would be a good one.
He holds the cards up, and extends them slightly toward me. “You dealt, but you never finished the hand.”
“You know why.”
“Well, yeah, at first. You got all busy and distracted. But FOUR MONTHS?”
“Four months is not a long time.”
A slight smile. “We’re talking web-time here. You know damned well that you get impatient after ten minutes if no one has ‘liked’ your latest Facebook post.”
“I’ve been thinking about another post. I’ll do it soon.”
“But YOU know that isn’t all. Everyone is talking about The Lamb again! The fortieth anniversary, it’s on everyone’s radar again, and nothing from you!”
I’m back to having no response.
He sighs. “May I come in, please?”
“Sure.” I move aside to let him in, and shut the door. He drops the playing cards on the coffee table and sits heavily on the end of the sofa. I sit in a nearby overstuffed chair that does not match the sofa, and wait for him to continue. The cards are face-up, and my peripheral vision catches three Jacks.
“That’s the thing, isn’t it? If everyone else is talking about it, you lose interest.”
I shrug, and remain silent for the moment.
His tone begins to lean toward mocking. “You’re still that freaking seventies prog-hipster teen, who needs his music to be not-too-popular.”
My turn to sigh. “Yeah, probably. I’ve always had trouble with hype, even when something is very very good.” I shift a bit, and try to look subtly defiant, probably failing at it. “But that’s not all.”
He crosses his arms and tilts his head. “What else, then?”
I close my eyes. After about 15 seconds, I open them again. “All of us talk about it, or we try to. Does it amount to anything more than trying to find all sorts of fancy ways to say that we love it?”
He looks puzzled. “Of course we love it. Why not find as many ways as we can to say that?”
“But is it anything MORE than saying that in various ways?”
“Are you asking whether the things we say — the things that you write — actually mean anything more than that?”
Another pause. Much longer this time.
“If they didn’t mean more than that, why would anyone keep reading them?”
I open my mouth to respond, and begin making a sound, but then I stop, and close my mouth again. What was I going to say? That readers are dull and sheep-like, reading when there’s no substance? That readers think they find substance when there’s actually none? I eventually find my voice again. “I was thinking about my writing, as opposed to the readers’ reception of it.” That’s lame, I think.
“That was lame.” He smirks, knowing that he has voiced my thought. “Do you also suspect that The Lamb itself might have no substance?”
A feeling just a half a notch below horror. “Of course not! The problem is that it has SO MUCH substance. Inexhaustible substance!”
He uncrosses his arms, smiling now, and nods. I expect him to say something, but he just looks at me expectantly.
Okay, so I’m supposed to think about this. I do. He seems content to wait.
Inexhaustible substance, I said.
Time goes by. No one measures it, so I don’t have a clue how much.
At some point, I suddenly look over at him again, and lean forward in my chair. He is looking at something above my head, still smiling. I look up, and see a cartoon light bulb floating there. Very cheesy.
He gathers the playing cards, and stands up. “Don’t bother getting up. I’ll let myself out.”
I can’t think of anything to say, so I just watch him move toward the door. With his hand on the nob, he turns back briefly. “We can expect the next post within a few days, then?”
I look up, and the light bulb is still there.
Now, here’s a thing I normally would NOT do. (That “not” is as emphatic as you can make it.) But I’m going to do it, and I’m inviting you to do it with me. I’m doing this as my 13th look (regard) at The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
Yes, I’m superstitious, and that might be part of what has presented me with a sort of “block” for a while. That plus all the other personal-life stuff that you don’t care about. If I do this as number 13, and nothing comes of it, then we can just go on. But “nothing” coming of it might be just the ticket, after all. Without nothing, there might not be anything. (I’m thinking Heidegger, if you sort of know about that; if you don’t then never mind.)
I’m going to listen to it on “shuffle.”
One shuffles the cards so that the next deal will be fun. It’s not truly random, but it might as well be from our point of view (if it’s done thoroughly). If it’s not fun, feel free to call “misdeal.”
Are you in?
Air has long been understood as elementary, as an element, like earth, fire, or water. It’s what I breathe. Sometimes it’s all I need (and to love you). It is closely tied to sky, to light, to height, to the heavens, to wind, to breath and to life. I’m told that Hebrew for ‘spirit’ is also wind and breath. Tied to wind, then? To Spirit (to God?) And “to air” (the verb) is to “put out there.” Where? On the air.
“On the Air” is one of my favorite Peter Gabriel songs (from Peter Gabriel 2, aka “Scratch”). Wondering how next to look at The Lamb, I remembered it today, and then found myself thinking about air, aware of the air. I hope that I can air my awareness. “I’m putting the aerial up.”
Everyone I meet on the street
Acts as if I wasn’t there,
But they’re all going to know who I am
‘Cos I can go out on the air.
The air is atmosphere that hangs around me without ever announcing its presence, except by way either of what’s in it, or of how it changes. The air, for Rael, is often thick with content and change. Broadway is a place where “there’s always magic in the air.” But when the Lamb lies down there, it “brings a stillness to the air.”
Air is the non-solid. When the wall of death appears, it is “something solid forming in the air” Rael waits for impact, not standing, but “hovering like a fly.” Hovering in the air.
Caryl Chessman [controversially capital criminal] sniffs the air.
Two golden globes float into the room And a blaze of white light fills the air.
[Rael] writes Death off as an illusion, but notices a thick musky scent hanging in the air.
As the brothers talk themselves through their new predicament, a big black raven flies into the cave, swoops down, grabs Rael’s tube right out of his hands and carries it up into the air in his beak.
The air is foreboding. It is where there is foreshadowing of change, and where there is change. But perhaps, more subtly, the air is where there is ascent, and perhaps some kind of liberation. If that is so, it must be a liberation that is indifferent to death, if not opposed to it. In “The Light Dies Down on Broadway,” a skylight appears in the rock, through which Rael can see and hear New York City (“my home”), a window through which he may presumably step back. But is that step “back” an escape, or is it just a step into another dream? We really already know the answer if we’re paying attention. Rael’s perspective, as he makes the decision to stay and save John, is from outside the window, from above the skylight. The decision amounts to a recognition that he is now “in the open air.”
Think about how this is not a matter of leaving anything “up in the air” as we often say. Not in the air in that bad sense, anyway.
And what is it that is here being put on the air? When Gabriel sings about going out on the air, “they” are going to know who he is. “They,” who acted as if he wasn’t there. Does Rael know who he is, in the end? Do I know who he is? Do I know who I am?
Ah, here is an unexpected knot that may be worth trying to untangle: I want others to know who I am, and I put myself out on the air. Do I want to know who I am, or is it more important somehow to know where I am. Where I am could be on the air, or in the air, or maybe where I am just is what is meant by “air.” I go out on the air here, and by implication boast that I understand the “who” and “where” of which I’m writing. In the words of the Cowardly Lion in the film, The Wizard of Oz, I try to convey “that soitin air of savoir faire.” I broadcast myself, I’d like to think. Or…. Is my self, by its very nature, a broadcast?
Think about David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, where he famously urged the graduating fish to keep reminding themselves: “This is water.” “This is water.”
But we could change it to: “This is air.” “This is air.”
Or, if the air is what I am in, then maybe none of this is really a matter or knowing, of savoir. Think about that (but hopefully in a way that’s not too much like wanting to know) and then listen again.
Today is the 1ooth birthday of Sun Ra, extraterrestrial jazz visionary. Check out Joel Rose’s celebration over at NPR.
One of the ways in which Immanuel Kant formulated his Categorical Imperative is this: Always treat other people as ends, never only as means. For Kant, this was THE moral imperative. Failing to follow it is failing to be a reasonable person in practical matters, which is the same as failing to be morally good. Another way to state the principle: Never treat other people as “merely instrumental.”
Yeah, I know it may be a little over the top, but I will go there.
If there’s a message that emerges from my little trilogy on “instrumental prog” (was Birzer being incurably trinitarian giving me THREE discs to reflect upon?), it is that one should never treat music as “merely instrumental.” The Aesthetic Imperative. Sure, if you want to add “especially prog,” I won’t complain. As long as you’re buying this round.
And I did save my favorite of the three for this final post; may favorite, at least, in terms of unremittingly delightful listening. That’s in no way to disparage the other two, as my prior missives should make clear. But here’s the bottom line: Ollocs rock, and they do it very very well! Their music engages the progressive sensibility, which always wants meaty repast requiring energetic mastication, with flavor that is at just the right balance between simplicity and complexity. With a two guitarist (electric and acoustic), bassist and drummer lineup, very sparingly supplemented by some lovely piano, they create rhythmic textures that one can fall into like a plush king-size bed in a luxury hotel. Life Thread (2013) flows like a river towards “Greater Seas.” Ouch! How cliché! But sprinklings of cliché can be made into something that flows far downstream from what we usually think of as the cliché.
Is it prog? Most definitely, and more. Is it metalish? Naturally, but much more. Is it reminiscent of Rush sometimes, Crimson other times… [add whoever you’d like to this litany]? Sure, but way WAY more. It shows my own biases that I often think of early to middle Wishbone Ash. But any such comparative thoughts are fleeting. They are soon brushed aside by the joy of musical creation that animates these tracks.
If the term ‘instrumental’ would lead you to expect something pedestrian, something “garden-variety,” something that is not too unpredictable, then in one sense Ollocs does meet that expectation. It’s not daringly experimental or brashly innovative, in any way that smacks the ears with an aural baseball bat. But here’s the third ass-kick. Don’t we all know what ecstasy there can be in a skilled and sophisticated foray into supposedly familiar territory? Sometimes the best music is that which can be heard at every moment as homage, but is nonetheless dancing on the shoulders of giants? Dancing, not “resting,” not simply “standing.” If I try to keep track of how many giants there are beneath the surface upon which Ollocs dance, I lose count quickly, and my head segues from critical, calculative appreciation into vigorous, “this-totally-rocks” oscillation.
If there is a “garden” within which Ollocs is “garden-variety,” it is a gloriously lush garden, and I hope you will spend some time there. You will be refreshed. And if what I’ve said here has any purchase on its elusive objects, perhaps it will deepen and widen the way in which you hear music that is “instrumental.”
There are always confessions to be made at the outset. Seldom are any of them actually made, and never are all of them made, but they are always “there.” The one that I will make right away here is that I never developed any strong liking for Echo and the Bunnymen. It’s not that I actively or particularly dislike them; it’s just that hearing their songs now and then during the 1980’s never really sparked my interest. My consciousness of “popular” (as opposed to “classical”) music in general was very spotty during the 1980’s for various reasons, or you could say “selective” if you’re open to having it sound a bit less negative or indifferent.
The confession is relevant because Poltergeist consists of original Bunnymen Will Sergeant (guitar) and Les Pattinson (bass), along with Nick Kilroe on drums. Their 2013 release, Your Mind is a Box (Let Us Fill It With Wonder) is the second “instrumental prog” disc passed on to me by Brad “I-WAS-paying-attention-in-the-80’s” Birzer. The confession is called for because I came to the disc with that perception: “Oh, this is, like, Echo and the Bunnymen without Ian McCulloch.” … Aaaand get ready for ass-kick number two.
I found a helpful quote online from Sergeant. (It appears several places, but I first found it in a blurb on amazon.com.)
We do not want to fence the project in… with vocal barbed-wire so to this end we are an instrumental band and are very happy about that.
Now, we could argue about whether or not this is too harsh. The kind of containment suggested by the metaphor of barbed-wire could have all sorts of nasty connotations. But let’s not get bogged down by considering them all. There are times when you want fences that divide clearly, that enforce division and containment, right? And there are times when, however right it may be other times, barbed-wire is the last thing you want. To give up whatever it is you are seeing (at the moment) as barbed-wire is hardly to give up division and containment in general.
Following this lead, I’m asking myself: What’s freed up when these guys decide to do without vocals, seen at least from here, now, as barbed-wire? The answer is the kick: On the one hand, a multitude of constraints remain in place; if you expect radical departure, something “free” in the sense of “free jazz,” that’s definitely not what happens. On the other hand (and nonetheless, we might say), everything is freed up! So much of the texture here remains nicely tethered to an “80’s” “poppish” feel. To say that may seem like a put-down, but I think it turns out NOT to be. It’s a revelation for me to hear this instrumental exploration of that feel, placing more emphasis than I’m used to on how broadly prog sensibilities have always been there in a lot of the supposedly “post-punk” or “new wave,” often electronics-laden music to which I paid less attention (but never no attention at all, I now see more clearly). Everything is freed up here in the sense that I can hear the pleasing resonance of those sensibilities better without the “vocal barbed-wire.”
I’m very aware, as I write this, how it may come across as “damning with faint praise.” I doubt that I can wholly avoid that impression, but I hope you will see that it is not meant as such. While it is true that Your Mind is a Box is less category-resistant than the other two instrumental albums I’m considering, it definitely hits my ear as indifference-resistant. Because the members of Poltergeist allow themselves to stretch out in quite specific ways, experimenting without being “experimental” in an in-your-face fashion, I hear this disc as a warm invitation to reconsider that era during which I was spending a lot more time with Mahler, Reich, Penderecki, Glass, Schnittke, Boulez and Zappa. Your Mind is a Box helps me to hear the elements of early prog, funneled through 7o’s Bowie, Fripp, and Eno, moderately seasoned by the legacy of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, that kept me watching MTV a fair amount in the 80’s (back when they were a network that played music videos). I would suggest that a major ingredient of the wonder with which Poltergeist wishes to fill our minds is the abiding presence of broadly prog influences in popular music since the 1970’s.
That Poltergeist comes across as this sort of invitation suggests two more things to me: The first thing is that referring to “vocal barbed-wire” in this context involves no particular negative reflection at all on McCulloch or any other prominent vocalists of that (or any other) era. The semantic constraints introduced by vocals are often what allows music to be profoundly accessible to so many people. But music is never only the words that are sung or the voice(s) of the singer(s); it’s much more than that even in a capella music! What one can hear (in the sense of perceiving) more clearly by listening to a delightful romp like Your Mind is a Box is how there is a danger that vocals can be barbed-wire. So the second thing is that this is another way in which the moniker “instrumental” fits this music. It can serve that aesthetically valuable end.
French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggested that we do not so much see a painting as we see according to it. Poltergeist give us the wonderful (in line with the intention expressed in their title) gift of music according to which we can hear other music.
So, I was talking to Brad Birzer a little while back, and he said he wanted me to listen to some recent “instrumental prog,” and to write about it for Progarchy. Well, sure! Why not?
Of course, I knew what Brad meant, but I was still rather struck that particular day by the usage of that word, ‘instrumental.’ I teach social theory and philosophy, and in that context, I’m used to the word ‘instrumental’ meaning “serving as a means toward some end or goal.” I’m also used to that meaning carrying a rather negative connotation at times, as in “merely instrumental,” meaning valuable only so far as it it a means to an end. I guess it was that sort of connotation that especially hit me when Brad used it, even though he certainly did not mean it that way. (I’m pretty sure his main agenda was to get me to listen to stuff that’s not from the 1960’s or 70’s.)
Thinking about that, the musical memories associated with the word ‘instrumental’ washed over me for the next few minutes, and I knew (even before I listened to the three CD’s Brad was sending my way) that a strange convergence of these two semantic streams was setting a particular context for my listening. I knew that I could not avoid explicit awareness of “instrumental” as descriptor for what I was hearing. So let me tell you about how that listening went in each case, and why you should listen to these discs too. Oh, sure, you may just think of what I’m doing as reviewing the three discs, if you’re more comfortable with that. But I do want you to know that I’m always hoping for something that spills out over the mundane edges of a “review.”
I considered telling you about all three in a single post. Then I wondered if that would be most friendly to the artists. But then, when I actually listened, I realized more was at stake. Because I was prepared by that funny adjective, ‘instrumental,’ what I really heard was everything that refused to be contained by it. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that the boundaries of instrumentality, however vaguely they may have been set, were blown down/past/apart in three different ways. Hence, three parts.
I begin here in part 1 with Rafart’s The Handbook of the Acid Rider (2013). Francisco Rafart is a Chilean composer and Chapman Stick performer. I’ve heard music employing several incarnations of the Chapman Stick, and never quite known what I really thought of it. All along, I’ve had the sense that the greatest strength of the Stick is also its greatest weakness. (Duh. As if this were not generally true of strengths and weaknesses.) That strength/weakness, from what I can tell, is the precarious perch that it seems to occupy between “guitar-like” and “keyboard-like.”
I didn’t realize until I heard Rafart’s Handbook how ambivalent I must have been toward the Stick up to now. I’ve generally liked what Tony Levin has done with it, and been favorably impressed by others at times. But I guess I’ve not been excited about the instrument per se, and have not ever really purposely or systematically sought out exemplary recordings or videos.
Rafert brings my ambivalence into a harsh light, precisely by shoving it firmly but pleasantly aside! It’s not only that Francisco Rafart’s playing is outstanding. (Oh yes, it definitely is!) It’s even more the deeply satisfying musical integration of his trio (with Fernando Daza on guitars and Pablo Martinez on drums). I expected to be distracted by the effort to pick up on what comes from the Stick versus what comes from the guitar. But what I heard on Handbook is an ensemble in the best sense.
This was where my associations with the word ‘instrumental’ got their first ass-kick. I expected instruments, and I was thoroughly won over by an ensemble playing as a single joyous sound-source. The depth and supple texture of the compositions would not allow me to dwell upon distinct instruments. And this is also because I expected “songs,” or musical pieces (suggesting detachment), and I was thoroughly won over by compositions, in the fullest sense of that word. I found myself attending less to the question of when I was hearing Stick and when I was hearing guitar, and more to the experience of a unified musical event. Looking at videos after my first listen, I get a clear sense that Rafart is achieving a new level of success in making the Stick an integral part of a band.
You know those memories that I mentioned before, that washed over me and caught me off-guard? One of them is the memory of how I generally reacted as a young listener upon seeing a song referred to as an “instrumental.” When the album cover included the lyrics to other songs, but when there were no lyrics, you’d still find the name of the song printed there, followed by that lonely word (seeming lonely in this case, anyway): INSTRUMENTAL. I expected an instrumental to provide a framework within which each of the members of a band may”solo” (read: show off). Increasing exposure to a variety of jazz de-centered such expectations over time. But even jazz can often allow itself to fit into that “showing off within a supporting framework” mold. The supporting framework, in that case, would be… Yeah, you guessed it. Merely instrumental.
It is these memories and expectations that were blown away, for me, by the intricate beauty of Rafart’s music.
The Handbook of the Acid Rider bears some of the contours of several molds, but its tracks are clearly compositions. This is music that has benefited every bit as much from the explorations of Steve Reich and other contemporary composers as from progressive rock or jazz. (Also look for Francisco Rafart on YouTube for some of his “chamber music.”) But if there are molds here, they are springboards rather than constraints or blinders. When he first talked to me, Brad suggested a comparison with some of Pat Metheny’s work, and that does fit pretty well as a first approximation. One can also hear the complex rhythmic sensibilities that trace back to early prog, and — if I’m not mistaken — a healthy dose of Zappa-esque compositional deftness. But listen for how Rafart overflows these banks. Yes, I will confirm our fearless leader’s characterization of this as great “instrumental prog,” but most emphatically not as a mere means to an end, or as a mere concatenation of singular instrumental voices.
You can see videos of Rafart in action, but I recommend listening and palpating the aural textures first, adding the visuals after at least one hearing without them.
What do you get for pretending the danger’s not real?
…the valley of steel
(Pink Floyd, “Sheep,” from Animals)
You pay attention to an instance of saying, or an instance of writing (or, by extension, an instance of singing). The hardest thing to notice is quite often nothing that is there; it’s what is not there. Oh yes, an absence can definitely be a presence, but I’m not just rehearsing on that saw again. This time, I’m thinking of what’s just not there at all, and does not demand your attention by its absence. Yet noticing its absence can change things. Maybe a lot.
So, what Lamb? What Lamb lies down? Which Lamb is it?
An easy answer that I explored before: The Lamb whose Supper was Ready in 1972.
But now let’s look at our text again. If you have your liner notes, please turn with me to Isaiah chapter 53, verse 6.
What do we actually know about this Lamb? It lies down on Broadway (Duh!!).
Meanwhile from out of the steam a lamb lies down. This lamb has nothing whatsoever to do with Rael, or any other lamb – it just lies down on Broadway.
Nothing to do with Rael, even though it’s our TITLE? Nothing to do with any other lamb? Would this include the Lamb for whom Supper’s Ready? It’s really only one section of the title song that tells us much of anything more than this(and it isn’t that much):
The lamb seems right out of place,
yet the Broadway street scene
finds a focus in its face.
Somehow its lying there
brings a stillness to the air.
Though man-made light
at night is very bright,
there’s no whitewash victim,
as the neons dim, to the coat of white.
When Rael meets the Crawlers, he notes: “There is lambswool under my naked feet.”
It seems as though that’s all. I can’t find any more right now. Not explicitly there, at least. In fact, there are no more lyrical references to The Lamb after the title track, except the wool.
This especially strikes me today. The album does not provide an answer to my question: What Lamb?
Push aside (though only for now; only for this look) the strong associations of ‘lamb’ with sacrifice. It occurs to me that a lamb is a young sheep. Notice the grammar here: “It occurs to me.” It is an event that happens to me. I’m the fly again, and it’s a windshield that I didn’t see coming. It’s not that I didn’t know it, in some broad and technical sense of ‘know.’ Sure, I knew it. But it just occurred to me. And when that word, ‘sheep,’ came as part of the occurrence, a whistle blew and I heard a voice shout, “ALL CHANGE!”
Take a look at the opening section of the article on ‘sheep’ on Wikipedia. It’s right here if you click. I’ll wait….
A sheep is a ruminant mammal. Rumination. “The process typically requires regurgitation of fermented ingesta (known as cud), and chewing it again.” (Wikipedia again). As my students like to say nowadays, “I just threw up in my mouth a little,” and I need to chew some more.
So let’s ruminate a bit on sheep. This is my suggested background for our next listen. (You are listening again each time, right? No, there will not be an exam. Not besides the exam that you administer yourself.)
The title betrays my first association. “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray” (You thought of Handel or Bach — or both — just as quickly as the Bible, or perhaps even more quickly, right? A body which was baroquen for you? Oops, we put aside the sacrifice thing, didn’t we?) Second association in the opening epigraph: Pink Floyd’s “Sheep.” Third association: John Brunner’s 1972 novel, The Sheep Look Up (its title a reference to Milton). More upbeat, following on the reference to Bach: “Sheep May Safely Graze.”
But here’s where the wool begins to rub. Sheep suggest peace, and the protection of a shepherd. I was a lost sheep, but the shepherd found me, and it’s so good to be back with the fold again. But sheep follow. Sheep go with the herd (not unlike cattle).
Meek and obedient you follow the leader
Down well trodden corridors into the valley of steel
‘Sheep’ is plural, so there’s no ‘s’ to remove in order to make it singular. Does it ever really become singular? We think of sheep as followers in a very negative sense. They are also boring in just the right way to put us to sleep if we count them. It may be only the clothing that is sheepish, the wearer being a wolf. If the sheep is black, we don’t want it in our family (which suggests racism, as well as having three bags full of wool). If the sheep are lost, leave them alone and they’ll come home.
Where in the flock is this associative chain headed?
My experiment this time is with taking the detour via the word ‘sheep,’ but then coming back to the Lamb.
If it is a Sheep that Lies Down On Broadway, what did that shout (“ALL CHANGE!”) portend? When we know that we don’t know more than this about The Lamb, how does this change how we hear The Lamb? If the lamb that lies down is not actually singular, even though it supposedly has nothing to do with Rael or with any other lamb (the latter being singular, perhaps?), what then?
Let us listen again and see. Yes, I will be doing it with you. There will be a number of us, over the next couple of days, on at least two continents (if Progarchy stats are believable), but who’s counting? Perhaps we should also try to be aware of each other, in some way.
Don’t think of it as following. Think of it as an individual choice to explore “following.”
And don’t fall asleep. If you do, it means that you were counting rather than listening.
Hurtling along the Ohio Turnpike earlier this week (a day before the nasty nasty weather hit again), I was listening to some old friends. One of them, in particular, exploded into my car with an unexpected revelatory force.
Crime of the Century is an album that I procured when it was newly released, when “Bloody Well Right” was reverberating across the airwaves in the U.S. I liked it, and listened to it a lot. It always struck me as enigmatically light-hearted, though I did get it, even then, that it was very dark. (Liking light-hearted darkness was probably a prerequisite for being a prog fan.) All along, I think I’ve classified it as “a great album,” but probably would not have placed it in my top five, or (a bit less sure on this part) even my top ten. Until now.
Supertramp went on to become huge, especially with Breakfast in America. Their output from that point on always struck me as mixed, and this was partly a function of many of the songs being over-played. I’ve always been aware that Crime is considered by many (including members of the band) as the peak of their career in terms of creativity and quality.
But I just was not prepared for the near-shock of listening through the entire album on Tuesday. During the opening lines of “School,” it suddenly occurred to me: This album was released half a decade before Pink Floyd released The Wall! That thought set the tone for my experience of the album that day. I was an enthusiastic admirer of The Wall when it came out, but I have since generally thought even more highly of Wish You Were Here and Animals as albums. But it had never hit me so hard before how much more of a borderline-psychotic edge there is to the dark alienation of Crime. Perhaps I was in just the right mood. The experience reminded me a bit of the first time I ever heard Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert. That was in a college radio station in about 1978, over nice JBL studio monitors, and I was basically blown to emotional bits that splattered across the opposite wall of the studio. Hearing Supertramp’s magnum opus again was measurable on that same scale, though perhaps with not quite as high a reading, intensity-wise.
I hope that my attention was still sufficiently on my driving, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.
Ken Scott’s amazing production is a key player here, of course. I was very aware of producers, and knew this even back in the 7o’s. But I think some kind of blockage was jarred loose as I drove and let this latest listening wash over me. It had to do with my ambivalence about the band’s subsequent output, but I suspect there may have been even more to it than this. It was as if the blockage had an indeterminate number of tendrils, reaching out into my soul and anchoring the blockage at various angles, making it not only difficult to dislodge, but so much a part of my listening apparatus that it had never even presented itself as a blockage. Apparently, enough of those tendrils had been broken or loosened, and the blast had enough force that day, that the blockage just snapped away. It was as if I was really listening to the album for the first time on the one hand, though I already knew every sound, every aural nook and cranny of what I was hearing on the other hand. Everything old was new again.
Despite some of the edges actually being sharper (to my ear, anyway) than those we find in The Wall, they are deployed with an amazing subtlety and restraint, especially lyrically. “School” does in one song what The Wall takes most of its first side (of four) to accomplish. And it does it with a more deeply disturbing Hitchcock-like minimalism. When heard in its proper context, between “School” and “Hide in Your Shell,” one can hear the peppiness of “Bloody Well Right” with a more clear awareness of the droplets of darkness that fall from its edges. And then “Hide in Your Shell,” which otherwise might strike n0n-proggers as typically bombastic, is at just the right intensity. “Hide” has always been my favorite track. But perhaps you know that feeling of discovering even more depth and richness in a favorite.
“Asylum” comes across best in context, as does “Bloody Well Right.” Again, the Floyd comparison intrudes. Its positioning between “Hide in Your Shell” and “Dreamer” allowed me to notice, as I had not before, how similar is its austere power to the title track of Wish You Were Here.
Another aspect of the revelation came when I realized with some dismay that my interest on prior listens had always tapered off, at least a bit, after “Dreamer.” This is not too unusual in my experience of entire albums. I could name a bunch of them for which my interest begins to lag on the final side (whether a single or a double album). This is even true of my listenings to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I’ve already noted elsewhere that the final track is my least favorite on the latter, and my recent efforts at listening with disciplined differences each time have not yet brought significant change there.
But this time, with Crime, it was different. “Dreamer,” more than on any previous listen, truly announced the opening of the second act. The familiarity was still there for the final three tracks, but it was a familiarity brought before judgment. It was a familiarity challenged, asked to show its papers, please. And its papers were not fully in order. It was as if both Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies knew that I had always shirked in my listening on these tunes; I could hear it in their voices. I still had demons in my closet, and these guys had the number of those demons.
If I’m going to make further progress in coming out of my shell, in overcoming the tendency to hide, if I’m to discern how well I’m doing at not being complicit in the crime, then more listening (and more work, more soul-work) is required. That’s what I heard them saying to me this week.
They’re bloody well right, you know. And I will listen more (as opposed to simply listening again).
It is with unbridled delight that I report: The wondrous alchemy of The Fierce and the Dead is apparently fully compatible with ongoing servings of scrumptious solo work from guitarist Matt Stevens.
What occurs to me most immediately and forcefully is the word ‘LOOSED,’ though pronounced “loo-sid.” Mere Matt Stevens is loosed upon the world, and one cares little as he begins to play whether there is a center that holds, or if it’s some kind of periphery without center along which we are careering. To get loosed (loo-sid) is to be released. The loosed and lucid journey is one on which I am willing to go, for I’ve come to know that I’m in good hands when he is at the helm. (This is, at least in part, because he seems to know when NOT to steer.)
Lucidity is a kind of clearness. It’s a kind of consciousness for which the object of consciousness is accessible, near rather than far (even when it’s neither here nor there). Matt’s version of being lucid is not some algorithmic calculation that would still the rush of experience into a finalized stasis. We begin with an ecstatic embrace of tension that is built into the very saying of it (“Oxymoron”), and many of the tracks keep the motifs of motion and journey in the foreground (“Flow,” “Unsettled”, “The Other Side,” “The Ascent,” “The Bridge).
But soon we find some kind of mystery in “Coulrophobia” (fear of clowns). How strange, as I had not yet seen or heard this new disc when I wrote my last Look at The Lamb, where fearing clowns did come up, and where there was (among other things) some sort of plea that we NOT always insist on lucidity, at least in certain ways and in certain settings. I get no sense here exactly what it is about clowns that one might fear, but I do get the sense that this (i.e., not having that sense) is exactly the locus of its power.
“The Bridge,” by being the longest of the tracks, presents itself as a kind of exclamation, asking to be heard “over and above” the other tracks, in some sense. I hear it asking to be the key, as in a key to a map. Hearing the whole disc through “The Bridge” is encountering an unabashed, loving commitment to composition, with few points for comparison in broadly “prog” music aside from Frank Zappa and Robert Fripp. Like both, Matt will reliably entertain and amaze, but never at the cost of acting as midwife to the particular musical shape that is emerging in the clay on his wheel. My second listen to the disc was sideways, first “The Bridge,” and then back out into the aural archipelago that surrounds it, as if they were destinations reached by crossing that Bridge.
(“KEA” and “The Boy” especially remind us what a cornucopia the acoustic guitar remains, despite its being so ubiquitous for decades in popular music.)
If we stay with that “sideways” direction of listening, then consider the title track as the final one. Remember that we might use the word “lucid” not only to describe a way of being conscious from within, but also to mark the way in which the Other’s consciousness is there, is present, is detectable. If a healthcare professional pronounces someone “lucid,” it is based on output, on performance. Heard against the background of the entire disc, and as the answer to those exploratory questions, Matt’s answer is forthright and clear. Though I’m no professional in these matters, I’m willing to make the pronouncement nonetheless: Few guitarists, and indeed few musicians, are as completely and wonderfully musically lucid as Matt Stevens.