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 …
Sometimes you have to put aside the extended epics and experience the simple pleasure of a nicely crafted pop song. With that in mind, here’s a playlist of recently released pop-like songs that prog-lovers can enjoy without guilt:
1. Sound Of Contact: “Not Coming Down”. Coming from their extraordinary album, Dimensionaut, this catchy tune has all the right ingredients: wall-of-sound production, rich vocal harmonies, an eminently hummable chorus, and they even sneak in a Beatlesque bridge. Take a listen, if you don’t believe me:
2. Days Between Stations: “The Man Who Died Two Times”. I’ve written about the wonderful album this track appears on in a previous post, and it features a delightful cameo by XTC’s Colin Moulding. It has an irresistible beat married to an insistent synthesizer riff, with Moulding’s multitracked, wry vocals floating over the controlled chaos. Think classic Alan Parsons Project mashed with 10CC, and you get a glimmer of the genius of this song. Go ahead and spend a buck for the mp3 of it here. You won’t be disappointed.
3. Sanguine Hum: “The Weight of The World”. Okay, this one is almost 15 minutes long, which qualifies it as a genuine epic, but it is so effortlessly melodic and uplifting I have to include it. I’ve always thought Sanguine Hum’s secret influence was Jellyfish, and it’s hard to deny that here. If Jellyfish and “One Size Fits All”- era Mothers of Invention had a child, it would be this track. It lilts, it waltzes, it almost skitters out of control, but it never loses its pop appeal. The first 37 seconds of their promo for the album are taken from this near-perfect song:
4. Big Big Train: “Uncle Jack”. I defy anyone to listen to this song and not end up grinning ear to ear. A jaunty tempo provides a fertile bed for lush vocals that sing the joy of taking a walk outdoors. And when the counter-melody hits at 2:40, you’re transported to paradise. Listen below (but buy the whole album, English Electric Part One):
5. Arjen Lucassen: “E-Police”. It can’t be an accident that Lucassen’s “E-Police” recalls the glories of late-70s Cheap Trick (“Dream Police”?). A big helping of glam rock that will leave you hitting Repeat on your player.
6. Gazpacho: “Mary Celeste”. A Norwegian band does Celtic music, and creates a pop masterpiece. A delicate intro on mandolin and piano blossoms into a full-blown production that includes accordion, guitars, violin, and masterful vocals. It doesn’t hurt that the melody compels you to get up and move.
So there you have it – a playlist that you can use to seduce your friends who are woefully ignorant of prog into the beauty of that genre, or one that you can use yourself when the occasion calls for some sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs music. Enjoy.
By Brad Birzer
As you’ve probably noticed, we’ve been having a Big Big Train-love fest for the past several days at Progarchy. Even our criticisms (well, not mine; but I won’t point fingers) have been written out of love and respect.
Another recent release that deserves a massive amount of attention is the fourth cd by Robin Armstrong, writing under the name, Cosmograf. Yes, it deserves a MASSIVE (Ok, I’m yelling at you, fair reader; it’s not personal, I promise!) amount of attention. Massive.
Following Cosmograf’s history, it comes across far more as a project than a band. I’m not sure Robin would put it this way, but this is how it strikes me. Each album has been a concept with a variety of guest musicians. For this current album, The Man Left in Space, Robin has chosen the best of the best: Greg Spawton (who wouldn’t love this guy), Nick d’Virgilio (giving Peart a run for his money since 1990!), Matt Stevens (a young guy already inducted in the Anglo-Saxon pantheon of guitar gods), and other brilliant folks such as Dave Meros (ye, of the Beard!), Luke Machin, and Steve Dunn. Robin knows how to get the absolute best, and he knows how to bring the best out of his guests. Then, add the additional production of the ultimate audiophile of our time, Rob Aubrey. Can it really get much better than this? Not really.
By profession, Robin is a master of all things time-related. He’s a watch dealer and a watch repairman. I find this so very appropriate. What better thing for a musician and composer to be than to be a master Chronometer (I have no idea if this is the proper term, but I like the sound of it). Chronometrician? Ok, I’m floundering here, but I assume you get the point. Precision, mystery, time, eternity, space, place, humanity. . . Robin Armstrong. Read the rest of this entry
I often joke with my students that I can still remember the days when listening to progressive rock and watching Dr. Who could get a kid beaten up. Yes, 1981. I remember it well. Seventh grade at Liberty Junior High in Hutchinson, Kansas. Yet, it’s now 2013, and I’m still listening to Rush and watching Dr. Who. Obviously, I survived the bullies
But, I can get even nerdier. Much nerdier. I was also a huge Dungeons and Dragons guy. Yes, 1981. I remember it well. Yet, it’s now 2013, and I’m still playing DnD. Now, with my kids.
My love of all things progressive (music; not politics!), science fiction, and fantasy have come together quite nicely in a number of direct ways: Rush, Roswell Six, Rush again, Ayreon, more Rush, Cosmograf, Glass Hammer, The Tangent, Rush, Kansas, Star One, Spock’s Beard, and even more Rush.
Surprisingly, though, only a few rock bands have really explored the Arthurian legends. Those artists that have–such as Rick Wakeman and Gary Hughes–have gone all out, making nothing less than elaborate rock operas. While Wakeman’s Arthur seems rather French, Hughes’s remains very Celtic.
The French legends, generally centering on the love affair of Lancelot and Gwenivere, usually reflect the medieval notions of courtship as inherited from the Moors. The Celtic legends are almost always more mystical, suggesting strong relations between the Celtic gods (a twilight) and the Christian God. Famously, one Celtic god, Bran the Blessed, even went so far as to sacrifice himself so that the Christian God could reign supreme. How often does this happen in pagan myth?
Looking at some of the other ‘Best of 2012’ posts here, you have to wonder how some of the other Progarchists do it. That is, how do they find the time to listen to and fully absorb that much music (and particularly prog)? Not to be snobby or anything, but listening to prog is not a passive thing, it takes an active effort by the listener to fully “get it”. And yet when I read through these posts, I can conclude that my fellow Progarchists are A) listening to a lot of prog, and B) “getting it.” With the other obligations they have in their lives – families, careers, other hobbies, other blogs – it would seem like it would take a superhuman effort to fully absorb all of that music. And yet clearly they do just that.
Alas, I think I’ve figured out their secret – most, if not all of the other Prograrchists are in possession of an ERTEM – short for “Einsteinian Relativistic Time Expansion Machine.” In short, the ERTEM is a machine about the size of a booth or a very small room. A person may enter his ERTEM, shut the door, and emerge in what appears to be only a few minutes to an outside observer. But aaaah, inside the ERTEM, time expands, and the occupant therein can spend several hours of “inside time.” Thus, the Progarchist may receive a new CD or a new album in digital format, step inside his ERTEM, and indulge in hours of listening pleasure, until they fully “grok” (apologies to Robert Heinlein) their most recent prog purchase. They may even be smuggling their laptops in their to write some of their long, detailed, and typically excellent reviews – the type that usually send me lurching toward my computer to make yet another purchase. Read the rest of this entry