The Albums that Changed My Life: #6, Songs of Travel & On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams

by Rick Krueger

In our casually audiophile age of 96 kHz/24 bit BluRays and 180-gram virgin vinyl, it may be hard to comprehend what a difference digital recording made when it came of age in the late 1970s.   I remember cueing up Keith Jarrett’s Concerts: Bregenz, München and being blown away as much by the background silence, the clarity and depth of the piano sound, and the extended dynamic range as by Jarrett’s freewheeling improvisations.  The compact disc was still in the future — but at that point, after suffering through muddy, distorted mass-produced pressings of way too many albums, it seemed like that future was all upside.

Classical record companies were the most fervent backers of digital recording from the beginning; the prospect of “perfect sound forever” made both corporate executives and their target demographic (single men with money or credit to burn — surprise!) salivate in anticipated ecstasy.  Certainly, as I built a classical collection during graduate school, the word “Digital” on the front cover of a record always counted in its favor.

That’s one reason I picked up the album pictured above.  Another reason: I’d already heard some fine Mahler recordings by the young conductor Simon Rattle, precociously helming the scrappy City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.  And there was one more burning question: was Benjamin Britten right about Ralph Vaughan Williams?

Continue reading “The Albums that Changed My Life: #6, Songs of Travel & On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams”

Gord Downie, 1964-2017

by Rick Krueger

In August of 2016, my wife and I vacationed in Stratford, Ontario — one of our favorite places to visit, due to its internationally acclaimed theater festival and its lovely riverside parks.  Picking up local classic rock stations as we crossed into Canada, I noticed lots of talk about The Tragically Hip’s upcoming concerts in London and Toronto.

I’d heard of The Hip, but never got into them — partially because I’d moved away from metro Detroit, where good Canadian bands could easily score airplay and well-attended shows.   I was surprised at the amount of hubbub around this tour; it was only after we returned to the States that I learned the reason for the buzz.

The Hip’s lead singer and lyricist, Gord Downie, had been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, the worst kind of brain cancer, late in 2015.  After finishing the 2016 album Man Machine Music, the band decided on one last go-round of Canada’s hockey rinks, winding up in their Ontario hometown of Kingston in front of 6,700 fans in the local arena, thousands more on the surrounding streets, and a national audience on CBC.

Honestly, the music of The Tragically Hip is little more than well-executed, basic rock — lots of Rolling Stones and John Mellencamp grooves ranging from competently shambolic to tightly locked in.  The secret sauce was Downie’s surreal, shamanistic lyrics.  Stirring together a underdog outlook, the perspective of Canadians from the “great wide open” and random streams of consciousness (sometimes improvised live as the band rocked on — sperm whales were a recurring theme), they were fascinating precisely because they were sharp yet ambiguous, complex — even openly, defiantly confused.  At their best (in my view, on the album Fully Completely and the compilation Yer Favourites) the group was pretty compelling.

Gord Downie passed away last night at the age of 53.  To say he leaves behind a grateful nation is not an exaggeration.  You can see and hear what Geddy Lee had to say about The Hip last year as the farewell tour wound down here, and read a well-wrought appreciation of Downie’s take on Canadian identity here.  Banger Films (the folks responsible for the Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage) have completed a film about The Hip’s final days, Long Time Running; it’ll be streamed on Netflix starting November 26.  And check out the Yer Favourites compilation below.  I especially recommend “Fiddler’s Green,” Fifty-Mission Cap,” “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan),” “Fireworks” — and if you only have time for one track, the fierce “At the Hundredth Meridian.” 

“If I die of Vanity, promise me, promise me
That if they bury me some place I don’t want to be
That you’ll dig me up and transport me
Unceremoniously away from the swollen city breeze, garbage bag trees
Whispers of disease, and acts of enormity
And lower me slowly, sadly, and properly
Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy …”

 

THE VOID: Working on the Second Birzer Bandana Album

image1As some of you might remember, fellow progarchist Dave Bandanna (of the English prog band, Salander) graciously asked me a year ago to write lyrics for a new band/project, called Birzer Bandana.  We released that album, BECOMING ONE, earlier this year.

I’ve now written the lyrics for the second album–a concept album revolving around the mystery of a man trapped somewhere and in some way on a starship heading into a black hole. As with the first album, this new one explores existential questions of life, love, loss, and hope. For better or worse, these are themes I, personally, can’t escape, and, frankly, it’s really healthy for me to write them down in lyric form.

Dave just sent me a working version of the 14-minute track, “The Void.” To my mind, this is Dave’s best craftsmanship as a composer.

To write “I’m excited” would be the grand understatement of the day. Dave’s work is nothing short of brilliant.  I’ll be equally excited to share it with everyone someday. . . .

UNTOLD TALES: Glass Hammer’s Tolkienian Prog

untold tales
The latest from Glass Hammer and Sound Resources.

Pensive, deep, and resonating strings eagerly invite listeners to immerse themselves utterly, fully, and completely in the album.  From there, keyboards swirl in anthemic Emerson-esque majesty until the entire orchestra begins what is nothing less than an all-encompassing and fetching fanfare.

We the listener feel not the abstraction of the music, but its tangibility.  We might very well be able to touch it.  We are not “fans” witnessing a spectacle from afar, hoping to catch a mere glimpse from our balcony seats the smiles that pass between Susie and Fred, the nods between Aaron and Steve, or which guitar Alan is using on this or that tune. No, nothing like any of this. With UNTOLD TALES, we the listeners are members of the artistic endeavor as a whole, as much a part of the band as those on stage, and just as fundamental to the artistic success of it all.

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soundstreamsunday: “Starless” by King Crimson

kingcrimsonKing Crimson appeared in 1969 as an island, on the far side of the bridge joining a tiring psychedelic scene to a studied, if no less freaky (for its age), “progressive” rock.  In its nearly fifty years the group’s membership has drifted in and out through orbits around guitarist Robert Fripp, his steady hand and heart dissolving and reforming Crimson as there is music for it to play.  As Fripp assembled the band’s third incarnation, Crimson was riding a wave of popularity the rewards of which didn’t settle entirely well with him, and in promising a more difficult, rockier terrain he was able to lure drummer Bill Bruford, looking for a similar fresh start, from megaprog juggernaut Yes.  With violinist David Cross and bassist/vocalist John Wetton, the band created three albums in quick succession, ranking among their diverse best.  1974’s Red, the last of the trio, is an able summation of Crimson to that point, before Fripp forcibly retired the band (he would let Crimson lie dormant until a brilliant, left-field return in 1981).  The music is a metallic, abrasive take on contemplating the dying of the light, its mood no doubt reflecting Fripp’s, and his band’s, growing uneasiness.

In its lyric, “Starless” is an extension of the previous album’s title, Starless and Bible Black,  but the resemblance more-or-less ends there.  It has more in common with the grandeur of Crimson’s first record, In the Court of the Crimson King, mellotrons drifting into Fripp’s signature sustained tones, with Wetton’s vocal part an overtly dramatic (such was Wetton’s m.o., but here it works) preamble to a long instrumental passage as heavy a piece of jazz metal fusion as has ever been created.  For all his professorial demeanor and seriousness, Fripp loves a good stoner riff, and the tension he can build around such beasts — harmonic, exploratory — separates him from the pack.  Brainy, yes, but beguiling, gorgeous, devastating.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

Arktis

Emperor ceased to exist, but Ihsahn continued to pursue that trajectory. While musically more ambitious, his work is still firmly grounded in that very bedrock of symphonic black metal. Arktis, like his other records, explore diverse genres/themes and prods a range of emotions.

Staying clear of progressive metal clichés, Ihsahn crafts splendidly heavy and sublime melodies. Even the fiercely romantic “My heart is of the north” involves thick riffs, and a jarring keyboard reminiscent of 70s Emerson Lake and Palmer. Making that brief mellow moment — “And should my spirit soften like snow in early spring, or waver in the sultry haze, that soothing summers brings“ — quite exceptional.

Fascinating how whispering vocals – “Static, Dogmatic, Death cult, Fanatic” – can be this threatening with electronica. Transition into some grinding industrial metal — “I’d rather live a life in sin. And take the devil’s fall” — cannot be more elegant. With a measure of painfully moving vocals – “What kind of promises could justify the sacrifice you make? “ – Ihsahn paints a vivid landscape. But eventually ends with his signature, absolutely devoid of all sentiments, grating vocals.

Exhibiting those exquisite symphonic prog aesthetics, like 70s Genesis or Gentle Giant, Arktis is poignant, layered, and at times emotionally distressing – “Longing for the hopeless. Losing all to own the end”.

Melancholic solos when accompanied by keyboards — layered over measured strumming and painful clean vocals – “You chose a life at war. Now choose a worthy enemy. You know, it doesn’t always have to be yourself” – blazes a grim road. Musically and lyrically, Ihsahn teleports the listener straight into vaults of emotional desolation.

In spite of prominent extreme metal elements, long time Rush listeners should be immediately taken with that very familiar background keyboards in ‘Until I Too Dissolve’. But we are still skimming the surface, influences are multitude and diverse. Ihsahn traverses a progressive metal territory decked with stunning jazz to bleak black metal. Intense and sublime, Arktis, in Ihsahn’s own lyrical terms is a masterful “conjurer of sorrow”.

By Jonas Rogowski (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Lunatics United: A Partial and Subjective Guide to the Singles of Tears for Fears

TEARS_FOR_FEARS_FLIP-421478
The first TFF b-side compilation, 1991.

Though best known in the prog community for their actual albums–such as SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR or EVERYBODY LOVES A HAPPY ENDING–Tears for Fears is also the master of the single.  Perhaps this is an artifact of the innumerable remixes of the 1980s, the decade of their origins, or, perhaps, the ideas of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith just never stop and cannot be contained by an album. Looking over their history as a band and as individuals, I think I’ll choose the latter explanation.  Throughout the band’s thirty-four year career, amazingly enough, Tears for Fears has only released six studio albums.  In that same period, though, the band has released dozens of singles, each different in style, theme, and genre.  While their albums tend toward the progressive pop of PET SOUNDS by the Beach Boys or SKYLARKING by XTC, their singles range all over the place, traversing and, at moments, transcending, both space and time.

One can, however, effectively divide the singles into three types: covers; rock and pop cinematic outbursts; and prog and electronica experimentalism.  The band has released these in a variety of forms: box sets; cd singles; one compilation album; and as bonus tracks.

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