The Albums That Changed My Life: #1, Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson Lake and Palmer

by Rick Krueger

I’ve been seriously collecting recorded music (on vinyl, cassette, compact disc, DVD and Blu-Ray) for just over 40 years.  As you do, I’ve organized my collection in various ways.  For about the last 15 years, I’ve separated my favorites, regardless of genre, out into their own storage unit.  It looks like this as of today:

IMG_3523I used to refer to what’s on the top shelf — my very favorite recordings — as “the music I would save if the house caught on fire.”  Never mind that: 1) people matter more than stuff, and; 2) there’s no way that, if the house caught fire, I could actually pull it off.

Ultimately, it occurred to me that a better name for that top shelf’s contents is “the music that changed my life.”  In retrospect, every one of the albums perched there set me off in fresh musical directions and shaped what I listen to most, what I choose to collect, and even my vocation as a professional church organist and volunteer singer.  Sounds like a blog series in the making …

I plan to focus on one album in each post, starting with what I heard earliest and working forward.  I hope to distill what I love about the album, and reflect on how it’s influenced my listening (and my playing) over the years.  I’ll also list my other favorite albums from the same artist, along with selected faves in the same vein from other musicians.

Given how much I’ve written about Emerson Lake & Palmer here, it’s probably no surprise that, while Works Volume 1 was the first ELP album I bought, Brain Salad Surgery was my real gateway drug into progressive rock.   For starters, I’d already heard “Karn Evil 9, First Impression, Part Two,” “Jerusalem” and “Still … You Turn Me On” over the Detroit airwaves.  What was this stuff?  Utterly bizarre titles, a giddily deployed spectrum of musical colors colliding with each other, seemingly at random (harpsichord, accordion and wah-wah guitar in the same ballad?) and more keyboards in five minutes than in some bands’ entire recorded output — after assimilating the bombast of the Works 1 material, I had to check it out!

I was flabbergasted.  Brain Salad Surgery defined eclecticism for me, sweeping up an astonishingly broad range of styles. On the first four tracks, ELP attacked a hymn (“Jerusalem”), a contemporary classical concerto movement interrupted by an extended tympani cadenza (Alberto Ginastera’s “Toccata”), a lyrical ballad with oddball instrumental touches (“Still …”) and a 12-bar boogie with music hall lyrics and an utterly wild piano solo (“Benny the Bouncer”).  And that was just the warm-up for the epic “Karn Evil 9.”  Over the course of three impressions, split into four tracks by the side change, the band garnished their core sound with rare solo electric guitar from Lake, manic piano trio jazz, Emerson’s steel drum synthesizer (quoting sax giant Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” as I later discovered), gonzo military marches powered by Palmer, and a loose anti-war narrative that castigated modern politics and religion, only to succumb to absolute rule by sentient supercomputer.   Mind.  Blown.

I later came to understand why Brain Salad Surgery was where some longtime ELP fans got off the bandwagon.  Compared to more direct albums like their debut and Pictures at an Exhibition, this one goes over the top without looking back.  The dizzying musical whiplash, the often-obscure lyrics, knockabout and messianic by turns (Lake’s first collaborations with original King Crimson wordsmith Peter Sinfield), the aggressive high-velocity playing — it could all seem like Keith, Greg and Carl had taken the hype too seriously, and were about to vanish up their own backsides in their pursuit of world domination.  Given the arc of their career after the massive Welcome Back My Friends world tour, you could even argue that’s what happened.

But for me, the reckless abandon of Brain Salad Surgery is the secret of its appeal.   ELP’s music here is a mite undisciplined and overstuffed, sure — but it’s also virtuosic, tightly structured, fearless, and exhilarating.  Those qualities, held together in suspension by the trio’s undeniable musical chemistry, have made this album compelling listening for me for the last 40 years.  Not only do I play it again and again, I’ve grabbed almost every CD re-release over the years (including Jakko Jakszyk’s oddly askew 2014 remix). Plus, instead of settling into the status of beloved novelty, Brain Salad Surgery whetted my appetite for more music like it — not just prog, but jazz, jazz-rock, modern classical music — even folk ballads!  And every once in a while, when I need a particularly powerful organ prelude or postlude for Sunday morning, it’s still a blast to pull out all the stops and dive into “Jerusalem.”

Listen to the latest re-release of Brain Salad Surgery here:

More Faves by ELP: Tarkus, Trilogy, and Works Volume 1.  Plus Encores, Legends and Paradox, a Magna Carta tribute album from the 1990s; this features Robert Berry, John Wetton, Glenn Hughes and James Labrie on vocals, with members of Dream Theater, Yes, King Crimson, Magellan and Emerson’s buddy Marc Bonilla laying down backing tracks.

Still There’ll Be More: I have 100+ prog and prog-related discs on my favorites shelf, from proto-proggers like The Nice and Procol Harum to 21st-century giants such as Neal Morse, Steven Wilson and Big Big Train.  Here are the ten albums that are probably the closest to my heart, and that opened the doors widest for future exploration:

Bruford, One of A Kind

Robert Fripp, Exposure (combined with RF’s 1979 in-store Frippertronics concert at Peaches Records in Fraser, Michigan)

Genesis, Foxtrot and Wind & Wuthering

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King and Red

Porcupine Tree, Deadwing

Transatlantic, SMPT:e

UK, UK

Yes, Close to the Edge

 

 

 

 

Unrequited Love: Nad Sylvan’s The Bride Said No

Nad Sylvan, The Bride Said No (Inside Out Music, 2017)

Tracks: Bridesmaids (1:14), The Quartermaster (5:39), When the Music Dies (7:00), The White Crown (6:17), What Have You Done (8:30), Crime of Passion (6:01), A French Kiss in an Italian Cafe (6:00), The Bride Said No (19:25)

Nad Sylvan’s latest album, The Bride Said No, finds Steve Hackett’s touring vocalist truly coming into his own. While I don’t want to detract from his past solo efforts, I feel that Sylvan’s 2015 album, Courting the Widow, played the Genesis card far too safely, making the album sound a bit stale. This new release, however, finds a pleasant balance between new and old.

I decided to listen to the whole album after seeing the music video for “The Quartermaster” (see below), and the album gradually grew on me with subsequent listens. “The Quartermaster” is one of the best rock songs released this year, and if the wider music industry was concerned with actual music instead of money, ratings, and appeasing idiots, then maybe it would be a huge hit. The quiet, eerie opening soon gives way to a synth driven track that also features a healthy dose of harpsichord. I’m a sucker for the harpsichord.

Continue reading “Unrequited Love: Nad Sylvan’s The Bride Said No”

Rick’s Quick Takes: King Crimson Live in Vienna Chicago!

by Rick Krueger

From today’s online diary by King Crimson impresario David Singleton:

We have long been planning a release of the show in Vienna from November 1st last year – a highlight of the 2016 European tour, where Jeremy [Stacey] first took over the keyboard/drummer role and the band introduced Cirkus, Dawn Song and Indiscipline. Robert [Fripp] and I mixed this show with Chris Porter during the first half of the year, and it sits there, raring to go…

After the recent excitements in North America, it seemed, however, much more exciting and appropriate to release an official bootleg of the new 8-piece in full flight. There was a huge transformation in the band, which began in Chicago in June and came of age with the first show in Mexico in July. After the show at the Chicago Theater on 28th June, Tony Levin described it online as simply “one of our best” and Robert sent me a simple email saying “if we are looking for a KC live; Chicago was exceptional”. It was a wonderful setlist featuring Neurotica, Radical Action III, Cirkus, The Lizard Suite, Fallen Angel, Islands and Indiscipline alongside more established favourites.

So this autumn’s release for the US and Europe will be a two CD set of “Live in Chicago”, accompanied by T-Lev’s wonderful photographs (and one or two of my own, as even he struggles with being on stage and in the audience at the same time).

Three reactions:

  1. YESSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!  This makes two live Crimson shows I’ve attended that have been officially released.  The first one was in 2008, available as a DGM download here.
  2. For some reason, the 2017 Chicago Theater show got a really good review here.
  3. Is it vain to compile a discography of live albums where you were in the audience?  Oh, it is.  Well, never mind, then …

soundstreamsunday: “Cowboy” by Randy Newman

randynewman1.jpegRandy Newman makes diamonds.  You can feel the pressure and time and heat that go into his songs, creating the effect of lush spaciousness in tunes typically clocking in under three minutes.  His eagerness towards satire is a product of his style, immersive first-person character sketches delivering broad social commentary and comedy in lines simply phrased, acidic, and wrought with compassion.  His skill at delivering his own songs is often eclipsed by his influence as a songwriter and his work as a hired gun — “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” from his 1968 self-titled debut has been covered something like 75 times, and his scores and songs for films are in themselves a major achievement — and yet his unmistakable voice, coupled with arrangements measured to plumb the intellectual and emotional depths, carry such weight that as a performer of his own music he’s peerless.

“Cowboy” is from the ’68 debut, and in its brief stay conjures Dvorak and Copland, the film music of Newman’s uncles Alfred and Lionel and Emil, and a particularly nuanced form of American songwriting that was then just taking shape and was particular to Los Angeles.  It leans heavily on cinematic structure and the idea of music as a vehicle for a script’s emotional power.  Consider the slightness of the lyrics:

Cold gray buildings where a hill should be
Steel and concrete closing in on me
City faces haunt the places
I used to roam
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try
Wind that once blew free
Now scatters dust to the sky
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try

In contrast to much of Newman’s work, “Cowboy” doesn’t contain the erudite wordplay and swing he shared with Mose Allison and it doesn’t betray his deep roots in New Orleans.  It’s instead a kind of beautiful dirge of disillusion, a Brave New World Symphony where the fantasy of open spaces bumps up hard against the darker angels of human nature.

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.

DragonForce

Our innate tribalism tends to typically find an outlet through politics, sports etc – but they manifest within other social spheres also. Art is no exception; metal definitely is not. T-shirts, tattoos and band patches – all signal tribal association. Instinctively adopting a genre identity and defending those musical sensibilities is a commonplace. Labels, artists and the other marketing aspects of the ecosystem are also an accentuating factor here.

Years ago I used to frequent this bar, they mostly played 70s to 90s metal. So you could find a wide variety of old-school metal-heads being regulars there. Before these metallers split into factions, sub-factions and more nuanced quibbling sub-categories – there were two broad species – those who listen to power-metal and those who despised it. Needless to say, each considered the other as poseurs. The polarizing quality of power metal cannot be any more evident. I guess melodramatic compositions and fantasy themes are not everyone’s cup of tea!

It’s difficult to identify sounds which might appease both these battling tribes, but DragonForce is a definite contender. This late 90s British band is a form of anachronism – classic power metal blueprint, but also extremely technical. In short, its power metal with razor-sharp progressions and that sonic intensity of 80s thrash.

Sheer speed of the guitar solos can make passages resemble Super Mario music. Herman Li and Sam Totman’s dual guitar harmony is melodic and maddeningly precise. Aggressive bass lines, blazing leads and blast beats are all quintessential extreme metal elements. While those fantasy themed lyrics, high pitched clean vocals and catchy choruses tailored for large arenas – all indicate Ronnie James Dio/Rob Halford lineage of power metal. DragonForce may not be genre-bending revolutionaries, but they might just manage to placate two seemingly irreconcilable tribes.

By Andreas Lawen, Fotandi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Forever Rush: Summertime Limelight

Because it never gets old…

 

R.I.P. Le Studio:

The Laurentian Mountains studio, where Rush recorded the video for “Tom Sawyer,” was destroyed by an early morning fire today. Provincial police received a call about the blaze around 5:30 a.m., but when firefighters got to the studio, it was too late. Investigators with the Sûreté du Québec are working to determine the cause of the fire.

Concert Review: The Steve Miller Band with Peter Frampton

smbandIt’s been too long since I last posted something other than an obituary (although the music world did just lose another great in Glen Campbell). A concert, then, offered a welcome opportunity for change. Last night (August 8) I attended a collaboration of two rock icons at the Colosseum in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Although I must confess I did not stay the entire show (due in large part to a rather frenetic work week), what I did see impressed me, at least as a fair-weather fan of these two legends.

Peter Frampton opened up with an hour and ten-minute long setlist of his greatest hits, many of which were from his most successful album, 1976’s Frampton Comes Alive. While the highlight of his act was a lengthy (about 17 minutes) and rollicking rendition of “Do You Feel Like We Do” – which included his iconic “talkbox” solo and some fun interplay between Frampton and the keyboardist – Frampton also performed a unique version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” (again using a talkbox) as a tribute to Chris Cornell. Frampton explained how he and Cornell had performed this song together a few years ago and, in an acknowledgement of Cornell’s exceptional vocal skills, Frampton allowed his guitar to do the singing. It was a touching and classy gesture on his part. IMG_1365

After Frampton’s gig it was time to say hello to the Steve Miller Band. Steve Miller is 74 years old, but he can still jam – and he had a lot of fun doing it. After playing a few hits, including “Abracadabra,” he welcomed Frampton back on stage for a surprising performance of four old blues songs: KC Douglas’ “Mercury Blues,” Otis Rush’s “All Your Love,” Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied,” and Elmore James’ “Stranger Blues.” This homage to these classic blues musicians elicited a positive response from the audience and it was probably my favorite part of the whole show. Miller and Frampton showed off their guitar chops with a number of improvised solos and duels. And we enjoyed watching and listening!

IMG_1366Frampton exited to much applause for a second time as Miller and his band prepared to return to their greatest hits, but it was at this point that I left (I never would have done this on a Friday or Saturday night, I promise). I did check out the setlist and confirmed my suspicions: Miller concluded the night with the hits “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Rock’n Me,” and “Jet Airliner,” among others. Despite my early exit, this proved to be a wonderful experience. Having known just a few of the songs of both performers going in, I did not exactly know what to expect – but I did not leave disappointed. From the humorous (Frampton accidentally burping on the talkbox while performing “Do You Feel the Way We Do”) to the touching (Miller dedicating “Living in the USA” to the members of the United States armed forces), this concert did not disappoint.