Richard Barbieri’s Prog-Electronica Genius

richardbarbieriI was first exposed to that exotic, amorphous musical genre called “electronica” in junior high by a friend who listened to what we called “weird stuff”. I’m not even sure what it was; some of it was from Japan. It made a dent in my memory banks, however, because until then my musical interests had been confined to some classical (Brahms! Mozart! Good!), Top 40 rock (Queen! Also good!), and lots of mediocre CCM (Not good!). During my high school years I listened to a good deal of The Alan Parsons Project, in part because of the huge hit “Eye In the Sky”; I eventually collected all of the APP albums. Parsons, of course, has straddled the worlds of progressive rock and mainstream pop/rock with his production prowess, writing, and work with keyboards and Fairlight programming. In hindsight, his music opened the door in various ways to music that was more overtly electronic.

(A quick, semi-related aside: A good friend in high school, who spent a lot of money on a fabulous car stereo system, liked to alternate between playing—very loudly—the raunchy rap of 2 Live Crew and the muzak of Yanni: the first to demonstrate his system’s bass; the latter to show off it’s high end. I’m not sure which music scarred me more.)

In the late Eighties and early Nineties there was an explosion of so-called “New Age” music (which had been around since the Sixties and whose identity has been hotly debated for decades), much of which was ambient or involved whales bellowing, birds chirping, and flowers clapping their petals. I mostly  ignored it, but did eventually latch onto the music of Patrick O’Hearn, whose solo albums on the Private Music label were lush, complex, mysterious, evocative, and never boring, even at their most sedate. O’Hearn, like all of the finest electronica artists, is the master of tone and mood; the music is rarely about virtuosity—unlike wide swaths of prog rock—but about constructing layers and movements. I liken it to a painter who builds layers of luminosity into his work through patient precision (more on the visual arts parallel in a moment).

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of cross-pollination going on between some “New Age” artists and various progressive rock groups and musicians. O’Hearn, who has legit jazz chops—he studied with jazz giant and bassist Gary Peacock—played with Frank Zappa as a youngster, and then with the new-wave band Missing Persons; the Private Music label featured a number of musicians with deep ties to progressive rock. (Another good example of this relationship can be found in Jon Anderson’s albums with Kitaro and Vangelis.) In the 1990s I bought several albums by Moby, Portishead, Björk, Aphex Twin, and Massive Attack, even while I ignored (for whatever reason) other key artists (Brian Eno, for instance).

Richard Barbieri is, of course, no stranger to prog fans, being a key member of Japan and Porcupine Tree and having worked in a number of other settings. His new album “Planets + Persona” [Kscope Music] is his third solo album, following 2005’s “Things Buried” and 2008’s “Stranger Inside”, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit. The three albums are similar in many ways, but this new album seems, to me, to be warmer, more organic (or acoustic), and more contemplative. Geno Thackara, at AllAboutJazz.com, explains it so:

While Planets + Persona clearly starts from a similar mold to its ambient-electronica predecessors, the scope is noticeably more vast. For each digital keyboard, there’s an analog synth or piano to give more organic shadings. A sizable supporting cast adds world-spanning textures from electric bass to kalimba and kora. Underpinning most of the album is a steady percussion bed that shifts from light electro-beats to steady hypnotic trance.

However spacious the landscapes are, they’re always balanced out by a little human warmth somewhere. Lisen Rylander Löve’s soft voice may be filtered until it’s almost coming through a dream, but its witchy allure is always there even without any recognizable words. There’s an element of jazzy improv in the presence of saxophone and trumpet, whether adding light melodies with an unobtrusive Miles Davis touch or (more often) floating through the atmosphere with the otherworldly calm of Jon Hassell.

Having now listened to the album several times, I am constantly reminded of O’Hearn’s best albums, which can also and aptly be called “landscapes”—or, perhaps better, “waterscapes”, with albums titled “Rivers Gonna Rise”, “So Flows the Current” and “Glaciation”. Both O’Hearn and Barbieri somehow manage to construct a new world, but with constant reference to this world, using sounds evoking the natural realm but without using actual sounds from nature (unlike, again, some “new age” albums). Of course, the “Planets” in the title hints at such a connection, and some song titles do as well, notably “Solar Sea”, “New Found Land”, and “Shafts of Light”. Songs build slowly, swelling like ocean waves, which then roil up bursts of acoustic piano and guitar, trumpet, and human voice. “New Found Land”, for instance, begins with a soundscape echoing that of a late night forest, into which a trumpet enters. The work of Nils Petter Molvaer comes to mind here, as the Norwegian trumpeter has a plaintive, Nordic tone that floats in and on “a sea of samples, breakbeats, and smooth dives”. The song builds, crests, and then wanes, with the trumpet again emerging, as if from the dark waters.

In addition to the warmer sound, there is clearly a jazz aesthetic at work, introduced with the trumpet early on and culminating in the final cut, “Solar Storm”, which features a number of electronic and acoustic beats, along with vibraphone, and then some wonderful saxophone, played by Lisen Rylander Löve, who contributes wordless vocals throughout the album. The inclusion of electric piano conjures up late Sixties Miles Davis with Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea on the keys. A personal favorite (although hardly the title I was looking for during Lent) is “Unholy”, which is a piano-driven lament with Löve vocalizing in the ether. The song builds with electronic beats, and the sound is quite similar, if less frantic, to Solus3’s outstanding “Corner of the World”, which also draws deeply, if not always obviously, from the world of jazz.

In the end, this album is a perfect example of electronica as art and a demonstration of why genres and labels are helpful—after all, they provide a sort of map, full of references points—but ultimately limited. It is certainly cinematic, although that word has limitations as well; again, I find it to be highly visual music, full of light and shadow, with a rich palette of tones, strokes, and details. That said, “Planets + Persona” is simply great music: beautiful, mysterious, wonderfully played and produced, memorable, entrancing. It “spans the facets of Barbieri’s musical sensibility,” says Thackara, “and brings them together as part of a breathtaking whole: earthy and spacy, synthetic and organic, all-encompassing and intimate. In a career full of wide-ranging musical explorations, this just may be his most epic journey yet.” Highly recommended for Progarchists and lovers of good music, period.

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