Prog Past, Present, and Yet To Come

One of Robert Fripp’s “devil bugs” caught up with the Krueger household on February 24 — the same day a “bomb cyclone” hit West Michigan, causing a 30-degree temperature drop in 24 hours, along with whiteout snowstorms.  It’s taken this long for us (and the region) to emerge from hibernation  — but through the depths of winter to the cusp of spring, music has taken sad songs and made them better.

That very day late last month, I trekked across the state to catch The Neal Morse Band’s Great Adventour stop in suburban Detroit; Neal and his merry crew (including son Will and daughter Jayda at the merch table) didn’t disappoint.   As I anticipatedThe NMB’s live take on The Great Adventure was even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the fine studio album (first half glitches to Morse’s keyboard rig notwithstanding).

Hearing all of TGA in one go brought home how thoroughly integrated the new effort is.  The key musical themes (as well as flashbacks to The Similitude of A Dream) aren’t just repeated, they’re developed in near-symphonic ways: transposed, transformed rhythmically and harmonically, recapped in unexpected contexts throughout the work.  Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette, keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality meshed smoothly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, ably mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of another journey to the Celestial City.

In sum, TGA is a genuinely impressive concept work, marked by ambition, intelligence, technique and sentiment in just the right proportions.  The result at the end of each set (and the encore medley that covered Morse’s entire solo career, ending the night where it began) was sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the audience — a feeling that, I believe, couldn’t have been manufactured or manipulated into existence.  I couldn’t help think that, consciously or not,  Morse’s recent work fully embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion — an ideal, whatever its flaws, that’s been a cultural constant from the Puritan theologizing of Jonathan Edwards to the rough-hewn democratic juggernaut of today’s Pentecostalism.

And, in the inspired, paradoxically complex simplicity of its drive to the finish, The Great Adventure live reminded me of nothing so much as Gustav Mahler’s massive Resurrection Symphony. Like Mahler, Morse and band embraced everything that came to hand, running the risk of grandiosity to shape a new musical world — a payoff acknowledged by the heartfelt, fervent applause of the 300 souls in attendance.

February and March have been great months for new and reissued albums as well, with at least two stand-outs that seem certain to make my year’s end favorites lists:

  • Kudos to ECM for a mid-price reissue of freeform guitarist David Torn’s seminal 1987 record, Cloud About Mercury.  At the start of a career that’s consistently pushed every musical limit, Torn was already ripping the rule book to shreds; this is a daring, debonair, head-on collision of cool jazz, polyrhythmic world music and prog.  Trumpeter Mark Isham (Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and numerous others) splashed vivid colors onto Torn’s ambient soundscapes and soulful, howling feedback; Tony Levin (on bass & Chapman Stick) and Bill Bruford (on acoustic & electronic drums) pumped up the beat and added head-snapping countermelodies, strengthening their ongoing rhythmic collaboration even during King Crimson’s ’80s interregnum.  My bet is you’ve never heard anything quite like Cloud About Mercury — and that you’ll be glad you did.  (Also recommended: Torn’s latest ECM effort, Sun of Goldfingera jaw-dropping free-jazz blowout with saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Ches Smith.)

  • Meanwhile, Tim Bowness’ new album Flowers at the Scene has proved even better than I anticipated after last month’s three-part interview.  It lives up to Bowness’ apt description of “11 cinematic short stories” — allusive vignettes of characters at their wits’ ends, deftly sketched in epigrammatic, desperately melancholy lyrics, then vividly embodied in richly dappled musical settings (featuring stellar contributions from No-Man collaborator Steven Wilson, Plenty member Brian Hulse, members of 10cc, XTC, Big Big Train plus other kindred spirits). It’s stylish, moody, enticing art-pop that seduces you, horrifies you, and burrows into your subconscious, all at the same time.  I can’t recommend it highly enough!

There’s been lots more good stuff: Kinetic Element’s fine The Face of Life continues to get repeat plays, along with Fernando Perdomo’s delightful second disc of prog instrumentals, Out to Sea 2.  Krautrock pioneer Michael Rother’s reissue box Solo is lovely as well: four discs of vintage instrumentals (plus recent soundtracks) anchored with steady motorik grooves, unspooling wave after wave of gloriously simple, gorgeously folky guitar and synth melody.  Think Mike Oldfield on the Autobahn and you won’t go wrong.  And the death of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis has inspired an ongoing deep dive into his astonishing back catalog.

And the hits just keep on coming!  On my horizon in the next month or so:

 

— Rick Krueger

(P.S. Thanks to fellow Neal Morse enthusiast and Grand Rapidian Paula Pasma for the great concert photo!)

 

 

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