Back in March 1994, shortly after Soundgarden’s masterful Superunknown was released, Melody Maker‘s Everett True wrote a detailed and often insightful piece about the band on the road (in Tokyo, specifically). Chris Cornell spoke openly with True about his struggles with depression and fear:
“I write songs best when I’m depressed,” Chris tells me. “No one seems to get this, but Black Hole Sun is sad. But because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it’s almost chipper, which is ridiculous. Fell On Black Days is another one. Like Suicide is a perfect example.”
We’re they inspired by specific events?
“Fell On Black Days was like this ongoing fear I’ve had for years. It took me a long time to write that song. We’ve tried to do three different versions with that title, and none of them have ever worked. Someday we might do an EP…
“It’s a feeling that everyone gets. You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting – when all of a sudden you realise you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it’s just that you realise one day that everything in your life is F—–!”
Update: There are now reports from the medical examiner that it was a suicide. Baffling and confounding.
I awoke this morning to two texts from close friends. The first was terse and direct: “Chris Cornell has died.” The second:
“Just heard about Chris Cornell. Sad day for the music world. I’m in Detroit on my way to Florida. It’s all over the news here. Soundgarden played here last night. I doubt he killed himself.”
The first friend had accompanied me to Cornell’s stunning July 2016 concert at The Hult here in Eugene. We both agreed it was a remarkable show; it was even better than a solid 2013 show at a smaller venue just five minutes from my house. We marveled at Cornell’s range, presence, lyrics, musicianship.
Now we are both stunned by his sudden death in a Detroit hotel, not long after a Soundgarden concert that reportedly concluded with Led Zep’s “In My Time of Dying”—a staple in recent solo shows by Cornell.
There are reports that the death may have been a suicide. If so, that would be even more shocking. There had been ups and downs, but Cornell had avoided the deep dives into oblivion that eventually swallowed up Kurt Cobain, Andrew Wood, and Layne Staley. And had, over the past two decades, thrived both personally and professionally.
Cornell was a drug user in his early teens, then drank heavily (and apparently used drugs on occasion) during the heyday of Soundgarden in the 1990s. He hit bottom in the late ’90s as the band broke up and then his first marriage unraveled. Even then, however, he produced his (arguably) finest solo album “Euphoria Morning” (later updated to “Euphoria Mourning”), which demonstrated that he was not just about grunge, but could dip into gospel, blues, and folk. After a stint in rehab, he joined up with three members of Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave, one of the finest supergroups in recent memory, producing three studio albums of muscular, confident rock that further demonstrated Cornell’s prowess as a songwriter. Several songs for movie soundtracks followed, including “You Know My Name”, the theme song to the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale. And Soundgarden’s 2012 “King Animal” was a solid, often brilliant, return for the legendary band.
Since the early 2000s, Cornell’s personal life appears to have been thriving. He married Vicky Karayiannis in March 2004, and by all accounts was a devoted husband and father. His most recent solo album “Higher Truth” was well received, revealing a mature and confident artist who was still trying new things as a songwriter and musician. In interviews, Cornell was thoughtful and funny; he seemed to embrace his fame without taking himself too seriously, which is not an easy thing to accomplish amid the fame and challenges of being a musician.
Again, I’m simply stunned. My God grant Chris Cornell peace and provide solace to his family during this most difficult time.
Inspired by Brad’s fascinating and very New Wave-ish post “My 49 Favorite Pop Albums”, I decided to try my hand at listing the same. One difficulty, it turns out, is defining “pop”. Brad didn’t list Radiohead’s “OK Computer” (one of my Top 10 pop/rock albums) because he figured it was too proggy, which is hard to disagree with. But I have it in my list, and also included a couple more albums that are certainly in the realm of prog: “Queen II”, “Point of Know Return”, and “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”. But, on the whole, I think most everything here fits on the “pop” spectrum, even if it veers into rocky territory (Muse, Journey, Soundgarden) on occasion.
Also, I could have easily included several more albums by Sinatra and Torme, and I feel a bit guilty to not have anything by, say, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughn, Rosemary Clooney, or Nat King Cole. But I’ve tried to capture a certain breadth chronologically while being true to what I like and return to. And that is a key criteria: all of these are albums I revisit and never tire of. Finally, it might be surprising that the only artist who shows up here three times is Seal. But no Beatles? Rolling Stones? Simon and Garfunkel? Lady GaGa? Go figure!
Frank Sinatra: IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS (1955)
Frank Sinatra: SONGS FOR SWINGIN’ LOVERS! (1956)
Mel Tormé: IT’S A BLUE WORLD (1956)
Roy Orbison: IN DREAMS (1963)
Mel Tormé: THAT’S ALL (1965)
Van Morrison: MOONDANCE (1970)
Elton John: ELTON JOHN (1970)
Queen: QUEEN II (1974)
Queen: NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1975)
Kansas: POINT OF KNOW RETURN (1977)
Electric Light Orchestra: OUT OF THE BLUE (1977)
Journey: ESCAPE (1981)
ABBA: THE VISITORS (1981)
Asia: ASIA (1982)
The Police: SYNCHRONICITY (1983)
Big Country: THE CROSSING (1983)
Mr. Mister: WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD (1985)
John Fogerty: CENTERFIELD (1985)
The Moody Blues: THE OTHER SIDE OF LIFE (1986)
Sting: NOTHING LIKE THE SUN (1987)
Pink Floyd: A MOMENTARY LAPSE OF REASON (1987)
Sam Phillips: THE INDESCRIBABLE WOW (1988)
Kate Bush: THE SENSUAL WORLD (1989)
Van Morrison: AVALON SUNSET (1989)
The Choir: CIRCLE SLIDE (1990)
George Michael: LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE, VOL. 1 (1990)
U2: ACHTUNG BABY (1991)
Seal: SEAL (1991)
Tori Amos: LITTLE EARTHQUAKES (1992)
Maria McKee: YOU GOTTA SIN TO GET SAVED (1993)
Chris Isaak: SAN FRANCISCO DAYS (1993)
The Cranberries: EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT, SO WHY CAN’T WE? (1993)
Sarah McLachlan: FUMBLING TOWARDS ECSTASY (1993)
Seal: SEAL (1994)
Portishead: DUMMY (1994)
Soundgarden: SUPERUNKNOWN (1994)
Jeff Buckley: GRACE (1994)
Jars of Clay: JARS OF CLAY (1995)
The Mavericks: MUSIC FOR ALL OCCASIONS (1995)
Duncan Sheik: DUNCAN SHEIK (1996)
Radiohead: OK COMPUTER (1997)
Seal: HUMAN BEING (1998)
Burlap to Cashmere: ANYBODY OUT THERE? (1998)
Moby: PLAY (1999)
Martin Sexton: LIVE WIDE OPEN (2002)
Muse: BLACK HOLES AND REVELATIONS (2006)
Brandi Carlile: THE STORY (2007)
A Fine Frenzy: ONE CELL IN THE SEA (2007)
Sia: SOME PEOPLE HAVE REAL PROBLEMS (2008)
Sara Bareilles: KALEIDOSCOPE HEART (2010)
Lake Street Dive: BAD SELF PORTRAITS (2014)
Kevin Max: BROKEN TEMPLES (2015)
I 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: Continue reading “Richard Barbieri’s Prog-Electronica Genius”→
In my mini-review of Ian Thornley’s outstanding Secrets I described the Big Wreck singer/guitarist/writer’s solo effort as “acoustic, reflective, mellow, mournful, defiant, sad, and yet shot through with a sense of cautious hope.” The new Big Wreck album Grace Street has its reflective and mellow moments—”Useless” is a mesmerizing, melodic gem and “Motionless” is a soaring mid-tempo number—but the key, overlapping descriptives surely are “defiant” and “hope”. If I were to channel my 17-year-old self (30 years ago!), I would simply say, “This albums kicks ***!” Since reuniting in late 2011, the Canadian rockers have produced three must have albums: Albatross (2012), which includes one of my favorite rock songs, period; Ghosts (2014), nominated for “Rock Album of the Year” at the 2015 Juno Awards; and now Grace Street. As many others have said, this band deserves far more attention for consistently producing albums filled with aural delights.
The opening song, “It Comes As No Surprise”, is apparently inspired in part by Thornley’s divorce and is equal parts bombast and vulnerability, with wall-of-sound guitars bringing to mind the Von Hertzen Brothers (fans of that group’s 2015 “New Day Rising” should embrace Grace Street readily), while the vocal harmonies remind me of something from Moon Safari or even the Beach Boys. While Big Wreck is not straight prog, it certainly embraces some prog elements—similar, I think, to how Queen used complex vocal harmonies, unusual chords, and elaborate guitar passages:
The second cut, “One Good Piece of Me”, is about as AOR-sounding as the band gets (the opening riff is pure Asia, circa 1983), the sort of song that would have chewed up the radio back in the Eighties, with its power chords, anthemic vocals, and driving bass. “Tomorrow Down” has more of a grunge sound, with Thornley sounding very much like Chris Cornell, especially in how he moves from seductive to snarling at a moment’s notice. “You Don’t Even Know” is loping ear candy, a blues-inflected, hand-clapping (yes, actual hand claps!) number that would—wait for it—make Los Lonely Boys proud, with the sort of tasty guitar solo that Thornley excels at.
The middle section of the generously timed album (just shy of 70 minutes) is simply brilliant. “Useless”, as hinted at above, is a sonic and musical marvel, described by Thornley as one of his favorites. “A Speedy Recovery”, the longest track (7:38), is the very definition of an earworm, with incredibly catchy drum/bass parts, swelling guitars, hypnotizing chorus, soaring vocals, and another glorious guitar solo:
“Motionless” displays Thornley’s astounding range atop a bed of layered sonic sweetness, while “Digging In” has a more raw, classic rock sound with several overt Led Zep shout outs. “The Receiving End” could have easily fit on Chris Cornell’s most recent solo album, replete with mandolin, some slide guitar, and some falsetto. “Floodgates” is equal parts grunge and funk—Extreme, anyone?—with bassist Dave Mcmillan laying down some fabulous bass lines.
The final three cuts have plenty to offer fans of prog: “The Arborist” is built on some deceptively snaky guitar parts, with plenty of minor-keyed darkness around the edges; “Skybunk Marché” is a 7-minute long instrumental with all sorts of guitar gifts; and “All My Fears On You” is a surging, Pink Floyd-ish closer with a classic Thornley solo bringing the album to conclusion.
The Prog Report, in its glowing review, states: “At times channeling Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and other 70’s acts combined with their own unique style, ‘Grace Street’ is an exhilarating and refreshing rock album, one that is already one of the year’s best.” That’s as good of summary as you’ll find of what is an early entry into CEO’s Top 10 Rock Albums of 2017.
I probably should have my Progarchy.com credentials revoked as I not only missed the Stick Men’s concert here in Eugene, Oregon, last Friday, I wasn’t even aware of it until Saturday (which explains why I missed it, but…). Anyhow, the band, which consists of prog giants Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto, along with another virtuoso, Markus Reuter, have produced some really inventive, complex, and accessible music in their most recent album “Prog Noir”, which Levin reflected upon in an interview with The Register-Guard:
After failing to post any “Favorite Music of 2015…” lists last year, I’ve decided that I should avoid elaborate explanations for my choices, but simply note a thing or two about each release that captured my ears and held my attention. I’ve also decided to post three separate but fairly short lists: Prog/Rock, Jazz, and Everything Else. In short, I’m trying to kill my propensity for overkill. I suspect I’ll fail! Here, first, are my picks for favorite prog & rock albums of the past year (give or take a few months):
• “The Prelude Implicit” by Kansas | This is, I think, one of the best feel-good stories in prog of 2016. After all, Kansas could have just kept touring and playing the same old—ranging from good to great to classic—tunes. Instead, they produced a very good, even great, album. As I wrote in my Progarchy.com review: “In short, the band has found a commendable and impressive balance between old and new, with plenty of prog-heavy, classic Kansas-like passages, but with an emphasis on ensemble playing over solos. … Kansas is to be commended for embracing their past while clearly moving forward with a confident and often exceptional collection of songs. Highly recommended for both longtime Kansas fans and for those who like melodic, well-crafted prog that puts the emphasis on memorable songs and musical cohesion over theatrics and solos.”
•“Secrets” by Ian Fletcher Thornley | I was initially flummoxed by this album, expecting a variation on the hard-rocking, high energy music of Big Wreck and Thornley, both fronted, of course, by the prolific Canadian singer, guitarist, writer, and producer. I finally listened to it late one night, in the dark, and I finally heard it on its own terms: acoustic, reflective, mellow, mournful, defiant, sad, and yet shot through with a sense of cautious hope. Thornley demonstrates that his remarkable writing skills are equal to his vocal prowess, which is an aural wine bearing hints of Big Country (“Frozen Pond”), Chris Cornell (“Feel”), Peter Gabriel (“Stay”), Bruce Springsteen (“Just To Know I Can”), and Jeff Buckley (“Blown Wide Open”). In the end, this is a modern blues record featuring every shade and hue of sadness, longing, and loss.
One of my favorite albums of 2016 (full list coming soon!) is Ian Fletcher Thornley’s stunning “Secrets”, which came out in late 2015 and has been a part of my listening rotation since I first heard it. Thornley—who is a remarkable vocalist. virtuoso guitarist, accomplished songwriter, etc.—has been producing a significant amount of good music in recent years, including Big Wreck’s exceptional “Albatross”—one of my favorites of 2012—and 2014’s excellent “Ghosts”. Early 2017 (February 4th) will see the release of “Grace Street”. The first two singles/songs are already available, and one of them is a “must hear” for fans of top-notch, guitar-oriented instrumental rock. Clocking in at just over 7 minutes, “Skybunk Marché” has hints of Satriani, Jeff Beck, and Rush, with three guitars rollicking with precise abandon through a variety of keys and movements:
To get a better sense of who’s playing what, watch the band play the song live (9:45 mark):
The last song in the Dunlop Sessions (above), titled “Come Again”, features the sort of searing, beautifully constructed solo that Thornley turns out on a regular basis. Can’t wait to hear this entire album, which promises to be one of the best of 2017.
Yes, I’m getting a jump on things. After failing to pen a “Favorite Albums of 2015” earlier this year, I figured I need to strike while the iron was hot and I had a few moments of free time.
Those who follow the proceedings here at Progarchy.com likely know that I am the resident “jazz guy.” Jazz probably makes up close to half of the 75,000 or so songs in my collection. I first “discovered”—that is, really listened to—jazz in my early twenties; my first jazz albums were Keith Jarrett’s “The Köln Concert” and “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis—one being the best-selling solo piano album of alltime and the other being the most famous jazz album yet produced. “Kind of Blue” is notable here because the first song on The Tierney Sutton Bands’ (www.tierneysutton.com) brilliant album “The Sting Variations” is “Driven to Tears”, but opens by directly quoting Davis’ “So What”:
Below is the short review I recently left at Amazon.com.
This exceptional album, which continues Tierney Sutton’s impressive run of very good to outstanding releases, is a revelation in several ways.
First, the playing and singing is of the highest order, with Sutton and band so perfectly sympatico that they should appear as one definition of “organic” in Webster’s Dictionary. There is a remarkable economy married to robust breadth and depth; in other words, the musicians never overplay—every note is necessary and purposeful—but they also never under-commit; each song is played with masterful purpose, focus, and command. An example of this is “Seven Days”, which opens with a simple bass line and plaintive, quiet vocals and then builds in both musical and emotional complexity, capturing the conflicted (“Though I hate to make a choice”) but assertive (“the fact remains, I love him so…”) lyrics. Sutton’s vocals are spell-binding, combining both a light innocence and a rich maturity; the countless shades of emotion and intonation are remarkable.
Finally, the selection of Sting songs is inspired, not simply because Gordon Sumner draws deeply on jazz in his songwriting, but because the lyrical content is so eclectic and his best songs are immediately memorable but never simplistic. That Sutton brings a female voice and feminine genius to the entire project makes this, in my opinion, a truly special recording. A perfect example is found in “Every Breath You Take (Lullabye)”, in which the mega-selling single is both subverted and reimagined, turned from a somewhat unsettling stalking tune into a hushed and then soaring reflection on the complexities of loving one’s child.
An album of covers can be many things: an homage, an exercise, a one off, a replication, a dedication. This album, however, is a work of musical art, which demonstrates the musicians’ respect for the songs and songwriter not through slavish imitation, but brilliantly imaginative explication that looks backward and forward in perfect balance, as most great art does. A masterpiece.
The title of the new Kansas album—“The Prelude Implicit”—is open to some interpretation, but the intent of the cover art, which features a phoenix, seems clear enough: regeneration and rebirth. The legendary band has long been known for non-stop touring, but the past few years have seen the sort of changes that either mark the end or a new beginning (and that is, I suppose, the likely implicit message of the album’s title). Like many other groups that achieved great commercial success in the 1970s, Kansas has gone through several line-ups, as I cover in some detail in this 2013 review of a John Elefante album.
And there, of course, is the Big Rub, because when bands split and original members leave, fans are often faced with a dilemma: Is Kansas really Kansas without Steve Walsh singing and playing keyboards, or Kerry Livgren playing guitar and keyboards, or Robby Steinhardt on violin and vocals? (Those who like to keep track of such things can find a good chronology here.) Livgren, of course, was key to the band’s distinctive, detailed, and orchestrated sound in the first decade, writing music that was at turns melodic (“Dust in the Wind”), anthemic (“Carry On My Wayward Son”), and esoteric (“Incomudro – Hymn to the Atman”, “Cheyenne Anthem”, etc), with lyrics that were loaded with references to spiritual turmoil, seeking, and wandering. And Walsh, the bad boy of the group, proved to be one of the finest vocalists of the era, with a pure, powerful tenor that was equally muscular and soulful (until the excesses of the oft-cited “rock lifestyle” began to eat away at it). Both facts come through clearly in the excellent documentary “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, which marked the band’s 40th anniversary and, it seems, marked a certain line of demarcation. “In truth,” I wrote in my review of the documentary,
some bands are far more interesting for what they did off the stage than for what they did on the stage. And then there are bands that really are, at the end of the day, all about the music, and it seems quite clear that Kansas is in the latter camp. It is rather striking how ordinary these six musicians appear to be, with only Walsh (who retired last year) giving occasional glimpses into a more prickly, difficult side. Ehart, whose warm humor and casual self-deprecating approach make him the star of the documentary, is keen to praise his bandmates, expressing obvious awe over Walsh’s vocal prowess and Livgren’s songwriting, saying that back in the day he didn’t think of Livgren as a musical genius, but perhaps only because they ate hamburgers together. And even Livgren, who nearly died in 2009 after suffering a stroke, seems genuinely surprised at the astounding run of classic songs he produced in those years, offering up thanks to God in a somewhat “Ah, shucks” sort of way.
Watching “Miracles Out of Nowhere” three times and listening to “The Prelude Implicit” some two dozen times now, I think that while the genius of Livgren and the distinctive abilities of Walsh are essential to the classic Kansas sound (the five first albums especially), we mustn’t overlook the duo that has proven to be the glue for Kansas for so long now: guitarist Richard Williams and drummer (and manager) Phil Ehart. I have long thought that Ehart, in particular, has never received proper recognition for his drumming, which is both virtuosic and musical—just listen, say, to “Song for America” and hear how he carries the entire tune and yet does so without drawing attention to his playing. In a word, his playing is “tasteful”. Ehart is the ultimate team player, and that quality comes through in the new album, on which he co-wrote nine of the 10 cuts. There is a certain Kansas-ish structure to songs—even ballads such as “The Unsung Heroes”—that shines through, and Ehart’s playing is essential to it. Continue reading “Kansas’ “The Prelude Implicit” is both agreeably familiar and remarkably fresh”→