Slowdive: Things New and Old

unnamed-31Reviewing Slowdive’s eponymous new album, their first in 22 years, Clash’s Robin Murray made a statement bound to pique the interest of progarchists:

“It feels at times like early King Crimson, or Pink Floyd’s post-Syd/pre-Dark Side nexus. It’s the sound of a band forgetting who they were, and embracing who they could become.”

That second statement is undeniably true. Slowdive (released May 5 on the Dead Oceans label) is unmistakably the work of the same quintet that disbanded between 1995 to 2014. But it’s not a reunion record of rehashed old ideas. It would also be correct to say the band’s music has more in common with Floyd than, say, punk rock. Among their signature showpieces is a majestic, slow-burning cover of Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair.” But Lark’s Tongue in Aspic? Other listeners can judge.

Guitarist/songwriter Neil Halstead grew up in a home where orchestral music was preferred to pop, and that influence is strongly apparent in tracks like the stirring “Catch the Breeze” (1991). While Slowdive can’t be classified as prog, their body of work has occupied spaces progarchists can appreciate: ambient, avant-garde, dream pop, and experimental, all under the broader classification of shoe-gazing. In this vein no other band sounds like Slowdive.

The cover art for Slowdive features a frame from Harry Smith’s 1957 avant-garde animated film, Heaven and Earth Magic. Composed of cut-out figures set in motion, the narrative includes a sequence involving a female patient sedated for a dental procedure. The darkened profile depicts her state of semi-consciousness, or perhaps heightened awareness. Or both.

Shoe-gazing refers not to the contemplative state of the listener (though it could) but rather the guitarists staring down at the array of effects pedals used to achieve other-worldly sounds. None are better at this than Slowdive’s Halstead and Christian Savill. On the new record that prowess is everywhere present.

But Slowdive also contains a refined attention to detail and form. The pace of the songs is faster. Nick Chaplin’s bass and Simon Scott’s drums thunder out front instead of being obscured by clouds of guitar effects, e.g. “No Longer Making Time.” And instead of a metronomic build-up common in earlier work there are tempo and time changes, e.g. “Don’t Know Why” and “Go Get It.” But as on previous records Rachel Goswell’s voice moves through the mix and around Halstead’s vocals like a spirit, e.g. “Sugar for the Pill,” the album’s emotional epicenter.

The closer, “Fallen Ashes,” may be a preview of things to come. Showcasing Scott’s abilities with laptop software, it embellishes and pushes a hypnotic piano riff to sublimity à la Jonny Greenwood.

Overall, Slowdive is familiar but with more sculpted contours and sharper pin pricks than in times past — a welcomed development.

All of this works from a context of two-decades’ old material still very much in view, still relevant, still captivating. I had the great fortune to catch Slowdive in Carrboro, NC at the next-to-last date on the North American leg of their current tour. Blending half the new album with old material, Slowdive overwhelmed the audience with canyons of sound.

I spotted a few fellow 50-somethings in the music hall. But more than a few of the audience weren’t even born when this Thames Valley gang first started making music as teenagers. Having fallen quickly out of fashion years ago with a press enamored to Britpop and cool Britannia, then beckoned back to life by an emerging cult following, Slowdive have a word for souls fearing rejection without redemption: No, this is what we do, and done well time will vindicate it.

After opening with “Slomo” from the new album the band followed with “Catch the Breeze,” with Savill, Goswell, and Halstead leaning toward the floor, wailing guitars swelling to orchestral heights.

The breeze it blows, it blows everything

And I, I want the world to pass

And I, I want the sun to shine

You can believe in everything

You can believe it all…

During the rapturous finale I glanced to my left. A couple of people were actually weeping. Heaven and earth magic, indeed.

Slowdive at Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, NC, May 10, 2017. Photo by the author.


Section 43 Turns 50

The past is the push of you, me, all, precisely the same,
And what is yet untried and afterward is for you, me, all, precisely the same.
I do not know what is untried and afterward,
But I know it will in its turn prove sufficient, and cannot fail.
~ Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself, Section 43.


Unlike bluegrass, where one can point to Bill Monroe’s “Mule Skinner Blues” (1940) as the discrete start of a new musical genre, progressive rock’s emergence was gradual. With Revolver and “Eight Miles High” the boundaries of pop music were expanded; 1967 would see the arrival of free-form or fusionist jam tracks likes Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” Buffalo Springield’s “Bluebird” (the hard to find long version), and Jefferson Airplane’s 24 minute epic “Spare Chaynge” (pared down to its last 9-1/2 minutes for After Bathing at Baxter’s). 

Fifty years ago this month Country Joe & The Fish entered the studio in San Francisco to record their first LP. The last track of side one may be the most proto-prog recording of the ’60s. “Section 43” reminds us that prog rock got its biggest push from the counter-culture’s psychedelia and acid rock. Whereas the aforementioned jam pieces are largely improvisational, this multi-part mini-epic displays as much attention to form as freak out.

Now, I have a confession to make. I had never heard “Section 43” until a few weeks ago. In 1967 I was a first-grader, and the greatest rock band in the world was The Monkees. When I later watched the Woodstock documentary I associated Country Joe with the Vietnam war gallows humor of “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag.” I didn’t look into the band further. It wasn’t until I watched Jack O’Donnell’s documentary on the Summer of Love,  Revolution, that I caught the music on the soundtrack and went on a quest to know who performed it. Thankfully, the person who posted a print of the film on YouTube was ready with the answer.

Watching the film I thought I might be hearing some previously uncovered Floyd track. The Farfisa organ and bass line put me in mind of Rick Wright and Roger Waters. Upon learning it was Country Joe & The Fish my mind was blown — and impressed.

The piece follows a verse-chorus-verse-verse-chorus structure. The choruses build tension waltzing slowly through minor and dissonant chords. The first and third verses showcase interplay between Barry “The Fish” Melton’s Gibson SG and David Bennett Cohen’s keyboard. The middle verses are bisected by what Richie Unterberger calls “an unexpected, almost circus-like atonal passage.” Up to that jarring break our ears are treated to a bracing harmonica solo from bassist Bruce Barthol, as salient on that instrument as with the heavy strings, while Gary “Chicken” Hirsh’s cymbals crash and tom-tom’s dance all around.

But it’s Melton’s note-bending, Near Eastern inflection on the second guitar solo that’s the highlight of this track. Country Joe McDonald? Why, he wrote the thing, and his ringing hollow-bodied Gibson keeps the whole contraption aloft.

The band opened with “Section 43” on the final morning of the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, an event memorable for Pete Townshend smashing his guitar and Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his. But Rolling Stone rated “Section 43” among the 15 greatest musical moments captured on film. Not so much for the shots of the band themselves (though Melton’s army jacket and blue jean combo would be a look emulated on school buses for years to come). It was the yawning, scratching youth summoned from slumber by Country Joe’s yell, and stumbling to the stage front that were the real stars of the clip.

Barthol’s harmonica solo isn’t present in this version. Country Joe blows the last dying notes on the harp as the camera cuts to the tapping feet of a sleepy and spacey young woman, too tired or too high or perhaps too deeply moved to clap, but whose bleary-eyed, Mona Lisa smile tells us that we have might have just passed a key signpost on the road to Proghalla.



Happy Birthday to a Hero

Kerry Livgren

That brooding stare from the record sleeve of Leftoverture (1976) belongs to Kerry Livgren, born this day in 1949.  Despite being an early Boomer, Livgren was (as he wrote in the song “Two Cents Worth”) “born in the wrong century.” At an early age he was rapt in the majesty of Lutheran hymns, Strauss, and Wagner, rising from a Swedish church and a relative’s phonograph into the wide sky above Topeka, Kansas. Although his early gigs included a R&B band, Livgren would carry the classics with him into a career that carved out one of the most distinctive sounds in progressive rock — a fusion of jazz, classical, arena rock, and country. The music of Kansas (the band) was as fierce, dynamic, and restless as the cover art to their eponymous first release, a painting by John Stuart Curry of John Brown astride “bleeding Kansas.”

As a teenager growing up in the southern Piedmont of North Carolina I, too, was listening to Also Sprach Zarathustra, Elektra, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But I was also weaned on the Stanley Brothers and Buck Owens; so when I heard the opening harmonies and heavy bombast of “Carry On Wayward Son” erupting from the FM station my dad managed, I found something musically that harmonized what had seemed distressingly disparate tastes. Livgren proved you can put these diverse elements together and make something glorious and coherent of them.

The greatness of Kansas’ music never rose higher, in my mind, than “The Pinnacle” (Masque, 1975); but majestic moments are found all over of the band’s catalog. Moreover, coupled with the music was Livgren’s deep spiritual search. As a rocker from the Plains he epitomized Jesus’ challenge to, “Seek, and you will find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.” If there was one American who exhausted the religious and philosophical well of thought, it was Kerry Livgren. That search, chronicled on Kansas’ albums, concluded with a return to the faith of his fathers. Livgren wrote of his career and conversion in Seeds of Change (1980, ed. 1991), an autobiography coauthored with Kenneth Boa.

Settling the religious question did not settle Livgren’s music. As a solo artist he wrote — and, in Todd Rundgren fashion, played all the instruments — on a characteristically diverse and fascinating album, One of Several Possible Musiks (1989). Together with Kansas bassist Dave Hope (now an Anglican priest) Livgren formed AD, releasing a string of albums in the ’80s of ’90s. In 2000 he produced one of his best solo efforts, Collector’s Sedition (an album I was privileged to review for PopMatters) that again showcases the sheer breadth of his interests and abilities.

In his bio Livgren introduced the tantalizing subject of the “pre-” Kansas bands — Kansas I and II, featuring Lynn Meredith’s histrionic vocals and John Bolton’s wild, Coltrane-inspired saxophone solos. Doing the prog world an unspeakable service, Livgren re-mixed and released Early Recordings from Kansas, 1971-1973 (2002), which I would say holds up as a prog album worthy of any collection. On the strength of that effort, the aptly named Proto-Kaw became a band again, touring and recording three new albums.

We’ve barely scratched the surface here; but suffice to say that Kerry Livgren is a renaissance man: church elder, husband, father, farmer, pilot, student, promoter of others’ gifts and talents, and yes, a brilliant composer, arranger, and musician.

Happy birthday, Kerry Livgren. Thank you for a tireless witness to honesty, truth, beauty, and order over the past five and a half decades.

A Song for Our Surveilled Time

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of an overlooked landmark of blue-eyed soul — Hall and Oates’ AbaFile:Hall Oates War Babies.jpgndoned Luncheonette.

But I’m not going to write about that.  Digging up and sharing “Laughing Boy” to my Facebook wall sent me on a tangent to locate another lost “jewel” from their 1974 follow-up, War Babies.  Produced by Todd Rundgren, this LP was as close as the Philadelphia duo came to exploring the boundaries of art rock (Daryl Hall would revisit the medium with his Robert Fripp-produced Sacred Songs).  It’s a post-traumatic tale of life in the stagflationary doldrums, when “radical Islam” was merely a pawn to be maneuvered against an existential Soviet threat.

The song I was searching for is track 2, side 2, entitled “I’m Watching You (A Mutant Romance).”  Now, unless you’ve been under a rock or living with Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen in a swamp, you are surely aware of the Snowden revelations of sweeping government snooping.   “I’m Watching You” eerily anticipates such a claustrophobic dystopia by nearly four decades.

It’s the first-person narrative of a “dirty spy with a TV eye” following the wanderings of a prostitute (“Jewel”) through the city, the sweeping movement of the surveillance camera captured by Tommy Mottola’s synthesizer.  There’s  enough resolution to make out the smile on her lips; she reminds him of a girl he used to know in junior high (my wife and kids, on a field trip to a police public safety office, were rather disquieted by the detail the cameras could detect — “The wasps looked like dinosaurs, dad!”).

Our hidden narrator bemoans the moments when she disappears with a client into a building.  But when she reemerges he can “love” her, “as a man can love a woman.”

It makes you want to sign up for HTTPS Everywhere and Do Not Track Me, shut down the kids’ chat sites and cover your computer’s camera with duct tape.  Todd Rundgren’s sweet slide guitar and angelic backing vocals, far from making this savory, only intensify the irony.

But it serves as a troubling insight into a world of some troubled snoops (and they are bound to exist), the tension between the necessity of public safety and private fantasy, between what is real and what is imagined in the darkness behind watching eyes…

One Hundred, or Thereabout…

A list of favorites?101 faves

Ignoring blues, bluegrass, and (though some of my picks will leak in that direction).  My favorite albums in a roughly prog or prog-friendly orbit.  Explanatory notes as needed.  And no Beatles.

Aereogramme — Sleep and Release.  Scottish prog metal with screaming blue Pict faces.

Alan Parsons Project — I Robot

Alice in Chains — Jar of Flies

The Allman Brothers Band.  Berry Oakley, arms outstretched in the niche.

Anthony Phillips — The Geese and the Ghost

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk.  Where would rock be without these?

Atomic Opera — For Madmen Only

Be Bop Deluxe — Life in the Air Age.  The curious case of the three-sided album.

Black Eyed Sceva — Way Before the Flood.  Intelligent, proggy Christian emo/ math rock.

Black Eyed Sceva — 5 Years, 50,000 Miles Davis.  “Beware when you read ‘Letters from the Earth…'”

Boards of Canada — Tomorrow’s Harvest.  To have been in the desert Southwest for the live listening party.

Buffalo Springfield Again.  Long version of “Bluebird,” please.

The Byrds — Fifth Dimension

The Choir — Free Flying Soul.  Another smart, Christian masterpiece.

Crack the Sky — Safety in Numbers.  “Something’s wrong from the moon, my friends…”

Daryl Hall — Sacred Songs

Dead Confederate — Sugar.  DC is a Southern neo-grunge band.  But if Dmitri Shostakovich had ever tried his hand at writing a four minute rock bombast, the title tack to this album is close to what it would have sounded like.

The Decemberists — The Hazards of Love.  Hipsters closer to prog than they realize.

Deftones — Saturday Night Wrist

Dixie Dregs — What If

Dixie Dregs — Night of the Living Dregs

Dixie Dregs — Dregs of the Earth (the trifecta)

Dogs of Peace — Speak.  A brilliant one-off by Jimmie Lee Sloas and Gordon Kennedy.  May we have another, please?

Echolyn — As the World.

Electric Light Orchestra — Eldorado

Emerson, Lake & Palmer — Pictures at an Exhibition.  The Lyceum Theatre rendering (1970, DVD) is better, in my opinion.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer — Trilogy

Brian Eno — Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks.  Gorgeous music for the documentary, For All Mankind.

Explosions in the Sky — The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place

Faith No More — The Real Thing

Flaming Lips — Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Fleet Foxes.  Okay, I’m starting to veer…

Genesis — Trespass.  My favorite in their storied collection, leaving us wondering what might have been had Ant remained in the band.

Genesis — Foxtrot.  The end of the age, in 9/8 time.

Gov’t Mule — Life Before Insanity

Hall & Oates — Abandoned Luncheonette.  Blue-eyed soul was never this artsy.

Hall & Oates — War Babies.  Todd Rundgren was never this blue-eyed soul.

Helmet — Meantime

Incubus — Morning View

Jane’s Addiction — Ritual de lo Habitual

Jeff Buckley — Mystery White Boy

Jennanykind — Mythic. The scary South, a la O’Connor.

Jethro Tull — This Was

Jethro Tull — Thick as a Brick

Jimi Hendrix Experience — Are You Experienced?

John Fahey — America.  Prog folk if there ever was.

Johnny Q. Public — Extra Ordinary

Juliana Hatfield — Only Everything

Kansas.  When they were lean and hungry for barbecue and potato salad.

Kansas — Masque.  “The Pinnacle” was their pinnacle.

King Crimson — Larks Tongue in Aspic

King Crimson — Red

King’s X — Gretchen Goes to Nebraska

King’s X — Dogman.  One of the most played records in my collection.

Kraftwerk — Autobahn.  Analog over digital any day of the week.

Led Zeppelin — II

Led Zeppelin — Houses of the Holy

Living Colour — Vivid

Model Engine — The Lean Years’ Tradition (BES re-incarnated)

The Moles — Instinct.  “Raymond, have you seen the Red Queen?”

The Monkees — HEAD.  Never apologize for loving the Pre-Fab Four.

The Moody Blues — On the Threshold of a Dream.  Sending out “In the Beginning” to the NSA.

My Bloody Valentine — Loveless

My Morning Jacket — At Dawn

My Morning Jacket — It Still Moves

Neil Young — Harvest

Neil Young — Tonight’s the Night

Ortodoksinen Kamarikuroro — Divine Liturgy.  From Finland, the most breath-taking Orthodox Church chant I’ve ever heard.

Pelican — City of Echoes

PFM — Jet Lag

The Pink Floyd — The Piper at The Gates of Dawn

Pink Floyd — Wish You Were Here

The Police — Zenyatta Mondatta

The Police — Synchronicity

Proto-Kaw — Early Recordings from Kansas (1971-73).  Therefore, proto-Kansas.

Radiohead — The Bends

Radiohead — Kid A.  Leading rats and children out of town.

Rick Wakeman — The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable

Rush — A Farewell to Kings

Rush — Permanent Waves

Rush — Moving Pictures (the hat-trick)

Sebastian Hardie — Four Moments.  Prog from down under.

Slowdive — Blue Day (compilation)

Soundgarden — SuperUnknown

Steve Hackett — Voyage of the Acolyte

Sun Kil Moon — Ghosts of the Great Highway

Supertramp — Crime of the Century.  You’re bloody well right.

Syd Barrett — The Madcap Laughs

Synergy — Semi-Conductor.  Compilation of Larry Fast’s electronic realizations.

Talk Talk — Spirit of Eden

This Will Destroy You.  Post-rock paradise set by the mighty Rio Grande.

Todd Rundgren — A Wizard, A True Star.  Without Hall & Oates.

Tomita — The Planets.  Electronic realization of Holst’s orchestral suite.

Tool — Ænima

Velour 100 — Fall Sounds.  Shoe-gazing density from Ypsilanti.

Velour 100 — Songs From the Rainwater. 

Wilco — Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  Mossad makes a cameo.

Yes — The Yes Album

Yes — Tales From Topographic Oceans.  Yes, it’s too long, but “The Revealing Science of God” is worth the whole album.

Beauty I’d Always Missed: Days of Future Passed

My dad served on the merit badge review board for our local Scout troop. I’ll never forget the night he complained to me about one of my fellow Scouts who waTheMoodyBlues-album-daysoffuturepasseds trying to pass the requirements for the music merit badge, which included so many hours listening to and writing about classical music. “You know what he told me?” asked my agitated father.

“’I’ve listened to the Moody Blues and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.’ And I told him, ‘Young man, that ain’t classical music.’”

I was filled with embarrassment, both for my dad and my buddy. I knew where they were each coming from, and knew nothing I would say could bridge the generation gap. But I did tell my friend that the London Festival Orchestra on a pop album and ELP’s blistering cover of Pictures at an Exhibition were no substitutes (in Scouting) for the real thing, i.e. original arrangements.

The London Festival Orchestra’s appearance on Days of Future Passed was more a novelty than an innovation. Band legend has it that Deram Records wanted the Moodies to cover Dvořák’s 9th Symphony. That story is disputed. If true (and acted upon), the Moody Blues would have pre-empted “Rondo” and Pictures. Either way, Days of Future Passed (1967), while not a prog album in the strict sense, opened up possibilities that energized the emerging prog scene.

Technically this is a psychedelic pop record adorned with orchestral cinemascapes. Apart from the opening and closing motif (drawn from the chorus of “Nights in White Satin”) the symphonic sections seem almost thematically disconnected from the band’s songs themselves. In fact, the listener can detect a difference in the audio quality of the rock songs. It has the feel of two different musical works mashed together. To the mind’s eye this is visually a day in the life of any city, punctuated by trippy music videos.

The most memorable songs here are Justin Hayward’s “Tuesday Afternoon” and Ray Thomas’ marvelous, pulsating gem, “Twilight Time.” John Lodge’s “Time to Get Away” underscores the latent pastoral psyche of Britain, unbound by place or time (though the Tiny Tim-like falsettos are my least favorite moments). And then there is Graeme Edge’s poetry, introduced here with great effect by Mike Pinder’s reading – a voice befitting a medieval bard, looking down on the city’s humdrum routine with both an ethereal sagacity and sympathetic proximity.

Being worked out here were elements that would fall seamlessly into place with On the Threshold of a Dream (1969). Regardless of whether the Dvořák story is true or not, the band realized the mythic proportions that orchestral sensibility could bring to their music. More importantly, they learned to master the arrangements themselves and temper the elements into cohesive statements.

It would be a stretch in my mind to herald Days of Future Passed as the prototypical prog album.  But it put the Moody Blues on a trajectory to inspire the first generation prog artists, waiting in the wings to unleash beauty worth not missing.