The Progarchy Interview: Pure Reason Revolution’s Jon Courtney

When Pure Reason Revolution’s The Dark Third was released in 2006, it hit like a bolt from the proverbial blue.  At a time when the progressive rock renaissance was still thin on the ground (Porcupine Tree, Neal Morse, Spock’s Beard, and not much else), here was a band that specialized in effortlessly evolving long-form suites, set off by a sweet-and-sour pairing of lush harmonies and aggressive grooves.  Signed to InsideOut after the debut album on Sony, PRR added hardcore electronica to their palette on 2009’s Amor Vincit Omnia and 2011’s Hammer and Anvil, after which band mainstays Jon Courtney (vocals, guitars, keyboards) and Chloë Alper (vocals, basses, keyboards) went their separate ways.

Come 2020, PRR is back with Eupnea (a medical term for quiet, normal breathing) — which gave us the opportunity to check in with Jon Courtney.  In this expansive interview (lightly edited for clarity), Jon talks about what makes a song a Pure Reason Revelation song, reveals the inspiration behind the new album’s lyrics and artwork, and unravels the unlikely tale of the debut album’s out-of-nowhere success.

So, you have a great new album from Pure Reason Revolution!  How did this album happen?

So, If I rewind a little bit … I had this project Bullet Height and that happened after Pure Reason Revolution the first time.  So, we made the record and then we toured it a little bit in the UK and did a few shows in Germany.  And then it got to the time of “well, I guess it’s time to make another record!” And I think sort of around this time I sort of … I took quite a big break from music anyway, cause I wasn’t too sure what the direction was gonna be and exactly what I wanted to do.

So, I took a break for maybe three to six months and then when I finally did come back into the studio and started recording demos, the demos didn’t really sound like Bullet Height.  They sounded more progressive and sounded more like Pure Reason Revolution.  And then as these demos progressed a little more, I thought: “Well, you know, this is definitely sounding like Pure Reason Revolution, and if it’s gonna do something and come out as Pure Reason Revolution, then I need to speak to Chloë!”

So that’s when I sent Chloë a message and said, “Look, I’ve been working on these demos … are you free to meet up and have a talk about them?”  And then she said, “Yes, it sounds like a great idea to do Pure Reason Revolution again.”

 

To your mind, what do you see as making a track, a piece of music, a Pure Reason Revolution track?  What do you think are the essential ingredients?

(Laughs) The essential ingredient is definitely sort of the vocal interplay with Chloë and I. So that’s a big part.  And then, if one of us is doing a lead, then the harmony parts.  That’s sort of an essential part of PRR.

What else is essential with a PRR song?  I think sort of unexpected moments.  I mean, some of the songs do sort of take on a traditional songwriting form, of sort of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, blah blah.   But you’re always gonna get other surprises on an album, where the songs are more sort of journey songs – there’s ups and downs, there’s light and shade, there’s heavy aggressive moments, and then there’s moments of beauty, really, with light piano parts.  So, we always like to take the listener on a journey and have these surprises along the way.

 

As you say, the way you and Chloë harmonize is a core piece of the PRR sound.  What else does she bring to the party?

On this record … the initial demos, it was me sort of jamming away in my studio in Berlin, just with the computer, just recording … I’d come up with some ideas on guitar and piano, then I’d record them in, and then the tracks just developed from there and built and built.

I had Greg Jong, who was the original guitarist from PRR.  He came over to Berlin for a couple of weeks; he’s based actually in Portland in your country, and we collaborated on a couple of tracks.  And, while recording, stuff would get sent over to Chloë.

I think Chloë and I, she did a couple of vocal sessions together; we did a UK session and then a Berlin session on vocals.  But a lot of the vocals were sort of sent via Internet; I’d send her some parts, and she’d have a play around with those, singing those parts, and then send them back to me.  Then there would new stuff to sing, new harmony parts, all that kind of thing.  So, a lot of Chloë and I’s collaboration was not in the same room, if you like, but via Internet.  The main collaboration on the music was when Greg came over here for a couple of weeks.

 

I’ve always found her bass playing to be a very powerful part [of the sound]; it really gives [your music] that low end drive.

On the album, there’s various basses: there’s bass guitar, there’s programmed bass as well.  There’s a brilliant bass module I use called Trillian.  It’s basically a software instrument for all things bass: you can dial up things like Fender Precisions or Stingrays; you can put them through different amplifiers.  But there’s also things from Moog Prodigys through to Prophets to just loads of cool synthesizers – but all sort of based around the bass sounds.

So, I think the album’s a real mix of the bass guitar and this bass module Trillian.  But yeah, the bass is obviously a big part of the music.

 

And it also strikes me that the integration of the vintage sounds with the more modern structures and beats – and then you throw you and Chloë’s harmonies on top – that’s really what makes the whole pudding come together, so to speak.

Yeah, the vintage sounds … we unashamedly have progressive rock influences, be that from Pink Floyd to King Crimson to Yes or whatever.  But through to bands like Air as well, or Massive Attack or whatever.  There’s a real mix of influences in there, from ’60s/’70s stuff through to modern productions now.  And we do take influence from some of these ’70s bands.

But we always want to make it sound like a modern production; we don’t wanna make records that sound like they were made back then.  We take influences from multiple genres and areas, and then it goes into sort of this bubbling pot, and then you get Pure Reason Revolution.

So, your new album is called Eupnea – how does that word portray the album?  What does it say about what we’re gonna hear or what you’re trying to convey? 

I’m not too sure!  I heard this term when – so, lyrically, a lot of the album comes from an era just after my daughter was born.  Because she was born very early.  So, we went into intensive care, ‘cause she came at 32 weeks.  And she needed this stuff to go into the lungs to open up the lungs, and she had these breathing issues.  And this was one of the terms I heard when we were in hospital.

So, yeah, I heard this word and then the album’s lyrical content reflects a lot of the highs and lows we had, the uncertainty that we went through as parents, totally helpless to do anything.  We had this magical moment of her arriving, and then steps forward, steps back.

I think the album sort of reflects these highs and lows, and some of the sort of more heavy, more doom moments reflect the worry, uncertainty and some of the chaos.  And then there’s moments of beauty as well, where a bit more light came onto situations, and we had more hope about how things were gonna go.  And she is now a healthy 2 ½ year old, so we’re very, very grateful for what happened.

 

I’m so glad to hear she came through.  From my initial listen to the album, what you say about the content, that makes a lot of sense; that locks in the emotional content for me.  How does the cover art play into the picture?  Was it just, “Hunh, this is a cool-looking picture,” or is it related to the content?

eupnea coverIt is absolutely!  So, this connects directly to what I was just talking about.  So, one day I was in the hospital late with Jessie and she was in this incubator, and I could put my hands through and just put my hand on her.  I was sitting by this incubator and one of the nurses came over, and she said, “Jessie, she’ll make it through; she’s strong like a little lion.”

And that night when I got home, I was flicking through some social media, just trying to switch off.  And then I saw this painting, and it was by a friend of mine, Jill Doherty.  And so, soon as I saw it, I just thought “Wow!  This connects with this lion thing earlier.”  And to me it was a lion breathing.

So, I then sent Jill a message saying, “Look, I had this experience today, and then I saw your painting, which I think is amazing, by the way.”  And I had a screenshot of this picture and it was in my mind.  But then as the material progressed, I thought, “You know, this painting really connects with the material.”  So then I got in touch with Jill and I said, “Look, Jill, I’d really love to use this for the album.”  And she said, “Yeah!  I’d love you to use it.”  She said it’s actually a lion roaring, not a lion breathing, but that doesn’t matter, and she really loved that that was my interpretation of it.

 

And again, that helps that piece of the puzzle fall into place.  It’s a powerful, dramatic painting; it’s not a take it or leave it circumstance.  And again, it ties in with your subject matter and what you’re trying to convey.

And what I also liked about the painting is that, if you look at the detail, if you sort of scan in on the mane of the lion, it shows real skill, it shows real craftsmanship.  And I really like the way that, with the music — we didn’t sort of record this album in an afternoon.  It took a long time to work on this record, to layer up the harmonies, to play things in precisely, to get it mixed really nice.  I like the way that [the painting] slightly mirrors that; there’s a lot of craftsmanship and you can see there’s time spent on both things.   And that’s what I like.

Continue reading “The Progarchy Interview: Pure Reason Revolution’s Jon Courtney”

Progressive Music in a Time of Pandemic

In the era of Napoleon, the Prussian diplomat Klemens Wenzel Furst von Metternich coined the phrase, “When France sneezes, the whole of Europe catches a cold.”  Like all good clichés, it’s been re-purposed endlessly since the 1800s.  Which leads to today’s question: when the music industry of 2020 catches COVID-19, what does the progressive music scene come down with?

In the last few weeks, the toll of the current pandemic has been steadily mounting, with the postponement or cancellation of tours by Yes, Steve Hackett, Tool and Big Big Train (plus this year’s Cruise to the Edge) at the tip of the iceberg. 

The tale of Leonardo Pavkovic, impresario of MoonJune Records and MoonJune Music (Bookings and Management) is all too grimly typical; since the outbreak of coronavirus, eight MoonJune-booked tours have been cancelled at a loss of about $250,000 to the artists, with many more tours now in jeopardy.  MoonJune artists Stick Men lost 8 of 9 concerts in Asia, plus their US spring tour; touch guitarist Markus Reuter resorted to GoFundMe in order to make up for the loss of six months’ income.

So where’s the good news?

For one thing, the plight of progressive musicians has resonated strongly with their fans. Reuter’s GoFundMe goal was met in just over a day; Pavkovic has had a newly positive response to MoonJune’s digital subscription program and discount offers. (Full disclosure: I’m a digital subscriber and I love it!)  And now Bandcamp is getting into the act:

To raise even more awareness around the pandemic’s impact on musicians everywhere, we’re waiving our revenue share on sales this Friday, March 20 (from midnight to midnight Pacific Time), and rallying the Bandcamp community to put much needed money directly into artists’ pockets.

So (if your situation allows it), who can you support via downloads, CDs, LPs and merch bought on Bandcamp this Friday?  Well, you could start with four fine new albums I’ve reviewed this year:

Then move on to other artists well loved on this blog:

Best of all, the music keeps on giving.  Leonardo Pavkovic is already sharing details about his next MoonJune albums: a live set from Stick Men’s only uncancelled Asian concert, plus an album of improvisational duets by Markus Reuter and pianist Gary Husband recorded during down time in Tokyo.  And jazz-rock master John McLaughlin has made his most recent album (Is That So with vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and tabla player Zakir Hussain) available as a free download.

Whither the music industry in time of pandemic?  As with everything else, it’s way too soon to tell.  But, if all of the above is any indication, progressive music — due to the indefatigable, awe-inspiring musicians who make it — will survive.

— Rick Krueger

King Crimson & The Zappa Band Tour Dates

As mentioned in this space a few weeks back, King Crimson and The Zappa Band (alumni of the late great Frank Zappa’s bands) will be touring North America this June & July, mostly at outdoor amphitheaters.  Tour dates are as follows:

June 4 – Clearwater, FL – Ruth Eckerd Hall
June 5 – St. Augustine, FL – St Augustine Amphitheatre
June 6 – Miami, FL – Mizner Park Amphitheatre
June 8 – Orlando, FL – Dr. Phillips Walt Disney
June 9 – New Orleans, LA – Saenger Theatre
June 10 – Memphis, TN – Graceland Soundstage
June 12 – Cary, NC – Koka Booth Amphitheatre
June 13 – Portsmouth, VA – Union Bank Pavilion
June 14 – Philadelphia, PA – The Mann Center
June 16 – Glens Falls, NY – Cool Insuring Arena
June 18 – Boston, MA – Rockland Trust Pavilion
June 19 – New York, NY – Forest Hills Stadium
June 20 – New Haven, CT – Westville Music Bowl
June 22 – New Brunswick, NJ – State Theatre
June 24 – Huber Heights, OH – Rose Music Center @ The Heights
June 25 – Louisville, KY – Palace Theatre
June 26 – Detroit, MI – Meadowbrook Amp
June 28 – Baltimore, MD – MECU Pavillion
June 30 – Vienna, VA – Wolf Trap
July 1 – Buffalo, NY – Artpark
July 5 – Chicago, IL – Ravinia
July 7 – Montreal, QC – Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier – Palace des Arts
July 9 – Quebec City, QC – Festival d’ete
July 11 – Ottawa, ON – Bluesfest
July 12 – Rama, ON – Casino Rama

VIP tickets (“Royal Packages”) will go on sale through DGM Live soon; tickets for most shows go on sale through Ticketmaster on Friday, March 13.  More details are available at Crimson’s website.  I’m looking forward to my tenth evening with the mighty Crim (and my second time hearing Zappa Band musical director Mike Keneally) on Friday, June 26!

 

— Rick Krueger

Sounding the Bardic Depths

Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’ … It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision – it is then that Friendship is born.

— C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

The Bardic Depths is a rare creation; the method of its making embodies what it portrays.  It’s a distinctive take on the concept album, sparked from ongoing collaboration by two devoted lovers of progressive rock, with stellar contributions from some of the music’s current leading lights.   (Oh, and fleeting spoken-word cameos from others, including yours truly — so yeah, objectivity is out the window here.)

Lyricist Brad Birzer and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Dave Bandana have been self-releasing enjoyable albums for a few years now,  launching impressionist volleys of lyrical prose (usually in a dystopian sci-fi framework) via arching, chantlike melodies, poised atop appealingly thick ambient pads and amiably chugging pop grooves.  When Birzer pitched the life, times and friendship of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as an album concept, Bandana loved it — but as the music took shape, he realized that contributors who could kick things up a level were needed for the album to take wing.

Enter the Passengers — that astonishingly amiable Facebook group of fans brought together by their love of Big Big Train.  Having seen BBT live (and made numerous musical friends in the process), Bandana modestly reached out for help.  And, as the video below reveals, one thing led to another:

Continue reading “Sounding the Bardic Depths”

Pat Metheny, From This Place

Well there’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground

— Bruce Springsteen, “The Promised Land”

The cover image for Pat Metheny’s From This Place — Springsteen’s twister touching down under lowering clouds above a reversed title — suggests that the guitarist’s first collection of new music in six years might be a dystopic downer, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls re-purposed for resistance in a tensely partisan time.  It’s true that Metheny writes from a distinct viewpoint here; but first and foremost he’s writing and playing from his musical and personal core, giving everything he has to connect with listeners of any and every outlook.  And this album communicates like mad.  It may end up being one of the best records released this year — state of the art jazz composed and performed at the highest level, a unified work of formidable emotional range and intelligence: instantly accessible, inescapably substantial — and above all, incredibly moving.

On his website, Metheny writes extensively about the process that led to From This Place: touring his back catalog with an international trio of virtuosos (Gwilym Simcock on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass, Antonio Sanchez on drums); the decision to record brand new tunes without rehearsal (a strategy by Miles Davis with his 1960s quintet); another snap decision to leave space for orchestrations (by Alan Broadbent and Gil Goldstein), incorporating both Metheny’s composed motifs and the quartet’s improvised inspirations; orchestral overdubs with conductor Joel McNeely and the cream of West Coast pros on a Hollywood soundstage (evoking CTI Records’ lush 1970s aesthetic); topped with guest shots from percussionist Luis Conte, harmonica player/Metheny alum Gregoire Maret and vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello on the hymnic title track.

All well and good, but process and preparation can only go so far.  Where the rubber meets the road is the playing — Metheny’s gutsy, creamy-toned melodicism, Simcock’s rhapsodic comping and vivacious solos, Oh’s fertile, bubbling foundational work and Sanchez’s pungent, earthy rhythmic concoctions.  These four are at the peak of their abilities throughout the session, primed to deliver their best.  It’s jaw-dropping stuff: interplay verging on telepathy, exhilarating ebb and flow both between individual players and as a unit, the space they leave for each other and the sumptuous orchestral backing all come together in awe-inspiring, high-intensity takes on 10 new tunes.  Whether scaling edifices of endlessly unrolling melody (“You Are” and “Pathmaker”), math-rocking through intricate uptempo bebop/Latin fusions (“Everything Explained” and “Sixty-Six”) or settling into hushed balladry (“The Past in Us” and “Love May Take Awhile”), they impress and astonish, as individuals and as a unit.  It’s hard to believe there’s a better jazz quartet active right now; this is a band I want to see and hear live as soon as possible.

But in the meantime, whither Metheny’s point of view?

Continue reading “Pat Metheny, From This Place”

Fernando Perdomo, Out to Sea 3

2019 was a breakout year for Fernando Perdomo.  As one of the first-call Los Angeles sessioneers assembled for the music documentary Echo in the Canyon, he’s been seen and heard on screens large and small around the world, backing up modern pop icons like Jakob Dylan, Beck, and Fiona Apple with his bracing guitar work and unmistakable stage presence.

Thankfully, Perdomo (who first surfaced in these precincts as Dave Kerzner’s lead guitarist and production sidekick) still loves his old-school prog rock, as the latest installment in his series of instrumental Out to Sea albums attests.  While the original Out to Sea focused on tributes to his musical heroes and OtS 2 served up dazzling miniatures of dizzying rhythmic and sonic variety, Out to Sea 3: The Storm turns out to be that delight of prog fans everywhere — a concept album!

After a theme song that pushes out from acoustic shores into the electric surf, “Wonder” showcases Perdomo’s inexhaustible gift for melody and his slick multi-instrumental chops. These two tracks are majestic cruises over the bounding main, with wave on wave of soaring guitar, shimmering keyboards, and loosely grooving drums, all played by Fernando himself.   “Cycles” features more tasty electric soloing over a simple, hypnotic bass lick; then Perdomo’s acoustic guitar gently weeps as “The Storm” hits:

From there on, the music and the implied storyline just keep getting wilder, as Perdomo throws himself into the deep.  “The Great Known” swings in 7/4, with a Beatlesque bridge sandwiched in the middle; “Frenzy” dives into exhilarating power riffage; “The Tambourines of Malmo” keep time to asymmetrical surf music, with a Latin American side trip tossed in.  The spindly wah-wah funk of “The UFO Club” slams hard into “Doom Is Often Loud” (which, with Morse code riffing, ominous Mellotron pads and a slinky John Bonham groove, totally delivers on its title’s promise), which in turn sets up the skewed chromatic waltz of “The Crab”.  Is the story all just a nightmare or a landlubber’s yarn, as the beautiful, mostly acoustic closer “Dawn” implies?  No matter what you conclude, the musical voyage Perdomo takes his listeners on here is a worthwhile trip — heady, hearty, heavy and tons of fun.

If you’ve enjoyed the previous Out to Sea albums, you’ll find OtS3: The Storm a worthy successor — indeed, a fitting conclusion to the story so far; if you haven’t heard them, I think it’s the perfect introduction to the series.  Either way, Fernando Perdomo’s widescreen compositional vision and instrumental prowess are on full display here, and the results are completely delightful.

Out to Sea 3 is released March 6; downloads and CDs are now available to preorder on Bandcamp.

perdomo ots 3 cover

— Rick Krueger

News of the World … of Prog

Big Big Train’s announcement of the Passengers Club and North American tour dates were just the tip of the iceberg this week!  In other progressive rock-related news:

King Crimson and The Zappa Band (the latter an authorized project of Frank Zappa’s estate, featuring alumni from his 1980s bands) will tour the USA and Canada in June & July.  One tour date (at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts) in Virginia has been announced for June 30th; others will be announced soon.

The three-part Emerson Lake & Palmer epic “Karn Evil 9” is being developed as a science-fiction movie, to start production later this year.  ELP managers Stewart Young & Bruce Pilato will serve as producers, along with Carl Palmer and Radar Pictures (developers of the Jumanji and Riddick franchises).

Plenty of great album releases are on the way as well, including:

Tiger Moth Tales’ live CD/DVD A Visit to Zoetermeer, out on February 21 and available to pre-order on Bandcamp;

John Holden’s Rise and Fall, the follow-up to 2018’s well received Capture Light, out on February 29;

Fernando Perdomo’s Out to Sea 3: The Stormout on March 6;

Rick Wakeman & The English Rock Ensemble’s The Red Planetout in April.

Time, it would seem, for the world of prog rock to awaken from its long winter’s nap!

— Rick Krueger