Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to Us

“Is it a letter to your younger self?” I ask. “Is it to your children? Your wife? Your fans? To me?” Springsteen chuckles at the question: “It’s to you! It’s a letter to you! Whoever is listening. And, yeah, it is a summing up of what I’ve tried to do over the course of my 45, 50 years now, working.”

— Bruce Springsteen, interviewed by the American Association of Retired Persons magazine

Scoff if you will at the idea of Bruce Springsteen talking to AARP – but he is 71 now. And as I get closer to 60 than to 50, I’ve started to resonate, ever so gradually, with the ideas of summing up and finishing strong. Between my childhood love of the Beatles and my late adolescent discovery of prog rock, Born to Run was an early personal milestone: an album with operatic musical ambition, a formidable grasp of rock history, and a yearning to explore the ins and outs of freedom and community, their costs and their consolations. (It’s also the first album I remember wanting after I read about it, in Newsweek’s infamous cover story; thinking about it, that might be when my itch to write about music started.)

As Springsteen’s career flared, climbed, peaked, then settled into the after-life of a legacy rock star, he’s never really stopped exploring those core concerns, whether his immediate subject matter was escape, desperation, love, abandonment, friendship, loss, grief or jubilation. The good news is that Letter to You dives into all this and more, remembering friends now dead, reviving songs once abandoned, and — the best part — rocking out with a rejuvenated E Street Band.

The death of lifelong friend George Theiss left Springsteen as the last living member of his first band, The Castiles. That and the gift of an acoustic guitar from a fan inspired a weeklong burst of writing, followed by five days of live-on-the studio-floor recording. These new songs are urgent, forward looking yet haunted by the past; but they also revel in gratitude for the moment and for the memories of those no longer around. The performances range from hushed to full-out, crossing the boundaries of folk, country, blues, the British Invasion and more; a mix of old and new bandmates are at the ready with guitars that chime and growl, churchy keyboard work ranging from Gothic to gospel, rhythm section grooves spanning the subtle and the bombastic, and much, much more.

The E Streeters are in full flight throughout, no matter the dynamic and the mood, smoothly gliding behind Springsteen on the folky opener “One Minute You’re Here” and the R&B-inflected love song “The Power of Prayer,” then soaring in a magnificent meld of The Byrds’ jangle and the Band’s grit on the cowboy gallop “Burning Train” and the transcendent rocker “Ghosts.” The early Springsteen songs “Janey Needs A Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans” show that the man’s surreal wordplay earned his early “new Dylan” hype, and the band backs him with full-on psychedelic blues rock, the “wild mercury sound” the actual Dylan talked about back in his heyday.

And through all of this, Springsteen — looking back on a world-conquering career, 30 years of marriage, the raising of three now-grown children, and looking toward what comes next — grounds himself where he always has: on the power of music to connect with others and tell their stories back to them, with each side of the conversation reflecting the other . . .

Rock of ages lift me somehow / Somewhere high and hard and loud / Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd / I’m the last man standing now

“Last Man Standing”

. . . on music’s vast potential to create, support and sustain community, even if it’s a community of lost souls, brought together for one night only . . .

Here the bitter and the bored / Wake in search of the lost chord / That’ll band us together as long as there’s stars / Here in the house of a thousand guitars

“House of A Thousand Guitars”

. . . on rich, unsparing empathy for the faces in the crowd, even the ones who’ve made bad bets, or trusted the wrong people.

They come for the smile, the firm handshake / They come for the raw chance of a fair shake / Some come to make damn sure, my friend / This mean season’s got nothing to do with them / They come ’cause they can’t stand the pain / Of another long hot day of no rain / ‘Cause they don’t care or understand / What it really takes for the sky to open up the land

“Rainmaker”

But there’s also something fresh here, and it’s what lifts Letter to You above standard-issue Bruce. In both “Ghosts” and the album’s moving finale, Springsteen sings to the ones who’ve died while pondering his own horizon, facing the homestretch of his life with a hope that disavows denial or facile optimism. (Possibly one rooted in his Catholic background?) It’s a hope that points toward life after death, but also asserts that the dead still live on, here and now, in the memories of those they loved:

I’ll see you in my dreams / When all our summers have come to an end / I’ll see you in my dreams / We’ll meet and live and laugh again / I’ll see you in my dreams / Up around the riverbend / For death is not the end / I’ll see you in my dreams

“I’ll See You in My Dreams”

And while the album was done and dusted before coronavirus reshaped the landscape, there’s another promise implicit in it all:

“All I can tell you is, when this experience is over, I am going to throw the wildest party you’ve ever seen. And you, my friends, are all invited.”

Bruce talking to the AARP

Consider Letter to You Bruce Springsteen’s reminder to save the date for that party, as well as one of his finest efforts — in my mind, ranking up there with Born to Run, Tunnel of Love, The Rising and Working On A Dream. When the man has something big to write about, he can cut straight to your heart, even from a secluded home studio in deepest New Jersey, and he’s done it again here. With the E Street Band on fire behind him, Letter to You could be the basis of a tour to top them all for Springsteen; but even if that never comes to pass, this album is something special, a hard-rocking reminder that yes, our days on this earth are numbered — but also that love is strong as death.

Listen to Letter to You on Spotify.

(This review is dedicated to the memory of my parents Carl & Carol Krueger, who bought me Born to Run for my 14th birthday.)

— Rick Krueger

Neil Young’s Archives II: On 3rd Thought …

Neil Young has walked back his walkback at the NYA Times Contrarian:

Reprise Records, my record company for about 50 years, underestimated the demand for Archives Volume II.  We were all surprised.  It is a beautiful package that I am proud to have made for you.  I do feel badly that we did not deliver it to many who were waiting so long for it.

We don’t feel that offering more of a product sold as a limited edition is a good thing to do.  Thank you to all who purchased this set.

In 2021 we will be offering more Archives Volume II products as Reprise had originally planned, available in all outlets.  These, while not the boxed set, will offer all of the music and discs with a smaller book.  The original large book will be available for separate sale.

Thanks!  NYA

So what are the implications here? These thoughts hit me:

  • Note that Reprise was already planning a cheaper version of Archives II. Back in 2009, the basic edition of Archives I (pictured above) dropped the same week as the more expensive DVD & Blu-ray versions (which weren’t considered this time around due to the Archives‘ migration online). It’s arguable that this staged marketing effort was a major reason Archives II’s limited edition sold out; nobody told Neil Young fans that a lower-priced version would eventually be available! (Of course, I wanted the limited edition no matter what, so mission accomplished.)
  • As physical product’s market share in the recorded music industry has eroded, first in favor of downloads, then streaming subscriptions, marketing strategies have also shifted. For the big boys (tech companies and the three major labels) the industry’s physical product (7 percent of US sales in the first half of 2020, measured in dollars) is now mostly a means to wring maximum amounts out of legacy fans with money to spend. The mass market belongs to streaming (85 percent of US sales) — which furnishes them the lions’ share of those proceeds, through paid subscriptions and advertising. Hmm . . . that couldn’t have skewed Reprise’s estimates for Archives II’s limited edition sales, could it?
  • These new realities have also strengthened the power of major labels in relation to artists. If Neil Young — one of the true 800-pound gorillas of rock culture, absolutely used to throwing his weight around to get his way — can’t get Warner Music to pony up a second printing of the limited Archives II, what chance does a start-up artist have pushing back on anything against Warner, Universal or Sony BMG? As David Lowery famously wrote back in 2012, “meet the new boss; worse than the old boss.”
  • The focus on streaming has also changed how legacy musicians and their support staff (or their estates) conceive of box sets and high-end collections. For example, the new super-deluxe edition of Prince’s Sign O’ the Times has a bonus track listing explicitly designed so fans can assemble their own playlists without having to purchase digital or physical versions. And let’s face it, Neil Young wants to sell you a subscription to the Archives website if at all possible; in 2020, downloads (6 percent of US sales) and physical sales are the gravy on top, not the meat and potatoes.
  • In addition to streaming online, the relative shift to LPs offline (currently accounting for 62% of income from US physical sales — it’s the product with a higher value per unit, that outsells CDs about 3 to 1 at independent record stores and still has a small footprint for impulse purchases in big-box chains) has tilted manufacturing and distribution accordingly. What does it say about the industry’s current capacity for physical media that the new indie album by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Love Is The King came out online this past week, but CDs and LPs won’t be available until January? If the big guns are simultaneously bearish on physical sales and hogging CD and vinyl production, how do the little guys get a shot?

In some ways, all of the above is irrelevant to the main thrust of this website. Progressive music in all its forms is, whether we admit it or not, an incredibly small niche in today’s recorded music industry — but one that, between two solidly-funded labels that can get product to the mass market (KScope and Inside Out, which seems to have considerable freedom as part of Sony BMG), a multitude of independent and artist-run ventures and potent distribution channels like Bandcamp and Burning Shed, has proved remarkably resilient. The persistence of prog is a big part of why we love it so.

On the other hand, the music industry already caught one bug in 2020, with US physical sales declining in the second quarter of this year due to the first wave of the COVID pandemic. And if the Goliaths come down with another economic cold . . . could the fallout spread to the little guys with slingshots that we want to support?

–Rick Krueger

Neil Young Archives II: The Saga Continues …

Neil Young apologizes at the NYA Times Contrarian:

As many of you know, the sales of my NYA Archives Volume II did not go quite as expected. I’m sorry so many of you were disappointed in not being able to snag one. Let me give you a little background and tell you what we’re going to do to make this right.

WBR/Reprise, my record label, is responsible for estimating the sales and then producing the product. Estimates are always difficult to predict with the world moving away from tangible, but they clearly failed to anticipate the demand we experienced. I would have preferred to have sold fewer and not have many of you disappointed.

Leading up to the release, we wanted to give you the same convenience of purchasing wherever you are in the world, so WBR built a Greedy Hand Store in the UK and another in Canada. But they were completed and came online late, just before Volume II went on sale, which added to the confusion. We later learned a WBR link for pre-ordering was apparently leaked. Obviously, I’m disappointed in how all this was handled, and will address this.

I read many of your comments, especially from those unable to make a purchase. Here’s what we’re going to do.

I’ve asked WBR/Reprise to create another version of Archives Volume II that will have all the same content, but with some changes in appearance to differentiate it from the first 3000. For those that pre-ordered with the expectation that there would only be 3000, we will allow you to cancel your preorder, if you choose. The new version will be sold at the same price and will come with the same hi-res digital downloads and free NYA membership.

Thanks for all your support. For those still with questions contact the customer support team on your Greedy Hand store or the NYA team.

My deepest apologies to all of you who were disappointed. The leaked preorder link from Warner Brothers is particularly disconcerting to us here at NYA. Warner is usually very reliable. We will be looking into who placed orders using that leak if we can. The second edition will be identical with a minor color difference to identify it.

Sorry, NYA and Neil — be well

— Rick Krueger

Neil Young Archives Volume 2: Pre-Order Details

UPDATED 10/18/2020: The deluxe edition of Archives Volume II is sold out. An official update from the NYA Times Contrarian:

Thanks so much for your support! A second edition is being planned. It will be unique and we will have news for you soon. Needless to say, we are surprised that it sold so quickly.

We are well into production on NYA Volume III and we are considering another edition of NYA Volume I. This labor of love is for you. We are glad you are enjoying this, even in the digital age, where tangibles are becoming more and more rare and costly.

Eleven years after releasing his first archival box set, Neil Young has launched Archives Volume II: 1972-1976. From the pre-order page at Young’s online shop, The Greedy Hand:

The deluxe edition box set of Archives Volume II: 1972-1976 contains 10 CDs with 131 tracks, including 12 songs that have never been released in any form, and 49 new unreleased versions of Young’s classics—studio and live recordings, both solo and with Crazy Horse (Odeon Budokan), The Stray Gators (Tuscaloosa),  the Santa Monica Flyers (Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live), Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and The Stills Young Band. It also includes a 252-page hardbound book with hundreds of previously unseen photographs, additional archival materials, a partial tape database, a detailed description of the music, a fold-out timeline of the period.  In addition, each purchase includes the hi-res 192/24 digital files of all 131 tracks, as well as a free one-year membership to the Neil Young on-line archives. The box also includes a massive poster.

Box sets are strictly limited worldwide to 3,000 units.

Your purchase includes one year NYA membership. You will receive information via email on how to redeem your membership on 11/20. If you already have an active membership, you may give this code to a friend, or use it to extend your membership for an additional year.

List price for the pre-order is $249.98 USD, with free shipping as one of the options for the US. (Separate Greedy Hand shops for Canada and the UK were also launched today.) While Archives Volume II is definitely a luxury item, it doesn’t quite rise to Pink Floyd levels; the hi-res downloads and the subscription to the online archives (a $20 value) offset the price tag at least a bit, while eliminating the extra production costs of a Blu-Ray or DVD version and throwing 12 months of hi-res streamed access to Young’s entire catalog in the bargain. One should also note that three of these discs (Tuscaloosa, Roxy:Tonight’s the Night Live and Homegrown) have been released just recently as separate items. No word on whether there will be lower-priced CD-only or digital releases for the set.

And yes, I’ve placed my order (the same day as I bit the bullet and bought the big new Porcupine Tree box). The credit cards groan …

For a more detailed breakdown of Archives, Volume II’s contents, see the post at The Second Disc. And whether you’re planning to buy or not, check out the unboxing video for the set below:

— Rick Krueger

Jakko M Jakszyk: The Progarchy Interview

When Jakko Jakszyk was 13 years old, he saw King Crimson play at Watford Town Hall — and it changed his life. Embarking on a globetrotting career that’s crossed paths with, among others, Level 42, The Kinks (he replaced Dave Davies for a week) and Steve Hackett, Jakszyk eventually found himself singing and playing guitar with founding members of Crimson in The 21st Century Schizoid Band. Which led in turn to The Scarcity of Miracles, a “King Crimson ProjeKct” with guitarist Robert Fripp and sax master Mel Collins — culminating in an invitation to join the current, career-spanning version of the band in 2013.

Since then, Jakszyk has been the voice of King Crimson in concert, tackling epics originally brought to life by Greg Lake, Boz Burrell, John Wetton and Adrian Belew with remarkable aplomb. And, if that wasn’t intimidating enough, simultaneously playing some of Fripp and Belew’s most challenging guitar parts. Oh, and co-writing knotty new Crimson pieces like “Suitable Grounds for the Blues,” “Meltdown” and “The Errors.” As a result, his undeniable melodic gifts, assured lyricism and instinct for the musical gut punch now have a bigger stage to play on than ever before.

All of this has beautifully set up Jakzsyk’s new solo album, Secrets and Lies. Released by Inside Out/Sony on October 23, it melds the yearning melancholy of 2007’s The Bruised Romantic Glee Club with the ferocious attack of present-day Crimson; fellow members Fripp, Collins, bass/Stick maestro Tony Levin and master drummer Gavin Harrison contribute along with Mark King (Level 42), Peter Hammill (Van Der Graaf Generator), John Giblin (Simple Minds, Brand X) and even Jakszyk’s daughter. It’s a poised, exhilarating album, a thoroughly compelling showcase for the man’s hard-won talents and thoughtful, well-honed viewpoint.

Having heard Jakko Jakszyk in concert three times with King Crimson (including the best rock concert I’ve ever attended), it was an undeniable thrill to speak with him about Secrets and Lies, his progress in the court of the Crimson King and more!

How the solo album took shape:

“I’d met Thomas Waber of Inside Out – I think it was at the launch of the album that Steve Hackett put out that I sang on [Genesis Revisited II; Jakszyk sings “Entangled”].  And then I kept bumping into him ’cause I did a number of gigs with Steve, and then there were some other events.  And whenever I saw him he said, ‘Look, if ever you decide to do a solo record, we’d be really interested in working with you.’   I wasn’t sure it was a good idea; it had been such a long time since I made another one.  So, it was partly down to him and his installing confidence into me, really.

“And then I made the decision – for the past seven years we’ve toured in biannual chunks; we do two months here and two months there throughout the year with Crimson.  There’s lots of stuff: rehearsals and getting stuff together, so it becomes a full-time job.  And then, this year was only one chunk of touring, in the middle of the year.  So I thought, ‘This is probably a good time to do it.’

“And I’d already written some songs.  I’ve written a load of stuff [for] Crimson, some that has been accepted as part of the repertoire.  But there was a handful of others that I’d written that when I took to Robert [Fripp] – we started to have this in-joke where I’d play him some stuff and he’d say [assumes a West Country accent as he quotes Fripp] ‘I love this!  It’s marvelous!!  Ideal track for your next solo record!!!’  Which is not too subtle code for, ‘We’re not playing this, mate!’  So, I had a basis of an album there, material-wise. So I started recording it, I think, last summer, as in 2019, in between the Crimson tours.  And writing lyrics and doing stuff while I was away.  And I started on it in real earnest in the autumn – almost about a year ago.”

Secrets and Lies’ takes on obsession and betrayal:

“The opening track, which is called ‘Before I Met You,’ is based on a book by Julian Barnes [Before She Met Me]. And in that book, it tells the tale of a middle-aged man, I think he’s a college lecturer.  And he meets this woman who’s a fair bit younger than him, and he leaves his wife and family for her.  But he starts to get really obsessed with her and starts to fetishize objects that she might have had earlier that morning – a pen that she was writing with, or a cup or something. 

“And he starts doing this very weird thing where – when she first left school, she became an actress, and she made a handful of mediocre movies.  And although that was way in her past, he becomes so obsessed with her that he finds them.  He finds little cinemas around London which are showing these old films.  And he sits in the dark watching these, getting really wound up – because there’s his new love filming these love scenes.  Which of course are not real, anyway; and anyway, they were before he even knew she existed!  So, it’s a tale of a guy being so obsessed with someone that he ends up destroying the very thing that he loves.

“In terms of betrayal, there’s a song called ‘It Would All Make Sense.’  And it’s autobiographical, a song that happened to me, but something that happened to me a long time ago.  So, totally with the benefit of hindsight and distance, you can write about it!

“But I guess it’s something that’s – unfortunately, many of us have been through.  Which is the suspicion and the clues that someone you’re living with is having an affair.  And the clues get more and more blatant, and more and more real, but you’re less likely to believe them, ‘cause you don’t want to.  And you confront them and they deny it, and then you’re placated by that, because you don’t wanna believe it.  And then other people say, ‘No, no, this is really happening.’  So hence the chorus of that tune.  ‘It would all make sense; all of that makes sense much more than the stuff you’re telling me.'”

Songs on “the shifting grounds of contemporary politics:”

“[‘Uncertain Times’] was, again, was something that happened to me.  The Brexit debate in England became incredibly divisive, and it split up families and friends.  You get to a point where problems, be they political or personal, are invariably nuanced and complicated.  And the trouble is that you reduce an issue to black and white like this, right or wrong.  And it becomes a divisive concept, I think.

“On the day of the results, when it was announced that the Leave campaign had won, there was a place in Hammersmith in West London called the Polish Center, where I used to take my adoptive father when he was in his 80s.  And it was a place that I have a great nostalgia for, ‘cause it’s a cultural center, and it’s got a café and a restaurant.  And the night of the result it was covered in racist graffiti, which was discovered in the morning.  This is a place that had been there for 56 years, partly in tribute to the contribution of the Poles during the Second World War.

“So, it was pretty upsetting, and I uncharacteristically posted something about it on Facebook.  And everybody was very nice and very sympathetic, but after a while it started to get shared.  And then people that weren’t my ‘friends’ in inverted commas started to read it, and for a couple of weeks I got really abusive emails, all along much the same lines.  Which were ‘We won.  You lost.  Why don’t you eff off home?’ 

“Well, I’m the son of an Irish woman, born in London, so I’m not sure where they want me to go; but it seemed that I was getting abused because of the incorrect letters in my surname!  And of course, it’s divisive, simplistic populist politics [which is] popping up all over the world, not least in Britain and America of course. And you have leaders that are just pumping out half-truths, untruths, downright lies.  And appealing to this kind of populist notion of very simplistic answers to complicated questions.  So, the song’s kind of about that.

“The other political song on the record is the thing that I wrote with Peter Hammill [‘Fool’s Mandate’].  And Pete Hammill actually was also partly responsible for me making a solo record.  ‘Cause I kept bumping into him, and he kept saying, ‘Have you made your solo record yet?’ And I said, ‘No.’  ‘Well, have you even started?’ ‘Well, no, not really.’ ‘Look, you ought to; this is your moment!  You must do it!’  So in the end, the last time he said it to me, I said, ‘Listen, Peter, I will make a solo album on condition you contribute; you’re on it.’  And he said, ‘Of course!’

“So, I sent him this track.  He said, ‘Have you got any unfinished tracks?’  And I had a series of instrumental things that I was using as a kind of base to play guitar over on these videos that I do for PRS Guitars or some of the events that I play at.  ‘Cause when I’d seen other guitar players do it, they were either kind of  straight ahead rock things or fusion things.  So I always tried to do something a little different.

“So, I had a collection of different ethnic-based pieces; this is based on traditional Middle Eastern music.  And I sent that to Peter, and he sent back multi-tracked voices, bits of guitar, and a lyric that was kind of ambiguous.  It could have meant anything, I guess.  And it was about an individual, and what he might regret and what he might not regret.

“So, the combination of the stylistic nature of the music and that kind of vague lyric – I ended up writing it about an English politician called [Arthur James] Balfour, who at the turn of the last century was desperate to get the Arab nations onside, ‘cause the English were trying to defeat the Ottoman Empire.  But at the same time, he was a Zionist, so he was negotiating behind their backs! 

“And I was kind of intrigued by the number of unpleasant political and violent hotspots in the world, and how if you trace their origins, invariably there’s an Englishman [chuckles] at the bottom of it!  So I ended up writing about that.”

Exploring “the tangled threads of family history:”

“You know, my background story is an ongoing thing, and I’ve discovered a lot more.  in fact, exactly in the past twelve months, there’s been an extraordinary amount of discovery.  I think it’s part of the reason I called the albums Secrets and Lies, because I discovered a lot more of both of those things.

“Actually on the album, there’s a thing called ‘The Borders We Traded,’ which is about my mother and myself, and how my mother abandoned me and went to another country – hence utilizing the geographical location as an additional metaphor for that separation. 

“And I talk about two places really in that; one is where she ended up.  My mother was quite a famous singer in Ireland in the ‘50s, and she came to England for her career.  But she ended up getting married to an American serviceman; and I’m sure she had an idea about what America was like from many of the movies she must have seen at the time.  But she ended up in a place called Bearden, Arkansas.  And no disrespect to that location, but I’m not sure that’s what she was expecting.

“And so, I remember standing in Bearden, Arksansas when I first went there, to meet her for the very first time.  And it was a very weird experience, where you’re standing in this place.  And it’s quite a culture shock for someone that grew up just outside London, and had a reasonably cultured upbringing, and went to the theatre and worked in the arts.  So, there was that really weird moment of thinking, ‘If she hadn’t had me adopted, I’d have been brought up here.’  And how much of who I am is innately who I am, and how much of it is subject to location.  It’s that whole nurture/nature thing, I guess.

“So that song really was about that.  And then there’s an instrumental that my daughter wrote, which I’ve kind of stuck them together, just because it felt like she kind of wrote it out of nowhere.  And it’s this kind of connection to Ireland; it’s this very Celtic, Irish piece that she’s somehow channeling out of some kind of DNA or something, I don’t know!”

[The tale of Jakko M Jakszyk’s long and winding road to King Crimson follows the jump!]

Continue reading “Jakko M Jakszyk: The Progarchy Interview”

The Progarchy Interview: Mary Halvorson

In his 2018 book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, Nate Chinen devoted his final chapter to guitarist Mary Halvorson, rightly declaring her “an original in every sense.” Her spiky, pick-driven timbre, sparse yet compelling use of effects, daring improvisational command and distinctly off-center compositions add up to a sound like no one else’s, effortlessly catching (then twisting) the ear regardless of context — from the radiant solo album of covers Meltframe to her head-spinning work with avant-garde trio Thumbscrew to the precise, conversational octet writing of 2016’s Away with You (my first, heady exposure to her music).

Also in 2018, Halvorson released Code Girl, her first extended foray into songwriting; the band she put together for the album boasted serious roots in jazz, but fearlessly mashed up genres and straddled extremes of expression, pivoting on a dime from a murmur to a scream and back again. On October 30, the revamped Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl (pictured below) returns with a second album, Artlessly Falling. Reconnecting with vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Halvorson also welcomes new collaborators Adam O’Farrill (trumpet) and Maria Grand (tenor saxophone and voice). For the cherry on top, three of the new tracks are sung with gravity and grace by Soft Machine founder Robert Wyatt, one of Halvorson’s most profound influences.

Code Girl, left to right: Maria Grand, Michael Formanek, Amirtha Kidambi, Adam O’Farrill, Tomas Fujiwara, Mary Halvorson.

It was an utter delight to speak with Mary Halvorson — a thoughtful musician and a serious music fan — about her approach to lyrics, songwriting, composition, collaboration, improvisation and more. The video of our conversation is below; a lightly edited transcript follows the jump!

Continue reading “The Progarchy Interview: Mary Halvorson”

Breaking News from Big Big Train …

From an announcement on Big Big Train’s Facebook group:

Dear Passengers,

A copy of the BBT newsletter which is being sent out later today is posted below. However, we wanted to write a more personal note about the last few months. This has, of course, been a tough year for everyone. People have lost family, friends and livelihoods. Activities that we all took for granted have been impossible. The music industry has been one of many that have suffered from the restrictions on normal life. In the last few months, BBT has lost two tours. Alongside the loss of the tours, three valued band members have chosen to leave BBT. At times it has felt that the most sensible approach would be to accept that we had reached the end of the line and to call an end to the band. However, we believe that we have lots of music left in us and we have decided to accept the changing circumstances and work hard to sustain BBT and to try to maintain the progress that we have made in recent years. We are looking forward to forming close musical partnerships with our exceptionally talented new live band members Carly and Dave, and we can’t wait to perform some shows as soon as circumstances permit. In the meantime, ahead of live performances, we will be recording a new album and releasing a newly re-mixed re-issue of The Underfall Yard album (with plenty of bonus tracks.) Thank you for sticking with us.

Best wishes,

David, Greg, Nick and Rikard

Big Big Train

Big Big Train newsletter October 2020

We hope that all BBT listeners, families and friends are ok in these challenging times.Like most recording artists, the pandemic has caused BBT many challenges. Over the last six months, we have lost two tours and have undergone a number of line-up changes. However, we have been working hard behind-the-scenes to keep the train on the rails and we are looking forward to playing concerts again in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, we have a number of announcements to make:

Empire: a new concert film and album

A new concert film and live album (filmed and recorded at the Hackney Empire, London in 2019) will be released on the 27th November. To watch the full length performance of Winkie from the Blu-Ray, please go here: https://www.loudersound.com/…/big-big-train-release…For full details of the Blu-Ray and two CD release and for a preview of the concert film please go to our website here: https://www.bigbigtrain.com

Band line-up changes

Danny and Rachel have decided to leave Big Big Train; we wish them every success in the future, both personally and musically. The band will continue as a core four piece for studio recordings. We are pleased to announce that Carly Bryant and Dave Foster will be joining the live line-up of BBT. For full details of the line-up changes, please go here: https://www.bigbigtrain.com/#announce

New studio album

During the enforced break from touring, we have written a new studio album which we are recording in November. More news on this in 2021.

Summer’s Lease

Our official store, Burning Shed, have imported 500 copies of the Summer’s Lease compilation album which was originally released by the Belle Antique label in Japan. This double album, featuring new artwork from Sarah Louise Ewing, includes a previously unreleased track called Don’t Forget the Telescope, the full 30 minute song-cycle called London Song (never before available on CD) and a number of other re-worked songs, alongside a selection of the band’s back catalogue. To purchase Summer’s Lease, please follow this link: https://burningshed.com/store/bigbigtrain

Solo albums

Over the summer and autumn, there have been solo albums from Nick D’Virgilio, Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly and from David Longdon who recorded an album with Judy Dyble shortly before she passed away earlier this year.All of these albums are now available on CD and vinyl from Burning Shed and other good record shops, and on streaming and download platforms.

Live shows

Whilst the situation concerning live shows is extremely uncertain, we currently have two performances scheduled in July 2021. For full details of our live shows, please see our website:

https://www.bigbigtrain.com/live/https://www.loudersound.com/…/big-big-train-release…

The Big Fall Prog (Plus) Preview, Part 2: Box Set Bonanza!

Since the initial installment of our fall preview, deluxe box set announcements are coming thick and fast. This article includes those mentioned in the preview, plus new announcements that may appeal to our readers. I’ve included approximate list prices in USA dollars (not including shipping), as well as lower-cost options for those who want to hear and support the music without breaking their personal bank. Links are to the ever-ready folks at Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.

King Crimson, Complete 1969 Recordings: 20 CDs, 4 BluRays and 2 DVDs include every surviving note Crimson played in their first year — the seminal debut In the Court of the Crimson King plus the complete studio sessions, extant live bootlegs and BBC recordings. The crown jewels here are new stereo, surround and Dolby Atmos mixes of Court by Steven Wilson. Available October 23 ($210 – $240 list price, depending on your vendor); slimmed-down versions of In the Court on 2 CDs + BluRay (with the new stereo and surround mixes, alternate versions and additional material ; $40) or 2 LPs (with alternate versions and additional material; $35) are already available.

Joni Mitchell, Archives Vol. 1 – The Early Years (1963-1967): Nearly six hours of recordings from before Mitchell released her first album — home recordings, radio broadcasts, and live shows, including 29 songs not previously released with her singing them! Available from Mitchell’s website October 30 as follows: complete on 5 CDs ($65); Early Joni 1 LP (1963 radio broadcast; $25, black or clear vinyl) and Live at Canterbury House 1967 3 LPs (3 sets recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan; $60, black or white vinyl).

More from Porcupine Tree, Tangerine Dream, Tears for Fears and others after the jump!

Continue reading “The Big Fall Prog (Plus) Preview, Part 2: Box Set Bonanza!”

The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!

As always seems to be the case, there’s tons of great music coming out between now and Black Friday, November 27. Below, the merest sampling of upcoming releases in prog and other genres below, with purchase links to Progarchy’s favorite online store Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.

Out now:

Simon Collins, Becoming Human: after 3 solo albums and Sound of Contact’s acclaimed Dimensionaut, Phil Collins’ oldest son returns on vocals. keys and drums; his new effort encompasses rock, pop, prog, electronica and industrial genres. Plus an existential inquiry into the meaning of life! Available on CD from Frontiers Records.

John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity: the Dream Theater guitarist reunites with Mike Portnoy on drums for his second solo set of instrumentals. Plus Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and Flying Colors on bass. Expect lotsa notes! Available on CD or 2 LP from Sound Mind Records/The Orchard.

The Pineapple Thief, Versions of the Truth: Hot on the heels of their first US tour, Bruce Soord and Gavin Harrison helm TPT’s latest collection of brooding, stylized alt/art rock, honing in on the post-truth society’s impact on people and relationships. Available on CD, BluRay (with bonus track plus alternate, hi-res and surround mixes), LP or boxset (2 CDs/DVD/BluRay) – plus there’s a t-shirt!

Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, Alone Together: Sjöblom spearheads a thoroughly groovy collection on vocals, guitar and organ, with Petter and Rasmus Diamant jumping in on drums and bass. Heartfelt portraits of daily life and love that yield extended, organic instrumental jams and exude optimism in the midst of ongoing isolation. Available on CD and LP (black or deep blood red vinyl).

[Upcoming releases follow the jump …]

Continue reading “The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!”

Hedwig Mollestad’s Ekhidna: Heat, Light and Heart

Since 2010, Norwegian guitarist Hedwig Mollestad has been turning heads worldwide with her incandescent fusion of heavy rock and avant-garde jazz. The six albums by her eponymous trio (currently with Ellen Brekken on bass and Ivar Joe Bjørnstad on drums) recall Motörhead as readily as Mahavishnu John McLaughlin — crushing, distorted power chords tangled up with jagged shards of melody, furiously lurching ahead without regard for purist sensibilities of any stripe. Based on work commissioned by Norway’s Arts Council for the 2019 Vossajazz Festival, Mollestad’s latest album Ekhidna breaks fresh, fertile ground, triumphantly meeting the challenges inherent in writing for a bigger band and a broader sonic palette. It’s a bracing blend of tumbling rhythms, killer riffs and brain-bending improv that goes down remarkably smooth, but leaves a fiery aftertaste; this is masterful stuff.

Serious jazz-rock heads will immediately think of Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew when they see this album’s lineup: Mollestad, Susana Santos Silva on trumpet, Marte Eberson and Erlend Slettevoll on electric pianos and synthesizers, Ole Mofjell on percussion and Torstein Lofthus on drums. To her credit, Mollestad’s new music doesn’t avoid expectations raised by that association, sometimes confronting classic fusion strategies head-on, sometimes blithely subverting them — and these players are impressively capable of tackling the challenges Mollestad mounts. Silva’s impressionistic tone and sense of line readily evokes Miles while forging her own path; Eberson and Slettevoll’s chunky chording and grumbling bass lines simultaneously thicken the midrange and sharpen the harmonic contours; Mofjell and Loftus’ churning beds of polyrhythms relentlessly propel the tunes forward while constantly shifting the ground under their collaborators’ feet.

“No Friends But the Mountains” kicks off the proceedings already simmering: Silva floats over clean Mollestad chords that morph into feedback, backed by sparse keys and atmospheric percussion. “A Stone’s Throw” ramps up the energy; the initial hard rock foundation gives way to a unison guitar/trumpet/synth head that struts atop cooking drums and percussion before slamming into an elegant melody that evokes, of all things, Pink Floyd. Then Eberson solos over Mollestad’s splintery, circular lick and the percussionists’ rhythmic curveballs — and when Slettevoll joins the fun with clustered chording, look out! The agitated rhythmic foundations of “Antilone” never quite settle, with change the only constant through slamming ensemble passages, Silva’s spiraling whorls of painterly color, Mollestad’s grinding breakdowns, and a taut, immense ensemble build to the final thematic restatement.

“Slightly Lighter” clears the air with a tentative trio, Mollestad gracefully leading Eberson and Slettevoll through the changes. Then “Ekhidna” serves up more polyrhythmic metal balanced with a melancholy long-note theme, Silva unleashing her inner Miles, Eberson wailing on synth over Loftus’ lightning reactions, the whole thing ending with a satisfying crunch!

But Mollestad and her crew save the best for last: the gorgeous “One Leaf Left.” A muted duet between Mollestad and Eberson evoke Soft Machine’s cyclical, interlocking counterpoint over Slettevoll’s sparse, insinuating bass; then Mollestad and Silva unspool a seemingly endless chain of melody. Silva stretches out long notes like taffy; synth clouds from Slettevoll lead into a final, raging Mollestad tour de force over a grungy ensemble stomp. Juggling downbeats, building outrageous howls of dissonance, confessing the blues like one possessed, she rides the storm that mounts beneath her, ending both the piece and the album with a fiery, climactic cry.

Named for the she-dragon of Greek mythology (also called “the mother of all monsters”), Ekhidna is monstrous in the best sense — a musical rollercoaster ride suffused with heat, light and heart, recombining the raw materials of classic fusion and extending the genre’s reach into realms of vast new potential. This is a real breakthrough for Hedwig Mollestad, and her best effort to date; it shouldn’t be missed! So check it out below.

— Rick Krueger