20 Looks at the Lamb, 17: One, Many, All, Nothing

LambCoverThe Lamb is ONE, right?  It’s a unified, singular work of art.  It’s a “concept album.”  There is a narrative, there are dramatis personae.  It is a MANY in some sense, since there are two albums’ worth of songs (plural).  But that’s secondary, is it not?  It’s “beside the point,” perhaps?

But each song is ONE.  There’s a richness, an inexhaustible palpability, to “The Colony of Slippermen,” or “The Lamia,” or (my favorite for richness) “Counting Out Time.”  A cover of a single song can bring out nuances of the song that are not as noticeable in the original.  It can wiredtoearthbe a new Look (regard), like Tin Spirits’ new Look at “Back in NYC.”

But does it sort bother you, at least a little bit, to hear a cover of a single song from The Lamb?  Do you find yourself – or better, perhaps, a part of yourself – wincing when you talk to someone familiar with “The Carpet Crawlers,” but not with the whole Lamb?  Does it feel a bit like an ALL, which is in danger of dissolving into a NOTHING if it is taken apart (whatever “taken apart” might mean here)?

Back in Look #13, I suggested (with much wincing on the part of certain parts of myself) listening to The Lamb “on Shuffle.”  (Did you do it?  If not, it might be worth reflecting on why you didn’t.)  Doing that would have been one way to “take apart” the ONEness of The Lamb, and to experience it as MANY.  It might lead to finding some new ALL in that MANYness that is not NOTHING.  (I like multiple negatives too much.  I need to watch that.)  The answer is “yes, but…”  I don’t see that shuffling must lead to the “taking allnothingapart” that matters here.  The Look here is not simply equivalent to that prior Look, though they may be related.

(related – what’s not “related” – isn’t ALL ONE – is NOTHING MANY – uh oh, stop that, back to…)

That prog fan over there?  He says that “Yes” after Going for the One is no longer Yes.  This one over here?  She says that “King Crimson” beginning with Discipline is no longer King Crimson.  Even more to the point (there’s a point?  ONE point?), that one way back there?  I can’t tell from here whether it’s a he or she, but that one says that Genesis began to decline after Gabriel’s departure, and eventually got so bad that it somehow negated what was so good about the early stuff.  It’s as if the existence of early Genesis is somehow ontologically negated, canceled out by the decline.  It was a ONE that was also an ALL.  It couldn’t continue to enjoy a place, even in history, when it was no longer an ALL.  It became a NOTHING.

A rather extreme example, I know.  But think and listen:

What if ONE and MANY are not opposites?  (They’re not, you know.)

You’ve probably been told at some point: “It’s not an all-or-nothing thing.”  You may already know that few things are all-or-nothing.  (I suspect very few.)  But what if ALL and NOTHING are not opposites either?

aristotleA teacher of “great figures” (philosophers, for example, like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel) runs into a rough equivalent.  Is the “thought” (how odd, when what we have are texts) of this or that author ONE?  Is it somehow undermined or refuted if there is some clear, evident, obvious (to whom?) way in which some particular “part” is wrong (mistaken? bad? evil?), does that reduce its ALL to NOTHING?  If it is a MANY from which we might (perhaps inexhaustibly, if it is indeed a “great” author) draw, does that mean that there cannot be a ONE there, or an ALL?

A favorite work of art, including a musical work, presents the same sort of questions.

Well, this is no complicated thing at all, one might think.  Of course you can listen to The Lamb as a ONE or as a MANY.  You may have already done this, listening now more as a ONE, then as more of a MANY.

04vaseAh, but now think about those pictures you see, often associated with “Gestalt Psychology,” where it could be seen as a rabbit or as a duck.  You could see two faces, are a vase.  You could see a young woman or an old one.  Seeing a Gestalt, a configuration (roughly), involves something like the flick of a perceptual switch.  Once you know it’s that kind of picture, you can go back and forth between the possibilities at will.

Can you see both at the same time?

rabbitduckThe answer would seem to be no.  Surely you can be aware of both possibilities, but can both possibilities be simultaneously actual?  Whether or not the latter is a real possibility, it is really, ultimately, my suggestion.

Listen to The Lamb, and try to hear both ONE and MANY, at the same time.  If you find yourself realizing how hard this is, it will be a sign that you’re on the right track.

Oh, and for the bonus round:  Try to hear both ALL and NOTHING.  I suspect that’s part of what’s needed sometimes to get beyond

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20 Looks at the Lamb, 16: Rael the Lamia Slayer?

BuffyMainRemember when “camp” was an important category for classifying bits of popular culture? Sure, it’s still around, but you don’t hear it as often as you used to. When I hear it, my strongest association is the 1960’s Batman show, with Adam West. But I thought of it most recently while watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (my second time binge-watching the series).   No, Buffy doesn’t fit neatly in the “campy” box, but it does draw pretty freely from that spring. There’s a higher-than-usual suspension of belief that’s often called for. You can’t worry about whether people would really do those things in a school or a hospital without drawing a SWAT team. You don’t ask how all that loud, catastrophic to-do happens without anyone noticing (unless the plot requires them to notice).

Camp style is a sort of deliberate transgression of situational proprieties, simultaneously satirizing or lampooning those proprieties while still totally relying on them. Relying on them with a wink. Watching Buffy, and wondering at our willingness to go along with the transgression, to wink back while still seriously caring, I thought of LambCoverThe Lamb. I thought of Rael (the Lamia Slayer). It was not yet a well-formed thought, but it seemed right in some way. No wooden stakes come into play; Rael’s blood is enough, and the Lamia become food rather than dust. But the heavy sense of destiny is familiar.

Then I remembered “magical realism” (AKA “magic realism”). Though more commonly applied to certain novelists, this phrase is also applied to some painters.   It’s related to surrealism, and often seems to veer in that direction. But it generally stays “realistic” in its framing and in its primary references, so that the fantastic elements stand out in just the right way. Consider the work of Philip Curtis or George Tooker.

Framing the fantastic elements with the real. Allowing the surreal to impinge, even to the point of a kind of crisis between worlds, where competing candidates for “real” become both equally real and equally fantastic. New York City is real, but in The Lamb it becomes a fantasy, a fable, an open question in some important sense. The city is a contrast to the strange, rocky landscape where Rael travels inexorably toward that strange collapse of self into his brother John. When he’s “Back in New York City,” it’s more like a Potemkin city, a reconstruction or representation of the city, and we see the city as a wasteland somehow continuous with the mysterious land of Slippermen.

BuffyMentalThinking of Buffy once more: In “Normal Again,” (season 6, episode 17), we are confronted with the possibility that Buffy’s career as Vampire Slayer is all a hallucination, and that a return to mental health is available to her by choice. [BIG spoiler alert!] The episode deliberately leaves the question of what is real an open question, but Buffy clearly chooses the darker version of Sunnydale, her life as Slayer, and the friends she loves. The passage between the two Sunnydales opens like the window or skylight that opens for Rael. “I must decide between the freedom I had in the rat race, or to stay forever in this forsaken place.” This realization leads directly to – is almost interrupted by – the exclamation, “Hey John!” As if staying is a forgone conclusion. The window fades on cue. Buffy the series cannot be negated, as much fun as it is to play with the possibility.  Rael can’t really go back.

RaelWindowSo is it really a choice? Is destiny not written deeply into the plot of the narrative, for Rael and for Buffy? Trained by logic into antipathy toward contradictions, it seems WE must decide whether or not these “decisions” are genuinely free. But must that meta-decision be a genuinely free choice as well? Do you smell that? It’s the smell of an infinite regress, suggesting that something in our thinking has gone awry.

When the narrative hinges on some notion of destiny, isn’t there always that ongoing sense of the voluntary, of choosing it even though it is destiny?

Listen again now, and consider: Destinies; fate; predestination; forgone conclusions… Don’t we need to struggle with how none of these really eliminate decision, choice, free will? Might it be that we really don’t (yet) understand decision?

It’s an invitation, not a command. Listen again.

But once you’ve done it, won’t you know that it couldn’t have been otherwise? And perhaps this is true only because it could have been otherwise.

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The Fierce and the Dead – Magnet (2015)

The Fierce and the Dead are still fierce, and most definitely not dead.  With Magnet, to be released in August, we have an EP with 21 minutes of music, though only 15 minutes of it is new.  A disappointment, maybe?  Not really.  If you haven’t heard it yet, listen to the aptly-titled teaser track, “Magnet in Your Face.”

OK, that’s about a minute and forty seconds.  Got good headphones or earbuds?  Try it two more times.  A punchy statement, played with a unified voice.  It’s a glimpse at a soundscape that will keep giving of its subtlety the closer you look.

The contrast in length and compact punch was already well-developed by 2013’s Spooky Action, as compared to the almost eighteen minutes of “Part 1” that was our introduction to the band in 2010.  But there’s an Spooky-Action-CD-Cover-FinishedOverannouncement here of something new-ish, characterized by guitarist Matt Stevens as being “more joyous and intense, with bigger riffs and more of an electronic feel” (teamrock.com).

Perhaps it’s not that TFATD is simply doing something to us (as if it were a magnet TO the face), but that they provide a revelation of the magnet that is already there in one’s face, an attraction as well as a reception.  When I open to the otherness of well-crafted music, the force of my openness draws into its light and its purview whatever it is that the artist has to give.  Think about how you listen to what someone says, how it’s not only passivity, but also activity, how it’s a drawing to oneself of what is said, or an attaction outward to whatever “metal” it might contain.

The EP will bring three more new tracks, plus two bonus rehearsal recordings of songs from Spooky Action.  “Palm Trees” and “Flint,” though longer (four or more minutes each), follow the tighter, joy-and-part1intensity aesthetic so compactly captured in “Magnet in Your Face.”  Even so, they allow for some stretching and soundscape exploration that assures us that this is still TFATD.  “Conceptual continuity,” to invoke Frank Zappa’s phrase, is naturally strongest on “Part 6,” picking up the thread that began with their first outing.  Here is the mix of abstract and concrete that first grabbed my attention by the scruff of the neck and connected with that center of force between my ears that the guys have now identified as my magnet.

As I’ve remarked before, Matt, Steve, Kevin, and Stuart make music as a unit, as tight as nearly any guitar-based quartet I’ve heard since early to middle Wishbone Ash, but with that exquisite King Crimsonesque sophistication.  The bonus tracks bear this out.  The delightful “Let’s Start a Cult” is rather more raw and more fun than the Spooky Action version, while “Spooky Action” (a CD-only bonus track, according to our copy) nicely shows just how rich is the sound that these four guys get in performance.

The band has indicated that Magnet is an appetizer for another full-length feast now in preparation.  Pull up a chair and have a taste.  I’ve ordered another drink, and am settling in to wait for the main course.

More info, and links for pre-ordering, can be found at TFATD’s website.

Squonk Opera – Pneumatica (2014)

Squonk Opera is a performance art company from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (USA).  If you are not familiar with them, you might expect that they are named for the imaginary creature (also supposedly Pennsylvanian) portrayed in a Genesis song.  You would be disappointed, though, as the band claims the name derives from the jazz term “squonk fest,” used in reference to some saxophone performances.  Nevertheless, Squonk Opera’s music does display some prog influences and sensibilities, and they are worth checking out.

Squonk1Wikipedia refers to them aptly as “a group of interdisciplinary performing artists.”  They’ve been around since the early 1990’s, and among other distinctions have competed with some success on America’s Got Talent (though the judges ultimately did not seem to get what they were up to).  Their mix of audio and visual presentation could invite comparisons to the Blue Man Group, but I find them much more relaxed and refreshing in some ways.  The Blue Men are a bit more “McDonaldized” in the sense elaborated by sociologist George Ritzer, with an implicit aspiration to a total quality-control-hold on performer as provider and audience as consumer.  To be clear, I’m definitely not saying that I don’t like Blue Man Group.  They are good at worst, and irresistable and profound at best (and I do eat at McDonalds sometimes).  But Squonk Opera retains a combination of serious artistry and relaxed fun, a vulnerability and intimacy with the audience of which Blue Man’s ethos requires avoidance.

4PAN1TPneumatica (2014) is Squonk Opera’s latest CD release, with music from their latest stage production.  Why would one only listen to the music without the visual elements?  A good question.  I wouldn’t really want to listen to Blue Man’s version of “Baba O’Reilly” without the visual, for example.  And the visuals associated with Pneumatica go beyond the performance one can see in a video.  (Their 20 page “Workshop Learning Guide” is delightful!)  But considering the music itself is interesting and rewarding.  Their interplay of gravity and levity, both seen and heard in the Gesamtkunstwerk, is embodied just as clearly in the deft movement between and synthesis of prog, classic rock, classical, pop, Celtic, marching band, and other influences.  I sometimes detect a rather strong minimalist current (as in Glass and Reich), of the sort one hears in early XTC, and it works well (to my ears) with Squonk’s dramatistic approach.

storeMayhemI’m not convinced that Pneumatica as CD/album is something that I would return to for multiple listenings, though I think that there are proggish listeners who would disagree.  For my part, I find the earlier CD, Mayhem and Majesty (2010), more fascinating and “durable,” probably because the minimalist element is most prominent and effective there.  But remember that this judgment is rendered upon the music, artificially divorced from its performative context.  Squonk Opera’s work is best felt and seen, not just heard.

Squonk Opera’s Website:  http://www.squonkopera.org/

“Whirlwinding” from Pneumatica:

Keith Jarrett’s 70th Birthday Present (to Us) – Creation (2015)

Jarrett Creation

Keith Jarrett is 70 years old, and his best known album — The Köln Concert — is 40.  I still remember the first time I heard Köln.  It was about 1978, in a college radio studio on a good set of JBL monitors.  It was a religious experience for me.  That feels like a lame thing to write, but there are ultimately no words.  Yes, I even love the vocalizations, the grunts, the groans, the stomping.  I probably shouldn’t get started.  For some readers it may be off-putting enough that this is not “prog” in any standard sense.  But I can’t let pass the opportunity to tell Keith happy birthday when I have the platform from which to do it, or to call your attention to his latest solo piano disc.  I’m banking on (my prog guru) Brad Birzer’s championing of a broad tent in these matters.  Jarrett’s solo piano music seems to me genre-defying and epic enough, at any rate, for prog sensibilities.

kolnThe title of this latest entry, Creation, is not particularly a surprise from Jarrett, who is primarily known for the lack of distinction in his work between creation and performance.  But there is a surprise here, as Jarrett departs from his whole-concert-uncut approach.  Creation’s movements are selected from several different 2014 concerts, arranged after the fact into a whole.  Jarrett thus “had to become a producer,” as he explains in an interview on NPR.  But it’s still Jarrett as creator, as composer, performing as he produces.

As I listen to Creation, I’m reminded how consistently Jarrett’s work draws my listening beyond what I ordinarily think of as listening.  I hear the music, I drink it in as I do any good music.  But my listening is also pushed to hear itself, to hear in some sense what listening is.  Good listening is an interesting mix between impatience and patience.  Impatience because it needs to be eager, voraciously anticipatory, and open to mystery.  Patience because it wants to trust the artist, to wait for what takes careful preparation and painstaking development.  All of us who listen probably develop comfortable listening styles, familiar ways of moving along the border where impatience and patience meet.  Keith Jarrett has long struck me as one of those artists who play up that border, reminding us that it is a fault-line of a sort, that we can still be knocked over when the ground shifts violently enough.

jarrett playingIf you know Jarrett’s work, but have trouble with patience on his longer solo piano outings, I would especially urge you to give Creation a try.  The shorter-time format of his recent solo efforts tends to concentrate the development and give food to the impatient appetite, but (to my ears) without sacrificing any of the artisan’s craft and care.

Kudos to you, Keith, as you celebrate threescore and ten!  May our gift to you be (im)patient listening!

Ozric Tentacles, Technicians of the Sacred (2015)

Ozric TOTSThere are times (and listeners) that call for a musical edge, a sense of newness and unfamiliarity that is challenging and unsettling. “Avant garde.”  There are times (and listeners) that call for musical familiarity, for a secure homeland, a place to rest and to float in a heated pool of soothing sound.  “Accessible.”  There are uncanny surprises, and there are “old good jeans.”  For three decades now, Ozric Tentacles have been beating a path along the border between these two provinces of desire.  With the accomplished guitar and keyboard work of Ed Wynne providing the constant center amid changes in personnel, OT has consistently and recognizably drawn from a wide variety of musical sources, all the while sculpting distinctive aural textures, avoiding a merely “derivative” sound.

Their newest release, Technicians of the Sacred, continues this tradition of calm creativity.  Though it never really leaves the moorings built up by a half century of rock, electronica, and various styles that would often be grouped under the term “instrumental prog” (upon which I’ve commented before), it also never settles for the kind of familiarity that allows music to recline beneath the act of listening as if it were a stranger on a brief elevator ride.  There is a constant stylistic reverence for architects of psychedelic, “space,” ambient, prog, and other streams, but it always brings something new.

For some readers who are partial to the edge (as I am), this may come across as faint praise, but that is far from my intention.  When the exploration of a borderland appears effortless, we should suspect that both the skill and the effort of the explorer are quite considerable.

Brandi Wynne and Ed Wynne of Ozric Tentacles

As was noted in Progarchy’s earlier announcement of this release, Technicians of the Sacred draws thematically from Mayan astrology.  The story of the astrologer who pronounced the band “Galactic Activation Portals sent to channel messages of love to the world” lends a stereotypically “New Age” ambiance.  But OT does not simply fall back on a stereotype.  Here too they continue a tradition, which is that of embracing cultural as well as stylistic openness.  Here too they cultivate a balance that is difficult to resist, treating their theme with the right combination of seriousness and sense of humor.  (My favorite title here is “Rubbing Shoulders with the Absolute.”)  Scholars of religion define “the sacred” as that which is set apart, extraordinary, and in some sense forbidden.  It is that toward which the devotee must rightly comport him- or herself, that which gives meaning to the “profane” (here meaning ordinary or mundane).  If there is a musical sacred, then it has its prophets and priests.  Ozric Tentacles are consistent and effective priests who never lose sight of their roots in (and the fire of) the prophetic.

Those who have long followed OT will not be disappointed by Technicians of the Sacred, and will no doubt welcome their first double-album-length release in years.  Those unfamiliar with them will find it a warm welcome into their expansive oeuvre.

OT’s website:  http://www.ozrics.com/

20 Looks at The Lamb, 15: Give My Regards

Regards, these are.  And I give my regards to Broadway. Broadway is a street I’ve never seen.  New York is a city that I’ve never seen.

Oh, I’ve seen it on television, of course. But that opens a question about seeing.  As if the questions up to now have not been about seeing.  But regarding in the sense intended here is not just seeing, if by seeing you mean only some mysterious physiological alignment of rods, cones, and wavelengths.  Wavelengths are those things that we’re supposedly “on.”  Together, we are supposedly on them.  “On the same wavelength.”

NoRaelI’m thinking of how I see the things that I’ve never really seen.  I have regard, or a regard, for a thing that I’ve never regarded in person, “in the flesh” (“Pink isn’t well, he stayed back at the hotel”).  To listen in a way that makes the listening a gaze… doesn’t that mean seeing what one has never seen?  Isn’t it like going somewhere that you’ve never gone?

If I tell you to give my regards, it means that I won’t be there.  And it might be that my regards are just like that.  They might be the regards of someone who is never there.  I think that I’ve become Rael (become real?), waiting for the windshield, caught in the cage, slipping into the doktor’s waiting room, chasing the raven…  But I’ve never been there, and I have not seen any of those things.  My regard is from here, not from there.  I’m live, but not in person.

This is not just a spatial dislocation made metaphorical.  It’s more like a metaphysical mark of music.  No, scratch that; not music as thing.  It’s latent in any listening.  Let’s not forget that listening is a verb.  It seems like the doings of many verbs can be done, can be accomplished.  But a verb, just insofar as it is a verb, is a doing rather than a done/accomplished.  If it’s present tense, that is.  And the verb ‘listening’ can be present tense even though I am not present.  I have to be absent in order to send my regards.  So the regard is a present-tense non-presence.  And hopefully when I send it, it comes as a present (a gift).

Consider Rael’s story in this regard (ah, see what I did there?):  His “problem” is that he must get his own regard, and give his own regards (to Broadway, among other places).  He keeps finding himself in different places, different spaces, maybe even different worlds.  He wonders at that uncanny window in the bank above the gorge, where is “home,” as opposed to just another dream.  To have a regard toward home, to send one’s regards there, involves leaving home.  It’s a window, so it seems like he can go back, but can he go back?  Can we ever go back?  Is going back just the same, in the end, as stepping into another dream?

And a possible kicker:  Is finding the regard, sending the regards, ultimately seeing…  is it the same as no longer regarding “the problem” as a problem?

Suppose it really is only knock and knowall.

Suppose you’ve got to get out to get in.

Hop on that misty mountain.  (“And baby, baby, baby, do ya like it?”)

That we CAN like it.  That would be good news.  Take it, with my regards.


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