2021: My Favorite Albums, Six Months In

As life in these United States opens up, my life finally seems to be settling down — at least for the summer. Which means it’s time to make up for the backlog of excellent albums (new and old) that I’ve heard since January, but haven’t written about here! Links to listen (to complete albums or samples) are included whenever possible.

New Albums: The Art of Losing (The Anchoress’ rich meditation on endurance) and the multi-version adrenalin rush of Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe notwithstanding, most of the new albums I’ve loved so far have migrated towards jazz and classical — frequently with pianists at their center. Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy, made with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, is a state of the art piano trio effort; blues and abstraction suspended in perfect balance and caught in an intimate, tactile recording. Canadian Bach and Mozart specialist Angela Hewitt shows off her range with Love Songs, a gorgeous confection of orchestral and art song transcriptions assembled in lockdown and performed with undeniable panache. The same goes for Danny Driver’s phenomenal rendition of Gyorgy Ligeti’s hypermodern 18 Etudes — virtuoso pieces whose serene surfaces turn out to be rooted in super-knotty counterpoint and off-kilter rhythmic cells. My favorite new album of 2021 to date? Promises by electronica artist Floating Points, spiritual jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra, which manages to bring all of the above (well, except for the piano!) together in one glorious, 40-minute ambient epic.

Reissues: Big Big Train’s double-disc update of The Underfall Yard has definitely had its share of listening time, between Rob Aubrey’s rich remix/remaster and the welcome bonus disc (featuring fresh recordings of the title track and “Victorian Brickwork” by the full band and brass quintet). With My Bloody Valentine’s catalog back in print, their masterpiece Loveless sounds as incredible as ever; crushing distortion and lush romanticism collide to channel the sublime. And Pete Townshend has masterminded a comprehensive Super Deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out, the band’s pre-Tommy high point. But my favorite reissues thus far have been It Bites’ The Tall Ships (especially the title track — what a power ballad!) and Map of the Past (a favorite of mine since its original release). With the then-unknown John Mitchell taking over from Francis Dunnery, IB sailed into the 21st century with their 1980s pomp intact, killer hooks, head-spinning riffs and all.

Live Albums: Beyond the visceral thrills of Fanfare for the Uncommon Man: The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert, I’ve had a blast hearing krautrock legends Can conjure up spellbinding group improvisation on Live in Stuttgart 75, an initial dip into their voluminous concert archives. I’ve been giddy to hear Kansas, bolstered by keyboardist Tom Brislin, get their mojo working on Point of Know Return Live & Beyond. (They’ll be my first post-lockdown rock show next month.) And my journey back into soul music (see below) set me up nicely for the razor-sharp, precision funk of Tower of Power: 50 Years of Funk and Soul Live at the Fox Theater, a deliriously exciting reunion show recorded in 2018.

From the Catalog: All the good new stuff above aside, this is where some of my most fruitful listening has been happening this year — frequently inspired by other media. Watching the movie One Night in Miami led me back to Sam Cooke’s Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964; the resulting dive into soul music ultimately brought me to Marvin Gaye’s classic concept album What’s Going On — 50 years old in 2021! Perusing various “best of 2020” lists turned me on to the avant-garde jazz of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere’s on the tender spot of every calloused moment and Maria McKee’s art-pop song cycle La Vita Nuova (inspired by Dante, no less). Jazz/fusion legend Chick Corea’s death prompted a deep dive into his catalog; new favorites included Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before and the fabulous Five Peace Band Live, Corea’s long-delayed collaboration with guitarist John McLaughlin. And after long years of the album doing nothing for me, Radiohead’s The Bends finally clicked when I read Steven Hyden’s fine band biography This Isn’t Happening. (Curt Bianchi’s wonderful new book, Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, is prompting a similar deep dive into that quintessential jazz/rock band’s catalog; I highly recommend their cutting edge debut album from 1971 and their 1976 masterpiece of groove, Black Market.)

Coming Soon: In addition to Big Big Train’s Common Ground (take it from me, it’s a humdinger), I highly recommend MoonJune Records’ latest release, Indonesian fusion guitarist Dewa Budjana’s incandescent Naurora. I’m also eagerly anticipating new music from the Neal Morse Band (oops, NMB now), Steve Hackett and Isildur’s Bane & Peter Hammill; reissues of BeBop Deluxe’s Live in the Air Age and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass; and comprehensive box sets from The Beach Boys and Van Der Graaf Generator. Plus live shows from Kansas, Emmylou Harris and Los Lobos, King Crimson with The Zappa Band, and opening night of Genesis’ USA tour.

So, yeah, it’s taken a while — but at least from my point of view, 2021 has already been a solid year for music — and the prospects for it getting even better are looking up!

— Rick Krueger

The Sound of Steven Wilson’s Muzak: Fifth Impressions of The Future Bites

[Sly and the Family Stone’s album ‘There’s a riot goin’ on’] is Muzak with its finger on the trigger . . . If you listen, you get sharper, and you begin to hear what the band is hearing; every bass line or vocal nuance eventually takes on great force.

Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music

Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites didn’t click for me until I stopped listening to it. Let me explain.

It was when I was playing TFB for the fifth time, as I was doing something else, that I finally heard it — almost as if the album was designed to catch you by surprise when you’re focused elsewhere or distracted. I found myself drawn toward the interplay of backing textures instead of the spare surface detail, zooming in on the ambience of the foundational grooves and pads instead of the gyrating vocal and instrumental leads. Instead of missing the rock rhythms, the power riffs, the extended structures and the virtuoso musical moments of Wilson’s previous efforts, I started digging into what was actually there. The minimalism — maybe even the monotony Bryan Morey detected in his review — becomes the message.

Which, whatever you may think of the results, is a pretty neat trick. So the thought struck me: is this latest release meant to work as background music, as much or more than as a foreground listening experience? When you turn the frequently static norms of today’s electronic pop inside out, is this what you get?

If so, it fits with more of Steven Wilson’s catalog than later adopters might think — sample the extended trance trip of Porcupine Tree’s Voyage 34, the forlorn, scratched-up drones of his Bass Communion efforts, even the symphonic disco of 2019’s No-Man comeback Love You to Bits if you doubt me. (Not to mention his remastering of vintage efforts by German synth wizards Tangerine Dream.) And it seems to me his new sound — a postmodern British upgrade of Greil Marcus’ concept? — is not just purposeful, but channeled for a purpose. After all, the man knows (and has lyrically railed against) the sound of Muzak. By embracing it here, he’s planting depth charges beneath our buffed-up virtual lives, triggering both our individual delight as we succumb to the age of the algorithm and our creeped-out, collective unease with the results. We may be having a good time amusing ourselves into financial and spiritual bankruptcy, but Wilson’s depictions of lost, alienated souls (by turns ironic, empathetic, furious, blackly hilarious) hold up a mirror — one with the caption “Limited Edition Deluxe Box Set Purchaser” across the bottom — and dare us to study the reflection as we spiral downward.

Continue reading “The Sound of Steven Wilson’s Muzak: Fifth Impressions of The Future Bites”

Steven Wilson Bites the Future… and the Fans?

Before we get into the review itself, I want to be clear that I have the upmost respect for Steven Wilson. No matter what I think of The Future Bites, I am not calling into question Wilson’s integrity as a musician, writer, producer, or artist. Everything he does, he does well. This go around he decided to make a pop album, and the pop world certainly has much to learn from Steven Wilson. This is pop in the vein of Tears for Fears or Talk Talk, so if you like those bands, you may like The Future Bites. I don’t particularly enjoy those bands, although I respect them. I also want to make clear that I don’t see what Wilson is doing with this album as being just like what Genesis did after Steve Hackett departed. Genesis sold out and started writing boring trash, both musically and lyrically. Wilson’s lyrics and themes on The Future Bites lead the listener to reflection. This is far from “selling out.” Watching some recent interviews with Wilson only confirmed for me that Wilson is an honest man. This album is incredibly self aware, which I’m sure made this a very vulnerable album for him to make. With all that said, let this long review begin.

Perhaps not surprisingly The Future Bites is doing rather well in the charts, particularly in the UK (number 4 overall as of this writing). It’s wholeheartedly a “pop” album, whatever that actually means. I recall thinking that 2017’s To The Bone was a pop album when it came out, but going back to it now I see that it has far more in common with Wilson’s previous solo work than it does with The Future Bites. There are a few moments on To The Bone that clearly connect with this album, but overall it was a rock album.

Contrarily the remnants of what could be called “rock” are pretty much gone on The Future Bites. That doesn’t necessarily mean Wilson will never return to a traditional progressive rock sound, but he has said in interviews that he isn’t interested in making progressive rock music right now. As to why, well, we can only speculate. Some might say he’s making a lot more money doing this, but I don’t think that is what’s going on here. I think he’s tired of doing what he’s done before, and he’s pushing himself into new territory that reflects the kind of music he enjoyed when he was growing up. 

For the most part the album sounds quite stunning. Not musically. Musically it’s nothing special at all, like most pop. It’s still more musically exceptional than 99% of what passes for pop these days, but compared to an album like Hand. Cannot. Erase., it pales. The actual mixing of the record is quite fantastic, apart from the vocals on “Count of Unease,” which sound like they were recorded in a college dorm bathroom. This record is Wilson’s first time mixing in Dolby Atmos. I’d love to hear the album on a good Atmos system, but I don’t have one of those. Even so the regular stereo mix sounds crystal clear, and there is a lot of depth to the various sounds he employs.

It’s really many of those sounds he chose that I take issue with. He leans heavily into electronic music, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of my favorite newer bands, Oak, uses elements of electronic music, and I know Wilson has done that before in the past, but Oak and Wilson always left the rock elements in tact. Without the rock, it leaves much to be desired. I don’t know much about electronic music, but I know there are artists and composers who specialize in and excel at it. On The Future Bites it feels like Wilson is using the electronic aspects in the same way he has in the past, but without the rock the album feels like it’s missing something. The other issue I have with the record is some of Wilson’s vocals. 

Continue reading “Steven Wilson Bites the Future… and the Fans?”

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!”

Kevin Keller’s Heavenly New Release

 

I’ve written the praises of contemporary composer Kevin Keller before. I believe him to be one the finest composers working today (John Diliberto of NPR’s Echoes has dubbed his music ambient chamber), so it is always big news when he releases a new album. What makes The Front Porch of Heaven even more special are the circumstances that gave rise to it.

A little more than a year ago, Keller was told he needed a triple bypass, and that his heart would be stopped during the surgery. As he writes on his blog:

On the day of surgery, I was excited, but calm. I had one last photo taken of me right before I went into the OR, and you can see the joy on my face. I was excited about this journey. I walked into the Operating Room, lay down on the operating table, put in my earbuds with some calming music, and fell asleep. Soon, under general anesthesia, my chest was opened and my heart clamped off. With no heartbeat, my blood was pumped out of my body through a machine that pumped it back in. I was also no longer breathing on my own. I had left on my journey.

Keller took his experience and channeled it into some of the most sublime music I have ever heard. Clocking in at a relatively brief 38 minutes, not one note in The Front Porch of Heaven is superfluous or wasted. He is a master of musical economy in the tradition of classic Harold Budd or Brian Eno. In my opinion, only Tim Story’s music is comparable to Keller’s in terms of sheer beauty and elegance.

The album begins with “Beacon”, which invokes the beacon of light that guided him through the darkness of anesthetized unconsciousness. As a simple yet comforting melody is played on acoustic piano, hushed voices enter, and a gently insistent beat begins. It sounds like a steady heartbeat (no coincidence, I’m sure!), upon which more instrumentation is slowly added. Our journey has begun.

Next up is “Forgotten Places” which Keller writes is “about the “forgotten places” of my early childhood that I suddenly remembered in vivid detail.” A noise like a music box getting going kicks off this track, and once again an acoustic piano establishes the melodic theme, this time reminiscent of a driving Tangerine Dream song. Snippets of radio broadcasts come and go in the mix, until eventually a dialogue between strings and piano takes center stage. The melody is one of yearning and delight; there is a sense of unhurried pleasure as we revisit these memories.

“Just Over The Ridge” is a more somber affair. Chords played slowly on piano over a subdued bed of electronic ambience introduce this track. About mid-way through, electric guitar joins in as excitement builds – what will we see as approach the top of the ridge? A driving rhythm carries us up and over, and we gracefully ascend on the music motif that began this song.

“Into The Light” establishes a hushed expectancy as a far away synth calls to us over arioso strings. This is a very atmospheric track that exudes serenity. When I first heard it, I likened it to a 21st century Pachelbel’s Canon.

“The Sky Below” is one of my two favorite tracks. It features more Tangerine Dream-style electronic rhythms with a slightly twangy guitar riff leading the way. We are still languidly soaring in the heavens, and looking below in wonder and awe.

The Front Porch of Heaven concludes with “Solana”, which is the other favorite track of mine. It features the finest melody Keller has composed in his career, and it is presented in a no-frills manner on piano. A tune this beautiful can and does speak for itself. Some gently insistent synths soon join in, until we are treated to a triumphant chorus of sound that is a pure celebration of life. As they fade away leaving a solo piano, we realize the gift we have been given on this journey.

The production is outstanding – every track flows logically from one to the next, and they combine to create an atmosphere of joyful serenity. The soundstage is spacious when necessary, and intimate when that is called for. Every detail is clearly heard – Keller obviously puts extraordinary care into constructing his musical pieces.

In this “Age of Anxiety” (to steal a phrase from Auden), Keller’s music is a much-needed balm. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen. We could all benefit from spending more time together on the Front Porch of Heaven.

The Front Porch Of Heaven will be released on September 18, 2020. You can preorder it here.

 

kruekutt’s 2019 Favorites: Reissues and Live Albums

Here are the reissues and live albums from 2019 that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Favorite status, which I’ll save for the very end.  Links to previous reviews or purchase sites are embedded in the album titles.  But first, a graphic tease …

Continue reading “kruekutt’s 2019 Favorites: Reissues and Live Albums”

A Summer of Perfect Pairs

Submitted for your consideration: perfect pairs that have been engaging my two ears and two eyes for the past two months, recalled as a Michigan summer enters its last hurrah …

Three of A Perfect Pair: Live Albums

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I’m thrilled that Esoteric Recordings’ reissue series from British folk-proggers Renaissance now includes 1976’s Live at Carnegie Hall;  recorded over three sold-out nights at the legendary New York venue, this set has been a favorite since high school days.  It captures Renaissance’s essence: Annie Haslam’s clear soprano vocals soar over Michael Dunford’s spacious acoustic guitar, John Tout’s supple piano and keyboard work, Jon Camp’s agile bass and backing vocals and Terry Sullivan’s orchestral drumming.  Members of the New York Philharmonic join the band for most of the set, bringing out the delectable French and Russian flavors of extended classics like “Can You Understand”, “Running Hard” and the “Song of Scheherazade” suite.  A bonus disc of BBC session versions show that Renaissance could conjure up the same magic without the orchestra as well.  If you don’t know this worthwhile band’s music, Live at Carnegie Hall is a perfect introduction.

As is a pair of new live albums from the Norwegian trio Elephant9!  Recorded during an extended Oslo residency, Psychedelic Backfire I and Psychedelic Backfire II (the latter with Dungen guitarist Reine Fiske sitting in) are two sets of unremittingly scorching jazz-rock improvisation.  Organist/keyboardist Ståle Storløkken spins out one mesmerizing solo after another, whether by himself or trading licks with Fiske, while bassist Nikolai Hængsle and drummer Torstein Lofthus stoke relentless, hard-driving grooves.  Whether subjecting Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” to a Bitches Brew-era Miles-style breakdown or building unstoppable momentum on “Habanera Rocket”, the music captured here is endlessly inventive and thoroughly compelling.

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NAO4 Teaser Trailer

NAO
Our last glimpse of real beauty–NAO’s compilation album.

Sam Healy–while complying with Big Euro Brother laws, regulations, and microintrusions–offered a wonderful teaser/trailer for the forthcoming North Atlantic Oscillation album, coming sometime this year.

Granted, it’s only a full-eighteen seconds worth, but it’s eighteen more seconds then we had before. . .

Looking East: Gazpacho’s Soviet Saga

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Gazpacho’s 10th Album, SOYUZ.

Gazpacho, SOYUZ (Kscope 2018).  Tracks: Soyuz One; Hypomania; Exit Suite; Emperor Bespoke; Sky Burial; Fleeting Things; Soyuz Out; and Rappaccini.

To be sure, every release from the Norwegian art rockers extraordinaire, Gazpacho, is not just another moment in a progger’s life, but an actual event—filled with meaning and significance, marked by the awareness and heighten-ness of all five senses.

For those of us in the United States, we wait that extra week for the package from Burning Shed to arrive. Then, we carefully remove the rectangular sticker from Kscope (this one, Kscope607) and, then, the cellophane.  I have the strange habit of collecting every one of these cellophane stickers, placing each within the front or back cover of whatever book I’m reading at the time.  Today, when the mail came, I was re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Book of Lost Tales, Part I.  Hence, the Kscope607 sticker sits nicely behind the front cover.

Opening the booklet releases a smell every bit as satisfying as that of a brand new car.  It’s a bit sweet and a bit pulpy.  And, then, we dive into the pictures and, most importantly, the lyrics.

The only disappointing thing about a Gazpacho release is knowing that the next one is most likely at least two years out. Real art takes time, especially in the northern parts of the world.  I’ve now gone through this ritual exactly 13 times (counting studio, live, and re-releases) since I first purchased NIGHT in 2007.  It’s always healthy, and it’s always inspiring. As much a release as it is an inspiration.

Continue reading “Looking East: Gazpacho’s Soviet Saga”

What’s The Buzz About General Fuzz?

As I’ve gotten older, I find myself enjoying instrumental/ambient/space music more and more. These chaotic and ever-accelerating times lend themselves to a musical genre that encourages reflection and relaxation.

In earlier posts, I brought to our faithful readers’ attention the wonderful music of Kevin Keller and CFCF. In this one, I want to showcase another outstanding artist working in the “Downtempo” realm of music: General Fuzz. The musical brainchild of composer James Kirsch, General Fuzz has released 7 albums, and you can download them all for free (yes, FREE. He explains the motives behind his generosity here) at his website. I started at the beginning with 2002’s eponymous General Fuzz album, and I’m slowly working my way through to his latest, 2014’s Oughta See. The problem is, every album is such a beautiful gem of contemplative melodies that I can’t leave one for the next. However, if your curiosity is piqued and don’t know where to start, let me suggest checking out Kirsch’s 2008 masterpiece, Soulful Filling. Here’s my favorite track from that collection:

Kirsch’s music is carefully constructed to seduce the listener with perfectly arranged musical miniatures that avoid being saccharine. In other words, I was immediately attracted to his music, I have listened to it repeatedly, and I have yet to tire of it. I keep finding new and delightful details in each hearing. Here’s how he explains it in his own words:

Unless your music is simple and poppy, or incredibly accessible, most people won’t be able to make sense of it on first listen, and consequently not return for a second listen. I can not approach my own music with fresh ears – I’m intimate with every second of it. It’s great to have someone who’s not a huge music fan listen to my music before I release it to gauge how most people will receive it. It has previously helped shape the ordering of  tracks on an album. Accessible music will always be more popular than complex music.

I’ve learned that it often takes many listens for people to start really enjoying my music. My favorite story is of a co-worker who’s cd player broke with my cd in it, so they had to listen to it all day on repeat. The next day he told me never to stop writing music.

James Kirsch is attempting something courageous in these days of a collapsing music industry: he is producing extraordinary music and giving it away – trusting that those who “get it” and enjoy it will respond with donations. I hope his experiment is successful – we need more composers of his caliber thriving in today’s music scene.