A Tribute to Kings: Primus and Battles in Concert

Primus: A Tribute to Kings with Battles, GLC Live at 20 Monroe, Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 31, 2022

Having been sucked in to seeing this show by the sheer audacity of the concept — Primus covering Rush’ complete album A Farewell to Kings — I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the audience. On the night, GLC Live hosted what was by no means a typical “progressive rock” crowd. With all the restrooms equally busy at the usual break points, I saw pierced youth, middle-aged mullet wearers, date night couples, Gen X parents with their Millennial kids and the occasional fan in costume (from silk kimonos to the hat pictured here, depicting the album cover of Primus’ Sailing the Seas of Cheese) packing the standing-room-only main floor. So I got as close to the soundboard as I could and awaited the night’s developments.

Making their Grand Rapids debut, New York City’s Battles got the crowd moving with a ecstatic blend of electronica, funk and rock, mostly from 2019’s stellar Juice B Crypts album. Ian Williams set the mood with his genial dad-dancing — triggering loops and laying down riffs on synth, garnishing the resulting blend with effects-laden guitar riffs and the odd solo in the moment. John Stanier, a hard-hitting drummer in the John Bonham vein, drove the tunes and cued one whiplash rhythm change after another, triggering new beats and repeatedly bashing his elevated crash cymbal along the way. The grooves were relentless but refreshingly unpredictable and airy; the interlocking melodic lines ranged from punky ferocity to video-game-soundtrack campiness; and the occasional pre-recorded guest vocal (like Jon Anderson adding some Yes-style sunshine to “Sugar Foot”) always seemed to furnish a cherry on top the sweet sonic sundae. Williams and Stanier have forged an impressively interactive relationship with their electronics in real time, bringing an artsy asymmetry and freshness to their music that gathered thrilling momentum as the set progressed. After 45 minutes of Battles, I felt like I’d already got my money’s worth. (And I can’t recommend their recorded catalog highly enough — if there’s such a thing as dance music for prog heads, this is it!)

Battles onstage at GLC Live: L to R, John Stanier and Ian Williams.

Following the openers’ clean lines and summery vibe, the headliners’ full-on first set was initially bewildering to a newbie like me. Bypassing their long-ago radio hits for the most part, Primus conjured up a thick, hypnotic pulse to jam on extended, deep catalog tracks like opener “Harold of the Rocks” and “American Life”, as well as new music from their Conspiranoid EP. While that approach grabbed the already-primed crowd from the start, I had to get my bearings. Still, it was quickly evident that Les Claypool’s circular, polyphonic bass riffs are the heart of Primus’ sound (with his outsider sensibility every bit as evident instrumentally as in his carnival barker voice and Zappaesque lyrics); that drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander not only locks in with Claypool’s grooves, but that he pretty much fills the remaining space in the soundfield; and that their tight connection allows Larry “Ler” LaLonde the freedom to play guitar in a completely lateral fashion, with blindingly off-angle solos that seem to defy not only the laws of tradition, but possibly the laws of physics. Add in a full-on light show and quirkily-cued screen projections, and you had an undeniably appealing set, connecting with the audience via its eccentricities, not despite them. But one question remained for me: how well could Primus, who opened for Rush back in their own early days, possibly recreate the operatic metal sound of their heroes in the 1970s?

Primus onstage at GLC Live: left to right, Larry LaLonde, Tim Alexander (behind drums), Les Claypool)

The answer: better than anyone had a right to expect. Primus had unquestionably done their homework; “A Farewell to Kings'” chiming classical intro and lumbering riffs plus “Xanadu’s” double-neck duet and bell tree accents proved the opening shots of an awe-inspiring re-creation, with all of Rush’s instrumental bells and whistles delightfully present and correct. All three players were stretching themselves to hit their marks, and you could tell how the effort had strengthened their overall bond as a band. And I’ll give the kimono-clad Claypool full credit for giving Geddy Lee’s utterly impossible vocals his best shot; generally sticking to a lower octave, occasionally letting loose with appropriate Plant-y screams, inviting the obvious singalong on “Closer to the Heart”, he was obviously having the time of his life nearly a year into this tour. By the time “Cygnus X-1, Book 1: The Voyage” (complete with Captain Smiler onboard the good ship Rocinante onscreen) gathered speed and dove into its climactic black hole, I was sold — even though my aching back meant I didn’t stay for what turned out to be an extended encore. Along with Battles’ marvelous opening set, my introduction to Primus’ weird world of pure imagination and their well-done “tribute to kings” proved to be an appropriately titled evening: a first-rate, full-on musical experience. If the above strikes your fancy and you get the chance, this tour is well worth your time and cash!

— Rick Krueger

Battles Setlist:

  • The Yabba
  • Hiro 3
  • IPT-2
  • Summer Simmer/Ice Cream (featuring Matias Aguayo)
  • A Loop So Nice . . .
  • Titanium 2 Step (featuring Sal Principato)
  • Fort Greene Park
  • Sugar Foot (featuring Jon Anderson and Prairie WWWW)
  • TRAS
  • Ambulance
  • Atlas

Primus Setlist:

  • Harold of the Rocks
  • Fisticuffs
  • The Pressman (quickly abandoned because, to quote Claypool, “I can’t remember the words. We’ll play something else!”)
  • American Life
  • Conspiranoia
  • Professor Nutterbutter’s House of Treats
  • Del Davis Tree Farm
  • Erin on the Side of Caution
  • Welcome to This World
  • Jerry Was a Race-Car Driver
  • A Farewell to Kings
  • Xanadu
  • Closer to the Heart
  • Cinderella Man
  • Madrigal
  • Cygnus X-1, Book 1: The Voyage
  • Too Many Puppies/Sgt. Baker/Too Many Puppies
  • Follow the Fool
  • Southbound Pachyderm

Rick’s Quick Takes for February

Brought to you (mostly) by the letter B! Purchasing links are embedded in the artist/title listing; a sample follows each review.

Dave Bainbridge, To The Far Away: put simply, a thrilling, ravishingly beautiful album. Separated from his fiancée on the eve of their wedding by the COVID pandemic, guitarist/keyboardist Bainbridge focused on the essentials — love and the longing it stirs, the beauty of the world and the changing seasons, the desire for hope and a future. Poet Lynn Caldwell’s words (movingly sung by Sally Minnear and Iain Hornal) capture these themes with rich simplicity, cradled in a lush orchestral blend of rock, prog and Celtic folk. Often evoking the palette of his breakthrough band Iona, Bainbridge and a stellar group of collaborators grab your attention and your heartstrings again and again, whether on the dramatic instrumental “Rain and Sun”, the epic paean to the creative spirit “Ghost Light”, the classically-tinged rhapsody “Infinitude (Region of the Stars)” or the yearning sprint of “Speed Your Journey”. Already one of my favorites of 2022, and recommended without hesitation. (And check out our extensive interview with Dave here.)

Continue reading “Rick’s Quick Takes for February”

Rick’s Quick Takes for January

Big Big Train, Welcome to the Planet: Yet another stellar addition to BBT’s discography, their latest effort consolidates the widened horizons of Grand Tour and the intimate subjects of Common Ground, casting an epic light on the everyday glory of family, community, love and loss. With Nick D’Virgilio, Rikard Sjöblom, new guitarist Dave Foster and new keyboardist Carly Bryant all involved in the writing, rockers like “Made of Sunshine” and “The Connection Plan” hit with maximum impact; ballads like “Capitoline Venus” and “Oak and Stone” are masterfully expressive; instrumentals like “A Room with No Ceiling” and “Bats in the Belfry” unleash the requisite nifty twists and turns — not forgetting less easily classified delights like the multi-sectioned “Lanterna” and the woozy dreamland wash of the title track. Throughout, Greg Spawton’s firm hand on the tiller and the late David Longdon’s vocal authority are rock solid, their partnership the beating heart of this music. In the wake of Longdon’s untimely passing, we can’t know if Welcome to the Planet is the last stop on Big Big Train’s journey or a way station before what might come next. But such considerations pale in the face of what we’ve been given; this one — easily my favorite BBT effort since the English Electric days — is a real thing of beauty, an album to be treasured and listened to again and again. (Check out Bryan Morey’s detailed review here.)

Continue reading “Rick’s Quick Takes for January”

Lightning Round Reviews: November 1-9, 2018

In case you hadn’t noticed, the last quarter of 2018 has put paid to any perceived drought of new releases & reissues.  Capsule reviews of what I’ve been listening to since the first of this month follow the jump; albums are reviewed in descending order on my Personal Proggyness Perception (PPP) scale, scored from 0 to 10.

Continue reading “Lightning Round Reviews: November 1-9, 2018”

soundstreamsunday #87: “Melt!” by Siouxsie and the Banshees

siouxsieA commanding presence in British punk since the later 1970s, and creating out of that — along with Joy Division, The Cure, Bauhaus — an overpowering, dark music that came to be known as goth, Siouxsie and her Banshees moved their music towards romantic intoxication.  Siouxsie brought light to the dark, deftly drawing rich melodies from the shadows draping the songs.  Bassist Steven Severin foregrounded the twilight with a nervy, often high-up-the-neck playing, while Budgie’s tribal pounding gave the band’s work a pulse-quickening danceability at the edge of chaos.  A rotating cast of like-minded souls added instruments as needed, and fans of the band’s various guitarists across its 17-year recording career can be fairly territorial regarding the shifting lineups.

You can hear in Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain (1984) a fascination with the Banshee’s A Kiss in the Dreamhouse (1982), with “Melt” maybe having some direct influence on “Nocturnal Me.”  (Although — it would probably be just as fair to say that both bands were obsessed with “Venus in Furs”-era Velvet Underground, a goth cornerstone.)  “Melt” is a dirge of self-immolation — loss of identity — in being consumed by a lover, its explicit sexuality dealt as poetry from the view of a succubus.  Appropriately, the vampyric backing is suggestive of an older, more eastern, Europe, but with a restraint that sends a chill rather than a horror show laugh (something to which goth rock is all too susceptible).

This live version of “Melt” is from an episode of the Old Grey Whistle Test in December 1982, and captures Siouxsie and the Banshees with the Cure’s Robert Smith, who stepped in to replace John McGeoch on guitar and would stay to help write and record 1984’s Hyaena.  The performance is notable for Smith’s presence, of course, but also for the kind of sound and vibe the band could get live while staying fairly lean.  A lament, a shake and a shiver — “Melt!” is a key to the goth rock kingdom.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #86: “Ocean Rain” by Echo and the Bunnymen

echoIt’s like they couldn’t help it, all the British bands that invented themselves in the wake of the Sex Pistols.  As hard as they tried not to, they created some of the loveliest pop music one can imagine, with smarts and restraint and pretension, lots of pretension.  In their willful endeavor to be a serious, art-y band in an evolving psych-goth-pop scene, Liverpool’s Echo and the Bunnymen were not the equal of Siouxsie and the Banshees or the Cure or even Simple Minds, but they had it in them to produce one of their era’s best records in 1984’s Ocean Rain.  As unique as it is in its genre for its use of an orchestra the album nonetheless captures the period, as romantic impulses toward grand gestures infused particularly British music with a youthful, surrealistic poetry — it didn’t always work, of course, and didn’t always need to work to be successful: if you were to ask me to name an album that summed up 1984, I’d point to, among others, Ocean Rain, even as I was a teenage metalhead.  But it’s not a perfect album.  Singer Ian McCulloch’s reach as a lyricist at times exceeds his grasp, and two of the record’s tracks (“Yo Yo Man” and “Thorn of Crowns”) threaten to bring down Ocean Rain‘s otherwise glistening pop dramas and diminish the band’s full flowering.

The title track closes the album, and “Ocean Rain” is a study in building pop ballad tension across five minutes of orchestra and guitars, with McCulloch and the band finding peaks and shifting down, delivering lyrics perfect for 80s college angst.  Echo and the Bunnymen would never be this good again, but they really are so good on Ocean Rain that nothing else compares to this jeweled and flawed masterpiece.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “How Do You Sleep” by LCD Soundsystem

LCD soundsystemJames Murphy made no bones about the hipster cred accorded Can on “I’m Losing My Edge,” LCD Soundsystem’s 2002 dancefloor-meets-Weird Al hit.  “I was there, I was there in 1968, I was there at the first Can show in Cologne,” he sing-speaks ala King Missile, going on to target Suicide and others in the pantheon of removed, white boy cool.  It’s idolatry and idol-destroying at once, and it’s a lot of fun to listen to.  Murphy never shies from the obvious or expected, scratching musical itches and quoting hosts of precedents within his long-ish form constructions.  He makes big beats, giant basslines, and his meta smarts about the music he creates enlivens his work rather than reducing it to a nostalgia trip. Precocious, yeah, precious, no.

Murphy wrapped up his LCD Soundsystem project in 2011, but revived it last year with some shows and this year (this month in fact) with American Dream, a double LP epic that continues an obsession with Adrian Belew-era Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, New Order, Depeche Mode, Modern English, Kraftwerk, and on and on and on….   Songs as dessert, and dessert with every meal.  And yet the lyrical content carries some heft, and whether or not you think Murphy is saying anything new or real or whatever, you can take his songs in a lot of different ways, luxuriating in all the analog richness  and the cracking drums, or thinking, as I do when listening to the lyrics of “How Do You Sleep?”, of something that relates on a personal level (in this case, there’s a Stevie Smith “Not Waving But Drowning” vibe going on).  These aren’t simply tossed off words so people who aren’t comfortable with instrumentals have something to chant, or words made to fit or counterpoint melody, which was Can’s m.o.  The lyrics crystallize, emotionalizing the epic weight of the central, insistent riff and Murphy’s all-in vocal.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Isolation” by Joy Division

ian-curtis- joy-division-wendy-winder-obskur-magazineMusic critics tend to dismiss Joy Division’s posthumous Still as a hit-and-miss collection of studio scraps paired with a lackluster recording of their last show.  And in a specific context — compared to the brilliant Unknown Pleasures and Closer, it seems a bit of a rush job with less-than-pure motivations — this holds some weight, although I’d argue as its own thing Still may be more representative of the band as a whole, and that the live half of the double album contains fiery performances wildly joining hard rock, punk, and synth-y goth music.  My first exposure to Joy Division, over thirty years ago now, was hearing “Shadowplay” from Still, and it gave me the metal thunder frights.  It sounded as if Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis, and Stephen Morris channeled the essence of Fleetwood Mac’s “Green Manalishi” through a punk filter, as they sped to the center of the city in the night.  Even as they rode their wave of goth punk popularity their songs betrayed the band’s primary strength: their music was as much about making connections as alienation, masked and revealed in turns by Curtis’s not-waving-but-drowning lyrics and delivery.

When Curtis made good on the promise of his lyrics a few days after the show, the band pivoted into New Order and went on to define electronic dance music in the 1980s.  It’s a remarkable story of artistic continuity in the wake of tragic change, but the strength of the group’s trajectory even before Curtis’s death can be found on Still and on “Isolation” in particular.  Stripped of producer Martin Hannett’s carnivalesque studio tweaks, the song’s live incarnation has a punch lacking on Closer, with Sumner’s keyboards threatening to submerge Curtis’s plaintive singing, and Hook’s and Morris’s stripped bass-and-beat backbone out-crafting Kraftwerk.  The big guitars so much a part of their origins were yielding to distilled, synth-led rhythmic and melodic lines.  While “Isolation” would sit comfortably next to its future cousin, the New Order calling card “Blue Monday,” it remains a place of passage rather than a destination, a liminal space aglow with potential.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Sons of Pioneers” by Japan

japantindrum2A British post-punk band could grow into just about anything in that fertile ground of the late seventies, and Japan proves the point, as over its short record-releasing career (1978-1981) the band moved from a funk punk glitz unit to new pioneers of progressive art rock.  You can see the steam rising off the entire five-album catalogue, the creative engines driving full tilt, inevitably towards early breakdown.  If the end came too soon there’s one more record, 1991’s self-titled Rain Tree Crow, that seals the deal: together, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri, and brothers David Sylvian and Steve Jansen were among the most unique musical collaborators of their era, and should be in any discussion of Talking Heads or King Crimson from this same period, as bands who pushed forward and influenced all musical directions.  In its progression of fashion and music, Japan functioned as an interlocutor, a not-so-missing link, between New York Dolls-style punk and Tears for Fears-style new wave, a Roxy turned Crimson, an achieving Guns’n’Roses cum Duran Duran.

“Sons of pioneers are hungry men,” intones Sylvian in the nuanced Ferry-esque croon he’d been developing since 1979’s Quiet Life, the band’s third album.  I have no idea what this lyric means. But…I like it and its pure sonics and the way Sylvian so naturally handled a lyric as a shaped sound.  “Sons of Pioneers” comes from their last work as Japan, Tin Drum, an album charged with atmospherics, and further demonstrating the contributions and importance of each member, although Mick Karn’s gorgeous playing is a particular show stopper.  His expressive command of the fretless bass pushes and pulls “Sons of Pioneers” across its landscape, as the song takes its time unfolding, enjoying its own groove.  I’m including the live (from the posthumous live record, 1983’s Oil on Canvas) and studio versions because they both kick ass in their own spacious and patient ways, although there is an urgent edge to the live performance.  The concept-y concert footage shows a superlative Japan in its swansong, Jansen with his world beat and Barbieri sino-spacing out the proceedings on keyboards, Karn transporting himself magically sideways and Sylvian, dapper glam hand ever in pocket, delivering the riddles.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Subterranean Homesick Alien” by Radiohead

radiohead - EditedThe figure “singing from the window in the Mission of the Sacred Heart” in ELO’s “Mission (A World Record)”, last week’s soundstreamsunday entry, could be the uptight narrator of Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” from the band’s 1997 tour-de-force OK Computer.  As if in mirrored conversation, those two songs, separated in time by over 20 years but perhaps closer than they appear — in their beam-me-up guitar melodies, keyboarded grandeur and darkening moods — are to me joined at their metaphoric sci-fi hips.

Radiohead’s confidence on OK Computer, in both the intense alienation of the fragmented lyrics and the band’s break with the walls and squalls of mid-90s guitar rock, is a subtle swagger ripe with end-of-the-millenia decaying beauty.  It’s a prog goth triumph, reaching in its many directions to locate the mood of its time, a burred gloaming richly unsettled.  It’s also, I was reminded when listening again to it recently, funny, in the same way that Forever Changes is, or Fight Club, or a mad prophet preaching the end times.  There’s just no telling what the next turn will be, but there is a willful design, and so the satisfaction of a wicked lyric or the resolution of a majestic melodic sequence prompts a smile or a laugh.  The parts come together, a human victory, a denial of the end even as it’s being trumpeted.

The internally rhyming title of “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” a riff on a Dylan masterpiece (and, further back, a Kerouac novel), feels tossed off on the one hand but also maybe the only choice given its narrator’s painting a scene of alien surveillance and his desire, that he be taken “on board their beautiful ship, show me the world as I’d love to see it.”  He’s maybe one of them, maybe wants to be one of them, but who They are is undetermined and in any case moot: the point is homesickness for a place that has to be better, with the “breath of the morning” and the “smell of the warm summer air.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.