Rick’s Quick Takes for May

As always, purchase links are embedded in each artist/title listing; playlists/videos/samples follow the review.

Artemis, In Real Time: This second album delivers on the promise and potential of Artemis’ 2020 debut. As I recently discovered in concert, here’s a jazz sextet with a forceful front line (Nicole Glover and Alexa Tarantino on woodwinds, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet) and an assertive rhythm section (founder Renee Rosnes on piano, Noriko Ueda on bass, Allison Miller on drums) that revels in both challenging and collaborating with each other. Whether hurtling through the post-bop twists of Miller’s “Bow and Arrow” and Jensen’s “Timber”, reaching for the skies on Ueda’s open-hearted “Lights Away From Home” or tenderly exploring Rosnes’ spacious ballads “Balance Of Time” and “Empress Afternoon” — not to mention their unique spins on tunes by departed giants Lyle Mays and Wayne Shorter — this is a group of top-rank players that mesh marvelously as an ensemble, delivering a whole lot of serious, elegant fun.

Brian Dunne, Loser on the Ropes: It’s true that I wouldn’t have come across this New Jersey-born, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter if my nephew hadn’t played drums for his recent tour. But I’m glad I did! Dunne’s vivid lyrics — questing, skeptical, bemused, and poignant all at once — hitch a ride on his insistent verbal rhythms, catchy melodies and tightly constructed tunes, sung with his direct, inviting voice to impressive effect. He rocks out on “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” and “Bad Luck” and whips up midtempo singalongs on “It’s A Miracle” and “Optimist,” slowing down for more reflective efforts like the title track and the closer “Something to Live For”. There are sonic echoes of mid-period Dire Straits and (inevitably?) 1980s Springsteen, but this is fresh, thoughtful music with both forthright appeal and subtle intensity, well worth hearing.

Bill Evans, Treasures: from the late 1950s to his premature demise in 1980, Bill Evans changed jazz piano forever with what Miles Davis called his “quiet fire”, reshaping the piano trio format as a conversation of equals in the process. The latest in a rich harvest of archival discoveries from jazz detective Zev Feldman and his compatriots, Treasures captures Evans’ steady, probing artistic growth in the late 1960s via a series of visits to Denmark. Whether captured solo, in full flight with various bassists and drummers, or even at a heart of a suite for big band and orchestra, Evans is consistently engaged, shaping jazz standards, rarified pop tunes and his own compositions into things of sheer beauty with his intense lyricism and sense of swing. As good an introduction to this titan of the genre as any!

Guardians of the Galaxy, Awesome Mix, Vol. 3: Fair warning: this semi-soundtrack to the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster probably won’t give children of 1970s radio like me the same nostalgia buzz as the first two volumes of Awesome Mix. Sure, there are still great throwbacks from Heart, Rainbow, Earth Wind & Fire, Alice Cooper and Bruuuce; but this time around they share playlist space with the American slacker punk (X, The Replacements) rock-rap (Beastie Boys, Faith No More), and post-indie dream pop (Florence and the Machine) that followed over the decades. So it’s a more diffuse experience, with tracks that are actually eminently forgettable (Spacehog? The Mowgli’s?) — not to mention a missed opportunity for a prog shout-out. On the other hand, any compilation that includes The Flaming Lips’ hospice anthem “Do You Realize?” and EHAMIC’s “Koinu No Carnival” — Chopin filtered through an electronica mixmaster! — deserves at least a listen, and possibly space on your shelf or hard drive.

Marillion, Seasons End Deluxe Edition: The final reissue in the set of Los Marillos’ eight EMI albums, boxed up in typically comprehensive fashion. Layering his and John Helmer’s words atop the veteran band’s latest soundscapes (often repurposed from a futile final effort at working with original vocalist Fish), new boy Steve Hogarth brought it all back home with melodies that tacked closer to folksong than operatic recitative and scenarios that evoked slice-of-life drama as well as existential soliloquies. In retrospect, Seasons End was just the start of H-era Marillion’s evolution, but the end result still rocks hard, smart and sharp after all these years, from the atmospheric intro of “The King of Sunset Town” to the unnerving claustrophobia of closer “The Space”. In addition to a remix of the 1989 original, we get b-sides, demos and early versions of multiple album tracks — plus three high-energy live sets (audio and video from 1990, plus 2022’s British Marillion Weekend) and two documentaries on the CD Blu-Ray version. Like the entire series, this re-release is great listening and great value for money. (And deluxe boxes of post-EMI albums have been promised by manager Lucy Jordache. Stay tuned …)

Paul Simon, Seven Psalms: Designed as a unified song-cycle to be heard in its entirety (it’s one 33-minute track on CD and streaming audio), Simon’s new work is a dreamlike meditation unlike anything else in his catalog. His subdued voice and acoustic guitar carry the musical weight, hinting at gospel, folk and blues as the suite unfurls, with ambience courtesy of composer Harry Partch’s “cloud chamber bowls”, British choir Voces8 and full orchestra. Anything but orthodox, metaphor-packed portraits of “The Lord” — who Simon compares to, among other things, a virus, a virgin forest and a record producer — become a recurring theme, punctuating scattered thoughts on life past and present. Scattered, that is, until the finale “Wait” (“I’m not ready/I’m just packing my gear”), where Simon abruptly, delicately drills down to our common endpoint. Ruminating on what’s been becomes a stoic stock-taking of what we’ve become, a bracing reminder of what awaits us all — and, just possibly, a call to hope in what might lie beyond. Subtle and devastatingly effective, Seven Psalms is a momento mori for the Boomer generation — and for anybody else with ears to hear.

U.K., Curtain Call: When keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson locked in with guitar genius Allan Holdsworth and the then-defunct King Crimson’s rhythm section — John Wetton on bass & vocals, Bill Bruford drumming — sparks flew thick and fast. U.K.’s 1978 debut album was a sleek, captivating blend of progressive rock and jazz fusion; 1979’s Danger Money slimmed down to a more focused power trio as Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio replaced Bruford and Wetton’s writing veered toward proto-Asia pomp-rock. The inevitable semi-reunion happened in the 2010s, with Jobson coming off a productive career in film and TV scoring and Wetton rebounding from a hard-fought battle with substance abuse for a extraordinary final run. Joined here in 2013 by hot young virtuosos Alex Machacek (guitar) and Marco Minnemann (drums), the duo triumphantly roar through U.K.’s complete repertoire to an enthusiastic Tokyo crowd. From the crash/bash technoflash of “In the Dead of Night”, “Alaska/Time To Kill” and “Carrying No Cross” to the glowering, tasty tension of “Thirty Years” and Rendezvous 6:02″, this foursome whips up a level of excitement and energy that was unstoppable on the night and remains irresistible on disc. Now remastered and reissued by Jobson in tribute to his late partner, this reasonably priced video (on BluRay & DVD with a bonus audio Blu-Ray) is an immensely satisfying summation for long-time fans, and a glimpse of what the fuss was all about for curious newbies.

Yes, Mirror to the Sky: After the stodgy fiasco that was Heaven & Earth and the modest charm of The Quest, Steve Howe and the rest of Yes’ current line-up actually raise a ruckus this time around. Large helpings of vocal and instrumental interplay in the grand tradition, plenty of fresh, arresting guitar licks by Howe, and lots of splendidly evocative harmonies from Jon Davison and Billy Sherwood make Mirror to the Sky a real pleasure to hear. If you expect the peak inspiration and combustible drive of Yes’ classic era, you’ll be disappointed, but this release is a convincing mix of extended epics like the title track and proggy pop like the singles “Cut from the Stars” and “All Connected”, with only the bonus disc’s “Magic Potion” sounding like a dud to my ears. For me, the most enjoyable new Yes album since 1999’s The Ladder. Check out Time Lord’s review here.

— Rick Krueger

Album Review: Yes, ‘Mirror to the Sky’

I pre-ordered the new Yes album, Mirror to the Sky, hoping it would show up today (Friday, May 19, 2023) for the official day of release. But on Tuesday this week, something really weird happened. Amazon delivered a giant cardboard box, the size of a microwave oven, onto my front door step. Baffled as to what could be inside, I opened it up. It was empty, with nothing in it, expect for a handful of tiny air-filled plastic cushions that scarcely made a dent into the empty space. But there, right beneath them, in the far corner of the box, was the Mirror to the Sky 2-CD set!

I don’t know why the new Yes album showed up early in such bizarre fashion, but I like to speculate. Maybe a fellow Yes fan, working at Amazon, sent the album out early to me in secret solidarity: maybe items receive extra fast shipping, if the big box functions to indicate a high-margin, top-priority item. Or maybe the algorithm controlling the shipping had achieved sentience and decided autonomously to prioritize the Yes shipments, because of course any sentient AI truly worthy of its name would, after surveying all the digitized music in the world, undoubtedly become an aficionado of Yes music.

Or maybe there was just a screw-up. Who cares! It got me the Yes discs early, which meant I could digest them with advance special treatment in order to write this review. Usually I listen to music in my car (where I can turn it up as loud as I like) or through ear buds (during daily exercise). Only rarely do I actually put a CD into that ancient device in the living room known as a stereo system. Sure, it has the best sound, but who has time to sit around like a teenager doing nothing else but listen to vinyl LPs?

Reader, I made the time. The early arrival was a message from the sky that I had to immerse myself in this record. Just like the good old days, when there was no demand on your time—just a copy of The Yes Album or Fragile or Close to the Edge on the turntable. I gave Mirror to the Sky the special treatment, following along with the accompanying booklet, reading every line of lyrics as it was sung.

During instrumental passages, I was silently thrilled to read in the liner notes about exactly which guitars Steve Howe used on each track! The info here is so precise, it tells you exactly what time codes Jon Davison is playing acoustic guitar, or exactly when the orchestra comes in. I absolutely love it, and I volunteer to write liner notes for Yes or any other band after they get me to interview their musicians about what pedals and other gear they used on every track. I can’t recall the last time I listened to a new album this way, with album cover and liner notes carefully caressed by the trembling hand of the true collector. But if any band deserves it, surely it is Yes, a band that introduced me early on to such wondrous arcana. This is the way.

Despite what you may have heard, I don’t think you can believe the hype. I reserve the right to change my opinion after many more days of listening (because I recall hating ABWH at first, only to reverse that absurd reaction 180 degrees soon after), but I don’t think Mirror to the Sky is on equal footing with the three classics I named earlier, or with any other of their very best albums. We can save that debate for another day, but I would also include Drama, 90125, and The Ladder.

Production-wise, this is Steve Howe’s baby, and I can understand his urgent fervor at 76 years of age to assume control and make no compromises regarding his musical legacy as it enters its final stage. (I note that Mirror to the Sky is lovingly dedicated to Alan White.) But what makes The Ladder great is an outside ear, and Bruce Fairbairn gave that disc a unique flavor—a fact which Steve Howe agrees with me on, since we discussed this very point at the Yes VIP Meet and Greet in Vancouver, Canada, which was where the album was recorded. Another essential ingredient for capturing the full energy of a band is to have them all live on the studio floor together. But a band-produced outing, without the outside ear that will argue for another take with more verve, or without a one-take wonder live off the studio floor, runs the risk of sounding like a collection of demos.

(Also, a producer wouldn’t let Steve Howe sing lead or duets. But Howe is excellent when he does classic Yes background vocals with Billy Sherwood or Chris Squire. By the way, I can’t get enough of Sherwood singing lead: he has the ability to sound like Peter Gabriel, which Arc of Life takes advantage of on many an occasion. But Howe is the producer, so we hear him loud and clear on this release, where I would have chosen more Sherwood.)

That’s really the worst I can say about Mirror to the Sky, because this album in fact sounds amazing—I just found myself imagining what these songs would sound like live, because that is the Yes that I know and love. Sure, their albums are amazing, but that’s because they can actually play all that crazy shit live too.

So let’s get right down to it. Yes fans will be hypercritical and debate this versus that, just because we can. None of it is a knock on the world’s greatest band. It’s just a way of expressing how much time and thought we devote to meditating on the beautiful musical experiences Yes gives to us. I can lay my cards quickly on the table, and then we can compare notes.

The best track is “Mirror to the Sky,” which is no doubt why it is the title track. Despite my earlier remarks about non-equal footing, this track does in fact achieve entrance into the Yes pantheon. It is destined to be ranked among all their very best songs. And I can only dream of what it sound like live. Because I know it will be a dream come true. I hope I get the chance to hear it someday.

Two more tracks off the album also achieve the highest rank. “Luminosity” and “Circles of Time” are both stunning. Each is achingly beautiful in its own special way. As I listened to these tracks, I realized that Jon Davison has consolidated his place in the history of this band as one of its giants. Just as we would find it foolish to denigrate one giant at the expense of another (Bill Bruford vs. Alan White, or Rick Wakeman vs. Geoff Downes, or Trevor Rabin vs. Steve Howe), so too must we admit Davison is one of this band’s giants, no less so than Anderson.

Now on to the lesser tracks. Sure, “Cut from the Stars” has that nimble Billy Sherwood tribute to Chris Squire, but it still sounds to my ear like 3/5 Arc of Life and 2/5 Yes. (Which is no criticism, since I classify Arc of Life as truly Yes, and no less so than ABWH.) Still, the hippy-dippy lyrics are ambiguous: one day they sound to me like loving homage to Jon Anderson (he of “shiny flying purple wolfhounds” et cetera), but another day they sound like an SNL parody of Yes. I guess that “All Connected” strikes me the same way: it’s inspired by the best Yes music of ages past, in the same way that Arc of Life is inspired, but not quite there yet in the upper echelon of Yes achievements.

None of this is a negative evaluation, because even lesser tracks on a Yes album are better than anything you will hear elsewhere. I’m just insisting that “Cut from the Stars” and “All Connected” are the lesser tracks, and they do not reach the highest levels of Yes achievement, which “Mirror to the Sky,” “Luminosity,” and “Circles of Time” all do. Those three tracks make this the best Yes album since The Ladder or Magnification. (Fly from Here has a top-notch title track, just like Mirror to the Sky, but it also has some lesser material too, just like Mirror to the Sky.)

I appreciate Yes striving to make a classic LP-length statement. Mirror to the Sky is a perfect 47 minutes long. That’s why I fully support the decision to have a second CD with three bonus songs, even if they could all be on one disc. By making a second disc, the band is making a principled artistic statement: disc one is the album and disc two has the bonus tracks.

And for Mirror to the Sky, this makes sense, because disc one has the unifying thread of the use of a studio orchestra on all six tracks. Disc two, however, has no orchestra, and the songs are all written by Steve Howe, unlike the first disc, where everything has collaborations with at least two band members, except for the solo-scribed Jon Davison masterpiece, “Circles of Time.”

But let’s be honest, the Downes-Howe collaboration “Living Out Their Dream” is the worst of the six tracks. If I were the producer on this Yes album, or I could be pulling rank on them at the record company, I would have replaced “All Connected” with “Unknown Place,” which is truly a killer track. That’s no doubt why it is placed first on the second disc. The amazing keyboard and organ work by Geoff Downes is a real highlight, and the sonorous organ pedals blow you away so much that you wanna get up and get down.

Also, I would have swapped “One Second is Enough” for “Living Out Their Dream.” “One Second is Enough” has Steve Howe shredding away in glory, and at key points I think the track even invokes some memories of “Tempus Fugit” off of Drama. The only filler seems to be “Magic Potion,” but hey, not every Yes track is equal in magic.

But “Mirror to the Sky” brings us right back to the old magic. And that’s why you cannot miss out on Mirror to the Sky.

For, in the end, every band must be weighed. And finally answer to Yes!

Album Review: The Anderson Council, ‘The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon’

Syd Barrett named Pink Floyd after two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. But it took The Anderson Council to finish the job, by composing their own name from what remained. Although PF has faded away in acrimony, The Anderson Council keeps the retro vibe alive and well. They have persistently maintained the genre of psychedelic power pop, so that it won’t simply be hidden away in a time capsule. But on their new record, The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon, the band grows and advances in an interesting way, while still delivering their customary fab harmonies and energetic pop-rock.

Standout tracks include the Peter Horvath collaborations with songstress Dawn Eden Goldstein, “Alone with You” and “Times on the Thames.” Both are classic written-for-radio pop gems that would merit inclusion on Voyager’s record of Earth’s audio archetypes. Previous songs written by this nascent Lennon/McCartney-like team include “Camden Town” on Worlds Collide (2019) and “Girl on the Northern Line” [song by Goldstein, arrangement by Horvath] on Assorted Colours (2016).

Assorted Colours provides a nice overview of the band’s early catalogue. While four of the songs were new, there were also three songs each from their earliest discs: Coloursound (2001), The Fall Parade (2006), and Looking at the Stars (2012). Thus, some of their best songs were conveniently compiled in one place: “Never Stop Being ’67” (2001), “Pinkerton’s Assorted Colors”, (2006) and “We’re Like the Sun” (2012). Even so, everything The Anderson Council does is golden, because they consistently draw inspiration from the sounds of the 60s that they refuse to let die.

Yet this is what makes the new album so interesting. While largely adhering to their trusty playbook, the band branches out in a way that bears witness to their continued growth as a tight musical unit. The first track, “Tarot Toronto,” made me think of Fountains of Wayne, and therefore seemed to signal an increased willingness to draw positive musical influences from any era.

I had a grade school friend with whom I always exchanged vinyl LPs. He insisted, “You know, there’s a song about everything. You just have to keep listening until you find it.” So, I smiled when I heard The Anderson Council’s “Buying a House” on The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon. It may be only 1:51 long, but it is yet more fulfillment of that teenage prophecy.

Standout tracks on the new album include “Messes Up My Mind” and “Jump Right In.” While the former is a clear example of The Anderson Council at their concise best, the latter is a song that extends to be about twice the length of the band’s usual tune. It revels in a sonic richness that makes it a perfect completion to the album.

Also not to be missed is “Sunday Afternoon,” which even includes a magical sing-along chorus at the end and then a killer guitar solo for the outro. All together, the disc works very well as your summer soundtrack for 2023. Whether it’s blasting from your convertible at the beach, or making people dance at the BBQ picnic, The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon offers 39 minutes of happy times. And that’s just groovy, baby.

Peter Horvath — Vocals, Guitars 
Simon Burke — Bass Guitar, Vocals 
Michael Potenza — Guitars, Vocals 
Scott Jones — Drums and Percussion

We’re Number — Fourteen?!?!

Tooting our own horn here . . . Progarchy has made Feedspot’s list of “30 Best Progressive Rock Blogs and Websites”, winding up in the #14 spot “ranked by traffic, social media followers & freshness”.

Kinda cool to be on the same list with such well-respected sites as The Prog Report (#1), The Progressive Aspect (#5), Strawberry Bricks (#9), Prog Magazine (#11) and DPRP (#13). Thanks to everyone who helped make it happen! Check out the complete list here.

(And yeah, this is from an obscure for-profit aggregator site that’s aimed at getting you to purchase access to their complete lists for marketing purposes. And for all we know, it’s entirely compiled & written by bots. Still.)

Rick’s Quick Takes for April

(As always, purchase links are included in the artist/title listing, with available online audio/video following.)

This month’s favorites:

The Zombies, Different Game. Led by singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent, The Zombies notched three hit singles (“She’s Not There”, “Tell Her No” & “Time of the Season”) and a noted album of psychedelia (the misspelled, wildly adored Odessey and Oracle) back in the 1960s. This fourth effort since their late-90s reunion is my unexpected album of the month: a mesmerizing mix of the Baroque, the blues, witty lyrics worthy of the Great American Songbook and pile-driving soul. Argent’s compact yet ambitious songwriting is at a peak here: check out the elegiac, Bach-meets-John Lee Hooker title track; the doo-wop harmonies of “Rediscover”; the Motown/Steely Dan workouts of “Runaway” and “Merry-Go-Round”; the forlorn, string-laden balladry of “If You Would Be My Love” and “I Want to Fly”. And Blunstone can still stir up a furious storm with his R&B-inflected shouting or calm troubled waters with his cool serenity, frequently in the same tune! Mostly cut live in the studio, this is rock classicism at its finest; don’t miss it.

Nickel Creek, Celebrants. On their first outing in nine years, the progressive bluegrass trio riffs off an unlikely source to stunning effect. Inspired by the Beach Boys’ unfinished modular masterpiece SMiLE, mandolinist Chris Thile, violinist Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins conceived this album as a suite, with songs and instrumentals interconnected by recurring melodies and lyrics. The result flows brilliantly from beginning to end, impelled by these technically formidable, yet invitingly inventive players; the music moves like a flash from supple chamber textures (“The Meadow”) to propulsive rock (“Where the Long Line Leads”), through pensive slices of life (“To the Airport”) to hard-pickin’ instrumentals (such as the widely separated bookends “Going Out . . . Despite the Weather”). And that’s to say nothing of the trio’s thrilling, acrobatic vocal work, both solo and in harmony. Nickel Creek opens my local outdoor amphitheater this summer — and I, for one, can’t wait to hear what they do with this material!

London Brew. As with so much floating in the atmosphere of early 2020, this concept (a London concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ groundbreaking fusion album Bitches Brew) mutated along with COVID-19. Instead, we got something that’s arguably better — a dozen of the hottest young British jazzers jamming for three days in the studio, inspired by Miles’ ideas but whipping up a double-length set of free playing that’s more a seething maelstrom than a reverent tribute. Saxophonists Shabaka Hutchings (Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming) and Nubya Garcia are probably most familiar to American listeners. along with drummer Tom Skinner (Sons of Kemet, Radiohead side project The Smile). Their fluidly molten lines and explosive grooves are core elements of this stormy music — but so are Nick Ramm and Nikolaj Torp Larsen’s floating keyboards, Martin Terefe and Dave Okumu’s boundary-bursting guitars, Raven Bush’s arcing violin, Theon Cross’ pumping tuba, and the volatile rhythm section of Tom Herbert and Dan See. The end result spins unpredictably between open, spacious textures and unstoppable torrents of furious sound, delivering 90 minutes of inspired, spectacularly unclassifiable music that never doubles back on itself.

This month’s jazz:

Chick Corea, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (reissue). thanks to the no-frills Dutch reissue label Music On CD for bringing back this 1968 gem; arguably the first great album in Corea’s mind-boggling discography, it’s a near-perfect blend of lyricism and experimentation, simultaneously honoring and stretching the jazz tradition of the time. Teaming up with bassist Miroslav Vitous (later of Weather Report) and legendary drummer Roy Haynes, Corea weaves seamlessly through classic early compositions (“Matrix”, “Windows”), standards (Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica”, “My One and Only Love”) and in-the-moment improvisations (the bulk of the original album and the additional session tracks included here). Laced with snatches of iconic Corea moments to come, this is also a solid, satisfying record in its own right.

Rickie Lee Jones, Buried Treasures. You can argue that Jones was always a jazz singer, even on her folk-inflected debut smash and her cinematic follow-up Pirates. (And hey, if Bob Dylan can sing songs made famous by Frank Sinatra . . .) Reunited with her original producer Russ Titelman and fronting a wonderfully sympathetic instrumental quartet plus horns, Jones lovingly leans into ten classic pre-rock songs, her inimitable voice gently caressing the melodies, her sparky gift for bringing the words and sentiments she sings to life blissfully intact. Hushed and intimate, but with rough edges in all the right places, Buried Treasures lives up to its title – and then some.

Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra, Lightning Dreamers. The latest from Chicago’s headily progressive jazz label International Anthem. Take trumpeter/composer Mazurek’s programmatic depictions of South American landscapes married to the free-form poetry of Damon Locks; add Gerald Cleaver and Mauricio Takara’s sturdy, hip-hop inflected percussion, Jeff Parker’s liquid post-rock guitar, and the atmospheric keys of Craig Taborn and Angelica Sanchez; then run the whole thing through a mixmaster of electronic treatments. Listen to this music with open ears, and you may come out the other side looking at the world around you with new eyes, too. A celebratory, cathartic experience.

This month’s veteran (cosmic?) rockers:

Jethro Tull, RökFlöte. After his revisionist take on the Bible on last year’s The Zealot Gene, Ian Anderson turns his gimlet eye on the old Norse gods, with 12 new songs that portray that mythology’s pantheon and flesh out present day cultural parallels — all in strict poetic meters, no less! The music is welcoming and nimble, often reminding me of classical or Celtic tunes I can’t quite place; Anderson’s flute work is wickedly sharp and his back-up band (including new guitarist Joe Parrish-James) give each tune plenty of oomph. And while Anderson can’t attack this material with the vocal gusto and range he had in Tull’s heyday, he’s learned how to cannily work with his limitations to pull the listener into each vignette. Reminiscent of the Songs from the Wood/Heavy Horses era of Tull, this will charm long-time fans while holding open possibilities for broader appeal.

Stephen Stills, Live at Berkeley 1971. The latest fuel for my ongoing Crosby Stills Nash & Young fixation. No wonder they called Stills “Captain Many Hands”; two-thirds of this archival set feature the man holding an audience of 3,500 spellbound with just his voice, guitar, piano and banjo (oh, and David Crosby chipping in harmonies on two songs). Which makes the impact of the full band finale even stronger, as a six-piece group plus the Memphis Horns power Stills’ singing to soulful heights (while sounding remarkably proggy in the 7/4 section of the epic “Cherokee”). With impressive tunes spanning a broad spectrum of roots music and superb musicianship throughout, this set offers a valuable chance to hear a now-underrated American master at his best.

The Who with Orchestra, Live at Wembley. In 2019, I attended the first concert of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend’s foray into playing with a full-blown orchestra; recorded six months afterwards, this double set is now released in advance of The Who taking their symphonic show across Britain this summer. The bugs of that opening night had definitely been ironed out by the time they got to London; the orchestral backing on their “greatest hits plus a couple new tunes” set hits hard consistently, reaching majestic heights on the extended suite from Quadrophenia. And if Daltrey and Townshend’s voices are showing their age at long last, their gutsy commitment to the material triumphs over any moments that reveal the wear and tear. Still, the highlight of the show for me remains the duo’s acoustic duet on the evergreen “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, with Townshend supplying an introduction that pokes holes in any lingering political pretensions: “You provide the [expletive deleted] activism; we’ll provide the soundtrack.”

Box Set of the Month:

Blackfield, An Accident of Stars – 2004-2017. Customer service alerts first: the “limited one-time pressing” of this CD-based set, collecting Steven Wilson and Aviv Geffen’s first five albums under the Blackfield banner plus live audio and video is already sold out, though Amazon and indie stores like Michigan’s Dearborn Music are listing stray copies as available. Oh, and there’s a technical glitch with the included BluRay, which won’t play in American and Asian players. (Though purchasers can get a free replacement BluRay via press@snappermusic.co.uk) All that aside, Blackfield made a whole bunch of gorgeously doomy art pop in those 13 years, with Wilson and Geffen’s vocals adding salty, sour, spicy notes to their melancholy, string-laden soundscapes. While the debut Blackfield album is still my favorite, albums II and V really aren’t that far behind in quality – and there’s good stuff to be found on the lesser albums as well (all available individually through Burning Shed or Bandcamp). So if this piques your curiosity, go for selected highlights – or the complete set! (But be forewarned — KScope has announced a similarly limited box of early Pineapple Thief albums for June release, and a set of Wilson’s No-Man albums with Tim Bowness is rumored to be in the works. So start saving your shekels now . . .)

–Rick Krueger

Big Big Train, Ingenious Devices (pre-order)

Big Big Train has made the pre-order of Ingenious Devices available at Bandcamp.

Head on over there to support them, ideally on the next Bandcamp Friday (May 5), so they can obtain maximum cash flow.

The band explains the upcoming touring situation in their Bandcamp pre-order note:

PLEASE NOTE: Ingenious Devices will be released on 30th June 2023 (NOT on 9th June). We have setup this pre-order earlier than usual to generate some income to help us with touring costs later this year. We will be on tour in August and September but many of our touring costs will fall in the next four months and we will not receive income from the tour until the autumn. 

Ingenious Devices consists of new versions of East Coast Racer, Brooklands and Voyager, which prominently feature an elite 17-piece string section recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. 

With the exception of the late David Longdon’s lead vocals, which have been compiled from the original album sessions, East Coast Racer is a completely new studio version recorded by the line-up of the band as it was in 2019. Brooklands features newly recorded drums, bass and bass pedals, while Voyager includes additional guitar and violin. All three songs have been re-mixed for this release and all the audio is presented at 24/96. 

Ingenious Devices also includes a previously unreleased orchestral piece called The Book of Ingenious Devices, which links East Coast Racer and Brooklands. 

BBT’s Gregory Spawton explains: “I was always happy with the original recorded version of East Coast Racer, but re-arranging the song to feature a full string section gave ECR a further lift. The new recording also features Dave Gregory’s guitar solo on the closing section, a solo which has only previously featured on live performances of the song. I am pleased we now have the definitive studio version on Ingenious Devices. The timing of this release also deliberately ties in with the 85th anniversary of the Mallard’s speed record which inspired the lyric. 

“By contrast, I was never entirely satisfied with Brooklands and felt it got a bit overlooked on the Folklore album. The Abbey Road strings have significantly enhanced the song and I’m delighted with the outcome. The additional track, The Book Of Ingenious Devices was composed to act as a segue between East Coast Racer and Brooklands and I like the way the tracks now flow into each other. The changes to Voyager are more subtle but still elevate the song beyond the version on our Grand Tour album.” 

Ingenious Devices also features a live performance of Atlantic Cable, recorded at Friars, Aylesbury in September 2022. 

New BBT vocalist Alberto Bravin comments: “Atlantic Cable was recorded at our second show of the tour last year. It’s not an easy song to play at all and we were both amazed and relieved that we pulled it off so well. I experienced a real baptism of fire playing that show in front of over 1,000 passionate BBT fans, but their response to the song and the rest of our live set that night was truly motivating.” 

Nick D’Virgilio says: “Ingenious Devices is a great way of uniting four of Big Big Train’s epic songs about technology. The album also celebrates the wonderful vocals of our late, great friend David Longdon on East Coast Racer, Brooklands and Voyager and looks forward to the future with Alberto putting in such a great performance on Atlantic Cable.” 

The Unexpected Religious, Psychedelic Rock of The Electric Prunes

The title alone may have made you unsure if this is the kind of music for you or weary of any music put out by these apparent galvanic fruits. However, I’m here to tell you that The Electric Prunes have some incredibly notable psychedelic rock opera songs that will quite literally bring you closer to the Heavens. The Electric Prunes are better known for their consistent and classic ’60s rock ‘n’ roll sound; “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” is a great example of this through the band’s garage punk vibe. “Onie” is another certified ’60s classic from the group, and a personal favorite of mine because of its iconic, delicate, and melancholic sound.

However, through the name of The Electric Prunes, composer David Axelrod created some of the most unique, spiritual, and coolest psychedelic rock. The songs I’ll be covering are from an EP and album that were sort of unnecessary, but intentional additions to the discography of The Electric Prunes. Personally, I think they are fascinating creations by Axelrod and worthy of praise by fans of psych. The following songs consist of delectable and extraordinary blends of R&B, rock, psychedelica, Gregorian music, soul, and jazz. So, get ready for a spiritual awakening of sorts.

Mass in F Minor was the EP that started this short, but very interesting phase for the band. It consists of six tracks which are entirely sung in Latin, and is almost thirty minutes of a psychedelic mass. What you’ll notice throughout the songs is the authenticity of Gregorian chant and its use of what is known as “stepwise motion”. Stepwise motion is when each note in a melody moves up or down a single note. It creates this singular and uniform sound, making this EP a respectable piece to this medieval craft. In addition, drummer Michael Weakly stabilizes a jazzy feel by holding all of the other musicians’ instrumental parts together. Interestingly enough, this release was sort of the start of the decline of The Electric Prunes due to their inability to keep up with their producer David Hassinger’s demands for the EP. The band played on every track, however, session musicians were brought in and, in a sense, took over the project. As unfortunate as this was for the band members, some great music was created. David Axelrod is really the genius behind this concept and why it works so well; he wrote and arranged everything. Axelrod’s style shines brightly throughout, creating such a solid set of confident and holistic tracks. Stripping it down to the basics: the blend of the vocals, electric guitar, drums, bass, and organ form this cadence that really itches the part of my brain that adores the aesthetics of the past.

Cover art for Mass in F minor EP

The opening track: “Kyrie Eleison”, better known from cult classic film Easy Rider, is sung boldly and outspokenly by lead singer James Lowe. I think Lowe did a great job on all the tracks—he really added so much mystique and graveness. There’s a point in the song when Lowe’s vocals are isolated. You really get immersed in it all because he truly sounds like a man of religious order, strongly citing a sacred chant for a congregation to hear. This song, along with the others, have a signature ’60s rock sound mixed with music that goes back hundreds of years. Without his superb vocals, I would not be transported to a daydream of ancient ceremony and royal garbs. The simple guitar riff and drum combo as soon as the song starts is cool and collected. The guitar reverb is essential in creating that dreamy, psychedelic effect. Every time I hear it, I can’t help but sway. Another cool thing in the song is this brief guitar rendition of the song “My Favorite Things.” Guitarist Ken Williams plays this demented version of it for just a few seconds towards the end of the song.

The song “Credo” is my favorite example of the use of stepwise motion. The song starts off pretty regular and then it jumps to this faster pace cadence with Lowe’s vocals leading a fleet of instruments. It is only a small portion of the song, but it is so catchy. Lowe is surfing off that singular melody with a massive wave of instruments behind him. The rest of the song is pure instrumental rock ‘n’ roll with subtle trickles of allure.

My personal favorite song is the last one off the EP titled “Agnus Dei”. This song starts and ends with so much confidence. I can see David Axelrod’s vision so clearly with how he arranged and directed this piece. This song does not quiver or feel unsure of itself, but instead almost stands on its own as this beautifully written piece. The fusion of stringed instruments and electric guitar blend with grand conviction. In the beginning, Lowe sings the title of the song and after a momentary pause the stringed instruments emerge gracefully. Then, the rock ‘n’ roll begins: Weakly starts things off with a simple groove, and then, the iconic, echoing reverb of the electric guitar takes over. The unification of the orchestra and rock is one of my favorite parts of the song. I can’t help but get lost in the music. Midway through is this instrumental tunnel the musicians take you into. It’s Williams’ guitar and the strings surfing through this cosmic echo chamber that I never want to leave. Ultimately, this song is solid throughout and unwavering.

Listen to “Agnus Dei”—my favorite song from this EP

Not too long after Mass in F minor, their next album, Release of an Oath was released. It is the same concept as its predecessor with its religious undertones intertwined with rock and jazz fusions. This album is centered more around R&B type tunes and is sung entirely in English. At this point, the original Electric Prunes had disbanded. The musicians playing on this album are an entirely new set of people. It was kind of sad to learn that this was not the original band nor was it done in the true spirit of The Electric Prunes, however, some truly unique music was born in the process; there is no doubt about that. Just like the previous release, Axelrod created a solid set of songs that matched one another very nicely. The instrumentals are an easy listen for all fans of psych, so it’s a no brainer to check this album out. My favorite parts of this album are the drums and keyboard.

David Axelrod, the man behind Mass in F minor and Release of an Oath

“Holy Are You” is the most recognized song from the album, and rightfully so, because this song is absolutely timeless. The beginning, middle, and end take you on this beautifully mastered journey. Within the first minute of the song we go from a simple keyboard and vocal combo to a groovy R&B beat. The percussion in this track is incredible. It is no wonder this song has been sampled many times by Rap and Hip-Hop artists. (Sidenote, “Respect Mine” by Fat Joe is a perfect example of a great song that sampled “Holy Are You”). Drummers, Earl Palmer, Gary Coleman, and Richard Whetstone elevate the song entirely and are the reason the song is such a contemporary tour de force, in my opinion. With every groove and fill carrying the song to mastery, I can’t help but dance and sing along every time I hear it. A part I really love from the song is when you can hear the percussion, flute, bass, and keyboard create this enchanting jam. The keyboard adds this delightful twinkling sound to the mix that just whisks the listener away into an instrumental dream. And, of course, the insanely awesome guitar solo is another notable feat. Every note and every instrument in this song feels absolutely necessary and purposeful. I can not stress this enough: the unity of the orchestra, R&B, and electric guitar are perfect. This song is simply fantastic and is truly an example of Axelrod’s best.

Listen to this legendary R&B song “Holy Are You” by The Electric Prunes

The other song I want to briefly cover from this album is “Closing Hymn”. As you can tell from the title of the song, it is the final one on the album. I really enjoy the repetition in this track and the tune overall. Again, you have this killer drum beat that holds everything together and makes you want to dance along. Despite being such a simple note change from up to down and vice versa, keyboard Don Randi performs a wistful lulling effect through this. The dreamlike sound of the notes brushes you softly like the touch of flower petals and the subtle reverberation in the ending of the notes are a hollow, ethereal echo. It is such a pretty song and a great close to the album.

I learned a lot while writing this review, but I’m most excited about hearing more of David Axelrod’s works. I listened to a few of his solo works and I have to say I think I found another style of music that deeply resonates with me. He does such a great job blending genres together like I’ve never heard before. Even though this psychedelic gospel wasn’t what the original Electric Prunes had in mind, some truly special melodies were made in the process. David Axelrod did good in the name of The Electric Prunes. Thank you to all the musicians involved in these pieces and thank you for reading.

A huge thank you to The Electric Prunes website for all of this amazing information: http://www.electricprunes.com/