Rick’s Quick Takes: Lucky Man, the Autobiography by Greg Lake

by Rick Krueger

“ELP were often criticized for running an overblown or overproduced show … The Persian carpets are useful because they cover the crisscross of wires over the stage, reduce slippage, absorb some of the noise so you can hear each other play and — this is the prima donna part — they make you feel more comfortable and at home on stage.” (Emphasis mine.)

This quote, from page 160 of Lucky Man, was when I finally understood Greg Lake. In books like Keith Emerson’s memoir Pictures of an Exhibitionist and David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends, he usually comes off as pretentious, petulant, demanding and unsatisfied, the irrational antagonist to Emerson’s grand designs.  After Lake’s passing in late 2016, Sid Smith’s lovely obituary in Prog Magazine humanized him for me, and Lucky Man — while not a tell-all book like Emerson’s — completes the process. Underneath the aura of entitled celebrity Lake projected, the man got the cosmic joke.  He realized he was living the dream, he felt he’d worked hard to get there — but also that hard work wasn’t the whole story.  So he figured he might as well live the dream in high style.

Lake draws the veil over a lot — we don’t get the play-by-plays of tour debauchery that Emerson overshared, and the conflicts during the recording of Tarkus and the 1977 Works orchestra tour are stated but soft-pedaled.  What we do get is an outline of the classic rock and roll career — humble beginnings in Bournemouth, a wannabe pop star stint in London, success with King Crimson, and a ten year roller coaster ride to the top of the world and back down with ELP — all before he turned 35.  What do you do for an encore?

Here’s what I take away from Lucky Man: Lake realized lightning like that doesn’t strike twice.  He took opportunities when they came up (a brief 1980s solo career, a one-night stand with Asia to help out Carl Palmer,  the extended 1990s reunion of ELP and their final 2010 show, his Songs of a Lifetime tour), but he never put much faith in another climb to the pinnacle.  Working with and hearing great musicians obviously excited him — his stories of meeting the Shadows’ Hank Martin, seeing Elvis live in Vegas, touring with Ringo Starr and recording with the Who bring out his inner fan.   But in Crimson and ELP, Lake knew his standards and his boundaries, and he stuck to his guns, no matter the friction that resulted.  It was the music that mattered the most to him, and both Emerson and Palmer acknowledged that in retrospect.  With any worldly ambitions fulfilled so early in life, he could simply take pride in his accomplishments and find satisfaction in his family.

Which makes the end of Lucky Man, where Lake reflects on Keith Emerson’s suicide and his own terminal cancer diagnosis, even more poignant.  An Epicurean who enjoyed the high life in so many ways, the man’s final words provide a gracious, fitting coda to this surprisingly Stoic memoir:

“Without your love and encouragement the life I have lived would never have been possible.  I have been a lucky man.” 

Note: Lucky Man has only been published in Great Britain.  It’s available worldwide through Book Depository, which is based in the UK, owned by Amazon but operating independently.  They offer free worldwide shipping.  Here’s the link.

(This post is in loving memory of the late Joel Kimball, master of the Rickenbacker bass and the bagpipes at Alma College from 1980-1984.)

 

 

One CEO’s 50 (or so) favorite pop albums

seal1

Inspired by Brad’s fascinating and very New Wave-ish post “My 49 Favorite Pop Albums”, I decided to try my hand at listing the same. One difficulty, it turns out, is defining “pop”. Brad didn’t list Radiohead’s “OK Computer” (one of my Top 10 pop/rock albums) because he figured it was too proggy, which is hard to disagree with. But I have it in my list, and also included a couple more albums that are certainly in the realm of prog: “Queen II”, “Point of Know Return”, and “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”. But, on the whole, I think most everything here fits on the “pop” spectrum, even if it veers into rocky territory (Muse, Journey, Soundgarden) on occasion.

Also, I could have easily included several more albums by Sinatra and Torme, and I feel a bit guilty to not have anything by, say, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughn, Rosemary Clooney, or Nat King Cole. But I’ve tried to capture a certain breadth chronologically while being true to what I like and return to. And that is a key criteria: all of these are albums I revisit and never tire of.  Finally, it might be surprising that the only artist who shows up here three times is Seal. But no Beatles? Rolling Stones? Simon and Garfunkel? Lady GaGa? Go figure!

1950s-60s:
Frank Sinatra: IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS (1955)
Frank Sinatra: SONGS FOR SWINGIN’ LOVERS! (1956)
Mel Tormé: IT’S A BLUE WORLD (1956)
Roy Orbison: IN DREAMS (1963)
Mel Tormé: THAT’S ALL (1965)

1970s:
Van Morrison: MOONDANCE (1970)
Elton John: ELTON JOHN (1970)
Queen: QUEEN II (1974)
Queen: NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1975)
Kansas: POINT OF KNOW RETURN (1977)
Electric Light Orchestra: OUT OF THE BLUE (1977)

1980s:
Journey: ESCAPE (1981)
ABBA: THE VISITORS (1981)
Asia: ASIA (1982)
The Police: SYNCHRONICITY (1983)
Big Country: THE CROSSING (1983)
Mr. Mister: WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD (1985)
John Fogerty: CENTERFIELD (1985)
The Moody Blues: THE OTHER SIDE OF LIFE (1986)
Sting: NOTHING LIKE THE SUN (1987)
Pink Floyd: A MOMENTARY LAPSE OF REASON (1987)
Sam Phillips: THE INDESCRIBABLE WOW (1988)
Kate Bush: THE SENSUAL WORLD (1989)
Van Morrison: AVALON SUNSET (1989)

1990s:
The Choir: CIRCLE SLIDE (1990)
George Michael: LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE, VOL. 1 (1990)
U2: ACHTUNG BABY (1991)
Seal: SEAL (1991)
Tori Amos: LITTLE EARTHQUAKES (1992)
Maria McKee: YOU GOTTA SIN TO GET SAVED (1993)
Chris Isaak: SAN FRANCISCO DAYS (1993)
The Cranberries: EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT, SO WHY CAN’T WE? (1993)
Sarah McLachlan: FUMBLING TOWARDS ECSTASY (1993)
Seal: SEAL (1994)
Portishead: DUMMY (1994)
Soundgarden: SUPERUNKNOWN (1994)
Jeff Buckley: GRACE (1994)
Jars of Clay: JARS OF CLAY (1995)
The Mavericks: MUSIC FOR ALL OCCASIONS (1995)
Duncan Sheik: DUNCAN SHEIK (1996)
Radiohead: OK COMPUTER (1997)
Seal: HUMAN BEING (1998)
Burlap to Cashmere: ANYBODY OUT THERE? (1998)
Moby: PLAY (1999)

2000 on:
Martin Sexton: LIVE WIDE OPEN (2002)
Muse: BLACK HOLES AND REVELATIONS (2006)
Brandi Carlile: THE STORY (2007)
A Fine Frenzy: ONE CELL IN THE SEA (2007)
Sia: SOME PEOPLE HAVE REAL PROBLEMS (2008)
Sara Bareilles: KALEIDOSCOPE HEART (2010)
Lake Street Dive: BAD SELF PORTRAITS (2014)
Kevin Max: BROKEN TEMPLES (2015)

“Gravitas”: A mediocre Asia album, but a decent John Wetton solo album

As an Asia album: 6/10asia_gravitas
As a John Wetton album: 8/10

Earlier this year I posted about the (then) upcoming, new Asia album, “Gravitas,” and wrote the following about the first single, “Valkyrie”:

The positives: Wetton sounds great; his vocals are impressively strong and clear at the age of 64. The song itself is quite decent, with the distinctive Asia “sound”: soaring keyboards, big chorus, and lyrics tinged with semi-mythical elements. The negatives: the video is rather (very!) low budget, the song sounds quite a bit like most Asia songs of the past couple of decades, and young Coulson seems underused. What strikes me odd, as I’ve read about this new album, is that while the band members talk about Coulson bringing a harder, even more metal-ish, sound with him, it doesn’t show up in the first single or in the clips of the other eight tunes. And, of course, none of them really sound prog-gy at all. Come to think of it, when did Asia last really incorporate anything obviously proggy in its albums?

Having now listened to the entire album a dozen times or more, I confess to being a bit conflicted. The positives are pretty much as described above. Wetton, who is 65, sounds exceptional; his vocals are strong, clear, and with plenty of nuance and bite, as evidenced on the title track. If anything, my appreciation for Wetton as a vocalist expanded in listening to this new release, especially for the various colorings and emotional nuances he brings to the table. The production, handled by Wetton and keyboardist guru Geoff Downes, is mostly excellent (see below for the negative), featuring lush soundscapes and impeccably crafted waves of vocal harmonies, a classic Asia staple.

In short, the top end—lead vocals, vocal harmonies, and keyboards—sound great.

Unfortunately, the rhythm section and guitar ranges from occasionally agreeable to rather boring. There are times, frankly, when I wondered, “Carl Palmer still plays drums, right? Where, oh where, is the bass?!” Yes, there are a few moments that rise above average (“Nyctophobia”, for example), but overall the drums are so far back in the mix and so generic sounding, it may as well have been Session Drummer Bob Smith behind the kit. The same could be said for much of the bass guitar, with a couple of exceptions, such as a nifty solo-ish section in “Russian Dolls”. Simply put, the bass and drums are often quite pedestrian, especially for players of this caliber; they might as well have been mailed in via Pony Express and then told, “Sit down way back there and play quietly!”

As for the harder guitar sound, I’ve heard heard more rockin’, “in your face” guitar on Michael Jackson albums. Sam Coulson might be the next Joe Satriani, but he rarely gets a chance to show what he brings to the table, and his solos are short, safe, and sadly generic. There is more guitar in, say, “Sole Survivor” or “The Heat Goes On,” than on the entire “Gravitas” album.

Having listened to “Gravitas” several times, I went back and listened to “Asia” and “Alpha”, which established, for me, the benchmark for subsequent Asia albums. Two things stand out: first, the early Asia songs were far more interesting, especially musically, with a remarkable amount of “proggy” elements for such commercially successful albums (of course, the early ’80s were far kinder in that regard, as also evidenced by Yes’s “90125”); secondly, the early Asia sounded like a band that wrote songs as a band and wanted to be a band. The input and influence of Steve Howe and Palmer are readily evident, even if Wetton and Downes were the primary songwriters. And so the songs were far more diverse, ranging from “Heat of the Moment”, with its upfront guitar lick, to the dramatic push-and-pull of “True Colors”, to the deeply longing, semi-epic “Open Your Eyes” (a personal favorite). To sum it up, the songs on “Gravitas” lack variety, suffering from sameness and, in places, some overly long and repetitious choruses and outros.

“Gravitas” is, as an Asia album, rather mediocre; it has some good moments, but is lacking. Those good moments are due mostly to Wetton’s singing and Downe’s keyboards. Lyrically, there is a singer/songwriter quality here that also suggest this is more of a Wetton vehicle than a real band effort. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but I miss the interplay and band-oriented sound of earlier Asia.

John Wetton: “It’s clearly elitist, this prog thing.”

The group Asia (website) has a new guitarist (20-something Sam Coulson) and a new album, “Gravitas,” which is due out on March 25th. The band talks about their new guitarist (their fifth? seventh? twelfth?) and the new album:

The more eye-brow-raising interview, however, appeared on the Huff-and-Puff Post earlier this week. A couple of interesting excerpts; first, from John Wetton about aging and songwriting:

Most of this band are in their sixties–we’ve got one exception who’s twenty-six, but most of us are getting to that respectable age now. We can’t come up with punk anthems, we never have done. What we do is we reflect the internal conflict that people get. Look at “The Heat Of The Moment.” It’s an apology. “Only Time Will Tell” is about a relationship falling apart because of infidelity. My complete change-around as far as lyric-writing came in 1971 when I had three records that I listened to all summer. One was Joni Mitchell’s Blue, the other one was What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye and the last one was Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys. The one that hit me the hardest, really, was Blue by Joni Mitchell because she wrote every song in the first person. It’s all like she’s reading straight out from her journal. For me, who had been brought up on art rock where you’re observing other people from a distance, it catapulted me into the world of, “Why don’t you write it from your own experience? To this day, if I hear someone bleating on about fame, I want to hear about their fame, not someone else’s. If it’s coming from the horse’s mouth, great. If it’s coming from the horse’s ass it’s no good at all.

And this, about prog and classic rock:

MR: I also have to ask you, you said “classic rock,” but Asia also falls under the category of progressive rock, which I think allows you the freedom you talked about before to do anything you want with your music.

JW: Yes. We have a foot in three trenches, really. We’re classic, we’re prog, and we verge on pop at times. We certainly can have singles that will appeal to people outside the prog fraternity, which they probably don’t even like. It’s clearly elitist, this prog thing. The bands that we came from, certainly all of them were prog. They died in the war of prog. But Asia, when it came out, reached far beyond the prog circles. To this day our audience is so varied, we get real kids at concerts, we get people our age and everyone in between. It’s great, I love it. And we still have a fairly broad spectrum as far as gender. Usually, we don’t have a room full of beards and sweaters, it’s usually a good mix of women and men. Very, very healthy audience. It’s great.

Wetton also states, a bit later: “My favorite male artist of all time is Don Henley because it’s like he’s reading poetry that comes straight from himself and it’s so gorgeous.” Huh. I cannot say I saw that one coming. Not that there’s anything wrong with Henley’s music; I enjoy some of his solo stuff and a fair amount of the Eagles’ music as well. But not expected.

Here is the video for the album’s first single, “Valkyrie”. The positives: Wetton sounds great; his vocals are impressively strong and clear at the age of 64. The song itself is quite decent, with the distinctive Asia “sound”: soaring keyboards, big chorus, and lyrics tinged with semi-mythical elements. The negatives: the video is rather (very!) low budget, the song sounds quite a bit like most Asia songs of the past couple of decades, and young Coulson seems underused. What strikes me odd, as I’ve read about this new album, is that while the band members talk about Coulson bringing a harder, even more metal-ish, sound with him, it doesn’t show up in the first single or in the clips of the other eight tunes. And, of course, none of them really sound prog-gy at all. Come to think of it, when did Asia last really incorporate anything obviously proggy in its albums? The mid-1980s? I’m not sure, because I stopped listening for about 20 years or so, and have only regained interest in the past couple of years.

Personally, I’ll always have a soft spot for the first three Asia albums. In part, because of my age; I was in junior high school when the self-titled debut album appeared in 1982 (32 years ago this month), and in high school when Alpha (1983) and Astra (1985) came along. I thoroughly enjoyed all three albums, and they were in my regular rotation, along with Kansas, Queen, Styx, and some groups I’m too embarrassed to mention here. Through Asia, I learned about ELP, but I didn’t discover King Crimson until many years later, and when I did, I thought, “Wow, that was John Wetton?!” Part of me wonders if the mega-success of the first Asia album didn’t create some problems, creatively, for Wetton and Geoff Downes; it certainly led to lots of conflicts, break-ups, and such over the years. Whatever the case, I am curious about this new album, but I’m trying to have modest expectations. I am thankful, however, that the group didn’t do a cover of Henley’s “Boys of Summer”.

Steve Howe leaves Asia (again), talks guitar

Someone with time on their hands and prog trivia on their brains should do some careful historical research in search of the answer to this question: “Which prog group has the most line-up changes all-time?” Three groups come to mind immediately: Yes, Asia, and King Crimson. And the three are, of course, bound together by all sorts of personnel connections and such, as SteveHowe1970swell as having been around for decades, which surely is part of the ongoing drama of departing, returning, reuniting, breaking up, reforming, guesting, and so forth. Anyhow, legendary guitarist Steve Howe has announced that he is leaving Asia so he can concentrate on solo work and (it appears) his commitments to Yes. Just as (or more) interesting are his remarks on playing guitar. From the ProgRockMag.com site:

The pressures of attending to the requirements of two large-scale acts was also getting to him, he admits. “Over the last year I started to think, ‘Boy, when Yes extend a tour then Asia start a day early, I’m the guy getting squeezed.’ I couldn’t do it much longer without feeling that I was running on autopilot. I want to be in control of my musical direction and follow my calling.”

That calling will include the Cross Styles Music Retreat, during which Howe hopes to share his passion and experience of guitar with attendees. But he’s wary of the “unique” label: “It sounds like I’ve set myself up for a fall there,” he laughs. “All I’m saying is: I’m not educated, I don’t read music, I didn’t go to music school, I don’t have the theory. All I have is my experience, and presumably people want that, otherwise I wouldn’t be selling any tickets.

“I’ve done these things before. I walk in and say, ‘Don’t talk to me about demi-semiquavers. Don’t talk to me about time signatures.’ I play. Everything I do and everything I’ve learned is by ear.

“You don’t have to drive yourself mad reading dots. If you want to play classical music you should; but where I’m coming from, improvisation, composition. I’m bringing in an unschooled – I wouldn’t say rebellious, but individual – approach to guitar.

“I’m not going to pose that it’s going to be anything else. You get me, I play tunes and I talk about guitar. I’ve managed to make that interesting for myself for over 50 years, so there must be something!”

Howe states that he’s never believed in straight-out practising. “Playing scales would have driven me stark raving bonkers,” he says. “That’s not what I call music. It might be an essential part of keeping your muscles and fingers in good order and I don’t say it’s terrible. But my central thing is improvisation. Play stuff – make stuff up. That’s how I keep interested: by interacting with it, not just being a mechanical, physical observer.”

He didn’t enjoy his school days, finding London’s Holloway School “oppressive, violent, mixed with racial and religious prejudices.” But he’s never found that a lack of a “proper” musical education held him back – except when he tried to learn to play flute and discovered it was too distant from guitar to make the transfer comfortable.

As a result of being self-taught he does encounter people who are better technicians than he is. “But I don’t feel particularly threatened,” he explains. “What I feel is: ‘They’re very advanced in their technique – how advanced are they in their general view of music?’

“Guitarists can get fanatical about guitarists; but in the end we’re musicians. We make sound. It’s the sound that’s got to be pleasing – not how you made the sound. Who cares how you play it? What’s important is what comes out the other end.”

And one of the key lessons he hopes to impart at Cross Styles is: “Musicians are lucky; we can break the rules. There’s no such thing as the ‘music police’ – they’re not going to come round and say ‘You shouldn’t have played a D-flat, it should have been a D. You can do what you want – live and die by the musical sword!”

In addition to the retreat he’s planning a solo tour and a new Steve Howe Trio album and tour. “We’re just about to launch some dates. I’ve got two or three weeks of solo dates in June, which I haven’t done in a very long time due to my demanding schedule of keeping two bands happy. In September we’re doing the trio again. We should have a new recording before that.”

His desire to move away from the band environment is much more than just a whim, Howe notes. “My solo guitar work is pretty central to my musical existence. I’m not a blues, rock or jazz guitarist – I’m a guitarist, and the central thing is solo playing.

Read the entire piece. Glancing over his bio on Wikipedia (yes, I know, forgive me), I was a bit surprised to learn that Howe was the first player to be inducted into the Guitar Player Hall of Fame, and one of the few in the GP’s “Gallery of Greats”, which comes with being selected best overall guitarist at least five times (although it appears the criteria has now been modified). Howe’s playing has long intrigued me because of the obvious jazz influences; he was influenced by Wes Montgomery, as well as Chet Atkins, whose mark on Howe can be seen in Yes songs that have a country-type feel to them, quite unique within the prog realm.

Short reviews of new music from Asia, Proto-kaw, Mystery, and Godstick

I’ll skip my usual apologia attempting to explain my long absence from this fine blog and instead spend my limited, if not valuable time, remarking on four recent prog and proggy albums that have been found a home on my regular iTunes rotation. I may write longer reviews of a couple of these albums, but some short remarks are better than none.asia_resonance

Asia — Resonance (The Omega Tour, 2010; released 2012): After Kansas, Asia was the group that first introduced me into the world of prog, back in the early to mid-1980s, when I was an innocent small town Montana boy making my way through high school. I recall seeking out books and magazines that explained the musical pedigree of Downes, Howe, Palmer, and Wetton, and thus being introduced to early King Crimson, ELP, Yes, and more. I know that Asia has been a source of debate among prog fans, some of whom dismiss and even deride the group; I’ll just say that I really liked and still do like the first two albums, Asia and Alpha, and make no excuses for the warm and gratifying nostalgia they bring to the surface whenever I play them. And, truth be told, I’m partial to the third album, Astra, which marked the first of two billion line-up changes (Mandy Meyer took over guitar from Howe, who had departed), as it is actually a good, hook-heavy example of what might be call “arena prog” or “pop prog” or something similar. Anyhow, the original line-up has been back for a while—and getting solid to excellent reviews—and this live album documents the group’s 2010 tour. I’ve heard cuts from earlier live albums by Asia, and have found most of them disappointing, especially in the vocal department. But this album, dare I say it, is rather stunning, both in terms of the outstanding sound quality and the amazing power and clarity of Wetton’s voice. Wetton, to my ear, sounds just as good as he did on the studio cuts from the early and mid ’80s, which is saying something. The playing is excellent, of course; my only small beef is that the drums seem a bit back in the mix, although there is an extended and fine drum solo on “The Heat Goes On”. Otherwise, a great mix of cuts, with some nice acoustic-oriented variations of old hits such as “Don’t Cry” and “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes”.

• Proto-kaw: Forth (2011): Speaking of Kansas, the group Proto-kaw was the second of three early incarnations of what eventually became simply “Kansas” in 1973. The key constant in protokaw_forththose groups was songwriter, lyricist, guitarist, and keyboardist Kerry Livgren, who conquered the world with Kansas in the 1970s (“Dust in the Wind”, anyone?), had a run of contemporary Christian rock albums in the 1980s (both solo and with the group AD), and then reformed Kansas and Proto-kaw in the 1990s. (Fun fact: metal legend Ronny James Dio sang lead on two songs on Livgren’s first solo album, “Seeds of Change”, in 1980.) All three of the newer Proto-kaw albums are worth checking out, and that is especially true of Forth, the most cohesive and fully realized album yet by the group. What strikes me, as a longtime fan of Kansas, is how much classical influence there is in Livgren’s writing, as his songs often have a suite-like quality that builds on either strings or keyboards/guitars that act as a strings section. Proto-kaw, like all Livgren-led bands, has dual lead singers (yes, Steve Walsh was a the primary singer in Kansas, but Robby Steinhardt sang lead or co-lead on numerous songs), and features excellent and often complex harmonies, masterfully constructed arrangements, and strong songwriting. One distinctive element is the presence of saxophone and flute (John Bolton), used to great affect in song such as “Pilgrim’s Wake”, one of my favorite cuts on Forth. A must listen for anyone with a soft spot for 1970s Kansas. And, speaking of Kansas (again!), this year marks the 40th anniversary of the group’s founding; I plan a couple of posts about the group and some of my favorite Kansas albums and songs.

• Mystery: The World Is a Game (2012): How embarrassing it is to admit that prior to the Yes album, Fly From Here (2011), I had no idea who Benoît David was. Having replaced Jon Anderson and toured with Yes—and then having himself been replaced due to his own respiratory issues—the talented vocalist worked on his third album with veteran Canadian proggers mystery_worldMystery, a group he had joined in 1999. Having not heard any of his work with Mystery (which my iTunes annoyingly tagged as “The Mystery”), I was surprised—in a good way—that David did not sound like Anderson and that the group does not sound much like Yes, although the influence is present. In fact, at times David sounds more like another great Canadian singer, Geddy Lee. The two words that keep coming to mind after repeated listens of this exceptional album are “melodic” and “soaring”. The vocals soar, the guitars (by band founder, guitarist, lyricist, and producer Michel St-Père) soar, and the songs soar with a wonderful sense of discovery, melancholy, joy, and introspection, a not-so-easy mixture to navigate. And then there is the drumming of Nick D’Virgilio, who is rightly revered as one of the finest drummers in the prog/rock world. His drumming is, in a word, orchestral, and it is reason alone for buying this fine release. But, for me (a vocalist junkie), it is David who is the revelation here, especially after hearing his solid but rather emotionless performance on Fly From Here. In the words of a reviewer on ProgArchives.com, “Finally vocalist Benoit David proves what a versatile and commanding singer he is, a million miles away from the Yes/Jon Anderson clone dismissals. It’s also great to hear his voice so full of human feeling and compassion again after being so over-produced and rendered mostly lifeless on the Yes album `Fly From Here’!” Exactly right.

Godsticks: The Envisage Conundrum (2013): Here is a group (from South Wales) I knew nothing about a week ago, but has captured my attention in a way that only a few groups have on first listen. Explaining why is a bit difficult; the difficulty arises, in part, from the most enjoyable fact this is a group that is very hard to describe or label or situate in the universe of godsticks_conundrumprog/rock music. Nearly every review I’ve read says the same, and rightly so. One of those reviews, by Adrian Bloxham, puts it well: ” The world of Godsticks is not straightforward; they seem to have baffled other reviewers trying to pigeon hole them. They make their own brand of what they describe as ‘progressive rock/pop, but it is very much their own take on the sound. You get the idea that this is exactly the music they have inside their heads trying to get out and if you like it they will be pleased but that’s not why they do what they do.” The one influence I hear is later King Crimson, but even that is hard to pinpoint, although the angular, often astonishing guitar work by guitarist/singer Darran Charles brings it to mind in several places. None of the songs are longer than seven minutes in length, but some of them pack in more twists, turns, veers, swerves, and surprises in five or six minutes than many bands can pack into songs three times as long. The title cut is a perfect example. It begins with a chugging, almost “boogie” riff out of which emerges a spider-like flurry of notes, leading into a wall of harmonized vocals over a heavy, grunge-like riff backed by the tight, slightly funky, never quite straight forward rhythm section of Steve Roberts (drums, keys) and Dan Nelson (bass). Charles’ voice is part of the mystery here, a strong, clear instrument that manages to be intense, detached, soulful, and slyly humorous (and occasionally darkly smirking) all at once. There is an abundance of odd chords, meters, notes, and harmonies, sometimes, to my ear, sounding like a Robert Fripp-inspired space alien sibling of Soundgarden. And did I mention the album features a 3:49 piano solo by Roberts that could easily have made it onto one of Keith Jarrett’s solo albums? Followed by a three-part suite—”Borderstomp”, parts 1-3—that sometimes calls to mind Steve Vai? Not straightforward, indeed!

Trevor Rabin: “As long as it’s good and well-played, all music is worth listening to.”

Once again, the AllAboutJazz.com site has another great piece about a prog musician: “Trevor Rabin: All Colors Considered”, by Ian Patterson. The focus is on Rabin’s outstanding new solo album, Jacaranda  (one of my favorites of 2012), which is Rabin’s first solo excursion since his exceptional 1989 album, Don’t Look Away, which I played incessantly back in the day and revisit on occasion. Patterson begins by putting Rabin’s impressive career in perspective:

Whether taking a stance against apartheid in the early ’70s in his native South Africa or turning down the opportunity to play in super group Asia for artistic reasons, Rabin has always done things his own way and stuck to his principles at every step. Rabin is perhaps best known around the world for the mega-hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and his 12-year stint with progressive rock giant Yes, but there are a surprising number of strings to the musician’s bow.

While it would have been easy to carry on touring and recording with the legendary British group, Rabin felt that after a dozen years a new challenge was needed, and he said no to Yes. So it was in the mid-1990s that Rabin embarked upon another career as a composer of film soundtracks. In a little over 15 years, Rabin has recorded 40 film soundtracks of varying genres, winning numerous awards in the process.

Just when it seemed as though Rabin’s music would only be heard in cinema houses around the world, he’s back with another surprise in the form of his sixth solo album, Jacaranda (Varese Fontana, 2012). It’s his first solo album of original material since Can’t Look Away (Elektra, 1989), and it’s an inspired collection of guitar- based instrumental compositions.

Continue reading “Trevor Rabin: “As long as it’s good and well-played, all music is worth listening to.””

A Pilgrim’s Prog-ress

I balked for a few moments at the temptation of writing an indulgent, long, complex, and idiosyncratic post about my journey to and into prog, and then realized: hey, this is Progarchy.com! If I cannot string together tenuously-related, semi-mystical concepts and conceits imbued with mythical overtones, quasi-autobiographical meta-narratives, and intertwining (and purposely confusing) philosophical musings here, then what’s the point of this wonderful blog? (No need to answer that, as I’m already soloing  on my inner Moog without regard for the boring 4/4 time signature others might wish to force upon me.) Actually, much of what follows was already presented in a long-ish comment I left on a previous post below. But Brad, as he often does, inspired me to do more, even at the risk of embarrassing the shy and retiring Olson clan. So here goes.

I was oddly oblivious to most music until my early teens. This was due in part to being raised in a Fundamentalist home and church, both of which largely frowned on rock music as the rhythmic spawn of the devil, meant to corrupt good morals and encourage bad haircuts. Yes, the stereotypes do hold, at least to some degree.  I heard a lot of church music (classic Protestant hymns, some of them very good) and mostly bland to bad contemporary Christian music. Then, around the age of fourteen or so, I started listening to the radio (one station, weak signal) and began to slowly accumulate a few tapes. My road to prog went through AOR acts such as Journey, REO Speedwagon, Loverboy, Foreigner, and Styx, with a helping of popular mid-80s albums by ELO, Elton John, Toto, and Queen. I found the standard rock of the day (including some of the stuff above) to be rather dull; I was fascinated by the more extended songs of Elton (the early 1970s albums especially), Queen, Asia, and the Moody Blues. I’m happy to say I was hooked on “Bohemian Rhapsody” long before “Wayne’s World” re-presented it to my generation. Also, I thought the usual popular, party music about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll was mostly shallow, even if occasionally diverting. Which is another way of saying I secretly listened to my share of Van Halen while playing some laughable air guitar (oh, wait, all air guitar is laughable). I did not, however, ever party. Seriously.

Around 1985 or so, I bought a copy of “The Best of Kansas”. That opened the door to prog. There was something about the mixture of Livgren’s lead guitar, Steinhardt’s violin, and Steve Walsh’s amazing voice, along with lyrics soaked in spiritual longing and Americana, that grabbed me by the scrawny neck. Over the next three or four years, I ended up collecting everything by Kansas, Kerry Livgren (solo and with AD), and Steve Morse (solo, Dixie Dregs, etc.). My favorite Kansas albums are “Song for America” and “In the Spirit of Things”, although they weren’t the chart-toppers that “Point of Know Return” and “Leftoverture” were. I also went on a serious Moody Blues binge, focusing on the early stuff, prior to their more pop-oriented work of the mid-’80s. Then I really got into Yes (both Rabin-era and the early classic albums with Howe), Rush, and Pink Floyd; in fact, while in Bible college (1989-91), I freaked out some of my more staid classmates with my obsessive interest in Pink Floyd, Queen, Queenrÿche, and King’s X (and, yes, I also listened to Petra, David Meece, White Heart, White Cross, Russ Taff, and Margaret Becker). King’s X was a major revelation, especially the brilliant, crunching, melodic beauty of “faith hope love”, which was a masterful blend of hard rock, metal, prog, blues, and Beatle-esque harmonies. And I recall very clearly driving across the Montana plains to school in Saskatchewan, blaring “Fly By Night” and other brilliant Rush tunes. Ah, to be young again.

A quick aside here, in the spirit of musical indulgence: while in high school, I also developed a semi-secret soft spot for country artists such as Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, and Jim Reeves. And two composers: Mozart and Brahms. I tried to get into opera (our family doctor, who owned a massive classical collection, gave it his best shot), but couldn’t get there. I would try again in the late 1990s, failing again. And at one point I must have listened to Eric Clapton’s 1989 comeback album, “Journeyman”, about a thousand times. Go figure, as it’s the only Clapton album I’ve ever fixated on. Okay, back to prog.

In my early-to-mid twenties (1989-1995), I launched into Van Morrison, Seal, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and jazz, five of my big musical loves ever since (I’ll eventually write some disturbingly long posts about each, I hope). My interest in prog advanced in fits and starts. Yes was a constant, as I worked through most of the band’s catalog, with excursions into solo projects by Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, and Steve Howe. The next big breakthrough was Dream Theater in the late 1990s, followed by Spock’s Beard, then Porcupine Tree and a bunch of others. Then, around 2004, I “discovered” Frank Sinatra, which led to the purchase of about 1,000 Sinatra tunes (favorite album: “In the Wee Small Hours”). I mention Sinatra because I have the semi-crazy idea of writing a blog titled, “Sinatra: Grandfather of Prog?”, that will either get me ejected from Progarchy, or enshrined in the Progarchy Hall of Fame.

I fully agree with Brad: we are living in a new, golden age of prog. There is such a stunning array of prog and prog-ish music to be had, I’ve long given up hope of keeping abreast of it all. Current favorites, in addition to the already mentioned acts, include Pain of Salvation, Threshold, Riverside, Muse, Animals As Leaders, Big Big Train, Anathema, Devin Townsend, Three, Astra, Blackfield, The Pineapple Thief, King Crimson, Headspace, and Mars Volta. But there are still huge holes in my prog knowledge and experience. I’m making prog-ress, but the road continues to rise and wind ahead. Which is exciting, as it means there is more to discover and hear.