Sounding the Bardic Depths

Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’ … It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision – it is then that Friendship is born.

— C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

The Bardic Depths is a rare creation; the method of its making embodies what it portrays.  It’s a distinctive take on the concept album, sparked from ongoing collaboration by two devoted lovers of progressive rock, with stellar contributions from some of the music’s current leading lights.   (Oh, and fleeting spoken-word cameos from others, including yours truly — so yeah, objectivity is out the window here.)

Lyricist Brad Birzer and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Dave Bandana have been self-releasing enjoyable albums for a few years now,  launching impressionist volleys of lyrical prose (usually in a dystopian sci-fi framework) via arching, chantlike melodies, poised atop appealingly thick ambient pads and amiably chugging pop grooves.  When Birzer pitched the life, times and friendship of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as an album concept, Bandana loved it — but as the music took shape, he realized that contributors who could kick things up a level were needed for the album to take wing.

Enter the Passengers — that astonishingly amiable Facebook group of fans brought together by their love of Big Big Train.  Having seen BBT live (and made numerous musical friends in the process), Bandana modestly reached out for help.  And, as the video below reveals, one thing led to another:

Continue reading “Sounding the Bardic Depths”

SIGNALS (1982): A Song Cycle by Rush

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Rush, SIGNALS, 1982.  A New Wave-Prog Song Cycle.

The last album produced by the then fourth-member of Rush, Terry Brown, Signals (September 9, 1982) marked yet again a major progression in the music of Rush as well as in the lyrics of Neil Peart.  The pressure to produce something similar to the previous year’s Moving Pictures naturally proved immense, as they had never encountered such success.  On the Moving Pictures tour alone, fan attendance doubled at concerts, and almost anyone in the American Midwest could hear one of three tracks from the album almost anytime on FM rock radio.  But the three main members of Rush decided that a second Moving Pictures would be too easy.  They had done that album, accomplished what they had sought to accomplish, and they wanted to take their music in new ways.  In particular, Lee had become more and more interested in keyboards and composing on them.  He never planned to become a “Keith Emerson,” but he loved the challenge the keyboards brought him. [1]  Not surprisingly, especially given Lee’s interest and the learning curve he needed to understand and overcome regarding synthesizers, the keys employed on the album had either 1) a deep, booming bass sound or 2) an airy, soaring feel.  Lee remembers:

I was getting bored writing. I felt like we were falling into a pattern of how we were writing on bass, guitar and drums. Adding the keyboards was fascinating for me and I was learning more about writing music from a different angle.[2]

Further, he claimed, the keyboards allowed Rush to expand beyond the trio without actually adding a new member of the band.[3]  With Signals and the following concerts to support it, Lifeson claimed he felt “almost re-born” with the new sound. [4]

Continue reading “SIGNALS (1982): A Song Cycle by Rush”

Rick’s Quick Takes: Birzer Bandana, Of Course It Must Be

Accessible, but not mainstream.  Simple, though hardly simplistic.  Unfolding methodically but organically, without feeling confined to strict verse/chorus/bridge templates.  Ambient, but by no means aural wallpaper.  And definitely prog — but prog that can’t be pinned down with an easy label.

These dichotomies come to mind listening to Of Course It Must Be, the second album by this pair of Progarchists (including Our Beloved Founder).   It’s a gentle, subtly delightful listen: without ever getting in your face, it builds, minute by minute, from a spacey drone that kicks off “Adrift” to pumping acoustic guitar riffs on “Calm,”  paralleling a lyrical journey from desperation to acceptance.

The nameless protagonist of Brad Birzer’s “lyrical prose” drifts into the picture disoriented, grasping for connection (“Adrift”), vaguely remembering a moment of crisis (“The Void”).  Though there are tantalizing hints, we’re not really sure what’s happened.  And you could argue that nothing further really “happens” as the album continues.  The hero’s vision gradually comes into focus (“A View”), observing the good and the bad of a world turning below  (“There” and “There Again”), accepting “the beautiful and hideous … messed up, glorious” (“Yes”).  Whatever fate awaits him, he’s convinced that “humanity will continue/A beautiful mess/Made complete by love.”  And as “Calm” winds down, the narrator’s meditations simply fade out … like a still, small voice.  Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Another cool thing: you could conceivably follow this storyline even if the lyrics weren’t sung.  Dave Bandana’s music is understated, yet cinematic throughout.  Using a restrained, gradually brightening palette of tone colors, he deftly unfolds Birzer’s scenario with a precise balance of riffs, grooves and tunes, while leaving plenty of space for the music to breathe.  His singing is always committed and solid, and his work on guitar, keys and drums is consistently tasty (with occasional, appreciated echoes of Rick Wright in the synth solos).  Guests Kenny Miller on acoustic guitar and Olga Kent on violin light up the tracks they play on with gracious, melodic work.   There’s a cumulatively powerful growth to the music as a whole; on the last three tracks, the busier, somewhat poppier soundscapes are somehow the perfect complement to the hero’s breakthrough.  Musically and lyrically there’s contentment and quiet joy, even while looking darkness in the face.

Of Course It Must Be — what??  Something like you’ve never heard before?  Probably not.  A genre-defining breakthrough?  Not really.  A well-crafted, classy, worthwhile album that deserves an hour out of your life to hear it, as well as some of your hard-earned cash?  Yep, that’s the ticket.

You can listen to (and buy) Of Course It Must Be at Birzer Bandana’s Bandcamp page, along with their 2017 album, Becoming One.

— Rick Krueger

Birzer Bandana: Becoming One

There’s a new band on the prog block: Birzer Bandana, which is Progarchy’s own Brad Birzer (lyrics) and Salander’s Dave Bandana (music and performance). According to Brad’s liner notes, his lyrics were jumpstarted by the science fiction classic A Canticle For Leibowitz, and the opening track, “Awash”, definitely conjures up images of a post-nuclear wasteland.

Awash in light, bathed and comforted
Head… deadly, deadly, deadly heat
Burns the skin and the retinas
Irradiated skies baptize the earth.

Bandana’s music is appropriately somber and evocative of someone trudging through desert sands. Olga Kent’s beautiful violin lends an exotic air.

Things pick up a bit in the second song, “Dance”. I love Bandana’s double-tracked vocals here, and the combination of acoustic guitar,  hand percussion (tabla?), Kent’s bewitching violin, and some classic-era prog organ make for a terrific track. Imagine late-period Beatles collaborating with Pink Floyd, and you get an idea of how this one sounds.

Continue reading “Birzer Bandana: Becoming One”

Birzer Bandana–New Prog

I’m very happy to announce the release of a new band and a new album: BECOMING ONE by Birzer Bandana.  Yes, for better or worse, I’m the Birzer in Birzer Bandana.  The Bandana is Dave Bandana of Salander.

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When Dave asked me to write lyrics for a forthcoming album, I was beyond thrilled.  Having been a prog rock fan since my earliest memories of childhood, I’ve always wanted to be an intimate part of the act of creation.  Sadly, though I have wide-ranging as well as specific tastes in music, I know next to nothing about composition or performance.  I do, however, have lots of ideas and words floating around that odd organ known as the human brain.  The first idea that came into my mind came from one of my favorite novels, Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.  This provided the opening scene, but everything that followed came from my own love of vast, deserted, and broken landscapes and Mark Hollis-esque minimalistic and imagist lyrics.  “Becoming One,” then, is a bit post-apocalyptic sci-fi, a bit psychological and theological, and a whole lot of cathartic.  Dave masterfully took these poor words and made them something epic.  Proggy and epic.  But, then again, all prog is epic and all epic is prog.  We hope you enjoy our first collaboration—Brad (and Dave), March 18, 2017.

All instruments played by Dave Bandana—except Olga Kent violin on “Awash” and “The Dance” and Mick Bennett who played guitar on “3 To 1.”  Dave on vocals, bass, guitars, drums, drum programming, synths, piano, organ, and mellotron.

Produced, engineered and mastered by Dave Bandana at Villa Clavell studios.

Written by Dave Bandana (music) and Brad Birzer (concept and lyrics); Birzer Bandana, ©2017.

Drawing by Lyn Phillips; colouring and graphics by Kim Varner-Fulmer.

https://birzerbandana.bandcamp.com

 

The Rev. John Simms! Progarchy Radio Episode 11

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Jude Simms, Brad, and John Simms. . . Hillsdale College, near the Churchill statue.

But, this one goes to 11.

A very (yes, VERY) special Progarchy Radio in which John Simms and I sit in the same room and talk prog.  Prog today, prog yesterday, prog tomorrow.  A wonderful way to spend some time. . . with great music and even better friends.  Thank you, John.

We talk The Tangent, Big Big Train, Kansas, Genesis, Yes, Steven Wilson, Roger Dean, Jim Trainer, and more.

P.S.  Give it nearly 30 seconds or so to load–even to begin.  A huge file.

 

Traveling as the Ghost Rider: An Excerpt from NEIL PEART: CULTURAL REPERCUSSIONS

Available now in paperback and ebook at amazon.com.
Available now in paperback and ebook at amazon.com.

In his best-selling book, Ghost Rider, the Canadian drummer not only proves to be an excellent writer (imagine Willa Cather and Jack Kerouac as one person; a bizarre combination, I know, but an accurate one), but he also reveals himself, yet again, a serious and stoic social and cultural critic.  Here are two sample passages from Ghost Rider.

The first day in Mexico was Selena’s birthday, and I had made careful plans on how to ‘memorialize’ that day. Early in the morning, I walked to the big cathedral in the Zocalo, went inside and bought two princess-sized votive candles (the biggest they had, of course) and lit them in front of the chapel for ‘Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe’ . . . . I sat there awhile, and cried some (well, a lot), amid the pious old ladies, tourists, and construction workers.[1]

Later in the book, in a less autobiographical nature, he explains his own vision of what art is.

I once defined the basic nature of art as ‘the telling of stories,’ and never had I felt that to be more true. I played the anger, the frustration, the sorrow, and even the travelling parts of my story, the rhythms of the highway, the majesty of the scenery, the dynamic rising and falling of my moods, and the narrative suite that emerged was as cleansing and energizing as the sweat and exertion of telling it.[2]

Each of these passages shows Peart at his deepest.  The side the craves beauty and the side that craves telling the world about the beauty he has seen.

His travels also opened Peart to a number of personal revelations.  Overall, he believed that “the elemental ‘faith’ in life I used to possess is completely gone,” and that with such an erasing of the past and its securities, “every little element of my former life, behavior, interests, and habits, was up for re-examination.”[3]  Two specifics also emerged in this rebirth.  First, he had to accept the help of others, recognizing it as the gift it is and was intended to be by the giver.  Pride had to give way to charity.  Second, he came to see a more mystical side of life, well beyond his previously steady devotion to late eighteenth-century European rationalism.  In one incident—that would greatly influence the next three albums—Peart encountered a man who read his fortune through Tarot cards.  The reading proved so accurate that Peart ‘s “jaw dropped, and it’s still dropping.”[4]

Though most orthodox religions forbid the reading of Tarot, artists as diverse as T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk have employed its meaning—however tragic and deep or superficial and meaningless—effectively as a form of story telling, especially when regarding character and morals.  Peart does the same through his lyrics over the next several albums.

[Taken from Bradley J. Birzer, Neil Peart: Cultural (Re)Percussions (WordFire Press, 2015), pages 96-96.  Available today in paperback for $11.99 at amazon.com.  the price includes shipping.]

NOTES

[1] Peart, Ghost Rider, 310.

[2] Peart, Ghost Rider, 355

[3] Peart, Ghost Rider, 146-147.

[4] Peart, Ghost Rider, 338-339.

Why Neil Peart, Part I

Why Neil Peart?

[Be forewarned, this is a serious essay that leads to an advertisement.  Proceed at your own risk!!!!]

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R40 Tour. Rush in Lincoln.

A year ago, I had the great privilege of reading a fine history of Rush: Robert Freedman’s RUSH: LIFE LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF EXCELLENCE.  It was a very satisfying read, and, as I finished it, I sighed to myself. . . “I wish I’d written this.”  I don’t think my reaction was one of hubris, but rather one of joy.  I was glad to see Peart taken so seriously at an intellectual level.  All too often, even in a culture that can go utterly ga-ga over the most trivial things, Americans still tend to dismiss rock music as a fad or rock musicians as a low form of artist.

For those of us who love prog and art rock, we cringe at such slights, and yet, in our heart of hearts, we’re kind of glad that we are among the few who know—as almost a secret treasure we possess—that good rock as art most certainly does exist.  Sure, we’ll argue until we’re blue in the face about what makes art good.  But, in the end, we’re somewhat satisfied that we’ve chosen the past least taken.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and I know that much of my life, I’ve been a total music snob.  Sure, being from Kansas, I can do it with manner and a smile, but I’m still a snob.

When the four editors of progarchy and I started this website, we dedicated ourselves to promoting—as widely as possible—the beauty of music in all of its forms.  We’re each music snobs, of course, but we so want to make our snobbery general and widespread.  That is, we’d love to have Big Big Train playing on every rock station across North America.  Rock music is at a crossroads, and we think we can destroy the mediocrity and corporate vanilla the so prevails and gives rock a bad now.  Now, this truly is HUBRIS on our part!

One of the persons I find most intriguing over the last half century is Neil E. Peart.  Whether you agree with his political views or hate them, whether you think he’s a god among drummers or just a guy dealing with his ADHD, you have to give Peart credit for making his own way, no matter the cost and no matter the obstacles.

Just a few nights ago, Rush played their final show of R40.  The chances are pretty good that that show will be the last normal Rush show ever played.  After 41 years of constant success and considered artist endeavors, that’s huge!

Cultural RePercussions cover

[Remember, I warned you above!]

So, why Neil Peart?  Well, I try to answer this very question in NEIL PEART: CULTURAL (RE)PERCUSSIONS.  The biography comes out officially on September 15 from Kevin J. Anderson’s Word Fire Press.  For another 9 days, however, you can get an advanced review copy of the Peart bio for $15 from Humble Bundle.

I’m biased, but I’m really hoping you’ll purchase a copy.  I could explain to you that every time you buy a book, you put food on the table for my huge family.  But, this isn’t quite true.  Still, it would help for the college funds!

Mostly, though, I wrote this book to spread my love of all things Peart.

To be continued. . . .

ARC of NEIL PEART Bio is Now Available with Humble Bundle Press

For two weeks only, you can get an advanced review copy of NEIL PEART: CULTURAL (RE)PERCUSSIONS.

Available as an ARC for two weeks only with Humble Bundle.
Available as an ARC for two weeks only with Humble Bundle.

NEIL PEART: CULTURAL (RE)PERCUSSIONS is now available in early form. As an e-book, a part of the Humble Bundle. For two weeks only!

$15 and you get tons of books, including an advanced review copy of the Peart bio.

The final paperback and ebook (all formats) version will be out September 15.

$5.99/ebook
$14.99/paperback