News of the World … of Prog

Big Big Train’s announcement of the Passengers Club and North American tour dates were just the tip of the iceberg this week!  In other progressive rock-related news:

King Crimson and The Zappa Band (the latter an authorized project of Frank Zappa’s estate, featuring alumni from his 1980s bands) will tour the USA and Canada in June & July.  One tour date (at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts) in Virginia has been announced for June 30th; others will be announced soon.

The three-part Emerson Lake & Palmer epic “Karn Evil 9” is being developed as a science-fiction movie, to start production later this year.  ELP managers Stewart Young & Bruce Pilato will serve as producers, along with Carl Palmer and Radar Pictures (developers of the Jumanji and Riddick franchises).

Plenty of great album releases are on the way as well, including:

Tiger Moth Tales’ live CD/DVD A Visit to Zoetermeer, out on February 21 and available to pre-order on Bandcamp;

John Holden’s Rise and Fall, the follow-up to 2018’s well received Capture Light, out on February 29;

Fernando Perdomo’s Out to Sea 3: The Stormout on March 6;

Rick Wakeman & The English Rock Ensemble’s The Red Planetout in April.

Time, it would seem, for the world of prog rock to awaken from its long winter’s nap!

— Rick Krueger

 

 

Rick’s Retroarchy: Favorite 2017 Reissues

by Rick Krueger

I still have a few more albums to listen to before finalizing my favorite new releases of 2017.  To warm up, here are the reissues from this past year that:

  1. I absolutely had to buy, and
  2. That grabbed me on first listen (whether I’d previously owned a copy or not) and didn’t let go through repeated plays.  Except for my “top favorite” at the end of the post, I haven’t ranked ’em — in my opinion, they’re all equally worth your time.

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Progtoberfest: Day 2 Report

by Rick Krueger

The sun shone warmly again on the south side of Chicago as Progtoberfest III kicked off its second day.  Taking in the view as I exited the ‘L’, it was amusing and welcoming to see a familiar screaming face painted on the exterior of Reggie’s:

IMG_4097

Hoping to get Alphonso Johnson’s and Chester Thompson’s autographs in the VIP Lounge the night before, I’d struck up a delightful conversation with members of the North Carolina Genesis tribute band ABACAB.  In 2016, festival organizer Kevin Pollack had given them “homework” for this year: to play all of Genesis’ live album Seconds Out on the 40th anniversary of its release.  You could tell the band was nervous (they focus on 1980s Genesis to get bookings, so they had to learn half the album in the past year) but also absolutely thrilled to bring it to the Rock Club stage.  And on Saturday afternoon, they nailed it, to the joy of an enthusiastic, supportive crowd and rave reviews from other acts.  They’re already planning to return to Reggie’s in April as a headliner, and for Progtoberfest IV next October.  Check out why below:

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The Albums That Changed My Life: #1, Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson Lake and Palmer

by Rick Krueger

I’ve been seriously collecting recorded music (on vinyl, cassette, compact disc, DVD and Blu-Ray) for just over 40 years.  As you do, I’ve organized my collection in various ways.  For about the last 15 years, I’ve separated my favorites, regardless of genre, out into their own storage unit.  It looks like this as of today:

IMG_3523I used to refer to what’s on the top shelf — my very favorite recordings — as “the music I would save if the house caught on fire.”  Never mind that: 1) people matter more than stuff, and; 2) there’s no way that, if the house caught fire, I could actually pull it off.

Ultimately, it occurred to me that a better name for that top shelf’s contents is “the music that changed my life.”  In retrospect, every one of the albums perched there set me off in fresh musical directions and shaped what I listen to most, what I choose to collect, and even my vocation as a professional church organist and volunteer singer.  Sounds like a blog series in the making …

I plan to focus on one album in each post, starting with what I heard earliest and working forward.  I hope to distill what I love about the album, and reflect on how it’s influenced my listening (and my playing) over the years.  I’ll also list my other favorite albums from the same artist, along with selected faves in the same vein from other musicians.

Given how much I’ve written about Emerson Lake & Palmer here, it’s probably no surprise that, while Works Volume 1 was the first ELP album I bought, Brain Salad Surgery was my real gateway drug into progressive rock.   For starters, I’d already heard “Karn Evil 9, First Impression, Part Two,” “Jerusalem” and “Still … You Turn Me On” over the Detroit airwaves.  What was this stuff?  Utterly bizarre titles, a giddily deployed spectrum of musical colors colliding with each other, seemingly at random (harpsichord, accordion and wah-wah guitar in the same ballad?) and more keyboards in five minutes than in some bands’ entire recorded output — after assimilating the bombast of the Works 1 material, I had to check it out!

I was flabbergasted.  Brain Salad Surgery defined eclecticism for me, sweeping up an astonishingly broad range of styles. On the first four tracks, ELP attacked a hymn (“Jerusalem”), a contemporary classical concerto movement interrupted by an extended tympani cadenza (Alberto Ginastera’s “Toccata”), a lyrical ballad with oddball instrumental touches (“Still …”) and a 12-bar boogie with music hall lyrics and an utterly wild piano solo (“Benny the Bouncer”).  And that was just the warm-up for the epic “Karn Evil 9.”  Over the course of three impressions, split into four tracks by the side change, the band garnished their core sound with rare solo electric guitar from Lake, manic piano trio jazz, Emerson’s steel drum synthesizer (quoting sax giant Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” as I later discovered), gonzo military marches powered by Palmer, and a loose anti-war narrative that castigated modern politics and religion, only to succumb to absolute rule by sentient supercomputer.   Mind.  Blown.

I later came to understand why Brain Salad Surgery was where some longtime ELP fans got off the bandwagon.  Compared to more direct albums like their debut and Pictures at an Exhibition, this one goes over the top without looking back.  The dizzying musical whiplash, the often-obscure lyrics, knockabout and messianic by turns (Lake’s first collaborations with original King Crimson wordsmith Peter Sinfield), the aggressive high-velocity playing — it could all seem like Keith, Greg and Carl had taken the hype too seriously, and were about to vanish up their own backsides in their pursuit of world domination.  Given the arc of their career after the massive Welcome Back My Friends world tour, you could even argue that’s what happened.

But for me, the reckless abandon of Brain Salad Surgery is the secret of its appeal.   ELP’s music here is a mite undisciplined and overstuffed, sure — but it’s also virtuosic, tightly structured, fearless, and exhilarating.  Those qualities, held together in suspension by the trio’s undeniable musical chemistry, have made this album compelling listening for me for the last 40 years.  Not only do I play it again and again, I’ve grabbed almost every CD re-release over the years (including Jakko Jakszyk’s oddly askew 2014 remix). Plus, instead of settling into the status of beloved novelty, Brain Salad Surgery whetted my appetite for more music like it — not just prog, but jazz, jazz-rock, modern classical music — even folk ballads!  And every once in a while, when I need a particularly powerful organ prelude or postlude for Sunday morning, it’s still a blast to pull out all the stops and dive into “Jerusalem.”

Listen to the latest re-release of Brain Salad Surgery here:

More Faves by ELP: Tarkus, Trilogy, and Works Volume 1.  Plus Encores, Legends and Paradox, a Magna Carta tribute album from the 1990s; this features Robert Berry, John Wetton, Glenn Hughes and James Labrie on vocals, with members of Dream Theater, Yes, King Crimson, Magellan and Emerson’s buddy Marc Bonilla laying down backing tracks.

Still There’ll Be More: I have 100+ prog and prog-related discs on my favorites shelf, from proto-proggers like The Nice and Procol Harum to 21st-century giants such as Neal Morse, Steven Wilson and Big Big Train.  Here are the ten albums that are probably the closest to my heart, and that opened the doors widest for future exploration:

Bruford, One of A Kind

Robert Fripp, Exposure (combined with RF’s 1979 in-store Frippertronics concert at Peaches Records in Fraser, Michigan)

Genesis, Foxtrot and Wind & Wuthering

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King and Red

Porcupine Tree, Deadwing

Transatlantic, SMPT:e

UK, UK

Yes, Close to the Edge

 

 

 

 

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.)

 

 

Rick’s Retroarchy: Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the 1990s

by Rick Krueger

Interviewer: “Would you characterize the new album …  as a reunion? A comeback? Or something else?”

Derek St. Hubbins: “It’s both, really. We reuned and we came back.”

— interview with Spinal Tap, Guitar World magazine, April 1992

When Emerson, Lake & Palmer reformed in 1992, it wasn’t really a surprise.

Since the debacle of Love BeachCarl Palmer had recruited Greg Lake to pinch hit as Asia’s bassist and vocalist for a MTV broadcast from Japan.  Then Keith Emerson had reconnected with Lake, drafting Cozy Powell as drummer for a well-received album that both evoked and modernized the classic ELP sound.  Then a post-Asia Palmer and singer/songwriter Robert Berry had partnered with Emerson in the more commercial (though less successful) AOR band 3.  All the possible pairings had played out: the only other option, as Spinal Tap put it, was to reune.  And at least attempt a comeback.

Continue reading “Rick’s Retroarchy: Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the 1990s”

Rick’s Retroarchy: Love Beach by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

by Rick Krueger.  (Third in a series; you can also check out reviews of Works Volume 1 and Works Volume 2.)

My first reaction to Love Beach (purchased at the Grosse Pointe location of Harmony House, after hearing “The Gambler” on Detroit rock radio in November 1978) wasn’t about the music.  It was about the merchandising insert included with the first pressing.  I think my actual thoughts were something along the lines of, “They’re selling satin Love Beach jogging shorts?!?”

Continue reading “Rick’s Retroarchy: Love Beach by Emerson, Lake and Palmer”

Rick’s Retroarchy: Works Volume 2 by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

by Rick Krueger

When I picked up Works Volume 2 (on the day after Thanksgiving 1977, at Hansen’s Music Store in Greenville, Michigan — thanks for taking me along, Mom!), it didn’t feel like a disappointment.  In fact, on first listen it was a nifty change of pace from the orchestral bombast of Volume 1 — 12 shorter tracks, all new to me, exploring the jazz, blues and boogie that only occasionally showed up on ELP’s earlier records.

Continue reading “Rick’s Retroarchy: Works Volume 2 by Emerson, Lake and Palmer”

Rick’s Retroarchy: Works Volume 1 by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

by Rick Krueger

“The word ‘bombastic’ keeps coming up as if it were some trap I keep falling into … when I’m bombastic, I have my reasons. I want to be bombastic.  Take it or leave it.” – Dave Brubeck

What were they thinking?

You’re Emerson, Lake & Palmer, coming off a three-year layoff  — though admittedly, you were at the top of the charts and your game when you downed tools.  To regain your fan base and add to your audience, would you come back with a double album that had one side of material by each band member (with guest players and full orchestras) and only one side of ELP playing together?  And then, would you take a 59-piece orchestra and 6-voice choir on the road with you?  To most people, that would sound like a recipe for disaster.

Continue reading “Rick’s Retroarchy: Works Volume 1 by Emerson, Lake and Palmer”

Remembering ELP: Genuine Art and Beauty

Bruce Frohnen has an essay over at TIC about ELP, arguing that they are “the most important musical group of the rock era.” Here’s part of his argument:

“Karn Evil 9” is not overblown, it is genuinely and intentionally music on a grand scale, combining classical techniques with multiple, interlacing rhythms, and polyphony to immerse the listener in a web of sound that for a time creates its own reality.

“Counterpoint” is a concept (not to say a reality) little understood among most rock musicians; but it was crucial to ELP’s ability to produce sounds that made sense at a level frankly higher than can be achieved in most blues-based music, with its emphasis on a single, simple melody underscored by rhythms deeply rooted in a single beat. At their usual best, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer performed according to a vision of rock music as rooted in the classical past. They produced both direct classical adaptations (“Fanfare for the Common Man” being the most famous) and original compositions that likewise combined modern rhythm and technique with melodic sophistication to create genuine art—pieces of beauty capable of affecting the souls of listeners.