Review: The Mercy Stone – Ghettoblaster

Ghettoblaster

There is music that I can’t relate to. Sometimes it’s because the song is plainly stupid, trite, or obnoxious that I just wish it would be sent into the sun. It’s like your friend who posts way too much personal stuff on Facebook, you just want to scream “Stop”. Then, there is an even more perverse music, a music that speaks like a man half-way through a Xanax withdrawal, a music that both baffles the mind and produces a near awkward laughter in the listener. This is the music of lunatics, music that I would say (in the most professional of instances of course) has gone “completely bananas”.

And here we are with just an album, The Mercy Stone’s debut experimentation Ghettoblaster. An album I am sure my closest friends are sick of hearing and hearing about in the last coupe of weeks, yet it took me some time to write about it because — life.

If you are someone who actually was alive to see the prog spectacle of the ‘70s you may remember the slightly nerdy King Crimson or even the lord dorkdom of the cape wearing Yes. While there are many genuinely cringe worthy moments from those bands nothing — and until I can be proven wrong I genuinely mean NOTHING compares to the awkward vibe you get from Ghettoblaster.

The Mercy Stone is a new project; it’s been around for a few years and was assembled by composer and guitarist Scott Grady — who has a master’s degree in music composition — and who assembled a 12-piece group to “to put his composition chops to work within a project that would have the substance and sophistication fitting for a contemporary-classical concert stage as well as the accessibility that would be palatable to rock audiences.” Going simply-said for an extraordinary amalgam of Classical Music, Jazz and Rock, the group presents a large body of work with their full-length debut Ghettoblaster. Large as in bringing together Stravinsky, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Radiohead, Bach, Nine Inch Nails, Pink Floyd, to name but a few.

The music on Ghettoblaster is very well composed and performed. Grady tends to pull together a strong cast of performers for his musical circus act. These fine tunes tend to be something to marvel at. It is this dichotomy that provides more of the head scratching moments. The album progresses in a peculiar, but fairly typical fashion during the majority of its run time. You might find the music endearing and charming as it blends rock, jazz, and classical qualities.

The ‘70s were a glorious period in music because people were getting paid way too much money to do all sorts of crazy projects, and even though some of the end results were complete disasters there was a sincerity to them. There was no sense of irony or pretentiousness in the attitudes of the musicians, they just wanted to make weird and complicated music. With Ghettoblaster, this ensemble does exactly that. The Mercy Stone are driven by the love of music, and it pays back — maybe not filling their pockets, but rather something on a higher, more spiritual level. Highly recommended.

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Richard Barbieri’s Prog-Electronica Genius

richardbarbieriI was first exposed to that exotic, amorphous musical genre called “electronica” in junior high by a friend who listened to what we called “weird stuff”. I’m not even sure what it was; some of it was from Japan. It made a dent in my memory banks, however, because until then my musical interests had been confined to some classical (Brahms! Mozart! Good!), Top 40 rock (Queen! Also good!), and lots of mediocre CCM (Not good!). During my high school years I listened to a good deal of The Alan Parsons Project, in part because of the huge hit “Eye In the Sky”; I eventually collected all of the APP albums. Parsons, of course, has straddled the worlds of progressive rock and mainstream pop/rock with his production prowess, writing, and work with keyboards and Fairlight programming. In hindsight, his music opened the door in various ways to music that was more overtly electronic.

(A quick, semi-related aside: A good friend in high school, who spent a lot of money on a fabulous car stereo system, liked to alternate between playing—very loudly—the raunchy rap of 2 Live Crew and the muzak of Yanni: the first to demonstrate his system’s bass; the latter to show off it’s high end. I’m not sure which music scarred me more.)

In the late Eighties and early Nineties there was an explosion of so-called “New Age” music (which had been around since the Sixties and whose identity has been hotly debated for decades), much of which was ambient or involved whales bellowing, birds chirping, and flowers clapping their petals. I mostly  ignored it, but did eventually latch onto the music of Patrick O’Hearn, whose solo albums on the Private Music label were lush, complex, mysterious, evocative, and never boring, even at their most sedate. O’Hearn, like all of the finest electronica artists, is the master of tone and mood; the music is rarely about virtuosity—unlike wide swaths of prog rock—but about constructing layers and movements. I liken it to a painter who builds layers of luminosity into his work through patient precision (more on the visual arts parallel in a moment).

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of cross-pollination going on between some “New Age” artists and various progressive rock groups and musicians. O’Hearn, who has legit jazz chops—he studied with jazz giant and bassist Gary Peacock—played with Frank Zappa as a youngster, and then with the new-wave band Missing Persons; the Private Music label featured a number of musicians with deep ties to progressive rock. (Another good example of this relationship can be found in Jon Anderson’s albums with Kitaro and Vangelis.) In the 1990s I bought several albums by Moby, Portishead, Björk, Aphex Twin, and Massive Attack, even while I ignored (for whatever reason) other key artists (Brian Eno, for instance).

Richard Barbieri is, of course, no stranger to prog fans, being a key member of Japan and Porcupine Tree and having worked in a number of other settings. His new album “Planets + Persona” [Kscope Music] is his third solo album, following 2005’s “Things Buried” and 2008’s “Stranger Inside”, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit. The three albums are similar in many ways, but this new album seems, to me, to be warmer, more organic (or acoustic), and more contemplative. Geno Thackara, at AllAboutJazz.com, explains it so: Continue reading “Richard Barbieri’s Prog-Electronica Genius”

How to Listen to Jazz, by Ted Gioia

A taste of a great book review by Paul Beston:

Gioia is so confident that newcomers can appreciate jazz in part because he believes that objective benchmarks of evaluation exist, and that, in the case of jazz, we can listen for fundamental “building blocks” such as rhythm, dynamics, pitch and timbre, and phrasing. This view puts him at odds with more theoretical critics who claim that subjectivity is the only aesthetic standard. Nonsense, says Gioia: “Understanding jazz (or any other form of artistic expression) can never be reduced to personal whim or some flamboyant deconstructive manipulation of signifiers but always builds on a humble realization that these works impose their reality on us. . . . and in this manner can be distinguished from escapism or shallow entertainment, which instead aims to adapt to the audience, to give the public exactly what it wants. We can tell that we are encountering a real work of art by the degree to which it resists our subjectivity.” In this one passage, Gioia manages to push back against both highbrow and lowbrow wrongheadedness.

Frank Sinatra: Grandfather of Prog Rock?

I originally posted this a year ago, to mark the 99th anniversary of Sinatra’s birthday on December 12th. After reading this USA Today article on Sinatra’s influence on “the world”, I thought it made sense to re-post it to mark the centenary of his birth.

sinatra_studio
Sinatra in studio in the 1950s, during his Capitol years.

“Well, yes, of course,” you said, upon reading the headline. “Everyone knows that Old Blue Eyes was not just a crooner, but a prog crooner, and thus the grandfather of prog rock! Does it really need to be said again?” Yes, it probably should, despite the abundance of articles on the topic (ahem). Especially since today marks what would have been The Chairman of the Board’s 99th birthday if he was still among us. Sinatra was born on this day in 1915, in Hoboken, New Jersey, and would go on to be one of the best-known, best-selling musical artists of the 20th century, rivaled in sales and popularity by only a handful of artists and groups.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that Sinatra was a “prog rocker”. I might be a Sinatra fanboy—I have over 1,200 Sinatra songs in my iTunes library and listen to some of his music nearly every day—but I’m not insane. At least not that insane. What I am saying is that Sinatra did a number of things on the musical front that were either quite unique or very notable (and probably little known to most people), that pointed toward key elements and attitudes making up what we now call “prog”.

Here, then, are five things that make The Voice the Grandfather of Prog: Continue reading “Frank Sinatra: Grandfather of Prog Rock?”

Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 29

Welcome to day two of my ‘Album Of The Year 2015’ countdown. If you missed the opening instalment of what is a series that will either make or break me, you can check it out right here: Album of the Year 2015 – Number 30. Additionally, if you missed my similar countdowns from the past […]

https://manofmuchmetal.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/album-of-the-year-2015-number-29/

Review: Jason Rubenstein NEW METAL FROM OLD BOXES

Review: Jason Rubenstein, NEW METAL FROM OLD BOXES (Tone Cluster, 2014).

new metalSo.  You’ve been a progger since the 1970s, you’re musically trained, and and you’ve enjoyed a solid if now former career as a software engineer with several major companies.  What do you do?  You write a brilliant, stunning, majestic soundtrack to your life, especially if you live in glorious San Francisco.

I exaggerate a bit, but not much.  This, essentially, is the background to music maestro Jason Rubenstein.  He has just released a rather stunning album, New Metal from Old Boxes (Tone Cluster, 2014; mixed by Niko Bolas and mastered by Ron McMaster).  While many Americans and other citizens of western civilization might simply desire new wine from old bottles, those of us who live in the republic of progarchy can rejoice heartily.  We can have our wine and our Rubenstein!

From the first listen, I was hooked.  This is a mesmerizing album best described as cinematic.  While dark and brooding (just look at Rubenstein’s photo—the guy is the perfect Hollywood dark hero), the music is always playful and mischievous, never coming anywhere near the dread of dull.

Almost effortlessly, Rubenstein employs classical jazz, noir jazz, prog, metal, classical, and jazz fusion.  If I had to label it, I’d called it “Cinematic metal prog.”  At times, it’s downright frantic, always extravagant, but never campy or over-the-top.  While this is certainly Rubenstein’s creation, he is never shy about borrowing styles from those he clearly admires.  I hears lots of The Tangent, ELP, King Crimson, Cosmograf, Cailyn, Tool, Dead Can Dance, and even Wang Chung (only from their spectacular To Live and Die in LA soundtrack)

Alex Lifeson? Harrison Ford? No.  Jason Rubenstein.
Alex Lifeson? Harrison Ford? No. Jason Rubenstein.

Rubenstein credits himself with keyboards, synths, samplers, computers, programming, and angry noises.  In terms of sound quality, this album is perfection itself.  Pardon me for employing such a Catholic term, but its production is immaculate.  Even the packaging is a work of art.  Like the music, it is dark, brooding, and industrial.  Intricate pipes and strings, smelting of iron, nail heads (in a V’ger pattern), more strings, more pipes, and, then, rather profoundly, a GQ-Rubenstein, looking every bit the Hollywood action hero.

Admittedly, looking over my review, I’m tempted to fear that I have given the impression this is just a hodge podge of musical ideas.  Please note, that nothing could be further from the truth.  This is the soundtrack of your best day.

 

To visit Jason Rubenstein’s beautifully designed website, go here.

Hiromi’s “Alive”: Jazz for Progarchists!

The petite, dynamic, big-haired bundle of mesmerizing musical energy named Hiromi Uehara (official website) recently released her ninth solo album in eleven years. Titled “Alive” (Concord Music Group, 2014), it is arguably her most overtly jazz album. Yet it also contains plenty of fusion, rock, and, yes, prog influences, as have her previous releases, which are marked by an instantly recognizable combination of breathtaking technique, astounding precision and speed, complex time changes, and boundless, mind-boggling virtuosity. I’ve been following her career since her debut album, “Another Mind” (2003), and have been both amazed and enriched by her music.hiromi_alive

However, one of the criticisms leveled against Hiromi, by some inside and outside the jazz world, is that her prodigious technical abilities tend to overshadow—or even overwhelm—other qualities, including nuance, emotion, and interpretive insight and dialogue. I think there is some merit to those criticisms, but I take them with a grain of salt. Frankly, the Argument From Lack of Emotion is, at best, quite subjective. Some people simply don’t like, or cannot handle, a cascade of notes (and last time I looked, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson are both, rightly, hailed as jazz greats; and Hiromi loves Peterson’s music). Plus, I think many such critics miss the apparent fact that Hiromi, while clearly working within the broad realm of jazz, is also very much a prog-rocker in her heart of hearts—as well as a player of funk, soul, R&B, metal, electronica and, well, you get the idea. And all of us here at Progarchy.com know how often prog rock is criticized for having an abundance of technique but a lack of emotion resonance, a criticism that almost alway tells me much more about the critic than it does the music.

Hiromi’s acknowledged influences include the obvious—Ahmad Jamal (a mentor, and a jazz giant), Chick Corea (they recorded a duet album), Bach and Franz Liszt (the classical influences are often front and center)—and the not so obvious, at least to many listeners: Dream Theater, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, and Robert Fripp. The short bio on ProgArchives.com site states, “Her style brings a wholly new approach to jazz fusion, as her prog influence is derived primarily from such artists as King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and Frank Zappa rather than earlier jazz fusion artists. Her music is almost orchestral in scope, and each of the musicians she plays with has a virtuosic grasp of their instrument, allowing for each instrumentalist to have an approximately equal role in the direction of the music. Her music is more melodious than traditional jazz fusion but with an equally complex sense of rhythm. Time signature changes are not in short supply here.” It’s impossible for a prog rock lover to hear, say, “Return of the Kung-Fu Champion” (from her second album, “Brain”), and not hear a lot of prog influences in the mix:

Continue reading “Hiromi’s “Alive”: Jazz for Progarchists!”

Brand X – rare recordings

As a teenager I was a big fan of Genesis (and still am), and as a budding, slightly obsessive completist I sought out the solo material and extra-mural projects of band members as well as the group recordings (as much as my limited income at the time would allow). It was through this route that I had my first real encounter with Jazz Rock Fusion, in the guise of Phil Collins’ solo project, ‘Brand X’.

I was quickly blown away by the virtuosity, energy and inventiveness of Messrs Collins, Goodsall, Lumley Jones & Pert, with later contributions from Robinson, Giblin & Clark. This was exciting music, which took me to places that Prog rock didn’t, and I loved it (and it took me into the multi-faceted realms of more conventional jazz, too). I even managed to catch the band on tour in 1980 at Bradford University, sharing the bill with Bruford, which was a particular joy.

I was delighted to discover that some of the band’s rarer material had become more widely available recently. One was a live recording of a show the band performed in September 1979 at the Roxy, LA. Most of the material here is from the ‘Product’ album (the first of their recordings that I bought, and which they were promoting at the time), and the recordings are of a slightly poor quality, probably being audience-recorded bootlegs. There is a good interaction between band and crowd, with some attempts at Pythonesque humour in places (the band had Michael Palin write sleeve notes for ‘Do They Hurt’ in 1980), though there are some slightly annoying ‘whoops’ from the audience at times: throughout, the musicianship is first rate, as one would expect.

The other is a collection of early session recordings from 1975 & 1976 with early versions of tunes from their first couple of albums, and other material which never made the official releases. So we have ‘Dead Pretty’, which became ‘Born Ugly’; ‘Why Won’t You Lend Me Yours?’ which emerges as ‘Why Should I Lend You Mine (When You’ve Broken Yours Off Already)’; and an early version of live standard ‘Malaga Virgen’, which begins life as ‘Miserable Virgin’.

An interesting couple of collections, which give some insights into the workings of this great group of musicians.

And my concert of the year is…

No, no, no: this is not a post about choosing my favorite concert of 2013 out of fifty concerts attended—for the simple reason that I’ve not attended a single rock concert this year. Not one. (However, I did attend an organ concert a couple of months ago, and it was stunning. But that’s another post.) The fact is, I am one of those pathetic souls (I’m only being half-self-deprecating) who owns some 60,000 songs and has been to very few concerts over the years. In fact, I’ve attended so few relative to my love for music that the one concert that really stands out to me is one I missed: Jeff Buckley in Portland, Oregon, on May 8, 1995. I thought of going, but it was on a Monday night, I had to work early the next morning, I was newly married (and my wife wasn’t a Buckley fan)—and then Buckley drowned two years later. Rock concerts that stand out for the right reason—that is, I actually attended them—include Seal (1994), Martin Sexton (three times), Brandi Carlile (three times), and Def Leppard (1988). I’ve never attended a true prog concert, which probably should get me kicked off of Progarchy.com.

However, I’ve had better luck with jazz—my favorite musical form, when push comes to shove—having seen Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Brad Mehldau (twice), Michael Brecker, Roy Hargrove, and Wayne Shorter in concert, all here in Eugene, Oregon, of all places. Eugene, the home of the University of Oregon (or Nike, if you will), does have some big names drop in on occasion—Elton John was here a couple of years ago, as was the Dali Lama, who did not sing—but not many. Portland is two hours away, but rarely has prog groups perform, as far as I know.

All of which to say that my concert of the year is going to be a solo Chris Cornell show in a couple of weeks at The Shedd, a wonderful and intimate venue (see here and here) all of five minutes from my house. And, yes, my wife is going with me, because she’s game for hearing Cornell with just an acoustic guitar; I doubt she’d go for a Soundgarden gig. This is Cornell’s second “Songbook” tour, and his performances on the first tour earned rave reviews, leading to the release of the “Songbook” album, which featured plenty of great Cornell tunes and some covers (“Imagine”, “Thank You”, and “Billie Jean” being favorites). Cornell is a triple threat: a great rock singer, a fabulous (if often under appreciated) songwriter, and a fine interpreter who likes to go into surprising territory at times, as his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” demonstrates (he first played it about ten years ago in Sweden). Those who have read my, ahem, detailed review of Soundgarden’s “King Animal” know that I find Cornell’s lyrics to be particular fascinating. A good example of the lyrical prowess is evident in a little known but intriguing Cornell song, “Scar on the Sky” from his second solo album, “Carry On”. Meanwhile, I plan to write about the concert, which will likely be free of prog but still long on great music.

As I fall I leave this scar upon the sky
A simple note for you, I’ll wait for your reply
And in your answer I’ll regain my will to try

So hover in the diving light
We will rip the night
Out of the arms of the sun one more time
Close your eyes and we will fly
Above the clouded sky
And over the dumbstruck world we will run

In these hills they wash the golden grains away
To the valley under all of this I lay
And may you dig me out unearthed and saved

Poor Richard’s Inconsequential Idea

Heaven knows I admire Richard M. Weaver.ideas

The great Southern scholar and philosopher hails from my neck of the woods.  He grew up in Weaverville, NC, just up the road from my mother’s people in Leicester.  His Southern Essays is a book I hold almost as closely as the Bible; it reminds me of who I am and where I come from.  It introduced me (before Russell Kirk) to my early American political hero, that colorful, bull-whip cracking intransigent, John Randolph of Roanoke, with his special blend of “social bond individualism.”  Weaver shaped my understanding and thinking in ways that will ever remain with me.

His most famous book is Ideas Have Consequences, a tour de force in traditional conservative thought and social commentary.   Weaver saw the rejection of universals as the harbinger of a disordered mind and disordered society.   Symptomatic, in his view, were certain elements of pop culture, notably jazz music.  On this score, just as Randolph broke with Jefferson, I have to break with the great intellect.

Edward Feser wrote a fantastic 2010 blog post that took Weaver’s ideas on jazz to task.

Weaver and I agree that it was a catastrophe to abandon realism about universals, to deny that things – including, most importantly, human beings – have essences which define an objective standard of goodness for them. But realism comes in different forms, and the different forms have different moral, theological, cultural, and political implications.

Feser draws a distinction between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies and finds Weaver defaulting to a Manichean view of music.

[Weaver] tells us that jazz is a mark of modern civilization’s “barbarism,” “disintegration,” and “primitivism.” Why? His reasons seem to boil down to four: First, jazz evinces “a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement” and an eschewal of “form or ritual”; second, its celebration of the soloist’s virtuosity is a mark of “egotism” or “individualization”; third, its appeal lies in “titillation” and its themes are often “sexual or farcical,” appealing to the “lower” rather than “higher centers,” so that it fails to raise us to “our metaphysical dream”; fourth, it is “the music of equality.” Obviously, what he says about jazz applies also to other elements of modern pop culture.

Let’s consider Weaver’s concerns in order. First, it is, of course, by now a commonplace that to accuse jazz of formlessness or lack of structure is the height of superficiality. From swing to bop to modal jazz to fusion to acid jazz, it does not take much listening to discern the order underlying even the freest improvisation. Even free jazz has structure, though as I indicated in my previous post, it is so abstract that it can (in my view, anyway) only ever be of purely intellectual rather than aesthetic interest. It is hard not to see in Weaver’s criticism the Platonist’s impatience with the messiness and complexity of the real world, a desire for all form or order to be simple and evident enough to be accessible from the armchair. As the Aristotelian realizes…to know the essences of things we actually have to get our hands dirty and investigate them empirically, in all their rich detail. If the structure of jazz is complex and unobvious, it is in that respect only mimicking the world of our experience.

To which I say, “amen.”  Certainly this applies to progressive music as well.  Perhaps none combined fusion elements better than a band that came up in Weaver’s back yard, the Dixie Dregs.  Begun as a lab project at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, the Dregs engaged one another in complex musical conversations that exemplified a flair and swagger secured in its own kind of social bond individualism.

At least I have to believe the audacious John Randolph would have celebrated the Dixie Dregs, even if Richard Weaver would have been freaked out.

So here’s to ideas and their consequences — to getting our hands dirty —  from the appropriately titled Dregs of the Earth.