Happy Talk Talk Day

It’s April 5, the day we all thank the Good Lord for the artistry of Mark Hollis and Talk Talk.

Thank you, Mark, Lee, Paul, Phill, and Tim.

 

As bad as bad becomes
It’s not a part of you
And love is only sleeping
Wrapped in neglect
Time it’s time to live,
Time it’s time to live through the pain
Time it’s time to live
Now that it’s all over
Time it’s time to live,
Time it’s time to live through the pain
Now that it’s over,
Now that it’s over
Kissing a grey garden
Shadow and shade
Sunlight treads softly

Nosound’s Teide 2390: Profoundly Delicate

nosound teide
Nosound.  Kscope, 2015.

Of all the bands I love and review, the hardest to review—without question—is Nosound.  At least for me.

This post is a perfect example to illustrate my failings.  I’ve had a copy of Nosound’s 2015 live album, TEIDE 2390, for nearly a year, and I’ve still not written a review.  And, if you know me, you know I’m obsessed with writing, and I’m especially obsessed with writing about what I love.

I was recently told as a criticism: in my writing, I “fling superlatives.”  My response to this is: “why, yes, I absolutely and most certainly love to fling superlatives.”  It’s true.  Just imagine what I’m like when I’m lecturing to forty 19-year olds.

With Nosound, however, it’s really, really (sometimes outrageously!) hard to fling superlatives.  Why?  Because everything glorious about Nosound is understated, tasteful, and minimalist.  As a 48-year old Kansan, I just don’t do minimalist well.  At least when it comes to writing.  Yet, I know and appreciate minimalism—especially when it comes to the computers and gadgets designed by Steve Jobs (rest in peace) or the music so lovingly crafted by Mark Hollis or Arvo Part.

Enter Giancarlo Erra.  His Nosound is profoundly delicate.  Not effete.  By not means, effete.  Never.  But, certainly delicate.

As I’ve written before, Erra is a genius, plain and simple.  This is as clear in his photography as it is in his music and his lyrics.  Again, far from effete, he approaches art and the world of art and creativity with an extreme sensitivity.  His creativity in his photography is as much about what is not there as it as about what is there.

The same is even more true of his music.  Nosound is as much about silence as it about notes.

Throw in Erra’s somewhat mystical lyrics and dream-like vocals and you find yourself—as a listener—fully immersed in his world, drifting along some radically natural psychedelic dream state.

His lyrics deal with frustration, loss, desire, hope, depression, joy, and everything that matters in this world and, perhaps, in the next.

A little over seventy-five minutes in length and recorded in September, 2014, on a Spanish island, TEIDE 2390 demonstrates that Erra’s genius is not merely in the studio.  As he’s demonstrated before—his live version of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” is possibly better than the original version from the early 1970s (heresy, I know!)—he knows exactly how to create a full minimalist sound, even on stage and away from the hyper-controlled environment of a professional studio.  This is no small achievement, as the music demands the full attention of an audience that probably would not mind head banging.  No one head bangs to Nosound.  Instead, one swirls, and rides, and flies, and soars, and dips, and drifts.

I think it’s probably fair to state that many proggers like their music heavy and fast.  Erra reminds us so importantly that we need to breathe as well.

My Best of 2014, Part I: By the Way. Which one is Pink?

PINK-FLOYD-THE-ENDLESS-RIVER-album-artwork-low-res-600x350In a previous post or two, I’ve tried to explain what I mean by 2014 being a significant year in the history of progressive rock.  Something(s)—though I still can’t quite get my fingers exactly on it—is quite different.  That is, 2014 is not 2013, in the way that 2013 resembled but improved upon 2012, 2011, and 2010.

And, just to be clear, I’m not one of those proggers who actually thinks all new music must progress in the sense of offering some new technique the world has never heard before.  Sure, I love innovation.  But, never for innovation’s sake.  Innovation, by its very nature, is always momentary.  I want permanence.  And, permanence comes only with the discovery and uncovering of beauty.  If the new technique or innovation leads to a better understanding of beauty, so be it.  But, I would, I hope, always choose the timeless and true and beautiful over the clever and ephemeral.

So, what’s different about 2014 and what I believe to be a new wave of progressive rock?  Three things spring to mind.  First, the best of 2014—and there’s an immense amount of good—is beautiful.  Second, it’s eclectic.  Third, it’s atmospheric.

A few years ago, several progarchists were happily complaining that so much prog is being released into the world that it’s impossible to catch up with it or, once caught up, stay up with it.  True, I think.  And, all to the good.  Competition is rarely a bad thing, and competition for market and attention has forced proggers to think in very creative and entrepreneurial ways.  This is as true in selling music as it is in making music.

Take one very specific example.  Andy Tillison has always been one of the two or three demigods of Third Wave prog.  Take a listen, however, to his 2014 release, Electronic Sinfonia No. 2.  It is a thing of intense beauty, eclectic, and atmospheric.  It is the perfect fourth-wave prog release, in many, many ways.

Because we’ve been so overwhelmed with so much goodness over the last two decades, and, especially, the last few years, Anathema’s Distant Satellite is a severe disappointment.  Had it been released five years ago, it would have been pretty great.  Now, though, in this context, it’s simply a parody of Anathema and Radiohead.

Well, enough ranting.  I’d like to start describing my favorites of this year.  In no particular order, I offer my first glimpse into my loves of 2014.  Pink Floyd’s THE ENDLESS RIVER.  I’ve been shocked at how many folks on the internet have decried it, as a betrayal to Roger Waters and to traditional Pink Floyd.  Since when has PF ever been traditional?  The Endless River is something PF has never been before.  It has echoes of Echoes, but it also had a lot of Tangerine Dream in it.  It’s interesting, it’s soaring, it’s daring, it’s full of whale song.  Just listen to Skins and Unsung.  There’s no ego.  Just flight.

And, what an incredible honor to the brilliance of Rick Wright.

I’e always liked Mike Portnoy.  In fact, I’ve been quite taken with him, and I’ve been more than willing to put up with his own eccentricities and strong opinions.  But, when he lamented a new PF album this past summer, something in me gave.  My respect for the former DT drummer has declined dramatically.

Around the time that the Division Bell was released, Wright admitted that he feared that PF had lost some of its creativity, and he cited Mark Hollis as an inspiration.  Talk Talk, he argued, got away with much, mostly because Hollis had the integrity to dream and dare.  He wanted Floyd to have the same spirit.

Well, here it is.  THE ENDLESS RIVER.

What do David Gilmour and Nick Mason have to prove?  Nothing, really.  And, they prove nothing except the ability to offer a memorial to Rick.  Amen.  If every person in the world offered such a tribute to a lost friend, this would be a much better world.

Gilmour and Mason, I salute you for doing the right thing, the good thing, the true thing.

Don’t Overlook Airbag

One of the best and most interesting Englishmen I’ve never actually met in person, Richard Thresh, recommended I check out a Norwegian band, Airbag, about two summers ago.  Richard’s views and recommendations are almost always (in fact, I can’t think of one with which I’ve disagreed) spot on.  He cautioned me that a lot of prog folk in the U.K. have dismissed them as warmed-over Pink Floyd, but that I should still listen to them anyway.

Airbag GreatestI did.  But, appearances first.

Their first album cover—the best in my opinion—could be the sequel to Talk Talk’s The Party’s Over.  This has James Marsh written (illustrated!) all over it.  A single bulbous blue eye cries a teardrop of blood.  It is equally disturbing and artistically enticing.

Before even talking indepth about the music, let me add up a couple of things.  A recommendation from Richard Thresh, a band from Norway, and a cover painting inspired by James Marsh.  Three for three.

What about the music?  Yes, they wear their Pink Floyd (mostly Gilmour) influences rather dramatically on their psychedelic sleeves.  In fact, they do so really loudly.  And, the cover of their most recent album, Greatest Show on Earth, has a very 1980s Floydish look.  The guitarwork could be done by a student of Gilmour’s, and the organist possesses a rather Wrightish touch.

Comparing them to Floyd, though, isn’t enough.  Not surprisingly, especially given the artwork of the first album, a rather strong air of Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene hangs over all in a thick entangled and shifting haze as well.

Some reviewers also have heard some A-ha in Airbag.  Granted, each band begins with an A, and each is from Norway.  Otherwise, I hear no similarities at all between the two.  This, though, is quite possibly a limitation on my part, as I own all of Airbag’s music, while I’ve listened to only two of A-ha’s albums—each years ago.

Whatever influences these guy wear openly, they are their own band.  The musicianship of Airbag is simply outstanding.  For proof of this, listen to their two-track live album, Live in Oslo (2008).  Holy smokes, this is great stuff.  Though only 24 minutes long, Live in Oslo ranks, at least in my mind, as a live recording up there with Rush’s Exit Stage Left and Anathema’s Universal.  These guys can really, really, really (I could keep going here) play.

It was listening to this short live album that convinced me of their excellence.  The two songs sound almost conducted in the sense that Bruno Walter conducts the Viennese Philharmonic.

airbag identityA point about the lyrics.  I know absolutely nothing in any personal way about the musicians in Airbag.  If they vote socialist or if they worship Freya—I have no idea.

But, I really (yes, multiply this word several times) like their lyrics.  The lyrics are more Hollis than Floyd.  And, that’s a good thing, as they reach a very poetic level.  One could easily listen to the vocals merely as another instrument in the Airbag’s music–the singer is this good to be a standalone instrument—but one should really attempt to bring the lyrics and their meaning into he music.  As just mentioned, they reach poetic levels, but they also deal very interestingly with what might be called, apolitically, libertarian themes.  Meaning, they lyrics explore very nicely and intelligently the role of community, individuality, rights, artistry, creativity, and conformity.

My final word in this post.  Don’t let the comparisons to Pink Floyd throw you off.  Yes, the band is rather proudly and openly Floydian, but in terms of skill, musicianship, harmony, purpose, and lyricism, they reach toward great heights.

When your monthly budget allows you to purchase that next cd and you’re in the mood to try out a new band, don’t overlook these guys.

I almost did, but Richard Thresh prevented me from making this mistake.  Start with the two-song live album.  If you like it, purchase any or all of their three studio albums: Identity; All Rights Removed; and/or The Greatest Show on Earth.  You won’t regret it.  In fact, you might even need to send a thank you note to Richard.

A31057

With the Coming of Friendship: Kevin McCormick’s First Album

with the coming
Cover of 1993’s WITH THE COMING OF EVENING.

This month at Progarchy, in addition to writing and analyzing about many, many things, we’re having a bit of celebration of Kevin McCormick’s first album, With the Coming of Evening (1993).  It’s been 20 years since it first appeared, and, sadly, this masterpiece is still relatively forgotten.

This needs to change.

It’s nearly impossible to label in terms of styles.  McCormick, much influenced by every great composer, performer, and group from Andres Segovia and Viktor Villa-Lobos to Rush and Talk Talk, brings everything good to his music.

A nationally award-winning poet, published composer (for classical guitar as well as choir), and professional classical guitarist, he offers his very artful being and soul to his music.  Like many in the prog world, McCormick’s a perfectionist in everything he does.  But, it’s not completely fair to label this album “in the prog world,” though it comes as close to prog as any genre in the music world.

Had With the Coming of Evening been released now, in the days of internet sovereignty, many would label this album as post-rock or post-prog, akin to the Icelandic shoe-gazing of Sigur Ros.  No doubt, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock hover lovingly over this work, though McCormick is always his own man.

Very much so.

Nor, would he have it any other way.  As humble as he is talented, McCormick would gladly take blame for any fault, and, being Kevin, he would rarely take credit for anything brilliant he produces.  He would say he discovered what is already, simply having been the first to notice it or remember it.

Still it’s his name on the work, and he recognizes that this comes with a certain amount of responsibility and duty–to all who came before him and all who will come after him.  McCormick would even want his inspirations to be proud of him.  After all, what would Mark Hollis think of just some ghastly American cover band?

No, McCormick is his own man.

My bias

I should be upfront about my bias.  I’ve known Kevin since the fall of 1986, when we were each freshmen in college.  Though we’d talked off an on our first month and a half of the semester, it was on a plane ride from Chicago to Denver over fall break that really allowed us to get to know each other.  After that, we were as thick as thieves.  Well, as thieving as two would-be Catholic boys could be.

As with all meaningful college friendships, we talked late into the night, read and critiqued each other’s work, had deep (well, at the time, they seemed deep) philosophical debates, talked (of course) about girls, discussed which albums were the best ever, mocked the cafeteria food, and so on.

The following year, we traveled throughout southern Europe and also the UK together.  I spent the year in Innsbruck, Austria, and Kevin lived in Rome.

When traveling together for three weeks in England, we paid homage to all of the great recording studios, tried to find Mark Hollis at EMI headquarters, and even (oh so very obnoxiously) thought we’d tracked down Sting’s house.  Kevin rang the doorbell, but, thank the Good Lord, neither Mr. Sting nor Mrs. Sting answered.

We also, of course, visited Stonehenge.

If we’d had Facebook, then, we probably would’ve visited Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Matt Stevens (was he in kindergarten, then?), Robin Armstrong, Matt Cohen, and Giancarlo Erra, too.  “Who are these crazy Americans knocking on our door!  Go visit someone like Mr. and Mrs. Sting!”

Our loss.

IMG_0018
Our dorm room in Zahm Hall, U. of Notre Dame, Fall 1988. Kevin and his future wife, Lisa. Notice the stereo system and cassettes behind Kevin and Lisa.

Our third year, back at our Catholic college in northern Indiana, we shared a dorm room.  That year, I also hosted a Friday night prog show (called, can you believe it, “Nocturnal Omissions”–I really thought I was clever) on our college radio station, and Kevin would often co-host with me.  He founded a band, St. Paul and the Martyrs, which became the most popular band on campus, covering everything from XTC to Yes to Blancmange.

Our final year, I helped produce an extremely elaborate charity concert, and St. Paul and the Martyrs performed–the entire Dark Side of the Moon, complete with a avant garde film and elaborate stage lighting, followed by a performance (less elaborate in terms of production) of side one of Spirit of Eden.

IMG_0005
Kevin and Lisa’s wedding. Notice Kevin’s ponytail. This automatically makes him a cool artist.

When Kevin returned from several years in Japan and (truly) traveling the world, we spent a few years together in graduate school, Kevin in music, me in history.

Kevin is godfather to my oldest son, and I to his second daughter.  We remain as close as we ever were.

What about the music?

Come on, Birzer.  This is a music site, not a “here’s what I did in college” site.  True, true.  But, so much of my own thoughts regarding Kevin’s music are related to our friendship.  Every time I put on one of his albums, it’s as though I’ve just had one of the best conversations in my life.

So, I’ve asked others at Progarchy to review With the Coming of Evening.  You know my bias–so, now I’ll state what I believe as objectively as possible.

Kevin is brilliant, as a lyricist, as a composer, and as a person.  His first album, With the Coming of Evening, the first of a trilogy, is a stunning piece of work, and it deserves to be regarded not just as a post-rock classic, but as a rock and prog classic.

It’s not easy listening.  Kevin takes so many chances and weaves his music in so many unusual ways, that one has to immerse oneself in it.  It’s gorgeous.  It’s like reading a T.S. Eliot poem.  No one who wants to understand an Eliot poem reads it as a spectator.  You either become a part of it, or you misunderstand it.

If there’s a misstep on the album, it comes with the 9th track, “Looks Like Rain.”  Its blues structure and blue lamentations stick out a little too much.  A remix of this album would almost certainly leave this song out.  It’s still an excellent song.  It just doesn’t fit tightly with the rest of the album–which really must be taken as an organic and mesmeric whole.

Kevin took six years to write and record the follow-up album, Squall (1999), and he’s ready to record the conclusion to the trilogy.

More on Kevin to come. . . .

IMG_1096.JPG - Version 2_face0
Kevin and I revisit Notre Dame, 20 years later. Kevin has cut the ponytail, but, otherwise, he’s not aged.

But, for now, treat yourself to his backcatalogue.  I give it my highest recommendation.  And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that he one of the nicest guys in all of creation. . . .

*****

To order With the Coming of Evening, go here.

To read more about McCormick, go here.

To read what allmusic.com thinks of McCormick, go here.

Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, 20 years on

I’ve become quite enamored of Wyndham Wallace’s writings over the past several days.  Here’s a wonderfully insightful piece he wrote on the 20th anniversary of the release of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock.  Enjoy.

There are many remarkable aspects to the story of Talk Talk’s fifth and final album, Laughing Stock. It took a year to make, and most of what was put to tape ended up on the scrapheap. In London’s Wessex Studios, where it was recorded, windows were blacked out, clocks removed, and light sources limited to oil projectors and strobe lights. Around fifty musicians contributed to its making, but only eighteen ended up on the finished album. It was a commercial failure, critically reviled as much as it was praised, and was impossible to perform live. Then the band broke up, forcing fans to wait seven years before its central protagonist released any new music, something followed by almost complete silence. Laughing Stock is also shrouded in mystery: apart from limited comments made during brief bursts of promotional activity to promote their own even more limited work since, the three authors of the record – Mark Hollis (songwriter and founder), Tim Friese-Greene (producer and co-songwriter since their third album, The Colour Of Spring) and Lee Harris (drums, and the only other remaining member of the band’s original line up by the time of Laughing Stock) – have refused to discuss it for years. But the music remains, its reputation growing with each passing year since its release two decades ago: stark, bold, indefinable and the greatest testament to the band. . . .

To keep reading the article at The Quietus, click here.

Here She Comes, Laughter Upon Her Lips: Talk Talk’s 1986 Masterpiece

IMG_1425Years ago–maybe as many as 25 years ago–fellow Progarchist and classical musician Kevin McCormick and I vowed to listen to Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring every April 5th, in honor of what is arguably the first post-rock track ever released, entitled, appropriately enough, “April 5.”  I’ve tried to live up to this agreement every year since, and I don’t think I’ve missed an April 5th listening yet.

Last year, before Progarchy even existed, I wrote a piece asking Mark Hollis to call his legitimate successor, Greg Spawton, and the members of Big Big Train.  I mean really.  Imagine Mark Hollis working with Spawton, Poole, NDV, Longdon, Manners, Gregory, and Aubrey.  What a match made in heaven.  After teasing Greg about this a few times, he admitted that if he ever runs into Hollis, he’ll invite him to join BBT.

Amen, Greg, amen.

But, back to Talk Talk.

Though I’d seen Talk Talk’s earlier pop songs/videos on MTV in the early to mid 1980s, I wasn’t taken with the group until I came across 1986’s “The Colour of Spring,” an album that, without much exaggeration, not only opened my eyes to artistic possibilities but also caused me to claim my second music obsession: first, Rush; second, Talk Talk and Mark Hollis.

Everything else I treasured at the time such as early Yes and early Genesis paled next to The Colour of Spring.  Please don’t get me wrong.  I still adored Yes and Genesis, and I always have and probably always will.  But, The Colour of Spring was something beyond.  Beyond rock.  Beyond prog.  I heard lots of Traffic and Spooky Tooth in it, but I also heard a lot of experimental jazz from the 1950s and 1960s.

This album, frankly, seemed like the best prog album since 1977’s Going For the One, but still bettering anything that had come before it.

I studied the art work of James Marsh–those brightly colored moths forming some kind of order as they hovered around droplets of water.  I listened repeatedly to the music.  Too many times over the past twenty-six years to count now.  And, I have dwelt lovingly over the lyrics, which have, in their own way, brought me so much comfort during the good and bad of my life as to rival my love of the words of T.S. Eliot and of St. John the Beloved.  When I first purchased the American version of The Colour of Spring, no lyrics came with it.  Part of Hollis’s charm is his ability to muffle his words in a mysterious but artistic fashion.  I had all kinds of ideas about what Hollis was singing, but I later found I was mostly wrong in my interpretation and translation of those words into song lyrics.

In March 1988, Kevin and I found a copy of the British release of the album in a London music shop.  There, on a brilliant spring day–I can still remember the sun streaming through the windows into that rather dark shop–I read the lyrics as Hollis had written them (even printed in his handwriting) for the first time.

I was, needless to write, emotionally overcome as my mouth dropped open and my eyes teared up.

The lyrics were far better than I’d imagined, in meaning and in form.  I shouldn’t have been in the least surprised.  Though, every listening from that point forward has meant more to me than each and any previous listening.  Only a few other albums in my life have stuck with me as long as has The Colour of Spring.  It has remained my gold standard, surpassed only by its immediate successor, The Spirit of Eden, and (finally–twenty-five years later) by Big Big Train’s English Electric vols. 1 and 2.

In every aspect of The Colour of Spring, Mark Hollis offered not only his genius, but his very being.  That is, he was the music, and music reflected him.  But, really, it did far more than reflect him.  Without trying to become too metaphysical, I must state, the music seems to be coming from somewhere beyond anything known in this world, with Hollis merely reflecting the Divine itself, but putting his own personality on what was given to him.  This is much like the way Tolkien claimed to have written his mythology–not as a creator, but as a discoverer and as a recorder.

Hollis expressed so much love of the world (its physical nature) and a profound respect for religion in interviews–along with his despising of the corporate media culture of the 1980s–that one can easily envision him in Rivendell, the Last Homely House, recording his work among the greatest artists of Middle-earth, lost somewhere in a timeless realm.  Or, more classically, Hollis’s love of the created order makes me wonder if he somehow heard (or felt) the revolving of the Platonic spheres.

Back in 1986, Hollis admitted in interviews that the concept behind the album and the theme were quite simple: religion is wonderful, and war is horrific.  An alliance of the two, however, makes for the worst of all possible worlds.  Ultimately, Hollis claimed, the lyrics reflect the ideals of “life and morality.”

Prog fans, take pride: The Colour of Spring was a concept, to be sure.

The aim of ‘The Colour of Spring,’ he explains ‘is to present great variety in terms of mood and arrangement, treating the whole thing as a concept.  An album shouldn’t be something from which a single is pulled, leaving the rest filled up with rubbish. [New Music Express, Feb. 22, 1986]

The theme, however, must be the only thing that was simple about the album.  Certainly not the actual lyrics, or its song structure, or its production, or, even, its reception.

The album took Hollis exactly one year and two days to write and record.  Having made an enormous sum of money with the first two Talk Talk albums, The Party’s Over (1982) and Life’s What You Make It (1984),  Hollis fulfilled his dreams of moving everything toward the real and organic, away from the synths of the previous albums, there only because he couldn’t afford to hire a rock ensemble.  Now, with The Colour of Spring, he could.

Interestingly enough, Hollis considered “It’s Getting Late in the Evening” to be the core of the album.  For those of you who know The Colour of Spring, you’re probably scratching your head, as this song didn’t make it onto the final cut, and appeared at the time only as a b-side.  Haunting to the extreme, “It’s Getting Late in the Evening,” presents an impressionistic look at American slaves discovering their freedom following the American Civil War.

The tide shall turn to shelter us from storm/The seas of charity shall overflow and bathe us all.

IMG_1428Today, though, we at Progarchy remember the last track of side one, “April 5,” perhaps the first post-rock, post-prog track ever released.  At only 5 minutes and 52 seconds, it is a masterpiece of meandering brevity, a creative breath of freedom and beauty, a reaching and striving as well as a reflection.

Thank you for everything, Mr. Hollis.  If you read this, I only request of you the same thing I requested of you a year ago.  Please call Mr. Spawton.  If you need his number or email, just let me know.

***

 

I dedicate this post to the genius and friendship of Greg Spawton.

Sources: Talk Talk, The Colour of Spring (EMI, 1986); “A Chin Wag with Talk Talk,” Number One (Feb. 8, 1986); “Talk Talk,” Record Mirror (Feb. 1, 1986); “Communication Breakdown,” New Music Express (Feb. 22, 1986); Rachael Demadeo, “Mark Hollis Interview,” Britannia Hotel in Manchester, May 5, 1986, posted at Within Without.