Saturday, August 30, 2014

"Sound Mirror:" Syd Arthur's Straight Line

A lot has happened to Syd Arthur since I stumbled across them last summer. On and On was a refreshing collection of prog-tinged tunes held together by asymmetrical time signatures and complex textures. They were accessible, however, in a way that set the more conservative prog community ill at ease.  I hoped that the band would not submit to the expectations of this sometimes insatiable audience.  Fortunately, as I had hoped, the band stuck to their original mission statement. Their sophomore release Sound Mirror is more of the same, only done better.  It is a deep exploration of the territory staked out by their debut that avoids exactly retracing its exact successes.

In addition to the artistic success of Sound Mirror, Syd Arthur served as the opening band for Yes on their recent tour. Considering Syd Arthur’s clear regard for prog days gone by, they could not have asked for a better venue.  From what I have seen, Syd Arthur was relatively well received, winning over new fans at every show.  I don't find this particularly surprising.  Fans of the current, non-traditional iteration of Yes are more likely to be more open minded progressive listeners.  Predictably, however, the positive response has not been unanimous. In particular, I was taken off guard when an old college friend whose musical opinion I value saw them on this tour and thought that they “had no songs.”

As much as I love Syd Arthur, I can see how it might seem that way, especially at first glance. It took me some time to decide if I liked the sounds or the songs from On and On. Viewed superficially, the ostinato riffs that serve as the foundation of their songs can seem a little jam-bandy and, by traditional progressive rock standards, a little repetitive. On the other hand, these riffs are pretty complex, and constructing memorable melodies over this texture takes more than just an ear for a tune.

It is common for contemporary progressive rock bands to lose sight of accessibility for the sake of complexity.  The melodic nature of Syd Arthur's music allows them to dodge this issue nicely and in doing so, cuts through the hazy space between progressive rock and more contemporary alternative rock styles. Although they exhibit a clear nostalgia for 70s psychedelia, they also a connect with more recent experimental rock.  The opening riff of Sinkhole, for example, would have fit nicely on any album released by Radiohead in the late 90s. 

Syd Arthur's navigation of these closely intertwined styles makes it tempting to engage in the increasingly threadbare "what is prog?" debate.  I'll save you the trouble: the distinction is subjective.  For some, like myself, Radiohead, Muse, and other adventurous acts are the next logical step in the ongoing evolution of progressive rock.  For others, the style is strictly defined by characteristics that were set in stone nearly forty years ago.  Syd Arthur, however, draws a straight line between these two conceptions of the genre in a way that challenges the boundary between them.   

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Zimmer's "Man of Steel:" an Impossible Balance

It was a couple of days after Christmas, and we were at my in-law’s vacation condo. I quietly crawled into bed between a feverish toddler and an exhausted wife. Both were finally asleep, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, I had a quiet moment. I slipped in a pair of earbuds and pulled up Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel soundtrack, which I received from my family. I had been looking forward to getting a chance to sit down and listen to it, and although this was not entirely the setting I had anticipated, I did not want to pass it up.

It was as if I had stepped into another world.

Look to the Stars by Hans Zimmer on Grooveshark

From elegant themes that roll like thunder across distant hills to percussive polyrhythms that border on cacophony, Man of Steel is majestic, expansive, and gracefully melodic, and it continues the exploration of sound that Zimmer began on The Dark Knight and sustained into Inception. Across my examination of these soundtracks, I increasingly hold the opinion that Zimmer represents the best in contemporary soundtrack composition. Man of Steel does nothing but reinforce this view, especially the way in which he augments the orchestra without challenging its identity. Twelve drumset players, metal sculptures, and a steel guitar “choir” hardly represent the instrumentation of the average studio orchestra. That he can make this unique ensemble work as a whole is a feat of his artistic vision.

In any ensemble, an essential concern is balance. Musicians playing a group must instinctively play in relationship to another if all the important parts of the composition are to be heard. Man of Steel’s instrumentation, however, makes a true studio quality performance of the soundtrack problematic. For example, there is a certain timbral change in a drum sound when it is hit hard. Man of Steel pervasively employs the power of that sound, but for that many drummers to play that loud in the same acoustic environment as a string section just isn’t acoustically viable. It would change the intensity of the drums, and therefore the nature of the performance, if they were to play quieter or if there were less of them. In the real world, it just doesn’t work.

Man of Steel is, however, a studio construction, with parts recorded separately and assembled in a virtual setting. In the past, this might have set me ill at ease, but I have come to appreciate the amount of abstraction and vision this approach requires. Zimmer does not just rely on abstract soundscapes. Instead he captures performances of his compositions and assembles them to maximize their emotive potential in a supportive, sometimes propulsive harmonic environment. This allows Man of Steel to be both immersive and incredibly powerful while retaining the sound of human hands on instruments.

What I really like about Man of Steel is its noticeable narrative capacity. It tells a story of the film almost as clearly as the film itself. Superman has evolved and changed dramatically over the course of his existence. He has gone from being a strong, bulletproof guy who can jump really high to being nearly godlike. In his more recent history, there has been a general movement to humanize him, and in Man of Steel, the foregrounding of his struggle as an adoptee was particularly touching. A good portion of the movie is centered on Superman's self-discovery, not just of his powers, but his purpose.

For the careful listener, this manifests in the blossoming exploration of just a few simple themes that provide the framework for the entire soundtrack. Variations and extrapolations allow this melodic material, most of which starts as a murmur at the outset, to unfold into something immensely powerful and textured by the end of the listening experience.

Despite the somewhat surreptitious setting in which I gave Man of Steel its first listen, I was thankful that I took the opportunity to listen to it on headphones, because it is best taken in an immersive environment that will highlight its amazing dynamic range and atmospheric depth. Subsequent listens in other environments resulted in shaking rearview mirrors or nervous glances out the back patio door. Not that any of that stopped me – it has been in constant rotation for months. Man of Steel is quite amazing, to the point that is has made other soundtracks I have listened to since sound dated and clichéd.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Yes' Step Beyond: Imagining a Change

All week long I have been at Aikido Summer Camp, and have had the great pleasure of watching my wife take her black belt test.  Classes have been great, and her success has made me very proud.  As I climb in bed at night, however, I've been playing meaningless little imaginary games that only the hardcore Yes fans could even understand. If that's not you, this post might not make much sense.  At the very least, if you are just tuning in, you might want to back up to yesterday's post for context.

While Fly from Here was a pretty good effort, its essence laid in revisiting past material and really did not provide a sustainable vision for Yes’s future. Heaven and Earth, however, is quite a different story. Like it or not, it has an inarguable Yes-ness, and Davison's enthusiasm for the band hints at a longer range, perhaps past the point at which some of his elder bandmates might be willing or able to continue.

At different times, Yes' ex-keyboardist Rick Wakeman and bassist/musical director Chris Squire both have hypothesized that the band could, in fact, exist after its originating members have retired. Many people draw the line at Anderson’s departure, but with Jon Davison injecting new blood into the band, it kind of begs the question: Could the Yes name move forward with even more new blood than Davison, maybe without a single original or classic member?

It is a tricky proposition, but an important one for the classic rock generation. As bands with strong identities reach the age of retirement, can they “sell the business” in a way that the fan base will accept? Yes, a band whose identity has already survived so much change, is uniquely positioned to address this issue. There are certainly musicians out there with clear ties to the band’s heritage that could move the Yes name forward not by just playing the classic albums well, but by creating new music in the Yes tradition.

Because there is a tradition, there are roles to fill, but fortunately, Davison has emerged as Anderson’s heir apparent and a member to rally around. If a full changing of the guard were to come to pass, however, it would have to follow the retirement of Chris Squire, who has been keeping Yes’ flame alight for the past 45 years. In addition to his distinctive bass playing, his backup vocals are absolutely integral to the Yes sound, and he is, for all intents and purposes, the band’s musical director. The only person that could come close to covering all these bases would be Billy Sherwood.  He has worked behind the scenes with Yes for over a decade at this point, and it would be really exciting to see him form the core of a new Yes with Davison. Watch him tear up this classic:

A potential successor for Howe was a bit less obvious, but in doing research on Sherwood, I discovered a contender in the above video clip. Clearly, Jimmy Haun has some rapport with Sherwood and he has the flexibility to cover both Howe and Rabin’s guitar work. His contributions as Howe's stand-in on the politically troubled Union album weaves him even further into Yes’ DNA. It would be interesting to hear his unique voice officially take the lead in the context of a Yes project.

The most fluid role in Yes’ history is that of the keyboardist, and there are many players that the fanbase would love to see come back. In my opinion, however, Oliver Wakeman never really got a chance to shine on his own before he was ousted in favor of Geoff Downes during the Fly from Here sessions. His presence would simultaneously acknowledge and sidestep the issue of his father’s rather long shadow.

That leaves the drummer, a role that has not been as fluid, but perhaps the one that needs to be addressed. I can’t help but think that if White abdicated the drum throne and allowed some fresh hands behind the set, the energy of Heaven and Earth would have been much different. Despite White’s immense contribution to the Yes canon, significant part of the fan base still laments the loss of Bill Bruford. At the risk of turning this lineup into “Yes Kids,” bringing Dylan Howe into the fold is an interesting option, and one that would satisfy the more conservative fanbase. The last name alone buys him some credibility, and he would most likely bring back the jazzier approach that characterized the early days of Yes.

Davison, Sherwood, Haun, Wakeman, and Howe: I would like to think that if these five guys were put in a room and told to “make a Yes album,” the results would be phenomenal. At the very least, they would know what to do.  Of course, it’s all just fantasy football for the prog-rock nerd. These are real live musicians with their own careers and political complications, and not just pieces on a chess board. In any case, such a reconfiguration of the group would be interesting no matter what form it took, and would be a distinctly Yes thing to do. Considering the resistance to Anderson’s departure, however, I can’t imagine the resistance that would come from more conservative factions of the fanbase. Such a next-generation group would absolutely have to have Squire’s blessing if there were any chance of acceptance. That and a Roger Dean cover.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Collaborative Potential Behind Yes' "Heaven and Earth"

The secret to Yes’ longevity is not merely their penchant for lineup changes, but also the band’s willingness to incorporate new talent. Historically, Yes members have rarely (but sometimes) been treated like talking heads. A change in personnel was expected to change the band’s sound. Whether these various changes are positive or negative is the topic of constant debate amongst Yes’ fan base. At the very least, Yes’ fluid identity and inclusive ideology has kept them interesting, if not consistent, for well on 45 years.

Jon Anderson’s departure from the group has been the divisive issue in recent times. Clearly, Anderson’s voice lies at the very foundation of the Yes sound, but in his later years with the group, he seemed to grow increasingly unfocused. I think that if the Yes name was to go on, a change was bound to occur. Granted, installing a new lead singer is a delicate process, but by and large is it possible for a band to survive and even progress once they make it through the procedure.

As I stated in a previous post, I cautiously came to accept current singer Jon Davison. I am now a pretty staunch advocate. In both voice and philosophy, Davison is Anderson’s heir apparent. His presence became more interesting as information about Heaven and Earth began to leak, because he was emerging as proactive contributor to the band’s creative process. He traveled quite extensively to collaborate with the various members of the band, and his writing credits are all over the Heaven and Earth. The album would be the first from Yes in over a decade that would feature entirely new material – no re-visits to unrecorded tracks or other such insecure practices.

In the YesYears documentary, Bill Bruford described the internal politics of Yes as “democratic,” with sometimes exhaustive debate and collaboration. By 1978’s Tormato, however, this approach seemed to run itself dry. Since then, Yes has worked best with a clear conjurer in their midst to focus the band’s creativity. Initially, this role was filled by Trevor Horn, then by Trevor Rabin, then later by Billy Sherwood. I had high hopes that Davison might be able to similarly reinvigorate Yes on Heaven and Earth.

But way before the album’s release, the early reviews started trickling in, and the naysayers took the lead.  I will not repeat this somewhat shortsighted negativity, but by and large, surprisingly little criticism centered on Davison’s performance or even his material. Yes fans were more concerned about the overall relaxed feel and pop sensibilities of Heaven and Earth, despite the fact that the band has dabbled in accessible songwriting since their inception.

Personally, I like the album. First and foremost, it sounds like Yes. Drop the needle nearly anywhere on Heaven and Earth and its bright ambience recalls other great Yes works like Going for the One and The Ladder. Additionally, songs are generally memorable and harmonically interesting, with lyrics that are the usual balance of profundity and cliché that can be found in Yes’ text throughout the band’s history.

But I have some reservations. While I think that there is enough outstanding material to make Heaven and Earth a great album, there are also some hokey, underdeveloped parts that come off as dispassionate. It feels like there is quite a bit of unrealized potential that could have been brought out with a little more cross-collaboration and editing. Here is where I think Davison was, to a degree, hung out to dry. Despite what seemed to be his intention to recreate the collaborative environment of the classic Yes period, the writing credits hardly cross over. He ended up writing separate songs with separate people, which, I speculate, were recorded with relatively little reflection once Yes convened in the studio.

Still, although Heaven and Earth may not be the pinnacle of Yes’ recorded output, it is still a very good album with lots of details hidden in the effortless virtuosity of the band’s veterans. As the newest member, Davison clearly has a passion and enthusiasm for Yes music, and I genuinely think he has a great Yes album in him. With the band’s eldest members comfortably residing on the four corners of the globe working at a distance, however, coming up with new material that stands alongside their best work might be difficult.  My dark side secretly wishes that Davison could just get all those old guys out of the way so that he could make some Yes music.

That’s right, I said it. More on this topic shortly….

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Transatlantic's "Kaleidoscope" and a Tale from the Sea

When I stumbled across Transatlantic in the late 90s through my sputtering dial-up internet, I had already been a longstanding fan of Marillion and had developed a healthy respect for Dream Theater. I was completely unaware, however, that other progressive rock bands existed. My eyes opened, and suddenly The Flower Kings and Spock’s Beard displaced my power pop agenda, rekindling an interest in the style that I so strongly identified with in my youth. This carried me for quite a while, but a huge rupture occurred when Neal Morse announced that he would be leaving Spock’s Beard to more ardently pursue his religious beliefs. While Spock’s Beard sauntered on, it seemed that without Morse, Transatlantic would cease to exist.

I was quite surprised, then, when a couple of years ago, Transatlantic announced their reformation. They concomitantly released The Whirlwind, their finest work to date and an album that which solidified their identity as a self-sufficient band, distinct from the member’s home groups. It would have been a fitting final act for this “supergroup” to end on. If anything, however, Transatlantic seems to be gaining more momentum. Early this year, they released Kaleidoscope, their fourth studio album. Kaleidoscope isn’t as immediately impressive as The Whirlwind, but it is still an incredible statement that displays Transatlantic’s evolution into true masters of the symphonic style, at least as it appeared at the end of the 90s.

Initially, Kaleidoscope seemed to be a throwback to Transatlantic’s early releases. Morse’s characteristic compositional style provided the framework upon which the other members realize their own contributions. Certainly, the album’s overall structure, with two multi-movement epics and a few shorter form songs, has more in common with their first two albums than the hour-long song cycle that makes up The Whirlwind. Like its predecessor, though, Transatlantic’s lyrics have a noticeably heartfelt conviction (not reflected in their lip-synching abilities) that was not always present in Morse’s earlier work.

Despite Morse’s influence on the album’s large-scale construction, however, Kaleidoscope is a step forward for the entire group in terms of their unified chemistry. Gone are the days where Transatlantic ground its gears between the stylistic preferences of its discrete members. The album definitively consolidates Transatlantic as a unique, distinctive band, with members displaying an intuitive understanding of each other’s compositional and technical strengths. Like a lot of the best progressive rock, Kaleidoscope takes some patience. There is a lot of material on the album, and it really has to be “learned” for its vast harmonic and melodic nuance to have full impact.

Kaleidoscope’s prominence in my current listening just happens to coincide with an increased interest in progressive rock in general due to the release of Yes’ new album Heaven and Earth. While my opinions on the album are best relegated to their own post, it is safe to say that the progressive community is sharply divided on the album, due in no small part to Jon Anderson’s absence as lead vocalist. This topic has been a hot one for several years now, and I would imagine hung like an awkward cloud on the Progressive Nation at Sea, last year’s at-sea progressive rock festival.  For all the attention that Yes has been enjoying, thanks to Transatlantic, Anderson was afforded his own chance to shine at this event.

The Revealing Science of God is the side-long opening track from Tales from Topographic Oceans, an album that is notorious in Yes' catalog for its conceptual density.  The current iteration of Yes is forging their own path, and it is unlikely that this composition will find its way onto their set list in the near future. With Transatlantic as his backing band, however, Jon Anderson performs as good of a rendition of this piece as one could wish for. 

Particularly with limited rehearsal time, performing a song as complex as this one requires more than just cohesion - it takes a cooperative awareness cultivated in mutual respect and trust.  With the synergy that they exhibit both here and on Kaleidoscope, however, I see virtually no limit to their mastery.  They could conceivably function as the “house band” of multi-band progressive festivals, backing any number of walk-on musical legends with deferential, high-energy performances of classic progressive material.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project Part 12: Wrapping Things Up

For those of you just tuning in, a few months ago, I began an experiment on my daughter. It was not as ominous as it sounds - I noticed that she made some connections between several superhero characters and the attendant soundtracks from their more visible cinematic adaptations. I encouraged this and went so far as to create a playlist that included other superheroes, adopting obscure themes from movies, TV, and orchestral repertoire. We listened to it in the car. A lot. I kept up with her expanding repertoire in a series at the end of last year, but as her enthusiasm began to wane, there were a few undocumented themes that I’d like to go back and catch.

As the Little One was becoming familiar with various superheroes, it was inevitable that their foes would arise as well. I decided early on that I would avoid giving these characters themes, with one exception. When she was an infant, she received a Catwoman “Funko POP” figurine that stood alongside Superman and Batgirl. Catwoman has been characterized many ways, from brilliant thief to hypersexualized vixen. When she began to ask about how “Catwoman’s song” went, I obviously wanted to emphasize the former. I settled on Funeral March for a Marionette, which felt playfully sinister in a way that suggested Catwoman creeping in the shadows and surreptitiously grabbing loot.

As her imagination began to expand, the more intense themes of superhero cartoons seemed less and less appropriate. The last jag of superhero programming she was into was, oddly, a show I used to eagerly watch on Saturday mornings – Spiderman and his Amazing Friends. Although not without its own somewhat violent overtones, the type of 80’s “zap” violence felt a bit less visceral than the “pow” violence of more contemporary programming. What this meant for the project, however, was that Iceman and Firestar, a couple of relatively obscure characters from the Marvel universe, needed themes.

Both of these characters were a clean slate, so I was free to render them in any way I saw fit. I also had a back log of excellent musical themes that had found no character. On the path that ultimately led to Robin’s theme, I acquired some familiarity with the long tradition of outstanding themes from the Star Trek movies. The passage from the mooring sequence on The Wrath of Khan made a particular impression on me, mainly because I remembered it so vividly through the music. It shimmered evocatively and developed in ways that made it distinct from many of the other songs in the playlist, so I adopted it for Iceman.

Firestar was created specifically for the Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends in lieu of the Human Torch, a character who was embroiled in the usual legal disputes. She was later retconned into the Marvel universe. On the show, she was predictably flat, like any cartoon character from that era. She was relatively freewheeling, though, and quick with a bad joke, but selflessly heroic in her own way. I ended up using the theme from Back to the Future for her for two reasons: to acknowledge her heroic but lighthearted attitude as well as the 80s era that spawned both her and the movie’s theme.

These themes rounded out a sixteen track playlist that consumed the Little One’s listening habits for several months. For awhile, she would ask for the pieces by the character’s name. Later, we would put it on shuffle and name the characters as the various themes came up. I only ever did this by request, though, and I started to notice that the requests became less frequent. Even today, she sometimes asks to listen to the playlist, but certainly not on a daily basis.

The goal of this project was twofold. From a superficial standpoint, I had hoped to familiarize her with some of the superheroes that inspired me as a kid, so that later on we could share in the wealth of reading material that is out there. From a different perspective, though, I wanted to open her ears to the narrative capacity of melody and the wide array of sounds that the orchestra can create.

The Superhero Theme Project was, and is, really only meant to plant seeds that may not take fruit for a very long time. I can say, however, that it has made an impression. When she is playing by herself, I can often hear her humming the theme from The Great Gate of Kiev. When I ask her what she is singing, she will smile as if caught in the act and shyly say “Aquaman.”


To see where this all began, click HERE.
To see the previous post, click HERE.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Who is the More Foolish? Glass Hammer's "Chronometree"

There was not a lot of music that made it through the divorce. Most of what I was into at the time was rendered unlistenable for quite awhile. The good news was, however, that I could listen to whatever I wanted to without fear of judgment or complaint. When I started brushing the dust off my shoulders and standing on my own again, I was relatively free to delve into whatever progressive rock nuttiness I pleased. For several years already, I had been listening to several variations on the “neo-progressive” style. Spock’s Beard, Porcupine Tree, and The Flower Kings had already proven to be bands with distinctive sounds worth a devoted following, but, predictably, I was convinced that there was more out there.

Although my horizons were widening in the progressive rock scene, there was a lot out there I could not get behind. The founders of the progressive style made music that I identified with, but I was mindfully critical of “clone” projects. Every argument could be made that Glass Hammer falls into this category. Especially in their more recent iterations, they wear their influences on their sleeve. Back in 2000, however, when Chronometree was released, it seemed that they might have the potential to take a different direction than they have.  Certainly, they still toggled between Emerson- and Wakeman-isms with fluid ease. However, aside from these stylistic keyboard affectations, I thought that Chronometree was relatively distinctive, and I really came to enjoy it in the wake of my newfound bachelorhood.

The primary way in which Chronometree stood on its own was due to the contributions of vocalist Brad Marler. In some circles, Marler had received some criticism on this release, but I always thought that his unique style stood in opposition to Jon Anderson, Greg Lake, and other classic singers in the style. Most importantly, Marler was impassioned without coming off as overly melodramatic, which is the downfall of many progressive rock singers.

A Perfect Carousel by Glass Hammer on Grooveshark

Like many classic progressive rock albums, Chronometree is a concept album, and in this regard it really shone above its contemporaries. The protagonist in its narrative is a pot-smoking prog-rock junkie that starts to think that aliens are trying to contact him through lyrics. In the end, he drags his friends out to a field where he waits, “Great Pumpkin”-style, for four-dimensional alien enlightenment. In other words, it’s a rock opera/concept album about a guy who listens to too many rock operas/concept albums.

Obi-Wan Kenobi once posed the question, "Who is the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?" Chronometree makes the hard-core progressive fanboy its fool. At its core, it is a self-referential satire, gently poking fun at the listener for looking too closely at its meaning. It’s more musically derivative moments reinforce this point while paying respectful tribute to the pioneers of the style.

I hoped that Chronometree would be the baseline for further work, so I followed Glass Hammer. None of the albums that followed, however, really stuck with me. While the level of playing and composition on Lex Rex and Shadowlands are respectably high, they seemed a little sterile in execution. There were also constant lineup changes that prohibited a clear chemistry from arising between anyone but primary writers Babb and Schendel.

The consistent participation of Jon Davison in recent years has seemed to lessen this issue, but has also strengthened their status as a Yes clone project in my mind. His rise to prominence as Glass Hammer’s ad hoc lead singer occurred after I stopped following the band, though, so this opinion is based on an outsider’s impression. Glass Hammer has gained some visibility recently, however, due to the installation of Davison as the lead singer of Yes. His participation in Glass Hammer seemed to help the group gel in more recent years, and it is my hope that his presence will do the same for Yes in the band's twilight years.