Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Secret Chiefs 3 and The Path to "Perichoresis"

As the designated driver on our regularly scheduled hill country wine tours, I retain some modicum of control over the car stereo. Usually, I bring a carefully curated collection of albums, but on one particular trip last Spring, due to lack of planning, I hurriedly grabbed a handful of CDs from my dashboard. After Brendan Benson and Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger had worn out their welcome, I surreptitiously slipped the Secret Chiefs 3 into the CD player. I knew I might be taking a chance on this one, but surprisingly, Book M went over pretty well. The more conservative listeners in the car were in good enough spirits to allow my indulgence without too much criticism. My buddy The Best Man, however, being a fan of the infamously eclectic Mr. Bungle, ended up really liking Book M. A few months later, he let me know that the Secret Chiefs 3 were about to play in Austin. Without hesitation, we packed it up on a school night to go check them out.

We got there early enough to see both opening bands, the first of which was Atomic Ape. Their high-density, exotic style clearly owed quite a bit to the Secret Chiefs 3. I put their album on my list as a compositional reference for Ethnos. The second band was Il Sogno del Marinaio, led by Mike Watt. I saw another Mike Watt project several years ago when he brought LITE on tour throughout the US and they played a free show at SXSW. Judging by the enthusiasm of the audience at both shows, a lot of people seem to like Mike Watt, but, like the last time I saw him, I wasn’t entirely convinced.

As these bands were playing, I discovered that this somewhat low-profile tour was organized in part to support Perichoresis, a new Secret Chiefs 3 recording. I decided that this was to be the take-away item for the show. Towards the end of Il Sogno del Marinaio’s set, we made our way back to find that Trey Spruance himself was manning the swag booth. We were, admittedly, a little starstruck. He greeted us kindly with his eyes, but was unable to exit a conversation he was having with an inebriated fan. The club was very, very loud, so I gestured that I wanted to pick up the new recording. Although Spruance’s body language indicated his desire to do otherwise, he continued to pay patient attention to this enthusiastic fan as he attended to us.

Spruance pointed to a note card by the new CD, which, according to the brief description, was a “folk album” that boasted many “ratio-based time signatures.” It was prominently credited to Ishraqiyun, a sub-group of the Secret Chiefs 3 collective that specializes in ethnic influence.

Undoubtedly, Perichoresis features the same cross-cultural instrumentation and exotic modality that I have come to associate with the Secret Chiefs 3. In some ways, however, pushes the envelope even further, especially in terms of rhythm. It is often clear that there is an intuitive pattern that undergirds its sometimes repetitive structures. The rhythmic complexity of these patterns, however, continually confounds predictability and, by extension, any perception of redundancy.

As a result, Perichoresis is a jarring tapestry of angular, lurching riffs that are simultaneously meditative and disorienting. For this reason, I would be a little more hesitant to slip this one in the player with a van full of people unfamiliar with what the Secret Chiefs 3 are up to. Despite this somewhat challenging exterior, however, there are no wrong notes. There are no missed rhythms. Everything that happens is intended as it sounds, both on Perichoresis and in the Secret Chiefs 3 live show.

Spruance soon disappeared from the merchandise booth only to reappear on stage in the requisite cloak. Having broken his ankle earlier on tour, he performed from a chair, but this did relatively little to dampen the performance. The show was completely mesmerizing. It was, in fact, a musical assault, not just in terms of volume or intensity, but also in terms of concept. Both the Best Man and I were, and still are, at a loss for words when it comes to describing exactly what happened on stage that evening, but we both agree it was a phenomenal experience.

Standing on its Own: Yes' "Time and a Word"

I have owned Time and a Word for quite awhile, but until recently, I have never given it more than a cursory listen. Not that I have harbored a disdain for it, but I have always secretly felt that The Yes Album was the band's first real musical statement.  I have sometimes unjustly dismissed its two predecessors. Considering I have recently defended the authenticity of controversial albums like 90125 and Heaven and Earth, however, this truly original lineup deserves the same consideration as any other. Since the release of this latter album, I have been investigating the margins of Yes’ back catalog, and over the last month, I have finally spent some quality time with Time and a Word. As a seasoned Yes fan of many years, this album is of real interest.

Heaven and Earth received criticism from its conservative fanbase because of its relatively succinct songwriting. Time and a Word, however, shows how close to the foundation of the Yes sound songwriting  actually lies. The large-scale epics that Yes came to be known for are nowhere to be found, but its tuneful psychedelia is the bedrock upon which their more expansive work would eventually be built. I would, however, stop short of calling Yes’ early compositional approach succinct. In form, they predict the approach that Rush would return to in the 80s, embedding extended instrumental excursions within strophic structures.

I would also stop very, very short of declaring that Heaven and Earth is the equal of Time and a Word. Time and a Word is driven by a countercultural fire that, I think, was lost as the band’s musical ambitions began to grow. The egos that pushed Yes into the successes that followed seem to be less pronounced, and the band’s members, although clearly on a path of musical excellence, seemed to be infused with youthful exuberance.

With one exception: Time and a Word was a turning point for original guitarist, the late Peter Banks. Quite famously, he was opposed to working with an orchestra, but clearly, the orchestra plays a significant role on Time and a Word. As a result, Banks’ playing is adequate, but it might be unfair to judge him by his playing on the album by itself.  He may have been pulling away from the group as the orchestra began to play a larger role. By the time most of the promotional materials for Time and a Word were released, Banks’ association with the band had ended. Steve Howe, who would come to be a defining part of the Yes sound, is shown miming his parts in virtually all video footage of the band.

Without a really strong guitar presence, however, the contributions of other members are much more noticeable. For example, although I have always been a fan of Bill Bruford, as Yes evolved into a full-blown progressive act, I think that they needed Alan White's hard-hitting approach to fill the larger arenas. Time and a Word, however, feels a bit more intimate than their later work, and Bruford’s calm, assertive energy is well-suited for this up-close interaction. His distinctively creative style was still in the formative stages of what it would eventually become, but it ripples and drives in a way that only the most relaxed technique can execute.

It is also a shame that, despite having listened to Tony Kaye since I first got into Yes in the early 80s, I am just now beginning to appreciate him.  Granted, the above video shows him to be a pretty lame bass player (comedically trading places with Chris Squire on what looked like a pretty miserable video shoot).  On the heels of getting into Circa: earlier this year, however, Time and a Word further reveals his unique keyboard virtuosity and his important role in the Yes canon. He has had the misfortune of being caught in the shadow of both his successor Rick Wakeman and his future bandmate Trevor Rabin, but on Time and a Word he is a driving melodic force that would continue to define the Yes sound even beyond his own participation in the group.

Thoughout their various incarnations, Yes has always found success in the synergy that exists between any given set of participants. The original lineup was no different. It had its own distinctive energy that was absolutely necessary for the group’s long-term success. Although Time and a Word would be the last time that the band would work with an orchestra for decades, it did hint at the broader palette that Yes was envisioning. On its own, though, it’s an incredibly successful work that stands on its own in terms of songwriting and technical virtuosity.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Remembering Spock: Horner and The Genesis Effect

The passing of Leonard Nimoy affected me, but the truth of the matter is that I really didn’t know him. I knew Spock. By the time I was aware enough to enjoy Star Trek, it had already been cancelled for nearly a decade. Like a lot of kids in the late 70s, however, I became a dedicated fan of the show while it was in syndication. The original run only had three seasons of episodes, but I feel like my father and I watched a lot more than that. I played with the bridge playset that had the spinning transporter, and I climbed in trees with pretend communicators. I liked all the characters on the show, but Spock was the one that I really, really loved.

But Nimoy was not Spock. I still think it’s weird to see pictures of Nimoy out of character, smiling and laughing off-camera while in costume. By his nature, Spock was destined to be wooden and soulless, but Nimoy’s rendering was the exact opposite. It was his belief in the character that brought Spock to life, and the commentary that he made on the human condition in the following decades made Spock more than a fan favorite. It made him a cultural icon.

The original series was where I came to love Spock, and when I think of him I remember him in that black and blue uniform (or was it white and gold.....I can't ever tell). In the decades that followed, however, the Star Trek universe expanded far, far beyond its original late 60s run, starting with its move to the big screen. Even the most dedicated fan of the franchise will admit that the Star Trek movies were uneven, but many will also agree that The Wrath of Khan was one of the best. In fact, The Wrath of Khan was so great that it arguably saved the entire franchise after a rocky cinematic start.

The Wrath of Khan soundtrack was also a breakthrough in James Horner’s career. Any science fiction movie that came out around this time had to size up to John Williams at the height of his thematic powers, and The Wrath of Khan succeeds admirably in this regard.  Last year, I appropriated the music from a memorable scene in the film as Iceman’s theme for the Superhero Theme Project, and it evolved into one of the favorite tracks on the playlist for both of us.

I came to appreciate Enterprise Clears Moorings as a freestanding piece so much that I purchased the full soundtrack in the late fall and have had it in regular rotation for several months. The soundtrack vividly brings moments of the movie back to life, but it also stands very well on its own. Like its attendant movie, it is one of the strongest and most distinctive soundtracks in the franchise’s long history.

The Wrath of Khan also features a defining moment for Spock. To save the ship and its crew, he memorably sacrifices himself in a bath of invisible radiation. On his deathbed, he expresses his love and admiration for Kirk in an inimitable fashion. For those that grew up with the character, this scene is probably the most emotionally gut-wrenching in the entirety of Star Trek’s history. The effectiveness of this scene comes not just from Spock’s imminent death, nor from the viewer’s investment in the character. It comes from the commentary that it provides on two ubiquitous characteristics of humanity – friendship and mortality. This message is brought to life through the passionate eloquence of Nimoy’s performance.

Of course, Spock did not stay dead. His body was reanimated along with the planet that it was laid to rest on, and the sequel, which was directed by Nimoy, only emphasized further the importance of Spock to the Star Trek mythos.  Admittedly, by the early 80s, Nimoy was typecast. He probably could not have been accepted as any other character, and his career would depend on him keeping the character alive. I like to think, however, that he did not continue to play Spock only because it continued to extend his career, but because he continued to see Spock’s relevance.

Certainly, we all believed in Spock, even until the very end. The fans have lost several actors from the original series, but the loss of Nimoy was particularly unsettling. It’s hard to imagine a world without him. For those of us who like to believe, however, there does not have to be an end. An hour before I saw the first announcement of Nimoy’s passing, this clip caught my attention.

People have lots of wild ideas about what these spots on Ceres might be. In reality, I don’t know, either. The timing of their appearance, however, allows me to indulge in the idea that it might be Nimoy, bathed in the glow of the Genesis Effect and waving at the probe as it goes by. Perhaps we should go find him. I think it’s what he would want.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Blue Beetle and Green Arrow

For the past year and a half, I have been planting seeds in my daughter's artistic aesthetic though the Superhero Theme Project.  This clearly labels me as both a superhero fanboy and a music nerd.  Guilty on both counts.  Since before she was born, I have been eager to introduce my Little One to the characters I found inspiring as a kid, but I have bemoaned the general lack of kid-appropriate superhero media.  Arguably, one of the reasons I began this whole thing was to get her excited about reading, but I started to wonder where the superhero comics are that are actually written for kids - and especially little girls!

Last fall, I was overjoyed to discover the Superman Family Adventures, by Baltazar/Aureliani. DC comics is well-known for its multiple universes, and this series proposes one in which all superheroes are slightly silly, engage in relatively low-key violence, and have pets. The Little One really latched on to this last bit, and wanted to know the name of every animal that came into view. Krypto and Streaky were easy enough, but no amount of online research could keep me informed of all of the super-pets names.

During a browse at the local comic shop, however, I found the holy grail – the Super-Pets Character Encyclopedia. This tome listed an exhaustive set of super-pets and their attendant owners in Baltazar's universe, both hero and villain. There was no plot to the encyclopedia – only images and descriptions. Regardless, at her request, over the course of two months, the Little One and I read the entire thing cover-to-cover three times, and she became surprisingly well-versed in the DC universe.

Despite having no relationship to a storyline or character development, there were some characters that she became very excited about. In particular, she became enamored of the Blue Beetle. When she saw him in the book, she wanted to skip ahead to find out who he was and she immediately insisted that I put his song on my phone.

This was a character I knew absolutely nothing about, however, especially in his current incarnation. From what I could glean, he was like a weird cross between Green Lantern, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Greatest American Hero. I had only the vaguest impressions, so the research in finding a good theme was rather like clutching at straws.

There was an interesting lead I tried out from Elmer Bernstein’s score to Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, a b-rate science fiction movie from the 80s.  In some ways, this theme would have been really great, but it ran just a little too long and I felt like there were themes that were similar in style already on the list. Despite my strict “no-edit” rule, I was considering cutting it in half, when she unexpectedly asked me if I had Blue Beetle on my phone. A trial run confirmed my suspicions: at about 2:15, right when the second theme came in, she said “this is a long song.”

Fortunately, I had a back-up. Around the same time I discovered the Grand Canyon Fanfare, which seemed perfect as a general superhero theme. At 2:10, it fit within a very comfortable attention window, and it was clearly distinctive from many of the other themes that I had used. It also covered a lot of thematic ground in its short running time, with a little choral section in the middle that added just a hint of sci-fi.  By the next time she heard Blue Beetle, I had "rewritten" him in the form of James Newton Howard’s theme, this time in the car at full blast with an attendant graphic, much to her delight.  This one was the keeper.

We soon discovered that Blue Beetle plays a recurring role on the animated series Batman: the Brave and the Bold, and for her TV time, she began consistently requesting these watching the four or five episodes in which he appears. She now refers to this series as "Blue Beetle." This Christmas, I gave her a Blue Beetle action figure based on his design from this series, and it was one of her favorite gifts, along with her Anna and Elsa alarm clock.

I also took advantage of this new wave of interest to throw a theme from the Arrow series on the list. She saw Green Arrow in both the Pet Enyclopedia (with his pet porcupine "Quill") and on Brave and the Bold, so it was a pretty easy sell. Although the Arrow theme is not particularly rich in melody, thanks to the show it has come to evoke the character for me. Don’t fret, conservative parents, I recognize that Arrow is way too adult-themed for her. She will not be watching it any time soon. It is a personal favorite, though, so I have to concede that this one is kind of for me as much as it is for her. Still, she likes it enough to be able to recognize it without the graphic.

These last entries came in on what I thought might be my last opportunity to expand the playlist.  At three and a half, her own personal music tastes were beginning to emerge, but I was able to ride her interest in superhero characters just a little further before she began to really assert herself.

To go to the previous post in this series, click HERE.
To see what started it all, go HERE.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Circa:, iamthemorning, and Another Yes Proposal

Last summer, the successes I saw in Yes’ Heaven and Earth album caused me to rethink the band's future in a big way. For the first time, it seriously seemed that the band could survive, possibly even move forward, without a single original member. I started to play “fantasy football” with some potential line-ups. Billy Sherwood would be a key player in this dream team, filling the shoes of the irreplaceable Chris Squire while Jon Davison, Yes’ current lead singer, would stay on. Davison’s contributions to Heaven and Earth capture the spirit of Yes in a convincing way and for him to similarly collaborate with Sherwood in the Yes name would, I think, produce amazing results. I had a lock on this creative core, but at first I was not as convinced about the other 3/5 of the band.

This led me to Circa:, a Sherwood project that was, at least initially, made up of musicians either in Yes or closely related to them. I watched many YouTube clips of the band and soon decided that guitarist Jimmy Haun would be a worthy successor to Peter Banks, Steve Howe, and, of course, Trevor Rabin.

What I did not do, however, was actually listen to a Circa: album, so I put HQ my wish list.  The album gave me a little more insight as to what kind of boundaries the Yes name has. Circa:’s lineup on HQ is, arguably, another “Yes that never was,” and undoubtedly, the compositions and performances make this relationship clear. Billy Sherwood’s voice, however, though adequate, doesn’t evoke the kind of celestial expansiveness that is necessary to invoke Yes. And that’s fine. Circa: is not calling itself Yes. No touch, no foul. Give Davison a call if you want to go there.

Given this concession, however, with Sherwood’s contributions woven into Yes’ history and Tony Kaye freed from the synthetic production styles of the Rabin era, there is a whole lot of Yes going on. Jimmy Haun’s vast array of sounds and melodic prowess name him clearly as the man for the job. Circa drives this point home with the guitar interlude “Haun Solo,” a nod-of-the-head to the Yes tradition of Steve Howe features. Additionally, drummer Jay Schellen attacks the drums tastefully and aggressively in the same way that Alan White did when he was forging his own distinctive identity in Yes.  His pedigree with Asia, a band with close ties to Yes, makes him even more compelling as a potential member.  In fact, after living with HQ for awhile now, I think that the members of Circa: as they are realized on this particular recording, with the addition of Jon Davison, would be a fine nu-Yes, but with one exception.

Kaye is in excellent form on HQ and contributes a significant amount of “Yes-ness” to the project, but it defeats the purpose of proposing a next-gen Yes with a first-gen member. In my previous lineup, I put Oliver Wakeman on keys, mainly because I don’t think that he got a fair shake as Yes’ keyboard player in that great expanse of lost creative time between Magnification and Fly From Here. I still think he would be interesting in the role, and he would be relatively easy for the fans to accept, but it also seems a little too easy. Let’s be forthright: is he really a keyboard innovator, or is he just a good keyboardist blessed with a familiar last name?  The problem is the very long shadow of his father.

Say what you like about Rick Wakeman’s distinctive brand of keyboard gymnastics, but I have always found his approach to be beautiful, electrifying, and, in its own way, totally genuine. He is, in my opinion, perhaps the finest rock keyboardist in history, and any other musician that has ever had the role of keyboardist in Yes has had to unjustifiably deal with that comparison from the fanbase.

But finding inventive keyboard players in the age of sequencing and triggering is not so easy. Again, the Kscope Sampler I was checking out earlier last month provided an answer. The track Os Lunatum by Russian duo iamthemorning featured an explosive performance from Gleb Kolyadin’s that brought Wakeman to mind.

I put their album Belighted on my wish list, and it thankfully showed up on my birthday. As a whole, it is a refreshingly original and compelling release, and not just from the standpoint of Kolyadin’s highly dexterous technique. It conjures a broad variety of unique moods that recall the best of progressive rock while remaining quite novel. A superficial listen will reveal that Kolyadin plays piano pretty exclusively on Belighted, and the attentive fan will rightfully demand to hear his synthesizer chops before making the leap to naming him Wakeman’s successor. Fair enough, but I will argue that although Wakeman is also known for his innovations in the synthesizer world, his conservatory- trained piano technique as always laid at the very core of his playing. Kolyadin clearly shares this background with him, as well as a passion for innovation that would add a lot to an entirely new Yes configuration.

So perhaps my current dream-team, for those that have been following, would be Davison, Sherwood, Haun, Kolyadin, and Schellen. Again, this is only for fun, and not meant to take anything away from the work of the current Yes lineup. But if anyone were to put together a petition with these five names on it for future planning purposes, I would sign. I think that they could make an album that would be at least as good as the late period success The Ladder, which was, in my opinion, great.  On the other hand, a 21st century Fragile, with "solo" spots for all the new players to assert their roles, would be interesting.  In either case, we would certainly be better off than with no Yes at all.

The Explosive Heights of Anathema's "Distant Satellites"

The Kscope Label Sampler vol. 6 seemed like a pretty good deal: ten full length songs, two of them new tracks by North Atlantic Oscillation and Steven Wilson, both of which are artists I really like, as well as several other tracks by artists I had seen bouncing around end of year “best-of” lists. The deal was particularly sweet because it was totally free. I put it on repeat during the long, quiet overnight plane ride home from Hawaii.

Because of that appealing price point, I won’t go too much into detail on the collection. I will say (and I don’t get paid to do so) that it is totally worth the effort to download it. I will to make special mention, however, of Steven Wilson’s cover of ABBA’s The Day Before You Came.  Undoubtedly, there are progressive rock conservatives that will take exception to this track, but I think its brilliant. It is hard to imagine another artist injecting more character into what at first glance might seem like a funky 70's pop song. In any lesser hands, it just wouldn’t work. Wilson’s characteristic melancholy, however, creates a uniquely forlorn sense of nostalgic longing by juxtaposing the reflective aspects of the lyrics to mine the deeper implications of the song

Another song that caught my attention was Anathema’s The Lost Song part 3. This band had already caught my attention on a DPRP “Editor’s Choice” list. The soaring melodies of this track set me out beating the streets for a copy of the full album.

This ended up being a great, great move. It has been a very long time since I found an album as immediately engaging as Distant Satellites, and even longer since an instantly gratifying album continued to reveal new rewards after almost a month and a half of constant play. Anathema has all the grandeur of Marillion, the drama of Tears for Fears, the atmospheric variety of Radiohead, the climactic pacing of Sigur Ros, and the dynamic impact of Opeth, all gathered under breathtakingly emotive lyrics. In short, Distant Satellites is my new favorite album.

Anathema’s songs are infectiously singable, passionately performed, and intelligently constructed. In fact, structures of their songs have a bit more in common with “post-rock” or, in some ways, maybe even contemporary dance music. Like other current “post-prog” artists like Syd Arthur, Anathema employs odd metered ostinatos as a framework for composition, letting their songs flow naturally and logically from a relatively simple idea. Through subtle variation and the layering in of new material, they push these initial statements to explosive heights. No matter how far they push these ideas, however, they never lose track of the power of melody to pull the composition together.

Many artists from the sampler do not fit neatly into the classic conception of progressive rock, and Anathema is no exception.  I could see how prog conservatives might give Anathema the "not prog" stamp, but to me, they represent a new idea about what the genre could look like in the 21st century.  I often wonder where the new great progressive bands are, and I think Anathema is emerging as one of them.  If I had discovered it at the end of last year, it would most likely have unseated Dawes at the last minute as my favorite album of the year. It has made that kind of impact. Coming at the beginning of 2015, however, it has set the bar impossibly high for the year to follow.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Mr. Bungle Goes to Persia: Ethnos and the Secret Chiefs 3

Late in 2013 I was invited to by some ethnomusicology students to play in an original world music crossover ensemble. To me, this invitation seemed auspicious.  Although I don’t think fate dictates our path, I do think that things happen for a reason. It’s not always easy, however, to tell if the path path you have chosen is authentic or self-serving. For example, I often wonder if I took up Chapman Stick because I was “supposed to,” or if it was some desperate personal gambit to forge an identity for myself after the divorce. Perhaps the meaning of my ethnomusicological studies is yet to be revealed, or maybe they were merely an unnecessary and expensive exercise in egoism. Playing with this group, however, which came to be called Ethnos, seemed to make sense of so many disparate aspects of my experience that I could not help but accept.

I was nervous, though, because when I got the call, my Chapman Stick chops were nowhere near what they were during my master's studies. I have always grown as a musician, however, by putting myself in difficult musical situations and working my way through it. This is certainly where I was when I started in this group, but I was fortunate. They were quite patient with me as I got (and continue to get) my Stick playing where I want it to be.

This was to be an all-original group, and not one tethered to the conceptual restraints of a university, which I found particularly exciting. Authenticity has never been quite as important to me as influence, and it always seems to hang in the air in the academic setting.  The majority of our book currently consists of reimagined arrangements of popular music from around the world, but I have secretly been thinking about what sort of original tunes we could generate. For inspiration, I revisited an album that captured my attention a couple of years ago: Book M by The Secret Chiefs 3.

No, I don't know what's up with the cloaks.  Let's move on.

Secret Chiefs 3 is actually a collective of musicians guided by Ex-Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance.  Under his direction, the Secret Chiefs 3 have multiple configurations and identities that they operate under depending on the musicians and styles involved in any particular recording. Book M is one of their more ethnically influenced recordings, rather like “Mr. Bungle goes to Persia.”

The album’s exotic impressions partially stem from its modal composition. It deftly dodges the monotony that often arises in modal music, however, by using complex, intuitive rhythmic structures alongside contemporary techno and metal styles. If this sounds erratic, it is, but the album’s allure reverberates forth from the collision of these disparate elements. It is by sheer force of will and conviction that it works, but in the final analysis, Book M coheres into a singular statement incredibly well.

While The Secret Chiefs 3 hardly fit the current instrumentation of Ethnos, I find their general compositional approach and intensity very appealing. I am currently working up some compositions using very rudimentary versions of what I see in the music of the Secret Chiefs 3. While quite a bit may be lost in the interpretation, in the end that is what I hope will make it original.