Sunday, July 8, 2018

Racing Around: The Relevance of Roger Waters' Question

As a founding member of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters’ career stretches back nearly five decades. Starting as the band’s bassist and occasional contributer, he emerged as a creative czar, forging a unique and distinctive style. His influence eventually co-opted the band’s identity, which made The Wall, for all intents and purposes, a Waters solo album. His solo albums, for the most part, feature the stylistic standards of this landmark album, which suggests the strength of both his concept and creative control over Pink Floyd at that point in the band's career.

Despite his respectable creativity, Waters has been teetering on anachronism for decades. His 1992 album Amused to Death was impressive, but seemed like an overthought paint-by-number rehash of past work. Beyond that, he has remained visible by performing The Wall and other classic Pink Floyd work in spectacular live productions. New music from Waters simply has not seemed like a priority for quite a while.  I was surprised, then, by the announcement in early 2017 of his new album Is This the Life We Really Want?.

Initially, I was only marginally interested. Amused to Death has barely been off the shelf since it went into my collection twenty-five years ago. Additionally, the first single from Is This the Life We Really Want? felt like a clear attempt to recapture the sounds of Pink Floyd in the glory days, and I was not convinced that I was willing to encourage such nostalgia plays. 


 
I discovered, however, that Waters wooed Nigel Godrich to produce the album. Godrich is best known for his work with Radiohead, and I often like to indulge in thinking that the artistic and commercial successes of both OK Computer and Dark Side of the Moon suggest a shared cultural relevance.  I was further intrigued by the rumors indicating that Godrich wasn’t necessarily a starstruck fan. He was critical of Waters’ solo work, particularly Amused to Death. I speculated that Waters brought Godrich in as fresh ears to help him dodge anachronism.

Godrich’s presence, however, did not have the immediate and obvious impact that I had imagined.  In fact, I was initially surprised at how little Waters innovated. Is This The Life We Really Want? is filled to the brim with Waters most distinctive tropes. In particular, it prominently features his far-reaching interest in musique concrete and found sounds. Waters has always shown interest in the explosive musical impact of glass breaking or the rush of a jet plane racing across the sky. His use of these kinds of sound effects over murmured radio broadcasts and minor key blues grooves is characteristically present throughout the album. 



So Waters was up to his old tricks, and that may seem like a criticism, but in the case of Is This The Life We Really Want? it is actually a backhanded compliment. Repeated listening to the album reveals it to be one of Waters’ most engaging solo efforts, and its success owes a lot to its overt references to his time with Pink Floyd. Perhaps with the band officially done and such a long gap since he took the spotlight with any new material, his identity can sell these allusions as authentic creations rather than overt nostalgia.  And yes, age has etched itself upon his voice, but his distinctive singing has had the the grizzled edge of an old man for a very long time. Any loss of range his voice has suffered is swallowed up in his idiosyncratic style, which has always been driven more strongly by lyric content than clever melody. 


While there are aspects of Waters’ unique musicianship that could garner criticism, he is inarguably a brilliant conceptualist. Lyrically, Is This the Life We Really Want? plays out like a collection of related songs connected to the question posed by the album’s title. This runs counter to Waters’ usual craft with linear narrative, but it gives him the freedom to circle around this question and examine it from a variety of angles.

Looking back on Waters’ career, he has always seemed more relevant when the cultural climate leans toward conservatism, and this also works to the album’s advantage. It seems as if time has raced around to come up behind him again. Is This the Life We Really Want? is clearly informed by and framed in the age of Trump and Brexit, and Waters’ characteristically blunt approach to political commentary feels pertinent as a reaction to the times in which we find ourselves. Not only is the album relevant, but the question that it asks is relevant, and the straightforward way in which Waters examines this question might make the album one of his more important statements.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Enduring Catharsis of Genesis' "Duke"

For a dedicated, if critical, progressive rock fan like myself to have maintained a music blog for nearly ten years and not once dedicated a post to Genesis is a pretty glaring omission. Predictably, I have opinions about the unique arc of their oeuvre, but I have waffled for years now on the best way to do justice to their unique transformation from 70s symphonic surrealists to 80s radio staples.

Now the recent Facebook “game,” in which the participants post the cover art from a personally enduring album once a day for ten days, has forced my hand. For a pathological music listener like me, choosing only ten albums to represent all of the most enduring music in my collection was nothing short of tortuous.  After much deliberation, however, I came up with a list that I could mostly live with.

Until one of my nominees posted Duke.

I considered this 1980 release from Genesis when I made my list, but gave it a pass in lieu of other subjectively important progressive rock milestonesDuke is very personal for me, though, and seeing it posted by someone else felt as if I had failed miserably. I can think of very few albums in my collection that have been more enduring and that I have come back to more often than this unique and sadly overlooked gem. In an act that was equal parts penance and anticipation, Duke found its way back into rotation this Spring.  Now, months later, it would be a contender for album of the year if it had not already earned the title at least four times already.

Duke was in no way my introduction to Genesis, and for a very long time I probably would not have even counted it among my favorites. Initially, I appreciated the album as a unique axis upon which Genesis’ past as progressive rock innovators and their future as a pop outfit rotated.



Throughout the past three decades since I added this album to my library, Duke has retained its initial prog-pop fluency.  The album has revealed layers of depth, however, as my life experiences have unfolded.  Like most, I experienced breakup and heartache as a teenager and a young adult, but it took going through a divorce and, later, having children to really grasp Duke’s narratives.

Duke is, arguably, a concept album about fame and failed relationships,  The themes that hold Duke together were inspired by the toll that the band’s extensive touring schedule exacted on Phil Collins’ disintegrating marriage. Fueled by the ordeals of his private life, Collins finally shed the vestiges of Gabriel’s surreal storytelling and revealed a uniquely personal iteration of Genesis. That his expressions are genuine are, I think, beyond question. I can think of few songs more gut-wrenchingly vivid than Please Don’t Ask, which captures the emotional arc of a grieving man’s internal dialogue as he struggles to keep his composure in the face of deep loss.



Despite being so personal, Duke is not a solo album.  Genesis was made up of three distinctive songwriters, and its a feat of collaboration that they were able to trace the outlines of Collins’ ordeals so clearly. In fact, the perspectives of Collins’ bandmates contribute greatly to Duke’s success. Of particular note is keyboardist Tony Banks, who wrote a multi-movement composition describing an artist’s relationship with the public eye. To distance themselves from their earlier work and perhaps generate a single or two, the band elected to edit the movements of this long-form piece throughout the album. Weaving this narrative in this way imparts Duke with the sense of an objective storyline that frames Collins’ more personal and subjective insights.



This narrative structure suggests that Duke might veer into "rock opera" territory, but a close look at the libretto shows that any story that revolves around a character named "Duke" is more a suggestion than plot.  In fact, such a character is never named in the entire album, and his counterpart "Duchess" only exists as a song title.  Rather like the character "Billy Shears" did for  Sgt. Pepper's,  the idea of "Duke" is set up so vividly in the opening tracks of the album that he frames the listening for all the songs that follow, whether he is intended as an actual character or not.

Looking at the emotional facets of ending a relationship from both inside and out, the band unified their work around Collins' struggle, resulting in a focus that is unique in the Genesis catalog. As a vocalist, Collins called on emotions in ways that he never had before, harnessing an edgy screaming range that would become his signature for years to come. The band’s instrumental aspects, which were always top-notch, rose to meet the challenge of backing his cathartic delivery, and aside from a missed opportunity for a humming low end, the production captures these performances with convincing clarity. I have a hard time imagining any album with better drum sounds than those on Duke.



Revisiting Duke over these past few months, I keep thinking about how it's a shame that the album isn’t considered more highly than it is in the prog-rock pantheon. To be blunt, however, it was too pop to be prog and prog to be pop. Like 90125 and Moving Pictures, it stood at the crossroads of these two genres and was able to inhabit them both with distinctive ease. What makes Duke so enduring, however, its its brutal honesty in describing an experience, both musically and conceptually, that I could only relate to after going through my own trials.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Spring Roundup Part 4: Good Car

People's taste in music is often shaped by the distinctive ways in which it is consumed and used.  Take my father, for instance. For most of my adult life, my father has had an explicit preference for instrumental music that he listens to in the car.  As I have stated elsewhere, the automobile as a listening site has its advantages and limitations. One such limitation arises due to the significant amount of background noise that we take for granted while driving, making it more difficult to appreciate music’s quieter aspects.

The problematically labelled “new age” music that my father likes capitalizes on dynamic contrasts, and he would often get annoyed at having to turn his volume up and down to follow the details of softer passages. When he found an album that stayed within a dynamic range that he would not have to adjust, it would receive a label designating it as “GOOD CAR.”

Although I used to tease my dad relentlessly about choosing music based on the narrowness of its dynamic range, there is merit to the designation. Only in recent years have I realized how much I limited myself by making the car my primary listening site. Even now, the majority of my music begins in the car and gets distributed into different settings as the need arises.  Still, there are some kinds of music whose darkness, angularity, dissonance, or general intended volume are best suited for the private setting of my car. These albums are my version of Good Car.


John Williams - The Last Jedi OST: while this may not be John Williams most memorable Star Wars score, just might be his most masterful. The way that he interweaves themes from throughout the franchise is incredible in this soundtrack, and is best appreciated at max volume.

LITE - Cubic: A few years ago, I would have cited LITE as one of my favorite bands. They have steadily moved away from the aggressive intensity of their earlier work, however, towards a more jazzy fusion approach that lacks the same emotional impact.

Mouse on the Keys - The Flowers of Romance: When I first discovered Mouse on the Keys, they were strictly a piano duo with a drummer. They have significantly expanded their sonic palette since then, but in the process may have lost some of the essence of what made them interesting.

Alcest - Kodama: it's hard to resist an album that cites Deafheaven, Tool, and Princess Mononoke as equal influences. Kodama balances light and dark, beauty and ugliness, hope and despair in ways that convincingly reflect these somewhat diverse inspirations.

The Who - Who Are You?: I'm a big fan of The Who, and I've slowly been putting their albums in my collection for the past 30 years. Despite a couple of really compelling high points, this is the first one I really thought was a big jumbled up mess on the whole.

Andrew W.K. - You Are Not Alone: I got this on the suggestion of several friends, and quickly found that there was more to Andrew W.K. than a comically optimistic attitude and theatrical riff-rock. Once I let go of my cynicism and embraced the idea the he might be genuine, I came to really appreciate his mission statement.

Wei Zhongle - The Operators: A songwriter and an eccentric clarinet player walk into a Chinese opera and start covering the Talking Heads. This isn’t beginning of a joke - its Wei Zhongle

Piniol - Bran Coucou: Piniol is, apparently, a mashup of two separate mathty French noise bands, Piol and Ni. In this incarnation, with two bass players and two drummers, they blast through Bran Coucou with the precision of Battles and the Zorn-esque zaniness of Mr. Bungle.

John Powell - Solo: A Star Wars Story OST: To me, the most important aspect of continuity in the Star Wars universe is John Williams' scores, and there has been no small amount of anxiety to find someone to pass the baton to before he retires. John Powell’s approach is noticeably more polyrhythmic and driving than Williams, but his melodic sense is completely compatible with the franchise’s already established musical canon.

Kite Base - Latent Whispers: This album came too late to make the Dinner Music post, but its Bjork-meets-Nine Inch Nails-meets-The XX would probably fit in that category as well. It is just a bit dark in tone (not content), but it abounds with memorable tunes and smart arrangements.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Spring Roundup Part 3: The Prog Stuff

To continue catching up on this series that admittedly was meant to catch me up a month ago, I am addressing the albums that ended up getting lumped into a category I loosely designated as Prog Stuff.

Before I continue, the argument over what progressive rock is and is not is a huge and divisive topic that I am unwilling to engage here. The albums that follow don’t necessarily fall into the neat characteristics of traditional progressive rock music. Instead, these are all albums that I discovered through progressive rock avenues - either from websites dedicated to the style or from rhizomatic connections to other progressive rock groups.
Functionally, a lot of this music floats between the car and the house, although it feels a little indulgent to subject the whole family to some of this stuff. Still, as is often the case, I have found much of my favorite music this year by searching in progressive rock circles.



Wobbler - From Silence to Somewhere: Wobbler’s most recent release is another example of retro prog that transcends mere imitation. Their distinctive sound delves into heavier realms on From Silence to Somewhere than in the past, bringing to mind the riff-driven work of Rush in the mid-70’s.

Barock Project - Skyline: This album's clean, bright approach to late Neo-Progressive rock did not initially appeal to me at all.  Its strong songwriting and clever musicianship, however, has really grown on me, revealing depths that continue to deliver.

Bent Knee - Say So: Bent Knee seems like a band full of great musicians with just too many ideas. There are times when the concept pops into focus with dramatic results, but overall Say So feels too uneven to rise above mere moments.

Big Big Train - Folklore: Although occasionally marred by goofy lyrics, the positive critical responses to Folklore are largely deserved.  Fans of progressive rock in the vein of Genesis will likely connect with this album, especially if a sprinkling of Celtic overtones in the mix sounds appealing.

The Knells - Knells II: With a guitar player who seems to have broken off the the knob off somewhere between Jimmy Page and Hemispheres-era Alex Lifeson, I find a whole lot of like about this album from an instrumental perspective.  Even more interesting is the classically trained women's trio that collectively function as the lead voice.

Cheer- Accident - Putting off Death:  This is another album that is almost derailed by its own eccentricity, but is grounded by the obvious technical prowess of the band’s members.  The album has a certain sonic relationship to Bill Bruford’s 70’s solo work, which I have a longstanding relationship with.

Soup - Remedies: Remedies is my early contender for album of the year.  It's distinctive balance between Pink Floyd, post-rock, and pan-Nordic bleakness makes everything that I've been listening to pop into sharper focus.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Spring Roundup Part 2: Evening Music

I have a longstanding interest in music that is "soothing but not boring," but this area of my listening is often eclipsed by more energetic styles. This is probably because the primary site of listening has traditionally been my car, and active music more readily overlays the experience of driving. The increased access provided by the Plex app, however, has opened up new spaces in my everyday routine.

For example, Seabuckthorn’s Turns is a masterful, atmospheric yet emotionally moving album that worked in the car well enough, but its status as the 2017 Album of the Year is a result of its pervasive presence in the evenings after the kids went to sleep. Towards the end of last year, I became increasingly interested in finding more music that could fill this space, giving rise to the second category that has arisen in the past few months - Evening Music.

There are many albums that I put in this category, and virtually all of them are engaging, but very few of them actually ended up working as well as I had hoped. With only a couple of exceptions, most of them balanced ambient aspects with at least a few moments of explosive noise. I find this musically interesting, but from a functional standpoint, Evening Music can’t wake up the kids or cause study room doors to slam in irritated disgust.



Pejman Hadadi - Epiphany: It's hard to believe that I never wrote about this, but last semester we had a housemate from Iran (via Belgium) who was auditing the PhD program that my wife is in. She gave me this CD as a Christmas/parting gift, and it has served very well as my “non-Western” listening at the beginning of this year.

Tangerine Dream - Zeit: I walked into Zeit hoping to investigate retro-synth source material, only to find that Zeit is hardly the place to start this kind of research. As it turns out, however, it is a surprisingly captivating proto-ambient album that shares more common ground with Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma than Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene.

Kyle Dixon & Micheal Stein - Stranger Things 2 OST: Like its predecessor, Stranger Things 2 shows its intent in its structure. It is a collection of cues, rather than freestanding compositions, which opens up different creative freedoms for Dixon and Stein.

The Radiophonic Workshop - Burials on Several Earths: This is more in line with what I thought Zeit would be like, but it is also far more ambient than I had anticipated. In terms of authenticity, however, you really can't go wrong with three or four guys who worked in the BBC radiophonic Workshop during its heyday in the 70s.

Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch - Blade Runner 2049 OST: This soundtrack doesn’t speak quite as clearly as a lot of Hans Zimmer’s work, but it matches the movie so well that it is hard not to appreciate. It falls prey to the unfortunate trend of closing with a painfully formulaic pop song.

Burial - Untrue: This album has received some attention recently due to its rhizomatic influence on several current electronic styles. Although it’s dark atmosphere has found a pretty regular spot in my evening music listening, its complexity and subtle energy allows it to spill beyond this setting with ease.

Park Jiha - Communion: I love Communion’s emotional cross-pollination of jazz, classical, and traditional Korean music. When it moves into more strident territory, however, other people in the house unfortunately start to plug their ears.

Air - Moon Safari: Moon Safari came up on a Pitchfork “best of the 90’s” playlist a week before I found it in a used bin, I have had Air on my playlist for years, mainly due to Jason Falkner’s involvement, and,despite knowing that Falkner was not involved, I got it on a whim.

Matt Chamberlain, Viktor Krauss, and Dan Phelps - Modular: This one is my favorite of the bunch by far. Its got an amazingly well-thought out concept that binds it together, fantastic playing, and enough mystery as to its overall construction that I simply can’t stop listening to it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Spring Roundup Part 1: Dinner Music

It makes me incredibly happy to say that I received an obscene amount of music for Christmas and my birthday this year. So much, in fact, that getting acquainted with it all well enough to generate commentary with any kind of confidence has taken the better part of the past few months. Now, however, I am at the point at which addressing them all, even in a generalized roundup, would result in a prohibitively long post.  Additionally, the longer the lapse in the posting, the more unruly catching up seems. What to do?

After spending some time with all this music during my commute, I started to notice that loose categories began emerge. These categories were partially based on style, but also arose in the music’s everyday functionality. For example, some music seemed appropriate after the kids had gone to sleep, while others were far too abrasive to get much airplay in any other setting than the privacy of my car. To break down this overwhelming influx of music, I will post a series of roundups according to these categories.

For example, dinner time in our house is one of the rare occasions in the course of the day that the whole family has a chance to sit down and enjoy each other’s company. Thanks to the Netflix series Beat Bugs, my kids have grown to love the music of the Beatles, so I curated a playlist based on their favorite songs,  It has dominated dinner time for the majority of the year. This set the tone for a category I have come to call Dinner Music, which has evolved into a showcase for newly discovered power pop, relatively accessible songwriting-based music, and, of course, the Beatles.



Danny De La Matyr - Crybaby: Danny was the primary songwriter behind one of my favorite bands of the 90s Dallas scene, The Days, so I was very excited when I heard about his recent solo album. It is, however, disappointing in that it is marred by distractingly flat production.

Dawes - We’re All Gonna Die: Dedicated Dawes fans have raised a bit of commotion about the stylistic direction on the band’s most recent release. We’re All Gonna Die is decisively more rock-oriented than its predecessors, but it is not as jarringly different as reviewers might suggest.

Shugo Tokumaru - In Focus?: In Focus? is a super-eclectic take on pop-styled songwriting, occupying a unique place on the spectrum between Sean Lennon. and Frank Zappa. Despite its unapologetic eccentricity, the album holds together as a fun and and challenging listen.

Field Music - Open Here: Each of Field Music’s albums have become increasingly grand and sweeping in their scale. Open Here continues this trend, with liberal use of strings and other orchestral instruments sidling up beside some of their most accessible and political work.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Rainy Morning and Zweiton's "Form"

I have a very clear memory of listening to Zweiton’s Form early on a rainy March morning in 2016. The sky was overcast, but the morning seemed bright, and the rain was light enough that windshield wipers were almost unnecessary. Patterns of water formed on my windshield only to be erased when the view became dangerously obstructed. I was deeply involved in the melody at the end of Licht, appreciating the way that it snaked through a variety of disorienting polyrhythms, only to reveal its simple origins in its final variation. I was really, really tired, and my exhaustion seemed to heighten the hallucinogenic quality of this exploration.


My weariness was well-earned, because just days before, my second daughter EJ had been born. I was on paternity leave. It was also one of the most important days of the school year for a Texas band director - UIL Concert and Sightreading. I would, however, be sitting in the audience listening to my band rather than standing in front of them. Knowing that she would be coming right in the middle of contest preparations, I rehearsed the band for the first half of the season and, with some careful planning, turned them over to the High School director for their final performances. I knew that they were in good hands, but letting go was still difficult.

This sea of overlapping thoughts and emotions seemed more vivid due to lack of sleep, and Form, which had been in rotation for several weeks, had become the standard soundtrack for my bedraggled state. The album had been suggested by fellow Stick player that I had met during my studies, and true to his suggestion, it is unique and engaging in ways that sidestep easy categorization.



As a project that centers on “touchstyle guitar” playing, Zweiton’s style can be traced back to King Crimson with some confidence. In particular, the heavier, mathematical approach that the group was spearheading in the mid-90s on THRaK. At that time, the band expanded to a cacophonous double trio with Trey Gunn on Warr Guitar. His contributions on THRaK were initially difficult to unravel, but they became clearer when he released The Joy of Molybdenum, a defining album to which Form owes its scope.

Form has some very heavy moments, but never veers into the emotionally vacuous traps of technical prog-metal Instead, its heaviness emerges from deeply mathematical grooves and interlocked melodic structures. These more intense moments are made more effective as they are juxtaposed by more delicate, atmospheric passages, spun together into often sprawling yet coherent compositions.



By the time contest came around, I had made the decision that I would not be returning for the following year. Sitting in the audience was not the way in which I wanted to end my 9 year run at the school. I unequivocally decided, however, that family, took priority in this situation. I know many directors who would have not taken this path, but ultimately I was happy to be relieved of the pressure so that I could focus on EJ’s somewhat problematic infancy, and I do not regret it to this day. At the time, however, it was not the way that I wanted to say goodbye to those kids, which made this particular morning a bittersweet and introspective one.