Monday, February 13, 2017

Finishing the Level: Crying's "Beyond the Fleeting Gales"

Given its humble new-agey album art and inscrutable title, I would have never given Crying’s Beyond the Fleeting Gales a second thought if not for one particularly intriguing review that praised its joyous complexity. When the album showed up in my Christmas booty, it immediately impressed me, especially from a performance standpoint. It had hyperkinetic drums and female vocals that threw shades of 90s loungers The Cardigans. I liked the pop-metal synthesizer and guitar interplay.  They keyboardist in particular seemed to have incredible chops that he channeled through vintage digital synthesizer sounds to paint an exuberant 80s feel throughout the entire album.

All this probably would have been enough for Beyond the Fleeting Gales to be an early 2017 favorite. After doing some research, however, I concluded that my interpretation of what Crying was up to was completely wrong, and that a deeper read of their work was in order.



I knew early on that Crying was considered a “chiptune” project, but I was blissfully unaware of what that meant. This designation specifically derives from their use of a modded Game Boy as an 8-bit sequencer for all of their synthesizer sounds. I admit that I felt a twinge of disappointment as I let go of the image of a fleet-fingered Wakeman protégé knocking out those arpeggios on a Juno, but the more I thought about it, the cooler it became.

Let’s start from the very simple fact that the Game Boy is in no way designed to be used as a sequencer. It's a video game system, and a rudimentary one by today’s standards, so I find it pretty impressive that Crying uses it to such great effect.  Guitarist/songwriter Ryan Galloway has tamed the unique sounding potential of the Game Boy and used it as a distinctive compositional tool that shapes the essence of what Crying does. Stripped of guitars, vocals, and drums, the synthesized aspects of Beyond the Fleeting Gales would not sound out of place on a Super Mario Brothers level. Its essentially rocked-out video game music, which gives rise to the album’s generally triumphant tone.



But the role of the Game Boy in Crying’s unique identity goes beyond the system’s musical affordances. As its primary use is as a gaming system, it is reasonable to surmise that video game music is a fundamental influence on the band’s overall musical concept. This assumption sheds some light on several other curious aspects of Crying’s image. For example, the band’s vibrant prog-pop aesthetic doesn’t seem to jibe with its ethereal, often playful packaging. The album art makes more sense, however, in the context of classic fantasy games. In fact, at first glance, the libretto could pass as a Legend of Zelda instruction manual.

Following along in the libretto reveals another possible layer to this influence. Although the melodies on Beyond the Fleeting Gales are compelling, the vocal performances are somewhat unassuming and are readily overshadowed by the Crying’s compelling instrumentalism. Its easy to overlook the lyrics.  A close read, however, reveals a succession of descriptive and surreal narratives that very well could be the story of an adventurer traveling through an imaginative platforming video game escapade.



Although I loved the idea of a band that purposefully collapsed the guitar histrionics of Neal Schon with the energy of 99 Luftballoons, I sense that these are my personal interpretations more than Crying’s intentions. Beyond the Fleeting Gales might be less about capturing musical nostalgia than reinterpreting the 8-bit gaming experience. This grants the album a genuine sense of exploration, and gives Crying a refreshing freedom that reminds me of the local bands in the 90s Dallas scene. Unlike those bands, however, Crying is not bound by any adherence to what is mainstream.  They instead seem to be taking quite a bit of personal satisfaction in using their unique background as a reservoir of inspiration to push their own musical boundaries.  

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Anna Meredith's Varmints and a Brief Snow

A month ago, the first day of school came and, despite having a good feeling about what will be happening in my bands during the coming semester, I couldn’t say that I was particularly happy about it. I had a wonderful couple of weeks at home with my family and getting used to leaving them behind every day in the midst of the usual morning stress was not appealing. As is often the way with semester preparations, we had two days of staff development to gear up before the students would arrive. On the second day of this scheduled inservice, we got a reprieve. Snow began to fall and my new district, being small and relatively remote, fortunately understands that many of its teachers drive in from other places. It was decided that we would leave early.

So I got a brief extension on my vacation. Austin almost always had more ice than snow, which can certainly shut down a school. It isn’t, however, really all that fun. Up here in North Texas you have the potential to get real snow - the kind that dances across the road rather than pelts the windshield. I was excited about watching P play in the light layer of white powder that was accumulating on the road when I got home.

Snow was swirling across the road like sands across dunes and Anna Meredith’s Varmints, a selection from my Christmas booty, was pulsing strongly, reflecting the white ripples as they cascaded across the blacktop. I put the album on my wishlist last year during my search for a follow-up to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s astoundingly good EARS. Meredith’s interdisciplinary status as a composer for the BBC and a synth-pop songwriter seemed to put her in the position to fill that void in 2017.

Stylistically, however, the two are apples and oranges. Varmints has an extroverted flourish that is more theatrical when compared to the cerebral atmospheres of EARS.  Like many Ableton-savvy composers, Meredith likes to vary a theme, particularly through rhythmic displacement. Take, for example, the disorienting entry of the backbeat of Nautilus. For four full minutes, the listener is allowed to think that the riff is on the beat, only to find that it is actually on the upbeat, resulting in a perceptual shift of the entire landscape. This kind of rhythmic slight-of-hand shows up several times throughout Varmints and it never seems to get old.  It also allows the album to consistently tread the common zone between between layered songwriting and complex composition.



The distinction between these two extremes is often blurry. Meredith’s experience as a soundtrack composer grants the even the songs that are geared towards accessibility with a heaping tablespoon full of intricacy. She will often use intentional dissonance, using chords that don’t seem to work until after they have passed. Melodically, however, she keeps things light, bringing to mind Neko Case’s contributions to the New Pornographers. As a whole, however, Meredith’s often thunderous rave-inspired beats make Varmints a unique beast, indeed.



It turned out that Denton did not much snow, but it was enough. P got home and went directly outside with her mother to throw snow at each other.  EJ, on the other hand, is not convinced that footwear is so great yet, so I stayed inside with her. When they came in, she told me that P will “always remember this,” and I was really glad that I was there to see it. It was a heart-warming way to spend the last cold day of our vacation.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Everything Awakens: Parenting and Weezer's Issues

Growing up is tricky, and I am not just talking about the time in and around those tender teenage years. Growing up continues well into adulthood, and requires no small amount of reflection and self-forgiveness. For songwriters with long careers, reconciling the successes of the past with the perspective of personal history can be a challenge, especially when those perspectives change with maturity. Weezer, a band whose defining material captured a unique brand of nerdy slackerishness, has wrestled with expressing their adulthood for decades.

Despite gleaning moments of brilliance arising from this struggle, I had effectively given up on the band until last year, when the Weezer [white] album broke my moratorium on their albums and ended up making my 2015 top 10. It success caused me to reconsider my pass on its predecessor, 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End, which is, in some ways, even more successful because it shows the band finally singing in their grown-up voice

I should state that I became a Weezer fan reluctantly. I did not get them at all when Weezer [blue] was released, at least not initially. They won me over, however, and I followed them unquestioningly for nearly a decade after. Say it Ain’t So, with it’s unbelievably cathartic bridge, ended up being the model Weezer song.



There came a time, however, that I thought my jag with Weezer had come to an end. In 2005, they released Make Believe, and it seemed to me so crushingly cliche and formulaic that it reframed what I liked about their work in the worst possible way. It was as if Rivers Cuomo had sprayed midi-chlorians all over his entire back catalog.  Everything Will Be Alright in the End, however, seems much more like the actual sequel to Weezer [blue]. It is Weezer’s The Force Awakens, acknowledging all that has transpired since A New Hope and, despite having some flaws, recaptures much of its original excitement.

Listening with an open ear reveals that Everything Will Be Alright in the End has a lot of common ground with Weezer’s pre-00s work. While they can never reclaim the slackery innocence of those early releases, there is a carefree sense to the album that stands in its stead. This untroubled environment sets the stage for Rivers to essentially acknowledge the successes and failures that he and the band have experienced. Although its not my favorite track on the album, Back to the Shack serves as the album’s mission statement, in which he rededicates himself to the things that once defined him.



The big difference here in my mind is that Rivers, as Weezer’s voice, is airing insecurities rather than making clever social observations at his own expense. This is a welcome shift.

Another track that really speaks to me personally is Foolish Father.  In addition to being phenomenally tuneful and epic, it also feels like an significant conceptual inversion from Say It Ain’t So. Where once Rivers was being pretty explicit with where he laid the blame in his strained relationship with his father, here he expresses a bit more sympathetic position.  Foolish Father suggests that the tensions that exist between a father and daughter stem more from the father's personal issues than lack of his love. The refrain is particularly gut-wrenching, as the characteristically cynical Rivers ends on a positive note, belting out the album’s optimistic title with a youthful gang-choir for impact.



Being a father myself and sometimes painfully watching my own flaws play out on my kids, I really connect with this song.  Although my relationship with my kids is in no way strained right now, I don’t expect to end up being a perfect parent.  I will probably go through times when we are at odds, but I sincerely hope that both P and EJ grow up knowing that any mistakes I made are in no way a reflection on either of them. Or their little brother, for that matter.

You read that right. If you made it this far into this post, you get the official treat: we are pregnant with a third and we are very, very excited  We are, however, a bit nervous about the stress of having two littles only 18 months apart, a stress that could have repercussions in my interactions with the girls.  I probably won't make it through the whole thing without doing something foolish, so I hope I have taught them enough forgiveness and understanding for them to realize that despite my shortcomings, I love them both dearly.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

January Roundup: A Little Cross-Training

P has been around the aikido dojo from a very young age, and I have long looked forward to getting her onto the mat when the time is right. That opportunity has arisen since we moved to Denton. She is just now old enough to participate in the kids program at the dojo here, and it has been indescribably rewarding to participate in these classes with her.

For the time being, I consider aikido to be a non-negotiable. I get that she is only five and certainly should not be locked into one thing, but I want her to eventually understand the value of sticking with something in the long-term. Plus, it’s something we can continue to do as a family as she grows into her own practice.

Beyond that, we have always let her interests lead her enrichment activities to an extent, and this path has led her through some great experiences in gymnastics, acting, and swimming. Recently, however, she has taken on an independent interest in learning “karate,” so I found a local Tae Kwon Do school and took her to a trial class. She walked away feeling very successful and was really excited about continuing.

I will admit that as an aikido practitioner I would love it for her to be a purist, but there’s no problem with a little cross-training. In fact, the school that she is involved in gives patches and awards for good job notes from teachers and parents, and I am working on ways in which I can capitalize on her excitement in “karate” to reinforce moral lessons she is learning in aikido while at school.

For example, our kids classes use Japanese terms to cultivate an awareness of positive morals. I have adopted three to emphasize: “yuki” (courage), “shoten” (focus), and “rei” (respect). I talked to her kindergarten teacher in the hopes that she can earn a “good job” note for exhibiting these principles in her everyday interactions. Maybe this will help her to see these principles in herself. We’ll see. At the very least, it will be good to know that she will have the confidence to defend herself if necessary.

Thanks to a really hefty haul at Christmas, I had a huge turnover in my listening in January that I probably need to document before my birthday hits. Here’s what is currently in rotation:

Pavlov3 - Curvature-Induced Symmetry…..Breaking: In the big scheme of my listening documentation system, this album has had to work uphill. It is only available in soft format, and I downloaded it in the nebulous November period, but that is no reflection on its outstanding compositional and performance strengths.

(I have not found a YouTube link to the Pavlov3 studio stuff, so here is a streaming link from their bandcamp account.)

After swallowing that pill, push "play" below and scroll on:



Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein - Stranger Things OST v. 1: I held off on this so that it wouldn’t obscure the greatness that was S U R V I V E’s release RR7349. As a soundtrack, it has some important differences from this album, but it is no less inspiring.

Crying - Beyond the Fleeting Gales: An exciting, energetic pop-styled release from this “chiptune” band. They use a modded Game Boy as a sequencer for all their synth sounds, which, upon reflection, is a lot cooler than it might seem.

Tortoise - Standards: A little less prog and a little more jazz than my previous impression of this incredible group. Still, that pushes them into Zappa territory, which is no small comparison.

David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: My last-ditch attempt to pry open Bowie’s back catalog with one of his defining albums has proven to be gratifying. It’s his Sgt. Pepper’s.

Dawes - All Your Favorite Bands: Stories Don’t End earned my Album of the Year spot in 2014, and I was apprehensive about following it up. I admit that All Your Favorite Bands feels a little forced in places, but it also has some stellar moments that keep me listening.

Anna Meredith - Varmits: Meredith is a BBC composer, and Varmits is her attempt to cross over into more accessible realms. The result is predictably dense and consistently interesting.

Amplifier - Echo Street: As a collection of reworked demos from their 90s back catalog, research has revealed that Echo Street might be a weird place to start listening to Amplifier. It does bear the mark of crossover prog from that era to an extent.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - Mustt Mustt: An early 90s Real World release from Khan that betrays the influence of Peter Gabriel on its more Western aspects. Still, Khan’s vocal prowess is on full display, and shines through to electrifying effect.

Joni Mitchell - Mingus: Heijira has long been a favorite of mine, due in no small part to the presence of legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius. I’m not sure, however, that I quite get the seemingly disjunct Mingus well enough yet to form a conclusive opinion.

The Wondermints - Bali: In the mid-00s, I was a pretty big fan of Mind If We Make Love To You, but Bali ended up in wishlist limbo. Now that Recycled Records allowed me to finally lay hands on a copy, however,  I can't seem to get into it.

Oum Kalsoum - Mother of the Arabs: In addition to the Stranger Things soundtrack, I have been looking toward various Persian music for inspiration. No one more readily hits this mark than the mid-century Egyptian artist Oum Kalsoum.

Crippled Black Phoenix - Bronze: This band came up highly recommended, but I am not sure what the big deal is. Bronze has some great moments, but generally feels like stoner rock with a slightly psychedelic edge.

Weezer - Everything Will Be Alright in the End: The “white album” ended my moratorium on Weezer albums last year. The generally positive reviews on its predecessor are well-deserved, as they get the balance of maturity and slackerishness more and more right.

Michael Giacchino - Doctor Strange OST: Giacchino was a big player in 2016, scoring two movies for franchises in which I am hugely invested. He betrays his melodic and harmonic preferences on Doctor Strange to an extent, but also creates a soundtrack that is absolutely appropriate for the character while working decently as a standalone experience.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Tortoise's "Standards" and the Haze of Student Judgement

Tortoise’s It’s All Around You has proven to be a vivid snapshot of my somewhat hazy years in Carrollton. I added several Tortoise albums to my wishlist back then, but I never followed up with them, nor did I lose interest enough to remove them. They just sat there. Standards, which by several accounts is a critically praised album by Tortoise, was one of these albums destined to wishlist purgatory.

I recently stumbled across a used copy at Recycled Records on the Denton square, however, and it found its way into rotation at last. Standards precedes Its All Around You chronologically, and comes off as a bit less “prog” than its successor. What it lacks in epic scope, however, it trades for a more improvised, jammy feel. Standards allows me to imagine Tortoise as an alternate lineup for Frank Zappa's later iterations of the Mothers of Invention.



I had only spun the album a few times when I quite literally road-tested it. For the first year at my new position, I ended up being responsible for transporting a few middle school students to participate in the all-region band clinic and concert. We used an ISD truck for this purpose and as I logged the mileage, I noticed that there was a CD player in the dash. I just couldn’t help myself. I went back to my car and grabbed a couple of discs from the rotation stack. One of them happened to be Tortoise’s Standards.

On the drive, I gave the students chance to converse amongst themselves, at least at first. This only lasted a little while, though, and soon the silence became unbearably deafening. I gave my passengers some choices based on some very vague descriptions of the albums I grabbed. I described Tortoise as “weird jazz.”

Of course, I recognize that to describe Tortoise as a strictly jazz group is a bit of a stretch. What they do requires some kind of further description. Perhaps it would have been more fair to call them “jazz-rock.” Or more like “rock-jazz.” Or maybe “post-rock-jazz.” Hard to say. Traveling through these increasingly ridiculous labels would just obfuscate matters, so I indulged in the description in the spirit of making things simple for the average middle schooler. One student, who happened to be the High School director’s daughter, spoke up in favor of “the jazz.”

Knowing that she probably was expecting Miles Davis or Count Basie, I cautiously re-emphasized that “It’s weird!” and with a wry grin, I put it in.

And that’s when things really got awkward. At least for them.



If those first two minutes of drum outfreakage seemed long in the above clip, it was even more so with the palpable haze of my student's judgement hanging in the air.  Whatever.  After all, these were the best music students in the school, so they should be able to form some sort of informed opinion. That’s what I kept telling myself, anyway.  In truth, I was selfishly happy as a clam.

What is not readily apparent when listening to Tortoise on record, and what you can see above, is that all the band’s members are multi-instrumental wizards, often changing instruments in the middle of the song. Listening with that in mind, Tortoise presents a fascinating puzzle to be unraveled. A full concert would be something to behold, especially if you walked in with a good knowledge of the band's material.

In their defense, the students had no context or experience that might have given them a toehold on Standards. If they had an opinion, they did not let on. They remained silent for the remainder of the trip, although I sensed a lot of “WTF?” glances being exchanged in the back seat. It probably didn't help that the speakers in the truck made everything sound like it was underwater. Finally, one student broke the ice and made a somewhat snide comment about the cat-like sound qualities of the synth melody in Monica.


Just when it seemed like we could have a conversation about what is interesting about Tortoise in general and Standards specifically, we arrived at the clinic site. It was tempting to initiate a conversation about timbre and sound quality, but I thought that it might be better not to press my luck. We headed in for what would be a long weekend of band rehearsal.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Unique World of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's EARS

I don't know that I'll ever be able to exactly replace or recreate the experience of playing with world-music fusion group Ethnos. For a while, we had a regular gig at Marrakesh Mediterranean Grill, and I always looked forward to it. The food was outstanding and having a monthly performance encouraged us to keep being creative in fulfilling ways without totally losing touch with the public.

One of the last times I played with Ethnos, I picked up our flute player on the way to the gig. When he got in the car, he also jumped into Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s EARS album, which had been playing virtually nonstop for nearly a week and a half. Almost immediately, he picked up on its cerebral aspects, and after a very brief explanation on what attracted me to the album, we listened to the entire thing in complete, engaged silence.



I was pleased by his interest. My ears were unexpectedly primed for Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith when I discovered her. I had just revisited Jean-Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe, and I was still enjoying Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as a 2015 favorite. EARS doesn’t resemble either of these works exactly, but it does exist in a kind of common ground between them. As an analog synth project, EARS is created out of the sounds that Jarre pioneered in those 70s recordings. Also like those recordings, Smith’s compositions evoke vivid, world-building environments. Her compositional style is radically different, however, due to the unique affordances of her instrument of choice, the Buchla Sound Canvas.



Anyone who knows me knows I'm a sucker for weird instruments, so this was a big sell. I am still unclear as to the technical nuances of the instrument, but the rippling, arpeggiated textures it creates are clearly a key component to EARS, and bring to mind the contemplative characteristics of Reich’s compositional techniques.

EARS is most readily identified as an electronic album, but it is actually a subtle combination of synths, voices, and woodwinds that straddles the distinction between improvisation and composition. It can hang on the edge of the awareness as background music, but it can also be engaging and immersive. In this latter regard, I find it to be surprisingly effective. Even with some tracks clocking in at ten minutes, Smith’s work has the capacity to take the listener on a journey that, once begun, is hard to stray from.


In the months following my discovery of EARS, I felt inspired to investigate other synth music in the hopes that Smith represented an underground genre of which I was unaware. None came close. EARS was, and is, far too unique. I still play it regularly and find it incredibly satisfying.

It would be quite a stretch to consider EARS “world” music, but when we stopped the car, Ethnos’ flute player immediately commented that the band should do something like it. Even though we did not have a synth player in the group, much less a Buchla, his ears were open enough to hear something that he thought that we could reinterpret. This was one of the reasons why I enjoyed playing with and the group so much. Getting to play with with people with that level of creativity and open-mindedness was a gift that I will always cherish.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Bowie's "Blackstar" and the Zeitgeist of Loss

A little over a year ago, the rumors surrounding the avant-garde New York musicians that Bowie had called on to be his studio band for his upcoming release gave me the sense that he was up to something. Curious and immobilized by holiday traffic in the Barton Creek Mall parking lot, I pushed play on the video for Blackstar when it appeared in my Facebook feed.  I was flabbergasted by what I heard.

This first “single” was a ten minute track beginning with sinister overtones, opening up into shimmering glam-rock and ending with a dark recapitulation. The track clearly suggested that Bowie was pushing himself into new terrain while maintaining a toe hold on his past, while the video's occult overtones had no precedent in his oeuvre of which I was aware.



The prog nut in me immediately took notice. At the time, of course, I did not have any idea what the impetus was for his new direction. A few weeks later, Blackstar was released to critical accolades, and two days after that, David Bowie succumbed to what was revealed to be a long battle with cancer. Then the release of Lazarus as a second “single” made his intentions uncomfortably clear.



On its own, Lazarus might rank among the best songs that Bowie has ever written, but the video, framed in the context of his recent passing, was a powerful, haunting curtain call that revealed in no uncertain terms the way that he was dealing with his imminent demise. It succeeded in bringing into sharp relief a sentiment that Tool only outlines. It blew me away.

I added Blackstar to the rotation shortly after it's release, but I admit, I was apprehensive about publicly forming an opinion.  I sidestepped the issue by writing around the album rather than about my first impressions.  I felt very strongly that as a reflective examination on mortality, Blackstar was, at the very least, an artfully framed statement, made even more compelling by the timing of its release

Then the move happened, and by March the Blackstar CD got put in a box of “current listening” albums that was to be the first that I opened when the opportunity arose, which ended up being November. I returned it to regular rotation and found that the album seemed even more relevant than ever. Bowie had inadvertently been the herald of a generation of entertainers, capturing a sense of nostalgia, longing, sadness, and ultimately, acceptance that reverberated throughout 2016.



Finally, on New Year’s eve, we had some family friends over, and it was suggested that we create a playlist representing all of the musicians that passed on throughout the year. With only a couple of hours left in the year, however, I decided that the task was too big to be completed to my satisfaction. My solution was to play Blackstar, because to me it captures the zeitgeist of loss that pervaded the entire year, and it seemed fitting to allow Bowie to have the last word. As the clock came close to midnight, the album’s final track seemed to carry more weight than usual.



I wish that I could say with some confidence that 2017 will be an improvement over 2016. To be realistic, though, our heroes are only human, and their time with us is precious and limited. There will be more to come, and social media standards will ensure that no passing will go unnoticed. Bowie, however, was honest enough to have the last word on his death, brave enough to share it, and smart enough to frame it in the art that was his life.