Tuesday, October 25, 2016

October Roundup: "Gone Til November"

Of all of the stresses I have pushed through this year, none have been harder than dealing with the move up to Denton while simultaneously becoming less available to my family due to the demands of helping to reinvent this band program.  The most unfamiliar aspect of the job that is new for me is teaching marching band.  For the majority of my teaching career, I have dodged this bullet, but no longer.  To say that its time consuming is an understatement.  When I was hired, I was warned that October would be particularly grueling.  It did not seem too bad on paper, but I had no idea how rough it would be in practice.

Not only are there late night rehearsals on Tuesdays and a game every Friday, there are also all-day marching festivals every Saturday leading up to UIL at the end of the month. I was looking at a month away from my family with no small amount of dread.  Miraculously, however, we did not have a game on the last Friday in September, so at least there would be a brief respite.

September 30, then, was to be the last day before the big push, and it looked to have some bright sides. In addition to having a “free” evening, the Luke Cage series was premiering on Netflix, and four hotly anticipated new albums were scheduled to arrive in my mailbox. We decided to capitalize on our time and have our first house guests over for dinner. Things were great. Until they weren’t.

Right towards the end of the evening, I started to feel a little achey and tired. I suspected that I was dehydrated, so I upped my fluids and went to bed right after our guests left. The next morning I felt better (not great) so I proceeded to go to our first contest.  It ended up being a long, hot day, and by the end of it I felt terrible. I spent the following two days huddled up in bed sleeping, getting up twice to go to the restroom. Not the most auspicious beginning to what might be the hardest month of the entire year.

In any case, September 30 was also the day I had set to finally change out the albums I have been listening to in the car since June. There were two exceptions, which were albums that I put in rotation right as I was leaving Austin.

Anderson/Stolt - Invention of Knowledge: I have a very pleasant recollection of P’s brave trip to the dentist on the day that this showed up in the mailbox. It was only recently that I started to really appreciate the genius of this collaboration.

Death Grips - Bottomless Pit: I received this album in the mailbox on the very last day before my address change took hold. Although always interesting in terms of their identity and image, Death Grips has been in a musically challenging experimental mode since The Money Store, but there are hints of accessibility on Bottomless Pit that are tempered by these experiments.

There were also a couple of albums that I received after moving to Denton, which should properly start a new chapter.

Thee Oh Sees - Weird Exits: The first proper Denton album I picked up from Mad World Records after officially becoming a resident. Weird Exits is raucous punk-meets-psychedelia in the vein of the early Flaming Lips, although without as much of an emphasis on songwriting.

The Daredevil Christopher Wright - The Nature of Things: This has been sitting on my wish list for a while, and the price of a used copy was just too appealing to pass up. It's a thickly harmonized songwriting excursion that sits somewhere on the spectrum between Grizzly Bear and Seryn, complete with thought-provoking lyrics.

Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2: Got this earlier in the year, but at the time I wasn’t really in the market for hip-hop, no matter how good. My solo commute has opened up some space for non-kid appropriate music, however, so this has really clicked with me recently.

Finally, there are the Sept. 30 releases:

Opeth - Sorceress: I appreciate Opeth’s dark prog direction, but also I admit to missing their crunchier approach. There are some heavier moments on Sorceress, however, that harken back to those days just a little.

Marillion - F.E.A.R.: Although I will defend Marillion, I will also admit that past a certain point in their career their output gets a little spotty. This recent release is pretty dense, so the jury is still out, but I do think that keyboardist Mark Kelly’s role as sound engineer plays a significant role in its most successful moments.

Bon Iver - 22, One Million: Although I was not totally on fire to get this album, all of the preliminary press and ambiguous song titles certainly piqued my curiosity. There are some fantastic moments on the album that I hope will add up after repeated listenings.

S U R V I V E - RR7349: This was the one I was looking forward to most, and it has not disappointed. It is particularly satisfying to have hardcopy, as its predecessor was never released on CD.

Finally, halfway through the month:

Syd Arthur - Apricity:  Late comer this month, but a welcome one.  Been an advocate of Syd Arthur's sparkling prog-pop since their debut came out a few years ago, and initial spins of Apricity indicate that is continues in this tradition.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Looking Backward and Forward to S U R V I V E

In all of the eight years I spent in Austin, I rarely got out to see any music. Chalk it up to parenthood. Even when it came to SXSW, which has now grown into a ridiculous monster way beyond anyone's imagination, I only ever went to free shows, and I am pretty sure that I can count all of them I actually got out to on one hand.

During one particularly rainy SXSW afternoon I ventured out to see a band that, thanks to the recommendation of a friend, had become an unlikely favorite. The synth band S U R V I V E, who supplied the memorable soundtrack to a trip in Tuscon, was setting up a rare informal show at record store and personal browsing spot End of an Ear. Even without hardcopy, MNQ026 had uncharacteristically stood the test of time, clawing its way to classic status in my book, and I did not want to pass up the chance to see them for free up close. I got there a little early, so I had to the chance to talk with one of the members briefly, mainly to ask if it would be cool if I took some pictures of the band’s gear.

“Yes,” he said decisively, “it would be VERY cool.”

The band was clearly proud of their setup, and although I certainly don’t have the insight to make heads or tails of it all, I know enough to appreciate what they have assembled. What became more apparent when they began their performance, however, was the way in which they had total mastery over those instruments. Many of the artists that S U R V I V E call influences were experimenting with the possibilities of these instruments when they were new, but S U R V I V E knows what each instrument is capable of and uses it to compelling effect. It was a great show that was not done justice by the poor videos I took.

That was two years ago. Now, thanks to some of the band’s members being involved in the distinctive soundtrack to a delightfully retro-creepy Netflix series, S U R V I V E are as close to the big time as an experimental synth outfit can hope to get. Coincidentally, and even before their attachment to Stranger Things, they had recorded and set a release date for MNQ026’s follow-up, RR7349.

Of all of my September 30 new releases (and there were several), this was the one that I have anticipated the most.  Its predecessor's compelling mix of texture, timbre, atmosphere, and melody has kept me coming back, and it has been my hope that RR7349 could recapture the magic, so to speak.

The verdict? It seems that it has. RR7349 still sounds as if it is the soundtrack to a long-lost Blade Runner spin-off. It delivers on the nostalgia in terms of sound and structure, which is largely due the array of vintage instruments that the band employs, but is also harbors a nuanced melodic side that exists in a carefully crafted balance with its layered atmospheres. In this regard, it is remarkably consistent. Anyone who was brought up with the darker sides of Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, and other 70s synth pioneers floating around the house will find a whole lot to like on RR7349.

So one of the regrets I have now that Austin is in my rearview mirror is that I am not as locally available for S U R V I V E's increasingly frequent live performances. They do seem to tour more readily, however, so it might be possible to catch them in the metroplex. Probably not in Denton, though. It’s safe to assume that they are too big for all that now. I’d love to be proven wrong on that, though…...

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Lennon/Claypool Delirium and Homelessness

Almost immediately after I got back from the cruise, I began to transition into my new position in the North Texas area. Within a week, I was commuting from Austin to Denton, effectively homeless and relying on the hospitality of friends for a place to sleep. I spent a lot of time driving up and down I-35, and it would seem like a prime time to crank through a whole bunch of music, but my in-car CD rotation has remained basically static since the June roundup. This is partially because the CD collection is  still in boxes, but admittedly, I also have had a hard time letting go of this run of music. In retrospect, this collection of albums seems like a thread of continuity though that period.

And it feels as if I am still clinging to them, as they also represent the last vestiges of my Austin life: Weezer [white], A Moon Shaped Pool, The Force Awakens OST, Plastic House at Base of Sky, Some Boots, The Invention of Knowledge, Bottomless Pit, Get to Heaven, and The Monolith of Phobos. These albums all contain frozen moments from those long commutes. Rather then do an extended roundup of albums that I have mostly already addressed, however, the curious case of The Lennon/Claypool Delerium’s The Monolith of Phobos deserves specific mention (also because some readers asked for it).

Although I am a fan of both Les Claypool and Sean Lennon, I would never have predicted them collaborating. Over the past few years, Lennon waded through introspective pop waters into 60’s tinged psychedelia while Claypool, when not fronting Primus, seemed fully committed to the jam-band paradigm. Still, the two have found some common ground and despite the seeming oddness of their pairing, it works.

Any project that includes Les Claypool has to deal with the fact that no matter what happens, comparisons to Primus are inevitable. Despite being far more mercurial in his musicianship, however, Lennon’s nuanced songwriting and melodic strengths provide a compelling counterbalance to Claypool’s penchant for groovy ditties about all the freaks and weirdos he knows.

Furthermore, A quick look at the liner notes shows that the album is, indeed, created and performed entirely by Claypool and Lennon. Lennon has his share of convincing guitar and keyboard leads, but Claypool clearly bears the shredding burden. His bass playing is at an all-time high in terms of its melodic content. Lennon’s greatest strengths shine through as an arranger, but as a drummer, his performance is adequate, if sometimes frantic. While it works pretty well in the classic psychedelic style that they are shooting for, I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the drums were outsourced - especially if Claypool is still on good terms with his old Oysterhead cohort and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland.

His presence, however, would endanger the project’s early Pink Floyd feel that, with some reinterpretation, the Delerium is pretty successful at capturing. This takes a little imagination to see: let’s say that if Roger Waters had an affinity for the Isley Brothers and Syd Barrett had not had a psychotic break, they might have developed a similar writing partnership as Claypool and Lennon.  Bubbles Burst is a good example of the way in which their unique characteristics mesh.

The video earned Lennon a bit of ire for its macabre characterization of Michael Jackson. It's important to note, however, that Lennon is not speaking as an outsider. He was one of several young celebrities that was invited to hang out at Neverland back in the day, which earns him the right to describe the experience however he sees fit.  Truth of the matter was, Jackson WAS weird, and just because he has passed on (due in part to his eccentricities) I don’t think that it is necessary to sweep Lennon’s perception of that whole scene under the carpet because it doesn’t portray Jackson in the most positive light. In fact, I think it's even more important because it is an honest recollection of a closed-door scene. Plus, it’s a actually a pretty good song.

And that’s the really impressive thing about The Monolith of Phobos. Despite all its quirkiness, it's an accessible listen. During one of our many family road trips during that month of homelessness, I put it on, fully prepared for the request to take it off and put in Everything Everything’s Get to Heaven again. I was surprised to watch the wife and kids bobbing their heads to the infectious funk shanty Captain Lariat. It became a family favorite that, like the Lennon/Claypool Delirium itself, I could not have predicted.  

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Kayo Dot: Plastic Houses and Empty Rooms

Kayo Dot started showing up on my radar last spring on the casual suggestion of a reader who was a fan of their earlier “avant-metal” work. Then the eye-catching album art for the their upcoming release started inexplicably appearing on my feed, followed by previews that described evocative “Twin Peaks” atmospheres. These and other subtle suggestions continued until eventually, without even hearing a note, Plastic House at Base of Sky superseded Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool as my most anticipated release this summer as we revved up to move out of Austin.

I submitted to the chaos of impenetrable cross-town traffic for the last time, and Plastic House at Base of Sky revealed itself to be an engaging example of what happens when an experimental metal group decides to hang up growling vocals and blast beats in lieu of apocalyptic anime soundscapes. Using synth textures that recall the heyday of the DX-7, it blurs the lines between guitar and keyboard like Beat-era King Crimson while unapologetically bringing contemporary technique to bear on old-school Simmons electric drum sounds.

Unlike the sleek elegance of 80s King Crimson, however, Plastic House at Base of Sky allows the density of Zappa’s synclavier experiments to collide with the chanting, gothic vocal approach of Toby Driver in a shoegazey smog. In its thicker moments, this texture teeters on cacophony, which imbues its more focused moments with meaning and power. While I am not sure if I totally buy into the “Twin Peaks” comparison, there is a dark, haunting quality to the album that might evoke David Lynch’s unsettling visual approach.

While I will not miss the traffic in Austin, I will definitely miss our house on the hill. Although I knew that leaving would be hard, the move out of the house ended up being more haunting and unsettling than I anticipated. After the movers were gone, I became acutely aware that it would be the last day that I will ever see the inside of that house. I felt my gut sink.

P’s room was particularly heartbreaking. EJ’s room had been a guest room since we moved in, and had only recently evolved into “the nursery” since she was born. P’s room, however, had always been just hers. It was the place that she grew from infancy to a full-fledged member of our team and, more recently, into a big sister. It’s pink accent wall, faux chandelier, white furniture, and Minnie Mouse trundle bed came to reflect her emerging personality.

As I stood in the empty room, these hidden memories the came out to play. I realized that I was not only saying goodbye to the space, but also to the infant that she was when we moved in. I had to go outside and I did not go back. That was it.

Then the next day, very quietly so as not to wake her and the rest of my family, I left my parent’s house in Austin at 5:30 AM with the dog as my navigator to embark on our new life in Denton. It seemed like the person who wrote about the events that led to us building and moving into our house on the hill four years ago was very far away, and I was stepping into a haze of uncertainty. Out of all this chaos, however, I am convinced that our new life will emerge with greater power and meaning. As for P, her new room will undoubtedly reflect the young lady she will become as she enters kindergarten - a person that will blossom from the child she was in our the little house on the hill.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Making a Play: Anderson/Stolt's "Invention of Knowledge"

I have long argued that Yes’ perpetually changing lineup puts the band in the unique position to survive beyond the participation of its defining members. Holding tightly to this theory, I have had quite a bit of fun fantasizing about what that “Nu-Yes” might look like. With the installation of Jay Schellen as interim Yes drummer while Alan White recovers from a medical procedure, three-fifths of my “Nu-Yes” dream team has miraculously found its way to the stage. The creative potential of this line-up is intriguing, but part of me has to admit that it is a little weird. I have some sympathy for fans who think that Yes is evolving into their own cover band, a position that is reinforced by a simple fact:

They have not released any new music.

Simultaneously, former singer and founding member Jon Anderson, who parted ways with the band several years ago, has been passively maneuvering himself into position as the true location of contemporary Yes music. Many of his projects, however, have similarly focused on reinventing Yes’ back catalog, rather than creating new music in the Yes tradition. The exception, however, is Invention of Knowledge, his recently released collaboration with Roine Stolt from The Flower Kings, which, from a certain perspective, might be the best Yes album that has been released in quite a while.

Strictly speaking, and certainly from a legal standpoint, Invention of Knowledge is not a Yes album. It does, however, capture and expand on certain aspects of Yes music in a way that will please many fans. As far as personnel go, the album’s direct ties to the Yes family tree are relatively minimal, but its core personnel offer up an alternate “Nu-Yes” configuration that is, in some ways, a challenge to my own hypothetical group.

I have been a fan of Roine Stolt and the Flower Kings for decades, so naturally in my prog “fantasy football” exercises, I had considered Stolt as a potential successor to Yes guitarist Steve Howe. This was not necessarily because he is a Howe copycat, but because it seemed like he could bring to Yes what Howe brought to Yes, both as a player and a contributor, without surrendering his unique guitar voice. Due to his busy schedule with the Flower Kings, Transatlantic, and other seemingly endless prog projects, however, his inclusion seemed too unrealistic. Therefore, it is a joy to see him realize his potential as a contributor to the Yes sound. Stolt also brings a cadre of outstanding musicians from the Flower Kings collective, not the least of which is go-to prog bassist Jonas Reingold, who dances elegantly around inevitable comparisons to the late Chris Squire by playing in his own distinctive voice.

These musicians certainly have a palpable “Yes-ness” in their musical DNA and serve the music well, but the inclusion of Tom Brislin on keyboards really tethers Invention of Knowledge to the Yes family tree. Like Oliver Wakeman, Brislin was a Yes keyboardist that never really got the chance to contribute to the overall Yes canon other than playing already established parts. Invention of Knowledge gives him the opportunity to show what he could have done for the group during those lost years and perhaps even gives him the leverage to nudge Gleb Kolyadin out of my own hypothetical dream team.

I would call the album a great success that reveals more greatness with repeated listens, but despite this, I am not sure that I ascribe to the camp that wishes Anderson would return to Yes. He is an amazingly gifted vocalist that could literally sing anything and make it sound good, perhaps to his detriment. Yes is known for its complex and often cosmic aspects, but memorable songwriting has always been at the core of the band’s best work. Ever since Magnification, however, I increasingly sense that Anderson has come to prefer a freer, more improvised feel to his work that perhaps might not align with Yes’ ongoing intention to craft accessible melodies within complex structures.

Taken on its own, however, The Invention of Knowledge works because Stolt has a similarly wandering spirit and a work ethic that can bring broadly conceived ideas to their conclusion. I think that their conceptual common ground and collaborative relationship resulted in a more consistent album than Yes’ most recent effort and, as such, could be seen as a compelling challenge to the band’s authority to wield the name.

On the other hand, I am an advocate for the band’s current direction, but unlike some of Yes’ more myopic fans, I don’t think that excludes me from supporting Jon Anderson. Truth is, although I still stubbornly file my Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe disc between Big Generator and Union, I am not convinced that Invention of Knowledge is really the successor, or even a competitor, to Heaven and Earth. It aligns more closely with Jon Anderson’s solo repertoire and probably is more fairly considered as such. It is not hard to secretly indulge in the fantasy, however, that it might be the best Yes album that you will hear this year.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Best Laid Plans: Everything Everything's "Get to Heaven"

I don’t drink or binge shop or other things that people characteristically do when on a boat for a week, but the part of me that likes to stand on the beach and stare out at the ocean really, really likes cruise life.  Last week, I was lucky enough to go on a 7 day trek at sea with my extended family, and I was really looking forward to getting my Father's Day music on the phone, circumambulating the decks, and pondering existence.

Not all music works well in all settings, however, particularly when the entire family is involved. I have to be somewhat sensitive if I am to continue assaulting them with my compulsive listening habits. Out of kindness to them, I did not lean too hard on the new Kayo Dot release, but a cursory spin of Everything Everything’s Get to Heaven definitely caught my attention.  The album's production is immediately punchy, and lead man Jonathan Higgs has a falsetto that just won't quit.  I suspected that the band's quirky, colorful take on British pop would get the whole family moving in their seats.

I was sooo right.

Everything Everything is, in essence, a pop band, and as such they hang their accessibility on great, memorable hooks.  There are, however, theatrical excursions and hidden complexities incorporated in their songs that move away from these central ideas and returns to them in very musically satisfying ways.  The album’s adventurous musicality never detracts, however, and despite being incredibly diverse, the songs still remain coherent and just plain fun to listen to.   I looked forward to absorbing the entire album poolside.

Which I was able to do.....to an extent. Within 48 hours, I was, indeed, poolside with Get to Heaven on the player, but I was also in charge of watching P as she played in the kids area.  As a result, my attention was mostly divided as I watched her splash around and make new friends on the boat. It was not quite the focused listen that I had envisioned, but the album’s dancehall overtones layered well with the overall vibe.  Especially this relentlessly infectious gem:

Everything Everything is able to bear the weight of decades of british pop on their shoulders with relative grace.  They inhabit a spectrum that juxtaposes the introspective pop-prog of early Radiohead with the slightly goofy textures of The Gorillaz, perhaps like what would happen if Damon Albarn took a turn singing for Level 42.  I was just considering the implications of this proposed polarity on the dissonance between the album’s sunny musical exterior and the sometimes melancholy nature of its lyrics when catastrophe struck.

We engaged in an almost comical struggle to keep our cabin organized, and in the midst of clean, gently worn, and dirty clothes, I lost my earphones.  Bummer.

Music was suddenly confined to our cabin, which kind of put a damper on my plans to walk the decks and pontificate as I had on my previous cruise experience. Kayo Dot would have to wait.  By this time, however, Get to Heaven had evolved into a family favorite, and I would play some of the more energetic tracks to generate daily spontaneous dance parties in the cabin.

P currently describes Distant Past as her "favorite song," although she, along with my wife, really enjoy Get to Heaven in its entirety.  Admittedly. a few songs seem to be framed as "singles," but the album's most disarming feature is its consistency.  There really isn't a bad track in the bunch, although there might be a few perceived "lulls" after particularly spectacular moments.  Taken on their own, however, these songs are still fantastically creative while retaining their accessibility, which is always a recipe for success in my book.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

June Roundup: The Big Money

Although I have been aware of The Big Money that Neil Peart once wrote about, of late its dominance seems more distinct.  For example, I have had the sense of late that the political abstractions of the liberal “left” and the conservative “right” are nothing more than polarizing  distractions thrown in our path. The Big Money manipulates these ideologies through the media like a season of professional wrestling to keep the public pointing fingers at each other.  This is not to say that the people who invest in these concepts do not exist. In fact, quite the opposite. There are definitely people who are dangerously invested in these ideals and are convinced that the “other” is conspiring to take the country away.

The country has already been taken away, though, and not by the bearded vegan down at the coffee shop, or the guy with the beer gut sitting on his front porch, or even the smug jerk that just cut you off in the orange Ferrari (although he would like to think that the world is his). It belongs to those who have been able to afford it - The Big Money, and I have the sneaking suspicion that it doesn’t really care about us. It’s what shut Uber down in Austin. It’s what gets military grade rifles in the hands of civilians. It’s what keeps standardized testing in schools. It goes around the world. It’s got no soul.

Bernie Sanders gave me some hope that the nation could take steps to evolve this whole narrative into something more functional. That’s why, even after weeks of media blackout on his campaign, I would still like to see Sanders run on a consolidated “progressive” third party ticket. I don’t think it is unreasonable, especially if Trump’s embarrassing campaign continues to crumble under the weight of his own ineptitude. This scenario is difficult to prove or disprove, however, because Sanders’ actual numbers have been consistently obscured by media and voter fraud, both of which are controlled by, again, The Big Money.

Frustratingly, even if Sanders got on a viable third party ticket, there is no reason to think that his presidential run would not be fraught with the same issues of fraud and manipulation he faced in the primaries. I am afraid The Big Money simply would not let him win. Its nervous, though, which implies that the Sanders campaign might have been on the right track.

Now, back to our regular station. Here’s the music that’s been in rotation for the past month or so. I was very fortunate to get some gift cards for Father’s day, so lots of new stuff.

Weezer - Weezer [white]: A new “color” album was just the thing to bring me out of my moratorium on Weezer albums. The band has been more clever than good for the better part of a decade, but for better or worse a couple of these tunes are firmly lodged in my skull and on constant repeat.

David Bowie - Heroes: As legendary as this album is and as much critical attention it has recently garnered, as a whole it did not grab me as much as I had anticipated. I am, however, pondering the possibility that its title track might be an embryonic example of what would later develop into shoegaze.

The Lennon/Claypool Delirium - The Monolith of Phobos: No matter who else plays with Les Claypool in his various collaborations, the project has to deal with the amount of “Primusness” that his distinctive style brings. The Lennon/Claypool Delirium is in no way immune from this phenomenon, but it is interesting to hear him embody the unique character of late 70’s Roger Waters in a 60’s psychedelic environment that stars Sean Lennon as Syd Barrett.

Frost - Falling Satellites: Frost*’s rhizomatic connections to the proggier styles of late period Genesis will undoubtedly please technical neo-prog fans. The album’s melodic strength is brought to life by stunning musical performances throughout.

Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool: Radiohead’s newest is not a dense listen. It remains opaque, however, because it is the opposite - it glides from moment to moment and slips through the fingers like quicksilver into the past.

Chvrches - Open Every Eye: I dismissed this album last year because it could not stand up to their incredible debut. With some time between the two and some encouragement, however, I have come to appreciate Open Every Eye on its own merit.

Kayo Dot - Plastic House at Base of Sky: Ponder this: a project with with roots in avant-metal looks to anime soundtracks and 80’s synth for inspiration. The result is a challenging, dense, immersive, and ultimately transfixing experience

Everything Everything - Get to Heaven: Holy poop, what a great album! Everything Everything gleefully sum up two decades of British pop with a distinctive style.

Karate - Some Boots: It almost never happens - walk into a record store and discover something amazing playing on the overhead speakers. Gratefully, that’s how I discovered this great early 00s album.