Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Gift to Myself: Gentle Giant's "The Power and the Glory"

When the internet started “breaking” relatively obscure progressive rock bands from the 70s in the 00s, there was a subtle sense of urgency. At that point, Gentle Giant albums had never had an adequate CD pressing in the US, and there was a feeling that their recordings, and those of other obscure bands like them, were like endangered species that would soon evaporate from existence. Very often rare imports were the only solution. There was quite a bit of debate about the quality of various pressings: i.e. one pressing had mistakes in the mix while another did not use original artwork, etc.  Devout Gentle Giant fans were often very opinionated about which one was ideal.

So when I got into Gentle Giant and found a resource for acquiring their albums, I got several of them in succession - too quickly, perhaps, to really appreciate each recording. By the time serious reissues of their work came out, I had already been through a feeding frenzy that put a good portion of their catalog in my collection and left me a little burned out. There was one album, though, that I did not obtain at the time, figuring that if I ever went on another Gentle Giant rampage, it would be a gift to my “future” self.

That gift was The Power and the Glory, and the future is now! Thanks, “past” me!

After I revisited Octopus last fall, I finally ordered The Power and the Glory, slapped it on a pair of headphones and, on a temperate January afternoon, took a walk around Zilker Park with the Little One strapped to my chest. It represents Gentle Giant near the peak of their creative powers. Their towering abilities were a bit alienating for a significant portion of the general public, which is a bit of a shame. The band’s incredible musicianship wasn’t necessarily employed for the sake of mere flash, but for the satisfying challenge of creating and executing fiendishly complex music.  For a person like me, who finds rewards in unraveling the mystery of musical performance, The Power and the Glory is simply stunning.

Playing The Game by Gentle Giant on Grooveshark

When I discovered Gentle Giant in the early 00s, all of the amazing video footage that is now readily available today was nowhere to be found, and it has enhanced my admiration for the band tremendously.  Despite their somewhat cringeworthy “baroque and roll” costuming, they were obviously committed to pushing rock music to its very limits without ever quite crossing over into 70s jazz fusion. Their unique and distinctive style was reified in live performance, and for the curious, there are many clips out there that seem to have captured them well.

The Power and the Glory, as a “time capsule” gift to myself, was made even sweeter by the 2009 remaster. The album sound clear as a bell, much more so than the version of Three Friends that I have. It transcends the time period in which it was recorded. I always knew that neo-prog fav Spock’s Beard was significantly influenced by Gentle Giant, but I did not realize to what degree until listening to The Power and the Glory. The clarity of the remaster updates the album’s sound and reveals the extent of Spock’s Beard admiration.

Sadly, The Power and the Glory will most likely be the last album by Gentle Giant that will make it into my library. Past a certain point in their career, their albums became a bit painful to digest. Pressured by the advent of punk and the success of Genesis’ increasing commercial popularity, they tried to sell out and they just did not have it in them. The Power and the Glory, however, is doubtlessly a high point in an incredible creative arc that they traced across an adventurous musical period.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Let's Kick it Off! January Listening Roundup...

Photo Credit: Kate Wurtzel
January reboot......most of what went through the player in this month was new, coming from under the tree or from gift certificates.  2011 year-end lists have been steering some of my music choices recently, so don't be surprised if a lot of really great releases from last year come bubbling to the surface this spring.  Perhaps that puts me too far behind to be really hip.  Whatever.  In any case, this approach has already set the standards for 2012 incredibly high.

A new Rush album is scheduled to come out this year, so to celebrate, I am considering doing "The Year in Rush" as a background project. Once a month, I'll cover two or three Rush albums.  At that rate, It'll take me most of the year to finish, but after all the attention that Yes got last year, it seems only fair.

Not to wax too nostalgic, but last year's January roundup was the very first post.  Even though its only been a year, it truly seems like a lifetime ago.  The blog has evolved a little since then in several ways, not the least of which was the emergence of playlist widgets based on the monthly roundup selections.  You'll find one below.

Dungen - Tio Bitar: Yes, they sing in Swedish - you owe it to yourself to get over it. Dungen distills the best parts of prog, psychedelia, and riff-based stoner rock into a concoction that is entirely their own.

Syd Barrett - The Madcap Laughs:  Independent labels played a different role in the late 60s, but ideologically, Barrett might have the first "indie" artist.  His peers hoped that he would snap out of his psychosis and fulfill his potential, so he was given the leeway to explore outside of the mainstream.

Gentle Giant - Power and the Glory: When my initial Gentle Giant run lost steam, I saved this gem for my future self. Now that it is in rotation, it may unseat Free Hands as my favorite album by the group.

Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, and Geri Taylor - EtudesEtudes is perhaps not happy, good-time jazz to be played at your next dinner party.  It sets a contemplative mood that deserves to be appreciated in a focused listening environment. 

Those Shaking, Shocking Days: This is an interesting compilation of Indonesian prog, psych, and funk from the 70s. Many of these tracks are musically very strong, although their "Indonesian-ness" may take a little prodding to hear.

The Globes - Future Self: There was a time before Radiohead became experimental studio monoliths when they were just a mindblowing band. The Globes remind me of that Radiohead, and although are somewhat vocally average, they make up for it in spades on their instrumental side.

Wobbler - Rites at Dawn: I admit that Wobbler is a bit of an indulgence. As much as I support Yes' most recent work, though, nobody, including Yes themselves, captures the swirling and often noisy grandeur of their classic sound with as much sincerity as Wobbler.

Bear McGreary - Battlestar Galactica Season 3 Soundtrack: Aside from the Perfect Circle-esque "All Along the Watchtower" cover, in which Battlestar Galactica came dangerously close to jumping the shark, this is an engaging, if largely atmospheric, soundtrack. Ominous taiko-style drumming provides a tense backdrop for a surprisingly wide variety of ethnic timbres.

Mastodon - The Hunter: I still dig this album, but I think that my other big November entry from M83 probably should have beat this one out in last year's top 20. Oh well, one can't undo what has been done.

Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica:  Lopatin is either a total genius or incredibly lucky: usual musical constructions like bass lines and melodies are meaningless on Replica, where vertical swatches of sound are tightly looped to create the illusion of these constructions.  In fact, it seems to become more intricate as it is more closely examined.

The Gorillaz - The Singles Collection 2001-2011: My theory has been proven correct. Without all of the extra filler, this compilation is a great, comprehensive listen for the casual Gorillaz fan. 

Bon Iver: From the plaintive opening guitar theme of Perth, it is clear that Bon Iver has something special going on. Its an album in the truest sense of the word that recalls the finest work of top-notch musicians like Peter Gabriel and Joni Mitchell.

Nissenenmondai - Destination Tokyo: In theory, Nissenenmondai seemed to have it all: an all-girl Japanese rock trio that opened for Battles on their tour last year, garnering rave reviews. On album, however, they fall into the looper's trap: highly repetitive and overlong tracks with very little follow-through.

Pink Floyd - Piper at the Gates of Dawn: The Flaming Lips have made no secret of their Pink Floyd influence. Returning to Piper at the Gates of Dawn with new ears, however, sent me scrambling for 2009 fave Embryonic - there is a palpable conceptual connection between these albums.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Motian, Haden, and Allen's "Etudes:" Carried on Currents

I have a many friends and acquaintances who are serious, if not professional, jazz musicians, so when Paul Motian passed away in November, my news feeds lit up with video clips and retrospective posts.  I love my jazz, but my collection of recordings is relatively small in comparison to a lot of the people I know.  I like to think, however, that what my jazz collection lacks in breadth it makes up in depth, so I add titles to it with a degree of caution.  I don't just let any old album in.  After all this attention on Motian, though, I was on the lookout for a characteristic recording.

Paul Slavens is one of my Facebook friends (although in real life I'm sure I am barely another familiar face), and as a status update, he cited Etudes as his favorite album with Motian. It sounded quite good from what I could find and, because I respect Slavens as a musician and critic, I trusted that it would be consistent.  I put it on my Amazon wish list.

When I spontaneously earmark an album in this fashion, there is the danger that it will languish on my wish list for months, even years, before it ends up in rotation. My Amazon list has become so bloated, though, that when the holidays come, I am often pleasantly surprised by what ends up under the tree.  This year, my parents ordered Etudes (and even ordered themselves a copy based on Amazon's samples!). I listened to it all the way through for the first time with my mother as we were reading books before going to bed, and we were both taken in by its subtle interplay of tension and mood.

Charlie Haden and Paul Motian had a long professional relationship by the time Etudes was released in 1987, which shows in their seamless interactions on the album. Effortlessly, they propel their performances forward without a trace of analytical thinking. Geri Allen’s melancholic piano gracefully integrates into their established chemistry.  It is a pristine example of masterful, experienced musicians in an expressive act.

After Christmas my wife and I traveled to South Texas to visit her family, and I had a small stack of untested CDs in hand. In cases like this, it’s usually a bit of a gamble to decide what will go over well in close quarters with her. For example, she gave me Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs for Christmas, but it did not go over so well as we drove around McAllen (although it did spark some interesting conversation). Etudes, however, was quite an amenable listening experience for everyone who got in the car, and it played pretty much for the duration of the trip.

One morning in McAllen, I was waiting in the car with the Little One as she slept while my wife picked up some breakfast, leaving me alone with Etudes to reflect for a moment.  Ten years ago, I would have probably never found this album.  Thrown out unknowingly into the anonymity of the internet, however, then washed ashore by my parents as a holiday gift, Etudes ended up in my hands like a message in a bottle carried on digital currents.  As it is, the album has turned out to be a great find that has deepened my jazz collection just a little bit more.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Lament for the Death of the Album

Photo Credit: Kate Wurtzel
The physical manifestation of a recording has always influenced popular music forms. Even today, our musical attention span is affected by the three and a half minute running time of the first wax cylinder recordings. For a long time, the recording industry revolved around this “single" format. Later, however, when the LP evolved, artists started to weave unifying narratives through the lyrical and musical elements of its individual tracks.  Its roughly 45 minute playing length began to be carefully sequenced in terms of a beginning, middle, and end. The album was born.

The album is my standard unit of musical consumption. It survived the portable but ultimately lo-fi trend of the tape and found a home in the late 80s on the CD in a slightly altered form.  Two sides became one, and album lengths tentatively began to stretch to fill an 80 minute capacity.

I had a few LPs and quite a few tapes for the walkman, but the CD was my medium of choice when I became a serious music fan. I began my CD collection in 1986 when they were touted as the ultimate in indestructible lossless hi-fi (lies, lies all!). Record enthusiasts bemoaned their lack of analog warmth, but we scoffed and thoughtlessly hit the “next track” button without fully understanding that this action laid the seeds of the album's demise.

Today, I almost always listen to an album from beginning to end. I never skip tracks, and I try to consider the context and potential of each individual song as it relates to the larger work. I find great satisfaction in this practice.  For example, When Wayne’s World just about beat Bohemian Rhapsody into the ground in 1992, I always found that the song was still profoundly moving nestled towards the end of Queen’s truly classic album A Night at the Opera.  I still do.

From my perspective, then, it seems that the Mayans were partially right about 2012. The apocalypse is coming.  Major labels are considering discontinuing CD production this year, which is a disturbing but unsurprising announcement. Simultaneously, streaming music services such as Spotify and (a major resource of this blog) Grooveshark have come under fire by what it is left of the music industry.  Their transparent desire to maintain the status quo, now the downloadable MP3, squeezes out music consumers using outdated, shortsighted, and intimidating methods.

Feels like Napster and the CD all over again doesn't it?

More to the point, although I am attached to the physical object of the CD, I might be able to let go of it if the delivery device is sufficient.  After all, I’ve already begrudgingly accepted a future of MP3s filled with slushy hi-hats and guitars compressed past the point of distinction. If I can see artwork, organize songs into albums, and enjoy tracks that segue together without a startling bump, I'd probably be relatively satisfied.

On the other hand, perhaps I’ll just revert to the trendy solution of purchasing a turntable to play "high-end" vinyl at exorbitant costs like I did when I was in sixth grade.  That'd be real cool.

Of greater concern is what this wholesale switch to "softcopy" will mean to the integrity of the album as a creative format. Without the constraints of a physical object, be it LP, CD, tape, or 8-track, the organizing principle of the album will most likely dissolve. Sequencing and unity will become pointless if there is no longer the expectation to refine 45-75 minutes worth of music into something cohesive.  Songs will be published as online, playlist-ready singles without consideration of a larger narrative potential. What was once like writing a novel essentially becomes more like blogging.

Some musicians, like the Flaming Lips and their recent “24-hour song” 7 Skies H3, will undoubtedly explore the limits of this freedom (the "hardcopy" version of this project is a USB drive mounted inside a human skull - promo shot to the right!).  It is also possible, however, that the music scene will, by and large, crumble into a deluge of unrefined “singles,” drowning out more unified and cohesive efforts in a sea of shortened attention spans.  As a representation of an artistic endeavor that is cultivated over a span of time, the album is very quickly headed towards anachronism.  Abandoning the CD format seems like its death knell.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Syd Barrett Part 2: An Odd Bike and a Raw Octopus

Judging from my previous post, you might get the idea that back in the day, I wasn’t too impressed with Syd Barrett. You’d be right. Although I never got rid of my copy of Barrett, until last November it has been in my collection for nigh on twenty years with virtually no play. At the time, it cemented my prejudice against Pink Floyd’s pre-Dark Side catalog. Sometime around 2004, however, when YouTube was new, I happened across a DIY video for Bike (a video which sadly no longer seems to exist - although it was almost as silly as this one).

Immediately, this tune burrowed its way into my ear, so I decided to take Barrett’s pre-breakdown work with Pink Floyd for a spin around the block and try to accept it on its own terms. I bought Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and thought it was quite good, but unfortunately, 2004 was the beginning of a bad period for me personally.  Very little new music was making any kind of lasting impression. By no fault of its own, Piper at the Gates of Dawn got put on the back burner.

If you have been following the blog regularly, you know that I have had a rekindled interest in Pink Floyd’s early work and, consequently, Syd Barrett’s limited solo catalog. I got The Madcap Laughs for Christmas and, as Stringtapper suggested, it is a stronger overall effort than Barrett. What I find most startling is the impact that Barrett had on Pink Floyd even after his departure. While his former bandmates were experimenting with the excesses of progressive rock on Atom Heart Mother and Ummagumma, Barrett was writing songs that, despite the withdrawn state of his mental collapse, were profound enough to influence Pink Floyd’s future work. Listening to tracks like Dark Globe, Barrett’s influence on Roger Waters’ later songwriting seems obvious.

Although it is more consistent than Barrett, The Madcap Laughs has a bit less studio polish. For me, it is difficult not to view it as a set of demos for a Pink Floyd album that was never meant to be. Its raw nature, however, masks deeper musical concepts. On the surface,  Barrett seems to sporadically drop and add beats in his songs, much to the chagrin of drummer Jerry Shirley. Listen to the rhythm section struggle to keep things straight about thirty seconds into Octopus.

Initially, I thought that Barrett could simply have cared less about things like a backbeat and standard phrasing.  It just sounded like mistakes.  When I returned to Piper at the Gates of Dawn on a road trip this weekend, however, I noticed that this erratic metric sense is pervasive in the music he wrote even before he was triggered. In fact, Bike, the song that turned me on to the album, features this irregular rhythmic concept in virtually every verse. Without getting too analytical, it seems that Barrett makes the entire structure of the song subservient to the natural rhythm of the lyrics, and it is so deliberate that it makes me question just how erratic his performances actually were on The Madcap Laughs.

On a final note, I have gained a much greater respect for Piper at the Gates of Dawn in my more recent encounter with the album. The simple act of drawing boundaries on the songs (i.e. knowing the difference between Matilda Mother and Lucifer Sam) allowed me to see its creative breadth. It’s a fantastically varied work that miraculously coheres under Barrett’s obvious charisma, and although it doesn’t sound like the arena rock that characterized Pink Floyd in the 70s, it has had its own profound influence. I leave you with one of the only clips I found of Barrett playing live.

There's a longer version of this clip available where the rather dour gentlemen you see at the beginning interviews Barrett and Waters, demanding for them to explain just why they are so darn loud.  The only answer he seemed to accept was "we like it that way."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wobbler, Chris Squire, and Alternate Realities

I seem to remember hearing Wobbler’s name whispered in the virtual shadows of my various news feeds last year, but when they came up on a year-end “Best Prog of 2011” list with several other interesting artists, I ordered Rites at Dawn. Before I continue, I admit that in previous posts, I have often criticized bands that indulge in retro-prog. I feel that they play a role in the stagnation of progressive rock music. In the case of Wobbler, however, their obvious reverence for Yes’ most adventurous and artistically successful period grants them a level of forgiveness. Classic keyboard and bass sounds, coupled with a strong melodic and compositional sense, allows Wobbler to sidestep the sterile results that most retro-proggers get.

La Bealtaine by Wobbler on Grooveshark

Wobbler does a respectable job of using Yes' most  classic period as a launching pad. Within this stylistic framework, however, there are variances in execution due to each member’s idiosyncratic musicianship. For example, drummer Martin Nordrum Kneppen doesn’t really play like either Bill Bruford or Alan White. He’s cut more from the post – Anglagard school of drumming.  Its distinguishing aspects like these that allow me to indulge in theoretical “What If…..?” games with Yes history when I listen to Wobbler.

For example, despite several member changes during Yes' 70s period, the band sustained a perceptible continuity in their musical identity. One member has always stayed constant in Yes, however, and that is bassist Chris Squire. Although Jon Anderson’s distinctive leads are central to the Yes sound, Squire’s backups have always delicately sat on top of them.

Briefly, around 1974, the various members of Yes went on hiatus and each one of them made a solo album. For some of them, this began a long solo career that would run parallel to their involvement in Yes. For whatever reason, Squire never ended up being as prolific a writer as some of his bandmates, but out of this initial crop of solo work, Squire’s Fish out of Water remains my favorite. Predicting Sting’s jazzy approach by nearly fifteen years, Squire’s choirboy vocals reveal their potential at center stage. With a backing band that was effectively a Yes lineup that never existed (including Bill Bruford, Patrick Moraz, and Mel Collins) Squire delivered a consistent set of infectiously melodic orchestral progressive rock.

Despits Wobbler's inarguable Yes-ness, I think that lead singer Andreas Prestmo’s voice has more in common with Squire’s glassy smoothness than the angelic rasp of Anderson.  So what if, after the Yes solo outings, Anderson left Yes and the band continued as a quartet, with Squire taking over the lead vocals. Squire’s obvious melodic sense could have carried the band without radically altering their sound. Rites at Dawn allows me to indulge in this fantasy by capturing a slightly different image of what Yes might have sounded like in their heyday under different circumstances.

A Faerie`s Play by Wobbler on Grooveshark

At the same time, I genuinely respect the craftsmanship that Wobbler invested in this album. Regardless of how clearly they wear their influences, it takes no small amount of musicianship to effectively construct pieces like the ones found on Rites at Dawn. Somehow, it stands on its own while leaning heavily on its own past, allowing the novel to arise within the nostalgic. If you are a Yes fan that cannot accept Yes’ most recent incarnation, Wobbler may be a solution.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Oneohtrix Point Never's "Replica," Places, and Worlds

Although I know that some people insist that a house is "just a place," I don’t fully buy it. We have a strong relationship to the places in which we live.  We shape our environments as we carve out our existence within them, and conversely, our environments shape us.  The house, the workplace, the college dorm room – all become imbued with the memories and sensations that we experience as we walk along our path within them: even more so when those places are shared with other people.  A couple of months ago, I posted about the nostalgia-fueled mourning process I was going through as my old dojo changed locations, and sure, empirically, the old dojo was "just a place," but, for a long time, it was also my world. 

I had the good fortune to attend the dojo's grand (re)-opening a few weeks ago.  The new place is beautiful and I am very happy for the amazing practitioners there.  It will always be a space I look forward to visiting, but I will probably never "live" there as I did in the old space. That relationship is disconnected from the present, and a new world has arisen in recent years with its own set of meaningful interrelations.

After classes, I got a chance to explore Denton on a rainy afternoon and checked out how things have changed since I left in 2009. I noticed a rarity on the Square: a new record store. I could not resist the temptation to go in and poke around.

There were just a couple of albums that had the potential to break my self-imposed year-end moratorium, one of which was Replica, by an electronic/ambient project called Oneohtrix Point Never. I had happened across some reviews and interviews surrounding the interesting process and concept that generated Replica. Daniel Lopatin, the creative force behind Oneohtrix Point Never, constructed the album’s rippling auras out of 80s commercials, very tightly cropped and looped so as to imply new rhythms and atmospheres. The articles are worth reading, but one idea in particular stuck out to me, so much so that it is worth quoting in full:
I had this really corny Ray Bradbury science-fiction scenario in my head: These samples I'm using are the last remnants of society in a post-apocalyptic world, and the survivors think they're putting together a replica of what society used to be like, but they're getting it totally wrong. Like someone getting artifacts wrong for a museum in the future.
I found this concept to be anything but corny. The sea of mediated sounds that we unconsciously swim in is profoundly influential in our everyday existence. What sort of musical potential might lie in this material if it were stripped of all context, reduced to snippets and reconstructed from a totally unfamiliar perspective? Lopatin’s concept seemed so compelling that, even though I was not sold on what I heard of the album, I had to try Replica out. I decided that it would be an immediate purchase in January, but I had not counted on finding a physical copy sitting on a shelf.

Oh, well....we'll call it the first entry for 2012, albeit a few weeks early.

I’m quite sure the quote above planted the seed of this dystopian vision in my head, but if it was Lopatin’s intention to create the post-apocalyptic soundscape of the future out of repurposed sounds of the past, he succeeded admirably.

Oneohtrix Point Never - Power Of Persuasion by Mexican Summer

Admittedly, Replica initially sounded like a CD skipping uncontrollably, or maybe even like the kind of jarring sounds that the Others might use to torture prisoners on Lost. Incredibly, though, once the preliminary shock wears off and the human organization becomes more perceptible, the musicality of Replica really shines through.  It was an amazing listen on the rainy drive back to Austin.

Despite its electronic, cut-and-paste construction, there is something almost primordial about Replica. It generates an aura of circumspection in its ambient moments while its more jagged qualities can be unsettling. In any case, the albums unifying concept is intellectually engaging enough that, despite several months of play, it has not left my player. Replica may sound like the future, but doesn't try to predict what that future will sound like by today's instrumental and aesthetic standards.  Instead, using the mediated environmental castoffs of the past in an alien set of interrelations, Lopatin proposes a disconnected future that quizzically looks back and wonders what we were doing.