Friday, August 31, 2012

August Roundup: Muddy Waters and Loud Halls

The first day of school inevitably came and went this week, and it was quite the far cry from Fraggle Rock with the Little One and aikido summer camp. In truth, there was a sense that an oar violently dug up the bottom of a still pond, leaving murky and agitated water in its wake. As the week has gone on, however, the dust has started to settle, both for the students and myself, and I am getting a feeling for what kind of year it’s going to be.

It’s always particularly interesting to look out on a class full of beginning band students and wonder who will be the ones to rise to the challenge. For some of them, it starts an arc that I hope will take them somewhere beyond the walls of this school. Right now, though, as I am writing this entry from a quiet band hall on a late Friday afternoon, I’m just enjoying the silence. It’s a commodity that shouldn’t go unrecognized.

The art of sound and silence, or maybe even the silence in the sound, is all over one album that is sadly not in this month's playlist, although I have listened to it closely.

Yoshio Kurhashi - Kyoto Spirit: My shakuhachi teacher is back in town, and I'm excited about studying again. This disc, by his teacher, has many of the songs in my repertoire, but played exquisitely well.

The rest of the month in music went like this:

Jellyfish - Bellybutton: A desert-island classic that I can't listen to without singing along. I am always astounded by the amount of nuance, beauty, and angst coexisting in this seemingly quaint collection of pop songs.

Anais Mitchell - Hadestown: I'm still getting new things from this album all the time, and each piece of the puzzle makes the entire picture more gratifying. It’s a brilliantly conceived and executed piece of work.

Kill Bill vol. 1 - Original Soundtrack: Like most collected soundtracks, this one is a bit uneven. However, it captures moments of the movie so well that its standalone value can't be argued.

Bear McCreary - Battlestar Galactica Season 3 Original Soundtrack: Once you know who McCrary is, his name keep popping up. On this release, he blurs the lines between Celtic, Persian, and symphonic styles, creating something quite distinctive.

Astra - The Black Chord: There is a distinctively complex melodicism that lies within this album's trippy stoner-rock window dressing. Fans of 70 psychedelia who want to hear something fresh will love it.

Scott Walker - Climate of Hunter: Walker hadn't totally committed to avant-garde experimentalism on this 1985 release, but it was certainly his last stop before doing so. Its an interesting axis upon which his past turned towards his future.

Anglagard - Hybris: After almost twenty years, Anglagard is scheduled to release a new album, which inspired a revisit to this classic. Its amazing that the progressive flame had died down so far that this little band from Sweden, whose albums are now notoriously hard to find, pretty much kept the whole thing alive in the early 90s.

Rush - Clockwork Angels: Just when I think that I should put Clockwork Angels to rest for awhile, it reinvigorates me. It captures that essential "Rushness" that put the band so close to my heart in the first place

Queen - Queen II: Their sophomore release is almost like an album-length version of Bohemian Rhapsody. It covers all the same bases, but doesn't quite have the focus of this quintessential track.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Anais Mitchell's "Hadestown:" Thinking Themselves Gods

Writing is hard, no doubt. Minds operate in abstractions that precede words, and the human capacity to capture those pre-verbal concepts and arrange them into something as clumsy and concrete as written language is nothing short of miraculous. Capturing musical ideas and impressions, which are even more abstract and ephemeral, is particularly difficult.  For these blog entries, I often struggle to figure out when (or even if) I really “have” enough of an album to write anything meaningful.  For example, I have had at least two aborted attempts to begin an entry for Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, both of which I shelved because as I began to reify my thoughts with the written word and look at them, I felt like I was missing something. There always seemed to be more to this album, and every time I tried to pin it down, I noticed a new layer of meaning and craft that seemed to deserve some attention.

Initially, I discovered Hadestown at the top of some website’s “all-time best” list (unfortunately, I can’t remember which one), and other accolades from reviews were substantial. My first search on Hadestown brought up this live solo performance of Mitchell performing Why We Build the Wall.  Lyrics are rarely a hook for me, but the layers of meaning folded into this song grabbed my attention.

On its own, Why We Build the Wall is a memorable and profound commentary on the self-sustaining illusion that the poor are essentially “other” in relation to the rich. Within the larger context of Hadestown, however, it takes on a much more nuanced meaning.

Hadestown proudly wears the label “folk opera,” but thanks to the arrangements of Micheal Chorney, the album is far more colorful than the name would suggest. There is a heartfelt and subtle cleverness that brings to mind some of Elvis Costello’s more eccentric collaborations. Like most contemporary pop opera, however, it owes a debt of gratitude to Tommy, and I think Pete Townshend would be proud. Hadestown has clearly defined characters that follow a plot arc, character development, a climax, and a resolution. These characters are convincingly enacted by a great cast of established musicians that include Justin Vernon as Orpheus and Ani DiFranco as Persephone (although I do feel like the voice of Hades, Greg Brown, pays a groaning tribute to Leon Redbone that grows a bit threadbare by album’s end).

Wedding Song - Anais Mitchell feat. Justin Vernon by Anais Mitchell feat. Justin Vernon on Grooveshark

The perceptive might have guessed - Hadestown retells of the myth of Orpheus. In this story’s most common form, Eurydice dies and becomes lost in the underworld. Armed only with song, Orpheus travels to the underworld and convinces Hades to release Eurydice, on the condition that Orpheus resists the temptation to turn around to see if his love was indeed following him. On paper, a contemporary libretto based on this well-trod tale might seem pretentious. Mitchell, however, dodges cliché by resetting the story in the Great Depression, opening up a distinctive set of conditions and relationships that capture the fanciful ideals of Greek mythology while shrouding them in the aesthetic of a prohibition-era variety show.

From a purely musical standpoint, Hadestown is incredibly compelling. Its playful use of style and emotion keeps the entire experience serious, but relatively lighthearted. The concept that undergirds the songs that comprise the album, however, is even more unique and well-executed. The abstract, archetypical concepts underlying the Orpheus myth take on a more visceral meaning in Mitchell’s reinterpretation, where rich men take the place of ancient gods, and greed is a force as unrelenting as death itself. After several weeks of regular rotation, the depth of this extended metaphor just hit me today and made me realize that there is much, much more to Hadestown than I had previously thought. I might be listening to this one for quite awhile.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Astra's "The Black Chord:" Thin Lines and Broad Palates

Initially, it wasn’t Astra’s sound that put them on my radar – it was the pale blue landscape from the cover of The Weirding. It looked like a Roger Dean landscape that had burned to the ground, and I couldn’t resist checking it out. When it finally made it into rotation, I consistently enjoyed its idiosyncratic mellotron-drenched approach to retro-prog. Overall, however, it was a bit overlong, oblique, and, unfortunately, it fell through the cracks in the long term. Still, Astra presented themselves as the kind of adventurous underground group that I like to adopt and promote.

With the Year in Rush project over and the artistic success of Clockwork Angels, my ear for fresh, satisfying progressive rock was wide open, so when Astra announced The Black Chord earlier this year, I took notice. The initial promo clip for Quake Meat was particularly fulfilling, if visually underwhelming.

It seemed that Astra had not given up on their space-rock leanings, but this track’s melodic aspects lent it a noticeable focus that I was missing on The Weirding.  Pennies were juggled, and The Black Chord made its way into my player towards the middle of last month. It was my intention to make it the soundtrack to summer camp.  Several times in my hotel room, I was caught up in its aggressively swirling tapestry as I recovered from a long day of practice and test preparation, but my sleep-deprived, exhausted state made it impossible to get through a focused, uninterrupted listen without nodding off. The Black Chord did not really begin to take root until I “came down off the mountain,” so to speak, and restarted my humdrum commute to prepare for the upcoming school year.

My initial inability to stay awake during The Black Chord had nothing to do with the album itself. It’s quite exciting and harbors multiple twists and turns. Where The Weirding had potential, I think The Black Chord succeeds, solidifying Astra’s significance in contemporary progressive and psychedelic rock. 

There is a thin line between these two genres that Astra treads most effectively, and in doing so, they confound the monochromatic tendencies of most retro-prog. Although they retain their predilection towards non-standard song forms, the energy and melodic content of the album provides a sense of direction that holds the listener’s attention more effectively than its predecessor.  The Black Chord's succinct running time also contributes to its success.  Although a lot of “space rock” and “psychedelic” music thrives in extended forms, classic progressive albums were most successful when they generally hit the 45 minute mark (a constraint also levied by the space limitations of 70s vinyl). 

What makes The Black Chord so intellectually engaging is a melodicism that is clearly inspired by early 70s King Crimson and Yes. Certainly, with a stack of Moog keyboards, Hammond organs, mellotrons, and a predilection towards sixteenth note triplet ornaments, Astra’s keyboards are clearly set to “Wakemanize.” This technical drive, however, stands out on a background of hues reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s pre-Dark Side work, and their deeply textured riffing is a hypnotic spiral that plainly refers to Hawkwind. Richard Vaughn’s “Ozzy-esque” vocals also provide dark outlines that further focus The Black Chord’s broad palate.

I am indulging in these comparisons because, like any retro-project, Astra is easily described by their references – perhaps too easily. Because of this, it is problematic to describe them as “unique,” but I can say with all confidence that Astra is a distinctive iteration of progressive and psychedelic music. By recombining the sounds of the past, they create a moving commentary on an adventurous era of music that isn't tied to a particular version of it. Astra is their own group, and The Black Chord is relevant progress for them, times gone by, and the present moment. Fans of this kind of music could not do much better than to pick it up.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Scott Walker: A 30th Century Man at the 30th Street Station

When I was growing up, I never really considered public transportation as a viable option. The trains and buses in Austin were always too convoluted, too unreliable. If I have the opportunity, then, to take a train somewhere rather than renting a car, I rather enjoy doing it. Navigating an unknown train system is eye-opening and rewarding, but also time-consuming. Knowing this, when I planned my trip to New Jersey, I stacked my phone with several albums.  After 7 hours of travel, however, and very few places to plug in during layovers, charge time was at a premium. I was, however, able to re-charge enough at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to arrange for a cab to pick me up at the Absecon Station, leaving just enough juice to listen to Scott Walker’s Climate of Hunter on the way there.

I discovered Walker last year, and, once I found the right listening environment, I really got into Tilt. In my ensuing enthusiasm, I purchased Climate of Hunter, but probably too soon to give the album its full due. In reality, the gap between these albums was over a decade long. Climate of Hunter is the singular 80s album from Walker’s sparse oeuvre. Although it shares a noticeably unsettling ambience with Tilt, in comparison to the avant garde leanings of its successor, Climate of Hunter is relatively conventional. There is a plane of sound cutting through the album that exemplifies 80s British pop production practices, with chorused fretless bass and glass shards of squealing, overdriven guitar. Above and below this clear frame, however, Walker still manages to warp the environment to meet his own aesthetic.

We respond to aesthetic beauty because its patterns and relationships strike us as the sort of thing a human mind might create. Music is often perceived in terms of the juxtaposition of musical tension and repose, and these forces often interact in a linear fashion, building tension in one moment and providing resolution in the next. Walker, however, seems to deliberately and simultaneously pit them against each other in the hazy timbres surrounding Climate of Hunter. Delicate dissonances counterbalance his baritone wailing while orchestral strings growl ominously in nearly human tones, creating the sense that Walker has a melancholic love for that which is beautiful, but also an awareness of beauty’s subtle menace.

A stumbling block for me with Walker’s chanting and sometimes wailing style is his offhanded approach to melody. After a certain point in his career, however, writing catchy songs was clearly not of importance to him. I think that Climate of Hunter might be considered pivotal in this regard. It documents Walker struggling to peel back the layers of his pop music background, and embarking on musical path that would lead him down increasingly challenging artistic terrain.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Indonesian Prog, Aikido, & CrossFit: Plane Ride to Jersey

On the plane ride to aikido summer camp in New Jersey, I spent some time with a compilation called Those Shaking, Shocking Days. This is a collection of Indonesian progressive and psychedelic rock that I have struggled with since January. The existence of the scene that produced this music is a fascinating example of musical resistance in an oppressive regime. As it exists out of context, however, I’m of a mixed mind. Aside from a couple of songs in local languages and small flashes of local flavor, it shows very little of its “Indonesianness.” Instead, it collects adequate recreations of Arthur Brown, Pink Floyd, early King Crimson, the Moody Blues, and other artists from that era.  In terms of adventurousness, however, none of the artists really rise to the level of the great progressive and psychedelic bands that were their Western contemporaries.

Do What You Like by Aka on Grooveshark

I was contemplating how I should address this interesting, but slightly underwhelming, album when my attention was grabbed by an offer to re-Tweet posts related to CrossFit training. With a deftly well-timed reply, I got in. So, although I would suggest fans of 70s music check out Those Shocking, Shaking Days, I’d like to indulge in a (hopefully rare) non-sequitur transition from the blog’s usual topic, which is recorded music, to the role that CrossFit has played in training for the Sandan test.

First of all, my test is in aikido, a Japanese martial art that aspires to employ a non-destructive, but effective, approach to conflict. Our founder, Morihei Ueshiba, was a skilled practitioner of various martial arts, and synthesized the art after defeating an attacker without touching him. This rather famous footage shows O-Sensei at 85 performing his art at its most abstract and ethereal.

Our regular practice doesn’t really look like what O-Sensei was doing towards the end of his life. We are still at the level of physical contact, but we nevertheless hope to cultivate a cooperative, rather than destructive, interaction through a lifetime of dedicated work, learning not only how to throw, but also how to be thrown.  No matter how careful the practitioner is, however, this latter half of the practice can take its toll on the body over time.  Having practiced for over 15 years, and in various states of physical fitness, I am of the opinion that being in good condition is important for the serious aikido student if they plan to reap the benefits of practicing at an old age.

The kind of flexible, adaptive fitness that CrossFit offers is particularly appropriate for aikido practitioners. When I began CrossFitting, I quickly noticed a difference. With the metabolic conditioning component already in place when I walked into the dojo, I had the latitude to concentrate on nuance, timing, placement, and safety for both me and my partner. CrossFit’s movement-based strength training also allowed me to receive more powerful techniques, but without the stiffness that I used to feel when I was operating under the old-school bodybuilding paradigm.

CrossFit seems to be an excellent compliment to aikido practice, and one that I think will help to maintain the quality of my practice throughout the years. Please let me be clear, though - I see aikido and CrossFit as two entirely separate entities. Being a CrossFitter doesn’t automatically make you a better aikido practitioner, any more than learning how to forward roll will help you with deadlift form. As physically grounded activities, however, there is a crossover that occurs as the body’s awareness and potentials expand.

Just so that I am consistent with my mission statement, music does play an important role in motivating the body to move during CrossFit training. My current coach seems to favor dubstep, so, although I covered deadmau5 last year, very often working out at the box sounds like this.

Animal Rights by deadmau5 on Grooveshark

Thanks to lots of practice and a little CrossFit on the side, I felt physically prepared for my Sandan test as I was flying on that plane with to 70s Indonesian prog pulsing in my ears. In fact, I was in what might have been the best shape of my life. The real test?  I intend to maintain this level of fitness as the school year starts and bring the training I have undergone into my everyday life in a positive, constructive way.