Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Collaborative Potential Behind Yes' "Heaven and Earth"

The secret to Yes’ longevity is not merely their penchant for lineup changes, but also the band’s willingness to incorporate new talent. Historically, Yes members have rarely (but sometimes) been treated like talking heads. A change in personnel was expected to change the band’s sound. Whether these various changes are positive or negative is the topic of constant debate amongst Yes’ fan base. At the very least, Yes’ fluid identity and inclusive ideology has kept them interesting, if not consistent, for well on 45 years.

Jon Anderson’s departure from the group has been the divisive issue in recent times. Clearly, Anderson’s voice lies at the very foundation of the Yes sound, but in his later years with the group, he seemed to grow increasingly unfocused. I think that if the Yes name was to go on, a change was bound to occur. Granted, installing a new lead singer is a delicate process, but by and large is it possible for a band to survive and even progress once they make it through the procedure.

As I stated in a previous post, I cautiously came to accept current singer Jon Davison. I am now a pretty staunch advocate. In both voice and philosophy, Davison is Anderson’s heir apparent. His presence became more interesting as information about Heaven and Earth began to leak, because he was emerging as proactive contributor to the band’s creative process. He traveled quite extensively to collaborate with the various members of the band, and his writing credits are all over the Heaven and Earth. The album would be the first from Yes in over a decade that would feature entirely new material – no re-visits to unrecorded tracks or other such insecure practices.

In the YesYears documentary, Bill Bruford described the internal politics of Yes as “democratic,” with sometimes exhaustive debate and collaboration. By 1978’s Tormato, however, this approach seemed to run itself dry. Since then, Yes has worked best with a clear conjurer in their midst to focus the band’s creativity. Initially, this role was filled by Trevor Horn, then by Trevor Rabin, then later by Billy Sherwood. I had high hopes that Davison might be able to similarly reinvigorate Yes on Heaven and Earth.

But way before the album’s release, the early reviews started trickling in, and the naysayers took the lead.  I will not repeat this somewhat shortsighted negativity, but by and large, surprisingly little criticism centered on Davison’s performance or even his material. Yes fans were more concerned about the overall relaxed feel and pop sensibilities of Heaven and Earth, despite the fact that the band has dabbled in accessible songwriting since their inception.

Personally, I like the album. First and foremost, it sounds like Yes. Drop the needle nearly anywhere on Heaven and Earth and its bright ambience recalls other great Yes works like Going for the One and The Ladder. Additionally, songs are generally memorable and harmonically interesting, with lyrics that are the usual balance of profundity and cliché that can be found in Yes’ text throughout the band’s history.

But I have some reservations. While I think that there is enough outstanding material to make Heaven and Earth a great album, there are also some hokey, underdeveloped parts that come off as dispassionate. It feels like there is quite a bit of unrealized potential that could have been brought out with a little more cross-collaboration and editing. Here is where I think Davison was, to a degree, hung out to dry. Despite what seemed to be his intention to recreate the collaborative environment of the classic Yes period, the writing credits hardly cross over. He ended up writing separate songs with separate people, which, I speculate, were recorded with relatively little reflection once Yes convened in the studio.

Still, although Heaven and Earth may not be the pinnacle of Yes’ recorded output, it is still a very good album with lots of details hidden in the effortless virtuosity of the band’s veterans. As the newest member, Davison clearly has a passion and enthusiasm for Yes music, and I genuinely think he has a great Yes album in him. With the band’s eldest members comfortably residing on the four corners of the globe working at a distance, however, coming up with new material that stands alongside their best work might be difficult.  My dark side secretly wishes that Davison could just get all those old guys out of the way so that he could make some Yes music.

That’s right, I said it. More on this topic shortly….

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Transatlantic's "Kaleidoscope" and a Tale from the Sea

When I stumbled across Transatlantic in the late 90s through my sputtering dial-up internet, I had already been a longstanding fan of Marillion and had developed a healthy respect for Dream Theater. I was completely unaware, however, that other progressive rock bands existed. My eyes opened, and suddenly The Flower Kings and Spock’s Beard displaced my power pop agenda, rekindling an interest in the style that I so strongly identified with in my youth. This carried me for quite a while, but a huge rupture occurred when Neal Morse announced that he would be leaving Spock’s Beard to more ardently pursue his religious beliefs. While Spock’s Beard sauntered on, it seemed that without Morse, Transatlantic would cease to exist.

I was quite surprised, then, when a couple of years ago, Transatlantic announced their reformation. They concomitantly released The Whirlwind, their finest work to date and an album that which solidified their identity as a self-sufficient band, distinct from the member’s home groups. It would have been a fitting final act for this “supergroup” to end on. If anything, however, Transatlantic seems to be gaining more momentum. Early this year, they released Kaleidoscope, their fourth studio album. Kaleidoscope isn’t as immediately impressive as The Whirlwind, but it is still an incredible statement that displays Transatlantic’s evolution into true masters of the symphonic style, at least as it appeared at the end of the 90s.

Initially, Kaleidoscope seemed to be a throwback to Transatlantic’s early releases. Morse’s characteristic compositional style provided the framework upon which the other members realize their own contributions. Certainly, the album’s overall structure, with two multi-movement epics and a few shorter form songs, has more in common with their first two albums than the hour-long song cycle that makes up The Whirlwind. Like its predecessor, though, Transatlantic’s lyrics have a noticeably heartfelt conviction (not reflected in their lip-synching abilities) that was not always present in Morse’s earlier work.

Despite Morse’s influence on the album’s large-scale construction, however, Kaleidoscope is a step forward for the entire group in terms of their unified chemistry. Gone are the days where Transatlantic ground its gears between the stylistic preferences of its discrete members. The album definitively consolidates Transatlantic as a unique, distinctive band, with members displaying an intuitive understanding of each other’s compositional and technical strengths. Like a lot of the best progressive rock, Kaleidoscope takes some patience. There is a lot of material on the album, and it really has to be “learned” for its vast harmonic and melodic nuance to have full impact.

Kaleidoscope’s prominence in my current listening just happens to coincide with an increased interest in progressive rock in general due to the release of Yes’ new album Heaven and Earth. While my opinions on the album are best relegated to their own post, it is safe to say that the progressive community is sharply divided on the album, due in no small part to Jon Anderson’s absence as lead vocalist. This topic has been a hot one for several years now, and I would imagine hung like an awkward cloud on the Progressive Nation at Sea, last year’s at-sea progressive rock festival.  For all the attention that Yes has been enjoying, thanks to Transatlantic, Anderson was afforded his own chance to shine at this event.

The Revealing Science of God is the side-long opening track from Tales from Topographic Oceans, an album that is notorious in Yes' catalog for its conceptual density.  The current iteration of Yes is forging their own path, and it is unlikely that this composition will find its way onto their set list in the near future. With Transatlantic as his backing band, however, Jon Anderson performs as good of a rendition of this piece as one could wish for. 

Particularly with limited rehearsal time, performing a song as complex as this one requires more than just cohesion - it takes a cooperative awareness cultivated in mutual respect and trust.  With the synergy that they exhibit both here and on Kaleidoscope, however, I see virtually no limit to their mastery.  They could conceivably function as the “house band” of multi-band progressive festivals, backing any number of walk-on musical legends with deferential, high-energy performances of classic progressive material.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project Part 12: Wrapping Things Up

For those of you just tuning in, a few months ago, I began an experiment on my daughter. It was not as ominous as it sounds - I noticed that she made some connections between several superhero characters and the attendant soundtracks from their more visible cinematic adaptations. I encouraged this and went so far as to create a playlist that included other superheroes, adopting obscure themes from movies, TV, and orchestral repertoire. We listened to it in the car. A lot. I kept up with her expanding repertoire in a series at the end of last year, but as her enthusiasm began to wane, there were a few undocumented themes that I’d like to go back and catch.

As the Little One was becoming familiar with various superheroes, it was inevitable that their foes would arise as well. I decided early on that I would avoid giving these characters themes, with one exception. When she was an infant, she received a Catwoman “Funko POP” figurine that stood alongside Superman and Batgirl. Catwoman has been characterized many ways, from brilliant thief to hypersexualized vixen. When she began to ask about how “Catwoman’s song” went, I obviously wanted to emphasize the former. I settled on Funeral March for a Marionette, which felt playfully sinister in a way that suggested Catwoman creeping in the shadows and surreptitiously grabbing loot.

As her imagination began to expand, the more intense themes of superhero cartoons seemed less and less appropriate. The last jag of superhero programming she was into was, oddly, a show I used to eagerly watch on Saturday mornings – Spiderman and his Amazing Friends. Although not without its own somewhat violent overtones, the type of 80’s “zap” violence felt a bit less visceral than the “pow” violence of more contemporary programming. What this meant for the project, however, was that Iceman and Firestar, a couple of relatively obscure characters from the Marvel universe, needed themes.

Both of these characters were a clean slate, so I was free to render them in any way I saw fit. I also had a back log of excellent musical themes that had found no character. On the path that ultimately led to Robin’s theme, I acquired some familiarity with the long tradition of outstanding themes from the Star Trek movies. The passage from the mooring sequence on The Wrath of Khan made a particular impression on me, mainly because I remembered it so vividly through the music. It shimmered evocatively and developed in ways that made it distinct from many of the other songs in the playlist, so I adopted it for Iceman.

Firestar was created specifically for the Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends in lieu of the Human Torch, a character who was embroiled in the usual legal disputes. She was later retconned into the Marvel universe. On the show, she was predictably flat, like any cartoon character from that era. She was relatively freewheeling, though, and quick with a bad joke, but selflessly heroic in her own way. I ended up using the theme from Back to the Future for her for two reasons: to acknowledge her heroic but lighthearted attitude as well as the 80s era that spawned both her and the movie’s theme.

These themes rounded out a sixteen track playlist that consumed the Little One’s listening habits for several months. For awhile, she would ask for the pieces by the character’s name. Later, we would put it on shuffle and name the characters as the various themes came up. I only ever did this by request, though, and I started to notice that the requests became less frequent. Even today, she sometimes asks to listen to the playlist, but certainly not on a daily basis.

The goal of this project was twofold. From a superficial standpoint, I had hoped to familiarize her with some of the superheroes that inspired me as a kid, so that later on we could share in the wealth of reading material that is out there. From a different perspective, though, I wanted to open her ears to the narrative capacity of melody and the wide array of sounds that the orchestra can create.

The Superhero Theme Project was, and is, really only meant to plant seeds that may not take fruit for a very long time. I can say, however, that it has made an impression. When she is playing by herself, I can often hear her humming the theme from The Great Gate of Kiev. When I ask her what she is singing, she will smile as if caught in the act and shyly say “Aquaman.”


But this wasn't the end.  GO ON....
To see the previous post, click HERE.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Who is the More Foolish? Glass Hammer's "Chronometree"

There was not a lot of music that made it through the divorce. Most of what I was into at the time was rendered unlistenable for quite awhile. The good news was, however, that I could listen to whatever I wanted to without fear of judgment or complaint. When I started brushing the dust off my shoulders and standing on my own again, I was relatively free to delve into whatever progressive rock nuttiness I pleased. For several years already, I had been listening to several variations on the “neo-progressive” style. Spock’s Beard, Porcupine Tree, and The Flower Kings had already proven to be bands with distinctive sounds worth a devoted following, but, predictably, I was convinced that there was more out there.

Although my horizons were widening in the progressive rock scene, there was a lot out there I could not get behind. The founders of the progressive style made music that I identified with, but I was mindfully critical of “clone” projects. Every argument could be made that Glass Hammer falls into this category. Especially in their more recent iterations, they wear their influences on their sleeve. Back in 2000, however, when Chronometree was released, it seemed that they might have the potential to take a different direction than they have.  Certainly, they still toggled between Emerson- and Wakeman-isms with fluid ease. However, aside from these stylistic keyboard affectations, I thought that Chronometree was relatively distinctive, and I really came to enjoy it in the wake of my newfound bachelorhood.

The primary way in which Chronometree stood on its own was due to the contributions of vocalist Brad Marler. In some circles, Marler had received some criticism on this release, but I always thought that his unique style stood in opposition to Jon Anderson, Greg Lake, and other classic singers in the style. Most importantly, Marler was impassioned without coming off as overly melodramatic, which is the downfall of many progressive rock singers.

A Perfect Carousel by Glass Hammer on Grooveshark

Like many classic progressive rock albums, Chronometree is a concept album, and in this regard it really shone above its contemporaries. The protagonist in its narrative is a pot-smoking prog-rock junkie that starts to think that aliens are trying to contact him through lyrics. In the end, he drags his friends out to a field where he waits, “Great Pumpkin”-style, for four-dimensional alien enlightenment. In other words, it’s a rock opera/concept album about a guy who listens to too many rock operas/concept albums.

Obi-Wan Kenobi once posed the question, "Who is the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?" Chronometree makes the hard-core progressive fanboy its fool. At its core, it is a self-referential satire, gently poking fun at the listener for looking too closely at its meaning. It’s more musically derivative moments reinforce this point while paying respectful tribute to the pioneers of the style.

I hoped that Chronometree would be the baseline for further work, so I followed Glass Hammer. None of the albums that followed, however, really stuck with me. While the level of playing and composition on Lex Rex and Shadowlands are respectably high, they seemed a little sterile in execution. There were also constant lineup changes that prohibited a clear chemistry from arising between anyone but primary writers Babb and Schendel.

The consistent participation of Jon Davison in recent years has seemed to lessen this issue, but has also strengthened their status as a Yes clone project in my mind. His rise to prominence as Glass Hammer’s ad hoc lead singer occurred after I stopped following the band, though, so this opinion is based on an outsider’s impression. Glass Hammer has gained some visibility recently, however, due to the installation of Davison as the lead singer of Yes. His participation in Glass Hammer seemed to help the group gel in more recent years, and it is my hope that his presence will do the same for Yes in the band's twilight years.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Dawes' "Stories Don't End:" Yesteryear's Rainy Afternoon

It rained for two days after she left. I spent most of my time on a well-worn yellow naugahyde couch staring out the window trying to figure out how what had happened and what I was going to do next. On the third day, it finally stopped raining and, in attempt to find some closure, I wrote a short, desperately worded letter to her. I rolled it up and corked it into one of those small jars she used to inexplicably keep around and went out for a walk in the cool, wet afternoon.

There was a creek that ran through the neighborhood, and it was bloated from the rain. It was my intent to throw my message in a bottle into the current and watch it float downstream. When I found an appropriate bend in the creek, I tossed in the jar, but, rather than bobbing in the waves as I bid it a tearful farewell, it simply disappeared into the stream with an unceremonious "plop.” I never saw it again. No poetry or romance - it was merely swallowed up into the muddy water.

Dawes wasn't around in 2002 back when I struggled to come to grips with my marriage ending, the reality of what had happened, and my delusion surrounding the whole thing. Stories Don’t End\ ended up in rotation earlier this year, however, and its brilliant lyrics reminded me of the way the world seemed when I was emotionally numb and fragile. I don't mean to say that the narratives found on  Stories Don’t End directly map to my experiences. On the whole, it’s not all about dealing with life in the wake of finding yourself suddenly alone (although that situation does come up).

What Dawes does so well, though, is speak profoundly about the paradox that arises as we look for something meaningful and poetic in the world and are instead presented with something we perceive to be mundane. From a different perspective, the profundity often arises when we notice poetry and beauty that is inherently embedded in the mundane.

When that jar slipped beneath the surface on that rainy afternoon, it seemed like a slap in the face, but it soon came to have meaning. I made a few vain attempts at kickstarting a songwriting hobby by mining the experience for lyrical ideas, but I was not, nor have I even been, the type of musician that could adequately capture this kind of humorous realism in words. 

Stories Don't End, however, ruminates on the dissonance that seems to exist between how things are and how they are subjectively seen. Due to my walk that day and the path I took in its aftermath, both positive and negative, I genuinely admire Dawes’ capacity to consistently capture these esoteric feelings in lyrics.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Yes' Big Generator and Previews of Coming Attractions

The Yes identity is partially defined by its constant lineup changes, some of which have had a more noticeable impact on the band's sound than others. One of the more dramatic changes came with the installation of Trevor Rabin in the early 80s. His textured, muscular, and (most importantly) accessible take on progressive rock was a purposeful turn from Yes’ sweeping epics of the 70s. Even today, nearly thirty years later, Yes fans are sharply divided on whether this lineup had the right to carry on the Yes name. Inarguably, however, the Rabin-led Yes produced the band’s greatest hit. Owner of a Lonely Heart became almost ubiquitous towards the end of my elementary school career in 1983. As a result, Rabin’s lineup was the one that I came to initially know and love as Yes.

A lot can happen in four years, especially during the early teens. By 1987, I was a self-proclaimed progressive rock devotee. I had learned every gesture that I could discern on 90125 and gained some familiarity with Yes’ back catalog. It would be an understatement to say that I had built up a lot of anticipation for Big Generator. This was also the year when driving a car by myself was a new and beautiful thing.  As a result, when the album was released it played incessantly in my blue Subaru GL as I learned to commute across town to my desegregated eastside school.

I genuinely liked Big Generator. I felt like there was an effort to recapture the successes of 90125 by tracing its more defining moments, but I also thought that there were also efforts to redefine the band’s sound to more closely align it with the Yes tradition. Especially on the second side, as the songs passed the six and seven minute mark, Jon Anderson’s vocals began to soar above the rhythm section in a way that was distinctly Yes.

As much as I outwardly advocated for the album, though, even back then I secretly sensed that at times, Big Generator seemed a little forced. As I revisited Big Generator recently in anticipation of Yes’ upcoming release Heaven and Earth, time and nostalgia has not eroded this feeling. The album is not unlistenable by any means, but there are a few moments that just seem to ring hollow. In retrospect, the discrepancy between accessibility and experimentalism that this lineup was forced to wrestle with would not be fully resolved until nearly a decade later with the release of the woefully unrecognized Talk album. Big Generator itself, though, is still a somewhat jagged listening experience, with great highs and a few dubious lulls.

I have always held that despite the somewhat radical change in style that Rabin’s songwriting and production brought to Yes, this lineup was as valid as any. The thread that held the legacy together through this period is, I think, Jon Anderson’s distinctive vocals. Certainly, the band could not have convincingly carried on the Yes name if Anderson had not returned to the fold when Rabin overhauled the Yes sound.

With this in mind, it might seem contradictory that I also cite Drama as one of Yes’ best releases and also unashamedly support the flawed but enjoyable Fly From Here. While both of these albums feature lead vocalists other than Jon Anderson, from a musical standpoint they fit more readily into the stylistic conventions of the Yes oeuvre. In both cases, the presence of Trevor Horn and Benoit David  challenges the group’s musical identity far less than Rabin did.

In a month, a new Yes album, with yet another lead singer, is due out. Jon Davison, who over the course of the last few years evolved into the lead singer for Glass Hammer, stepped into these very big shoes. When I first heard, I was very, very apprehensive. To see so many big changes in such a short amount of time did not sit well with me, even for Yes. Then this video surfaced:

In my opinion, Wondrous Stories is virtually a Jon Anderson solo piece executed by Yes. I think that it would have been a hard sell for Fly from Here's Benoit David to pull off.  In this clip, however, Davison’s stage presence and his clear passion for the song buoys the band's admittedly geriatric performance, and it convinced me that he might be an even better fit for Yes than David was.  This has piqued my interest in Heaven and Earth because Davison, in addition to being a good Anderson sound-alike,  is also a pretty prolific writer.  Since 1980, Yes has been most successful when they have an inspired collaborator to act as conjurer. I hope that Davison is able to act in this role in the current lineup.