Saturday, August 30, 2014

"Sound Mirror:" Syd Arthur's Straight Line

A lot has happened to Syd Arthur since I stumbled across them last summer. On and On was a refreshing collection of prog-tinged tunes held together by asymmetrical time signatures and complex textures. They were accessible, however, in a way that set the more conservative prog community ill at ease.  I hoped that the band would not submit to the expectations of this sometimes insatiable audience.  Fortunately, as I had hoped, the band stuck to their original mission statement. Their sophomore release Sound Mirror is more of the same, only done better.  It is a deep exploration of the territory staked out by their debut that avoids exactly retracing its exact successes.

In addition to the artistic success of Sound Mirror, Syd Arthur served as the opening band for Yes on their recent tour. Considering Syd Arthur’s clear regard for prog days gone by, they could not have asked for a better venue.  From what I have seen, Syd Arthur was relatively well received, winning over new fans at every show.  I don't find this particularly surprising.  Fans of the current, non-traditional iteration of Yes are more likely to be more open minded progressive listeners.  Predictably, however, the positive response has not been unanimous. In particular, I was taken off guard when an old college friend whose musical opinion I value saw them on this tour and thought that they “had no songs.”

As much as I love Syd Arthur, I can see how it might seem that way, especially at first glance. It took me some time to decide if I liked the sounds or the songs from On and On. Viewed superficially, the ostinato riffs that serve as the foundation of their songs can seem a little jam-bandy and, by traditional progressive rock standards, a little repetitive. On the other hand, these riffs are pretty complex, and constructing memorable melodies over this texture takes more than just an ear for a tune.

It is common for contemporary progressive rock bands to lose sight of accessibility for the sake of complexity.  The melodic nature of Syd Arthur's music allows them to dodge this issue nicely and in doing so, cuts through the hazy space between progressive rock and more contemporary alternative rock styles. Although they exhibit a clear nostalgia for 70s psychedelia, they also a connect with more recent experimental rock.  The opening riff of Sinkhole, for example, would have fit nicely on any album released by Radiohead in the late 90s. 

Syd Arthur's navigation of these closely intertwined styles makes it tempting to engage in the increasingly threadbare "what is prog?" debate.  I'll save you the trouble: the distinction is subjective.  For some, like myself, Radiohead, Muse, and other adventurous acts are the next logical step in the ongoing evolution of progressive rock.  For others, the style is strictly defined by characteristics that were set in stone nearly forty years ago.  Syd Arthur, however, draws a straight line between these two conceptions of the genre in a way that challenges the boundary between them.   

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Zimmer's "Man of Steel:" an Impossible Balance

It was a couple of days after Christmas, and we were at my in-law’s vacation condo. I quietly crawled into bed between a feverish toddler and an exhausted wife. Both were finally asleep, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, I had a quiet moment. I slipped in a pair of earbuds and pulled up Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel soundtrack, which I received from my family. I had been looking forward to getting a chance to sit down and listen to it, and although this was not entirely the setting I had anticipated, I did not want to pass it up.

It was as if I had stepped into another world.

From elegant themes that roll like thunder across distant hills to percussive polyrhythms that border on cacophony, Man of Steel is majestic, expansive, and gracefully melodic, and it continues the exploration of sound that Zimmer began on The Dark Knight and sustained into Inception. Across my examination of these soundtracks, I increasingly hold the opinion that Zimmer represents the best in contemporary soundtrack composition. Man of Steel does nothing but reinforce this view, especially the way in which he augments the orchestra without challenging its identity. Twelve drumset players, metal sculptures, and a steel guitar “choir” hardly represent the instrumentation of the average studio orchestra. That he can make this unique ensemble work as a whole is a feat of his artistic vision.

In any ensemble, an essential concern is balance. Musicians playing a group must instinctively play in relationship to another if all the important parts of the composition are to be heard. Man of Steel’s instrumentation, however, makes a true studio quality performance of the soundtrack problematic. For example, there is a certain timbral change in a drum sound when it is hit hard. Man of Steel pervasively employs the power of that sound, but for that many drummers to play that loud in the same acoustic environment as a string section just isn’t acoustically viable. It would change the intensity of the drums, and therefore the nature of the performance, if they were to play quieter or if there were less of them. In the real world, it just doesn’t work.

Man of Steel is, however, a studio construction, with parts recorded separately and assembled in a virtual setting. In the past, this might have set me ill at ease, but I have come to appreciate the amount of abstraction and vision this approach requires. Zimmer does not just rely on abstract soundscapes. Instead he captures performances of his compositions and assembles them to maximize their emotive potential in a supportive, sometimes propulsive harmonic environment. This allows Man of Steel to be both immersive and incredibly powerful while retaining the sound of human hands on instruments.

What I really like about Man of Steel is its noticeable narrative capacity. It tells a story of the film almost as clearly as the film itself. Superman has evolved and changed dramatically over the course of his existence. He has gone from being a strong, bulletproof guy who can jump really high to being nearly godlike. In his more recent history, there has been a general movement to humanize him, and in Man of Steel, the foregrounding of his struggle as an adoptee was particularly touching. A good portion of the movie is centered on Superman's self-discovery, not just of his powers, but his purpose.

For the careful listener, this manifests in the blossoming exploration of just a few simple themes that provide the framework for the entire soundtrack. Variations and extrapolations allow this melodic material, most of which starts as a murmur at the outset, to unfold into something immensely powerful and textured by the end of the listening experience.

Despite the somewhat surreptitious setting in which I gave Man of Steel its first listen, I was thankful that I took the opportunity to listen to it on headphones, because it is best taken in an immersive environment that will highlight its amazing dynamic range and atmospheric depth. Subsequent listens in other environments resulted in shaking rearview mirrors or nervous glances out the back patio door. Not that any of that stopped me – it has been in constant rotation for months. Man of Steel is quite amazing, to the point that is has made other soundtracks I have listened to since sound dated and clich├ęd.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Yes' Step Beyond: Imagining a Change

All week long I have been at Aikido Summer Camp, and have had the great pleasure of watching my wife take her black belt test.  Classes have been great, and her success has made me very proud.  As I climb in bed at night, however, I've been playing meaningless little imaginary games that only the hardcore Yes fans could even understand. If that's not you, this post might not make much sense.  At the very least, if you are just tuning in, you might want to back up to yesterday's post for context.

While Fly from Here was a pretty good effort, its essence laid in revisiting past material and really did not provide a sustainable vision for Yes’s future. Heaven and Earth, however, is quite a different story. Like it or not, it has an inarguable Yes-ness, and Davison's enthusiasm for the band hints at a longer range, perhaps past the point at which some of his elder bandmates might be willing or able to continue.

At different times, Yes' ex-keyboardist Rick Wakeman and bassist/musical director Chris Squire both have hypothesized that the band could, in fact, exist after its originating members have retired. Many people draw the line at Anderson’s departure, but with Jon Davison injecting new blood into the band, it kind of begs the question: Could the Yes name move forward with even more new blood than Davison, maybe without a single original or classic member?

It is a tricky proposition, but an important one for the classic rock generation. As bands with strong identities reach the age of retirement, can they “sell the business” in a way that the fan base will accept? Yes, a band whose identity has already survived so much change, is uniquely positioned to address this issue. There are certainly musicians out there with clear ties to the band’s heritage that could move the Yes name forward not by just playing the classic albums well, but by creating new music in the Yes tradition.

Because there is a tradition, there are roles to fill, but fortunately, Davison has emerged as Anderson’s heir apparent and a member to rally around. If a full changing of the guard were to come to pass, however, it would have to follow the retirement of Chris Squire, who has been keeping Yes’ flame alight for the past 45 years. In addition to his distinctive bass playing, his backup vocals are absolutely integral to the Yes sound, and he is, for all intents and purposes, the band’s musical director. The only person that could come close to covering all these bases would be Billy Sherwood.  He has worked behind the scenes with Yes for over a decade at this point, and it would be really exciting to see him form the core of a new Yes with Davison. Watch him tear up this classic:

A potential successor for Howe was a bit less obvious, but in doing research on Sherwood, I discovered a contender in the above video clip. Clearly, Jimmy Haun has some rapport with Sherwood and he has the flexibility to cover both Howe and Rabin’s guitar work. His contributions as Howe's stand-in on the politically troubled Union album weaves him even further into Yes’ DNA. It would be interesting to hear his unique voice officially take the lead in the context of a Yes project.

The most fluid role in Yes’ history is that of the keyboardist, and there are many players that the fanbase would love to see come back. In my opinion, however, Oliver Wakeman never really got a chance to shine on his own before he was ousted in favor of Geoff Downes during the Fly from Here sessions. His presence would simultaneously acknowledge and sidestep the issue of his father’s rather long shadow.

That leaves the drummer, a role that has not been as fluid, but perhaps the one that needs to be addressed. I can’t help but think that if White abdicated the drum throne and allowed some fresh hands behind the set, the energy of Heaven and Earth would have been much different. Despite White’s immense contribution to the Yes canon, significant part of the fan base still laments the loss of Bill Bruford. At the risk of turning this lineup into “Yes Kids,” bringing Dylan Howe into the fold is an interesting option, and one that would satisfy the more conservative fanbase. The last name alone buys him some credibility, and he would most likely bring back the jazzier approach that characterized the early days of Yes.

Davison, Sherwood, Haun, Wakeman, and Howe: I would like to think that if these five guys were put in a room and told to “make a Yes album,” the results would be phenomenal. At the very least, they would know what to do.  Of course, it’s all just fantasy football for the prog-rock nerd. These are real live musicians with their own careers and political complications, and not just pieces on a chess board. In any case, such a reconfiguration of the group would be interesting no matter what form it took, and would be a distinctly Yes thing to do. Considering the resistance to Anderson’s departure, however, I can’t imagine the resistance that would come from more conservative factions of the fanbase. Such a next-generation group would absolutely have to have Squire’s blessing if there were any chance of acceptance. That and a Roger Dean cover.