Friday, December 23, 2016

Dr. Spin's Best of 2016 part 2

Photo credit: Kate Wurtzel
I saw a meme a few weeks ago that posed the question “are you the same person now as you were at this time last year?” While I feel mostly confident that I am the same person, my world has changed so dramatically over the course of the year that the proposition doesn’t seem unrealistic. It is reasonable, however, to say that life now does not look the same as it did at the end of last year - to say the least.

I began this year as an Austinite, teaching band at a troubled middle school. By the end of February, however, the pace began to pick up. My second daughter EJ was born, I gave notice at my school, got a new job, went on a cruise, moved out of our house, lived out of a hotel, moved into a new house, and taught my first season of marching band while battling a plague of family illness. It's like life has been on fast-forward all year long.

Even though life looks different, I have to say that things are better than they were at the end of last year for me personally. I’m afraid that I can’t say the same for the state of the world. Trump’s election is distressing to say the least. I hope that he either surprises us, or is quickly impeached. More distressing, however, is the way that he has empowered the worst aspects of American society. I am up in arms as to how I'm going to proceed to teach my children to do the right thing, because I feel like that is in opposition to what they will be exposed to on a daily basis by the powers that be.

Of course, the easy answer is to teach love and understanding in the home. In practice, though, the pressure that we all have felt as my family forges a new chapter for themselves has sometimes made that difficult. It has been a tough year. It is my most fervent hope, however, that 2017 will represent a year of personal healing for everyone as they brace themselves for the coming storm.

Now you should press "play" and read on....

Last month, I announced a few changes in the methodology that I adopted to create this year’s “best-of” list. The basic guidelines, however, remain the same, and can be accessed here.

 15. Riverside - Love, Fear, and the Time Machine: This album came up with so many best-of 2015 prog-rock lists at the end of last year that I added it to at the outset of 2016. Throughout the year, its engaging melodic aspects and compelling performances kept it in rotation, while the unsettling death of guitarist Piotr GrudziƄski might be one of the less visible losses to the music world we suffered this year.

14. Field Music - Commontime: Once again, Field Music have successfully combined their impressive musicianship and outstanding performance skills with singable melodies. For the trained musician, there is much to enjoy on Commontime, but even my five-year-old daughter appreciates its more accessible aspects.

13. Frost* - Falling Satellites: The latest release from Frost* inhabits that fertile ground between prog and pop that, when done well, hits me where I live. Despite teetering on the edge of production-related sterility at times, the band’s energy and writing strengths kept Falling Satellites in rotation for months.

12. Weezer - Weezer [white]: Even if you're only a fan of the blue album, I would argue that there have always been great pockets of brilliance throughout Weezer’s entire catalog, even during their lowest points. This album, however, pulled me out of my moratorium on Weezer albums, and it fortunately represents an upward swing in their work.

11. The Lennon/Claypool Delirium - The Monolith of Phobos. This one took a while to grow on me, but thanks to Sean Lennon’s songwriting and arranging input, this psychedelic project to stands apart from Claypool’s work with Primus. It would be interesting to see this partnership develop into something even more ambitious.

10. Zweiton - Form. This album is wide-ranging, mathematically complex, continually engaging, and sometimes downright funky. After months of listening, I am still unraveling its compositional and technical nuances.

* there aren't any high quality tracks on YouTube from Form, so check out this one above from Zweiton's bandcamp page.

9. S U R V I V E - RR7349: Since discovering them a couple of years ago, S U R V I V E has evolved from a “band I like” into a genuine musical influence. The compositional strength of RR7349 and it’s vision of a digital future through an analog past continues to inspire me in ways that I hope to make real in 2017.

8. Kayo Dot - Plastic House at Base of Sky: This dense album took a while to unravel, but it really came to have a deep meaning for me after I wrote its freestanding post earlier this year. Plastic House at Base of Sky has a nostalgic aesthetic that I somewhat arbitrarily connected to the day we moved out of our little house on the hill, and now it seems bound to the complicated emotions I experienced that day.

7. David Bowie - Blackstar. It was around this time last year that it seemed like Bowie's choices of players on his new album indicated he was up to something. Little did I realize he was creating his own eulogy.

6. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - EARS: When I learned about Smith and her experimentation with the Buchla Music Easel, I put EARS in rotation and it stopped me in my tracks. Its unique combination of texture, composition, and improvisation kept it in constant, uninterrupted rotation for almost two weeks straight, and it continued to hold up under repeated listenings throughout the rest of the year.

5. Marillion - F.E.A.R.: I was somewhat hard on this album when it came out, but as I have gotten my ears around it I have come to appreciate it immensely. Hogarth’s Marillion has made several great albums, but by harnessing the countercultural angst that drove the group’s earliest incarnation, F.E.A.R. might be their defining statement.

4. Everything Everything - Get to Heaven: Like My Brightest Diamond last year, Get to Heaven ended up being a favorite that, if overall requested plays by family members were the primary factor, probably should be number one. It carries the weight of bands like Elbow with a nonchalance that recalls the Gorillaz.

3. Hans Zimmer - Interstellar OST: When I finally found my bluetooth speaker months after accidentally packing it, I had a hard time listening to anything besides the Interstellar OST when I was up for EJ’s late night feeding. Between this setting and the complex feelings the soundtrack evokes from the movie, I can’t think of another single album that represents those intimate experiences.

2. Anderson/Stolt - Invention of Knowledge: It's obvious to point at Jon Anderson's vocal prowess in this album’s success, but it has also been his tendency in recent years to wander from idea to idea without finishing any one thing. Invention of Knowledge stands up to Anderson’s best work, however, thanks to Stolt’s ability to arrange his ideas within larger compositions while he himself remains relatively transparent.

2016 Album of the Year

1. Bobgoblin - Love Lost for Blood Lust: It's satisfying to see that a countercultural 90s band with an Orwellian concept that seems straight out of 1984 could rise from the ashes and be so relevant today.  If the world were fair, Bobgoblin's distinctive brand of power pop would have already made them a household name, but this year's incredible Love Lost for Blood Lust has the potential to at least broaden their audience.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

In the Wake of Greatness: Emerson, Lake, and Powell

Undoubtedly, music aficionados have suffered some incredible losses this year. From David Bowie’s artfully framed struggle with cancer to the startling passing of Prince, it seems like a whole generation of musicians are beginning to reveal their mortality. Every single one of these musicians deserve mention, but earlier this year, I thought that it would be a shame if the particularly tragic passing of Keith Emerson was eclipsed by more visible artists. I began a commemorative post that I procrastinated finishing and, like an embarrassingly large percentage of my writing, I abandoned it past its relevance.

Then I recently woke to find that his former bandmate and prog-rock icon Greg Lake had also passed. It seemed more pertinent than ever to revise and complete the post, particularly since the underrated entry in ELP’s legacy that I have the most connection with sadly has no surviving members.

Don’t panic, Carl Palmer is still going strong, at least at the time of this writing (fingers crossed).

My introduction to ELP did not come through their classic work, although I came to appreciate it.  I was a member of the MTV generation, so I came to know 70s progressive rock giants like Yes and Genesis through the lens of their 80s reinventions.  Emerson also sought to bring ELP back into the spotlight during this time, but to make a long story short, Asia's success with Heat of the Moment kept drummer Carl Palmer engaged. Cozy Powell (who passed away in 1998 due to a car accident) found his way into the throne, creating an alternative lineup that created one album, simply titled Emerson, Lake, and Powell.

ELPo was cautiously welcomed into this cadre of reinvented prog-rockers, and I still have memories of the brief time Keith Emerson took his turn telling me that he “wanted his MTV,” usually followed by the album’s powerful single Touch and Go. Although Touch and Go did not garner the same attention as, say, Yes' Owner of a Lonely Heart, I purchased the album back then on tape, and it slid effortlessly into rotation on the heels of Rush's Power Windows.

Throughout the next decade and a half, I collected a good portion of ELP’s back catalog and mostly enjoyed it. There is a lot of devastatingly beautiful music to be found there. There are also a few eyeball-rolling moments, particularly in their efforts to arrange orchestral repertoire. Emerson, Lake, and Powell, however, closed with a version of Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War that I would argue is the most successful transcription that ELP ever did (no matter which P you are referring to). It harnesses its energy and bombast of the original in a convincing rock setting without selling out the original piece.

No one who listens carefully can argue Emerson’s amazing prowess as a pianist and keyboard innovator. In recent years, however, his technique had begun to deteriorate due to an ongoing battle with carpal tunnel and nerve damage. Rumors also suggest that he suffered from depression, and was tragically unable to fully appreciate the inspiration that he brought to so many. He found it difficult to carry on, especially in the face on online criticism, making his suicide possibly the most heartbreaking loss this year.

Perhaps less heartbreaking, but no less tragic, was the recent news that Greg Lake had also passed after privately fighting cancer. In a very general sense, Lake’s role in ELP was to provide a folky, bardic counterbalance to Emerson’s bombast. The ballad Lay Down Your Guns is a tip of the hat to Lake's traditional role in the group, and although the song is not without merit, it probably isn't strong enough to represent the huge role that his distinctive musicianship has played in the history of progressive rock music.

While time may have revealed some low energy points on the album, I would argue that the stronger material on Emerson, Lake, and Powell represents some of the best prog-rock that the 80s had to offer.  It is unfortunate that, due to the technological limitations of the day, their brief existence remains relatively undocumented, short of a few low fidelity clips captured by a couple of fans brave and crafty enough to somehow sneak a bulky camcorder into the arena.

I wish I could have seen that.  I came close - I had a ticket for ELPo's show at the Erwin Center in 1986.  They unfortunately had to cancel due to a double-booking with ZZ Top, who was selling out arenas on their Afterburner tour.  The refunded money for the ticket did not come close to replacing the experience, which, in retrospect, would have been the only opportunity I would have had to see either Emerson or Lake.  They reformed, recorded, and performed with Carl Palmer on a limited basis in the decades to follow, but to my knowledge they never came back to Texas.

And, to be honest, I probably would not have traveled to see them.  I have a huge amount of respect for ELP and the innovative work that they did, but in the long run I ended up being a bigger fan of Wakeman than Emerson.  Still, when Emerson, Lake, and Powell was released it had an impact, and the music that came to the surface in its wake, like the rest of ELP's catalog, King Crimson's early work with Lake, and into Gustav Holst's orchestral masterpiece The Planets, was hugely influential in building the kind of musician I became.  I owe them quite a bit, and am sorry to see them go.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Dr. Spin' s Best of 2016 Part 1

I did things a little different in 2016 to prepare for this “best-of” list. I came back to quarterly roundups throughout the year, and they proved to be a valuable document of 2016 as well as a broader venue for writing. I still, however, wanted a quick and easy way to keep track of my listening habits throughout the year.  In January, I set up a document on my phone that allowed me to track the albums I was listening to as well as the number of times that I listened to each one. It was not my intention to use this file as the final say in my end-of-year list, of course, but only as a reference.  It provided some interesting data. For example, I retrospectively discovered that I began to “connect” with a given album at around six or seven listenings. No album with less than that many spins seemed familiar enough to be representative.  There were many that did not hold my attention for that long.

(Push play and read on)

In the end, however, this method actually made things harder, because great albums that might have slipped through the cracks in all of the immensely stressful changes my family and I have gone through this year were sometimes given new life in different settings.  It is for this reason, among others, that I have expanded my traditional year-end “top twenty” albums list to thirty. Not only was there a lot of really good music that went into my ears, so much of it was connected to the broad variety of experiences that marked 2016 that I simply could not get the list down to twenty in any satisfying way. I am, however, still presenting it in two parts, each with fifteen titles and, as always, I have not limited it to titles with a 2016 release date.

30. MuteMath – Vitals: Mutemath’s debut will forever stand in my memory for a variety of reasons, and the band has had to live up to that unfair standard in my mind since I stumbled across it. The glitterball pop polish of Vitals differentiates it enough from that release, however, to be accepted on its own merits, which are many.

29. Thee Oh Sees – Weird Exits: With a psychedelic approach that recalls early Pink Floyd and an aggression that rivals 90s punk revivalists, Thee Oh Sees capture the “punks taking acid” mission statement of the Flaming Lips early in their career. The difference, however, is an emphasis on atmosphere and blistering riffs over clever songwriting.

28. John Williams - Return of the Jedi OST: Tough call on this one, as it represents all of the outstanding contenders from the Star Wars franchise I have focused on throughout the year, which also included Attack of the Clones and The Force Awakens. Return of the Jedi,which ended up being P’s favorite movie this year, is the best of the bunch, although The Force Awakens wins out in terms of relevance and total plays.

27. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution: Spalding’s foray into jazz-rock fusion is impressive and memorable. She is like Joni Mitchell and Jaco Pastorius all rolled up into one on this release.

26. The Africa Express – In C Mali: My interest in this recording was an extension of my experience with Music for 18 Musicians last year. It may not be quite as classic as that recording, but it certainly has its own merits and bears well under repeated listening.

25. Bon Iver – 22, One Million: There was quite a bit of critical attention on this album’s innovations upon its release. Overall, the album is engaging, but a lot of what critics are hailing as innovative reminds me of the work that James Blake was doing on his debut a couple of years ago.

24. Bombino – Azel: An infectious release from Nigerien guitarist Bombino. Although there is a sense of harmonic sameness that permeates the album, it’s impossible to resist Bombino’s enthusiastic guitar playing.

23. Syd Arthur Apricity: Syd Arthur’s newest release features a bit more streamlined approach than their previous efforts, recalling at times a more rhythmically complex Phoenix. While I am still deciding if this is a step forward for the group, the result is still way above what most bands are coming up with.

22. Mbongwana Star – From Kinsaha: I am a longtime fan of 70s African funk music, but I have connected with virtually nothing in terms of contemporary African pop. Mbongwana Star is a pretty interesting example of what is going on these days, at least in the Congo.

21. Run the Jewels – RTJ2: Rap and hip-hop doesn’t play a huge role in my current listening, but every now and then an album pokes its head up and grabs my attention. Sporadic listening throughout the year has revealed the impressive strengths of Run the Jewels 2.

20. Health – Death Magic: A standout release that lays the new romantic vocals of 80s synth pop bands like Erasure with the thick industrial aggression of the early 90s. Rumor has it that Health’s earlier releases veer towards noisier realms, and you can bet some of that will go through rotation in 2017.

19. Karate – Some Boots: Karate was a gem of a find that immediately grabbed my attention with their fantastic, relaxed musicianship.  I particularly appreciate the stripped-down format that gives them the feel of a jazz trio.

18. Zombi – Shape Shift: A fantastic drum-synth-bass trio with roots in b-horror movie soundtracks that took a while to grow on me. While I would like to hear a bit more melodic content, the band’s energy and structure definitely compensates.

17. The Daredevil Christopher Wright – The Nature of Things: Throughout the last few months, I have had an increasingly difficult time trying to succinctly describe this album. Combining folk, jazz, vaudeville, psychedelia, and a broad variety of other styles may objectively sound uneven, but The Daredevil Christopher Wright holds it all together with memorable, quirky songwriting and killer vocal harmonies.

16. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead: This album continued to slip though my fingers for weeks after I put it in rotation. Then, quietly, one afternoon it spoke to me, and I have not heard it the same way since.

Friday, November 25, 2016

In the Election Fallout: Marillion's F.E.A.R.

In my very first post for this year, I described what I saw as a disturbing undercurrent of our culture, one that thinks that flags flying at half mast mean nothing and that guns can solve the problem of people being shot. The perceived solution to this problem at the time was tighter gun controls, but I argued, and still do, that this only treats the symptom. Instead, I suggested the perhaps idealistic and radical idea of voluntarily surrendering firearms in solidarity with all the innocents that were shot and killed by people who saw the solution to their insecurities in a gun’s trigger. Predictably, this idea did not gain any footing. Months later in October, however, it was gratifying to find that F.E.A.R., Marillion’s most recent release, featured a song espousing a similar viewpoint.

As the year has progressed, however, it seems like the attitude towards guns and their use have become the least of our country’s issues. The devastating results of the election has given strength to what was once an undercurrent.

I was one of many that struggled with my vote during this cycle. I was a staunch advocate of Bernie Sanders, and I was distraught when he did not get the nomination. I looked very hard at Jill Stein. I connected with the Green platform, the even though I had reservations about her capacity to govern as president.  Given that Texas electoral votes have traditionally gone to the Republican party, I was convinced that I should cast my vote for Stein. Then a rumor emerged that Texas could turn blue. I could not, in all good conscience, sleep well at night knowing that I could have had any sway at all in a swing vote, so I decided to vote for Hillary.

Once I got used to the idea, it became clear to me that, despite having some blemishes in her career, Hillary was clearly the best available candidate. Her respectable experience and tenacity made it easier to get over my own feelings about Bernie’s treatments in the primaries, and in the end I was satisfied that I made the best decision for the country.

Clearly, however, things did not go my way. Not even close. Now, like many people I know, I have to wrestle with whether or not the America that my kids are pledging allegiance to every day reflects the values that I and my family hold dear.

Despite having an indelible impact on my teenage years, I have repeatedly described Marillion’s output as “spotty.” I tread warily when I hear they have a new release, but early reviews of F.E.A.R. hailed the album as a defining album of the Marillion’s later years. Although F.E.A.R. does not quite reach the consistent heights of Brave or Marbles, it contains many musically outstanding moments. Steve Rothery’s solos are crafted from simple motifs that blossom into expansive melodies that recall the slowhanded guitar work of David Gilmour while Mark Kelly’s ever-increasing proficiency with keyboard sound and patch design plays a key role. Ian Mosely and Peter Trawabas are more transparent in their contributions, but they are absolutely necessary to Marillion’s continued musical evolution.

The album shines, however, in its message and relevance, particularly in light of current events. It is a 21st century protest album that addresses contemporary power imbalances and the social symptoms we face as a result of living with them.  This is a heavy endeavor, and Fish’s legacy inevitably (and perhaps unfairly) draws attention to Marillion’s lyrics.  Hogarth, in concept and delivery, rises to the occasion.  F.E.A.R. carries the anger that recalls the countercultural mission statement of the band at their inception.  Although there is a tendency towards redundancy in the lyric structures, there is a possibility that this is intended to drive home the album's overall message.

Despite this imperfection, the album’s relevance is compelling. Its interesting that Marillion, a U.K. based band, began writing the album over a year ago and that it could be so meaningful today. I strongly relate to F.E.A.R. as a US citizen dealing with the fallout of Trump’s election, but the conditions that we are experiencing are global. I am not happy about the results, but I have lived through other administrations whose policies did not reflect my own. In those times, I have been able to shake my head, disagree, and move on. This time it is different because of the hateful closed-mindedness that it has empowered, and I am anxious about the impact that it will have on my kids.

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 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.