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In the past few years, rarely has a debut album by a completely unknown act taken me by surprise – and won my approval –so much as Herd of Instinct’s self-titled album, released in the late spring of 2011 on the brand-new label Firepool Records, legendary southern California outfit Djam Karet’s own label. With an impressive roster of guest musicians, and a sound that brings together atmospheric, cinematic and ethnic elements, the album garnered a lot of praise in the progressive rock community, though some people have tended to overlook the actual band members in favour of the high-profile names. However, the Texas-based trio  are experienced musicians who deserve much more exposure than they have got so far. While we wait for their second album to be released later in 2012, the three members of the band – Jason Spradlin, Mark Cook and Mike Davison –  joined by Gayle Ellett (Djam Karet founder and unofficial fourth member of Herd of Instinct),  have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

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Let us start from the basics, for those readers who are not yet familiar with your history. How was Herd of Instinct born?

Jason: Herd of Instinct formed in 2007. We’re from Arlington, Texas. Before Herd of Instinct, Mike Davison had played in a band called Nervewerks, while Mark Cook and I were in the band 99 Names of God. Both bands were friends, and we played many shows together. A few months before 99 Names broke up, I invited Mike to come out and jam with Mark and I. A great time was had by all. When it was official that 99 Names was done for good, the 3 of us decided to form a new group. Meanwhile, in a separate project, Mark Cook and Warr guitarist Dave Streett were writing and recording music and employing various guest musicians. At some point it was decided to merge our group with Mark and Dave’s project. That is basically the birth of Herd of Instinct.

Mike: As Jason mentioned, over several years both bands (99 Names and Nervewerks) had seen each other’s live performances, played shows together, enjoyed each other’s crafts. , when 99 Names had  a show on my side of town, 40 miles north-east of Mark and Jason’s home town, I would go see them play. It was after one of these shows, Jason asked me to come out and jam with Mark and himself. Nervewerks had already disbanded into a few different projects, and 99 Names had, unknowingly, played their last show the night Jason invited me out. The three of us have developed a great chemistry over the years, and with the addition of all these amazing players, it just took the CD over the top. There’s a lot of nice flavors being added to the Herd Trio on the upcoming album as well.

Gayle: My involvement began many years ago, when Dave Streett approached me about recording on some of his songs. And through Dave I later met Mark, their great drummer Jason Spradlin, Mike and the other members of Herd. And later I decided to release their debut CD on a new record label that I created with Chuck Oken jr., called Firepool Records. And we are very happy to be releasing their new Herd CD too. A few months ago Herd Of Instinct flew me down their studio in Dallas, Texas, for a week to record on their second album. That was really fun and productive, and it’s been very enjoyable for me to be working with these great musicians!

Your very striking name comes from an album that is somewhat of a cult item. What led you to choose it?

Mark: Jason and I are fans of O.Rang’s album Herd of Instinct. The recording is a masterpiece of texture. We spent some time trying to come up with a name that was open-ended. HoI just seemed to feel right.

Jason: Before we decided on the name Herd of Instinct, we were calling ourselves Mirror People. Just when you think you’ve picked a name no one else has used, a search engine reveals otherwise. Mark and I are fans of Talk Talk, and one of our favourite albums is by an off-shoot of them –  .O.Rang, and their 1997 LP Herd Of Instinct. The 3 of us each made lists of possible band names. As it turns out, Mark and I both had the name Herd of Instinct on our lists. We hope that Lee Harris and Paul Webb can find it in their hearts to forgive us!!

What is your musical background? Was the music of the 70’s (prog or otherwise) influential in your development as individual musicians and as a band?

Mark: I started playing guitar when I was very young and moved on to the Warr guitar. King Crimson, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Rush have very much influenced HoI. Other musicians, outside of “prog”, that have influenced the way I approach music are John Zorn, Philip Glass, Bill Laswell, Ennio Morricone, Scott Walker, Brian Eno, and Miles Davis. I should also note other art mediums have had a major impact on my playing – Salvador Dali, Philip K. Dick, Kobo Abe, Margurite Duras, Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch, William S. Burroughs, and David Cronenberg. The way these people approach their craft is a great source of inspiration.

Jason: My love of music has been snowballing since I first sat behind a drum kit in 1977. Music of the 60’s and 70’s was very influential to me as I learned the basics of rock drumming. As the 1980’s rolled in I developed an obsession with hard rock and underground heavy metal. Along with some school friends, I helped formed the doom metal band Last Chapter. While I was in that band we released a CD called The Living Waters, which has become a minor cult favourite in doom metal circles. I guess it was the late 80’s when I developed a love for jazz, prog rock, Krautrock, and psychedelic music.

Mike: For me I think it was the “Whole Lotta Love” solo that started my guitar addiction. I learned as much Zeppelin as I could, which for a study is good with the wide range, acoustic guitars, open tunings, the picking techniques, blues, rock, metal, folk, and so on. Hendrix, Floyd, Jeff beck, rush,  I couldn’t get enough of it. I was into everything from SRV to Metallica. It was the early 90’s when I fell heavily into King Crimson, early Genesis, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis and on and on. From Townes Van Zandt to Porcupine Tree, classical to jazz, night to day, it’s all influential. I’ve played with rock, jazz, pop, folk, prog, and flamenco bands. That’s been some of the best influence and inspiration for me. Playing the different, and with many great players, you can’t beat it!

Gayle: I was a teenager in the 1970’s, and the music of your teen years is always very influential and significant to a person’s view and appreciation of music that stays with you for the rest of your life. So I am heavy influenced by the music of the 1970’s, especially groups such as Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Gentile Giant, Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Return To Forever and others.

Your debut album took four years to complete, which is not unusual nowadays. What prevented you from releasing it sooner?

Mark: HoI builds songs slowly. It’s a process that takes time, and when a piece “feels” finished we move on. Sometimes it’s a waiting game for a piece of music to settle.

Jason: The musical tastes within this band go in many directions. So much so, that our music goes through several evolutionary phases. An aging process occurs with the music as well. The politics of merging our band with the side project, along with job schedules, and just the ups and downs of everyday life all combined in such a way that it took forever to complete our debut album in a timely fashion. It was a learning experience for all. We now work at a quicker pace.

How did you manage to involve artists such as Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison in your debut?

Mark: Dave Streett and I began collaborating on a recording project that included material with Gavin. When HoI was formed, the approach was very close to the music Dave and I were writing. Dave was also participating in the material HoI was developing. We eventually came to the conclusion to combine the material and focus on making it a band effort instead of two separate projects. Dave would periodically fly to Texas to work with the core band. Pat got involved because Dave and I were working with Markus Reuter on the track “Anamnesis”. Markus was in Texas working with Pat a few days before he came to our studio to work on music. He mentioned Pat might be interested in participating. We were honored to have musicians of their caliber collaborating with us. They both created some amazing parts that really took the track to another level.

Touch guitars seem to be an essential component of your sound. What is that first attracted you to those instruments? What about their role in the musical context of Herd of Instinct, both live and in the studio?

Mark:  Initially the attraction to touchstyle instruments was the expanded range. Having very low notes and high notes increases the palette and choices I have when writing. Warr guitars are stereo, which allows me to play two distinct parts or utilize two radically different processed signals. HoI’s live sound is very full for a trio. I’m usually doing two parts. Mike plays guitar and guitar synth, so he can also have two distinct sounds happening at the same time. This layering of sound can give the impression of a lot bigger band.

One of the most intriguing features of your sound lies in the world-music suggestions, particularly evident in tracks such as “Road to Asheville”. What role does ethnic music play at the compositional level?

Mark: The harmonic and rhythmic characteristics of non-Western music have been very influential on our melodic writing and our use of repetition. How we incorporate the influences varies. On “Road to Asheville” the approach was to blend the Middle Eastern tonalities with other genres. The whole approach of the track “Possession” was basically influenced by dub music.  The new material continues to have strong elements of ethnic music. A few tracks feature Gayle playing the dilruba, which is a bowed Indian instrument.

Jason: As a band, we are very curious about music from around the world. We try to incorporate various ethnic elements into our compositions when we feel it will make the music more interesting. When I first began playing with Mark in 99 Names of God, they were already using drone techniques and Eastern-flavoured sounds. Naturally we continued this tradition when we formed Herd of Instinct. Some of the most beautiful music can be found outside the Western world, and we do not shy away from these influences.

Mike: I’m a huge fan of what artists like Bill Laswell and John McLaughlin do with combining Eastern and Western music and musicians…..or whatever it may be.  Having easy access to the sounds of  instruments from all over the world through a guitar synth has  opened new paths for me personally.

Recording mainly instrumental albums with only one or two vocal tracks seems to have become increasingly fashionable. Why did you decide to do so on your debut, instead of going the totally instrumental route?

Mark: The voice is something people immediately connect with. We placed “Blood Sky” in the middle to break the cd into two instrumental halves. The piece is kind of like a pacing element for the listener to latch on to something sonically very different from the previous tracks and also to lead into the 2nd half of the album.

Jason: For the kind of music we play, I prefer taking the all- instrumental path. However, the human voice, whether it is spoken word, vocalizations, or singing actual lyrics, does seem to be a necessary ingredient for most music lovers. Unless the singer is very good, or charmingly unusual, I prefer instrumental. Kris Swenson’s vocals on the track “Blood Sky” are, in my opinion, beautiful, and are what absolutely MAKE this song. For us, vocals are another color to paint with, and they are not used as a device to make a song more accessible.

Mike: Some of my favorite songs that I’ve been listening to for 30 years, I still couldn’t tell you how the words go. Usually the words are the last thing i focus on. When I’m listening to music, i never think, this has a voice or words…or it doesn’t. Not to demise the importance of a singer or vocals in a song. It usually ends up being the most important ingredient. It can certainly make or break a tune.

Your second album is already well under way. Is it going to sound noticeably different from its predecessor, and, if so, in which way?

Mark: We’re still trying to take the listener on a journey with lots of twists and turns. There will definitely be some sonic surprises. We’re very happy that Gayle’s elegant keyboard playing is heavily featured in the new music.

Jason: The album is coming along nicely, but is very challenging for me in that an attempt to play outside my comfort zone has been established. Old habits die hard. Having said that, the new album will contain many of the hallmarks of our debut. There’ll be more use of various electronics and programming, and less involvement of hi-profile guests. Gayle Ellett from Djam Karet is providing most of the keyboards for this album, so expect a more pronounced dynamic there. My one word description for our new album: cinematic.

Gayle: To my ears, the new Herd CD will be similar to their debut album, and that’s a good thing! Their music seamlessly combines elements of electronic space, with lots of strong grooves, beautiful melodies, and wailing solos, all in equal share. Their music is dynamic and interesting. But it is always flowing smoothly along in a very natural way. It’s a real treat to record with this great group (and yes, I am biased).

This question is mainly meant for Gayle Ellett. How did Firepool Records come to be, and why were Herd of Instinct chosen for the label’s “test drive”, so to speak?

Gayle: Dave and I had been talking about the new CD they were recording. And while they were working on their debut album, they asked me for help in finding them a record label to release it. We tried approaching a few labels, but then I thought “HEY, Chuck Oken jr. and I should just form a new record company and we could release their CD for them.” And so, Firepool Records was born, initially to release their CD. Then Chuck and I thought we’d use that label to release some other CDs, and so far that has included the Henderson/Oken album Dream Theory in the IE, and a CD by my free improvisation group Hillmen (named after our jazz drummer Peter Hillman) called The Whiskey Mountain Sessions. So far we have been VERY happy with our relationship with the members of Herd of Instinct. They are really nice guys, but more importantly, they are all GREAT MUSICIANS! So its been a real pleasure to work with professional players such as them. And now we are recording music for their second CD, and it is all going very well.

Are any of you professional musicians? Are you involved in other projects besides Herd of Instinct?

Mark: Jason and I participated in a Liquid Sound Company CD last year, called Acid Music for Acid People, with John Perez (Solitude Aeturnus). This is John’s psychedelic solo project. I’ve also recently worked on music for the gaming company Acceleroto.

Jason: We all still have day jobs for now. Since 1996 I’ve been the drummer for Liquid Sound Company with my friend John Perez, of Solitude Aeturnus. We’ve released 3 albums, the most recent being 2011’s Acid Music For Acid People, which includes Herd of Instinct’s Mark Cook on Warr guitar. It would be nice to see Liquid Sound Company become a live act, and those details are being worked out. I know for certain we’ll be making another album.

Mike: There is the day job….must support the music habit. I’m currently playing some nylon guitar and guitar synth in a Nuevo Flamenco band with an amazing guitarist, David Gallegos, and some old mates from Nervewerks. 

Gayle: I’m a full-time professional musician, I’ve played on over 90 CDs, and currently I am playing/recording with 6 bands: Djam Karet, Herd Of Instinct, Hillmen, Fernwood, Joee Corso Band, and the Jim Crawford Band. I also write music for TV shows such as General Hospital  and Knock First on ABC-TV, Swingtown and Rebecca’s Garden on CBS-TV, Next and Exposed on MTV, The Osbournes Reloaded on FOX-TV, Bad Girls Road Trip on Oxygen-TV, House Hunters International on HGTV, Surfer and Powder on ESPN-TV, Clark Howard on CNN/HLN, etc. And I’ve also written music for such projects such as Brad Pitt’s feature film Year Of The Dog, Kiss The Bride (with Tori Spelling), The Devil’s Muse (directed by Ramzi Abed), and others. I’ve also written a lot of music for TV commercials, art installations, animations, music libraries, computer games, educational websites, and numerous corporate applications.

As I have often pointed out in my writings, finding gigs is becoming increasingly difficult for non-mainstream bands. What have your experiences been in this respect? What is your local scene like, and have you ever had the opportunity to perform outside your home turf?

Jason: In the Dallas/Fort Worth area there is a thriving metal and indie scene. For progressive rock, however, the bands that play this music, or anything avant-garde, it is difficult to build a dedicated following. We are still able to book shows for ourselves, but we are rarely on a bill with like-minded bands. To give you an example of this, at the last show Herd of Instinct played, a mariachi band opened the show, followed by HoI, and then after us there was a metal-ish cover band. It begs the question: whatever happened to continuity? As far as playing away from our home turf, this has not happened yet. We hope to one day play at one the prog festivals that happen annually.

GE: Speaking of Los Angeles, where I live, I’d say that finding any good-paying gigs is difficult these days. But there are also many places where you could perform live, if you did not mind not being paid any money. I think that it is better for a band to spend a year making a new CD, instead of spending a year just doing live performances.

And now, a loaded question to wrap up this interview… A little bird told me that you do not like to be tagged as “prog”.While I cannot blame you for a number of reasons, this attitude seems to be increasingly common in artists that, nevertheless, keep on sending their material to prog websites and magazines for review. Can you expand a bit on this topic?

Mark: Definitely there is a contradiction there. If “prog”defines an approach to making music then it’s a positive thing. If the label “prog” sets up a list of rules to follow then it’s a negative thing. I think most artists generally do not like being limited by the expectations of a specific label. On the other hand, if a band is tagged with a label this can bring a certain acceptance and openness to what you create.

Jason: Haha!! I think I know who that little bird is! Well let’s face it: The progressive rock community is the one audience that would most likely connect with Herd of Instinct’s music. We don’t sit around and play Yes, Genesis, or Gentle Giant albums exclusively, but we do own those albums. We’re not musically trapped in a world of aerie faerie nonsense. What we play is a kind of hybrid music that fuses together many ingredients. We are definitely progressive and moving forward.

Mike: Unfortunately, everything in this world has to be labeled, categorized, and narrowed down. Louis Armstrong said “There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good.”  When it comes down to it, that’s all that matters. How old or new it is, who or where it comes from, what matters is…..is it good, or is it bad? 

Gayle: If the term “prog” included the style of music known as Art Rock (music made as an art-form, not towards commercial success), then I would say Herd of Instinct is a prog band (and Djam Karet is as well). You could also say that the term progressive rock is about rock music that has been pushed forward (progressed) by the composers into new and complex forms. And if prog rock has “progressed forward”, from the early years of Genesis and Yes (and Marillion and Dream Theater), to now include new groups that really don’t sound like them at all, such as Herd of Instinct, then you could say that Herd is a prog band. Speaking just for myself and my group Djam Karet, we do not refer to ourselves as a prog band because we feel that a large amount of our music falls outside of that category. In Djam Karet there are influences of surf guitar music, electronic, hard rock and other styles.

Thank you very much to all of you for your patience in answering my questions. Looking forward to your new album!

Mark:  Raffaella, thank you very much for all your support.

Jason: Thank you for giving us this opportunity Raff! We are extremely grateful.

Mike: Thank you for all you do!

Gayle: Many thanks for giving Herd of Instinct the exposure I believe they truly deserve.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/herdofinstinctband

http://www.wix.com/herdofinstinct/herdofinstinct

http://www.djamkaret.com/firepoolrecords/herdofinstinct/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Here I Stand (4:11)
2. In My Place (3:33)
3. The Keeper (5:33)
4. Cannibal Tango (3:27)
5. Fever (the Battle Rages On) (4:48)
6. Hate Incarnate (2:58)
7. Get Out of My Way (4:38)
8. Russian Girls (3:32)
9. Demon Disco (4:05)
10. Be My Pride (4:30)
11. Fathers & Sons (5:01)
12. Inner Feelings (Silence) (18:54)

LINEUP:
Christophe Godin – guitar, lead and background vocals
Julien “Peter Puke” Rousset – vocals, drums, percussion, background vocals
Gaby Vegh – vocals, bass guitar, background vocals; tablas (3)

With:
Lilit Karapetyan – Russian girl’s voice (8)

French power trio Gnô are one of the projects of guitarist Christophe Godin, known in progressive rock circles as the founder and mastermind of Mörglbl, as well as one of France’s hottest guitar players. Cannibal Tango, Gnô’s second album, was released in the early summer of 2011 on the US-based label The Laser’s Edge – 10 years after their debut, Trash Deluxe, released in 2001 after Mörglbl’s temporary demise.

Mörglbl are widely considered as one of the most exciting bands on the current prog scene, and anticipation is running very high for their forthcoming US tour – whose culmination will be the  headlining slot on Saturday, September 3, at the legendary ProgDay festival in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Though adopting a somewhat more straightforward format than Mörglbl’s output, Cannibal Tango is bound to win over most fans of Godin’s main gig, especially those who have a broader view of progressive rock than the average fan pining for the good old days of the Seventies. With their irrepressible, genre-bending attitude and obvious enthusiasm for making music, Gnô deliver a real rollercoaster ride of an album, bubbling with a wild and wacky sense of humour, crushingly heavy but also full of infectious grooves and catchy hooks.

Cannibal Tango’s press release describes the band as “Pantera meets The Beatles” – a rather weird, but oddly effective definition.  Driven by Godin’s high-powered, razor-sharp riffs and searing lead breaks, propelled by Julien “Peter Puke” Rousset’s thunderous drums and Gaby Vegh’s solid yet nimble bass lines, Gnô;s music is always brimming with energy, but capable of unexpected twists and turns. While the influence of heavy metal – both in its classic incarnation (as in Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden) and the more eclectic strains represented by the likes of the above-mentioned Pantera, Faith No More or System of a Down – is clearly recognizable, one of the closest terms of comparison would be King’s X, whose imprint is hard to miss in the impossibly catchy vocal harmonies. Like the American trio, Gnô rely on conventional song structures spiced up by intriguing hints of a higher complexity.

With 12 tracks averaging between 3 and 5 minutes, the album’s 63-minute running time is quite deceptive, as it includes the unexpected “Easter egg” (a funny a cappella version of “Fever”) tacked at the end of closing number “Inner Feelings (Silence)” after a lengthy pause.  Although the canonical “prog” features of mind-boggling time signature changes and extended instrumental sections are conspicuously absent on Cannibal Tango, there is still plenty of variety to hold the listener’s interest. Starting with opener “Here I Stand”, the songs as a whole are bold and relentlessly dynamic, without too much subtlety, yet introducing different elements into the sheer heaviness of their foundation. The funky  pace and catchy chorus coexisting with an aggressive guitar solo reminded me of another of the seminal crossover bands of the Eighties, New Yorkers Living Colour; while with “In My Place” some lazy reggae licks are thrown into the mix, together with a chorus that owes a lot to The Beatles, though with a much harder edge. Echoes of King’s X emerges in numbers such as the slower, doom-infused “The Keeper” with its faint Middle Eastern vibe, the groovy “Get Out of My Way” and the intense, slow-burning “Inner Feelings”. The more nuanced instrumental bridge of  the brisk “Demon Disco”, on the other hand, points to another hugely influential power trio – the mighty Rush; while the unabated intensity of “Russian Girls”, probably the heaviest number on the album, borders on hardcore punk.

As pointed out in the previous paragraphs, Cannibal Tango requires a high level of tolerance for heaviness and fast and furious riffing in order to be fully enjoyed – as well as a taste for artists such as Frank Zappa or Primus, whose music prominently features a blend of chops and off-the-wall humour. Packaged in a colourful, zany cover proudly emblazoned with the band’s striking logo,  and photos hinting at the “cannibal” motif gracing the CD’s inner sleeve, this is a genuinely entertaining album from a very talented outfit, which fans of the more crossover-

Links:
http://www.gno-music.com/

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SETLIST:
July, July!
Down by the Water
Calamity Song
Rise to Me
The Bagman’s Gambit
Annan Water
Won’t Want for Love (Margaret In The Taiga)
The Crane Wife 3
Don’t Carry It All
All Arise!
The Rake’s Song
Rox in the Box
O Valencia!
The Perfect Crime #2
This Is Why We Fight

January Hymn
When U Love Somebody
The Chimbley Sweep

June Hymn

The arrival of warmer weather heralds the start of the big concert season in the northeast US, taking full advantage of the many capacious outdoor venues of the region, as well as the usual indoor venues of every size that are available throughout the year. Obviously, concerts are also held during the colder months, but especially in the summer the offer of live music is so plentiful that even the most dedicated fans must pick and choose what gigs to attend – unless they have an endless supply of time and money.

According to our original plan, at the end of this week my husband and I would have headed out to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for our third NEARfest. As most of my readers know all too well, the event was not meant to be, but we found ways to fill the gap in the month of June, picking and choosing among the vast range of live gigs scheduled in our area. Our choice fell on two bands that, in their own very different ways, have become mainstays of our listening routine: The Decemberists and Black Country Communion – one an established outfit with six studio albums under their belt, the other  the latest supergroup to take the rock scene by storm. Neither of those bands, strictly speaking, are ‘prog’, though they have quite a few points of contact with the genre, and both have often been covered by magazines and websites geared towards prog fans.

We had been so lucky as to see The Decemberists for the first time on their celebrated 2009 tour in support of their fifth studio album, The Hazards of Love, a monumental achievement that won them many fans among the often rather conservative ranks of prog lovers. On that occasion, they were joined by Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the two amazing female vocalists that had guested on the album – which was performed in its entirety, much to the audience’s ecstatic reaction. On the other hand, their latest recording effort, The King Is Dead – a slice of song-oriented Americana, offering very little of the intriguing eclecticism of its predecessors, released at the very beginning of 2011 – had left me somewhat cold. We were nonetheless delighted to learn that they would be playing the same venue as two years ago – the quaintly bucolic Merriweather Post Pavilion, a largish outdoor theatre deep in the Maryland woods, almost a stone’s throw from Baltimore.

Such rustic surroundings seem to be the perfect complement for the warmly engaging music of the Portland-based quintet, a seamless blend of articulate, often challenging lyrics and eclectic music rich with diverse influences. In sharp contrast with the suffocatingly humid heat of the previous week, the cool, dry weather of the evening of June 13 made being outdoors a real pleasure – to the extent that some of the people sitting on the lawn rather than under the pavilion were longing for warmer clothing. Our excellent seats allowed us a great view of the stage, and the two big screens placed on either side were a boon to those who were sitting at the back. If compared to the prog gigs and festivals that we usually attend, the nearly sellout crowd was much younger on average, with a definitely higher proportion of women to men. Even if, in my personal view, The King Is Dead is probably be the weakest of the band’s releases, it has undoubtedly been a relatively major commercial breakthrough for them, exposing them to a much larger audience. It also shows a band refusing to get stuck in a rut or taken for granted, and more than willing to surprise their audience with bold changes of direction.

After  a short opening set by supporting band Best Coast, a rather nondescript, female-fronted indie/garage rock outfit who nonetheless seemed to have their own loyal following, The Decemberists came on stage at 9 p.m., greeted deliriously by the crowd. Stripped down to their basic line-up of Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Nate Query and John Moen, with bluegrass artist Sara Watkins standing in for Jenny Conlee (who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer), they delivered a strong, invigorating set, mainly revolving around The King Is Dead (performed almost in its entirety, with the exception of one track), but also including a number of songs from their back catalogue. According to Meloy, the songs on the setlist had been chosen for their affinity with the summer season – the show opening with the infectious “July! July!” (from their 2006 album The Crane Wife), and  closing with “June Hymn” (from The King Is Dead), performed as a second and final encore.

Though, from a prog standpoint, The Decemberists’ music is not as mind-blowingly complex as the genre’s most beloved bands’ – relying as it does on conventional song structures and the occasional catchy hook – there is no denying that the band’s members know their business, and then some. Watching bassist Nate Query swing a double bass around with the nonchalant ease of a consummate old-school jazz player, drummer John Moen add subtle, intriguing percussive touches, or guitarist Chris Funk wring poignantly wailing sounds from his lap steel guitar, was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Sara Watkins (a recording artist in her own right, and already part of the tour prior to the announcement of Conlee’s illness) is also an outstanding multi-instrumentalist, though favouring the fiddle rather than the keyboards. She is also a fine singer, as proved by solo performance of “Won’t Want for Love” – though her voice has more of a gutsy rock feel than Becky Stark’s ethereal soprano, featured  in the song’s original version. Indeed, while the distinctive rumble of Conlee’s Hammond organ may have been missing, Watkins’ talented contribution complemented the alt.country slant of the newer material quite perfectly.

In spite of his nerdy, bookish appearance (this time around tempered by a full beard, which made him look somewhat older and more rugged), Colin Meloy is an outstanding frontman, not afraid to dive into the audience together with his acoustic guitar to be hauled back on stage by the crowd during the rousing encore of “The Chimbley Sweep”, and not averse to peppering his between-song banter with bits of pointed political commentary. While his voice may be an acquired taste, it fits the band’s music to a T, and his witty raconteur personality is undeniably pivotal to their appeal. Furthermore, he is an extremely versatile interpreter, conveying a sense of genuine menace in the stunning rendition of “The Rake’s Song” (one of the highlights of the show, drenched in dramatic red light, and enhanced by Sara Watkins and Chris Funk’s energetic drum-banging), while pleading heartbreakingly in “Annan Water”, and orchestrating the crowd’s enthusiastic response in the eminently catchy “O Valencia!” and “The Perfect Crime # 2”.

As I previously pointed out, I was not as impressed by The King Is Dead as I had been by The Decemberists’ other albums, which all get regular spins in our player. However, the same songs that had sounded a tad flat and uninvolving on CD came alive on stage, and acquired an appealing edge that the polished production did not always adequately get across. For all the polite, somewhat highbrow mien of their music, once on stage they rock with an endearingly old-fashioned intensity, getting the crowd to sing along, clap, dance and wave their arms in tried and true rock’n’roll fashion. Even in the absence of elaborate trappings and gimmicks, and relying only on a good light show and their own stage skills, The Decemberists are one of the most entertaining live acts on the current scene, capable of imbuing their musical output with a rare sense of warmth and genuine emotion. The more listener-friendly approach displayed on The King Is Dead  may have attracted a younger, hipper audience, but this has not turned them into one of those countless “here today, gone tomorrow” bands. With a solid catalogue, a cohesive, highly accomplished line-up and a great songwriter and frontman in Colin Meloy, The Decemberists are a force to be reckoned with, and –  regardless of those pesky tags and labels – a band firmly rooted in that great rock tradition that prog sometimes seems to have  forgotten.

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Tulevien Aikojen Luurangot (3:56)
2. Parahin Nikola (5:02)
3. – (3:05)
4. Pimeys On Ystävä (12:59)
5. Tulvien Jälkeen (4:24)
6. Fantasmagoria (10:18)
7. Valkoinen Sumu Nousee (5:24)
8. Pakenevan Veden Voima (8:32)

LINEUP:
Annina Antinranta – vocals
Antti Harmainen – guitars
Jussi Oskari – bass, bass pedals
Jussi Matikainen  – drums

Though at least nominally part of the celebrated Scandinavian scene,  Finland has always been somewhat of a mysterious object in the European context, especially as regards progressive rock.  In comparison with neighbouring Sweden, Finland seems to be better known for its wealth of metal bands – both of the extreme and the symphonic persuasion (names like Amorphis or Nightwish come to mind). On the other hand, the country’s contribution to the progressive movement should not be discounted – with Seventies bands such as Tasavallan Presidentti, Wigwam and Finnforest, as well as its later contribution to the RIO/Avant scene with iconic acts such as Höyry-Kone and their offshoot Alamaailman Vasarat. Thanks to Finland’s thriving cultural milieu, the level of musicianship of Finnish bands and artists is also quite high, and homegrown acts are likely to receive quite a lot of attention, in spite of the pervasive presence of mass-produced music from the English-speaking world.

Between the mid-Nineties and the beginning of the 21st century, I spent almost six years in Finland, which will always hold a special place in my heart. It has therefore been a pleasure for me to review the two CDs that, at the end of last year, were brought to my attention by my friend Eetu Pellonpää. Although both of these bands might be easily defined as obscure, their albums offer as much interesting material as those released by higher-profile acts. In spite of their obvious musical differences (which will clearly emerge from my reviews), they have something in common besides their geographical provenience: they both have female vocalists, and they both sing in their native language – a language that, like Italian, is vowel-rich and adapts very well to being put to music.

A quartet currently based in the Helsinki area, Tuvalu (called after German director Veit Helmer’s 1999 movie of the same name) have been around since 2003, and released three albums  In spite of that, they seem to have flown almost completely under the radar of the numerous online publications dedicated to progressive rock. Though released in the early months of 2010, their eponymous third album has been reviewed mainly on Finnish websites, and a Google search turned out only a couple of comments on English-language sites. Tuvalu’s music, however, holds quite a few elements of interest for open-minded prog fans – the kind who do not balk at interpretations of the prog ‘language’ that differ from  the traditional symphonic one. Indeed, from what can be heard on this album, Tuvalu’s sound owes much more to The Mars Volta than to Yes or Genesis, though the influence of Rush and King Crimson can also be clearly detected. The presence of a female vocalist with a strong personality like Annina Antinranta is an added bonus. Annina (who is also responsible for the lyrics) is not an over-the-top soprano in the mould of her celebrated fellow Finn Tarja Turunen, but her commanding, confident voice can handle a variety of moods and styles.

All of the tracks on Tuvalu feature vocals, with the exception of the untitled ‘ghost track’ occupying the third slot, which is also the album’s only instrumental. With two tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes, and another at 8, there is plenty of ‘epic’ material to please those who are not satisfied by shorter, snappier offerings. At 58 minutes, the overall running time is quite restrained for these times, and allows listeners to take in the music without weariness setting in halfway through the album. Though the music as a whole tends to be somewhat on the aggressive side, with a powerful rhythm structure and supercharged riffing, the overall effect is nicely balanced by moments when the instruments create haunting, rarefied atmospheres with a definite psychedelic bent.

As previously suggested, the blueprint is The Mars Volta’s blend of hardcore aggression, wistful, Latin-tinged melodies and trippy electronic moods, with more than a hint of the steely, streamlined approach of King Crimson from the ‘80s onwards, as well as Rush’s marriage of accessibility and complexity. Opener “Tulevien Aikojen Luurangot” (Skeletons of the Future) combines a simmering sense of tension with rhythmic explosions that push the drums at the forefront; Annina Antinranta delivers her own dark, somewhat skewed lyrics with remarkable clarity and self-assurance. In the following number, “Parahin Nikola”, the intensity is tempered by more sedate instrumental breaks punctuated by spacey sound effects. The latter are the undisputed protagonists of the ‘ghost track’, which distinctly brings to mind the ‘noise’ sections of The Mars Volta’s 2005 album Frances the Mute.

In typical rollercoaster-ride style, the epic “Pimeys on Ystävä” (Darkness Is a Friend) – a tad patchy, yet fascinating – alternates bursts of manic energy with slower, more subdued passages that showcase Annina’s vocal versatility; the insistent, interlocking guitar lines conjure strong echoes of King Crimson circa Discipline. The second epic, “Fantasmagoria”, throws some doomy, Sabbath-like moments into its frantic, riff-driven, Rush-meets-TMV fabric. “Valkoinen Sumu Nousee” (White Fog Rises) features shouting, punk-like vocals before calming down a bit, while “Tulvien Jälkeen” (After the Floods) reveals the melodic, atmospheric side of the band, with muted vocals and measured, bell-like guitar sounds.

From the above description, it should be clear enough that fans of the more melodic incarnations of prog might find Tuvalu not exactly to their taste. Anything sporting a strong Mars Volta influence is bound to come across as an acquired taste – with the added drawback of vocals in a language that, for most people, is nothing short of impenetrable, and distinctive, grey-hued artwork that seems to reflect the brooding quality of the music. On the other hand, open-minded lovers of progressive music might do worse than to give this album a listen, and possibly more than one. Tuvalu can definitely hold their own on the ‘modern prog’ scene, and deserve far more exposure than they have got so far.

Links:
http://www.tuvalu.ws

 

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Tracklisting:
1. Son et Lumiere (1:35)
2. Inertiatic ESP (4:24)
3. Roulette Dares (The Haunt of) (7:31)
4. Tira Me a las Arañas (1:29)
5. Drunkship of Lanterns (6:20)
6. Eriatarka (7:06)
7. Cicatriz ESP (12:29)
8. This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed (4:58)
9. Televators (6:19)
10. Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt (8:42)

Lineup:
Cedric Bixler-Zavala – vocals
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – guitars
Juan Alderete – bass
Flea – bass
Jon Theodore – drums
Ikey Isaiah Owens – keyboards
Jeremy Michael Ward – sounds

After inaugurating my blog with a series of reviews of classic albums ranging from the late Sixties to the early Eighties, now it is time for me to tackle a modern classic – one of the albums that, in my view, define modern progressive rock, and one of the few really ground-breaking releases of the first decade of the new millennium. Like many masterpieces, it is a divisive effort, and the band itself – the brilliantly-named The Mars Volta, a bunch of extremely gifted musicians led by volcanic guitarist and composer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – almost a textbook definition of the expression ‘an acquired taste’.  On the other hand, it is undeniable that the release of  De-Loused in the Comatorium set new standards for contemporary prog.

This album was not my first experience with The Mars Volta (TMV for short). On the strength of some very positive reviews, some months before I had bought Frances the Mute, which I immediately loved  in spite of its shortcomings. However, De-loused in the Comatorium, the Hispanic-American band’s first full-length recording, is quite a different story – one of those almost perfect debut albums that it is often impossible (or at least very difficult) for a band to top.

Hate them or love them, it is hard to deny that The Mars Volta are progressive in the true sense of the word. Born from the ashes of post-hardcore band At The Drive-in, they are not afraid to take elements from such disparate genres as prog, punk, metal, jazz and Latin music, and throw them together in a metaphorical blender, stamping their individual seal over the end result. The band’s display of dazzling musicianship, left-field lyrical concepts, stunning cover art (courtesy of legendary graphic artist Storm Thorgerson, better known for his work with Pink Floyd) and no-holds-barred songwriting are the hallmarks of a first-rate outfit that is ready to push prog – that stereotypically earnest, stuck-in-a-time-warp musical genre – right into the 21st century.

Most of the tracks on this album are over the 5-minute mark, with “Cicatriz Esp” clocking in at over 12 minutes. Both band mastermind Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala wanted to expand their horizons after leaving At the Drive-In, as shown by the clear influence of such giants of progressive rock as King Crimson and Rush. In time-honoured prog tradition, De-Loused… is also a concept album, relating the tale of Cerpin Taxt’s week-long, drug-induced coma and subsequent suicide (a story inspired by the death of former bandmate Julio Venegas).

Even if Omar and Cedric’s original punk roots rear their heads every now and then, they add a measure of spice to the exotic mixture that is TMV’s sound. The musicianship is first-rate throughout, with a special mention for inventive, powerful drummer Jon Theodore, whose rhythmic sparring partner is on this occasion a very special guest, Michael Balzary aka Flea of Red Hot Chilli Peppers fame (one of the best four-stringers on the market, even if you are not too keen on his mother band). The crisp, clear production values further enhance Theodore’s intricate, occasionally explosive drumming, as immediately shown by  killer opener  “Inertiatic ESP” (preceded by the deceptive quiet of “Son and Lumière).

In my personal opinion, though, the real strength of TMV lies in the supercharged vocals of Cedric Bixler-Zavala, whose banshee wail, interspersed with more reflective, almost lyrical moments, provided a textbook example of  really expressive singing. A richer, fuller version of Geddy Lee, he stamps his mark all over the album, perfectly complemented by his partner in crime  Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s wildly atmospheric guitar playing. Unlike on follow-up  Frances the Mute, here the band keep the use of weird, electronic noises to a minimum, with epic “Cicatriz ESP” ‘s middle section being a prime example of how such sounds can be used sparingly to their maximum effect.

With such an overall strong album, it would be difficult for me to pick any standout tracks, apart from those I have already mentioned. Haunting ballad “Televators” is a much better effort in this sense than “The Widow” on Frances the Mute; while “Eriatarka”, “This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed” and album closer “Take the Veil, Cerpin Taxt” brim with energy and freshness, Cedric’s manically brilliant vocals soaring above the band’s unleashed instrumental fury.

A brash, loud, yet sophisticated statement of intent, De-Loused in the Comatorium was clearly not conceived with mass appeal in mind – even if The Mars Volta have become a relatively successful act in their field. This is thoroughly modern progressive rock, and a must-listen for all serious devotees of the genre – weird and wonderful, and a really wild ride, but also one to enjoy to the fullest.

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