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Archive for the ‘Crossover’ Category

TRACKLISTING:
1. Bodhisattva  (5:19)
2. Razor Boy  (3:11)
3. The Boston Rag  (5:40)
4. Your Gold Teeth  (7:02)
5. Show Biz Kids  (5:25)
6. My Old School  (5:47)
7. Pearl of the Quarter  (3:50)
8. King of the World  (5:04)

LINEUP:
Donald Fagen – piano, electric piano, synthesizer, vocals
Walter Becker – electric bass, harmonica, vocals
Ray Brown – string bass on Razor Boy
Denny Dias – guitar, Stereo Mixmaster General
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – guitar, pedal steel guitar
Jim Hodder – drums, percussion, vocals

With:
Ben Benay – acoustic guitar
Ray Brown – string bass (2)
Rick Derringer – slide guitar (5)
Victor Feldman – vibes, marimba, percussion
Ernie Watts – saxophone
Johnny Rotella – saxophone
Lanny Morgan – saxophone
Bill Perkins – saxophone
Sherlie Matthews, Myrna Matthews, Patricia Hall, David Palmer, Royce Jones, James Rolleston, Michael Fennelly – background vocals

Steely Dan are one of those bands that are loved passionately by a great many progressive rock fans, but whose legitimacy as a genuinely progressive outfit can spark some really heated debate. Now, while their music has definitely little in common with ‘traditional’ prog (as in 30-minute epics, head-spinning time signature changes, and all that jazz), its sheer complexity, sophistication and technical brilliance – not to mention Donald Fagen’s literate, sarcastic lyrics –  deserves a place in any self-respecting, comprehensive account of progressive music.

Though I was already vaguely familiar with the band, it was only in the past few years that I really got to know them in depth – thanks to the man who is now my husband. Having listened to all of their albums, I can safely state that I consider Countdown to Ecstasy (the band’s sophomore effort) their masterpiece, superior even to the much-praised Aja. Almost every track on it is a gem, a perfectly crafted example of music that is at the same time accessible and demanding, intricate and smoothly flowing. Steely Dan can do great hooks with the same ease as any seasoned pop band, and stun you with  complex instrumental interplay that would do any ‘classic’ prog band proud. Their choruses are infectiously memorable, but a dark, often seedy reality is hidden beneath those apparently carefree melodies.

Coundown to Ecstasy opens in upbeat mode with “Bodhisattva”, which targets the hippie fad for Eastern philosophies (the pun in ‘the sparkle of your China’ is quite priceless). Rich with horns, guitar and piano, the song has a brisk, almost danceable rhythm, but (unlike other songs on the album) no recognizable verse-chorus-verse structure. “Razor Boy” follows with its melancholy, laid-back vibe underlying one of Steely Dan’s many seedy tales of lost lives: “Will you still have a song to sing/When the razor boy comes and takes your fancy things away….”  The presence of an unusual instrument like the vibraphone lends a haunting quality to the song. The initial triple-whammy is closed by my favourite number, the moody, somewhat menacing “The Boston Rag”, another tale hinting at crime and punishment with one of the best choruses ever known to man (“Bring back the Boston rag/ Tell all your buddies that it ain’t no drag”), and the closest Steely Dan get to guitar power chords.

Out of the remaining songs, the hit “My Old School” and the romantic, French-flavoured “Pearl of the Quarter” lean more towards the more commercial side of things. The former is a real delight for lovers of brass rock, but as a whole leaves me somewhat cold; while I agree with those who think the latter is the weakest track on the album. “Your Gold Teeth”, the longest song at over 7 minutes, is instead an exercise in slinky elegance, deceptively lazy and effortlessly sophisticated. That leaves us with another couple of crackers – the venomous “Showbiz Kids”, punctuated by relentless background chants of ‘outrageous’, and featuring some killer slide guitar courtesy of Rick Derringer; and album closer “King of the World”, another lyrically intriguing tour-de-force enhanced by distinctive, slightly cheesy synth sounds.

Even though at a superficial listen the Dan may sound like an entertaining, yet ultimately hollow pop/jazz band, if you bother to peel away the layers you will find a lot to keep even the most demanding prog fan on their toes. Everything is there – the technical proficiency, the sterling production values, the intelligent lyrics, the expressive singing, the flawless songwriting. So, forget any labels and preconceptions, and get hold of a copy of this gem. You will not regret it.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Cannonball (7:40)
2. Still in Love (4:28)
3. No Inbetween (4:41)
4. Better Days (6:12)
5. Brother Where You Bound (16:34)
6. Every Open Door (3:05)

LINEUP:
Rick Davies – keyboards, vocals
John Helliwell – saxophone, vocals
Bob Siebenberg – drums
Dougie Thompson – bass, Cha Cha, background vocals (2)

With:
David Gilmour – guitar solos (5)
Scott Gorham –  guitar (5)
Scott Page – flute (4, 5)
Marty Walsh – guitar (1, 2, 4, 5)
Doug Wintz – trombone (1)

When Roger Hodgson left the band in 1983, many were ready to write Supertramp off for good. After all, the interplay between his distinctive high-pitched vocals and Rick Davies’ gruff, bluesy tones, as well as their differing songwriting styles, had always been one of the main points of attraction for the many fans of the band. It was therefore quite a shock for the sceptics to be confronted with such a strong release as 1985’s Brother Where You Bound – a still relatively underappreciated album that, however, can easily be put on a par with the band’s renowned Seventies output.

Starting from the elegantly minimalistic cover, depicting the stages of man’s evolution in five different colours on a pristine white background, Brother Where You Bound simply oozes class. Supertramp always had the uncanny knack of marrying catchy hooks with interesting, thought-provoking lyrics, and this album is no exception. Rick Davies, left alone to cope with vocal duties, unleashes a performance that is nothing short of awesome, especially on the album’s pièce de resistance, the 16-minute title-track. Add a couple of prestigious guest musicians to the mix, and you have a near-masterpiece on your hands.

In the best tradition of a band known for strong opening tracks, “Cannonball” does not disappoint the listener. Backed by a steady, almost danceable beat, and introduced by Davies’ scintillating piano, it is one of the vocalist/keyboardist’s many songs about a broken relationship, where you can positively hear the anger in his voice, belying the mock-cheerfulness of the sudden bursts of horns and the almost singalong coda. However, while the horn-heavy “Still in Love” seems to reprise the apparently carefree mood of Breakfast in America, on the whole the songs come across as definitely more somber and less accessible. Both the slow, understated “No Inbetween” (featuring great keyboards and sax) and the relentless “Better Days”, with its frantic pace and splendid flute solo, convey an aura of almost claustrophobic pessimism and disillusion

Interestingly, it is mainly Davies’ voice that makes Brother Where You Bound a markedly darker, less upbeat offering than Supertramp’s 1979 mega-hit, Breakfast in America.The title-track, in particular, is anything but an easy, radio-friendly listen, made up as it is of various parts interspersed by recorded voices, odd noises and sudden silences, underpinning the oppressive atmosphere conjured up by lyrics imbued with all the paranoia of the Cold War years. Davies’ stunning, highly dramatic vocal performance and David Gilmour’s trademark, crystal-clear guitar tones link all the pieces together to create what is possibly the band’s best epic. In comparison with such a wild, exhilarating ride, album closer “Every Open Door”, a slow, moody piece, is a tad anticlimactic, also on account of its decidedly more optimistic message.

If you only know Supertramp for the likes of “Dreamer” and “The Logical Song” (which is as perfect a pop song as they come), you will probably be inclined to dismiss them as little more than ‘prog-lite’ for those who hesitate to delve into the more demanding examples of the genre. Although it is true that the band possess a great feel for melody and memorable hooks, they are also outstanding musicians, and purveyors of above-average lyrics.  While they may represent the ‘easier’ side of prog, they do so with inimitable style and class, displaying songwriting skills that are far from average. Brother Where You Bound is a prime example of ‘crossover’  prog at its very best, and as such highly recommended to anyone but those prog fans who think that ‘pop’ is inevitably a bad word.

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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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Tracklisting:

1. The Art of Parties (4:09)
2. Talking Drum (3:34)
3. Ghosts (4:33)
4. Canton (5:30)
5. Still Life in Mobile Homes (5:32)
6. Visions of China (3:37)
7. Sons of Pioneers (7:07)
8. Cantonese Boy (3:44)

Lineup:

David Sylvian – vocals, guitar, keyboards
Mick Karn – bass guitar, saxophone, oboe, african flute, vocals
Steve Jansen – drums and percussion, keyboards, vocals
Richard Barbieri – keyboards, tape, programming, vocals

With:
Yuka Fujii – vocals
Simon House – violin

And now for something completely different, though this album and the one previously reviewed have something in common – the release date.

Japan’s swan song, Tin Drum, is an album that does not often get the love (or at least respect) it amply deserves.  There are still people who believe ‘New Wave’ and progressive rock to be two mutually exclusive entities, so that even the slightest connection with the likes of punk or New Wave is grounds enough to dismiss a band out of hand. For what it is worth, I believe there is more creativity to be found in many of those much-reviled Eighties bands (often tagged by hardcore prog fans as ‘guilty pleasures’) than in a great deal of  bands or artists with impeccable prog credentials. Though being progressive has nothing to do with  flinging mellotrons around with wild abandon, or penning 30-minute-long epics on would-be weighty (and often terminally boring) topics, nowadays it seems to be far more acceptable to label a symphonic metal band as progressive than one associated with those two late Seventies-early Eighties movements. A band like Japan, with their suits, make-up and hairspray, in some people’s minds becomes synonymous with  ‘synth pop’,  and end up being lumped together with the likes of Visage or Spandau Ballet.

Released just prior to the band’s split, Tin Drum is undeniably Japan’s most mature effort, and the one which earns them a rightful place in progressive territory. It is no wonder that its four members went on to pursue musical careers that brought them in much closer contact with prog: David Sylvian collaborated with Robert Fripp and Holger Czukay, among others;  his brother, drummer Steve Jansen, followed him for most of his solo career; keyboardist Richard Barbieri is now well-known as member of Porcupine Tree, and bassist Mick Karn worked with jazz guitarist David Torn and legendary drummer Terry Bozzio. Such career developments should be proof enough of the fact that Japan were much more than a mere ‘New Romantic’ band, in spite of their image – which, by the way, is as much related to  David Bowie and Roxy Music as to the likes of Duran Duran, setting the band squarely into the  elusive ‘Art Rock’ tradition.

Virtuoso bassist Mick Karn (one of the truly unsung heroes of his instrument, currently fighting advanced cancer) is probably the real star of this album – his thick, pneumatic bass lines all over the place, working in perfect unison with Steve Jansen’s agile, inventive drumming. Their finest hour as a rhythm section is the 7-minute-plus “Sons of Pioneers”, which displays more than a fleeting Krautrock influence. The album’s highlight, the haunting “Ghosts”, is instead dominated by Barbieri’s sparse synth textures and Sylvian’s brooding vocals.  The Oriental theme evident in both the band’s name and the album’s title shows up most clearly in the intriguingly catchy “Visions of China” , closing track “Cantonese Boy”, and the instrumental “Canton” – even though it can be felt throughout the record, in the lilting, intricate interplay of bass and drums, the use of exotic percussion, and even Sylvian’s highly stylised vocals (an acquired taste for sure,though absolutely perfect for the band’s sound). The overall sound of the album is further enhanced by the contribution of former High Tide and Hawkwind violinist Simon House.

The beautiful, stylish cover artwork is an added bonus to one of the best discs released in the Eighties, full of outstanding musicianship and intriguing lyrical themes. Approach this album with an open mind, forgetting any labels and tags – and you will be surprised by 38 minutes of stunning music.

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