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Archive for the ‘Avant-garde’ Category

TRACKLISTING:
1. Big Sur (4:51)
2. The Clearing  (2:21)
3. Leaving The Woods (5:40)
4. Symphony Hills (1:07)
5. Lily In The Garden (4:15)
6. Auburn Road (0:43)
7. Mustang Song (5:40)
8. Stay With Me (0:51)
9. A Viennesian Life (3:50)
10. Broome’s Orchard (7:56)
11. ‘Cross The Williamsburg Bridge (1:33)
12. Where Will We Go (6:39)
13. Finale (1:28)

LINEUP:
Janel Leppin – cello, Indian cello, violin, Saarang Maestro DX,  Prophet 5, piano, koto, electric guitar, Hammond organ, Mellotron, harpsichord, vibraphone, detuned autoharp, singing spoon, loops, electronics
Anthony Pirog – electric and acoustic guitars, baritone guitar, electric sitar, lap harp, lap steel, bass mandolin, bass, cymbals, gong, vibraphone, music boxes, loops, electronics

With:
Mike Reina – mellotron (9)

Janel Leppin and Anthony Pirog are two accomplished multi-instrumentalists who grew up in Vienna, a charming Northern Virginia town that is part of the Washington DC metropolitan area, where they attended the same high school. During those years, they began playing together at Leppin’s home village of Wedderburn, though they only started performing as a duo in 2005. Their eponymous debut album was released in 2006, and since then the duo has attracted a lot of attention on the independent music scene. The memory of the two musicians’ idyllic teenage years and the loss of the Leppin family home (converted into yet another housing development) is the inspiration behind Where Is Home, their sophomore effort, released in the summer of 2012 after three years of  steady work.

Janel and Anthony have different, yet complementary musical backgrounds: Pirog, a Berklee graduate, is a guitarist with a jazz background and an eclectic attitude, while Leppin is a conservatory-trained cellist deeply influenced by North Indian and Persian classical music. Those wide-ranging sources of inspiration converge in the duo’s musical output, which even the most obsessive classification geeks would find it hard to label, and even harder to compare to other acts. Seamlessly blending acoustic and electric instruments with cutting-edge electronics, enhanced by  a discreet sprinkling of percussion (though without drums), Janel & Anthony’s music possesses a uniquely intimate charm and gently wistful tone that would make it the ideal soundtrack for a crisp autumn evening. Though the instrumentation featured on the album is surprisingly rich, the compositions hinge on the sleek interplay between Leppin’s cello and Pirog’s electric guitar on an entrancing backdrop of skillfully employed loops. the high level of complexity is realized with an elegant subtlety that contrasts with the over-the-top antics of so many modern prog acts.

The elegiac nature of Where Is Home – steeped in the nostalgia for a bygone era, and suggested by most of the track titles –  unfolds gradually, as opener “Big Sur” is jaunty romp with the heady Eastern flavour contributed by Leppin’s sitar and Saarang Maestro DX (a digital version of the tanpura, a long-necked North Indian lute), while pizzicato cello lends a sharp, almost percussive rhythm that complements the insistent chime of Pirog’s guitar. Then, “The Clearing” marks a shift in tone, introducing a slight element of dissonance in the track’s sedate, meditative mood vaguely tinged with menace – a mood that continues in the haunting “Leaving the Woods”, based on a slow, measured conversation between guitar and cello, which sometimes merge, sometimes go their separate ways. The longer tracks are interspersed by short, ambient-like interludes mostly based on electronics, though the album itself runs at a very restrained 46 minutes – the ideal duration for such a sophisticated, mood-based effort.

While the cello-driven “Lily in the Garden” exudes a lovely autumnal charm, intensified by the almost monotonous pace of the guitar, “Mustang Song” sees Leppin and Pirog engage in a bracing guitar-based duet, shifting from a soothing, melodic tone to a more assertive one. In “A Viennesian Life” two mellotrons (one of them courtesy of sound engineer Mike Reina) are brought in to add further layers to the lush atmosphere of the piece, in which several different strains play at the same time and are expertly meshed by the two musicians. In contrast, the longest track on the album, the almost 8-minute “Broome’s Orchard” has a more straightforward structure, and the many instruments involved act discreetly, without disrupting the sparse, meditative mood of the piece. Finally, the middle section of “Where Will We Go” introduces atonal elements and eerie electronic noises, bookended by more melodic parts.

An exquisite album that conflates impeccable formal skill with genuine feeling, Where Is Home is highly recommended to lovers of chamber-rock and instrumental music that privileges atmosphere and emotion over complexity for its own sake. In spite of the “avant” tag that Janel and Anthony’s association with Cuneiform Records or events such as the Sonic Circuits festival might evoke, the album is surprisingly accessible, and will hold an almost irresistible appeal for those for whom music means more than just a backdrop to everyday activities.

Links:
http://www.janelandanthony.com

http://www.janelleppin.com

http://www.anthonypirog.com

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Sorrows of the Moon (5:10)
2. Two for Joy (6:50)
3. Little Shadow (11:48)
4. If Not Inertia (6:57)
5. The Widening Gyre (8:01)
6. Gonz (6:38)
7. Let’s  (5:23)

LINEUP:
Brett Sroka – trombone, computer, whistling
Sam Harris – piano, prepared-piano, Rhodes electric piano
Shawn Baltazor – drums

With:
Mary Halvorsen – guitar, effects (1, 5, 6)
Sebastian Kruger – acoustic guitar (7)

Electroacoustic trio Ergo was formed in the early 2000s by New York-based trombonist Brett Sroka, who was inspired by the seamless blend of electronics and more traditional instrumentation featured on Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A. After the 2006 release of their debut, Quality Anatomechanical Music Since 2005, original drummer Damion Reid was replaced by Shawn Baltazor, while current keyboardist Sam Harris (who replaced Carl Maguire) joined in 2010. Ergo have been signed to Cuneiform Records since their second album, multitude,  solitude (2009), and have performed at a number of on avant-garde music festivals, such as Washington DC’ Sonic Circuits  – where they will be appearing again in September 2012.

The sinuous curves rendered in minimalistic black and white of the artwork (titled “Loop in Layers”) that graces the cover of If Not Inertia, Ergo’s third CD release, come across almost as a statement of intent. Indeed, the band’s sound hinges on the use of loops and a wide range of other electronic effects, controlled by Sroka’s trusted computer, which mesh with the warm, organic tones of the trombone, drums and piano. Ambient, avant-garde and free jazz mingle in seven tracks that offer dissonant patterns underpinned by insistent drones, and some unexpected snippets of skewed melody that temper the austerely rarefied quality of the music.

The seven compositions included on If Not Inertia range from the 5 minutes of opener “Sorrows of the Moon” to the almost 12 minutes of “Little Shadow”, for a total running time of around 50 minutes. Some of the tracks offer intriguing sonic renditions of celebrated literary works in a way that – while markedly different from the grandiose approach of the average progressive rock band – undeniably makes for an arresting listening experience. The three band members are supplemented by renowned avant-garde guitarist Mary Halvorson (guesting on three tracks) and acoustic guitarist Sebastian Kruger on one track.

If Not Inertia is an album of light and shade, made of sounds that possess a somewhat brittle quality, like glass that is about to break. The main instruments often seem to be playing different lines, which nevertheless coalesce to create a texture reminiscent of an abstract painting, at the same time ethereal and intensely expressive.  “Sorrows of the Moon” recreates the Baudelaire poem of the same name in melancholy, haunting fashion, depicting its inherent languor and ennui through the mournful voice of the trombone and a droning piano line overlaid by almost melodic guitar. “The Widening Gyre”, inspired by William Butler Yeats’ iconic poem “The Second Coming”, like the titular item starts out slowly with measured drums and gentle piano, then erupts into trombone-led chaos that conveys the poem’s stark, powerful imagery (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”). While “Two for Joy” and the title-track rely on plenty of sound effects (such as whistling) to weave an ethereal yet slightly spooky atmosphere, the buoyant trombone in closing track “Let’s” is almost catchy, bolstered by drums, piano and lilting acoustic guitar.

If Not Inertia will delight lovers of ambient and experimental jazz, as well as those with a keen interest in the use of computers for music-making. This is an album for adventurous listeners, and those with a high tolerance for dissonance and the lack of a recognizable structure – which means it may be of somewhat limited interest for the traditional prog fan. On the other hand, open-minded music buffs will find it a challenging but rewarding listen.

Links:
http://www.ergoisaband.com/

http://www.myspace.com/ergo

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Invisible Rays (22:19)
2. The Magic Ring of Invisibility (6:50)
3. Where Is Juan? (5:52)
4. The Secret Handshake With Danger (6:21)
5. Greatest Hits (1:04)
6. The Last Guru (4:55)
7. Take A Bath With Lenin (2:13)
8. Ghost Red Wires (4:25)
9. Invisibility Clause (4:35)
10. Understudy To The Stars (0:18)
11. An Unusually Nice Hotel (12:40)

LINEUP:
Morgan Ågren – drums, zither
Trey Gunn – touch guitar, bass
Henry Kaiser – guitar

Born from a fortuitous encounter between three outstanding musicians with a distinguished career in the field of progressive music, Invisible Rays seems to embody the very definition of “one-off”. The album is the result of an impromptu jam that took place in March 2011, when Warr guitarist Trey Gunn (known for his tenure with King Crimson in the late Nineties), San Francisco guitarist Henry Kaiser (one of the pioneers of American free improvisation) and Swedish drummer Morgan Ågren (of Zappa, Kaipa and Mats/Morgan fame) found themselves with some time on their hands before a presentation at a music conference in Sweden. When they first heard the rough mixes, the sheer quality of the recordings took them by surprise, in spite of the almost completely unstructured nature of the material.

The above description makes it clear that Invisible Rays is the product of a spur-of-the-moment situation, prompted by a unique set of circumstances that allowed the three artists to make music together for the first time. While the bulk of the tracks do have a semblance of compositional structure, the two pieces that bookend the album are intentionally loose and sprawling, brimming with the simple joy of playing without a recognizable script. The title-track, strategically positioned at the opening of the album, acts as a sort of gatekeeper, its intensely powerful 22 minutes occasionally bordering on white noise. Kaiser’s guitar tone can turn almost unbearably sharp, aided and abetted by Ågren’s explosive drumming, while the eerie wail of Gunn’s Warr guitar supplies a gentler undercurrent. While certainly not cohesive, and the kind of stuff that is more than likely to scare the more conservative prog  set away, the track often hints at King Crimson’s live improvisations, though in some ways brasher and bolder.

Interestingly, though the three artists produce an impressive volume of sound, there is also a minimalistic aspect to the music, due to the  limited number of instruments involved. Rhythm is very much at the heart of Invisible Rays, with Ågren’s supercharged drumming all over the place, setting the pace for Kaiser’s wild guitar exertions and Gunn’s more sedate, atmospheric contribution. Tantalizing ethnic suggestions – one of the constant features of Gunn’s extensive output – emerge in “The Magic Ring of Invisibility”, which acts as a foil to the unbridled improvisation of the title-track, and at the opening of “The Last Guru”, before things turn more dissonant, with an almost metal-like sense of aggression.

Only “Ghost Red Wires” maintains a hauntingly mellow mien throughout its 4 minutes, the guitar sound flowing smoothly in contrast with its imperious presence in most of the other tracks; while in “Where Is Juan?”, Gunn and Ågren indulge in some funky sparring. In closer “An Unusually Nice Hotel”, the slow, solemn pace of the drums – which provides a steady, nearly unchanging backdrop throughout the whole 12 minutes of the track –  and the mournful tone of the Warr guitar are offset by the gradual progress of Kaiser’s piercing, abrasive guitar.

Clocking in at a hefty 71 minutes, Invisible Rays – which comes packaged in a striking cover out of a Fifties science fiction B-movie – is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Even staunch King Crimson fans might find the album a somewhat daunting proposition, while lovers of free improvisation are bound to appreciate it much more than those who prize melodic content or compositional cohesion. A worthwhile testimony of a unique opportunity, it may, however, ultimately prove less than satisfying because of its basically raw (though powerful) nature. Therefore, the album is probably not the best bet for those who would like to get acquainted with Trey Gunn’s outstanding contribution to the cause of progressive music.

Links:
http://www.treygunn.com

http://www.morganagren.com

http://www.thehenrykaisercollection.blogspot.com

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Iperbole (6:21)
2. Butterfly Song (8:31)
3. Trasfiguratofunky (7:31)
4. Negative (7:03)
5. Just Cannot Forget (2:25)
6. Flash (5:23)
7. Clamores Horrendos Ad Sidera Tollit (6:49)
8. Vacuum Fluctuation (8:04)
9. Re-Awakening (8:03)
10. Isterectomia (7.26)

LINEUP:
Alessandro Seravalle – vocals, electric, acoustic, e-bow & 12-string guitars, synths, keyboards, samples
Raffaello Indri – electric guitar
William Toson – fretted & fretless bass guitars
Ivan Moni Bidin – drums
Gianpietro Seravalle – electronic percussion, soundscapes

With:
Simone D’Eusanio – violin (1, 2, 8)
Cristian Rigano – synth solos (3)
Giorgio Pacorig – keyboards (3)
Pietro Sponton – congas (3), vibraphone (4)
Flavia Quass – vocals (4)
Andrea Fontana – percussion (4)
Davide Casali – bass clarinet (5)
Jacques Centonze – percussion (8)
Carlo Franceschinis – double bass (8)
Alessandro Bertoni – piano (9)
Mariano Bulligan – cellos (9)
Massimo De Mattia – flute (9, 10), bass flute (10)

In spite of a name referencing one of Genesis’ most popular songs and a “progressive metal” tag, Italian band Garden Wall are neither one of the many followers of the “retro-prog” trend, nor a bunch of Opeth or Dream Theater devotees. Hailing from the north-eastern Italian region of Friuli, the band was put together by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Alessandro Seravalle in the late Eighties, and released their debut album in 1993. Assurdo, their eight album, forms the third and final chapter of the trilogy begun in 2002 with Forget the Colours, and continued with 2004’s Towards the Silence. It is also their first release with Lizard Records  (one of the most rolific independent labels for modern progressive rock), and – unlike their 2008 album, Aliena(c)tion – contains completely new material.

Now a quintet, with only Seravalle and guitarist Raffaello Indri left of the original lineup, Garden Wall have pulled out all the stops for their recording comeback. Not being familiar with their previous output, and misled by the “prog-metal” tag, when I first heard the album I was confronted with something that was almost impossible to label. Moreover, while most of my reviews include comparisons with other bands or artists (something that readers generally appreciate), this time I was hard put to find any suitable frame of reference within the progressive rock spectrum.

If I had to use a single adjective to define Assurdo, I would call it unpredictable. While far too many albums and individual songs seem to endlessly reproduce the same structure, the 10 compositions featured on Garden Wall’s eight CD take the listener on a veritable rollercoaster ride that will leave all but the most open-minded rather bewildered, as well as drained. To say that Assurdo is not an easy listen would be an understatement: spanning a wide range of influences and moods, each song conceived as a mini-suite in many different movements, and providing a canvas for Alessandro Seravalle’s amazing vocal gymnastics, the album is an exercise in deconstruction rather than a showcase for cohesive compositional standards.

Obviously, this is not meant as criticism: though Assurdo is clearly a daunting prospect for anyone not used to more challenging fare than the average “mainstream prog” release, it can also be immensely rewarding for those who will invest time and patience in  trying to “unlock” it. Its densely woven texture, made of so many different layers, its deeply literate nature (the album’s title comes a quote from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, “Everything is absurd when you see it clearly”), a complex instrumentation  blending state-of-the-art electronic soundscapes with warm ethnic percussion, lyrical flute and violin, and gutsy electric guitar – all make for a very demanding listening experience, though one that can confidently bear the “progressive” label. For all its cosmopolitan, cutting-edge allure, Assurdo does have that indefinable “Italian” quality that the use of the Italian language (though juxtaposed with English) lends to even the most avant-garde musical efforts – as proved by a band like Nichelodeon, whose mainman Claudio Milano has been actively involved in the realization of Garden Wall’s latest effort.

Assurdo is one of those albums that need to be absorbed as a whole, so that trying to describe any of the tracks in detail would feel like a pointless exercise. The tracks run between 2 and 8 minutes, with the lone instrumental “Just Cannot Forget” strategically placed in the middle, as a sort of interlude. Taking Demetrio Stratos as a springboard, Seravalle dominates the rest – at times speaking, at others whispering, or even screaming or growling.  Garden Wall’s  impressively omnivorous approach encompasses the academic suggestions of opener “Iperbole”, to the deconstructed funk of the appropriately-named “Trasfiguratofunky”, the haunting trip-hop of “Negative”, the heady Middle Eastern flavour of “Vacuum Fluctuation” – blending jazzy organ, industrial electronics and heavy riffing as in “Clamores Horrendos Ad Sidera Tollit”, employing flute and violin to complement the spacey, ambient-like electronics of closer “Isterectomia”.

At under 70 minutes, Assurdo is not an excessively long album for today’s standards.  However, with its unabashedly eclectic, experimental bent, coupled with a distinct lack of anything even remotely resembling a catchy tune (as well as Seravalle’s acquired-taste vocals), the album is rarely a comfortable listening experience – though a much more solid effort than some overly pretentious releases in the experimental prog field. In any case, adventurous listeners will find a lot to appreciate in Assurdo, one of the most intriguing albums released in 2011, and one that definitely deserves more exposure.

Links:
http://www.gardenwallband.com/

http://www.lizardrecords.net63.net/index.php

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Into the Subatomic (5:21)
2. Free at Last! (5:17)
3. Mud Becomes Mind (5:14)
4. I Don’t Believe (5:53)
5. Matter Is Energy (4:55)
6. Comprehensible (6:38)
7. Infinite Strength (8:05)
8. Where No One Can Win (8:05)
9. Step Out of Your Body (5:12)
10. The Cauldron (15:18)

LINEUP:
Copernicus – poetry, lead vocals, keyboards
Pierce Turner – musical director, piano, Hammond organ, percussion, backing vocals
Larry Kirwan – electric guitar, vocals
Mike Fazio – electric guitar
Bob Hoffnar – steel guitar
Raimundo Penaforte – viola, acoustic guitar, cavaquinho, percussion, vocals
Cesar Aragundi – electric and acoustic guitar
Fred Parcells – trombone
Rob Thomas – violin
Matty Fillou – tenor saxophone, percussion
Marvin Wright – bass guitar, electric guitar, percussion
George Rush – tuba, contrabass, bass guitar
Thomas Hamlin – drums, percussion
Mark Brotter – drums, percussion

The thirteenth album by New York-based performer-poet Copernicus (aka Joseph Smalkovski), and the third released by MoonJune Records (which is going to reissue the artist’s whole catalogue), Cipher and Decipher is definitely not your average ‘progressive rock’ album, ambitious but ultimately accessible. In fact, is one of those records for which the expression ‘acquired taste’ seems to be tailor-made, and which is at the same time easy and difficult to describe: easy if you want to simplify matters, and say that it is based around a somewhat loopy guy’s ranting and raving over a rather free-form musical background; difficult if you want, instead, to avoid platitudes and offer would-be listeners a more in-depth, nuanced analysis.

Needless to say, even from a quick perusing of the release notes it should be clear that Cipher and Decipher is not for the faint-hearted, or those who like carefully structured music, engaging melodies and conventional singing. This is the archetypal underground production, a marriage of music and poetry steeped in the American beat tradition, dripping with existential ennui and metaphysical musings, in which the music often feels like an afterthought, often sharply diverging from the vocal parts in a sort of schizophrenic effect. Clocking in at slightly under 70 minutes, and barely offering any respite from Copernicus’ over-the-top vocal exertions, it sounds more than a bit daunting (even for a forward-thinking label like MoonJune) and as such quite unlikely to appeal to casual or mainstream-oriented listeners.

And yet, in spite of all these drawbacks, Cipher and Decipher exerts a weird sort of attraction. After a while everything seems to click and, so to speak, begins to make sense. Even as Copernicus’ voice may rub you the wrong way, and make you wish he limited himself to publishing books of poetry like most other people would do, the music perversely sucks you in, and you may find yourself actually enjoying the experience – almost in spite of yourself. At times Copernicus’ secular-preacher recitation blends with the music, at others the two go their separate ways, in a somewhat frustrating fashion. He roars, cajoles, whines, chants, emotes like a Shakespearian actor, leaving very little breathing space to the listener, repeating the key words around which his whole work seems to revolve with a sort of incantatory effect, often augmented by the loose yet oddly mesmerizing nature of the musical accompaniment.

Regarding the concept on which Cipher and Decipher is based, my readers will be able to find all the background information they need in the links I have provided at the end of the review – as well as in the album’s very thorough liner notes. While other reviewers have dedicated at least some space to the album’s lyrical content, I would rather concentrate on the musical aspect, even if I realize it is far from easy to divorce the two. Generally, I do not particularly care for nihilism, and have to admit not being too interested in speculations about the nature of the universe, though neither aspect disturbs me as other kinds of content (i.e. overtly racist lyrics) would. My main interest here is the music, and this is why I would rather avoid launching in any detailed analysis of Copernicus’ message which is much better presented elsewhere.

When listening to Cipher and Decipher, it is important to bear in mind that the music and the vocals often seem to be at odds with each other instead of working together, as would happen in more mainstream recordings. This means that special attention to the musical part is required, and it obviously helps if you like almost completely unscripted music as opposed to the carefully constructed patterns of most conventional progressive rock. Provided by a veritable orchestra of 15 outstanding musicians (including 4 guitarists and almost a full horn section) led by long-time Copernicus associates, expatriate Irishmen Pierce Turner and Larry Kirwan (the latter, together with Thomas Hamlin and Fred Parcells, a member of Celtic-inspired band Black 47), the musical accompaniment to Copernicus’ proclamations is a wildly eclectic mix of influences ranging from experimental free-jazz to early Pink Floyd-style psychedelia.

Organ-drenched opener “Into the Subatomic” immediately sets the scene, both musically and lyrically, followed by the lovely but somber “Free at Last!”, the most genuinely Pinkfloydian number on offer, embellished by some noteworthy acoustic and electric guitar work; while “Mud Becomes Mind” sports a cheery, Afro-Brazilian vibe. The disc’s central section owes quite a lot to free-jazz, rather gloomy in “I Don’t Believe” with its lonesome-sounding trumpet, sparse yet upbeat in “Matter Is Energy”. On the other hand, “Comprehensible” superimposes an overt homage to Pink Floyd, with Larry Kirwan repeating “set the controls further out of the sun” (a paraphrase of the title of one of their most iconic early compositions) to the somewhat chaotic free-jazz template, and “Infinite Strength” (based on Van Morrison’s celebrated “Gloria”) sounds like something out of the Blues Brothers soundtrack – making you want to dance in spite of Copernicus’ weighty proclamations. More Latin influences surface in the funky “Step Out of Your Body”, and the references to Iraq and Afghanistan in “No One Can Win” are aptly punctuated by Middle Eastern echoes conjured by flute and strings. The album climaxes with the sonic and verbal apocalypse of the aptly-titled “The Cauldron”, a 15-minute, voice-driven space jam.

As the previous paragraphs clearly illustrate, Cipher and Decipher is a very peculiar effort, targeted to adventurous listeners, and likely to send the more conservative set of prog fans running for the exits. This is not background music, and is definitely not relaxing – on the contrary, it can easily become a tad wearying, especially on account of Copernicus’ very idiosyncratic vocal delivery and apocalyptic lyrics. The album’s running time can also be an issue, so those who find it hard to concentrate for long might want to avoid tackling it in one go. However, its somewhat sneaky allure may well win over those who are not afraid to get acquainted with less predictable approaches to progressive music.

Links:
http://www.copernicusonline.net

http://www.moonjune.com

http://www.progarchives.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=74511 (interview)

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Pyjamageddon  4:16
2. Blind Jack of Knaresborough  4:21
3. Yockenthwaite  3:59
4. Metal Trees  4:52
5. The Cloud Of Unknowing 6:56
6. Blind Jack’s Unicycle 0:59
7. The Modern Architrave  5:43
8. Kirton In The Rain  3:55
9. Long Shore Drift  3:33
10. Rubber Road  3:16
11. Crossing the Bay 0:37
12. The Sun Unconquered  3:34

LINEUP:
Mark Joell – keyboards, tumbi, shouting through cymbals, funny vocals, funny handshake
Colin Robinson – 6-string fretless bass, corrupted vocals, shehnai, xaphoon, tablas, junk
Alex Stone –  guitar, accordion, kantele, portable harmonium, serious vocals

With:
Sean Corlett – voice (1)
Tim Bradshaw – trombone  (7)
Nastassja Joell – vocals (8,12)

In spite of England’s exalted status as the cradle of the original progressive rock movement, I do not get to review modern English bands very often. This week, however, I have chosen to devote both of  my new reviews to bands hailing from the British Isles, even if I can hardly imagine two acts as different from each other as purveyors of classy pop-prog Exhibit A and arch-experimental outfit Big Block 454.

Hailing from the north-western English city of Manchester – better known for its pre-Britpop scene of the early Nineties than for progressive music – Big Block 454 (named after a car engine developed in the Seventies) were founded in 1988 by Colin Robinson and Pete Scullion, and have been active since then, though in different configurations. Bells and Proclamations, their seventh album, sees them stripped down to a trio of multi-instrumentalists (including Robinson, the one constant member of the band) with guest musicians featured on some tracks.

Even a cursory look at Big Block 454’s back catalogue will clearly reveal their self-proclaimed nature as “a semi-amorphous post-modern / situationist neo-dada cross-platform compositional construct” rather than a band in the traditional sense. While quirky, absurdist titles such as Their Coats Flapped Like God’s Chops (their fifth album, released in 2004) might bring to mind post-rock bands, Big Block 454 are quite a different beast – a veritable melting pot of diverse influences and sources of inspiration, rendered in an outwardly conventional song form, with short, even snappy morsels which are instead densely packed with ideas and variations. This is art-rock in its purest and most literal form – indeed, in its earliest manifestation, the band provided the soundtrack for a Dadaist art installation. Though the easiest way to categorize Big Block 454 would be to place them squarely in the somewhat overcrowded RIO/Avant camp, if you expect something along the lines of the darkly mesmerizing chamber-rock of Univers Zéro or the Canterbury-meets-avant-garde compositions of Henry Cow, you will be disappointed. In fact, the band lean more towards the humorous side of the RIO/Avant spectrum, as embodied by the likes Samla Mammas Manna or Stormy Six, though with an uniquely British twist.

Armed with an impressive instrumentation, including both conventional rock staples and more exotic items, the band offer 12 tracks none of which runs longer than 7 minutes, and which might be very effectively described as deconstructed pop songs. While there faint mainstream suggestions to be found in Bells and Proclamations, they are treated as parts of a fascinating mosaic. Indeed, though the very first impression may be a bit too off-kilter for comfort, threads of melody will emerge from repeated listens, and the album as a whole may prove much less impenetrable than a lot of music bearing the RIO/Avant tag. Eclecticism is the name of the game here, and – though it will probably not have symphonic prog fans jumping for joy – the album will intrigue and reward motivated listeners.

All of the 12 numbers feature vocals, and the vocal style adopted by the members of the band complements the music perfectly – deep-toned, not exactly melodic, yet oddly catchy, occasionally even infectious. Opener “Pyjamageddon” immediately sets the tone, both with its quirky title (used as a chorus of sorts throughout the song) and its extensive use of electronic effects, enhancing an almost danceable tune that might bring to mind some instances of techno/house music. The next two songs develop in a similar vein: “Blind Jack of Knaresborough” blends snippets of melody with electronic noises, theatrical vocals and blaring sax over a strong percussive background; while “Yockenthwaite”, with its mix of the pastoral, the quirky and the experimental, made me think of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Things turn mellower with the haunting, folksy “Metal Trees” and its accordion-infused coda, and especially the beautiful “The Cloud of Unknowing”, the album’s longest item at almost 7 minutes – a hypnotic, psychedelic mini-epic driven by organ and melancholy guitar chords and vocals, again strongly reminiscent of early Pink Floyd – like a 21st-century version of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” minus the scream.

After the short, chaotic interlude of “Blind Jack’s Unicycle”, “The Modern Architrave” offers a skewed take on an Eighties synth-pop song, suggestive of archetypal ‘pronk’ acts such as The Stranglers, followed by an entertaining (though quite unrelated), circus-like section; while the brisk “Kirton in the Rain” evokes memories of Devo, with its funny vocal harmonies weaving in and out of the song. The hauntingly minimalistic “Long Shore Drift” is another highlight, with its slow, almost liquid movement and mournful vocals, which seems to flow into the muted, lullaby-like “Rubber Road”, peppered by faintly sinister creaking sounds. The album is then wrapped up by the snappy “Crossing the Bay”, almost like a Fifties’ pop song filtered through modern electronics, and the New Wave-meets-raga of  “The Sun Unconquered”, with its quirky, slightly out-of-tune vocals and atmospheric keyboard coda.

From the above description, it should be quite clear that Bells and Proclamations is the kind of album that is likely to send fans of traditional prog running for the exits. Indeed, I would call it a textbook example of the ‘great divide’ between ‘progressive’ and ‘Prog’. Needless to say, an open mind is indispensable in approaching this album, as well as the whole of Big Block 454’s output. This is an album that, as I previously hinted, may need repeated listens in order to sink in fully, and is also very unlikely to appeal to people who prize melody and great hooks. On the other hand, fans of Krautrock, Eighties new wave, electronic music and genre-bending acts such as Zappa, Gong and King Crimson (and eclectic-minded listeners in general) will find a lot to appreciate in Bells and Proclamations – a genuinely progressive effort with a welcome dose of offbeat, very British humour. The album can be downloaded (for free or by naming your own price) from Big Block 454’s Bandcamp page.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. A Visit to Newport Hospital (8:25)
2. Contrasong (4:21)
3. Boilk (9:23)
4. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part One (5:06)
5. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part Two (7:39)
6. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part Three (8:01)
7. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part Four (2:51)

LINEUP:
Mont Campbell – bass, vocals, organ, piano, French horn
Dave Stewart – organ, piano, tone generator
Clive Brooks – drums

With:
Henry Lowther – trumpet (2)
Mike Davis – trumpet (2)
Bob Downes – tenor sax (2)
Tony Roberts – tenor sax (2)

Released in 1971, Egg’s sophomore effort is one of those albums that, in a way, can be said to be representative of a whole movement, though they rarely get the appreciation they deserve. Though “Canterbury scene” may sound rather vague as a definition, being more about a place than an actual musical style, it is nonetheless undeniable that most of the bands and artists associated with this most peculiar subgenre do share a number of features that go beyond their somewhat ‘incestuous’ sharing of personnel. Many see the output of the  “Canterbury scene” as a subsection of jazz-rock with poppy leanings and occasional excursions into more avant-garde territory; however, to these ears at least, the best Canterbury outfits offer a complete progressive package of humour, sophistication, diverse influences, and remarkable musical chops. Quintessentially English,  with a timeless feel that often eludes the more stereotyped instances of symphonic prog, the Canterbury sound commands fierce devotion, though its quirky nature can also leave listeners somewhat cold.

To all intents and purposes, Egg was a continuation of Uriel, the psychedelic progressive quartet that also included guitarist Steve Hillage (later with Khan and Gong), whose only album was released in 1969 under the name of Arzachel.  After Hillage left, the three remaining members took a different, more experimental route, pushing the keyboards at the forefront, and dabbling in those genre-defining contaminations between rock and classical music – as witnessed by “Fugue in D Minor” and “Symphony No.2”, both featured on their 1970 self-titled debut album.

In spite of its cult status among true-blue Canterbury fans, The Polite Force is generally not rated as highly as the likes of Third or In the Land of Grey and Pink. Some reviewers have even hinted at comparisons with the much-reviled ELP – owing to the similar configuration of both bands – which, unfortunately, does not do the album any favours. Now, though I consider ELP one of the most influential bands in the history of progressive rock, and rate their first five studio albums quite highly, I do not find the connection between their sound and Egg’s as evident as some maintain. While The Polite Force is very much a showcase for Dave Stewart’s distinctive style, and therefore a real delight for keyboard fans, it would also be unfair to state that the band is dominated by him. In fact,  bassist/vocalist Monty Campbell and drummer Clive Brooks (who joined blues-rock trio The Groundhogs after Egg’s demise) do not just function as supporting cast for Stewart’s keyboard antics, but drive the band’s sound along with their impressive, though understated, skills. Campbell is also a vocalist very much in the classic Canterbury mould, with a polite (pun unintended), pleasant voice that is the perfect complement to the band’s quirky, complex sound.

Though seven tracks are listed on the back cover, the album actually comprises four compositions, one of which, “Long Piece No.3” is divided into four parts. “A Visit to Newport Hospital” is one of the most impressive openers to be found on a Canterbury album – introduced by an almost Sabbath-like riff, heavy and plodding, which suddenly loosens up into a cheery, sprightly organ section. The gently ironical lyrics, relating some of the band’s experiences in their Uriel days, are an unobtrusive yet essential accompaniment to Stewart’s elegantly assertive organ; Brooks’ drumming underpins everything with a discreet touch.  The song then comes full circle, ending with the same gritty organ riff as it began.  In the following “Contrasong” a full-blown horns quartet punctuates Stewart’s dynamic piano forays and Campbell’s urgent vocals, with a basic 5/8 9/8 pattern reminiscent of Gentle Giant’s counterpoint arrangements; Stewart switches to organ later during the song, propelling it forward in parallel with Brook’s drumming, and the horns coming in bursts.  Next comes the somewhat controversial “Boilk”, a full-fledged avant-garde piece almost 10 minutes long, very much in the vein of King Crimson’s “Moonchild”. The composition, which had already appeared on Egg’s debut (though in shorter form), opens with the sound of running water, and includes improvisations on a Bach theme, tolling bells and a host of other effects.

The album closes with the ‘epic’ instrumental “Long Piece No.3”, about 20 minutes long if taken as a whole – though its four parts are listed separately. As the liner notes point out, the ‘outer’ parts (One and Four) are rhythmically based, while the ‘inner’ ones are harmonically based. Interestingly, the whole composition comes across as somewhat fragmented, with frequent pauses breaking up the flow of the music. Part One opens with Stewart’s briskly repetitive organ, assisted by Campbell on piano and organ, and driven along by Brooks’ skilful drumming. Part Two immediately introduces Stewart’s fluid organ, with the drums going back to a supporting role (though essential), and a palpably more melodic texture – though its central section contains a sort of improvisational organ piece that might bring “Boilk” to mind. Campbell’s bass introduces the textbook-Canterbury Part Three, with its almost military drum pattern, unbridled organ flights (sometimes reminiscent of Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge), and tone generator adding wailing, guitar-like effects. Part Four wraps up the album in a short but intense climax, driven along by frantic drumming and harsh, fuzzed organ.

As Edward Macan intimates in his book Rocking the Classics, The Polite Force can be seen as bridging the gap between keyboard-based symphonic prog and the jazzier, quirkier sound typical of the Canterbury scene. Definitely one of the finest moments of  Stewart’s career, its eclectic nature – featuring as it does avant-garde experimentation, more or less ‘conventional’ songs, classical touches and plenty of instrumental brilliance –is likely to appeal to a wide range of fans of progressive music. While not a full-blown masterpiece like Third or The Rotters’ Club, it is doubtlessly one of the most interesting productions coming from the variegated Canterbury universe – and as such highly recommended.

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