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Archive for the ‘Progressive’ Category

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. Achilles (14:51):
a. Troy
b. Achilles To Patroclus
c. Achilles To Hector
d. Achilles To Priam
e. Achilles To Thetis
f. Crossing The River Styx
2. The Quind (9:23)
3. The Eyes Of Age (4:30)
4. Alice’s Eerie Dream (11:50):
a. Searching For Alice
b. A Mad Tea Party From 7 To 11
c. Across The Looking-Glass
5. The Last Oddity (10:17)
6. The Carpet Crawlers (6:06)
7. Alice’s Eerie Dream [Radio Edit] (3:59)

LINEUP:
Franck Carducci –  basses, electric and acoustic guitars, lead and backing vocals, keyboards, mandolin, percussion

With:
Richard Vecchi – keyboards, guitar
Phildas Bhakta  – drums (1)
John Hackett  – flute (1)
Florence Marien – voices (1)
Niko Leroy – Hammond organ, synths (1)
Christophe Obadia – guitar, didgeridoo, vocals (2)
Toff “Crazy Monk” – drums (2, 5)
Vivika Sapori-Sudemäe – violin (3, 6)
Yanne Matis – vocals (3, 6)
Fred Boisson – drums (3, 6)
Gilles Carducci – mandolin (3)
Larry Crockett – drums (4)
Michael Strobel – guitar (4)
Nicolas Gauthier – vocals (2,4), handclaps (4)
Marianne Delphin – vocals (2, 4), handclaps (4)
Chris Morphin – handclaps (4)
Julia – reading from Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (4)

Netherlands-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Franck Carducci grew up in a musical family, and learned his first instrument (the Hammond organ) at the age of 5. He then joined his first rock band at 14, and between the ages of 20 and 30 was involved with many different bands and recording projects. The real turning point in his career, however, came in 2010, when he opened for Steve Hackett, one of his heroes, and the legendary guitarist encouraged him to release his own solo material. The result was Oddity, released in the late spring of 2011.

Though the slightly kitschy cover artwork (by Italian graphic artist Manuela Mambretti) might put off some prospective listeners, it is always wise not to judge a book by its cover, because the music showcased in Oddity is surprisingly accomplished. Performed by Carducci with the help of a number of guest artists (who include Steve’s brother, John Hackett, and renowned session drummers Phildas Bhakta and  Larry Crockett), this is not your typical “solo-pilot” project featuring the inevitable programmed drums, but definitely a group effort with a warm,  organic feel. While you will not find anything ground-breaking here, there is plenty to satisfy the cravings of fans of classic progressive rock, served with lashings of melody and brilliant instrumental interplay. Carducci’s voice, though pleasant, may not be the most memorable on the scene, but this is compensated by the presence of backing vocalists such as French folk singer Yanne Matis, with whom Carducci toured and recorded two albums.

In 61 minutes’ running time, Oddity features a neat mix of epic-length tracks and shorter numbers, including a cover of Genesis’ iconic “The Carpet Crawlers” (which, though enhanced by the wistful tone of the violin, suffers in the vocal department from comparisons with Peter Gabriel’s stunning performance). Although the Genesis influence is quite pervasive, by and large the album manages to avoid the blatant derivativeness that mars other similarly “retro-oriented” efforts. The almost 15-minute, 6-part epic “Achilles”, placed at the onset of the album, is a definite attention-catcher for the symphonic prog set, offering a suitable mix of dramatic grandiosity – with soaring guitar, layers upon layers of Mellotron, organ and synth, and solemn drum rolls – and more sedate passages, with rippling piano and pastoral flute (courtesy of John Hackett). On the other hand, “The Quind” (an invented word  meaning “quiet mind”) hinges on rarefied, ambient-like textures enhanced by the use of eerie sound effects and ethnic instruments like the didgeridoo that may bring to mind early Pink Floyd; while the heavily keyboard-based  “The Last Oddity” (inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odissey) blends spacey suggestions with classic symphonic ones, while the bluesy Hammond coda adds some bite.

A couple of tracks break (at least in part) the traditional prog mould. “The Eyes of Age”, with its lilting, mandolin- and violin-laced pace, sounds a lot like something out of the repertoire of an Irish folk outfit with hints of American country. Apart from the dramatic, Genesis-like middle section, which includes some excerpts of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”, the other multi-part epic, “Alice’s Eerie Dream” (also present as a much shorter radio edit), is a classic hard rock workout whose rather catchy chorus hints at Jimi Hendrix’s legendary “Voodoo Chile”, powered by Carducci’s Hammond organ and Michael Strobel’s fiery lead guitar in a way that made me think of the Allman Brothers Band – though a gutsy, bluesy voice would have served the song better than Carducci’s rather high-pitched vocals.

Even if the artwork may not be to everyone’s taste, Oddity comes very nicely packaged for an independent production, with exhaustive liner notes and lyrics. With plenty of melody, soothingly atmospheric moments and some noteworthy Hammond organ work, they album may firmly entrenched in the “retro” camp, but, very refreshingly, does not pretend to be otherwise. While Oddity is unlikely to find favour with those who are searching for more challenging (or authentically progressive) fare, fans of mainstream prog will find a lot to appreciate.

Links:
http://www.franckcarducci.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Ludiche Ecchimosi  (5 Danze Immaginarie) (9:42):
a) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 1 (1:44)
b) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 2 (2:30)
c) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 3 (3:04)
d) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 4 (0:51)
e) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 5 (1:33)
2. Il Folletto di Cera (4:31):
a) Miniatura # 1 (0:28)
b) Il Folletto di Cera (4:03)
3. Inseguito dai Creditori (6:01)
4. Tre Pezzi Brevi (7:46):
a) Flutter (5:50)
b) In Mezzo (0:15)
c) Snappy (1:41)
5. L’Onda Vertebrata (20:08):
a) Ouverture (1:55)
b) … Tra le Gocce Che Verso l’Alto Guardano… (2:03)
c) Tu… Onda Vertebrata (1:57)
d) …di un’Ombra… (1:00)
e) Intermezzo (1:44)
f) In Bilico (2:13)
g) Passaggio (2:00)
h) … Addomestico il Sogno (2:21)
i) Non Credere Più (2:25)
l) Coda con Fanfara (2:30)

Bonus tracks:
6. La Follia del Mimo Azoto (3:41):
a) The Breznev Funk Club
b) La Follia del Mimo Azoto
c) The Breznev Funk Club (Reprise)
7. Il Folletto di Cera (instrumental version) (4:30):
a) Miniatura # 1 (0:29)
b) Il Folletto di Cera (4:01)

LINEUP:
Franco Sciscio – voice, Sprechgesang
Giuliana Di Mitrio – mezzosoprano
Maria Mianulli – flute
Francesco Manfredi – clarinet in B flat
Michele Motola – soprano and alto sax
Gianfranco Menzella – alto, tenor and baritone sax
Francesco Panico – trumpet in B flat
Francesco Tritto – trombone
Tommaso De Vito Francesco – bass guitar, contrabass, oboe
Michele Fracchiolla – drums, percussion, vibraphone, marimba
Pino Manfredi – piano, keyboards
Rocco Lomonaco – classical, acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, quatro, harmonica
Duilio Maci – violin
Angela Schiralli – cello

Breznev Fun Club’s cleverly amusing name, which hinges on the common mispronunciation of the words fan and fun on the part of English-speaking Italians, may not be very familiar to most progressive rock listeners, but it is certainly a secret worth learning about.  As the album’s subtitle of Lost and Found implies, L’Onda Vertebrata is a collection of music written in the years 1990-1997 by multi-instrumentalist and composer Rocco Lomonaco (based in Milan, but hailing from the southern Italian region of Basilicata) and singer/lyricist Francesco Sciscio, and performed by an extended line-up of guest musicians, most of them members of chamber and symphonic orchestras. Though Breznev Fun Club was originally born as a trio, the evolution of their music in a more experimental direction required a looser configuration. However, Lomonaco is planning to put together a smaller group in order to perform on stage the music included on this album and its follow-up, titled Il Misantropo Felice, scheduled for a 2012 release on AltrOck Productions.

For an album that can be quite comfortably placed under the capacious RIO/Avant umbrella, L’Onda Vertebrata is a surprisingly melodic and accessible effort, sophisticated yet not needlessly daunting. Indeed, despite the undeniably complex and “highbrow” nature of the music,  the album as a whole never tries to hit the listener over the head with its cleverness and supposed superiority to “mainstream” prog. Even Franco Sciscio’s half-sung, half-recited vocals (a technique called by the German word of Sprechgesang) do not sound as overdone as in other albums that employ a similar style – though obviously they can be much of an acquired taste, and a deterrent for those who prefer a more traditional approach to singing.

L’Onda Vertebrata shares a number of features with contemporary classical and chamber music, and at times– as is the case with other similar outfits, such as Aranis or Factor Burzaco – it may strike the listener as rather far removed from the directness of rock. However, there are also moments in which the whole range of rock instruments is effectively employed, emphasizing the eclecticism of Breznev Fun Club’s approach.  Though, as the liner notes point out, the individual numbers are pieced together from parts composed in different moments of the band’s activity – reflected by their structure of “mini-suites” in various movements – they come across as much more cohesive than one might expect.

As suggested in the previous paragraphs, the music on display on L’Onda Vertebrata offers a lot of variety, though in an elegantly understated way. Echoes of Canterbury (especially Hatfield and the North and National Health) surface in opener “Ludiche Ecchimosi”, introduced by the lovely vocalizing of mezzosoprano Giuliana Di Mitrio, who also appears in the final part of the sparse, Debussy-like “Tre Pezzi Brevi”, accented by the clear, lilting sound of mallet percussion; while the lively “Inseguito dai Creditori”, whose choppy, Hammond-driven first half turns solemn, almost austere towards the end, might be effectively described as “Canterbury with a bite”. “Il Folletto di Cera” is a textbook example of how avant-garde does not necessarily mean noisy or jarring, with Sciscio’s theatrical vocals (reminiscent of Nichelodeon’s Claudio Milano) offset by the gentle, romantic flow of the melodies seamlessly woven by the lush instrumentation.

More than a conventional prog “epic”, the 20-minute title-track is a mini-opera divided in 10 parts that offers a wide range of modes of expression – from the airy, slow-paced opening to heavier, dramatic passages which brought to my mind Italian Seventies cult outfit Pholas Dactylus, from solemn church organ to fluid, jazzy moments enhanced by a rich fabric of horns and reeds. The first of the two bonus tracks, “La Follia del Mimo Azoto”, harks back to the time when Breznev Fun Club were heavily funk-oriented, at times reminding me of New York-based outfit Afroskull with their powerful horn section; while the Canterbury influence emerges again in the instrumental-only version of “Il Folletto di Cera”.

In spite of its rather intellectual vibe, L’Onda Vertebrata is a surprisingly accessible album, which is sure to win over lovers of both “chamber rock” and contemporary academic music, but that may even appeal to those of more mainstream tastes – especially on account of its high melodic quotient (quite revealing of its Italian matrix). An excellent, classy testimony of Rocco Lomonaco’s over two decades of activity as a musician and composer, the album will also whet the appetite of devoted followers of AltrOck Production’s roster in anticipation of the release of Il Misantropo Felice. The very detailed liner notes (unfortunately only in Italian), illustrating the history of the band as well as of each of the tracks, and the striking green hues of the cover artwork also deserve a special mention.

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

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Breznev-Fun-Club/122126211199607?sk=wall

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TRACKLISTING:
1. One Cloud  (3:35)
2. The Long Circle (11:05)
3.Conscious Dream (5:15)
4. Cloud Dispersed   (2:16)
5. Differential (5:27)
6. Turbulence (1:25)
7. Mighty Distant Star  (6:10)
8. The Third Enigma (13:15)

LINEUP:
Rob Martino – Chapman stick

Released in May 2010, One Cloud is the recording debut of Chapman stick virtuoso Rob Martino, a talented artist who came to the attention of prog fans for his appearance in the documentary film Romantic Warriors – though he also guested on Phideaux’s career-defining Doomsday Afternoon in 2007, and participated in the 2009 edition of the 3RP Prog Festival. A fellow resident of Northern Virginia (as well as a fellow cat lover), Rob is very active on the live front around the US Northeast, performing both his own material and covers of other artists’ music. While an accomplished multi-instrumentalist with an extensive musical background, since 2004 he has chosen to focus exclusively on the Chapman stick, one of the most versatile instruments on the current music scene, which has been enthusiastically adopted by many progressive artists.

Though Rob Martino is first and foremost a dedicated follower of progressive rock, the music showcased on One Cloud transcends the boundaries of prog as it is commonly perceived, its distinctive style hard to label. In fact, his compositions display a wide range of influences, from folk to classical music, which makes them more likely to appeal to a broader audience than  just the so-called “prog community”. In any case, the artist’s personal imprint emerges quite clearly, so that the music does not feel as derivative as is unfortunately the case with a rather large slice of current “mainstream” prog releases. More than anything, however, the album spotlights the enormous expressive potential of an instrument that can, to all intents and purposes, almost replace a whole band. Its unique nature (it is played with both hands by tapping the strings, rather than plucking or strumming them) allows for multi-part arrangements, in which the Chapman stick acts the role of piano and percussion, as well as guitar and bass.

Even though I had already experienced music played solely on the Chapman stick, I was deeply impressed by the the sheer beauty of the compositions featured on One Cloud. Understated, yet fluid and full of melody, the music possesses surprising clarity coupled with a feel of engaging warmth. While there is plenty of complexity involved, the tracks often as multilayered as anything you would find on most full-fledged prog albums, the music suggests a sense of elegance and purity rather than the sometimes overblown lushness of symphonic prog. All in all, the album is anything but a showcase for empty virtuosity, the focus being on composition rather than technique.

Clocking in at about 48 minutes, the album strikes a nearly perfect balance between shorter pieces and longer numbers with an almost epic scope. A superficial listen may give the impression that the tracks sound rather similar to one another, and somehow this may hold true even after repeated listens, as  One Cloud (whose title is in itself very suggestive of the music’s nature) – unlike albums that involve conventional instrumentation – hinges on subtle contrasts of light and shade, rather than on the impact of powerful guitar riffs, soaring vocals or towering keyboard sweeps. While, in some ways, it is more accessible than the average prog album, at the same time it demands the listener’s full attention in order to avoid fading into the background – as is often the case with “mood” music.

The title-track opens the album with a tune that, while not exactly upbeat, is quite catchy in its own way, and immediately introduces the listener to the captivating textures that the Chapman stick allows a musician to create. The two “epics”, 10-minute “The Long Circle” and 13-minute“The Third Enigma”, share a similar structure, gradually gaining intensity from a sparse, subdued start; both exude a melancholy, meditative feel, and the frequent tempo changes that break up the flow of the music add further interest, together with the quasi-orchestral effects that help to flesh out the sound. On the other hand, on a couple of tracks, notably “Conscious Dream” and the aptly-titled “Turbulence”, the instrument takes on a sharp, almost percussive tone.

Though, if you felt inclined to nitpick, One Cloud may occasionally come across as slightly one-dimensional (which is probably inevitable for an album based on a single instrument), it is also a lovingly-crafted effort with a strong crossover appeal, and an outstanding example of committed music-making. Highly recommended to fans of the Chapman stick and its close relative, the Warr guitar, as well as anyone who appreciates any recordings featuring acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments, it will offer a deeply satisfying listening experience to lovers of instrumental music.

Links:
http://robmartino.com/

http://www.myspace.com/robmartino

 

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In spite of the difficult economic times, and also of the prevailing “the grass is greener” attitude, in 2011 Europe is all set to offer an almost unprecedented range of progressive rock (and related) festivals – in sharp contrast with the (hopefully temporary) demise of both NEARfest and CalProg in the North American continent. In the past few weeks I have come across no less than four announcements of respectably-sized events taking place in various part of the boot-shaped peninsula.

The first edition of the Civitella Progressive Rock Festival will be held at the sports centre of the town of Civitella Paganico, in the Tuscan province of Grosseto, starting on July 16 with guitarist Alex Carpani and Pink Floyd tribute band Time Machine, and then continuing on the weekend of July 22/23  with Classic ELP Tribute, local band Gran Turismo Veloce and legends Le Orme (July 22), and The Watch opening for Fish (July 23).

On the same weekend (July 22-24), the festival We Love Vintage will be held at the sports centre Due Madonne in Bologna, with an impressive lineup featuring well-known names of the classic prog era such as the new supergroup CCLR (with Bernardo Lanzetti, and Aldo Tagliapietra as a special guest) and Arti e Mestieri with Mel Collins and David Cross, as well as up-and-coming acts such as Paolo Schianchi, Alex Carpani, Ego, Altare Thotemico, Stereokimono, Mappe Nootiche, Astralia, and Bologna’s own Accordo dei Contrari (with legendary ‘voice of Canterbury’ Richard Sinclair as a special guest).

In the same week, on July 21, the Austin-based duo WD-41 (recently interviewed here) at the Portello River Festival in Padova, an event that is sure to appeal to those with a keen interest in experimental and world music.

While the month of August in Italy is traditionally dedicated to vacation, progressive rock will make a comeback in September with another two extremely intriguing events. The 2 Days Prog Veruno will take place at the Piazzetta della Musica in the town of Veruno, in the Piedmontese province of Novara. This year the festival, in spite of its name, will last 3 days instead of two (September 2-4), and its exciting lineup will feature Italian acts such as Alex Carpani Band, Methodica, Il Tempio delle Clessidre, Arti e Mestieri (again with Mel Collins and David Cross) and Goblin, alongside celebrated international acts such as RPWL, Anathema, Riverside and Agents of Mercy.

This staggeringly rich season of music will be wrapped up by the Progressivamente Festival held at the Casa del Jazz in Rome on the following week (September 6-11). The event, dedicated to the memory of Italian musician and Chapman stick virtuoso Virginia Splendore (who tragically passed away at the end of May 2011), will offer a veritable ‘who is who’ of classic and modern Italian prog, with bands such as Il Tempio delle Clessidre, Locanda delle Fate, Murple, Fonderia, Metamorfosi, Le Orme and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, as well as Gentle Giant offshoot Three Friends and tribute acts Us and Them, Goblin…Rebirth and Progtop. An additional feature of the event will be listening ‘seminars’ for audiophiles comparing analog and digital recordings of the great prog albums of the Seventies.

As unbelievable as it may sound to my American readers, some of these events will be free of charge, or have a very accessible price (no higher than 20 euros).  Whoever is planning a trip to Italy in the summer months may be interested in planning things so as to be able to attend at least one of those concerts, which will offer the added bonus of great surroundings and excellent food and drink.

Links:
Civitella Progressive Rock Festival: http://www.synpress44.com/01Comunicati.asp?id=1113

We Love Vintage: http://www.welovevintage.it/

Portello River Festival: http://www.riverfilmfestival.org/PRF7.pdf

2 Days Prog Veruno: http://www.lastfm.it/festival/1936079+2+Days+Prog+Veruno

Progressivamente Festival: http://www.progressivamente.com/


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 Even though California-born guitarist and composer Willie Oteri may not be a household name for most prog fans, over the almost 30 years of his career he has built quite a reputation among followers of experimental music. Currently based in Austin (TX), Oteri is one of the members of duo WD-41, together with trumpeter Dave Laczko. The duo will head to Italy in mid-July, where they are scheduled to perform at the Portello River Festival in Padova and a couple of other similar events. They are also planning to hold some concerts and jams in the houses of fellow musicians and fans of progressive music.

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Since many of the habitual visitors of prog sites are not familiar with your career, I guess we should start with a couple of rather trivial questions… Such as, how did you start playing your instruments, and what made you choose those particular instruments rather than others?

 Willie: I started out as a singer. At the age of 4 I whistled and sang everything I heard at home or on the radio. I also repaired an old record player, also when 4, on which I listened to a variety of music. At 7 I wanted to be a jazz singer like Dean Martin or Sinatra and only dabbled on instruments like violin or piano because they were in our house, my mother was a violinist who was in symphonies in her teens but gave it up for several reasons mainly to raise three children. I never really thought about much beyond singing. I had a cheap electric guitar around the age of 12, but I never really enjoyed it. I wanted a sax but my parents could not afford a good one. In my late teens I started playing bass so I could get into bands and I was the lead singer in couple of bands.  I also took up flute at that time since my sister had one she never used. Later in my twenties a friend convinced me to try pedal steel guitar so I could play in a country rock band he was starting. I played pedal steel for many years, in some situations you would never think of finding that sound and started dabbling on guitar but I was not real serious about guitar until the late ‘90s after coming back to professional playing from nearly a decade off. I was living on a sailboat at the time and guitar just made sense as a portable way to compose tunes. I’m not real sure I’m in love with guitar, I’m indifferent to it for many reasons, mostly from what I see as design flaws but I do truly love some of what can be done with a guitar. The sounds I hear in my head can often be made on a guitar. It seems to be working out for me.

Dave: In public school, we had a night where they had a bunch of instruments in the cafeteria  and my Mom let me pick an instrument to play in the band.  I immediately picked drums, but my Mom said, “I am not getting you drums!  Don’t get anything too heavy!”  I was disappointed, but I picked trumpet right away because I really liked Herb Alpert records.  He was so cool and jazzy and he had women hanging all over him.  I knew that was for me.

What can you say about your approach to your respective instruments? Do you see yourselves as musicians that transcend the usual labels of rock, jazz, avant-garde and such? And if so, how?

Willie:  A friend of mine, Italian guitarist Enrico Crivellaro, once said, “I just do what I do”. That pretty much covers it in my book also. I just do it without much thought of if it’s going to fit a genre label or two. I love improvisation and what is known to some as Total Improvisation but I don’t mind having things worked out.  My last four releases have been made by asking others if they wanted to jam and record it. That’s how I did Concepts of MateMaToot, Spiral Out and both WD-41 releases, just asking musicians if they want to jam. For Concepts of MateMaToot and Spiral Out there were some basic patterns to work from for a few tunes but for most of it and both WD-41 albums it’s just music that happens. I’m also working on arrangements for a more structured solo album down the road and perhaps a symphony based on ideas from WD-41 sounds.

Dave: To be honest, I’m only interested in transcending what I or Willie played last week. While I understand their usefulness, labels are generally for describing music, not playing it, so yes, I think our music goes  beyond a single category.  I notice that WD-41 is linked to at least 4 categories on your blog?  Not bad!  WD-41 is deliberate only in our attempt to play something totally spontaneous, inspiring and fun every time.  It’s improvised—that’s about all I can say!

As you know, the sites I write for generally deal with ‘progressive rock’ in all its various manifestations. What is your personal view of this somewhat controversial genre? Do you see WD-41 as belonging to a ‘prog’ context, or would you rather be identified as a jazz project?

 Willie: If a listener thinks we are progressive and wants to label us as such that’s fine. I like a lot of what is labeled progressive and a lot of it just does nothing for me. That’s how we all are. WD-41 got tossed into a lot of publications that deal with the progressive label because our publicist Lori Hehr deals mostly in that area. We also seem to do well inwhat is labeled the jazz arena (laughs), but I don’t really care what people call it. Just open your minds and listen.

Dave: I don’t have a problem with either genre being associated with WD-41. The fact that we are both electrified and 100% improvised with no specific rhythmic component makes me lean towards the prog side of the debate if I have to choose! I’m honored that either genre would have us, but even contextually I’d rather best be described in seven categories rather than one. I enjoy reading descriptions of WD-41 in the press, so call it what it sounds like, Raffaella! That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

Even though we have been in touch for a while, I do not know how Willie and Dave first met and decided to join forces. How did WD-41 come about, and what does the ‘41’ stand for?

Willie: I’ll let Dave have this one.

Dave: A mutual friend (N.W. Austin, the artist who painted our cover art) told me that Willie Oteri might be moving to Austin and that I should look for him.  I’d heard a tape of his and was very impressed.  He was playing with Jazz Gunn and I was in a local swing band, playing 30’s and 40’s tunes.  We hung out some.  He told me about recording the Spiral Out CD, then he was gone to Europe.  When he came back from Italy, we were catching up and I asked him what was next muscally for him and he said, “I want to do something with loops.”  I said, “Wow, that sounds fun—can I play too?”  He had never heard me play before and when we got together the next afternoon, we knew we had something!  That’s how we began –  with no preconceived ideas.  We just sat across from each other and played.  We discovered that our approaches to music are very similar.  Our ears are open for what’s possible in the moment.  Also, we like a lot of the same movies and I think this adds a subtlety and some humor to what we do.

41 is one more than 40, that’s all I can tell you.  No need to get Interpol involved right now.

Dave, as most of my readers will probably not be very familiar with you, can you tell me something about your own musical career?

Dave: I guess my career started in 1980 when I joined a big band that played around Austin and was relatively successful in the 80s and 90’s.  Most of Austin’s best jazz musicians came through that band so I got to meet everybody.  That’s where I met Mel Winters, a flugelhorn soloist who had decided to switch to piano.  In ’87, I started playing bass on keyboards with him and we formed the Fearless Jazz Trio, which later became a duo of just Mel and me.  He is a prolific composer and an intense and thoughtful player, who sees chords and how they fit together in a way that is another universe.  He is probably the biggest influence on me musically (before I met Mr. Oteri!) and really pushed me to go for it.  He liked my ear and continues to encourage me to play what I hear.  It was “keep up or be left behind,” so I developed a way to be a more rhythmically interesting bass player in a drumless duo.  We have rehearsed on and off for over 30 years with only one gig!  Seriously… it’s still fun most of the time. Haha!  I do believe playing with Mel all these years got me ready to play with Willie.  Around 1998 or 1999 I helped start a local swing band that played around Austin for a couple of years.  I’m into a lot of different styles and I think early jazz is fascinating and fun.  That’s a completely different mindset than what I’m doing now with WD-41.  Who knew?

I always have a day job. I worked for Tower Records as a buyer during their stay in Austin (1991-2004) and I had a pretty cool jazz radio show for 13 years which was actually at night.

I have been so lucky as to hear Willie’s wonderful Spiral Out album, recorded with Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto. How did this collaboration come about? Would you consider working with either of those artists again in the future, perhaps involving Dave as well?

Willie: I had just finished the Jazz Gunn album Concepts of  MateMaToot, which I produced and wanted to go beyond that by using another producer. I put out feelers in a few internet forums and one of the producers that contacted me was Ronan Chris Murphy who had worked with a wide variety of names from King Crimson to Chucho Valdés. After chatting with him on the phone I decided to fly to LA to meet in person and we immediately hit it off and started working on pre-production. While we were jamming a bit on ideas I sort of jokingly said something like, “Tony Levin would sound great on this” and Ronan said, “I can get Tony”. He went out in the parking lot and called Tony and arranged for us to send some him some ideas. I don’t remember if Tony agreed to the project before or after hearing the ideas but then we were off to finding drummers, we went through a few ideas and then decided Pat Mastelotto would be the best fit. Pat and I both live in Austin so it was easy to arrange to record there. Tony flew out from NY and the three of us just jammed for two days. On the second day we called trumpet man Ephraim Owens to add to some of the raw tracks and then while mixing in LA Ronan thought some keys would be good so he called Mike Keneally who drove up from San Diego. It all just sort of fell into being. I love all those guys and have done a few gigs with Tony, Ronan and Pat since. We chat now and then about doing another recording but it’s mostly about money and time. I would love to do another and Dave would be first choice for trumpet.

Dave: Willie knows I’d love to play with any of those guys any time and we talked about it at first.  After we started playing we knew we didn’t really need them. In Italy we’ll be improvising with musicians from all over the world.  I think we’re ready. . .

Being Italian, I would like to hear more about Willie’s artistic and personal experience in the four years he spent there. Italians like to complain about everything in their country, and are big fans of the old ‘the grass is greener’ shtick. How would you rate the Italian scene as opposed to the American one?

Willie: The grass is never greener on the other side of the fence but sometimes it’s mowed differently.. The past couple of years have been difficult for many artists both here and in Italy. I’m an older artist doing music for the last several years that is pretty far out from the new manufactured pop but for what I do it’s been easier to book gigs in Europe including Italy. Part of that is because of who I’ve worked with on records which is a selling point for venues and festivals. Musicians are sadly just a commodity when it comes to business. I would say that if most Italian bands or musicians came to America they would find it very difficult to get bookings and the day jobs here will eat you alive.  Moving to America doesn’t guarantee success or happiness.

Living in Italy is nicer in my experience for art, music, people, friends, food, the list goes on. When I lived in Italy I did most of my gigs outside of Padova by train going second class which is very affordable. You just can’t do that in the states and this is a big advantage for Italians. You can trim down your gear to a bare minimum needed. Often you can borrow drums and amps in other cities from fans or share with other bands. I rarely tour with my own amps these days and you will see this is becoming more common.

If I may, some advice for Italian bands and musicians just starting out, forget about America at least until you are very popular in Europe. Get your music out in the big cities in Italy and Europe (and a bit of advice for all young players) work your ass off on promoting your music. Book your own shows when you can. If after a year or so no one is paying attention then change something, change everything and try again. Remember that while self promotion is easy today everyone is doing it so often it appears as though you are just another artist. Try to raise money to hire a publicist and perform live as often as you can. Don’t be discouraged by booking agents or clubs not paying attention, it’s a business and it’s easy today for them so sell an old name playing the old tunes even without the original members or to sell a similar sounding act, cover (tribute) band or old jazz standards. Booking hyped manufactured pop acts is another story we don’t have time for here but, it takes a lot of money to promote and tour an artist in a big flashy way and sadly from this is where most people take their calling. In the eyes of most including many magazine editors and reviewers an artist is better if they are backed by a lot of money, sometimes borrowed from labels (often a bad idea) or often from their family, but don’t let it discourage you, big promotion does not equal big talent and there are still those who make it on hard work and word of mouth. Remember times change so be ready when the time comes. Get a good lawyer before you do anything involving much money. Don’t worry if you can’t afford to attend the big name music schools, training seminars, etc. They are not a guarantee of talent or creativity.

I hope all of you find good partners, band members or a spouse to help you on your way. It’s not easy to be creative and do all the work yourself with all your own money but if you believe in the music keep at it. If you have some family money then more power to you but be careful about taking money from labels or giving money to music taxi services. Take the energy that comes from discouragement and put it into your music.

Some things I wished I had learned early in my career: If you are shy, as I was when young then work hard at overcoming it. Shyness kept me from going to a lot of good auditions. Don’t spend too much on instruments or gear, computers, phones, cars, etc. Get instruments that are adequate and will get the job done but save your money for promotion not flashy gear. Remember too that sometimes the most talented are the least recognized. Everywhere there are numerous players and composers who you have never heard of who are just as good or better than the big names. Sometimes we need to seek them out to enjoy their art and you may find a good band member this way. Sting was once a school teacher who played local club gigs on weekends.

One final thought, you must think of your music beyond just being a hobby if you really want to make great music. Dedicating your life to music is a sacrifice that will show in the quality of your performance. A good read on making a living as a musician by Danny Barnes, a bit dated but still good advice: http://www.dannybarnes.com/blog/how-make-living-playing-music

 Dave, have you had any experience of playing in other countries than the USA? If so, what was your experience of an international context as opposed to a domestic one?

Dave: This trip to Italy will be my first trip overseas and my first experience playing my music outside of Texas, so I am excited to play for European audiences.  Can you ask me this question again when I get back?

Austin is known as a laid-back, artsy town, quite out of character with the rest of the state of Texas. However, I have often see you complain about the lack of opportunities for live performances. What are the positives and negatives of the Austin scene, if compared to other parts of the US?

Willie: We may complain but we could do more about getting gigs here even though there really are no booking agents or clubs to speak of that can handle what we do. Those that do (infrequently) promote improvised music tend to focus on getting acts from out of town.  A lot of bands from here never play here.  Oddly it was different several years ago and there were more places to play outside styles. Presently the scene is mostly singer songwriter, blues, cover rock, some start up pop bands and bits of the rest. There is an old saying here, “popular in Austin, dead everywhere else”(something like that). I’m not sure that if we gigged a lot here it would be such a good idea. (laughs) I am seeing a bit more experimental and improvised music in town but for now  the place for our music is Europe.

The positives of the Austin scene? There is a old expression “Austin is an Oasis surrounded by Texas”, Crime is low and there is a lot to do besides music. It’s a nice place to live and play and much less expensive than many big cities. There are places for up and coming bands and young musicians to perform and get experience. For professional musicians there are less opportunities. I think a lot of musicians live here because they were raised here or because they find the overall laid back vibe of much of the city just fits well with a musician’s view of life. It’s a pretty fun town, check Eeyore’s birthday party sometime for example or a wild night on 6th Street.  I’m often disappointed by the food here but that’s for another interview (laughs).

Dave: I should defer to Willie on this question.  I do have a few opinions, though.  Willie has met a fair amount of opposition to starting any improv. jam sessions here.  WD-41 is certainly not for everyone and I realize we appeal to listeners who understand the risks of improvisation.  That’s a pretty small audience amid the popularity of singer-songwriters, white-guy blues, cover bands and several thousand other groups of all kinds here.  Don’t get me wrong – there are a lot of great musicians in Austin. That fact is what has kept me here for so long.  You can throw a rock and I bet you’ll hit someone who at least says he’s a musician.  He has a guitar, a beard and a shirt from the 80’s.  He plays 3-5 nights a week.  Most audiences want to hear something they are familiar with.  In the “Live Music Capital of the World,” club owners, booking agents and politics play it safe and book what they know.  WD-41 is not safe.  We are different.  Our music is instrumental and improvised.  We often do not have drums.  We are full of danger, chance and mystery.  Austin may not be the open minded, smart and artsy city she thinks she is, but it’s not all her fault.  Austin is still the capital of Texas and she can’t afford to risk it.  Still, I love Austin, the people and the vibe here. It’s doubtful that I would have had the same opportunities in another city.  I am extremely fortunate to be able to play with and learn from two geniuses on a weekly basis!  Still, I can’t wait to play in Italy!

Can you tell us something more about your upcoming performances in Italy? I am particularly interested in hearing about house concerts, which are definitely one of the most effective new strategies for artists to get their music across without going through the usual (and increasingly frustrating) channels.

Willie: well we have the festival dates in Florence (live looping fest, July 16 and 17) and the Portello River Festival in Padova July 21 (three weeks of a variety of artists from around the world and films on a floating stage in a big canal) –  beautiful spot and really fun gig. We then have house concerts in various places with one that will include a live recording with three or four other musicians. We would be doing club dates but many clubs in Italy will be closed in July and while waiting for festival confirmations we lost advanced time needed to book some clubs. The festivals are more important to us. I feel that house concerts are perfect for us because we can play at a reasonable volume, although we do like to move a lot of air when we can. I think for most bands who work smaller venues house concerts are a good alternative. There are legal issues with sound and sales of tickets in many cities, so, often house concerts are booked as private parties or listed as Venue TBA.

Dave: Willie has worked very hard on securing our gigs and contacts in Italy, looking for the right musicians and the right opportunities for us.  He has played at the Portello River Festival several times and it’s exciting to be added to the line-up this year!  I think house concerts are certainly the way to go to get the audience you want to play for.  Also these tend to be very intimate settings where you can get a lot of immediate feedback and energy from an audience sitting on the couch next to you!

You used an Internet-based funding platform to raise money for your trip to Italy. This is another strategy that is rapidly taking hold in the community of independent artists, regardless of genre. Would you recommend it to any up-and-coming musicians, and why?

 Willie: Well, this is our first crowdfund but we have raised nearly all of our air fare to Italy and it looks as though it will go to more soon. It’s difficult to raise much from fans alone and several writings on the subject have mentioned that most successful crowdfunds are due to contribution from family and friends. It’s seems that a lot less people are reaching their goals lately as if the market is flooded. Fans don’t have the money to spread around to the thousands of acts asking for it. For our crowdfund we used ChipIn.com because you get whatever money people put in, you don’t have to reach your goal to get the money as with Kickstarter, also ChipIn takes much less of a percentage. It worked for us because part of our contributions were direct to us and not through the crowdfund. With Kickstarter it would have looked like we did not reach our goal, then we would have to go back to all the pledgers personally and ask for the money.

Dave: Willie set this up, and I think it has worked well.  Getting signed to a label often means working for them instead of them working for you.  In these days of labels with no budget and “pay to play” gigs,  DIY financing makes a lot of sense.

WD-41 have released two albums so far. What would you point out as the main differences between the debut and Temi Per Cinema?

Willie: Besides having others added to the mix on Temi Per Cinema we really developed our sound and now we are playing way beyond even Temi Per Cinema. It will be interesting to see what comes from more recordings with other musicians added. We have a few aces up our sleeve we are working on.

Dave: The main difference is the most obvious one, since we added  Dino and Scott on some of our tracks, which helped to expand our already expansive sound.

Temi Per Cinema was recorded with the collaboration of two other artists, Scott Amendola and Dino J. A. Deane. How did this collaboration come about, and are other collaborations in the pipeline?

Willie: as I mentioned above we have a few collaborations in mind. As for Dino and Scott I just simply asked them and then we worked out details. We thought of both of them because we have heard them on many recordings we enjoy, so it just seemed like a good fit.

Dave: I had heard some of Dino’s CDs and I was blown away by what I heard.  It was really more of a wish that we could collaborate with him.  Within 15 minutes or so of Willie contacting him he wrote back and said, “What do you guys want to do?”  I knew of Scott’s playing as well.  Willie contacted Scott through Facebook and we are very fortunate to have both of these amazing artists on Temi Per Cinema.  I still can’t believe they played on our tracks! I guess all you have to do is ask!  I am hoping that we will have some collaborations in Italy that will open up new possibilities for WD-41 and for our next recording.  We have a few Stateside ideas as well  . . .

What are your plans for the second half of the year, once you come back from your Italian tour? Can we expect to see WD-41 perform in the US Northeast, which is often celebrated as the hub for progressive music?

Willie: I’m not sure there is enough time to book far enough ahead for the last part of 2011 but we would love to play anywhere people want us. I may be touring by myself and adding musicians on the way as a live looping thing. It depends on a lot of issues. If fans want WD-41 in their town the options are to book a house concert or nag booking agents and festival promoters in your area.

Dave: I’d love to tour in the US if I can get the time off!  There is a possibility of playing with Dino in Albuquerque, NM, but that is still in the “maybe” stage.

A big thank you to Willie and Dave for their patience in answering my questions, and all my best wishes for your upcoming Italian tour!

Willie: Thank you too Raffaella!!  It’s been great knowing you though the internet and I hope we meet in person soon.

Dave: Thank you Raffaella for this opportunity to share my thoughts about music and WD-41.  It’s great fun to play with Willie, and for me that’s what it’s all about.  To think that in a month we will be playing in Italy is incredible!   Ciao!

 

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/wd41music

http://www.myspace.com/willieoteri

 

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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.

Links:
http://bigblock454.bandcamp.com/

http://bigblock454.tumblr.com/

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