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Posts Tagged ‘Dave Willey’

TRACKLISTING:
1. Malthusian Dances (6:39)
2. I Cannot Fly (8:34)
3. Sleeper Cell Anthem (6:10)
4. A Virtuous Man (11:45)
5. The Gyre (4:42)
6. Climbing the Mountain (8:38)

LINEUP:
Elaine Di Falco – voice
Mark Harris – saxes, clarinets
Mike Johnson – guitars
Kimara Sajn – drums, keyboards
Dave Willey – bass

With:
Kaveh Rastegar –  bass (1)
Robin Chestnut – drums (5)
Dexter Ford – bass (5)

Described by founder Mike Johnson as an “enterprise” rather than a band in the conventional sense, Thinking Plague seem to fit the definition of “cult act” to a T. The many different incarnations of the US answer to seminal European outfits such as Henry Cow and Univers Zéro – based in the rugged mountain state of Colorado, where it was formed by Johnson and guitarist/drummer Bob Drake in 1982 – read like a veritable “who’s who” of the US avant-progressive scene. Thinking Plague’s whole existence has also been characterized by a constant struggle against circumstances, which has inevitably impacted the frequency of their releases. Indeed, with a total of 7 studio albums released in almost 30 years of history, they definitely count among the least prolific bands on the scene, together with Cuneiform label mates Miriodor.

The average progressive rock fan, steeped in the grand symphonic tradition of the early Seventies, usually has a very controversial relationship with the more forward-thinking fringes of the movement – and very few bands are as likely to send prog fans running for the exits as Thinking Plague. Unabashedly intellectual, as their very name (associating the act of thinking with a curse of sorts) suggests, with extremely well-written, thought-provoking lyrics, Thinking Plague take the proverbial complexity of the Avant subgenre up a notch.  Decline and Fall, their highly-awaited seventh album, released almost 9 years after A History of Madness, is certainly no exception. The album also showcases the band’s new lineup (though drummer Robin Chestnut, who was introduced on the occasion of Thinking Plague’s headlining appearance at Cuneifest in November 2011, only appears on one track), spotlighting the contributions of new singer Elaine DiFalco (recently seen on two outstanding albums, Dave Willey and Friends’ Immeasurable Currents and 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard) and drummer/keyboardist Kimara Sajn, a gifted multi-instrumentalist well-known on the Seattle experimental music scene.

Clocking in at under 47 minutes, and entirely written by Mike Johnson, Decline and Fall features 6 tracks connected by a fil rouge made all too clear by the title and artwork  – an apocalyptic reflection on the dismal state of Planet Earth, which, according to Johnson’s musings, has long gone past the point of no return. Through vivid verbal imagery flawlessly supported by the head-spinningly intricate music, humankind is depicted as rushing headlong (and heedlessly) towards destruction, its disappearance the only thing that will be able to save the Earth. While the term “concept album” is generally associated with overambitious productions that often collapse beneath the weight of their own pretensions, Decline and Fall is tight and tense, the synergy between lyrics and music embodied by Elaine DiFalco’s stunning vocal performance. Reviews often mention the role of vocals as just another instrument, but the observation is rarely as fitting as in this particular case. DiFalco’s extremely versatile voice ranges from soothing the ear with subdued gentleness to tackling parts of rollercoaster-like intensity, bolstered by the use of multi-tracking to almost vertiginous effect.

Though the word “multilayered” frequently crops up in prog reviews, it sounds like an understatement if applied to Decline and Fall. True, the listener might occasionally feel that the music is too clever or intricate for its own good, in a sort of “art for art’s sake” manner, and keeping track of the twists and turns in the compositions is anything but an easy task. Decline and Fall demands a lot from its listeners, and it is definitely not the kind of music you would want to keep in the background while doing the housework. On the other hand, contrarily to the trend shown by most “mainstream” prog, displays of individual brilliance have little or no place in Thinking Plague’s world. Each instrument, like a thread in a tight, complex weave, gets its chance to shine, but as part of a whole rather than in isolation. Consequently, solo spots are few and far between, though the excellent sound quality brings each contribution to the fore.

Similarly, Decline and Fall is best approached as a whole, even if each track has its own distinct personality. Unpredictable by definition, the music can be almost unbearably dense, while at times turning rarefied, almost ethereal. Brisk opener “Malthusian Dances” thrives on Sajn’s commanding percussion work, while Mark Harris’ assertive clarinet spars with Johnson’s guitar. “I Cannot Fly”, a barbed attack on the easy consolation offered by religion, is suitably sparse and dissonant, though fleshed out by Dave Willey’s muscular bass lines – which are also spotlighted in “Sleeper Cell Anthem”, together with Sajn’s solemn, martial drumming. The mesmerizing ebb and flow of the  album’s centerpiece, the almost 12-minute “A Virtuous Man”, is so fragmented as to be nearly impossible to describe, and yet oddly cohesive;  DiFalco’s voice seamlessly blends with the impossibly complex lines of the music, surging and fading along with it. The shorter, mostly instrumental “The Gyre” introduces closing track “Climbing the Mountain”, an oddly serene, keyboard-driven number enriched by atmospheric mellotron and understated piano whose unexpectedly abrupt ending seems to suggest humankind’s inevitable demise.

No matter how clichéd it may sound, the warning of “not for the faint-hearted” is quite fitting for an album such as Decline and Fall. Those looking for catchy melodies, conventionally “beautiful” singing and lush orchestrations are bound to be put off by Thinking Plague’s off-kilter, yet highly reasoned approach to composition, and the undeniably depressing subject matter is unlikely to appeal to fans of the more escapist side of prog. This is not the by-numbers doom-and-gloom typical of many progressive metal bands, but a genuinely dystopian vision of the future of humankind conveyed in strikingly beautiful imagery – a true soundtrack of the Apocalypse. While Decline and Fall is clearly not an easy proposition, it will yield rich rewards for those brave enough to approach it.

Links:
http://www.generalrubric.com/thinkingplague/main.html

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Hot Rod Waltz (3:33)
2. Invitation (2:24)
3. Forro Fuega (2:45)
4. Tse-Tse (4:06)
5. 20 Heart (0:54)
6. Orkneys (4:12)
7. Mr. Hamster’s Dilemma (3:51)
8. Celleste (4:57)
9. Botellas de Botica (3:27)
10. Experiment (3:35)
11. Year of my Solstice (5:28)
12. Skallaloo (3:38)

LINEUP:
Elaine DiFalco – voice, piano, keyboards, vibraphone, handclaps, shaker, accordion, qarkabeb, rhythm box, percussion
Cédric Vuille – guitar,  e-bow guitar, bass, keyboards, cuatro, clarinet, ukulele, nose flute, percussion, kalimba, theremin, banjolele, flute, spoons, triangle, jew’s harp
Dave Willey – accordion, bass, tambourine, electric and acoustic guitar, surdo, zither, shaker, percussions, mailing tubes

With:
Daniel Spahni – drums (1, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12)
Raoul Rossiter – pandero, triangle (3)
Udi Koomran – shaker, hand claps (6)
Naama and Michal Koomral – happy sisters (7)

Love or hate the Internet, there is no doubt that without its existence an album such as Send Me a Postcard would have never seen the light of day – much to the detriment of the contemporary non-mainstream music scene. In fact, the three artists who have adopted the quaintly endearing name of 3 Mice reside at opposite ends of the world – Cédric Vuille (of Débile Menthol and L’Ensemble Rayé fame) in Switzerland, Dave Willey and Elaine DiFalco (both members of Thinking Plague, Willey also Hamster Theatre’s founder and mainman) in Colorado. Israeli sound engineer Udi Koomran (one of the icons of the modern Avant-Prog scene) acted as a catalyst by arranging a meeting between the three artists in 2008, when Thinking Plague performed in Vuille’s home town of Geneva. After finding out that they were kindred spirits in their musical vision, Vuille, DiFalco and Willey started their project by sharing files on the Internet, then drafting in some trusted collaborators (namely L’Ensemble Rayé’s drummer Daniel Spahni and Hamster Theatre’s percussionist Raoul Rossiter, as well as Koomran himself). Send Me a Postcard, lovingly packaged in Elaine DiFalco’s delightful artwork, was finally ready for release at the end of 2011.

Clocking in at about 42 minutes, and featuring 12 short tracks (the longest barely above 5 minutes), Send Me a Postcard belongs to the “new generation” of undeniably progressive albums that, however, dispense with most of the trappings of traditional prog – such as epics, orchestral arrangements and somewhat pretentious concepts. Even if the association of the members of 3 Mice with the RIO/Avant scene may prove daunting to those who are more conservatively inclined, the album has more in common with Hamster Theatre’s playful, folksy attitude than Thinking Plague’s austere intensity. Songwriting credits are shared equally between the three artists, who lend them their individual imprint; DiFalco’s compositions are the closest to classic RIO/Avant modes, though with a more informal, laid-back attitude.

Unlike Willey’s recent solo album, the outstanding Immeasurable Currents (which has a very similar structure in terms of running time and number of tracks), Send Me a Postcard is mostly instrumental, though DiFalco’s distinctive voice appears on half of the tracks, engaged in lovely wordless vocalization. There is nothing overly serious or academic about 3 Mice’s approach: the overall mood is decidedly upbeat, reflecting the sheer joy of making music that is at the same time complex and accessible. The emphasis is firmly placed on the sleek, seamless instrumental interplay, with the three musicians switching effortlessly from one instrument to the other; the main actors – the accordion, the guitar and the piano – are complemented by an impressive array of exotic percussion and other ethnic instruments.

Not surprisingly, being the result of the collaboration between a European artist (belonging to a French-speaking cultural environment) and  two American ones, Send Me a Postcard is a quintessentially cosmopolitan effort, merging European folk with Brazilian and Latin suggestions, with classical influences and a hint of intriguing Avant flavour thrown in for good measure. Thanks to Koomran’s peerless mix, every instrument is finely detailed with stunning clarity of sound, and the melodic quotient of each composition is brought to the fore in a remarkably ear-pleasing way. It is also quite intriguing to see how much variety can be packed in a 3-minute song, and how the rich instrumentation creates multilayered  textures in spite of the chamber-like nature of the ensemble.

“Hot Rod Waltz” opens the album with a bold rock-meets-folk flair – electric guitar, bass and drums beefing up the sound and providing a fine foil for the nostalgic tone of the accordion. As suggested by the title, “Orkneys” taps the rich Celtic folk vein, starting out very much like a traditional reel (though driven by accordion rather than the more customary fiddle), and turning more sedate towards the end. The delicate, intimist tone of “Invitation” and “Tse Tse” and the gently chiming interlude of “20 Heart” are offset by the brisk, infectious pace of the Brazilian-influenced, percussion-heavy “Forro Fuega” and the sprightly Caribbean dance of closing track “Skallaloo”. In the only song featuring lyrics, the quirky tale of “Mr Hamster’s Dilemma”, the refreshing laughter of Udi Koomran’s daughters echoes in the background, complementing the jangly, sunny tone of the guitar. On the other hand, the eerie wail of the theremin adds a faintly disquieting note to “Celleste”, and intensifies the autumnal tone of the piano-led “Year of My Solstice”; while the haunting, effects-laden drone of “Experiment” points to the three artists’ RIO/Avant background.

Though quite likely to remain a one-off, Send Me a Postcard is an excellent effort that can be warmly recommended to all lovers of great music, Fans of folk/world music with an ear for quirkiness and subtle complexity will find it especially appealing, though devotees of “traditional” prog’s grandiosely orchestrated textures might find it disappointingly simple for their standards. Easy on the ear without being poppy, brimming with lovely melodies and brilliant instrumental performances (not to mention Elaine DiFalco’s gorgeous voice), Send Me a Postcard is a little gem that will reveal its many charms at each listen.

Links:
http://www.allmusic.com/album/send-me-a-postcard-r2412999

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/3mice

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Too Much Light (Ionesco’s Theme) (3:48)
2. The Old Woods  (5:46)
3. If Two See A Unicorn  (1:58)
4. What A Night  (4:02)
5. The Conservatives  (1:50)
6. Winter  (3:22)
7. I Could Eat You Up  (3:37)
8. Wordswords  (5:40)
9. Autumn  (3:19)
10. Mitch  (2:57)
11. A Garland Of Miniatures  (2:40)
12. Nightfall  (4:31)

LINEUP:
Dave Willey – accordion, bass, drums, keyboards, percussion, guitar, mailing tubes, piano, bells, zither, whistling, electric guitar, folk guitar, organ, guitarrón, harmonium; vocals (10)
Mike Johnson – guitar, electric guitar (4, 5, 7, 8, 12)
Deborah Perry – vocals (all tracks but 9, 10)
Elaine di Falco – vocals (1, 6, 9), piano (8, 9)
Hugh Hopper – bass, loops (2, 4, 12)
Farrell Lowe – guitar (2)
Wally Scharold – vocals (5)
James Hoskins – cello (6)
Emily Bowman – viola (6)
Mark Harris – clarinet (6)
Bruce Orr – bassoon (6)
Dave Kerman – drums (7)
Hamster Theatre – vocals for loops (12)

Known as a member of avant-rock outfits Hamster Theatre and Thinking Plague (and, more recently, 3 Mice), Colorado-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Dave Willey is someone whose whole career as a musician hinges on an eclectic and broad-minded outlook, informed by the sophistication of Europe’s variegated traditions as much as by the rugged nature of the American West. Even his preferred instrument, the accordion, is an icon of  Old-World folk music (with which Willey became acquainted during his frequent visits to Europe), whose headily nostalgic flavour blends seamlessly with the austerely challenging compositions of Thinking Plague, or underpins the quirky, engaging nature of Hamster Theatre’s sound.

Released on AltrOck Productions almost 20 years after Willey’s recording debut, 1993’s  Songs from the Hamster Theatre, Willey’s second solo album, Immeasurable Currents, is a true labour of love, which, in the words of the artist himself, took him “a million years” to complete.  In a moving, heartfelt homage to his father, the late Dale Willey, the album is based on the poems written by Willey Sr. and collected in The Tin Box and Other Poems (2001). The album also marks the last recording appearance of legendary bassist Hugh Hopper before his untimely passing in 2009.  Besides Hopper, the friends assisting him in this venture include his Hamster Theatre/Thinking  Plague cohorts Mike Johnson and Mark Harris, drummer Dave Kerman, miRthkon guitarist Wally Scharold, and an extraordinary pair of vocalists – current and former Thinking Plague singers Elaine diFalco and Deborah Perry. Mostly recorded at Willey’s Colorado home, the album was then mixed and mastered by renowned sound engineer Udi Koomran in Tel Aviv – a truly international, continent-spanning effort.

The first time I heard Immeasurable Currents, a comparison immediately sprang to my mind with another emotionally charged album, released almost 40 years ago –  Robert Wyatt’s milestone Rock Bottom. The presence of the late Hopper with his signature fuzz bass adds to the sheer poignancy of the album, though – unlike some fellow reviewers – I would not apply the word “sad” to the music. Upbeat moments are scattered throughout the album, and crop up almost unexpectedly, creating a charming contrast of light and shade with the more sober, even somber passages. While Immeasurable Currents is bound to make the listener pause and think rather than get up and dance, its musical and lyrical content is a far cry from the contrived doom and gloom of a lot of progressive metal, or the navel-gazing typical of “alt. prog”.

Following an increasingly (and thankfully) popular trend for shorter albums, Immeasurable Currents runs at a mere 43 minutes, consisting of 12 vignettes (mostly penned by Willey, with some noteworthy contributions from his guests) that, in spite of their short duration and deceptively simple appearance, span a wide range of moods and musical textures. The minimalistic yet exquisite instrumental accompaniment highlights the beauty and power of the words without overwhelming them with layers upon layers of sound; while the magnificent vocal performances bring the lyrics’ vivid imagery to life – never concealing its occasionally disturbing nature, but also throwing its ultimately life-affirming quality and keen observation of nature’s phenomena into sharp relief.

Opener “Too Much Light” spotlights the breathtaking beauty of Perry and diFalco’s intertwining voices – the former higher-pitched, almost child-like, the latter deep and smooth, complementing each other perfectly, in stark contrast with the cloyingly sweet stereotype of the female prog vocalist. The nostalgia-infused sound of the accordion lends a smoky, Old-World feel to the piece, and to the following “The Old Woods”,  somewhat similar in mood.  In a dance-like movement, the songs often temper their initial briskness by noticeably slowing down in the second half – such being the case of the troubling “I Could Eat You Up”, which hints at incest while expanding on the well-known fairy tale of Haensel and Gretel; Dave Kerman’s supercharged drumming, coupled with Willey’s frantic accordion, add to the claustrophobic feel of the piece. The subtle but incisive political criticism of “The Conservatives” is set to surprisingly upbeat music, featuring one of the album’s rare guitar solos; while the solemn, chamber-like “Winter” and the understated piano- and accordion-led ballad “Autumn” render the poignancy of the two “darker” seasons of the year in flawless sonic terms.

With its striking, often harsh images intensified by Perry’s stunningly expressive vocals, “Wordswords”  is one of the highlights of the album,  a skewed Astor Piazzolla tango that gradually builds up to a haunting ending, spiced by a hint of dissonance that anchors it to Thinking Plague’s work. “Mitch” showcases Willey’s idiosyncratic but effective voice in a piece that commands comparisons to the likes of Tom Waits; while “What a Night” oozes a mix of intensity and tenderness, its superbly atmospheric coda a perfect foil to the words. The album is then wrapped up by the arresting “Nightfall”, where Perry’s vocal performance reproduces the peculiar arrangement of the written word, almost suspended in a rarefied backdrop of guitar and bass loops.

An album of subtle, multilayered beauty, Immeasurable Currents seems to embody the very definition of “progressive but not prog” (if by “prog” we mean the myriad acts that are firmly and hopelessly stuck in the Seventies).  Its deeply personal nature, coupled with musical textures ranging from mesmerizingly sparse to engagingly upbeat, will appeal to fans of such diverse artists as David Sylvian or Kate Bush, as well as the RIO/Avant brigade. Indeed, the open-minded, forward-thinking music lover will find much to appreciate in this elegant yet humble tribute to a beloved father’s artistic and human vision, set to music that constantly surprises and delights, and full of intriguing reflections on nature and the human condition.

Links:
http://www.allmusic.com/artist/dave-willey-p367258
http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=eng_&id=167&id2=168

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