Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Hammond organ’

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/

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

TRACKLISTING:
1. G.B. Evidence (5:19)
2. Arabesque (12:32)
3. Dark Magus (9:00)
4. L’Ombra di un Sogno (6:55)
5. Più Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Impressione Vissuta, Part I (5:08)
6. Battery Park (6:37)

LINEUP:
Giovanni Parmeggiani – Hammond organ, acoustic and electric piano, Arp Odyssey, Minimoog
Cristian Franchi – drums
Daniele Piccinini – bass
Marco Marzo Maracas – guitar, oud

With:
Richard Sinclair – vocals (4)
Antonio “Cooper” Cupertino – percussion (4)

Hailing from the historic Italian city of Bologna, home to the oldest university in the world, Accordo dei Contrari (Italian for “Agreement of the Opposites”) started out their career in as a trio; then, after a number of line-up changes, recorded their debut album, Kinesis (released in 2007) as a quartet. The same line-up is featured on Kublai, their sophomore effort, released in the spring of 2011 – an album that is sure to put them on the map of even the most demanding lovers of progressive rock. Sadly, the band was one of the “innocent victims”, so to speak, of the unfortunate cancellation of the 2011 edition of NEARfest, which deprived American prog fans of the opportunity to witness a number of exciting modern bands.

While the album’s title may bring to mind the fabled character of the Mongolian emperor celebrated by the likes of Marco Polo and S.T. Coleridge, in this case the name Kublai is meant to  represent “the most distant point in an imaginary landscape. It represents ordered chaos, light and dark, the balance between written and improvised music.” A clear statement of intent that accurately sums up the musical content of Accordo dei Contrari’s second album. With its stylishly minimalistic cover artwork, Kublai is a supremely classy package that shows a band whose compositional and instrumental mastery is growing by leaps and bounds.

Running at a compact, perfectly balanced 45 minutes, the album sounds fresh and original even when the band’s main sources of inspiration are referenced. While Accordo dei Contrari do not choose to employ as extensive an array of instruments as other modern bands, they manage to create an impressive volume of sound with a rather restrained instrumentation, dispensing with the violin and saxophone featured on their debut, and therefore perfecting the “electric quartet” format. For an album that might be tagged as jazz-rock, Kublai seems to revolve a lot around Giovanni Parmeggiani’s stunning keyboard work. Indeed, the keyboards are definitely the driving force of the disc, with the distinctive rumble of the Hammond organ lending a touch of unbridled hard rock passion to the overall sound: there are moments on Kublai in which Parmeggiani sounds as if he was channeling Jon Lord.

Opener “G.B. Evidence”, a variation on a Thelonious Monk composition, immediately introduces the listener to the fascinating world of Accordo dei Contrari, with Cristian Franci’s crisp, inventive drumming, bolstered by Daniele Piccinini’s sleek, versatile bass lines, sparring with Marco Marzo’s simmering guitar and Parmeggiani’s subtly layered keyboards. In the second half, guitar and organ engage in a sort of dialogue that conjures images of Deep Purple jamming with Mahavishnu Orchestra. Clocking in at 12 minutes “Arabesque” presents Accordo dei Contrari’s own twist on the obligatory prog ‘epic’, making effective use of a steady electronic drone to create a faintly ominous atmosphere underlying the stately beauty of the Eastern-flavoured acoustic guitar arpeggios in the first part of the track. The overall loose, somewhat rarefied texture, the flow of the music broken by frequent pauses and surges in volume, occasionally gains intensity in bursts of energy that bring to mind the revolutionary sonic melting pot of Area circa Arbeit Macht Frei. Bookended by sonorous gong. “Dark Magus” (a nod to Miles Davis’ 1974 album of the same title) reinforces the impression of classic jazz rock coupled with the intensity of vintage hard rock. Parmeggiani attacks his Hammond with unadulterated abandon, while Franci’s stellar drumming propels the whole of the composition along, with Marco Marzo’s guitar in an invaluable supporting role.

Strategically placed at the opening of the album’s second half, “L’Ombra di un Sogno (Shadow of a Dream)” is the only track with vocals, provided by none other than the ‘voice of Canterbury’, Richard Sinclair, who also wrote the gentle, moving lyrics in memory of his dog. Centred around Sinclair’s subdued yet emotional interpretation, his velvety baritone bending the music to its will, the song – somewhat sparse at first, with a hauntingly insistent guitar line, then taking a jazzier turn towards the end – brings the the sound of iconic Canterbury bands such as Hatfield and the North and National Health into the 21st century. On the other hand, “Piu’ Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Espressione Vissuta, Pt. 1”  steers towards a more symphonic direction, with organ and guitar alternating in the lead role, and an overall solemn, meditative feel even when the pace picks up. The album ends with the “Battery Park” (inspired by a windy, sunny February day by the Hudson River in New York City), a lovely, piano-led  piece based around a main theme developed in a stop-start movement, the various sections climaxing and then subsiding like the natural flow of a water course.

A perfect marriage of formal elegance and emotion, rich with diverse influences but always cohesive, Kublai clearly proves that Accordo dei Contrari are ready to take their rightful place alongside D.F.A. as purveyors of impeccably executed, yet warm and emotional jazz-rock in which keyboards play a prominent role. The band have amply fulfilled the promise shown by their debut, Kinesis, and the compositional and technical maturity shown on their sophomore effort bodes extremely well for their future career. A must for fans of the Canterbury scene and classic jazz-rock in general, Kublai will delight anyone who loves great music – whatever the label attached to it.

Links:
http://www.accordodeicontrari.com/

 

Read Full Post »

SETLIST:
Black Country
One Last Soul
Crossfire
Save Me
The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall
Beggarman
Faithless
Song of Yesterday
The Outsider
Cold
The Ballad of John Henry
I Can See Your Spirit
Sista Jane

————–

Man In the Middle
Burn

Even though this blog is mostly focused on progressive rock in all its forms, I am, and always have been, a fan of good, old-fashioned hard rock. As much as I love the sophistication and intellectual appeal of prog, there is something about the powerful wail of a cranked-up electric guitar, or the equally powerful roar of an iron-lunged vocalist that appeals to both the physical and the emotional side of my nature. It is no wonder, then, to find an album like Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell in my personal Top 10 – and no wonder either that a band like Black Country Communion, in the ten months since the release of their debut album, has immediately become such a firm favourite that both their CDs get almost daily spins in our player.

When the band’s formation was first announced, the presence of Glenn Hughes alone would have been enough to attract my interest, as he has been my favourite vocalist for the past ten years or so, even over such luminaries as Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillan. The first time I saw him perform live, at London’s Mean Fiddler club in October 2003, as soon as he started to sing my jaw dropped on the floor and stayed there for the whole duration of the concert. I have also been following his career closely, and acquired quite a few of the numerous albums he has released over the years – including the near-legendary Hughes-Thrall album (originally released in 1982), and his collaborations with another rock legend, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer magnificence that is Black Country Communion.  Even though supergroups can often be rather hit-and-miss affairs that hardly ever last beyond one album, scuppered by ego clashes or by just failing to deliver the musical goods, BCC are all set to become the glaring exception to the rule. While snobs might superciliously label them as a retro or nostalgia act, accusing them of rehashing old modes of musical expression, or cashing in on some members’ erstwhile fame, in my humble view they possess the same classic, timeless quality of those dishes or items of clothing that never go out of fashion. There is something deeply comforting in the knowledge that, on a music scene all too often dominated by fads, where most of the offer seems to be little more than a triumph of style over substance, there are still artists that choose to play the music they want, and use the same strategies as the trailblazers of the late Sixties – writing brilliant material, releasing albums every few months or so (instead of keeping fans waiting for years), and – most importantly – performing their music on stage, where it really belongs.

Indeed, while  probably a good half of current prog releases are studio-only projects (sometimes carried out through the Internet), Black Country Communion’s music begs to be played in front of an audience. While each of the four members could live comfortably for the rest of their lives without having ever to tread the boards of a stage again, seeing them perform on the evening of June 19  confirmed that this is an outfit tailor-made for raising hell in a live setting. The 9.30 Club – a no-frills venue situated in a slightly seedy (though full of character) neighbourhood of Washington DC, with no seating except for a handful of bar stools, a balcony and a stage raised high enough to make it visible even to small people like me – provided the perfect locale for a profoundly satisfying evening of loud, passionate, flawlessly performed, bluesy hard rock – the kind of entertainment that leaves you physically drained because you have been standing up for over three hours in close proximity to other equally excited fans, dancing, yelling, singing along and pumping your fists in the air, while being hit by the full force of the sound blasting out of a stack of Marshall amps. Indeed, quite a change from being comfortably seated in a theatre, listening intently to the elaborate musical concoctions of your average prog band…

The sizable crowd was a mix of the older and the younger generations; some audience members had brought their children with them, as living proof of BCC’s timeless appeal – unlike, I am sorry to say, far too many stuck-in-a-time-warp progressive rock acts. I had noticed the same thing at the Blue Oyster Cult show in Baltimore, back in February – there is a reason why such bands are often  called ‘classic rock’. When we got in, securing a nice position a few feet from the stage, the anticipation was palpable. At 8 p.m., the lights dimmed, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” started blaring from the PA, eliciting a round of excited yells from the audience. A bit clichéd maybe, but a fitting introduction to one of the very best concerts I have been fortunate to attend.

The concert was the last date of the band’s first US tour – expected, as Glenn Hughes repeated on several occasions, to ‘build a foundation’ for a band that aims to fill a void in the current music market – judging from the comments gathered around the Web, an unqualified success in spite of its short duration. With no opening act, the audience was allowed to concentrate completely on BCC’s show, introduced by the formidable one-two punch of “Black Country” and “One Last Soul” (from the band’s debut album). As expected, Glenn Hughes totally owned the stage, wielding a nicely battered, vintage red and white bass, and displaying a level of energy that many people half his age (he will turn 60 at the end of August)  would kill for. As soon as he opened his mouth to belt out the first lines of the pulsating anthem “Black Country”, there was no doubt that he amply deserved his nickname of ‘The Voice of Rock”.  Most of those who have been lucky to see him live will wonder how those golden pipes of his can withstand the strain of singing with that kind of intensity night after night. Though some people cannot warm to his voice, and are annoyed by what they perceive as over-the-top vocal acrobatics, I am happy to report that he has toned things down considerably, his voice adapting to the music rather than the other way around.

Indeed, BCC is not a Glenn Hughes vehicle, but very much of a tight unit in which everyone works towards the final result. No one with a large ego would share vocal duties with someone as gifted as Joe Bonamassa (whose voice sounds at times like a higher-pitched version of Paul Rodgers). Glenn is also a fine lyricist, capable of penning standard rock anthems as well as deeply emotional pieces, such as the ones dealing with those dark years when he came very close to self-destruction. For somebody who has stared in the face of death, and lost many a good friend in recent years (including his childhood friend and fellow Trapeze member, Mel Galley), he is in superb shape, and his positive attitude  to life is to be commended in an age when people seem to enjoy wallowing in negativity. He is also one of those rare singers whose voice has actually improved with age, in spite of his struggle with various addictions. While in his Trapeze and Deep Purple days Glenn’s voice had occasionally sounded a tad shrill, now it has acquired a depth and versatility that, coupled with his awesome range, allow him to sing just about anything with stunning results.

Though they have been jokingly called “Purple Led” or “Deep Zeppelin”, BCC actually do not sound anything like Hughes’ former band. On the other hand, the Led Zeppelin comparisons are certainly more appropriate: Joe Bonamassa is the 21st century’s answer to Jimmy Page, and has also stepped into the void left by Gary Moore’s unexpected passing in February 2011. In a scene riddled with shredders, Bonamassa’s brilliantly emotional playing and considerable songwriting skills (as shown by “The Battle of Hadrian’s Wall” and “Song of Yesterday”, the latter possibly the highlight of the whole set) are a breath of fresh air, proving once again that great music does not necessarily have to break new ground each and every time. On stage he employed a nice array of guitars, including a double-necked one for the wistful, folk-tinged “The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall” (stirring memories of the immortal “The Battle of Evermore”), and a Flying V for the two encores – as well as a spot of Theremin towards the end of the set.

Keyboard maestro Derek Sherinian plays an even larger role on stage than he does on record, putting to rest any allegations of BCC being a power trio with just a token helping of keyboards. His maple-encased Hammond B-3 provided that indispensable background rumble (though at times it tended to overwhelm the vocals); he also performed the only solo spot of the evening. Jason Bonham pounded away at his rather understated kit (especially if you are used to the likes of Mike Portnoy) with enthusiasm and precision – clearly a very capable drummer in the no-nonsense mould of his father or Cozy Powell, and perfectly suited to the band’s sound, which does not need fancy flourishes, but rather solid, powerful time-keeping. Until halfway through the set, both him and Sherinian looked dead serious, almost grim – but then both of their faces lit up when Hughes heaped lavish (and clearly heartfelt) praise on his fellow band members. The deep personal bond between the four players is clearly the secret to BCC’s success, and bodes very well for the band’s future endeavours.

Besides 8 out of 11 tracks from the band’s second album (released only a few days before the gig),  the stunning two-hour set featured a selection of songs from their debut, the gorgeous, slow-burning Bonamassa composition “The Ballad of John Henry” (from his 2009 album of the same title), and a blistering rendition of Deep Purple’s “Burn” as a final encore, with its iconic Hammond riff and Hughes screaming his heart out as he did almost 40 years ago at the legendary California Jam. Though I was a bit disappointed about the absence of personal favourites such as “Medusa” or “Down Again”, BCC’s performance was so exhilarating that it left no room for minor quibbles. In spite of the feeling of physical exhaustion and the ringing in our ears, we were left wanting more, and the promise of another US tour next year filled us with joy and anticipation. Clichéd as it may sound, Black Country Communion have really put the “super” back in “supergroup”. Long may they reign!

 

Read Full Post »


TRACKLISTING:
1. Death Walks Behind You (7:24)
2. VUG  (5:03)
3. Tomorrow Night (4:02)
4. 7 Streets (6:47)
5. Sleeping For Years (5:30)
6. I Can’t Take No More (3:36)
7. Nobody Else (5:04)
8. Gershatzer (8:01)

LINEUP:
Vincent Crane – piano, keyboards, Hammond organ, vocals
John DuCann – guitar, vocals
Paul Hammond – drums, percussion

In the progressive rock community there is some controversy regarding the status of Atomic Rooster as a full-fledged prog band.  Like many Seventies acts often placed under the ‘heavy prog’ umbrella (Captain Beyond and High Tide to name but two), in the eyes of purists they are little more than glorified hard rock combos with some hints of something more complex, yet more akin to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath than Genesis or Yes. In recent times I have happened to see Atomic Rooster labeled as a ‘dark’ band – a definition that made me think of the likes of The Cure or Siouxsie and the Banshees rather than any of the classic bands of the Seventies.

On the other hand, as both the brilliant title and the iconic cover (depicting William Blake’s “Nebuchadnezzar” on a simple black background) suggest, Death Walks Behind You is a very dark album – a haunting, Hammond-drenched effort which sounds like a encounter between Black Sabbath and Deep Purple with ELP writing the soundtrack. In many ways, it can be seen as the blueprint for the heavier side of prog, a lavish feast for any self-respecting fan of the mighty Hammond organ, and a welcome respite from the pastoral soundscapes of  Camel or Genesis, or the mind-boggling intricacy of Yes. Definitely hard-edged, occasionally oppressive, undeniably raw and unpolished, it possesses the kind of power that many more recent albums strive in vain to achieve.

This is one of the rare albums that captured my attention right from the first listen. True, Death Walks Behind You is not perfect, but then very few albums are, even those normally hailed as masterpieces. Vincent Crane’s highly effective, aggressive playing style, perfectly complemented by the expressive voice and blistering guitar lines of John DuCann (formerly with proto-prog outfit Andromeda), is a real treat for the ears of every Hammond lover. The third band member, drummer Paul Hammond (who replaced co-founder Carl Palmer when the latter joined ELP), lays down a powerful backbeat, assisted by Crane’s skillful use of both keyboard and foot pedals to replace the missing bass lines. This idiosyncratic take on the classic power trio unleashes a massive volume of music that, while not as technically impeccable as what ELP or Deep Purple were producing at the time, is brimming with sheer intensity.

A couple of tracks relieve the tension and overall dark mood of the album – namely the catchy, almost upbeat “Tomorrow Night” (originally released as a single), and the heavy rock-goes-commercial “I Can’t Take No More”. Neither are personal favourites: in my view, especially the latter could be scrapped from the album without doing a whole lot of damage. On the other hand, the slow, melancholy number “Nobody Else”, dominated by Crane’s piano, sees a remarkably emotional vocal performance by DuCann, providing a perfect foil for Crane’s despondent, foreboding lyrics (he suffered from mental problems and ended up committing suicide, as did Hammond).

The real highlights of the album, however, are to be found elsewhere. The title-track is introduced by dissonant, menacing piano, then explodes into a memorably hypnotic organ riff punctuated by the obsessive repetition of the title, “Death Walks Behind You”.  “7 Streets” is a more structured composition, based on the interplay between organ and guitar, while “Sleeping for Years” is in a similar vein, though with a slightly darker tone – both excellent examples of vintage heavy prog, somewhat influenced by Black Sabbath, but with better vocals and lashings of keyboards replacing Tony Iommi’s monstrous riffing. The two instrumentals, “VUG” and “Gershatzer”, are probably the most progressive offerings on the album, showcasing Crane’s skills as a Hammond player; the latter, which is almost 8 minutes long, has the slightly loose feel of a jam session, intensified by the presence of a short drum solo.

Though not exactly flawless, Death Walks Behind You is an impressive offering  that is  almost a must-listen for Hammond fans and anyone who likes their prog with a harder edge (though not necessarily metal). A fascinating, almost addictive album by an underrated band, whose long but chequered career ended tragically with Vincent Crane’s death in 1989.

Read Full Post »

TRACKLISTING:
1. Leslie Anne Levine    (4:12)
2. Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect (4:31)
3. July, July! (2:51)
4. A Cautionary Song  (3:08)
5. Odalisque (5:20)
6. Cocoon (6:48)
7. Grace Cathedral Hill  (4:28)
8. The Legionnaire’s Lament  (4:44)
9. Clementine (4:07)
10.California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade  (9:50)

LINEUP:
Colin Meloy – lead vocals, guitars, percussion
Chris Funk – guitars, pedal steel, theremin
Jenny Conlee – Hammond organ, Rhodes piano, regular piano, accordion
Nate Query –  upright bass
Ezra Holbrook – drums, percussion, backing vocals

Many of those people who (sometimes in spite of themselves) were won over by The Decemberists’ award-winning 2009 release, the sumptuous rock opera The Hazards of Love, will certainly have felt the impulse to delve into the Portland band’s back catalogue, and thus come across their debut, Castaways and Cutouts. Though the specialized press has often placed the band under the ‘progressive rock’ umbrella (as  was definitely the case with the first article I read about them,  in the autumn of 2006), true-blue prog fans are sharply divided about this issue. While the more conservative set often refuse to acknowledge anything not sounding like the Seventies bands, the more open-minded fans have equally often embraced the band as a firm favourite.

As is the case of all Decemberists releases but The Hazards of Love (and possibly their 2004 EP, The Tain),  Castaways and Cutouts is an effort that can only in part be called progressive. In fact, a good proportion of the songs follow in the footsteps of  the great American folk tradition, influenced by its European counterpart, yet at the same time noticeably different.  It is nevertheless an album that prog fans can definitely find appealing (unless they are of a seriously close-minded disposition), and even features a couple of tracks that might be tagged as ‘epics’. Based on a series of vignettes often focused on the plight of the less fortunate members of society (as the title implies), handled in terms that range from the downright grotesque to the deeply compassionate, the album undeniably possesses a powerful lyrical impact – which has become a constant of the band’s output, making very effective use of Colin Meloy’s fertile, erudite imagination and remarkable skill as a wordsmith.

Meloy’s stories, deeply rooted in the folklore of both the Old and the New World, are not meant to leave the listener cold, even resorting to shock tactics in their stark description of seedy milieus and events. Indeed, some of the situations depicted on  Castaways and Cutouts are not for the faint-hearted, even without resorting to excessively graphic detail. Luckily, not all is not doom and gloom on this album. Meloy approaches his subject matter, no matter how sordid or depressing, from a perspective of poetic realism, presenting the events with a compassionate stance, avoiding the almost masochistic wallowing in misery that, for instance, seems to be almost the rule for progressive metal bands. His voice, with its somewhat nasal twang and precise enunciation, may be an acquired taste for some, but is also quite perfect for the sort of storytelling displayed on the album.

I have always been impressed by The Decemberists’ ability to produce memorable opening tracks – in my view, one of the real strengths of a band in compositional terms – and “Leslie Ann Levine” is no exception. A hard-hitting account of suicide and stillbirth, told from the point of view of a dead baby, it is the follow-up to “We All Go Down Together” (featured on  Picaresque, the band’s third studio release), which, however, does not pack the same punch, either musically or lyrically. While its folksy, accordion-driven tune, with its vague French flavour, is only mildly wistful, the lyrics drip with sadness and regret. Some of the songs are straight-up acoustic folk numbers, where the music seems to take a back seat, and as such might appear too ‘simple’ to those craving the complexity (whether authentic or fake) of ‘mainstream’ progressive rock. The profoundly disturbing, dirge-like “A Cautionary Song” (a tale of prostitution motivated by abject poverty), and the wistfully romantic love songs  “Grace Cathedral Hill” and “Clementine” belong to this group, where the minimalistic musical accompaniment allows the narrative component to emerge, driven along by Meloy’s plaintive, nostalgia-filled vocal style.

On the other hand, the upbeat “July! July!”, whose deceptively optimistic mood conceals another disquieting tale of violent death, and the haunting dreamscapes of “I Dreamed I Was an Architect” display a catchier, more listener-friendly approach, with memorable choruses and a richer instrumental background. The aptly-titled “Cocoon”, a dreamy, almost slow-motion number inspired by the science fiction of the late Kurt Vonnegut, feels almost reassuring in the midst of so much turmoil; while “The Legionnaire’s Lament” is an infectious divertissement sporting some of the wackiest rhymes this side of Lewis Carroll. That leaves the two aforementioned epics, though in terms of running time only album closer “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” might be described as such. However, the mesmerizing, Hammond-drenched strains of “Odalisque” – another pitch-black, convoluted tale of sexual perversion, rape and (probably) infanticide – are such a towering achievement as to give the impression of a much longer song. “California One”, on the other hand, celebrates the beauty of nature and youth with a deep vein of nostalgia for a bygone past – its almost 11 minutes, driven by piano, pedal-steel guitar and touches of theremin, evoking a distinct Sixties West Coast feel.

An outstanding debut album, lavishly packaged in a booklet graced by the quirky illustrations of Carson Ellis (Colin Meloy’s then-girlfriend, now his wife, and a professional graphic artist), Castaways and Cutouts is highly recommended to those who are constantly seeking for both lyrical challenges and music that manages to be catchy and thought-provoking at the same time. Though here they will not find the myriad complexities and head-spinning changes of canonical progressive rock, open-minded (and curious) prog fans could do much worse than get acquainted with the wild and wonderful world of Colin Meloy and The Decemberists.

Links:
http://www.decemberists.com

Read Full Post »