Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Henry Cow’

A documentary film by José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt
Produced by Zeitgeist Media LLC
Total time: 98 minutes

In the summer of 2010, the release of Romantic Warriors – A Progressive Music Saga took the music scene by surprise, putting a semi-official seal on the much-touted renaissance of progressive rock in the early 21st century. Retracing the origins of the genre while detailing its development in more recent times, the documentary’s no-frills style and unabashed sincerity captured the attention of viewers beyond the usual circles of prog stalwarts. However, Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder did not rest long on their laurels, and, a mere few months after the film’s release, they were already busy working on a follow-up – this time dedicated to the Rock in Opposition movement, a subset of progressive rock with unique characteristics and a devoted following.

In spite of the common misconception that attaches a political meaning to the “opposition” part of the name, the RIO movement was one of the first attempts by a group of bands to break free of the shackles imposed by major record labels and distribution companies and take matters into their own hands. In a way, the five bands that initiated the short-lived, though hugely influential movement (Henry Cow, Univers Zéro, Etron Fou Leloublan, Stormy Six and Samla Mammas Manna, hailing from five different European countries) were forerunners of the current endeavours of non-mainstream bands and artists.

For two solid years, Adele and José worked unceasingly at the second installment of a planned series of documentary films on the progressive rock scene, travelling from their home in the Washington DC metro area to Europe and other parts of the US to meet the protagonists of the original RIO movement and those who have followed in their footsteps. Romantic Warriors II relies on interviews and concert footage (both archival and recent) for the bulk of the narration, though with the addition of elements that had not been fully exploited the first time around. Roland Millman’s judiciously used voice-over lends narrative cohesion to a storyline that might have otherwise come across as somewhat rambling. While in the first Romantic Warriors both authors remained constantly behind the camera, this time the viewer can catch glimpses of José in a few scenes – either behind the wheel, or interacting with the artists. Most of the interviews were conducted on location, though the filmmakers also made use of modern technology by using Skype to conduct video interviews with some of the movement’s main actors.

Romantic Warriors II retraces the history of Rock in Opposition, from its inception in 1978 – when the original progressive rock movement was already on the wane – to its demise and long-lasting legacy. The original protagonists of the scene and their heirs take turns in the spotlight, offering not just a historical perspective, but also a lesson on how the artists can take control by implementing various forms of collaboration. As was also the case with the first Romantic Warriors, the film is as much about the social and historical aspect of the movement and its ramifications as about the music itself – making it more approachable for outsiders. A very interesting mention of the cross-fertilization between the post-RIO bands and the post-punk scene in the early Eighties drives another nail in the coffin of the commonly held myth of the irreconcilable enmity between punk and progressive rock.

For all the undeniable similarities to the first film, both in concept and format, Romantic Warriors II represents a quantum leap in terms of quality. The slightly gritty, warts-and-all approach of the original has been replaced by a more polished brand of realism that, while retaining its objectivity, also leaves room for artistry. The location shots, while often stunning, avoid the pitfalls of a tourist-brochure effect – whether it is a starkly beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains – a very apt visual complement to Thinking Plague’s music – or bustling views of London or Paris (including a breathtaking shot of the Tour Eiffel at night). Those “travelogue” scenes lend a coherent “road-movie” feel to the whole, and also emphasize the quintessentially cosmopolitan nature of the RIO movement. The use of concert-related ephemera (posters, tickets and newspaper clippings) and vintage photos brings the story to life and anchors it to reality. On the other hand, the striking fantasy sequence in which a cloaked and masked figure moves through the medieval alleys of Prague’s Old Town as a visual embodiment of Univers Zéro’s iconic “Jack the Ripper” adds a touch of weirdness and drama to the basically matter-of-fact fabric of the narration.

Not surprisingly, the film features a very broad cast of characters, ranging from the main actors of the original RIO movement to those who have been carrying the torch up to the present day – fans included. Those who are familiar with the first Romantic Warriors will recognize some familiar faces, such as Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records and Paul Sears of The Muffins. Of the many musicians that appear in the film, Henry Cow’s drummer Chris Cutler (who will be present at the Washington DC premiere of the film, on September 28, 2012) is the one who gets the longest time in the spotlight, his testimony providing almost a running commentary to the development of the story – augmented by each of the other contributions until all the pieces of the mosaic fall into place. Thinking Plague’s Mike Johnson’s musings about the sorry state of Planet Earth (with the endless vistas of the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop) add new layers of meaning to the “opposition” part of the movement’s name, anchoring its present developments to some of the most urgent concerns of contemporary society. The last word, however, is left for Magma’s charismatic Christian Vander – an artist who, while never part of the RIO movement, almost embodies the definition of “groundbreaking”. His final quote, reminding the viewer that “something is always possible, even in the worst circumstances”, conveys a strongly inspirational message to anyone who believes in what they do.

Festival and concerts play as large a role as in the original Romantic Warriors. The historic joint performance of Belgian outfits Univers Zéro, Présent and Aranis at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival sets the scene, right before the opening credits; the once-in-a-lifetime event, named “Once Upon a Time in Belgium”, also gets ample coverage towards the end of the documentary. The film includes footage from the equally historic performances of Magma and Univers Zéro at the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits Festival, as well as scenes from 2011’s CuneiFest at the Orion Studios. The “new guard” of the Avant-Progressive scene is represented by an international cast of bands from both Europe and America.

While the first Romantic Warriors may have been chiefly conceived for the benefit of the prog audience, the second episode of Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s progressive rock saga holds a much wider appeal. The music’s very combination of the arty, the quirky and the academically austere will attract people who appreciate forms of non-mainstream music that do not necessarily fall under the “progressive rock” umbrella – including modern classical. The amount of care and attention that have gone into the making of this documentary is also reflected in the DVD’s stylish, scrapbook-like cover photo. Regardless of the intrinsically niche nature of the music, Romantic Warriors II is an outstanding piece of filmmaking in its own right, with the potential to kindle the interest of any lover of the tenth Muse.

Links:
http://www.progdocs.com

http://www.zeitgeistmedia.tv

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Tracklisting:
CD 1:
1. The Bruised Romantic Glee Club
2. Variations on a Theme by Holst
3. Catley’s Ashes
4. When Peggy Came Home
5. Highgate Hill
6. Forgiving
7. No One Left to Lie To
8. The Things We Throw Away
9. Doxy, Dali and Duchamp
10. Srebrenica
11. When We Go Home

CD 2:
1. As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still (incorporating: That Still and Perfect
Summer – Astral Projection in Pinner)
2. Pictures of an Indian City
3. Nirvana for Mice
4. Islands
5. The Citizen King
6. Soon After

Lineup:
Jakko M. Jakszyk – vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, keyboards, mellotron, bass guitar, balalaika, sitar, flute, strings, whistles, sound effects, percussion, programming
Gavin Harrison – drums
Mel Collins – alto and tenor saxes, flute
Dave Stewart – keyboards (CD 1 – 9, CD 2 – 1, 3, 5)
Robert Fripp – soundscapes, electric guitars (CD 1 – 6, 11)
Danny Thompson – double bass (CD 1 – 9, CD 2 – 4)
Mark King – bass guitar (CD 1 -3)
Nathan King – bass guitar (CD 1 – 5)
John Giblin – bass guitar (CD 1 – 6)
Lyndon Connah – piano (CD 1 – 8 )
Ian MacDonald – flute (CD 1 – 2)
Caroline Lavelle – cello (CD 1 – 2)
Helen Kaminga – viola (CD 1 – 2)
Clive Brooks – drums (CD 2 – 1)
Gary Barnacle – alto flute, flute, bass flute and piccolo, tenor and soprano saxes (CD 2 – 1)
Hugh Hopper – bass guitar (CD 1 – 1)
Pandit Dinesh – tabla, vocals (CD 2 – 2)
Ian Wallace – drums (CD 2 – 4)
Suzanne Barbieri – backing vocals (CD 1 – 11)
Django Jakszyk – voice (CD 1 – 11)
Camille Jakszyk – voice (CD 1 – 11)
Chris Baker – Irish priest (CD 1 – 4)

After my review of the groundbreaking yet controversial debut by The Mars Volta, here is another album released during the first decade of the 21st century – though a vastly different one. This is one of the hidden progressive rock gems of recent years, courtesy of a musician who, in spite of his decades-long career and impressive curriculum, is still nowhere close to becoming a household name. In fact, while Jakko M. Jakszyk is in his early fifties, and has shared a stage or a recording studio with many a revered protagonist of the prog scene, most of the bands he has played with over the years are of the positively obscure kind. Before he joined the 21st Schizoid Band in the role that was of Robert Fripp, Jakszyk had been little more than what in my native Italy we would term as an ‘illustrious unknown’, in spite of his short-lived tenure in a relatively high-profile band like Level 42.

Much like its author, “The Bruised Romantic Glee Club” (released in 2006 to a lot of critical acclaim, and become unavailable soon afterwards, due to the record label going under) enjoys cult status among prog fans, though not many people have been able to listen to it. I was lucky to find a copy (at an almost bargain price for a double album) in one of the music stores I used to visit regularly when I lived in Rome. And what a great purchase!  This is an  album that most dedicated prog listeners will appreciate, with all the trademark features of our favourite genre, plus a healthy dose of melody and accessibility. Fans of cover versions will also be absolutely delighted by the contents of CD2 – a splendid collection of classics by the likes of King Crimson, Soft Machine and Henry Cow, performed by some of the stalwarts of the original Canterbury scene.

Right from its cover, a gorgeous, muted snapshot of Jakko walking on Brighton beach at sunset, “The Bruised Romantic Glee Club” is a thoroughly classy package. Everything – the pictures, the detailed liner notes, the graphics, the music – is designed to appeal to listeners of sophisticated tastes, who look upon an album as a complete experience. I would not hesitate to call it a beautiful album in the true sense of the word – not only on account of the very accomplished nature of the music contained within, but also of the stories behind each of the songs.

From even a casual reading of the liner notes, Jakko comes across as a very sensitive, vulnerable human being, consequently bruised by life, but keeping up his optimistic side. Some of the stories attached to individual songs are very moving indeed, especially those related to his family. As many adopted children, he got to meet his real mother much later in life, not long before her untimely death. This part of his life story is the subject of the haunting, Celtic-tinged instrumental “When Peggy Came Home”, dedicated to the burial of his natural mother’s ashes in her birthplace in Ireland; while the following song, “Highgate Hill”, reminisces about Jakko’s own birth in a hospital in the titular area of northern London.

Musically speaking, the first CD features a number of songs and instrumental tracks performed by Jakszyk and a handful of high-profile guest musicians – namely Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison, Mel Collins, former Level 42 bassist Mark King (a well-respected four-stringer), double bass legend Danny Thompson, and even His Majesty Robert Fripp himself. Canterbury keyboard king Dave Stewart also performs on one track (“Doxy, Dali and Duchamp”), as well as on most of CD2. Comparisons to other bands or artists are anything but easy to draw – I have read one review comparing some of the songs on “The Bruised Romantic Glee Club” to David Sylvian’s output, and I find myself in agreement with such a remark. Though Jakko does not have Sylvian’s distinctive, world-weary voice, I find his vocals are the perfect foil for the album’s elegant, somewhat understated musical mood.

On the other hand, there is a distinctly jazzy feel running through the album. The marvellous “Catley’s Ashes”, driven by Mark King’s pneumatic bass, is richly laced with Mel Collins’ masterful saxophone; while the melancholy “The Things We Throw Away” features Jakko’s long-time friend and former bandmate Lydon Connah, and the majestic “Srebrenica” is based on the traditional music of Serbia. Infused with sadness and loss, the atmospheric, rarefied “When We Go Home” (dedicated to the artist’s adoptive mother, Camille) features Fripp on electric guitar, as well as Camille’s own recorded voice.

All the songs are of consistent high quality, with a particular mention for the title-track and the already mentioned “Highgate Hill”. Admittedly, they sometimes border on pop, though in an adult, well-rounded kind of way, and definitely not an overtly easy or commercial one.  Jakszyk also deserves kudos for his skills as a lyricist, something not precisely common in the prog world. While he lays his soul bare, he hardly ever descends into mawkishness, and occasionally injects some humour in the overall wistfulness of his musings.

There is not much that can be said about CD2, if not that it is quite magnificent. The quality of the  ‘raw material’ alone would guarantee excellent results, but what really makes these versions special is the obvious love lavished on them by both Jakko and his distinguished guests. It would be very hard for me to pick out a highlight, though the cover of Henry Cow’s “The Citizen King” is nothing short of stunning, capturing the blend of  wistful beauty and biting irony of the original to perfection. Jakszyk’s Oriental-tinged take on King Crimson’s “Pictures of a City”, featuring Indian percussionist Pandit Dinesh (another former collaborator of the artist), also wins points for inventiveness; while “Islands”, remarkably faithful to the original, fits  perfectly within the album’s stylishly melancholy atmosphere.

As previously pointed out, up  to a couple of years ago or so, “The Bruised Romantic Glee Club” was, to all intents and purposes, impossible to find.  Now it has been reissued, which is great news with anyone whose curiosity will be whetted by this review – as it can be easily counted as one of the best releases of the past decade, a progressive rock album that pays homage to a glorious past, and at the same time feels thoroughly modern. With its intimate, confessional quality, and lush, sophisticated music, it is highly recommended to most prog fans, especially those who appreciate beautiful melodies coupled with flawless instrumental performances.

Read Full Post »