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Posts Tagged ‘Hugh Hopper’

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Burden Of Proof (5:51)
2. Voyage Beyond Seven (4:53)
3. Kitto (1:50)
4. Pie Chart (5:07)
5. JPS (1:03)
6. Kings and Queens (6:46)
7. Fallout (6:59)
8. Going Somewhere Canorous? (1:13)
9. Black And Crimson (5:05)
10. The Brief (2:27)
11. Pump Room (5:19)
12. Green Cubes (5:33)
13. They Landed on a Hill (3:03)

LINEUP:
John Etheridge – electric guitar
Roy Babbington – bass guitar
John Marshall – drums, percussion
Theo Travis, tenor sax, flute, Fender Rhodes piano

It should not come as a surprise to find Soft Machine Legacy on the roster of an independent label named after one of the original Soft Machine’s most iconic compositions. The band – the last in a series of Soft Machine offshoots started by bassist Hugh Hopper back in 1978 with Soft Heap – was born in 2004, when guitarist Allan Holdsworth left Soft Works and was replaced by John Etheridge. They released a studio album and two live ones between 2005 and 2006, just before founding member Elton Dean’s untimely passing. Their second studio-based effort, 2007’s Steam,  saw renowned flutist/saxophonist Theo Travis (currently also a member of Gong, The Tangent and Steven Wilson’s band)  take Dean’s place; the album was also to be the last with Hugh Hopper, who succumbed to leukemia in 2009. In spite of these setbacks, Travis, Etheridge and drummer John Marshall (who had originally replaced Robert Wyatt in 1971) recruited another Soft Machine alumnus, bassist Roy Babbington, and went on to produce their third studio album. Burden of Proof, recorded in Italy at Arti e Mestieri keyboardist Beppe Crovella’s Electromantic Studios was finally released on Moonjune Records in the spring of 2013.

Though its name may suggest yet another of the many tribute bands whose popularity often eclipses that of bands performing their own material, Soft Machine Legacy deliver much more than just a reverent homage to one of the most influential bands of the early progressive rock scene. The “Legacy” at the end of the band’s name (even when all of its founders had the legal right to call themselves Soft Machine) emphasizes the continuity between the “mother” band and its offshoots, while ruling out slavish imitation. Bringing together the variegated threads of the history of the band founded by Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen in the mid-Sixties, the quartet led by John Etheridge have perfected their own original sound. Travis’ own soundscaping system, called Ambitronics, lends the proceedings a haunting ambient component, bringing to mind his work with Robert Fripp, and integrating with Etheridge’s use of loops and other effects to replace Mike Ratledge’s trademark fuzzed organ; while his sparing but effective use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano creates an ideal connection to Soft Machine’s turning-point album, Fourth (their first completely instrumental effort).

Featuring 13 relatively short compositions spread over a running time of about 55 minutes, Burden of Proof possesses an internal cohesion of its own. The longer, more structured pieces (between 3 and 7 minutes) are bridged by shorter interludes, mostly improvisational in nature; despite this apparent fragmentation, the music flows effortlessly, and the two “souls” of the album fit together without leaving an impression of patchiness. A stunning rendition of Hugh Hopper’s “Kings and Queens” (from Soft Machine’s Fourth) – strategically located in the middle of the album, and led by Theo Travis’ melodic, melancholy flute meshing with Etheridge’s measured guitar – functions as a centerpiece that captures the original band’s moment of transition from its psychedelic roots to state-of-the-art jazz-rock. Roy Babbington (who guested on Fourth, though not on “Kings and Queens”) is a discreet but unmistakable presence, his finely-honed synergy with John Marshall’s impeccable drumming in evidence right from the opening strains of the title-track – which later develops into an intriguing “conversation piece” between sax and guitar. The upbeat sax intro to “Voyage Beyond Seven” briefly dispels the previous number’s elegantly laid-back atmosphere, before going into a sort of slow-motion that culminates into a rather chaotic, spacey jam with sudden flares of volume.

The deeply atmospheric Etheridge showcase of “Kitto” leads into the slow-burning, jazz-blues saunter of “Pie Chart” – an unexpected but welcome deviation from the band’s heady yet somewhat lofty stylings, as is the bracing boogie-rock of “Pump Room”, with Etheridge delivering a barrage of rough-and-ready riffs and scratchy, distorted chords, aided and abetted by Travis’ buoyant sax. “Black and Crimson” is all about melody Soft Machine Legacy-style, with an almost Latin feel; while the nearly 7-minute “Fallout” sandwiches a loose, improvisational section between a brisk, sax-and-guitar-driven main theme, bolstered by Marshall’s dramatic drum rolls. The album is wrapped up by the noisy avant-garde bash of “Green Cubes”, followed by the spacey, meditative strains of “They Landed on a Hill” – a finale that, in a way, represents the album’s two souls.

Those who have followed Soft Machine Legacy and its previous incarnations for the past two decades will find a lot to love in Burden of Proof, an album that combines melody and ambiance with the almost carefree abandon of improvisation. The four members of Soft Machine Legacy draws upon their individual strengths, striving to create music that, while sophisticated, is also not too detached from the earthiness of rock. Though the amount of improvisation may put off those who prefer their music to be scripted, and the minimalistic approach to composition may be found unsatisfactory by fans of prog’s more convoluted aspects, the album captures a group of seasoned musicians who obviously still enjoy themselves both in the studio and on stage. Even if sometimes demanding, Burden of Proof is also a consistently rewarding listen.

Links:
http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/052_SOFT-MACHINE-LEGACY_Burden-Of-Proof_MJR052/

http://www.johnetheridge.com/softmachinelegacy/index.htm

https://myspace.com/softmachinelegacy/

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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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