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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

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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. 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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