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TRACKLISTING:
1. Into the Subatomic (5:21)
2. Free at Last! (5:17)
3. Mud Becomes Mind (5:14)
4. I Don’t Believe (5:53)
5. Matter Is Energy (4:55)
6. Comprehensible (6:38)
7. Infinite Strength (8:05)
8. Where No One Can Win (8:05)
9. Step Out of Your Body (5:12)
10. The Cauldron (15:18)

LINEUP:
Copernicus – poetry, lead vocals, keyboards
Pierce Turner – musical director, piano, Hammond organ, percussion, backing vocals
Larry Kirwan – electric guitar, vocals
Mike Fazio – electric guitar
Bob Hoffnar – steel guitar
Raimundo Penaforte – viola, acoustic guitar, cavaquinho, percussion, vocals
Cesar Aragundi – electric and acoustic guitar
Fred Parcells – trombone
Rob Thomas – violin
Matty Fillou – tenor saxophone, percussion
Marvin Wright – bass guitar, electric guitar, percussion
George Rush – tuba, contrabass, bass guitar
Thomas Hamlin – drums, percussion
Mark Brotter – drums, percussion

The thirteenth album by New York-based performer-poet Copernicus (aka Joseph Smalkovski), and the third released by MoonJune Records (which is going to reissue the artist’s whole catalogue), Cipher and Decipher is definitely not your average ‘progressive rock’ album, ambitious but ultimately accessible. In fact, is one of those records for which the expression ‘acquired taste’ seems to be tailor-made, and which is at the same time easy and difficult to describe: easy if you want to simplify matters, and say that it is based around a somewhat loopy guy’s ranting and raving over a rather free-form musical background; difficult if you want, instead, to avoid platitudes and offer would-be listeners a more in-depth, nuanced analysis.

Needless to say, even from a quick perusing of the release notes it should be clear that Cipher and Decipher is not for the faint-hearted, or those who like carefully structured music, engaging melodies and conventional singing. This is the archetypal underground production, a marriage of music and poetry steeped in the American beat tradition, dripping with existential ennui and metaphysical musings, in which the music often feels like an afterthought, often sharply diverging from the vocal parts in a sort of schizophrenic effect. Clocking in at slightly under 70 minutes, and barely offering any respite from Copernicus’ over-the-top vocal exertions, it sounds more than a bit daunting (even for a forward-thinking label like MoonJune) and as such quite unlikely to appeal to casual or mainstream-oriented listeners.

And yet, in spite of all these drawbacks, Cipher and Decipher exerts a weird sort of attraction. After a while everything seems to click and, so to speak, begins to make sense. Even as Copernicus’ voice may rub you the wrong way, and make you wish he limited himself to publishing books of poetry like most other people would do, the music perversely sucks you in, and you may find yourself actually enjoying the experience – almost in spite of yourself. At times Copernicus’ secular-preacher recitation blends with the music, at others the two go their separate ways, in a somewhat frustrating fashion. He roars, cajoles, whines, chants, emotes like a Shakespearian actor, leaving very little breathing space to the listener, repeating the key words around which his whole work seems to revolve with a sort of incantatory effect, often augmented by the loose yet oddly mesmerizing nature of the musical accompaniment.

Regarding the concept on which Cipher and Decipher is based, my readers will be able to find all the background information they need in the links I have provided at the end of the review – as well as in the album’s very thorough liner notes. While other reviewers have dedicated at least some space to the album’s lyrical content, I would rather concentrate on the musical aspect, even if I realize it is far from easy to divorce the two. Generally, I do not particularly care for nihilism, and have to admit not being too interested in speculations about the nature of the universe, though neither aspect disturbs me as other kinds of content (i.e. overtly racist lyrics) would. My main interest here is the music, and this is why I would rather avoid launching in any detailed analysis of Copernicus’ message which is much better presented elsewhere.

When listening to Cipher and Decipher, it is important to bear in mind that the music and the vocals often seem to be at odds with each other instead of working together, as would happen in more mainstream recordings. This means that special attention to the musical part is required, and it obviously helps if you like almost completely unscripted music as opposed to the carefully constructed patterns of most conventional progressive rock. Provided by a veritable orchestra of 15 outstanding musicians (including 4 guitarists and almost a full horn section) led by long-time Copernicus associates, expatriate Irishmen Pierce Turner and Larry Kirwan (the latter, together with Thomas Hamlin and Fred Parcells, a member of Celtic-inspired band Black 47), the musical accompaniment to Copernicus’ proclamations is a wildly eclectic mix of influences ranging from experimental free-jazz to early Pink Floyd-style psychedelia.

Organ-drenched opener “Into the Subatomic” immediately sets the scene, both musically and lyrically, followed by the lovely but somber “Free at Last!”, the most genuinely Pinkfloydian number on offer, embellished by some noteworthy acoustic and electric guitar work; while “Mud Becomes Mind” sports a cheery, Afro-Brazilian vibe. The disc’s central section owes quite a lot to free-jazz, rather gloomy in “I Don’t Believe” with its lonesome-sounding trumpet, sparse yet upbeat in “Matter Is Energy”. On the other hand, “Comprehensible” superimposes an overt homage to Pink Floyd, with Larry Kirwan repeating “set the controls further out of the sun” (a paraphrase of the title of one of their most iconic early compositions) to the somewhat chaotic free-jazz template, and “Infinite Strength” (based on Van Morrison’s celebrated “Gloria”) sounds like something out of the Blues Brothers soundtrack – making you want to dance in spite of Copernicus’ weighty proclamations. More Latin influences surface in the funky “Step Out of Your Body”, and the references to Iraq and Afghanistan in “No One Can Win” are aptly punctuated by Middle Eastern echoes conjured by flute and strings. The album climaxes with the sonic and verbal apocalypse of the aptly-titled “The Cauldron”, a 15-minute, voice-driven space jam.

As the previous paragraphs clearly illustrate, Cipher and Decipher is a very peculiar effort, targeted to adventurous listeners, and likely to send the more conservative set of prog fans running for the exits. This is not background music, and is definitely not relaxing – on the contrary, it can easily become a tad wearying, especially on account of Copernicus’ very idiosyncratic vocal delivery and apocalyptic lyrics. The album’s running time can also be an issue, so those who find it hard to concentrate for long might want to avoid tackling it in one go. However, its somewhat sneaky allure may well win over those who are not afraid to get acquainted with less predictable approaches to progressive music.

Links:
http://www.copernicusonline.net

http://www.moonjune.com

http://www.progarchives.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=74511 (interview)

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Tracklisting:
1. Let There Be More Light (5:38)
2. Remember a Day (4:33)
3. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun (5:28)
4. Corporal Clegg (4:12)
5. A Saucerful of Secrets (11:57)
6. See-Saw (4:36)
7. Jugband Blues (2:59)

Lineup:
Syd Barrett – guitar, vocals
David Gilmour – guitar, vocals
Nick Mason – drums
Roger Waters – bass, vocals
Richard Wright – organ, piano, vocals

Needless to say,  Pink Floyd do not belong to the contingent of lower-profile or just plain obscure bands that are often featured in blogs like mine. On the contrary, their fame is such that, outside the restricted circles of progressive rock fans, they are considered as mainstream an act as the likes of Madonna or Michael Jackson. However, with A Saucerful of Secrets we are as far removed as possible from the stadium-filling phenomenon the band would become just a few years later. This a disc of whose existence most fans of the band’s best-selling albums are barely aware, and that gets unfairly overshadowed by the cult status achieved by The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Pink Floyd’s sophomore effort is undoubtedly an album that can polarize listeners’ opinions. Some see it as dated, or lacking in cohesion, since it was released at a turning point for the band, when Syd Barrett, who was slowly descending into mental illness, was being gradually replaced by his friend David Gilmour – which involved a significant shift in the band’s overall sound. In my personal opinion, though, it is one of the great unsung masterpieces of  progressive rock.

No mean feat for a band specialized in killer openers, A Saucerful of Secrets can boast of one of the strongest opening tracks ever committed to record.  “Let There Be More Light” is the archetypal psych/prog composition, with weird, mesmerizing, Eastern-influenced sound effects, and vocals alternating between chant-like whispers and shouts. Together with the album’s best-known song, the equally iconic and hypnotic “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (whose definitive version appears on the “Live at Pompeii” movie), the track was written by Roger Waters, who was well on his way to becoming the band’s true driving force. Those who maintain that Waters was a less gifted composer than Gilmour should probably take a careful listen to both songs.

The mood changes almost abruptly with the following number, the Richard Wright-penned “Remember a Day”. With soothing, wistful vocals that match the nostalgia-filled lyrics (which seem to foreshadow Wright’s untimely passing), it is a delicate, charming piece that is definitely easier on the ear in a musical sense. In a similar key, the lullaby-like “See Saw” (also written by the late keyboardist) is not, however, equally successful, and is, in my view, the weakest track on the album. On the other hand  “Corporal Clegg” and “Jugband Blues”  hark back to the whimsy of much of the Floyd’s debut album, with endearingly zany vocals, odd noises and ironic, nonsense-filled lyrics. “Jugband Blues”, which closes the album in stark contrast to the eerie soundscapes of the opener, can be seen as Barrett’s testament, and feels particularly poignant nowadays, four years after Syd’s demise.

An album’s title-track often acts as its focal point, and this is particularly true of the schizophrenic masterpiece that is “A Saucerful of Secrets”. Over 12 minutes long, the track is introduced by an uncontrolled chaos of weird noises and hypnotic percussive patterns, a sonic storm that suddenly abates to be replaced by a solemn, organ-driven section, featuring wordless singing somewhat suggestive of a church choir. In a way, the song reflects the nature of the album itself, and the circumstances in which it came into being.

For those who have come to know Pink Floyd through their milestone albums of the Seventies, this record may well turn out to be a disappointment, since it is in no way as accomplished, let alone as polished as regards production values. A Saucerful of Secrets is a child of the late Sixties – raw, experimental, slightly incoherent – and as such captures the essence of an era in which creativity and envelope-pushing were rife. It also captures Pink Floyd’s full potential just a few years before the quantum leap that would lead them to conquer the world. An essential listen, and – incidentally – my own favourite  release by the band.

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