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Posts Tagged ‘Sonic Circuits Festival’

TRACKLISTING:
1. Big Sur (4:51)
2. The Clearing  (2:21)
3. Leaving The Woods (5:40)
4. Symphony Hills (1:07)
5. Lily In The Garden (4:15)
6. Auburn Road (0:43)
7. Mustang Song (5:40)
8. Stay With Me (0:51)
9. A Viennesian Life (3:50)
10. Broome’s Orchard (7:56)
11. ‘Cross The Williamsburg Bridge (1:33)
12. Where Will We Go (6:39)
13. Finale (1:28)

LINEUP:
Janel Leppin – cello, Indian cello, violin, Saarang Maestro DX,  Prophet 5, piano, koto, electric guitar, Hammond organ, Mellotron, harpsichord, vibraphone, detuned autoharp, singing spoon, loops, electronics
Anthony Pirog – electric and acoustic guitars, baritone guitar, electric sitar, lap harp, lap steel, bass mandolin, bass, cymbals, gong, vibraphone, music boxes, loops, electronics

With:
Mike Reina – mellotron (9)

Janel Leppin and Anthony Pirog are two accomplished multi-instrumentalists who grew up in Vienna, a charming Northern Virginia town that is part of the Washington DC metropolitan area, where they attended the same high school. During those years, they began playing together at Leppin’s home village of Wedderburn, though they only started performing as a duo in 2005. Their eponymous debut album was released in 2006, and since then the duo has attracted a lot of attention on the independent music scene. The memory of the two musicians’ idyllic teenage years and the loss of the Leppin family home (converted into yet another housing development) is the inspiration behind Where Is Home, their sophomore effort, released in the summer of 2012 after three years of  steady work.

Janel and Anthony have different, yet complementary musical backgrounds: Pirog, a Berklee graduate, is a guitarist with a jazz background and an eclectic attitude, while Leppin is a conservatory-trained cellist deeply influenced by North Indian and Persian classical music. Those wide-ranging sources of inspiration converge in the duo’s musical output, which even the most obsessive classification geeks would find it hard to label, and even harder to compare to other acts. Seamlessly blending acoustic and electric instruments with cutting-edge electronics, enhanced by  a discreet sprinkling of percussion (though without drums), Janel & Anthony’s music possesses a uniquely intimate charm and gently wistful tone that would make it the ideal soundtrack for a crisp autumn evening. Though the instrumentation featured on the album is surprisingly rich, the compositions hinge on the sleek interplay between Leppin’s cello and Pirog’s electric guitar on an entrancing backdrop of skillfully employed loops. the high level of complexity is realized with an elegant subtlety that contrasts with the over-the-top antics of so many modern prog acts.

The elegiac nature of Where Is Home – steeped in the nostalgia for a bygone era, and suggested by most of the track titles –  unfolds gradually, as opener “Big Sur” is jaunty romp with the heady Eastern flavour contributed by Leppin’s sitar and Saarang Maestro DX (a digital version of the tanpura, a long-necked North Indian lute), while pizzicato cello lends a sharp, almost percussive rhythm that complements the insistent chime of Pirog’s guitar. Then, “The Clearing” marks a shift in tone, introducing a slight element of dissonance in the track’s sedate, meditative mood vaguely tinged with menace – a mood that continues in the haunting “Leaving the Woods”, based on a slow, measured conversation between guitar and cello, which sometimes merge, sometimes go their separate ways. The longer tracks are interspersed by short, ambient-like interludes mostly based on electronics, though the album itself runs at a very restrained 46 minutes – the ideal duration for such a sophisticated, mood-based effort.

While the cello-driven “Lily in the Garden” exudes a lovely autumnal charm, intensified by the almost monotonous pace of the guitar, “Mustang Song” sees Leppin and Pirog engage in a bracing guitar-based duet, shifting from a soothing, melodic tone to a more assertive one. In “A Viennesian Life” two mellotrons (one of them courtesy of sound engineer Mike Reina) are brought in to add further layers to the lush atmosphere of the piece, in which several different strains play at the same time and are expertly meshed by the two musicians. In contrast, the longest track on the album, the almost 8-minute “Broome’s Orchard” has a more straightforward structure, and the many instruments involved act discreetly, without disrupting the sparse, meditative mood of the piece. Finally, the middle section of “Where Will We Go” introduces atonal elements and eerie electronic noises, bookended by more melodic parts.

An exquisite album that conflates impeccable formal skill with genuine feeling, Where Is Home is highly recommended to lovers of chamber-rock and instrumental music that privileges atmosphere and emotion over complexity for its own sake. In spite of the “avant” tag that Janel and Anthony’s association with Cuneiform Records or events such as the Sonic Circuits festival might evoke, the album is surprisingly accessible, and will hold an almost irresistible appeal for those for whom music means more than just a backdrop to everyday activities.

Links:
http://www.janelandanthony.com

http://www.janelleppin.com

http://www.anthonypirog.com

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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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. Sorrows of the Moon (5:10)
2. Two for Joy (6:50)
3. Little Shadow (11:48)
4. If Not Inertia (6:57)
5. The Widening Gyre (8:01)
6. Gonz (6:38)
7. Let’s  (5:23)

LINEUP:
Brett Sroka – trombone, computer, whistling
Sam Harris – piano, prepared-piano, Rhodes electric piano
Shawn Baltazor – drums

With:
Mary Halvorsen – guitar, effects (1, 5, 6)
Sebastian Kruger – acoustic guitar (7)

Electroacoustic trio Ergo was formed in the early 2000s by New York-based trombonist Brett Sroka, who was inspired by the seamless blend of electronics and more traditional instrumentation featured on Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A. After the 2006 release of their debut, Quality Anatomechanical Music Since 2005, original drummer Damion Reid was replaced by Shawn Baltazor, while current keyboardist Sam Harris (who replaced Carl Maguire) joined in 2010. Ergo have been signed to Cuneiform Records since their second album, multitude,  solitude (2009), and have performed at a number of on avant-garde music festivals, such as Washington DC’ Sonic Circuits  – where they will be appearing again in September 2012.

The sinuous curves rendered in minimalistic black and white of the artwork (titled “Loop in Layers”) that graces the cover of If Not Inertia, Ergo’s third CD release, come across almost as a statement of intent. Indeed, the band’s sound hinges on the use of loops and a wide range of other electronic effects, controlled by Sroka’s trusted computer, which mesh with the warm, organic tones of the trombone, drums and piano. Ambient, avant-garde and free jazz mingle in seven tracks that offer dissonant patterns underpinned by insistent drones, and some unexpected snippets of skewed melody that temper the austerely rarefied quality of the music.

The seven compositions included on If Not Inertia range from the 5 minutes of opener “Sorrows of the Moon” to the almost 12 minutes of “Little Shadow”, for a total running time of around 50 minutes. Some of the tracks offer intriguing sonic renditions of celebrated literary works in a way that – while markedly different from the grandiose approach of the average progressive rock band – undeniably makes for an arresting listening experience. The three band members are supplemented by renowned avant-garde guitarist Mary Halvorson (guesting on three tracks) and acoustic guitarist Sebastian Kruger on one track.

If Not Inertia is an album of light and shade, made of sounds that possess a somewhat brittle quality, like glass that is about to break. The main instruments often seem to be playing different lines, which nevertheless coalesce to create a texture reminiscent of an abstract painting, at the same time ethereal and intensely expressive.  “Sorrows of the Moon” recreates the Baudelaire poem of the same name in melancholy, haunting fashion, depicting its inherent languor and ennui through the mournful voice of the trombone and a droning piano line overlaid by almost melodic guitar. “The Widening Gyre”, inspired by William Butler Yeats’ iconic poem “The Second Coming”, like the titular item starts out slowly with measured drums and gentle piano, then erupts into trombone-led chaos that conveys the poem’s stark, powerful imagery (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”). While “Two for Joy” and the title-track rely on plenty of sound effects (such as whistling) to weave an ethereal yet slightly spooky atmosphere, the buoyant trombone in closing track “Let’s” is almost catchy, bolstered by drums, piano and lilting acoustic guitar.

If Not Inertia will delight lovers of ambient and experimental jazz, as well as those with a keen interest in the use of computers for music-making. This is an album for adventurous listeners, and those with a high tolerance for dissonance and the lack of a recognizable structure – which means it may be of somewhat limited interest for the traditional prog fan. On the other hand, open-minded music buffs will find it a challenging but rewarding listen.

Links:
http://www.ergoisaband.com/

http://www.myspace.com/ergo

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. La Faulx  (25:03)
2. Jack the Ripper (13:20)
3. Vous Le Saurez En Temps Voulu (12:51)
4. Chaos Hermetique (bonus track) (11:52)

LINEUP:
Michel Berckmans – oboe, bassoon (1-3)
Daniel Denis – drums, percussion
Patrick Hanappier – violin, viola
Vincent Motouille – keyboards (4)
Guy Segers – bass, voice
Roger Trigaux – guitar, piano, organ, harmonium

Released when the original prog movement had, for the most part, already run out of steam, over the years Heresie has built a reputation as one of the gloomiest, most disturbing records ever produced in a progressive rock context. A descent into unadulterated darkness, Univers Zéro’s second album enjoys near-legendary status in the more forward-thinking circles of prog fans. As technically brilliant as any of the ‘big name’ bands of the early Seventies (and possibly even more so), the Belgian outfit approach the creation of highly challenging music from a distinctly different angle than the likes of Genesis or Yes – while a comparison with King Crimson might feel more appropriate.

Almost 32 years after Heresie’s release, Univers Zéro are the only founding band of the Rock in Opposition movement to be still active. With their latest release, Clivages, hailed as one of the last year’s landmark albums, their performance at the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits Festival in Washington DC (thanks to the joint efforts of the festival organizers and the band’s label, Cuneiform Records) was nothing short of breathtaking. They are also, however, a very divisive band to the more conservative set of prog fans, who often look upon the whole RIO/Avant scene as little more than a bunch of purveyors of jarring, overly demanding fare with pseudo-intellectual pretensions. While most of the classic prog of the ‘70s is symphonic in inspiration, with Univers Zéro we enter ‘chamber rock’ territory – which, just like its classical counterpart, can be the object of equally intense love or loathing.

Originally running at a whopping 50 minutes (very unusually for a single vinyl album), and almost completely acoustic, Heresie undoubtedly shares more with academic music than conventional rock, with typical rock instruments like the guitar taking a back seat. While Daniel Denis’ astounding drumming forms the core of the band’s sound, his style distinctly clashes with the common image of the powerhouse rock drummer. Having been so lucky as to see him and Magma’s Christian Vander on stage in the space of a week, I was struck by how both of them come across as almost antithetic to the brash, flamboyant style of drummers such as Mike Portnoy. Indeed, both Denis’ and Vander’s  approach to drumming brings to mind the role of percussion in an orchestra –  not merely propulsive, but textural and expressive at the same time. .

Though frequently described as the ideal soundtrack to a horror movie (or even to one of HP Lovecraft’s insomnia-inducing short stories), Heresie does not have a lot in common with the hard-hitting, yet slightly garish music produced by the likes of Goblin and Keith Emerson for Dario Argento’s iconic slasher flicks. As pointed out in the very thorough liner notes (courtesy of Renato Moraes and Aymeric Leroy, Canterbury expert extraordinaire and founder of the Calyx website), the album’s centrepiece, the monumental, 25-minute “La Faulx” (The Scythe) parallels the structure of Ingmar Bergman’s legendary The Seventh Seal – also suggested by the bleak, sepia-tinted cover artwork. Though “La Faulx” might at first appear as Univers Zéro’s idiosyncratic take on that old prog warhorse, the ‘epic’, I see it as perfectly contained chamber piece rather than a mini-symphony like “Close to the Edge”or “Supper’s Ready”. Opening with about seven minutes of nightmarishly chaotic sounds, echoing drum beats and menacing vocal growls in an invented language that would give any death metal band a run for their money, it develops into an intense, mesmerizing theme propelled along by Denis’ subtle yet relentless drumming and Michel Berckmans’ rich tapestry of woodwinds, interspersed by the plaintive voice of the violin. When, towards the end, the controlled chaos subsides, a hint of melody surfaces, as well as a measure of calm that seem to reflect the ending of Bergman’s masterpiece.

While apparently more cohesive and linear in compositional structure, “Jack the Ripper” suggests the devastation wrought by the titular character by means of harsh violin slashes, while the bassoon and drums at the beginning evoke the slow, plodding pace of a funeral march. The whole structure of the track is indeed ruled by the drums, whose expressive potential unfolds fully, lending them a ‘voice’ that transcends mere rhythmic beat. On the other hand, “Vous Le Saurez En Temps Voulu” (We’ll Let You Know in Due Time) is the most classically-inspired of the three original compositions, with a tuneful, almost upbeat first half reminiscent of Stravinsky, gradually driving towards a disturbing, doom-laden culmination – the ‘due time’ of the title probably referring to the moment of death.

The thorough remixing process undergone by Heresie lifts the music from the murky depths of the original version – perhaps effective in terms of atmosphere, but much less so in terms of musical enjoyment. However, besides the definite improvement of the sound quality, the main attraction of the album lies in the previously unreleased track “Chaos Hermetique”, remastered from an audio cassette copy and originally recorded in 1975,  prior to Berckmans’ arrival. With a definitely more electric direction, it revolves around composer Roger Trigaux’s guitar, conjuring shades of the sleek angularity of King Crimson; while Denis assumes a more conventional rock drummer role, providing plenty of bottom end in unison with Guy Segers’ bass.

Splendidly composed and flawlessly executed, Heresie can nonetheless prove nearly unapproachable for those who believe melody and memorable tunes are essential components of music. While not as harsh or atonal as other efforts by RIO/Avant bands, and much more disciplined and tightly knit than one might expect, this is an album that needs to be listened to with care and attention, preferably when the time and mood are right – and not just because it is ‘scary’ music that might not make you sleep at night. Based on painstaking detail (like most chamber music) rather than broad sweeps, it also possesses the austere beauty of medieval architecture, stark though not exactly minimalistic, yet full of  majesty and power. In any case, I would recommend Heresie to anyone interested in authentically progressive, challenging music, though not necessarily ‘prog’ in the canonical sense of the word. A liking for early 20th-century academic music would also help when approaching Univers Zéro’s output as a whole.

Links:
http://www.univers-zero.com
http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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