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Posts Tagged ‘Two of a Perfect Trio tour’

Even though it comes slightly late in comparison to other blogs and websites, this retrospective of the past year has been in the pipeline for a while. It is a first time for me, though obviously I have participated in quite a few surveys of this kind in my time as a collaborator of various music sites. However, the year 2011 has been uncommonly rich in excellent releases covering the whole of the progressive rock spectrum – similar in this to 2009 rather than the somewhat lackluster 2010.

My activity as a reviewer has also reached an unprecedented level in the past 12 months, and this (as well as other factors) have allowed me to listen to a wider range and number of new albums than in previous years – though not all of the albums I will be mentioning in the following paragraphs have been the object of a review. I have also been actively involved on the prog scene, attending festivals and gigs and keeping up a steady network of contacts with artists, label owners and fellow reviewers and fans. As the end-of-year statistics point out, the total number of views received by this blog in 2011 exceeded any of the expectations I had at the start of this venture, one and a half years ago.

Obviously, I cannot claim to have heard each and every prog (and related) album released in 2011, and quite of few of the big-name releases of the past year will be conspicuously absent from this overview. I will also refrain from using the usual list format, let alone a “Top 10/20/100” one, in spite of its undeniable popularity with music fans. While I am sure that everyone will be very curious to learn about my # 1 album of 2011,  this curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied, because I hardly ever think in terms of “absolute favourites”, and would be hard put to name my favourite band or artist (or literary author, for that matter). Although most “year in review” pieces do contain a measure of narcissism, the main aim of this post is to stimulate people’s curiosity, as well as debate, rather than turning it into a pointless competition of the “my list is better than yours” sort. We are all adult enough to be aware of the mostly subjective nature of lists, overviews, retrospectives and the like, and hopefully no one here is out to change other people’s minds.

In 2011, the prog “revival” reached unparalleled proportions, bolstered by the many opportunities offered by the Internet. In spite of the loud cries of woe about a supposed “death of the CD”, the number of acts that keep releasing their material in physical format is still quite high, and many of them still choose to put extra care in the artwork and liner notes, with often remarkable results. While the oversaturation of what remains very much a niche market cannot be denied, it is also true that high-quality productions are far from scarce, and the advent of legal streaming sites like the excellent Progstreaming has made it possible for everyone to sample an album before taking the plunge. Unfortunately, the wealth of music available either in digital or physical form does not correspond to higher availability of performing opportunities for those acts who still believe in the power of live performances. The shocking announcement of NEARfest 2011’s cancellation, at the end of March, rocked the prog fandom for months, and even the subsequent announcement of NEARfest Apocalypse for June 2012 did not allay many people’s fears concerning the dwindling range of gigging opportunities, especially here in the US (Europe, in spite of the economic crisis, seems to be doing much better in this respect). The prog community is also splintering in a way that, coupled with a worryingly nostalgic attitude and increasing reluctance to leave one’s own comfort zone, might spell disaster for the future.

2011 marked not only the return of a number of high-profile acts, but also some outstanding recording debuts. If I was forced at gunpoint to choose a favourite, this award would probably go to Texas-based trio Herd of Instinct’s self-titled debut, the first album released on Firepool Records, legendary Californian band Djam Karet’s own label. An almost entirely instrumental effort with the exception of one (gorgeous) song, the Herd’s debut shares this format with another of the year’s milestones, Accordo dei Contrari’s Kublai (whose only song features the incomparable vocals of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair). These two albums, as well as Marbin’s classy Breaking the Cycle and Dialeto’s intriguing Chromatic Freedom, illustrate how the song form can be reinvented in such a way as not to disrupt the flow of the music, incorporating the vocals into a fabric that hinges on complex instrumental interplay.

In the realm of the purely instrumental releases, top marks go to Gösta Berlings Saga’s stunning third album, Glue Works (“Island” alone is worth the price of admission), alongside a trio of AltrOck Productions releases – Ske’s elegant 1000 Autunni (the first solo project by Yugen keyboardist Paolo Botta), Calomito’s intense Cane di Schiena and Camembert’s ebullient Schnörgl Attack – and a couple of outstanding offers from the ever-reliable MoonJune Records, the world-jazz of Slivovitz’s Bani Ahead and the superb testimony of Moraine’s NEARfest 2010 set, Metamorphic Rock. Lovers of creative percussion will surely enjoy Knitting By Twilight’s enchanting Weathering (and possibly check out the Providence collective’s previous releases); while Lunatic Soul’s Impressions (the third solo album by Riverside’s Mariusz Duda) will satisfy those addicted to haunting, ethnic-tinged soundscapes. On a more traditional note, Derek Sherinian’s Oceana presents a solid example of guitar- and keyboard-based progressive fusion, which spotlights ensemble playing rather than individual displays of technical fireworks.

The 2011 releases that feature vocals as an essential part run the gamut from experimental to melody- and song-oriented. Big Block 454’s quirky Bells and Proclamations, and another couple of AltrOck releases – The Nerve Institute’s multifaceted Architect of Flesh-Density, and Dave Willey and Friends’ moving homage to Willey’s father, the beautiful Immeasurable Currents (review forthcoming) – are outstanding instances of the first category. More in a jazz than a rock vein, Boris Savoldelli’s Biocosmopolitan showcases the Italian artist’s superlative vocal technique, all the while offering music that is eminently listenable and upbeat. The ultra-eclectic Zappa homage that is Electric Sorcery’s Believe in Your Own Best Friend throws a lot of diverse influences into its heady mix of outrageous storyline and constantly challenging music. On the other hand, Man On Fire’s Chrysalis is a blueprint for modern “crossover prog”, seamlessly blending the accessibility of Eighties-style quality pop with some seriously intricate instrumental work; while fellow 10T Records band Mars Hollow make a true quantum leap with their second album, World in Front of Me, which follows in the footsteps of early Yes in terms of successfully marrying gorgeous pop melodies with instrumental flights of fancy. However, the crown for 2011 in the realm of “mainstream” progressive rock goes to Phideaux’s magnificent Snowtorch, an incredibly dense concentrate of haunting vocals, memorable tunes and thought-provoking lyrical content.

Some landmark albums released during the past year are at least tangentially related to progressive rock. In all probability, my personal award of most played album of the year should go to Black Country Communion’s 2, a more mature, well-rounded effort than its barnstorming predecessor. Thanks to the Glenn Hughes-led quartet, classic hard rock is undergoing a renaissance, with a recognizable yet subtly updated sound. BCC guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s latest opus, Dust Bowl, while not revolutionary in any sense, features scintillating guitar and soulful vocals in its modern treatment of time-honoured blues modes. In a completely different vein, Kate Bush’s ninth studio album (not counting the rather controversial Director’s Cut, released a few months earlier), 50 Words for Snow, shows an artist that still possesses the ability and the power to surprise her followers. English contemporary classical ensemble North Sea Radio Orchestra’s I A Moon (one of the year’s biggest discoveries for me, thanks to a friend’s recommendation) offer a mesmerizing blend of Old-World folk, avant-garde and academic chamber music that is, in many ways, much more progressive than the slew of cookie-cutter acts so revered in prog circles.

Some other albums, while not quite making the cut, have attracted enough of my interest, and are very much worth checking out: AltrOck releases Sanhedrin’s Ever After, Abrete Gandul’s Enjambre Sismico, Humble Grumble’s Flanders Fields, Factor Burzaco’s II and October EquusSaturnal, Ozric TentaclesPaper Monkeys, CopernicusCipher and Decipher, and From.uz’s Quartus Artifactus; for the more conservatively-minded listeners, The AnabasisBack From Being Gone, La Coscienza di Zeno’s self-titled debut, and TCP’s Fantastic Dreamer also deserve a mention. There have also been a number of albums that, even though heard superficially, and mainly in the final weeks of the year, have left enough of an impression to make me want to write about them at some point – chief among those, Discipline’s To Shatter All Accord.

As I anticipated at the opening of this essay, my readers will be sure to notice some glaring omissions from this overview. The most noticeable ones  are probably Jakszyk Fripp CollinsA Scarcity of Miracles and Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning – undoubtedly two of the most highly rated releases of the year. Unfortunately, in spite of repeated listens, neither album has yet clicked with me, even if I clearly perceive their very high standard of quality. Though I hesitate to use the term “disappointment”, The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead did not resonate with me in the same way as its predecessors; its songs, however, acquired a new dimension when performed live.

Some other high-profile 2011 releases have failed to register on my personal meter. Such is the case of Opeth’s Heritage, Karmakanic’s In a Perfect World, and White Willow’s Terminal Twilight – all excellent albums, but lacking in that undefinable “something” that would kindle my enthusiasm. Others (such as Wobbler’s acclaimed Rites at Dawn or Glass Hammer’s Cor Cordium), though in no way displeasing to the ear, are too staunchly, unabashedly retro to truly impress,. As to YesFly from Here (possibly the year’s most eagerly awaited release), I am not ashamed to admit that I have refused to listen to it – even though I own most of the band’s back catalogue, and their earlier albums get regular spins in my player. With up-and-coming acts struggling to get their music across, I believe that spending too much time on the interpersonal dynamics of a band that do not particularly need to be supported is quite detrimental to the scene as a whole.

Some other albums that have been very positively received (at least by part of the fandom) have escaped my attention completely, in some cases for lack of interest (Dream Theater’s A Dramatic Turn of Events), or simply for lack of listening opportunities (Agents of Mercy’s The Black Forest, Mastodon’s The Hunter, Van Der Graaf Generator’s A Grounding in Numbers, The Tangent’s COMM, among others). Hopefully I will manage to hear at least some of those discs in the near future, and possibly write reviews of them. With the overwhelming quantity of music released in the past year, the very concrete danger of getting burned out (and therefore becoming unable to appreciate anything at all) is always lurking around the corner.

2011 has also been an outstanding year for concerts, as witnessed by the live reviews I have published in these pages. Besides seeing my beloved Blue Oyster Cult not once but twice (after a 25-year wait), I was treated to an outstanding edition of ProgDay, a stunning “goodbye” performance by Phideaux at the Orion Studios, the electrifying Two of a Perfect Trio tour, and the highly successful one-off CuneiFest (to name but a few). While the NEARfest cancellation cast a pall on the prog scene for some time, bands and artists are still doing their best to bring their music on stage for the benefits of those fans who still love to attend live shows.

Unlike other sites, I will refrain from mentioning “prog personalities”, or awarding any other such dubious prizes. As I previously stated, the whole point of this piece is to encourage people to delve into the abundant musical output of the past year, especially in regard to those lesser-known acts that deserve more exposure. With a few highly-awaited releases already in the pipeline for the coming months, it remains to be seen if 2012 will be able to keep up with its predecessor. On behalf of the survival of non-mainstream music, we all hope this will be the case.

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A few months ago, fans of King Crimson had reason to rejoice when the amusingly-named Two of a Perfect Trio tour was announced – an extensive North American tour that would feature Adrian Belew and Tony Levin with their respective bands, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio (AB3 for short) and Stick Men. Many of those fans (including myself) had been waiting in vain for a full-fledged 40th anniversary tour, and in 2009 news of its cancellation had caused widespread consternation among the ranks of those who had been unable to attend any of the four 2008 concerts. Even if the release of A Scarcity of Miracles earlier this year brought some respite to the starved Crimson fans, the lack of live action and the uncertainty about the future of the band were discouraging to say the least.

Not surprisingly, about a week before the event, tickets for the date in the Washington DC metro area were already sold out . While other dates of the tour had been booked in medium-sized theatres, the DC gig was slated to take place at a rather unlikely venue, considering the relative fame of the artists involved. In fact, the Jammin’ Java  (as its name suggests) is a café/bar that doubles up as a music club with a regular schedule of evening concerts. Incidentally, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio had performed there in the summer of 2009 (a week or so after the near-legendary performance of Eddie Jobson’s U-Z with Marco Minnemann, Simon Phillips, Greg Howe and Trey Gunn), so the venue was a known quantity at least to one of the artists involved.

Anyway, though rather unconventional and far from capacious, the Jammin’ Java is very conveniently situated for anyone living in the DC metro area, and also quite pleasant and full of character – even if the dim, cellar-like lighting does not allow for a lot of social interaction. For the occasion, though, the venue had been redesigned in order to allow as many people inside as possible: the seating had been removed, with the exception of the small, fenced “VIP area” and the bar benches at the entrance for those who were partaking of food bought on the premises. On my two previous visits to the club, the volume of the music had approached eardrum-shattering proportions; this time around, however, the sound system operated at a manageable decibel level, rendering the use of earplugs unnecessary even when standing very close to the stage. To be perfectly honest, I would have enjoyed the concert even more if I had been able to sit down, but the music was so incredibly good (and plentiful) that even the mild discomfort of having to stand up was considerably lessened.

The morning before the concert, as a warm-up, my husband and I had played the complete “red-blue-yellow” trilogy, and were expecting  an evening to remember, encouraged by some of the comments already available on the Internet. However, the concert exceeded those expectations, with nearly three hours of incredible music and a very warm, friendly atmosphere – and that in spite of its rather stripped-down nature. With no gimmicks or special effects besides a few well-placed lights, the two trios relied only on their considerable experience and creativity – letting the music do the talking, as clichéd as it may sound.

Though the music associated with King Crimson projects an aura of intellectualism and near-unapproachability, and is often indicted of being very “masculine”, lacking the necessary melodic quotient to attract women, there was quite a fair number of ladies crowding around the stage, and none of them appeared to be suffering. Personally, I believe that melody is a very important component of music, and do not generally enjoy “noise” for its own sake. However, King Crimson and its related projects simply transcend any specious conflict between  “accessible” and “difficult” progressive rock. Indeed,  the concert proved once again that King Crimson’s music possesses a freshness and cutting-edge appeal that have not been dimmed one whit by time. Not surprisingly, the music of both trios is indebted to the “mother band”, though not in an overtly derivative way, but rather as a form of development. I firmly believe that, while it is perfectly feasible to sound identical to Yes or Genesis (check the latest Wobbler album for confirmation), sounding exactly like King Crimson is next to impossible – due to the fluid, ever-evolving nature of the band’s musical output.

The concert was opened by Tony Levin’s Stick Men, introducing their new member Markus Reuter, who had replaced Michael Bernier earlier this year. Levin’s warm, gracious interaction with the enthusiastic crowd subtly complemented the sheer intensity of the music – as did his vocals, definitely not “beautiful” in any conventional sense, but still an oddly successful fit for the  band’s sound. Alongside tracks from his 2007  solo album Stick Man and the trio’s latest release, Soup, Levin surprised the audience with a blistering version of “VROOM” that  anticipated what would happen in the last half an hour or so of the show. The trio’s astonishing rendition of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite proved once again progressive rock’s affinity for the works of the great Russian composer; while the rap intro and funky suggestions of  “Soup” were also warmly greeted by an audience clearly more open to all sorts of contaminations than the average fan of traditional prog. Markus Reuter, his serious mien occasionally softened by a friendly smile, with his touch guitar (designed and built by himself) offered a perfect foil for Levin’s acrobatic excursions on the Chapman stick – which included using a bow, Jimmy Page-style, as well as his famed “funk fingers”. With the supreme ease and confidence born of a long partnership, Pat Mastelotto provided an impeccable backbeat, meshing with the riveting patterns woven by the two string instruments, and creating textures of astounding beauty.

After a short break, Adrian Belew and his cohorts – Julie Slick on bass and Tobias Ralph (who had replaced Julie’s brother, Eric) on drums – took to the stage for some more humour-laced mayhem. Belew, ever the genial host, looked in excellent shape, his voice still capable of delivering the goods with confidence and flair, while the instrumental firepower unleashed by the three musicians was quite awe-inspiring.  In some ways, AB3’s music has an even sharper edge than Stick Men’s, as amply proved by the almost 10 minutes of  e, the title-track of the trio’s latest recording effort. Adrian’s twangy, trebly guitar tone, like his voice, may be an acquired taste, but makes for a gripping listening experience, especially when assisted by such an impeccable rhythm section – redefining the old warhorse of the power trio in thoroughly modern terms. As far as I am concerned, however, the real focal point of the trio’s performance was Julie Slick, a monster bassist with an uncanny sense of rhythm, perfectly integrating with Tobias Ralph’s powerful yet restrained drumming– and a refreshing example of a new generation of women artists who are in the business of making great music rather than flaunting their physical charms. Though a very attractive young woman, with her bare feet and mop of curly hair, Julie is a musician first and foremost, who amply deserves all the respect due to any musician as skilled and dedicated as she is.

And then it was time for the “extended Crim-centric encore” everyone in the audience had been waiting for. Though I am usually a bit harsh on people whom I perceive as “living in the past” – failing thus to appreciate the excellent music put out by modern acts – I will proudly admit to not practicing what I preach when it comes to anything King Crimson-related. Having never been so lucky as to see them perform live (when they played in Rome in 2003 I had to give the concert a miss because I was not feeling well), this was the closest I had got to “real” Crimson live action. Moreover, unlike some more conservative proggers, I am a staunch fan of the Eighties trilogy, and Discipline ranks as one of my all-time favourite albums –  so I was understandably stoked at the very idea of witnessing a live performance of some of those classic songs.

The third part of the show began with only the three tenured KC members on stage, effortlessly running through the funky pace and engagingly nonsensical vocals of “Elephant Talk” (in which the influence of Talking Heads’ take on afrobeat was hard to miss) and the more laid-back strains of “Three of a Perfect Pair”. When the trio was joined by Reuter, the audience was treated to a barnstorming rendition of the iconic “Red”, beefed up by the distinctive contribution of the touch guitar. The infectious “Dinosaur” and the angular “Frame by Frame” had the crowd eating out of the two combined trio’s hands; while  the eerie soundscapes and double-drum spot of “B’Boom” (the latter reminding me of Simon Phillips and Marco Minnemann’s drum duel during the Eddie Jobson set in 2009) and the soothing, almost seductive “One Time” laid the groundwork for the show’s white-hot climax.

Though women are not generally expected to like such stuff, “Indiscipline” ranks as one of my all-time favourite King Crimson tracks, so you can imagine my delight when I heard Levin (assisted by Slick and Reuter) sketch the song’s unmistakable intro – this time stretched into an almost unbearable build-up of tension and false starts, then exploding into a maelstrom of slashing, wailing guitar. Heavier than the heaviest metal, and totally mind-blowing, the song oozed with the pure beauty of chaos. After briefly bowing out, leaving the audience wrung out but deliriously happy, the two bands came back on stage and got everyone to dance and sing along with the irrestistible “Thela Hun Ginjeet”. Who said you cannot dance at a prog gig?

If I wanted to nitpick, I might say that I missed some of my favourites – particularly “Level Five” and “Sleepless” with its killer bass line – but I suppose that, after such a performance, quibbling would sound a bit excessive. Almost three hours of music at that level of quality and intensity are anything but an everyday occurrence, and the two trios delivered everything their dedicated fans were expecting – and then some. They made music written over 30 years ago sound as fresh and relevant as if it had been released today, reaffirming King Crimson’s essential role in the continuing evolution of progressive rock.

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