Saturday, 27 October 2012

King Crimson - Larks' Tongues In Aspic

The latest in the King Crimson 40th anniversary remixes from Professor Steven Wilson's laboratory is their 1973 opus Larks' Tongues In Aspic, which marked the debut on vinyl of the core Bruford/Fripp/Wetton line up, that, in my opinion was the most adventurous of all the line ups of the band and with this album, 1974's Starless And Bible Black and Red they gave us three albums unsurpassed in musical adventure and envelope pushing. These three albums are the first wave of prog's pinnacle, and only Van Der Graaf Generator were as consistent in actually doing what the genre label implied; progressing.

Those KC fans with fat wallets and too much time on their hands can indulge themselves in the 15(!) disc box set that includes various polished live bootlegs and Robert Fripp's laundry list, Bill Bruford's drum sticks and Jamie Muir's empty blood capsules...or something similar I've no doubt.

Me, I've made do with the CD/DVD package, and boy does that contain some stunning music. With previous remixes SW has remained relatively faithful to the original mixes, merely adding clarity and restoring lost subtlety. As was often the case back in the day, bands had to rush to record albums while on the road or in between tours, and this one was no different. The band were dissatisfied with the end product at the time, and so Steven has allowed himself freer reign and together with Robert overseeing they have come up with what the thing should have sounded like in the first place.

From the very first Eastern percussive tinklings of Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part One you can hear things in here that you were not aware of on the old vinyl record. Listening to the 5:1 mix on the DVD is like discovering a completely new KC album, or to put it another way, it's like listening to LTIA after an ear syringing with a firehose. LTIA, Part One was never one of my most returned to KC tracks as it had the air of, well not filler exactly, but it seemed like a good idea stretched too thin; well, now I understand; the tension created in those first 3 minutes is the perfect foil for John Wetton's monstrous wah-bass and Fripp's mekanik riffing. I wonder, listening to this with fresh ears, if John was aware of Jannick Top from Magma, for their approach was very similar, as both have a penchant for crushing slabs of marching beats that brook no opposition, and previous to Crimson Mr Wetton was nowhere near as fierce. Quite how David Cross coped onstage competing with a mere violin is beyond me, but his contribution on this record is essential, lending some much needed sonic relief, as his near-ambient counterpoint 8 minutes in attests.

Pete Sinfield having left the fold, the lyric writing is contributed by Richard W Palmer-James, and his first contribution is to Book Of Saturday. Less mystical and away with the fairies than Pete, Richard's lyrics are less ambiguous and more human. John now becomes Crimson's fourth singer in as many years, and although his voice is not particularly distinctive, it does the job well enough. A welcome piece of structure after the avant opening track, Book Of Saturday is a quite charming little ditty with some nice violin, backwards guitar, and effect-free guitar. It's over in no time at all, and we're into Exiles, one of Crimson's best pieces of strangeness...and there's a song in there too. Steven has really gone for it on this one as the opening with its introductory bubbling synths and washes of layered violin and mellotron are brought well to the front of the mix before the plaintive song gets into its stride. Here, John shows that, yes, he can actually sing a bit. The instrumental sections between the verses are given a great treatment by Steven and what was already a marvellous piece of work is now simply no less than stunning. The between-verses instrumentation adds a layer of dislocation commensurate with the subject matter of an immigrant adrift in a strange land related in the more conventional sung sections.

Easy Money for me is the one song in Crimson's repertoire that I had thought I'd be quite happy never to hear again, even more so than Schizoid Man, as I thought I was way too familiar with it, as the live recordings from this era are über-plentiful, and it seems to appear at least a hundred times in my collection. Boy, was I surprised that Steven Wilson had managed to inject fresh life into the old warhorse, as right from the start when Jamie's clanking chains and metal sheet clanging underpin the slow funk introduction to the song, it opens up like an alien flower. It's Jamie's hitherto only glimpsed percussive frills that illuminate the song and give it a new life. The instrumental section takes on a spacious groove that lets the listener into places previously barred. You can feel Fripp oh-so-slowly ratchet up the tension with his familiar cyclical guitar figure as it pulls and stretches the song to new heights. Bonza!

The climax of the album has now arrived, and Talking Drum, driven by John and Bill charges along at a pace. Bill Bruford has until now been in the background, content to keep the train on the rails while Jamie does his court jester thang, but on this song he keeps Jamie's madcap antics well in check with some great tom-tom work, rimshots aplenty, matching Jamie beat for beat. David Cross saws away in the background like an angry bee as the for once simple rhythm is at first quietly and later pounded out by John in typical muscular fashion, left foot pumping away on the old wah-wah pedal, while Jamie's bongos chatter away like a troop of chimps. Robert's sustained guitar rings with a reinvigorated clarity over the top, begging you to turn up that mother. If this thing doesn't get you tapping your feet, then I'm afraid that you must have already died.

Then it's that storming riff that every prog fan worthy of the name knows inside out. Ensemble playing tight as a gnat's chuff, this is a group that know they're on to something a bit special. The sheer power of the thing hints at what is to come on the Red album, but David's violin, which will be missing then, gives this line up an air of completeness that Red would miss. Bill's powerful and no doubt complicated fills behind the riff after the famous drop-down still brings a smile to my face, and now I can hear everything that's going on with 100% clarity. Thanks a lot Steven, you have done a sterling job on this one that's for sure.

Amongst the extras on the DVD is the Alternate takes and mixes run through of the album, including an instrumental mix of Easy Money complete with a Jamie Muir solo section. For this fan the alternate takes section is worth the entry price alone, and hearing false starts to Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part Two and a stuttering entry into THAT riff section makes you appreciate the hard work that went into creating the finished song. Exiles sounds completely different and far more musique concrète than it ended up, and another run-through of Easy Money ends the alternate takes section with a longer and looser version that sounds like it is being improvised on the spot, Fripp building the melody line up and up into the stratosphere; the whole shebang is captivating.

You can also see the line up in action on the video footage included from Germany's Beat Club, and being typically perverse here the band decided to do a 30 minute improv and the least radio-friendly track from a new album on a rare TV showcase. Never one to take the easy route was Robert, eh? The 30 minute improv wasn't broadcast; it's not particularly stellar, but it is an invaluable document, and as David says in the expected comprehensive and informative booklet, he was scared witless as he had not a clue where it was going, and the only way to avoid being drowned in John's pounding wah-bass was to stare him in the eye throughout. It makes for compelling viewing!

If you're a prog fan you've probably already got this, and if you haven't, why not? Put that rubbish neo-prog codswallop down and get some real music, ya softy!

Buy both the gargantuan and sensible versions at Burning Shed - you know it makes sense!

You don't really need a track listing and a line up, do you? :)

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Interview with Dennis Rea

You may well have not heard of Dennis Rea, so let me introduce you to a guitarist who should be up there with all the usual stellar names if there was any justice in this curious world. In a 40-year musical career on the fringes, both geographically and musically, including a time living in China, Dennis has played with many fine musicians and made some quite remarkable music.

It is my duty to spread the word, so put your feet up, hit Play ^ and read on.

Roger: Do you come from a musical family?

Dennis: Neither my parents nor my siblings played an instrument, and most of my family had only a cursory interest in music. The one exception was my (much) older brother Woody, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz (and one of the largest record collections I've ever seen). He began indoctrinating me into jazz and quality rock music at an early age and was the most important early influence on my developing musical sensibilities. (His son Michael, guitarist for Queensryche, certainly benefited from his influence as well.) I also had an uncle who was an aficionado of mainstream classical music; he became an unwitting benefactor when I discovered the music of John Cage, Luciano Berio, and other avant-garde composers in the boxes of unwanted record-club bonus LPs he unloaded on my family each Christmas – a real ear-opener.

Roger: How long have you been playing the guitar and what/who were your earliest influences?

Dennis: I began playing guitar at age 9 or 10, so I've been at it for roughly 45 years at this point – I'd damned well better have something to show for it by now ;) People are always amused to learn that the player who first inspired me to take up the instrument was Mike Nesmith of the Monkees; although he was in fact a decent guitarist, it came out that he wasn't even playing on the early Monkees records – so much for role models.

Apart from the previously mentioned influences, two other watershed moments in my young musical life were hearing King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King not long after it came out, as well as György Ligeti's astonishing music on the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both granted me entry into a world of expanded tonality and limitless imagination that made a mockery of the commercial music that pollutes this planet. There was no turning back after that.

Roger: Can you remember your first appearance on stage? Were you in a High School band? What kind of music did you play?

Dennis: My first band, in my hometown of Utica, New York, was named Atmosphere and mostly played covers, but rather atypical covers for a high-school band – Pink Floyd's "Echoes," Curved Air, PFM, Strawbs... Prior to that I had been jamming with teenage peers on tunes by the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin, but hearing In the Court spun me off on a more progressive trajectory. Atmosphere eventually evolved into Zuir, a guitar-bass-drums trio that focused on my own original material – convoluted 12-minute-long psych/prog sagas with gratuitously knotty time signatures and the like. We stuck out like a nun in a whorehouse in musically conservative Utica but did manage to build a small, devoted local following. The band played a handful of shows, usually DIY affairs in rented spaces, and actually had the audacity to strike out for Seattle right after we graduated from high school, with the notion of 'making it' there with my brother Woody’s managerial assistance. Nothing came of it – we weren’t even old enough to be allowed into most music venues – and the band eventually returned to Utica and drifted apart, but the experience served as our rite of passage into adulthood. A few years later I returned to Seattle, where I reside to this day.

Roger: Do you play any other instruments?

Dennis: Only the kalimba, and not in the conventional way, as evidenced on the recent CD release by Tempered Steel, on which I play electronically processed thumb pianos alongside my partners Ffej and Frank Junk.

Roger: As we can see from your impressive discography you have covered many different styles of music. Do you have a particular favourite style, particularly in a live setting?

Dennis: Not to sound evasive, but no, not really. I take as much satisfaction in playing rigorously composed music, as I do in Moraine, as in unscripted improvisation. My only real “rule” when it comes to playing music is that it must be original, either my own work or that of the close collaborators I choose to work with.

Roger: What has been your proudest musical moment?

Dennis: In terms of live performance, it would have to be Moraine's appearance at NEARfest 2010, which was a wholly unexpected turn of events for what was basically an unknown band with only one recently released CD to show for ourselves. Indeed, the prog bulletin boards all exhaled a collective "Who?!" when we were announced. But I do feel that we rose to the occasion rather well, and I'm quite proud of the performance captured on Metamorphic Rock: Live at NEARfest 2010.

Moraine @ NEARfest2010

In terms of recordings, I consider my 'solo' CD Views from Chicheng Precipice to be my most fully realised work to date – it's far and away the most ambitious project I've ever undertaken with regard to the arrangements and the instrumental resources involved. In terms of collaborations, having had the chance to work with the late, great composer Hector Zazou has probably been my greatest honour.

Roger: One of, and possibly THE heaviest thing you've done was the quite wonderful Iron Kim Style which as well as being musically stunning as it was completely improvised, something I was frankly amazed to find out, displayed a mischievous sense of humour. Where did the idea for that band and the subject matter of the song titles come from?

"Farewell to Kims"
Dennis: Iron Kim Style was never conceived of as a ‘band’ but was simply a group of friends who got together to improvise on a very occasional basis. I'm usually erroneously pinned as being the 'leader' of IKS, but the impetus in fact came from my friend Ryan Berg, a bassist with whom I'd been involved in various musical configurations since we both lived in Taiwan in the early 1990s. It was also Ryan's idea to call the project Iron Kim Style, borrowing the name of a Korean martial arts discipline founded by the high-flying Grandmaster "Iron" Kim. There was no correlation between our name and our music – we simply found it comical. But since the name Kim inevitably brings to mind the infamous lineage of North Korean dictators, we started weaving cryptic satirical references to the Dear Leader into our announcements and titles just for laughs. We used to joke that we were likely to be taken out on stage one day by either a North Korean assassination squad or a posse of furious martial artists.

Encouraged by the results of our jam sessions, we began doing the occasional live performance and eventually went into the studio to stockpile material for a CD. The end result was a private edition of 100 copies, meant to be given to friends, but when Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune Records heard it, he insisted on releasing it on MoonJune. The rest is hysteria.
The material on Iron Kim Style is indeed 100-percent improvised, with no cosmetic doctoring after the fact. Like you, many have marvelled at its cohesiveness, but you need to understand that we extracted only the strongest material from about six hours' worth of sessions, not all of which was up to that level.

Iron Kim Style amicably parted ways earlier this year, or at least went on a lengthy hiatus, largely because various members were increasingly busy with other musical commitments.

Roger: Another of my other favourites – admittedly I am not that familiar with the earlier releases, and I hope to be pleasantly surprised when I find the time to investigate - is the quite beguiling and deeply spiritual Views From Chicheng Precipice, which you mentioned earlier. It is about as different from Iron Kim Style as can be imagined. A meditation from your time living in China and Taiwan; what inspired you in the first instance to live there, or was it a work-related move? Did you play many gigs there, and how did that experience compare with gigs back home?

Dennis: Work-related to an extent, but more accurately love-related – my then fiancée Anne, a China Studies graduate, had accepted a teaching position in the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province as part of an academic exchange program. Anne arranged a position for me as well and I joined her there in January 1989. At first I had scant expectation of playing music publicly in what I expected to be a repressive authoritarian state, but I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Shortly after my arrival I was sought out by members of our university’s guitar club, and from there I embarked on a surreal musical rollercoaster ride throughout China and later in Taiwan. Altogether I played more than 100 concerts at cultural centers, sports arenas, universities, music conservatories, and clubs, and on provincial and national radio and television, including three of the earliest concert tours of China by progressive Western bands. I also performed with some of the most influential Chinese musicians of the era, such as Cui Jian and Zhang Xing. 

Roger: That sounds like an amazing experience, and it is all documented in Dennis' book "Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan" (see for more details and purchasing info (USA), and (UK)).

The time you spent in China was well before the country's current capitalist flirtation and the subsequent opening up of its borders, and I'd imagine it must have been quite difficult for an American to go about his daily business? A bit "James Bond", but were you followed everywhere?

Dennis: In general, I was given surprisingly free rein to pursue my musical activities in China, even receiving encouragement and support from our university and various governmental entities. I was even allowed to record a solo instrumental album for the state-owned China Record Company, Shadow in Dreams (1990), which was almost unprecedented at the time. The record sold an astonishing (for me) 40,000 copies, for which I received roughly US$500. But I did show up in China at a particularly fraught time, during the run-up to the events in Tiananmen Square. Chengdu experienced its own brutal crackdown and mass civil unrest, and Anne and I found ourselves swept up in the chaos and witness to casualties. To the best of my knowledge, my book contains the only detailed account published to date of the carnage in Chengdu, as the international press corps was almost entirely fixated on what was transpiring at the same time in Beijing.

Onstage with Vagaries in the People's Republic
Roger: Are you still in touch with the musicians you met there?

Dennis: I’ve drifted out of contact with my former musical associates to some extent – at this point it’s been fully 15 years since I last visited the mainland, though I have done two concert tours of Taiwan in the past decade – but I still keep tabs on their activities through mutual friends, particularly Cui Jian.

Roger: Some of your recent releases have come out on MoonJune Records, a label known for its championing of the adventurous side of music. How did you get together with MoonJune, which seems to me to be a marriage made in heaven?

Dennis: My encounter with MoonJune was a matter of pure serendipity. As a partisan of many of the musicians MoonJune promotes, I’d been aware of the label and its larger-than-life founder Leonardo Pavkovic for some years. When I read that MoonJune had released a rare archival Soft Machine concert (Drop), as a huge Soft Machine fan I placed an order for the CD through the label website. Shortly thereafter I received a personal note from Leonardo apprising me that the disc was on backorder. Grateful for the personal touch, I took the opportunity to respond and congratulate him on his fine catalog. He apparently grew curious about me and visited my website, where the first thing that attracted his attention was my Chinese odyssey. He wrote back and told me that he, too, had traveled extensively in China, even earlier than I had, so I thought he might enjoy my book and offered to send him a copy. At this point there had been no discussion of my music, but reading my book piqued Leonardo's curiosity, so he asked me to send him some samples of my work. Right around that time I had just completed the first Moraine recording and was about to shop it around. I sent a copy to Leonardo and he immediately offered to release it on MoonJune. Of course I was delighted at this turn of events, particularly because it had happened so naturally, without any solicitation on my part. Leonardo has been incredibly supportive of me ever since, and has released four of my CDs on his label to date. He has quite literally changed my life by exposing my work to an international audience.

Roger: You can count me in that number, and Leo deserves much praise for his efforts in unearthing artists, yourself included, that we otherwise would not have heard of.

I read somewhere that one of the many musicians you have collaborated with in the past was Trey Gunn. What project was that liaison for? As a big fan of Trey's work, I'd sure like to hear it.

Dennis: Once again, mentioning a 'big name' on my CV has come back to bite me ;) My collaboration with Trey was in fact limited to a single performance, when he subbed for bassist Fred Chalenor for one concert with Jeff Greinke's Land, a band I played in for much of the 1990s. There is no documentation of that event, but I was very impressed with how quickly Trey came to terms with our music. Trey was the natural choice as he was a close collaborator with our then drummer Bill Rieflin. We were acquaintances beforehand and have many friends in common, and I still run into him in Seattle from time to time.

Roger: Who would like to work with in the current music scene?

Dennis: Honestly, I'm perfectly content to be working with the community of musicians I belong to right now in Seattle. Our shared values and experiences have enabled us to evolve a common musical language; we've grown together over the years and share in each other’s successes. That's not to say that I wouldn't be delighted to play with any number of international musicians I greatly admire, it's just that I'd rather allow any such encounters to happen naturally, rather than force them.

One thing that I feel characterizes the Seattle creative music community is that we're perfectly comfortable going into a musical situation without a stated game plan or prior discussion; unless a given situation involves a predetermined repertoire, we simply pick up our instruments and play, and the results are often surprisingly compelling. Genre distinctions are pretty meaningless to most of us – we're equally happy playing adventurous rock, jazz, free improvisation, or experimental music, and don't privilege one approach over the other.

I’m an outspoken advocate of decentralization in music, and lament the thinking and economic conditions that lead so many talented musicians to abandon their home cities in favor of making the well-worn trek to New York or a handful of other major musical nodes in search of success. My own efforts are focused on building a strong, mutually supportive regional scene, for example through the concert series I co-present, Zero-G Concerts (, which aims to break down the silos separating musicians who work in the areas of creative rock, jazz, and improvised music, respectively, and foster greater collaboration. At the moment, Seattle is blessed with an incredibly rich community of accomplished, open-minded musicians that I feel stand head-to-head with their counterparts in more vaunted cities elsewhere.

Roger: With the ending of Iron Kim Style, is your other current band project Moraine still functioning? I recall reading an interview you did with my good friend Raffaella Berry last year where you said you almost had enough material for a third CD. Is that still in the pipeline?

Dennis: Moraine is very much alive and remains my primary musical involvement. We’re just now emerging from a half-year hiatus, during which we brought new drummer Tom Zgonc into the fold following the departure of his predecessor Stephen Cavit, who accepted a richly deserved composer residency. Our first shows with Tom take place in early November, after which we have additional shows planned in Portland and Los Angeles, and some tantalizing international touring opportunities that we hope will materialize in 2013.

We do indeed have enough fresh material for a third MoonJune CD and just want to give the reconfigured lineup a little seasoning before heading into the studio. Expect the new record sometime in 2013.

Roger: Great - can't wait for that!  

Moraine's music although it could loosely be described as jazz-fusion is a much friendlier beast than some of the more cerebral offerings in that genre and the instrumentation is wider too, including violin and woodwind, and in a previous line up, cello. Another occasional problem with fusion is improv for the sake of it, something Moraine does not suffer from in my opinion. Is the music arranged beforehand, and how much came from the individual players' musical streams of consciousness?

Dennis: Cellist and founding member Ruth Davidson left the band a few years back to pursue academic goals; her place was taken by woodwind player James DeJoie. It was at that point that the band transitioned from its initial ‘chamber rock’ orientation to a more forceful and dynamic sound – having James’ baritone sax is sometimes like having a second electric guitar in the band.

Most of Moraine’s music is meticulously through-composed; in fact, I consider Moraine the primary vehicle for my output as a composer, though most of the other members also contribute original material. But we always allow ample room for improvisation even in our tightest pieces. One of the things that separates Moraine from the prog-rock pack is the relative brevity of most of our songs – we’re more interested in concision and clarity than in developing grandiose side-long suites, and that’s made us a target for some orthodox prog-rock enthusiasts. But frankly, I don’t consider Moraine to be a ‘prog rock’ group, and I take pains to distance us from that descriptor; while I clearly have roots in progressive rock, the others don’t, and other influences ranging from Mahavishnu-era fusion to ECM jazz to contemporary classical composition to ancient Chinese folk music are equally important ingredients in the mix.

Roger: Earlier we've touched upon Views From Chicheng Precipice, a quite remarkable and unusual record full of ethnic flavour. How did that come about?

Dennis: I envisioned Views from Chicheng Precipice as a sort of sonic counterpart to my book; taken together, they bookend my China experience. The project is my homage to the music of East Asia, a collection of personalized interpretations of traditional pieces and original Asian-inspired works that blend unusual arrangements of ancient and contemporary themes with sonic experimentation and expansive improvisation. I wanted the record to be boldly unorthodox in its choice of instrumentation and treatment of traditional musical material while remaining warmly respectful of its sources.

Roger: Keeping us all on our toes, your two latest releases, Subduction Zone and Tempered Steel are as different as can be imagined. Tell us a little about those two albums.

Dennis: Subduction Zone captures a freely improvised session between me, celebrated saxophonist Wally Shoup, and drummer Tom Zgonc, also of Moraine and my trio Dennis and the Reaniers. We felt the session was strong enough to warrant public release, so I made it the first title on my recently founded Nunatak microlabel. In general it’s a more extroverted, woollier affair than what most of my MoonJune audience has come to expect of me, revealing another important facet of my musical personality.

The second Nunatak release, Tempered Steel, documents my longstanding kalimba trio with Ffej and Frank Junk. Some years back, the three of us discovered that we’d each been experimenting with amplifying and electronically processing thumb pianos, so we joined forces. Our real-time improvisations conjure everything from phantom harpsichords and subaquatic percussion to imaginary stringed instruments, vintage musique concrète, and the music of Harry Partch. I guarantee that this release will surprise anyone who’s only familiar with my guitar playing.

Roger: Yes, it sure surprised me!

In my all too brief relationship with your music I've noticed that you do not use singers. Have you used vocalists in the past and would you do so again?

Dennis: Actually, the piece “Aviariations on ‘100 Birds Serenade the Phoenix,'” on Views from Chicheng Precipice, is a showcase for the stunning vocals of Catarina de Re. But you’re correct that I rarely involve myself with vocal music, though I've done so at various times in my distant past and even sang myself for a brief time. My problem with vocal music isn’t so much the singing as the content, which is typically narcissistic and banal. I’m often reminded of Brian Eno’s remark to the effect that lyrics limit the range of possible interpretations of a given piece of music, basically telling the listener how to interpret it. Instrumental music, on the other hand, leaves far more to the imagination.

Of course there are consequences to my decision to focus exclusively on instrumental music; since for the vast majority of people, singing is music, I eliminated 95 percent of my potential audience right from the outset. For whatever reasons, most people seem unable to process purely instrumental music and need the mediation of language (or some other extramusical distractor, such as a light show or a pretty face) as a way in. I find instrumental music completely satisfying in its own right and take full responsibility for my decision to work in an area of marginal public interest.

It’s sometimes assumed that because I play instrumental music, I don’t like vocal music, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that I much prefer those singers whose subject matter and delivery break the typical mold – people like Annette Peacock, Robert Wyatt, Scott Walker, Rodriguez…

Roger: You're so right about the prevalence of banal lyrics, a particular bugbear of mine! Probably why a lot of music, particularly in alternative fields is sensibly entirely instrumental.

With so many strings to your bow it is impossible to pigeonhole you as a composer in a particular style, which is great for the both of us; but, if you had to describe your musical leanings on a resume, how would you go about it?

Dennis: You’re not making it easy on me, are you? ;) Every musician I know dreads that question, and most of us have come up with evasive strategies to avoid being pinned down. That’s why I was so relieved to hit upon the title of Moraine’s last record, Metamorphic Rock, as it made for an ideal response to the perennial question, ‘What kind of music do you make?’ Answer: ‘Metamorphic rock.’ 

Roger: Nice one!

And now for a probably rhetorical question: do you manage to make a living from your music?

Dennis: You're joking, right? Far from it – I lose at least ten times more money than I make from my performances and record sales. I've literally never seen a dime from most of the titles in my discography. As for gigs, of the 50-60 I'll have played this year, my total income probably won't add up to $500. I'd reckon that among those musicians who, like myself, play non-mainstream instrumental music, fewer than one percent can actually sustain themselves through their musical activities, and even then need to supplement their gig income and record sales with teaching posts and so on.

I’ve always had a full-time job in parallel with my music career. Indeed, I instinctively made the decision to separate money-making from music-making long ago, to prevent the former polluting the latter. I’d much rather work a day job that I can tolerate (and that pays better) than find myself making musical compromises just to get by. Playing commercial music just isn’t in my DNA, so I’ve made my peace with leading a double life. But there’s no question where most of my passion and energy are focused.

Roger: What is your view of illegal download culture? I think, especially for artists who may otherwise remain well under the radar, that it can actually help in getting otherwise unavailable exposure. If a European music fan who would probably never get the chance to see you play live downloads one of your albums on a whim and subsequently buys that or other releases, then is that not one fan gained? If he listens once and then deletes it, you've not lost anything. Illegal downloads may well affect sales of established artists who let's face it probably do not need the sales anyway - Radiohead making albums available for free shows a band who know how to work the new-fangled interwebby to their advantage - and it may well lead to the permanent demise of big labels, but frankly who needs them anyway? Just my view!

Dennis: As someone said recently, “We used to get our water for free and pay for our music; now we get our music for free and pay for water.” Sometimes it seems as though there’s a conspiracy afoot to devalue music, as if to punish us subversive types. I understand all the arguments on both sides of this divisive issue and am more or less resigned to the fact that the public is highly unlikely to go back to paying for music. But that doesn’t mean that I like the new paradigm. For me, there's a simple economic equation in play here that so many ‘consumers’ don’t seem to get, and which is basically a matter of life or death for my career as a recording artist: that is, if I can’t hope to ever recover the basic costs of creating a record, the time will come when I’ll no longer be able to make them, and all the downloaders showering me with ‘free publicity’ will wait in vain for another record from me.

I make my records as economically as possible but still go into the hole anywhere from $3-5,000 for each small-run title I produce; in the case of Moraine’s latest, even more. A year after its release, worldwide sales of Metamorphic Rock have amounted to only a fraction of my outlay, and income from legal downloads has been laughably minute. Meanwhile, within a week of its release, I did a web search and found Metamorphic Rock available as a free download on more than 100 different sites. I’m not really concerned with making a profit, but you tell me how I’m supposed to continue making records when there’s not a prayer of recouping my basic costs? Or how an exemplary small record label like MoonJune will be able to meet its operating expenses?

Roger: I was playing Devil's Advocate there to an extent. It's an intractable issue that's not going away, unfortunately. Funnily enough, a search of an infamous Russian site reveals no titles by Dennis Rea or Moraine, but I suppose bloggers who provide links to downloads are the primary cause of concern. And that kind of reprehensible practice is something I would never entertain on this blog, you'll be pleased to hear.

Changing tack, will you ever play in England with Moraine, or with anyone else come to that? A completely selfish question, I know, but I had to ask!

Dennis: Believe me, we'd play in England in a heartbeat, but it would cost at least $5000 just to get the band over there, and let's face it, no UK promoter will lay out that kind of money for a virtually unknown band playing a decidedly unpopular kind of music. But if you know of any festival promoters with deep pockets, by all means put us in touch!
Roger: You have probably heard of your compatriots French TV, and Mike from that band has asked me the same question. If I ever win big on the lottery, then I may well be that deep-pocketed promoter :)

What do you currently listen to for pleasure? What was the last CD you bought?

Dennis: I just returned from New York City, where I played an improvised set at Downtown Music Gallery, in my estimation the greatest record shop in the world, at least for my peculiar tastes. Naturally, I came back with an armload of CDs, including titles by Sam Rivers, Dave Holland & Barry Altschul; Keith Tippett; Volker Kriegel; Nicole Mitchell; and Spencer Barefield. I’ve also been pretty mesmerized lately by the two ‘lost’ records by Rodriguez, and by the new reissue of Terje Rypdal’s Odyssey on ECM, augmented by a fantastic live recording from 1976.

Roger: ...and as I check this script, Rypdal's Vossabrygg has just finished spinning on the CD player - there's serendipity for you!

What's next for you musically?

Dennis: Now that Moraine’s back in action, I foresee plenty of activity on that front, including possible trips to Indonesia, Brazil, and the U.S. East Coast in 2013 – and of course a new record. Ideas are forming for another solo CD for MoonJune, with a varied cast of characters, and including some rather formal chamber compositions, a new area of exploration for me. I’m also working with a relatively new trio, Dennis and the Reaniers, with bassist John Seman and drummer Tom Zgonc, as a vehicle for my jazzier pieces that aren’t a good fit for Moraine. And of course I’ll continue to play improvised and experimental music and jazz with various aggregates here in Seattle. I’m happy to say that 2012 has been my busiest year ever musically, and with any luck, the trend will continue into next year...

Many thanks for your kind interest in my music! It means the world to me.

Roger: The pleasure has been all mine, Dennis. Best of luck with your ongoing projects. Right, I'm off to grab a copy of your book....

Soon to come in Part Two - a trawl through Dennis' large and esoteric discography, with brief descriptions from the man himself.

Grab some of this!

MoonJune Records (with samples):

Moraine - Manifest Density
Moraine - Metamorphic Rock
Iron Kim Style - Iron Kim Style
Dennis Rea - Views From Chicheng Precipice

Dennis Rea's website:

Tempered Steel 
Subduction Zone

NEARfest photos - Joe del Tufo

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Gazpacho - Night

The excuse I have for reviewing this 5-year old album now is that it has just been reissued by kscope with slightly tinkered sound and a bonus CD of live tracks. A pretty lame excuse, but this record needs to be given as much publicity as possible, as it is simply too good to be ignored.

Night is ostensibly a 53-minute long five-song suite in G linked by a simple violin refrain, but in reality it is much much more than that.

Musing on the real and imagined memories of a character or characters as they flit in and out of a dream-like state, viewing the world from many perspectives may sound like an ultimate prog concept, and it probably is; assuming of course I've nailed the subject matter correctly!

Shutting themselves away from the outside world, the guitarist, keyboardist, and violinist and the singer emerged blinking into the almost-daylight with a beguiling song cycle that has stood the test of time...well 5 years at any rate...and is now my favourite album by the band, displacing even the wondrous March Of Ghosts from earlier this year that was, I'm ashamed to say, my entry point to the Norwegian band's epic sonic template. Having had versions of some of the songs from Night to listen to on the London live album, acquired at the same time as March Of Ghosts, I now have the real thing spinning in my CD player, and not a moment too soon.

This new version of Night features parts that were re-recorded, and I'll let the band explain:

We've 'polished' the existing version. We've always had the desire to revisit the album as it's "special" to us, and as Kscope were re-releasing it, this was an good opportunity to do so. Drums needed re-recording anyhow (as there was another drummer on the original), so we started to add and remove. As for repurchase for fans, we wanted to give more added value rather than "just" a remaster. And for potential new fans - a good introduction to the world of Gazpacho.

Chances are the changes aren't audible for many of you, just a general feel of improvement is our goal - and not to change the mood of the album. By the way, on this digibook you'll get older pictures of us recording in the actual cabin where "Night" was written - back when we were young and hopeful.

Suffice to say that the remastered sound is huge, and the video below does not begin to do it justice.

From the moment the ghostly atmospherics and strange distant voices usher us gently into Dream Of Stone to the last cycle of the last returning violin refrain of Massive Illusion, leading us back out into the quiet of the night, this album is a joy to listen to, and one I find myself humming parts of as I go about the daily grind.

Comparisons have been made to the more epic side of Radiohead, and Talk Talk have been mentioned too, but this band have their own distinctive identity, steeped in a dark mystery; a murder mystery this time round perhaps, as allusions are made to the shootings of both Andy Warhol and John Lennon.

The brooding atmosphere is conveyed by textures rather than dramatic flourishes and each part/song stands in its own right. Some parts are stronger than others but the listener soon becomes engrossed in the unfolding sonambulistic trip through the netherworld of dreams. Taking a cue from classic post-rock but adding layers of instrumentation and sundry noises off, whistles and voices weave in and out as we progress in a stately fashion, much in the same way the Moon passes across the night sky.

Opening with the epic Dream Of Stone, anchored by Kristian's majestic deep sonorous bass and Lars' uncluttered but powerful on-the-one drumming, the song laps at your psyche in gentle but insistent waves and pretty soon the Sandman has transported you away into Gazpacho's dreamworld. The band function as a magnificent whole, there is no room for spotlight hugging by any one member, something lesser bands than this would do well to remember. This is BIG music that goes beyond convenient labels and simply IS. About 12 minutes in a haunting violin refrain conjures images of mist-shrouded grey hinterland as the song steps over a threshold, Kristian's insistent thundering propelling the thing to the edge of a rocky abstract place. Without a breather the cityscape that has appeared is swaying before your eye, and the journey continues, our hero seeing himself reflected in glimpsed lives on the 12th floor as he passes through Chequered Light Buildings. The music has taken on a symphonic piano-led theme, the simple chord progression not so much hampered by the need to stick to the theme, but attempting to shake itself free, as Jon-Arne chops chords straining against an imaginary leash, finally coming to rest.

Some lovely piano work leads Upside Down which is full of subtle electronica, keyboard maestro Thomas and guitarist Jon-Arne trading the melody before the textural washes resume, while "Rubicon's old bridges burn", reprising a theme from Dream Of Stone. Ending with owl hoots and the accordion and whistles of The Duke, whose contributions throughout have added to the spooky miasma. Harking back to an earlier more folky version of the band, Valerie's Friend, a story from the perspective of Warhol's would-be assassin, suddenly explodes with massive chords and becomes a righteous sonic beast of a thing. This is heavy, but most definitely not metal, and as fine an example of the old quiet/loud routine as I've heard in a long time.

We end with Massive Illusion which alludes to the death of John Lennon and morphs into a campfire clap-along about "living your life as a ghost" and how the anti-hero (the assassin?) has been "freed from the chains of what has remained of a life". If the old Radiohead comparison raises its head, it's here, as the song lurches along in a threatening fashion, but soon the lovely violin refrain from earlier has returned and we're coming to the end of a night with Norway's finest exponents of epic modern folk music, for that is what this beauty is.

The live versions of the first three parts of Night on the second CD come from a concert at the Gloria Theatre, Cologne recorded earlier this year. My only minor gripe is that the bonus CD does not contain live versions of the whole album, but it is a small complaint.

Buy this, you know you need to, buy it here!

Track listing:

i. Dream of Stone (17:01)
ii. Chequered Light Buildings (6:34)
iii. Upside Down (9:39)
iv. Valerie's Friend (6:30)
v. Massive Illusion (13:36)

Total time 53:23

1. Dream of Stone (Live) (17:18)
2. Chequered Light Buildings (Live) (6:07)
3. Upside Down (Live) (10:26)

Total Time: 33:53

Line up:

Jan Henrik Ohme - Vocals
Thomas A Andersen - Keyboards
Jon-Arne Vilbo - Guitars
Mikael Krømer - Violins & Mandolin
Kristian Olav Torp - Bass
Lars Erik Asp - Drums (Robert R Johansen on the original album)

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Tea Club - Quickly Quickly Quickly

Formed around the core of brothers Patrick and Dan McGowan, New Jersey's The Tea Club have recently completed their third album Quickly Quickly Quickly, out on 15th November.

If first album General Winter's Secret Museum was progressive pop, and sophomore effort Rabbit is neo-progressive; both if you will serving an apprenticeship, then Quickly Quickly Quickly is a full-blown progressive rock spectacular, complete with obligatory epic songwriting, myriad time signature shifts and complex instrumentation.

The band's musical ambition is easily traceable by the ever-lengthening song times from those on General Winter... onwards through to the 18 minute Firebears that opens this album. By necessity the increasing duration of the compositions make this album less instant that the previous two, and the increased complexity of the music requires more patience from the listener. Having given the album time to sink in, it may be the case that in certain aspects the band have let their vaunting ambition get the better of them, as Firebears can come across as being a little too clever for its own good, and gives the impression of being less that the sum of its parts, good though those parts may be.

Charging out of the gates at a joyous canter, the opening theme sounds promising as the track builds, referencing Yes and The Mars Volta. The former's influence is down to the epic intent of the song and the sometimes Squire-like bass sound; the latter's simply because of the way their songs in general are vocally structured, TMV having been a long-term influence. Classic prog references continue in the quieter and much less frantic middle section, where a Genesis atmosphere is present, until some lovely piano work from Becky Osenenko takes it somewhere else.

However, that opening theme is difficult to pin down, the melody sometimes getting lost in the technical overload; that's not to say there's pointless shredding, there isn't, the song just seems over-fussy in places to this listener. "Did this song actually need to be 18 minutes long?" I ask myself, and, so far, I can only say "No, it didn't".

I think that the main problem with this epic is that it sounds like three songs cobbled together: as I said earlier the opening fast-paced theme is rather good but soon gets lost, and the slower-paced middle section is actually a damn fine song in its own right, but the end section is frankly a bit of mess. Of course my opinion may change the more times I listen, and as The Tea Club are such a talented group of musos, and a decent bunch to boot, I only hope it does.

Always a strong feature of this band are the strong vocals of the brothers McGowan. On Firebears Patrick takes the lead, his voice being similar to that of Matt Bellamy of Muse, and brother Dan whose higher register can bear an uncanny resemblance to Jeff Buckley, joins in on the harmonies. As for the subject matter, abstraction is the name of the game, although like the song itself, the lyric seems a little unfocused.

The rest of the album, I'm happy to report, is far more successful at getting its point across, and The Eternal German Infant instantly redresses the balance and is a much more cohesive song than its predecessor, Dan lending his soaring voice to a fairy tale seemingly about the tipping point for chaos to a soundtrack that while complex stays just this side of chaos itself. I've made the comparison before, but this song is "Jeff Buckley goes prog", no question,and I don't have the slightest problem with that.

Mister Freeze is a slow-paced funereal thing of Gothic menace homing in on loneliness and the protagonist's disillusion with an unknown text, built around a dark bass melody. After the frantic twists and turns of what has gone before this is a welcome, if slightly unsettling, change.

Closing number I Shall Consume Everything which as the title may suggest is a song of unfulfilled lust, both physical and material, and clocking in at well over 9 minutes, is the other "long 'un" on the record. The convolutions of earlier are back but make more sense than on Firebears, the unsettling nature of the frantic musical changes matched by the unsatiated lyric which builds into angst-filled barely suppressed rage as the narrator is not getting as much as he thinks he needs. He arrives at a sort of redemption, reflected in the airborne vocals, borne aloft on a chorus of ringing bass and guitar; all very Yes-like, but without being copyist and still very recognisable as The Tea Club.

It has been the case with the last two albums that the CD booklets were full of the brothers' idiosyncratic artwork, and I'm sure the same will be true of Quickly Quickly Quickly, judging by the ambiguous cover art.

Always in a state of flux, the group who recorded this album has since reverted to a trio of the two McGowans and drummer Joe Rizzolo, keyboard player Becky and bassist Charles Batdorf having since left for pastures new, so touring this record is going to mean new recruits and no doubt further shifts in the band's sound, but always led by Patrick & Dan's epic pop sensibilities. The ever-changing line up may well have been a factor that contributed to the sometimes incohesive feel of this album, particularly on Firebears. Indeed, the band had already recorded 80 minutes of material for this third album with a third guitarist in the line up who then left, necessitating the remaining five members re-recording the tracks that ended up on Quickly Quickly Quickly. That cannot have helped matters at all, as I'm sure time constraints came into play, but one can only hope a bit more self-editing in the "long song" department is displayed on the next album. Incidentally, I'd love to have heard all 80 minutes of the material with the third guitar player!

In conclusion, Quickly Quickly Quickly is a classic case of "difficult thrid album syndrome", and is half of a very good record indeed plus the 18 minutes of the slightly disjointed Firebears; but at just under 43 minutes long in total the album doesn't outstay its welcome, and like I said up there, Firebears may yet worm its way under my skin. Quickly Quickly Quickly is still definitely worth checking out as it shows no little ambition and skill and could show a lot of so-called prog bands quite a few tricks that don't rely on cliché.

Pre-order here: The Tea Club 

Track listing:
1. Firebears (17:52)
2. The Eternal German Infant (8:11)
3. Mister Freeze (6:49)
4. I Shall Consume Everything (9:26)

Total running time: 42:35

Line up:
Dan McGowan – Lead Vocals (2,3,4),  Backing Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar
Patrick McGowan – Electric Guitar, Lead Vocals (1), Backing Vocals, Bass (2)
Becky Osenenko - Keyboards
Charles Batdorf – Bass (1,3,4), Guitar (2)
Joe Rizzolo – Drums

Additional Instruments by R McGeddon

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Dissonati - Reductio Ad Absurdum

Coming out of Seattle, USA, Dissonati came together about 6 years ago when three veterans of the Seattle progressive music scene joined forces.

With two multi-instrumentalists in the band it is not surprising that the music they have produced is vast and intricate, a heady mix that while showing the influence of classic prog acts like VDGG, King Crimson and Yes also draws on a post-punk sensibility. I can hear UK cult indie outfits The Chameleons and Magazine in here, those two particular bands being "prog" in all but name, not that they would have ever admitted to such a heinous crime. This strange brew produces something that is highly individualistic, wilful, modernistic, and in places quite strange indeed.

Any album that is book-ended by two mini-epics tempts me to look for prog cliché and I am equally surprised and relieved to find it subsumed by the band's collective spirit, and if there is cliché here, I simply don't care. Singer and guitarist Ron Rutherford has an individualistic voice slightly reminiscent of both Mark Burgess of The Chameleons and Paul Buchannan of The Blue Nile, while his guitar technique carries an obvious debt to Robert Fripp. All of these influences are indications of great taste if you ask me, but that's all they are, just influences. This man is not a copyist.

Opener Can You Hear Me? is a fairly low-key and melancholically atmospheric offering, and the swirling mists of the Western Seaboard wrap themselves around the melodic and lovely Middle Man. The album's overall atmosphere and lyrical theme of quiet introspection thus far is broken up by the very odd Age Of Foeces where sax player John Hagelbarger takes the vocal in a very Hammill-like style, the song being propelled along by a spiky tune played with some venom, especially when the guitar solo, which is short and to the point takes us to the end where John, with tongue-in-cheek longs for a simpler, less amoral time, when "men were men" and "Empire was alive".

Through all this, drummer John Reagan holds together the shifting sands of the group's muscular but subtle musicality in an unhurried and unfussy manner that means you hardly notice him at times, a bit like a very good referee in a football (soccer to any USA readers!) match. 

MindWarp goes all space-rock on us, in a Quark, Strangeness And Charm fashion, and Senescence weaves an intricate musical tale that spins out layers that build subtly to a satisfying conclusion, in an almost math-rock style. Driver - well, hear it for yourself above.

Appetites tantalised but not yet satisfied, the album saves the best until last with The Sleeper where all the influences mentioned thus far are skewered and cooked to just the right degree; the songwriting and arrangement skills producing thirteen and a half minutes of modern prog perfection. The upfront melodic bass at the start with hints of a Yes-like sound, cyclical guitar figures, musical chorus runs, passages of near dissonance; all join together to serve the occasional singing of a suitably ambiguous lyric in a fashion that has this particular progfan nodding sagely. Well, you didn't expect me to say I was dancing, surely? "The sleeper must awaken", indeed!

Some bands like to try the listener's patience by making 70-minute-plus albums without the songwriting to back it up. Not this group, who, in making an album a mere 51 minutes long leave me wishing it was longer by the end. Tight compositions and arrangements mean time will fly by as you get lost in the slightly surreal world of Dissonati.

While gently nudging the envelope rather than shoving it, this band still manage to make a new noise. After all, progressive music must move forward otherwise every prog band would be churning out Close To The Cryme forever and a day...;)

In another year that has seen many fine progressive releases, this record will definitely feature in my top 10 of 2012, no question, although the way things are going it may have to be extended to a top 20!

Available in physical or download form, find out more at the band's website. Put simply; if you're a prog fan you need this album!

Track listing:
1. Can You Hear Me? (10:11)
2. Middle Man (6:41)
3. Age of Foeces (4:09)
4. MindWarp (4:31)
5. Senescence (6:59)
6. Driver (5:25)
7. The Sleeper (13:39)

Line up:
John Hagelbarger – keyboards, saxes, woodwinds, lead vocals (3)
John Reagan – drums
Ron Rutherford – guitar, guitar synth, keyboards, bass, lead and backing vocals

2019, the insanity grows...

Odd title for an annual music review, but them's the times. With these words I aim to provide you with an escape from the creeping madne...