Monday, 25 March 2013

3RDegree - The Long Division

I've had this album a while and listened to it a fair few times but for some reason I never got round to reviewing it. Featuring highly in a few 2012 best-of lists from fellow reviewers whose opinions I value, and seeing as how every time a review of it is posted an intelligent and varied political debate is sparked, I think it is about time I added my two pennies worth.

Since being released over six months ago this album has caused quite a stir amongst the more politically aware element of the prog community, on both sides of the Atlantic. 3RDegree, originally active in the 90s, splitting up in 1997, reformed around ten years later and in the shadow of the world economic collapse of 2008 wrote, recorded and released their comeback album Narrow-Caster. Since then they have not looked back with a lauded appearance at ProgDay 2009 being released on DVD.

New Jersey based Robert James Pashman and George Dobbs began swapping files on the internet with Los Angeles based Pat Kliesch, and The Long Division began to take shape. The songs on the first half of the album are angry bursts of what I can only describe as militant centrism, taking swipes at both sides of the political schism in the USA, the cover art neatly summing it up:

Centred - Where else?!
The listener is left in no doubt at the anger felt towards the strangely, if not uniquely American political stalemate wherein you might have a left-inclined White House battling with a right-inclined Congress resulting in no progress whatsoever. Of course, since this album came out, that stalemate was dramatically illustrated to the world in the "fiscal cliff" fiasco, something so odd that it is almost incomprehensible to those of us from over the water.

So, on opener You're Fooling Yourselves there are alternate verses having a go at first the the right...

You and your gun-totting, flag waving corporate sell-outs
Bible belt simpletons quoting your founding fathers
You and your God, you and your God-You and your God 

...and then the left...

You and your tree-hugging, America-bashing peaceniks
Urban elitists, reinventing what’s good and pure
Media whores, settling old scores & starting class wars

...and imploring them, maybe naively, to come to a consensus for the benefit of all. Viewed from this side of the pond it may need pointing out that in our eyes Obama and his Democrats are barely any more leftist than a lot of what would be regarded as right of centre parties in Europe. One wonders how much loot Obama has diverted from funding American imperialism into, say, public healthcare, for example? As far as I can see, the only American president in my lifetime one might describe as even slightly left-wing was Jimmy Carter.

On the other hand the American right, populated as it seems to be by over-monied crazy militant gun-totin' so-called Christian (Jesus Christ would run a mile from any association with them, for sure) nutjobs, is far more prominent than any perceived notion of an American left will ever be. Remember that this is a country where the very notion of centralised affordable healthcare for all is seen as somehow unpatriotic by a majority of the populace, so having a go at your own liberal politicians, fault-ridden as they may be, strikes this European as being a tad misguided.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the video for the song. At 3:25 onwards we have our candidates from right and left "sitting for caricatures". The right wing guy is shown in a KKK hat and the left wing guy is compared to Karl Marx. I would suggest that the gap between The Tea Party and the KKK is an awful lot less than anything the Democrats have to offer as compared to Karl Marx, or so it seems from outside!

Actually, I don't mind the lyrics that much, as in the USA as anywhere else in the world, once high office is achieved, and in most cases long before that, the moral compass of those both seeking and in that office is often sent haywire by expediency, and the bastards need to be told. I just hope that an outsider's perspective might be useful, although I'm leaving myself open to be shot down, I'm sure.

I have to say though that there is no way on Earth you can argue with "and you’re fooling yourself if you don’t look across the aisle and see humanity" no matter what side of the fence you think you come from.

Anyway, this is a rock'n'roll album right? What about the music? The Long Division is a highly accomplished and enjoyable slab of art-rock, taking in influences all the way from Todd Rundgren via Steely Dan and 10 CC to XTC, not forgetting a helping of Zappa in the arrangements, topped off by George Dobbs' powerful larynx, a voice that leaves one in no doubt that this fella means every goddamn word. To be honest Mr Dobbs' dulcet tones took a bit of getting used to, and I'd imagine like most distinctive vocalists, his is a love or hate it style, or, as we say over here, a "Marmite". I could imagine this guy fronting a soul band and it does actually make a nice change from the usually reedy singers one encounters in the merrie worlde of progge.

The Socio Economic Petri Dish is much more accurate in terms of lyrical targets, having a righteous go at the failed capitalist system we all oh-so-meekly play along  with. The problem with this kind of thing is "Where are the solutions?" It's all very well telling folk what most of us already know, but without any hint of a solution it falls into that old old category of protest music. It has its place, sure, and jumping up and down and pointing fingers is fine and great fun when you're 20, but 30 years later isn't it just a little undignified? Ask yourself this; if life had taken a different path and you were in a position of economic power, and some would say simply by being American that you are anyway, would you still be railing against the system that put you there? It would be nice if we could all say "yes" to that and actually mean it, but it's impossible to know really.

I find that after a while I just switch off and enjoy the music for its own sake, and that's actually quite easy as the band are highly skilled musicians all, who make complicated arrangements seem effortless. The opener, contentious lyrics and all, is an anthemic belter of a tune that will get you singing along with the chorus in no time. Edgy arrangements are to the fore in the celebrity-culture bashing Televised, an oddly spartan piece of music led by the complex rhythmic patterns of drummer Aaron Nobel. Oddly enough, the tune with probably the most incisive albeit verbose lyric, a treatise on conviction-free TV talking heads that Hunter S Thompson would be proud of, is also the one that musically meanders a tad. Is the fact that it is called Incoherent Ramblings ironic one wonders?

The Millions Of Lost Moments is a short but lovely acoustic-led instrumental, and a welcome break from the Sturm und Drang. Memetic Pandemic (great title!) keeps things calm musically, but reintroduces the contention with the sign off lyric "I don’t want your handouts I don’t want your hand-me-downs I want what’s mine" which is a fine sentiment as long as you're not disenfranchised in some way. Is this lyricist a Neil Peart for the 21st Century one wonders? The album closes with A Nihilist's Love Song, a somewhat bleak assessment that cleverly turns the geo-political back to the personal. "Do you believe in me?" it asks, after a singalong Beatlesesque chorus, and for all the grimness that has gone before, it comes across as strangely uplifting.

Quite how the band follow this is anyone's guess, but I'm rather looking forward to it, whatever it may be.

I apologise for banging on about the lyrics so much, but when a band sets out to ruffle feathers they have to expect a bit of scrutiny. I may not agree with some of the sentiments that are expressed on The Long Division, but when all is said and done, it's simply a plea for us all to get along a little better, which is a sentiment no-one in their right (or left!) mind could disagree with surely?

It would be a shame if this album was remembered for its angry centrist polemic and other spiky lyrical excursions, rather than for its music, which is top-notch, and one does have to be grateful that 3RDegree are never likely to use the words "unicorn" or "wizard" in their lyrics, unless Obama suddenly takes to wearing a sequined cape.

Get it here.

Track listing:
1. You're Fooling Yourselves (6:53)
2. Exit Strategy (5:46)
3. The Socio-Economic Petri Dish (6:51)
4. Incoherent Ramblings (7:46)
5. The Ones To Follow (3:15)
6. A Work Of Art (2:53)
7. Televised (6:54)
8. The Millions Of Last Moments (2:07)
9. Memetic Pandemic (7:29)
10. A Nihilist's Love Song (3:39)

Total running time - 53:39

Line up:
George Dobbs - lead vocals, keyboards
Robert James Pashman - bass, keyboards, backing vocals
Pat Kliesch - guitar, backing vocals
Aaron Nobel - drums, percussion
Eric Pseja - guitar, backing vocals

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Seven Impale - Beginning/Relieve

Hailing from Bergen, Norway, you may be forgiven for thinking that with a name like "Seven Impale", that I have become a convert to grunting death metal. Not a bit of it, this new band produce a rather nice amalgam of heavy post-prog with a singer who in contrast has a delightfully fragile voice. Fans of the likes of The Tea Club and inFictions should dig this.

Beginning/Relieve is their debut EP, out on Karisma Records next month, and a nicely varied menu of modern post-prog it is too, ranging from the epic space-jazz tile track, to the almost Wire like angularity of the opener. OK, Wire were never that heavy, but there's something of them in there, I'm sure.

Not afraid to tackle grand arrangements, as Blind To All and the title track (see link above) testify, as well as modern heavy prog and melancholic ballads, this band show no little promise, and their first album which is currently under construction is awaited with anticipation.


1. Mind Riot (1:21)
2. Blind to All (6:50)
3. Beginning/Relieve (6:28)
4. Measure 15 (3:27)
5. What Am I Sane For? (6:47) 

Total running time 24:53

Line up:

Stian Økland - vocals and guitars
Fredrik Mekki Widerøe - drums
Benjamin Mekki Widerøe - sax
Tormod Fosso - bass
Erlend Vottvik Olsen - guitar
Håkon Vinje - keyboards.

This download only EP is out on 5th April - get it from Karisma Records

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Older Than God

Older Than God is a series of documentary webisodes charting the artistic life of touch guitarist, musician and composer Markus Reuter (Stick Men, Crimson ProjeKct, Centrozoon, along with collaborations too many to list) lovingly filmed by his long-time friend and colleague Lee Fletcher. This is the latest episode:

The complete schedule of releases, further information and details of intended hard copy releases can be found on

A fascinating insight into the motivations of a true artist, and more than worthy of a few minutes of your time.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

After the headphone dust has settled...

Their is a major problem with being a fan of a particular band or artist and attempting to write a review of a new album by said artist, to a strict deadline, in order that the review is posted on or before the official release date. That problem is objectivity, or lack of it. Fuelled by the adrenaline of anticipation, the fanboy's (or girl's) immediate reaction, unless the record is truly awful, is a spewing forth of hyperbole, a gushing sycophancy, accompanied by a general star-struck demeanour.

In my case that artist is Steven Wilson and the album was The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories). I submitted my review to DPRP and have since realised with hindsight that it could be construed as somewhat fawning, although it is odd that the two most gushing reviews came from colleagues who are SW newbies. My review was tempered with mild criticism, but after reading my mate Phill's acerbic take on it, I promised myself to revisit the album after the sturm und drang had subsided. The "sturm" of course includes the live concert on Monday, but, impetuous chappy that I am I ain't gonna wait that long!

The only way I could do this properly was to sit down and listen to all 3 of Steven's solo albums to date, back to back, so that I could glean a semblance of context, progression, call it what you will. My listening is restricted to the albums proper, so any gems hidden in the bonus tracks are discounted. Sitting through this lot was a task that was hardly taxing, I must admit!

In order to put my Raven DPRP review in context I am going to have to bite the bullet and continue with the dreaded, and in my opinion, unnecessary, marking system. Album grading is carried out in these contexts:

1. I regard Porcupine Tree's peak as being The Sky Moves Sideways and Signify albums. The former is a modern take on Floyd space rock, the latter is a more slick and polished version of that, and, if there was any justice, Signify should have been their breakthrough album, not the dogs' dinner faux-metal of Fear Of A Blank Planet.
2. In the world of prog if, say, Close To the Edge is a 10/10 and Going For The One a 9/10, then those two PT albums above are a 9 and an 8.5 in my opinion. When giving something high marks one has to remember that in ten years' time are you going to be playing Raven or whatever as often as the real classics? If you're being honest, probably not, eh?

The solo debut has the feel of a true solo album, a real "one man show with guests" if you will. Part Porcupine Tree leftovers, part weird experimentation, this was made with the influence of late 70s and early 80s UK indie, the sounds the then teenage Wilson grew up with.

Standout tracks:  
No Twilight Within The Courts Of The Sun - a wildly adventurous mash up of The Cure and spiky prog metal, including a classical piano break, and bloody marvellous it is too!
Significant Other - Steven goes shoegaze...OK, some of you think he's spent his entire career "gazing at his plimsoles", but this is a lost shoegaze classic.

Phill bemoans the lack of tunes on Raven, but there are no more "tunes" on Insurgentes to be honest. And, in my opinion, tunes are not the be all and end all anyway. Moody, broody and very dark, Insurgentes is SW at his most inward-looking.

Conclusion - for fans only: 6/10
What? Only 6? Look at it another way - if you got 60% in an exam, you wouldn't be disappointed, would you?

Grace For Drowning
In which "the band that isn't a band" was first tentatively assembled, which makes it all hang together so much better than Insurgentes. Grace For Drowning is a sprawling beast of a double album that translated so well into the live setting on the last tour.

Standout tracks:
Sectarian - Jazz-prog done properly, right up my particular avenue!
Deform To Form A Star - Stands out because it sounds like an old-fashioned (pre prog-metal) PT song, and doesn't really fit here. Nice tune though.
Belle De Jour - The calm before the storm, an utterly lovely but brief slice of instrumental melancholia built around Steven's simple but effective acoustic guitar figure.
Raider II - That oh so unusual thing - a modern prog track of epic length that isn't either; a) a mess (Anesthetise come on down), or b) instantly forgettable. I'll even forgive the Crimson and VDGG references writ large. More jazz-prog for astronauts!

Conclusion - 7.5/10
Maybe in need of a bit of editing, as there is a 9/10 60-minute album here, but full marks for taking risks.

The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)

Luckily for you, I'm not going to review it again, just attempt to contextualise it, so bear with me.

GFD was a promising departure into a freer and more jazz-based territory that was not followed through fully on Raven, an opinion that holds from my original scribbling, and Steven seems to largely have put on hold his knack for penning a compact tune in favour of a more open ended but still structured approach. However one has to remember that Insurgentes is not all soaring shoegazey pop songs, as the likes of Salvaging and Abandoner confirm, but when you compare TRTRTS to Insurgentes it is safe to say that both are rooted firmly in the past, albeit with both eyes on the "now" unlike many other regressive rock bands of today.

TRTRTS looks back to the classic prog era while Insurgentes looks to the bleakest of Cure influenced indie and shoegaze for its inspiration, and both are equally valid sources. Insurgentes feels like it's telling you "I'm going out. I may be some time", leaving the listener wondering what will be brought back from the unknown, and GFD seems to be scrabbling around in the hinterland of left-field prog and assembling all sorts of scary delights, whereas TRTRTS has brought back the shopping and is laying on a feast that is maybe just a bit too perfect.

While nowhere near as bad as Phill's review/attack would have you believe, neither is TRTRTS the canine's testicles as occasionally my review might lead you to think. Good as the album is, it just does not seem to be pushing any envelopes, and is only the second time I consider an album associated with Mr Wilson can be said to have a "safe" feel to it, the first being The Incident after which, coincidentally or not, Porcupine Tree where put on hold. In defence of my DPRP review there were a few instances of doubt expressed there which the benefit of hindsight has only served to confirm, I'm afraid. Having said all that, TRTRTS is still damned good and will almost certainly feature somewhere in my top 10 of 2013.

Standout tracks:
The Holy Drinker - One track that does keep the jazz groove alive. Come on down, Theo Travis!
The Watchmaker - A great song and a story that tugs at the heartstrings, even if the music is a bit on the reverential side.

Conclusion - 8/10
Without question the most cohesive of his solo albums to date; I thought I was going to have to reappraise this downwards, but, in the context of the previous two albums it is definitely "better", in terms of songwriting (tell me The Pin Drop is not one of his best post-PT efforts, if you can), arrangements, production, you name it.

My only caveat is that has Steven's muse become a bit too reliant on past glories from the golden age of prog for inspiration? Knowing him though, it's probably all intended that way anyway, and the next album will hopefully take another turn. This leads me to wonder where Steven will go now, and I only hope he takes a long break, which in his world is probably all of 3 days, before he begins to rouse the muse again. We wouldn't want him to burn out after all.

There are prog fans who seem resentful of Wilson's "Prog God" status, but who else in the UK could release an out-and-out prog album that gets in the charts, top 20 no less. That's the real charts, not "Biggest selling CD in Yorkshire" by the way. Without SW it is doubtful that a magazine like Classic Rock Society Presents Prog would sell enough to survive, particularly given its ridiculous cover price, and a major outlet of news for the less commercially viable acts would be lost. I might not agree with that mag's stance, but it's the only one we've got, so more power to them.

If Steven Wilson carries on this upward trajectory then it's only a matter of time before Jools bleedin' Holland acknowledges the existence of a music outside of his safe indie and R&B remit, and invites SW and the lads on to Later. Can't imagine that there is any other UK prog act capable of that, can you?

Finally, a word or several about SW's sanctimonious drivel on his Facebook page recently. You've probably all seen him there, sitting at the head of a dining table laid with empty plates, the text bemoaning the fact that because a review copy was illicitly shared prior to release he will be made homeless. Well, not quite, but you get my drift.

Firstly I would bet that 90% or more of the folk who found this and downloaded it are fans who had either already pre-ordered the thing or subsequently bought it. The other 10% happened on it by chance not knowing who he is - unlikely given that I couldn't find the file share when he publicised it anyway - and if only 1 person in that 10% buys it or goes to a gig, he's actually profited from it. In other words; has he lost sales? Answer: almost certainly not.

Had I not had a review copy (and no, it wasn't me who uploaded it) and I had found it, would I have downloaded it? Of course I bloody well would, I'm a fan, I want to hear it asap! But, as with most SW fans, I want the hi-spec audio that goes with the territory, which is why I had pre-ordered it weeks ago. The reason SW releases all his work in every high-end audio format is precisely because he knows that's what his fans want.

The only type of "musicians", and I use the word advisedly, who really lose out big time in the download wars are the Britneys and Justins of this world, whose fans are not the slightest bit concerned with 5:1 mixes or fancy booklet artwork. They are more than happy with crappy mp3, and, they probably have far less disposable income to spend on their idol of choice's wares anyway. If Tiffany comes across an illegal torrent of Britney's new waxing (yeucch - what a thought), that'll do nicely thank you very much.

And another thing, while he's probably not what might be termed "rich" SW is probably more comfortably off than most of his fans. So, Steven, get off your high horse, loosen up a bit and enjoy yourself!

Friday, 1 March 2013

Michael Mantler - The Hapless Child and other inscrutable stories

I do not normally review old albums, unless they are part of my long neglected Formative Years series, but this oddity deserves some exposure.

Until about a month ago I had never heard of this album, but during a visit to my good friend and gig-going companion Phil's abode up popped this dusty obscurity.

Some of you may well be asking Michael who? Well, it seems that this could well be the rarest album starring Robert Wyatt out there.

Let me explain; Michael Mantler is a composer, band leader and trumpeter in the contemporary jazz field. Married to celebrated jazz pianist Carla Bley at the time of this record (1975) they had also set up their own label WATT to release their projects, which included this little gem.

Setting the unsettling illustrated stories of writer Edward Gorey to music, Mantler assembled a top notch backing band for Wyatt's semi-spoken narratives, a style that scans where it shouldn't as anyone familiar with his solo work will know well. Also contributing narratives are Robert's wife Alfreda Benge, Nick Mason and Albert Caulder.

Gorey, who died in April 2000, was an odd character by all accounts, releasing his early works under sundry anagrams of his name such as Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde, and Ms. Regera Dowdy to name the 3 quoted on Wiki, and there were many others too, apparently. His stories read like they were written in Victorian times under the influence of laudanum and misery, often as not featuring sad children and an air of menace, and steeped in very black humour. This from the Poe-like title track:

"Her mother fell into a decline that proved fatal.
Her only other relative, an uncle, was brained by a piece of masonry"

The opening track is probably the spookiest, a story of a spirit falling through a house:

"Morose, inflexible, aloof,
it hovered just above the roof.
It's gone right through and come to rest
On great grand-uncle Ogdred's chest"

They are very odd indeed, and all "sung" in Robert Wyatt's unmistakable style. Hopefully you can click on the image below and enlarge it for more enlightenment.

Part of the CD booklet - illustrations by Edward Gorey

Robert Wyatt's character is so deeply ingrained in this record it almost feels like a long lost Wyatt solo album to me, and because of that I am more than happy to attempt to describe its many delights to you. Some of these are the unusually acidic guitar interjections from the sublime Terje Rypdal, sending flying shards of slightly reverbed notes over the heads of the other players, so fans of the great guitarist are also in for a treat.

Carla Bley's piano forms the base of the tunes with colour added by the "string synthesiser"; is this a Mellotron you may ask, and I wonder that too.

Jack DeJohnette should need no introduction and with bassist Steve Swallow, who has a jazz CV as long as an extended trombone, they create marvellous counter-rhythmic textures for Terje and Carla to extemporise over. Nowhere is this more evident than on the blistering attack of The Object-Lesson. Terje had not been this animated since his first solo outings in the 60s. Marvellous stuff!

If you ever come across this and you're a Wyatt or Rypdal fan, buy it. Unfortunately the CD is long out of print, but you never know, it might just turn up here:

1. The Sinking Spell 5:17
2. The Object Lesson 5:05
3. The Insect God 5:05
4. The Doubtful Guest 4:54
5. The Remembered Visit 6:33
6. The Hapless Child 7:02

Total running time 33:58

Line up:
Robert Wyatt : Vocals
Carla Bley : Piano, clavinet, string synthesiser (Mellotron?)
Steve Swallow : Bass guitar
Jack DeJohnette : Drums, percussion
Terje Rypdal : Guitar

Alfreda Benge : Speaker
Albert Caulder, Nick Mason: Additional speakers

2019, the insanity grows...

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