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

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