Saturday, 26 April 2014

Dennis Rea - Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China & Taiwan

Most of us are born, live and die in the same country, but excluding those driven by economic circumstance, there have always been people with an innate sense of wanderlust and adventure that results in them living and working not just in different countries to those of their birth, but different continents.

Thanks to the internet, a handful of such free spirits I can now count as friends. Even though I have never physically met these people, I am sure if we did ever cross paths in the real world, I would not be able to restrain myself from interrogations about their highly interesting life choices and travels.

One such person is Seattle-based guitar adventurist Dennis Rea. Dennis and I have crossed interweb paths on several occasions; back in 2012 I published our interview and we then collaborated on his career retrospective in these very pages. It was during the process of those interactions that I became aware of Dennis' book Live at the Forbidden City, and Dennis, being a generous guy, was kind enough to send me a copy. It is a damn good read, and I think you should all be enlightened, so here goes...

In 1988 Dennis applied and was accepted for a post teaching English at Chengdu University of Science and Technology in order to join his fiancée Anne who was there on an academic exchange program. In January 1989 Dennis arrived from Seattle, USA, in Chengdu, China. Chengdu, then with a population of around three million is a central inland city, and capital of the remote Sichuan Province. According to Wikipedia, the city's population has since expanded to an alarming 14 million!

Eventually overcoming the inevitable severe culture shock, Dennis tentatively sows the seeds of his musical career in China by giving guitar lessons to university students. One thing leads to another, as we will see later.

The timing of Dennis' arrival in that mysterious land was significant, for a mere six months later China's leadership's dichotomy between the strict disciplines required for a centrally organised economy and the country's new flirtations with capitalism and its perceived so-called "freedoms" came to a head with what we in the outside world came to know as "Tiananmen Square".

Unsurprisingly, the kicking against the pricks was not restricted to the capital, although it may have seemed that way at the time to the outsider. There were few if any foreign journalists in other population centres, and the uprising in Chengdu suffered the authoritarian crackdown more than most. Dennis, his fiancée and a handful of other Westerners on the university campus were in the privileged if frightening position of witnessing the carnage firsthand. Dennis' account of those fraught times has since been quoted in numerous texts on the subject, most recently in a soon to be released book on the tumultuous events of 4th June 1989 entitled The People's Republic Of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by NPR correspondent Louisa Lim.

China's relative openness to outside influences up to that tipping point was presided over by leader Deng Xiaoping, whose reluctant acceptance of his country's new direction is neatly summed up by his quote on the first leaf: "If you open the window, some flies are bound to get in".

The crackdown apart, Dennis, as one of those "flies", seems to have enjoyed a relatively hassle-free existence on the Chinese mainland as a teacher and also as a musician, the latter occupation starting from those previously mentioned small beginnings and culminating in massive China-wide tours and guest spots with the stars of China's then infant rock scene. Below is a shaky crowd video of Dennis and his band Identity Crisis backing the most important figure in Chinese rock, Ciu Jian, a man who Dennis describes as "a one man rock'n'roll revolution".

To our jaded Western ears this sounds pleasant enough, and puts me in mind of Peter Gabriel, but Yi Wu Suo You or Nothing To My Name was Jian's totemic anthem, a song whose lyrics of alienation and and isolation, helpfully translated into English in the book, struck a reverberating chord with Chinese youth, long suffering under the twin yokes of repression and stifling conservatism. With that perspective in mind it is easy to see how Nothing To My Name and the rest of Ciu Jian's 1989 LP Rock'N'Roll on the New Long March was inflammatory stuff indeed, and landed its author in all sorts of trouble.

The video was shot in early 1991, by which time some tolerance of decadent rock music had returned. The venue was Maxim's in Beijing, a restaurant owned by Pierre Cardin in a cultural "grey zone" where China's version of rock'n'roll excess was largely left alone by the Public Security Bureau. The sound quality of that clip is not the best, but it serves as a tantalising glimpse into the world Dennis portrays so well in the book. This is what the song sounds like on the original LP:

Incidentally, two of the comments below the live video come from members of Identity Crisis. Bryce Whitwam who is invisible in the video played keyboards, and an also obscured Tom Vest was behind the drums. Dennis is the slightly bemused looking fellow on guitar to the right of Ciu Jian as we look, and the bass player to the left is Andreas Vath. The crowd in the back room of the restaurant seem to be having a whale of a time, despite having been treated to the dubious delights of the expatriate support act, whom Dennis disparagingly described as "frat rockers".

As well as Dennis' many and varied musical exploits as he blazed a cultural trail across the country, the book is full of humorous tales of derring-do, and sundry farcical episodes. Life threatening equipment set ups arising from the technical limitations of China's wiring systems, and from misunderstandings by "sound engineers" abound, along with metaphorical crossed wires from the nuances of language lost in the translation.

Also highly amusing, but insanely frustrating for Dennis and Anne at the time was the protracted tale of their attempts to overcome Chinese bureaucracy in order to marry, a tale that ends in a kind of deflated success that encapsulates Elliot's "Not with a bang, but a whimper". Orwell had nothing on the Chinese. Also, the tale of his impromptu mountain trek wearing wearing only a dressing gown and slippers is a delight. I exaggerate there, but not by much!

Dennis also had the rare distinction of being one of the first Westerners to have an album released by the State owned China Record Company. A lot of thought went into that label name, obviously. Shadow in Dreams, on the back of his growing reputation as a messenger from the land of decadence went on to sell a respectable 40000 copies, and was listed as one of the ten best releases of 1990 by the Communist Party newspaper China Youth Daily.

Dennis' writing style is engaging and easy to assimilate, and much like his music there is a directness and absence of pretence, as well as an obvious joie-de-vivre. This was no place for a misanthrope, after all! The book has some amusing chapter titles which give an indication of the author's impish sense of humour and polished wit; Anguish as a Second Language, The Great Wall of Sound, The Feelmore East and The Gang of Formosa being but four.

That last one arrives about halfway through the book. In April 1990 Dennis and Anne leave China for Taiwan (the former Portuguese colony of Formosa), following Anne's work, and the prospect of better paid employment for the both of them. Taiwan, a capitalist state then run with an iron fist, and propped up by the Yankee $ was to prove a far less satisfying place culturally for Dennis, in thrall as it was to anything Western in general and American in particular. Because of this there was a sizeable Western ex-pat community, and communications with the outside world were easier, as was the forming of bands. And so it was that from his base in the city of Tainan that Identity Crisis evolved, and  in April of 1991 a tour of China was organised, this being the jaunt that included the Ciu Jian date above.

Dennis played with a vast number of different musicians during his time in China and Taiwan, and among the bands he formed were The Vagaries, who also toured China, in September and October 1991, a mere six months after Identity Crisis. The tale of that band's formation and the jumping through bureaucratic hoops required by the event organising committee in order to get permission to play at the China International TV Festival is another highlight. Incidentally, The Vagaries included a young William Rieflin, who later went on to drum with artists as diverse as REM and Robert Fripp; indeed, Bill will occupy one of the three drum stools in the 2014 reformation of King Crimson.

Being a man with a voracious appetite for knowledge, everything in the book is put into historical, cultural and geographical context, and just the right amount of background information colours the anecdotes sufficiently for Live at the Forbidden City to be an informative as well as a fun read.

You can buy the book HERE, along with a proportion of Dennis' vast discography!

Other links:

Interview with Dennis Rea

Dennis Rea - The Discography

Dennis Rea's website There are plenty of photos on the website featuring Identity Crisis and The Vagaries

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Intravenus - Oiseau

Time and tide wait for no man; or for independent non-commercial band it seems. I was sent this album at the turn of the year, and a combination of circumstances has led to a delay in reviewing it until now. Unfortunately in that time, the band's website has disappeared into the internet void, and their Facebook page is practically empty, leaving only the Bandcamp page still online. See note at end...

What little info I could find, and the band line up was gleaned from Greek review site The Fridge, courtesy of Google Translate.

The band was formed in Athens in 2001 by Nonta Kaklamanis (drums), Akis Kaklamanis (bass) and John Anastasaki (guitar and sound effects). The others in the line up appear to have been added for this album. Doing a sterling job behind the mixing desk is sound engineer Vangelis Lappas.

The first track, Paradox Folk, shows a distinct late-period Soft Machine vibe. Led by some great sax and electric piano, the tune canters along on the back of a solid beat from the drums and bass. Later joined by some wah-funk guitar, this is the most dramatic of the four shorter songs.

A more relaxed jazz fusion style is played out on Road Closed, led by some nice piano and sax work. Arpeggio guitar introduces on Sonic Servant, which eventually develops into a psychedelic swirl of sound, pinned down by insistent on-the-one drumming, eventually returning to base. A small hint of what is to come!

Odyssey closes the first part of the album with some laid back piano and sax, eventually changing gear with some great ensemble playing. A showcase for some unusual and fine guitar work from John Anastasaki, this track is a highlight, with the band still very much in the jazz fusion vibe.

That the title track is over 26 minutes long is not the only thing that makes it stand out. Oiseau the track starts out conventionally enough, backwards guitar and piano over a languid backing. Two minutes in some avant guitar strangling imitating the bird of the title leads in to some more brief backward guitar, seagull calling. This languid and relaxed intro becomes almost Floydian, mixing Careful With That Axe Eugene and Cirrus Minor influences and is far removed from the jazz fusion of the earlier songs.

With 15 or so minutes to go there is a gap, and as if suffering the sudden onset of schizophrenia, the band return for the remainder of the song with a Kosmische excursion into the realms of Gila and the calmer side of Faust. No, really! Percussion clatter, plucked piano strings, disembodied voices, industrial synth ambience, it's all there. It is almost as if the band went for a meal, left the tape running and while they were away, the ghost of Conny Plank took up residence. Very strange and slightly unsettling, it is nonetheless a great slice of unclassifiable psychedelia.

The last quarter of an hour of this album make it a real oddity, and even had it been left out there would still remain a more than decent jazz-psych-fusion record.

1. Paradox Folk (7:31)
2. Road Closed (8:22)
3. Sonic Servant (4:06)
4. Odyssey (4:49)
5. Oiseau (26:12)

Total running time - 51:02

Line up:
Nontas Kaklamanis - drums
Akis Kaklamanis - bass
John Anastasaki - guitar and sound effects
Kostis Christodoulou - piano, keys, analogue synths
Giorgos Giannopoulos - saxophone, percussion, flute
Stelios Romaliadis - flute

Stream and buy from the band's Bandcamp page
Buy from Wayside Music

Addendum: The drummer, Nontas Kaklamanis, has since contacted me and told me that the band is currently taking a break, but will be back. Good news!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Hungry Krauts, Daddy

Since hearing Can on Top Gear in the 70s I have had a thing for what is commonly known as Krautrock, a coverall description for a lot of largely unclassifiable music coming from the German baby boomer generation in a golden period between 1969 and 1975 (approx). Unhindered by a forced marriage to the blues that became the roots of 60s popular music in Britain and, more naturally, in the States, our German cousins looked to jazz, ethnic folk music and avant garde European classical music for their inspiration.

Mix that with spoonfuls of psychotropic drugs and the radical politics of the European hippie movement, and of course, rock'n'roll instrumentation and amplification, and you have a veritable melting pot of sounds. Music that ranged from free-form jazz rock, through psychedelia and modern classical, and out, way out into the far beyond.

In 1996 the Krautrock bible for the serious follower and the simply curious was published. The Crack In The Cosmic Egg was an exhaustive reference book containing probably all anyone needed to know about the 70s German alternative rock scene. A labour of love produced by Krautrock devotees Steve and Alan Freeman, the book is now long out of print but is currently available in long and condensed form from the their website Ultima Thule, so named after the famous sub-Floydian single by Tangerine Dream, and also once an esoteric record shop run by the brothers in Leicester.

That's not all, the Freemans also occasionally release highly obscure music from the era on their own label on limited edition CDRs. Some of these are limited to print runs of only twenty, so you'll have to be quick. One such CDR is No.4 by Alcatraz, here's a sample:

I'll admit Alcatraz are not a band I am familiar with, but that was an utterly splendid piece of Germanic jazz fusion, described thus in The Crack In The Cosmic Egg:

"...they mellowed further on No.4, with a very much 1980's styled cross genre jazz-rock with a funky edge, akin to instrumental "guitar" Zappa, or the likes of David Torn or Terje Rypdal & The Chasers."

There is some groovy stuff out there on Ultima Thule, be sure to check it out!

Stay Awake - Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films

Thanks to my mate Phil I am now listening to a long forgotten gem that I used to have on cassette some twenty five or so years ago, around the time it first came out. The gem in question is Stay Awake - Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films, which was put together by producer Hal Willner, who has a history of eclectic compilations, and boy is this eclectic!

This was Willner's fourth excursion into sonic exotica. In 1981 the first was Amarcord Nino Rota, a tribute to Italian composer Nino Rota and his music for Fellini films. 1984 saw That's The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonius Monk, and in 1985 out came Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill. All three saw large casts of sympathetic musicians lending their own takes on classic compositions. And so we arrive at  Stay Awake, another trawl through the seas of musical flotsam. The album was released in 1988, and continued Willner's tradition of esoteric reworkings of standards, and then some!

On Medley Four, to pluck one example, the way Willner manages to somehow make sense of a medley that contains Americana, C&W, a band of musical magpies, a jazz chanteuse, a garage rock band, and his trusty jazz guitar'n'piano backbone of Bill Frisell and Wayne Horovitz is nothing short of genius.

The album opens with a woozy take on Hi Diddle Dee Dee (An Actor's Life For Me), narrated in true basso-profundo thesp style by voiceover artiste Ken Nordine over Frisell & Horovitz's heady backing. This is followed by some charming singing in the round led by The Roches with help from Merchant and Stipe and long-time Willner collaborator Mark Bingham, presumably arranging the tune. The trip has well and truly begun!

Highlights are too many to mention, but I particularly like Bonnie Rait and Was Not Was' interpretation of Baby Mine from Dumbo. Bonnie's effortlessly smoky voice and the lazy bluesy backing from the "brothers" Was fit together just perfectly.This is followed by the instantly recognisable Tom Waits, then in his prime "kitchen sink music" period. Tom snarls his way à la Beefheart through a marvellously outré take of Heigh Ho (The Dwarfs Marching Song) to the backing of his trademark clatter and thrum.

As previously alluded to, the musical glue that links a lot of these performances comes from Frisell and Horovitz, whose various guitars and other stringed instruments, and keyboards of various hues keep this impossible construct on the rails.

Buster Poindexter is, as you no doubt know, the alt-showbiz alter-ego of none other than David Johansen, who is enjoying himself no end on the deliciously hammy Castle in Spain that opens the very odd Medley Three. Immediately following the incognito New York Doll, we have an operatic warble from the multi-octave range of exotica singer Yma Sumac, and following that, a dreadfully cheesy gospel version (!) of The Mickey Mouse March from Aaron Neville. It is so's still bad! I remember I always used to fast forward the cassette whenever this came around. I still cannot decide if Neville was being ironic, or if this version was recorded with po-faced seriousness! I suspect the latter, but pray it was the former. Awful.

Medley Four contains a joyful version of Whistle While You Work from musical polymaths NRBQ, and The Replacements' loose-limbed lurch through Cruella De Ville, but the highlight of this medley is Betty Carter's I'm Wishing. You can easily envisage her singing while leaning on the piano in a smoky jazz club. Marvellous! Frisell ends this section with some nice'n'dirty fuzzed up guitar on Dumbo and Timothy.

Sinead O'Connor's very short Someday My Prince Will Come, accompanied by her own acoustic guitar sounds like it was recorded in her front room, and then it's on to Medley Five, with the mighty Sun Ra And His Arkestra doing a surprisingly straight but nonetheless enjoyable take on the suitably lysergically titled Pink Elephants On Parade. Straight that is, until we get to an extended lounge jazz outro. This is the first part of Medley Five, the second part of which is Harry Nilsson's very probably well lubricated take of Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah which stumbles carefree down the hall and out the front door.

One tune that doesn't quite come off is James Taylor's curiously slightly out of tune wobble through Second Star To The Right. Perhaps he was in the studio at the same time as Harry Nilsson?

After the return of Ken Nordine's low rumbling voiceover on Desolation Theme, we are brought back to Earth by Ringo Starr's When You Wish Upon A Star, a version that suitably enough reminds us in a throwaway fashion that this is Disney music, after all!

Blimey, it was good to hear that again!


1. Opening Medley ("I'm Getting Wet and I Don't Care At All") - 9:02
Featuring: Ken Nordine, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horovitz, Natalie Merchant, Michael Stipe, Mark Bingham and The Roches, Los Lobos
2. Baby Mine - 3:14
Bonnie Raitt and Was Not Was
3. Heigh Ho (The Dwarves Marching Song) - 3:35
Tom Waits
4. Medley Two ("The Darkness Sheds Its Veil") - 7:47
Featuring: Suzanne Vega, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horovitz, Syd Straw
5. Medley Three ("Three Inches is Such a Wretched Height") - 5:57
Featuring: Buster Poindexter and The Banshees Of Blue, Yma Sumac
6. The Mickey Mouse March - 2:14
Aaron Neville
7. Medley Four ("All Innocent Children Had Better Beware") - 15:15
Featuring: Garth Hudson, NRBQ, Betty Carter, The Replacements, Bill Frisell and Wayne Horovitz
8. Someday My Prince Will Come - 1:08
Sinead O'Connor
9. Medley Five ("Technicolor Pachyderms") - 8:09
Featuring: Sun Ra And His Arkestra, Harry Nilsson
10 Second Star To The Right - 4:01
James Taylor
11. Pinocchio Medley ("Do You See The Noses Growing?") - 5:46
Featuring: Ken Nordine, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horovitz, Ringo Starr

Total running time - 66:20

That was the basic track listing, and you can find more detail and the full line up on good old Wikipedia.

PS - Just lately Phil and I have been having heated debates down the pub on the subject of "kazoo jazz", as he likes to call the stuff I listen to, and the anodyne electronica he seems to love. The two circles comprising our poptastic Venn Diagram were parting at an alarming rate, but it's good to see there are still some musical oddities we can agree on. Then there's the rather good new Elbow album, which we seem to agree on too, so maybe those two circles are now being acted on by gravity rather than being flung apart by centrifugal force. I promise not to mention S..... W..... if he doesn't. :)

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Yuval Ron and Residents Of The Future - Residence Of The Future

The rather wordy name given by Berlin based Israeli guitarist Yuval Ron to his band contrasts with the music they produce, which is not in the slightest unwieldy, unlike the name and this sentence!

This truly ambitious album is introduced by the wordless soaring vocals of Dorin Mandelbaum on Prelude, in a manner that would not sound out of place on a Magma album.

Her dulcet tones are also present on Objects In The Mirror Are Larger Than They Appear, a ten minute journey that neatly encapsulates what this band are all about. Taking in progressive and space rock, jazz fusion and Dorin's chiming vocals, the tune neatly avoids categorisation, and is simply a display of well played adventurous music that does not get lost in complexity for its own sake.

Never afraid to explore, the sonics become more stretched out on Watching Over Shizutani Kou Bay, a two part musical trip that begins in ambient territory, developing along avant lines with some atonal and minimalist piano over the abstract electronics. Part two is more conventional, the band locking into a nice fusion groove for the duration, enlivened by some fine soloing in the manner of Zappa from Yuval.

Residence Of The Future is undoubtedly Yuval Ron's baby, as he wrote all but one of the songs, as well as donning the producer's hat. Yuval lets his band speak for themselves and does not attempt to dominate proceedings, allowing his charges to revel in effortless ensemble playing, and there are no unnecessary star turns. The title track throws a dimmed spotlight on some delightful piano from Aviram Gottfried, and following this is a consummate fusion bass solo from Yaniv Shalev, and not to be left out some cool understated guitar work from Yuval. The song itself has a strong Pat Metheny Group feel to it, and there are far worse things to be influenced by.

This is an album that has an emotional depth, played by musicians at the top of their game. As well as being a classy record, it is not afraid to go out on an experimental limb now and again, successfully I might add. Residence Of The Future has been hanging around in my "to do" pile for far too long, and I am glad I finally got round to putting fingers to keyboard. Thanks must be given to Nick at Prog Sphere, who alerted me to this fine work in the first instance.

Highly recommended for fans of polished fusion and for those who like a record to take some risks.

1. Prelude - 2:48
2. Greetings, Earthling - 7:00
3. Objects In The Mirror Are Larger Than They Appear - 10:36
4. Best Before 2074 - 2:27
5. Saryonara, Milkyway! - 6:05
6. Watching Over Shizutani Kou Bay, Pt. 1 - 5:14
7. Watching Over Shizutani Kou Bay, Pt. 2 - 5:16
8. Residential Guitar Solo - 3:04
9. Residence Of The Future - 6:18
10. Long Distance Call - 5:38
11. Postlude - 1:47 

Line up:
Yuval Ron - Electric Guitar
Aviram Gottfried - Keyboards, Laptop
Yaniv Shalev - Bass
Yatziv Caspi - Drums
Dorin Mandelbaum - Vocals on 1, 3, 11

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