Thursday, 22 May 2014

"When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide..."

Stirring from my place on the well worn stool at the far end of the bar, where, slumped against the faded decor on the wall I have been enjoying a bit of single malt fuelled shuteye, I am wakened with the need to fulminate...Bartender my good man, make it a double...

The circling sharks in the pool otherwise known as record companies, once a licence to print money, are now not only vastly reduced in number after decades of slothful cannibalism, but also in their scope to make the big buck. Victims of the internet wars, the big players have been slow to adapt to a totally different market. Popular music, where once it was the main leisure activity of everyone from just-teens to forty-somethings, has now fallen way behind computer gaming as the main source of fun spending, particulary among the younger half of that demographic.

In the last ten years or so the few remaining big players in the music biz are blindly shambling along the road to inevitable self-destruction, despearately turning their attention to the folk who made them rich in the first place for their continued existence, rather than concentrating on new music and the way forward. The owners of the cash they are chasing has an average age of probably around the late-fities mark, and back in the day they ("we", actually, truth be said) bought all the vinyl that Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc etc could produce, and by the shedload, thereby allowing the record companies and the biggest bands their gluttonous indulgent lifestyles. This audience now has spare cash to burn and will probably be the last generation for some time to be in such a luxurious position. As such they are an easy target for that Fleetwood Mac 17-CD, 5 Bluray and DVD 5.1 extravaganza, complete with a bathmat made made from Stevie Nicks' leg shavings, and a replica of a snow mountain, out of which pokes a rolled up fake $100 bill.

Those first two Brit bands mentioned are the latest to be advertising "new" product. Floyd's version of The Emperor's New Clothes is a 20th anniversary multi-formatted splurge of The Division Bell, the band's last weary exhalation that even when it came out sounded tired and redundant. For a mere $134.98, or if you're unlucky enough to live this side of the pond, £99.99 (about $168) you can pre-order this little lot:

Remastered Double Vinyl In Gatefold Sleeve
Division Bell CD In Commemorative Sleeve 
Bluray with 5.1 Audio Mix, Surround Sound Mix, 24/96 Mix and New "Marooned" Music Video 
High Hopes clear vinyl 7” single 
High Hopes one sided blue vinyl etched 12” 
Take It Back red vinyl 7” single 
24 Page 12" x 12" Booklet 
Four 12" x 12" Art Prints

Oddly the UK Floyd website does not give an option for buying the 5.1 mix on DVD rather than Bluray, a pointless format and yet another example of the corporate hoodwinking of those who siimply MUST have the latest reproduction platform. However, back over the pond, the DVD with the 5.1 mix is available in the more expensive versions of the box set, the ultimate version of which includes, in addition to the gubbins in the standard box:

Exclusive Limited Edition Division Bell 20th Anniversary T-shirt
  • features artwork from box set
  • limited to 500 worldwide
Exclusive Limited Edition Division Bell 20th Anniversary Coaster Set
  • features all new artwork only available as part of this box set
  • high quality, cork and wood coasters in a commemorative box
  • limited to 500 worldwide
Exclusive Limited Edition Indoor Firework Set
  •  features an exploding life size Roger Waters that emits an eerie replica of the scream from Comfortably Numb as it immolates. Only available as part of this box set
  •  features a real cow that might bear a passing resemblance to the one from the cover of Atom Heart Mother complete with an internal explosive device, timed to go off 30 minutes after unpacking, disposable plastic overalls, and a DIY store $100 voucher to help with the cost of redecorating.
  • limited to 2 worldwide, individually constructed to order in your own living room by David Gilmour's butler
Oh, and lest we forget, the DVD that includes the 5.1 audio mix of The Division Bell

All yours for a mere $3500 and your left kidney...I wouldn't mind, if the album wasn't so ploddingly dull in the first place, as my left kidney has been shot for years.

The mighty Led Zep are back too, with yet another round of remasters of their back catalogue. One wonders what Jimmy Page has extracted from the mix that he missed last time round? And, if the much chattered about unreleased tracks are so good, why didn't they come out the last time Zep unleashed their sonic fury on a bored world? That last one is rhetorical...

It is rather ironic that the soon come reissue of Led Zep IV has prompted lawyers acting for Randy California's estate to consider suing Page over his alleged lifting of the intro of Stairway To Heaven form one of Randy's songs. What, Jimmy Page nick a riff? Shurely shome mishtake?

These are two examples of the latest major label wallet-fracking© exercises on those with more money and shelf space than sense, and if I may get serious for a moment, this is just the kind of thing that detracts attention and money away from new bands in the progressive scene. I have been told elsewhere that all this is opitional and I don't have to buy it, and I don't disagree, but if I spend £100 now on that Floyd debacle, apart from needing a search party sent out to see if I actually have a brain, it's £100 I won't be spending on Crow/Squirrel Death Match's latest fab waxing. I am in the lucky position of being sent some new bands' releases gratis anyway, for review purposes, but you still won't find me hitting pre-order for either of these excessively bloated and pointless packages.

I will admit to having bought similar boxes of largesse myself in the past, but not many, and most get played once and then sit on the shelf gathering dust. As a bit of a King Crimson fanatic, but not nearly enough of one so it seems, I bought the deluxe reissue of In The Court Of The Crimson King, an album that actually deserves that done to death adjective "iconic", as well as all of the band's 40th anniversary reissue series featuring mixmaster Steven Wilson's fab 5.1 remixes. However, there it stops, Mr Fripp and his wonderful band have seen the inside of my wallet enough for now...until the live gigs, of course!

The recent box sets of Larks' Tongues In Aspic and Road To Red contain a massive 34 (!) CDs between them, and that doesn't include the DVDs and Blurays. Add to that the upcoming and no doubt ginormous Starless box, and the choice-saturated and by now bewildered über-fan will have at their fingertips tens and tens of gigs from a much chronicled time in the band's history from which to choose to annoy the neighbours. Zappa and the Grateful Dead excepted, there cannot be many bands who have had what seems like every minute of their live appearances from a two or three year span released in one form or or another over the years. There is a magnificent live box set (a mere 4 CDs!) from this same period by the mighty Crim called The Great Deceiver (ha!), and as far as I'm concerned it is all you really need. I cannot understand the appeal of owning dozens of concerts from such a short time span by the same band. Yes, the improvs will be different and the dynamics of each concert will vary, but do I really need 27 versions of now ironically titled Easy Money?

In Crimson's favour, unlike the Floyd reissue, Starless promises a lot of previously unreleased material, and their two previous boxes also contained lots of "new" goodies, OTT as it all seems from this side of the bar. At least you can argue that Crim are good value for money, at around £100 per box. Even the Zep reissues contain some supposedly previously unheard outtakes and/or live tracks. This latest Pink Floyd box is an amazing rip off when you think about it, but as they say, a fool and his money are easily parted.

Unless you have far, far too much time on your hands, and no life outside of your hi-fi room, you cannot tell me that any of these oversized boxes of unnecessary consumerist clutter, whoever they are by, will get played more than a handful of times in their entirety. I should know, I've a few of them myself. As for reissues rather than previously unreleased archive material, the cynical ploy by record companies of getting us fools to buy the same album over and over again through the years only proves that we are as gullible as they think we are.

The biggest problem is that the majority of the prog buying audience, and let's not beat about the bush here, the sexagenarian bands themselves and a lot of the folk who scribble about them and the scene in general, are a conservative bunch. Capitalism being what capitalism is, it is inevitiable that record companies, and it now it seems cruise companies as well, will go after their nostalgia-fixated buck with gusto. It does worry me that the many decent young (and not so young) bands out there trying to do something different and away from the anodyne rock mainstream will struggle to survive as a result, as will the progressive rock scene they are pluckily trying to keep from drowning in a sea of middle class complacency, at least partly of its own making.

On an entirely different note, you've got to love that contrary old bugger Neil Young. No, you do, really. For ages now he's been raising mega bucks to put behind his new all-singing-all-dancing high end digital streaming system Pono, which aims to put mp3 back in the hole in the ground it came from. For those of you who know about these things, it offers "24-bit 192khz sound". Suffice to say, it will sound a whole lot better than 320kpbs mp3, the 21st century equivalent of a wavering transistor radio.

Then, right in the middle of the headlong promotional charge for Pono he releases an album of folk covers recorded in a near 70 year old "Voice-O-Graph" booth, of the kind once seen in fairgrounds, where kids could record and take home their very own vinyl record. This machine produces sound about as lo-fi as it gets, and here's some proof...

I must admit, the crackles and pops fit this particular song, the film of which was projected during last December's Bert Jansch tribute evening at London's Royal Festival Hall, and proved to be one of the evening's more poignant moments.

Still, I doubt there will be a 24-bit 192khz version of this album going out on Pono any time soon!

Right...Bartender...more whisky!

Monday, 19 May 2014

William Shatner - Ponder The Mystery

William Shatner is a man who has been around for my entire life; well, my TV watching life at any rate, as our house did not own a telly prior to the 1969 Moon landing, and lo, there was Bill. Not landing on the Moon you understand, although that would have been somewhat appropriate.

I'll call him Bill, as his strange acting style is part of the furniture and as familiar and as inflexible and unyielding as that massive polished oak dresser sitting in the corner of the room. Not particularly aesthetically pleasing, all the same you cannot bear to part with it, it is a family heirloom after all. The wooden monolith has taken more than a few knocks over the years, but they seem to have been absorbed into its highly polished sheen, and it carries on, unphased...

And so, on to what we are here for...

You may wonder what Zoot Horn Rollo, Mick Jones (the Foreigner one), Simon House, Steve Vai, Al DiMeola, Rick Wakeman, Joel Vandroogenbroeck (the man behind Swiss Krautrockers Brainticket), Edgar Winter, Nik Turner, Vince Gill (country music star), Edgar Froese, Robby Krieger, Dave Koz (smooth jazzer), and George Duke have in common? They all contribute to William Shatner's 2013 ersatz prog rock opus Ponder The Mystery. It would be tempting to say they are the "One Who Is Many", but I risk being phasered down by frenzied screams of "WRONG ERA!!" from the numerous sad uber-nerds who like dressing up as Klingons and going to comic conventions.

You will probably know of Bill's previous forays into what might loosely be described as music. Over the years he has treated us with his let's say, individualistic takes on such classics as Tambourine Man, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, and the so excruciating it's truly wonderful Rocket Man, and many others. These are not interpretations one can forget in a hurry, much as you might want to. Bill has put several pop classics through his portentous thespian mangle in a career that has seen him release a remarkable 4 studio "music" albums, beginning with 1968's Transformed Man, which included both Tambourine Man and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, and ending (so far) with this slab of inter-galactic whimsy. Ponder The Mystery is actually his third album in ten years, a late burst of activity for this octogenarian.

The music was written, produced and played by the ubiquitous Billy Sherwood, who seems to appear on just about every lower league American prog release these days. The "One Who Is Many"...soz, but it's too good not to use...contribute their individual solos to most tracks. I do not have a CD, only a review download, but it is fairly easy to spot where some of the guests make their appearances nonetheless.

Sherwood's music, especially when he multi-tracks his vocals, comes over in places as chicken-in-a-basket Yes, livened up by those guest solos. In no way is this progressive, and it only just ventures into prog territory. "Prog-lite" or "FM-prog" if you will, and quite forgettable. The guitar solo at the end of So Am I, which I guess might be Steve Vai* is the musical highlight of the record.

Of course, what we really want to know about is Bill's performance. Ponder The Mystery is a concept album, loosely bound around the subject of...err..pondering the great imponderables, the protagonist musing on aging and his place in the grand scheme of things, all as the sun sets slowly over the sea. Sounding in places as if it was phoned in from an alternate universe, Bill's unusual way with ENUNciation, putting emPHASES in a lot OF the wrong places is present and CORRECT. Brit readers will recognise that BBC journalist Robert PESton must either be related or went to the same stage school!

There is unintentional humour to be had here, Bill's strange inflections on Where It's Gone...I Don't Know brings a smile, as he muses "Where's the love, and what am I doing?" Well, if you don't know Bill, I sure have no clue whatsoever. With the exception of some actually rather clever wordplay on Rhythm Of The Night, unfortunately of a lot Bill's poems or lyrics are a bit dull, which only seems to confirm that this was actually meant to be taken seriously. It would have been far better and more enjoyable had he played it for laughs.

The title track meanders along to little effect, as does the rest of the album. The pace is fairly constant, at just above slothful, and a lot of the tracks are roughly the same length, which doesn't help the dynamics, and proceedings only get a bit more lively when a guest solo spot is inserted. Fair play to him, as Bill has actually performed this album live, backed by Billy's group Circa, and one wonders how all the solo sections were replicated.

In recent interviews Bill claims to have loved the original prog bands but when pressed can't recall any band names. Hmmm...but he did teach his daughter to ride her horse in a "progressive rock way". The mind boggles! Bill's most recent appearance on UK TV was as a guest presenter on long-running satire show Have I Got News For You, a performance that was far more off the wall and therefore fun, than this rather prosaic and plodding affair.

One wonders who is actually going to buy this...oh, hang on, there appear to be hordes of forty-something blokes dressed as Klingons heading in my direction shouting in what appears to be a guttural variant of Serbo-Croat. I'll bet their mums are glad to be rid of them for a day. I better get me coat...

1. Red Shift (1:31)
2. Where It's Gone...I Don't Know (5:29)
3. Manhunt (2:55)
4. Ponder the Mystery (5:20)
5. So Am I (4:16)
6. Change (4:11)
7. Sunset (4:26)
8. Twilight (1:59)
9. Rhythm Of The Night (6:07)
10. Imagine Things (3:45)
11. Do You See? (4:41)
12. Deep Down (4:49)
13. I'm Alright, I Think (4:29)
14. Where Does Time Go? (6:41)
15. Alive (4:35)

Total running time - Stardate 2259.59

Line up:
William Shatner - voice
Billy Sherwood - background vocals, drums, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, keyboards

Zoot Horn Rollo - slide guitar
Mick Jones - guitar
Simon House - violin
Steve Vai - guitar
Al DiMeola - guitar
Rick Wakeman - keyboards
Joel Vandroogenbroeck - flute
Edgar Winter - saxophone & Moog
Nik Turner - saxophone & flute
Vince Gill - mandolin & acoustic guitar
Edgar Froese - guitar
Robby Krieger - sitar & guitar
Dave Koz - saxophone
George Duke - keyboard

Blimey...I managed to get through that without saying "Please beam me up, Scotty", or "It's prog Jim, but not as we know it"... :)

* I am told it is actually by Al DiMeola!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Necromonkey - (A Glimpse Of Possible Endings)

Necromonkey, the project of drummer Mattias Olsson, formerly of Änglagård, and keyboard player David Lundberg (Gösta Berlings Saga) burst forth upon an unsuspecting audience last year with their debut waxing, the bonkers but fun Necroplex

Firstly, it has to be said that the two protagonists are much, much more than mere "drummer" and "keyboard player", for the description "musical polymaths" would probably be more appropriate.

(A Glimpse Of Possible Endings), to use the album title's rather than the track title's arrangement of parentheses, is a far more considered affair than the madcap debut, the duo having seemingly exorcised the "mad professors let loose in a musical toy shop" of Necroplex.

This new found maturity is a good thing, for it enables expansive sonic washes of sound to slowly cover the aural canvas, most evident on the epic title track, which, to be honest, would not have sounded out of place on a Gösta Berlings Saga album.

The album opens with "There Seem To Be Knifestains In Your Blood", all tribal drumming and early Cure dynamics, led along its path by that very odd thing, the theremin.

Being a big King Crimson fan, I cannot fail to notice the similarity in title of the second track to the Crim's The Sheltering Sky, from the mighty Discipline album. For me, the Crim track is one of the two lesser lights on that otherwise luminescent album, but seeing the title The Sheltering Waters made me listen again.

There is indeed a connection to the Crim track; both wend a slow stately course downstream, and both have a calming effect, and a structural similarity. The Crim connection is underlined by the presence of Rob Martino's Chapman Stick, but The Sheltering Waters is not a direct copy of a sound, but an homage, both in melody and in title. Quite nice it is, too...

The short atmospheric keyboard figure of The Counterfeit Pedestrian backed by synthesiser winds blowin' presages (A) Glimpse (Of Possible Endings). The epic track on the album slowly worms its way into your consciousness like a message from another galaxy, then the track takes off. The array of instrumentation played on this song by our two heroes takes up four lines of small print on the inner CD cover, and includes such exotica as; Glockenspiels, Persephone, Optigan, Orchestron Vocal Choir, and the imposingly named Roth Händle Pipe Organ, named after the studios where the album was recorded. A glimpse (heheh) at the video above will give you some idea of the vast array of kit used on this track. Being YouTube, the sound is not the best, but the production on the CD is top notch throughout. You will certainly enjoy this beastie on your monster of a hi-fi system, have no fear!

This smörgasbord of instrumentation combines with the traditional rock music tools of trade, and a Mellotron used as a sampler, with tape loops containing organ, 8 voice choir, and string section. As well as all that we have the additional musicians (see below), who include Gösta guitarist Einar Baldursson. The end result is grand symphonic progressive rock of anything but the usual kind.

The humorously titled The Worst Is Behind Us closes the album with a faux-Oriental widescreen soundscape. Close your eyes and you can see the credits rolling. This song needs to be nearly nine minutes long in order to fit in the vast array of musical knick-knacks used on this charming little album as they scroll past on your inner eyelids!

Yep, a really enjoyable trip, and a definite progression from the first album, (A Glimpse Of Possible Endings) is well worth a punt if you like sophisticated instrumental music that dares to be a bit different.

Reading the band's Facebook page tells me that the guys are well into recording their third album, which I look forward to with mucho anticipation. 

1. "There Seem To Be Knifestains In Your Blood" (4:17)
2. The Sheltering Waters (6:30)
3. The Counterfeit Pedestrian (2:36)
4. (A) Glimpse (Of Possible Endings) (15:24)
5. The Worst Is Behind Us (8:40)

Total running time - 36:58

Line up:
David Lundberg & Mattias Olsson - Between them, these two contirbute these instruments, uncredited to either:

Mellotron, Electric sitar, piano bass, drum machines, Moog Taurus bass, Kooss pad, Walton Jami (me neither!), Flame talking synth, gong, Chamberlain solo voices (male & female), Maas-Rowe vibra chime, electric guitars, baritone guitar...and that's just the first two tracks - need I say more?

Additional musicians:
1. Kristofer Eng Radjabi - Theremin & Leo Svensson-Sander - Cello
2. Rob Martino - Chapman Stick
4. Yann LeNestour - Bass clarinet, metal clarinet; Leo Svensson-Sander - Cello, Musical saw; Martin van Bahr - Oboe; Elias Modig - Bass, Einar Baldursson - Electric guitar, slide guitar, e-bow


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...