Monday, 28 March 2016

Stick Men + - Midori

This brief missive is a to make you aware of a rather fab double live album by those masterful purveyors of Crim, and of course their own classy compositions and improvs, the mighty Stick Men. Midori is a document of one of four shows the band did in Japan in April 2015, previously only available in that country, but now out as a CD limited edition of 1000 on MoonJune Records.

The "+" added to group name is none other than David Cross, who seems to be in the midst of something of a renaissance at the moment, much to our delight. David adds his violin textures to interpetations of the timeless Starless theme, and makes other contributions to what is in effect a ProjeKct, in all but name.

Stick Men are also rightly reknowned for their imrovs, something lacking to any great degree other than the percussive interludes provided by the current line-up of the parent band, and there are some great examples here. Not forgetting the band's own compositions, which carry on the ethos of the Stick-based line ups of latter day Crim, the two strands weaving together seamlessly.

This double CD will also be available at the band's gigs, and next month the group embark on a lengthy tour of North America. My heart lit up when I saw the name "Northampton" in the gig list, but sadly it's the MA version, not the original. Ho-hum, we'll just have to wait for a UK appearance, I suppose. In the meantime, all of us this side of the Pond can content ourselves with this fabulous document of what must have been two stunning performances out there in the Land of the Rising Sun. 

First set
1. Opening Sounscape - Gaudy (10:36)
2. Improv - Blacklight (7:14)
3. Hide The Trees (8:54)
4. Improv - Moth (9:07)
5. Industry (12:35)
6. Cusp (4:48)
7. Shades Of Starless (8:07)
8. The Talking Drum (4:52)
9. Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part 2 (6:30)

Total running time - 72:43

Second set
10. Opening Soundscape - Cyan (5:20)
11. Improv - Midori (7:07)
12. Breathless (4:16)
13. Improv - Moon (4:42)
14. Sartori In Tangier (6:51)
15. Crack In The Sky (5:37)
16. Shades Of Starless (7:18)
17. Firebird Suite (10:49)
18. The Talking Drum (5:52)
19. Lark's Tongues In Aspic (6:48)

Total running time - 65:40 

Line up:
Tony Levin - Stick and Voice
Pat Mastelotto - Acoustic and Electronic Drums and Percussion
Markus Reuter - Touch Guitars® AU8, Soundscaping and Keyboard
David Cross - Violin and Keyboard 

Buy the CD or download version at Stick Men Bandcamp

Stick Men North American tour dates

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Dream Theater - The Astonishing

Anyone who seriously considers themselves a critic, be it of music, fashion, high art, theatre (sic), cars, dishwashers, sex toys, whatever must push themselves into writing about something they consider to be a load of crap once in a while or risk falling into a far too comfortable luvvy-dovey relationship with the creators of the targets of their wordy fawning. Of course unlike Joe Public on Amazon, I can't and wouldn't want to get away with calling something "crap" and leaving it at that, a proper dissection is called for. Or so I reckon, anyway.

Earlier in the year the prog interwebs were stickily saturated by lengthy spurts of coverage of a new album by American ego-flexing exercise...sorry, band...Dream Theater. That wouldn't normally have bothered me a jot, but when it became clear that this strangely unlovable bunch had written a musical, my flagging interest got a tad perky. When you get to my age, you have to make the most of anything getting perky, so here goes...

You may guess from that opening salvo that Dream Theater do not not float my peculiar looking coracle, and you'd be dead right. This band to me have always been at best a triumph of technical flash over real content, and at worst dreary purveyors of artless unsubtle bombast.

As if that weren't enough, Dream Theater are often credited with inventing "prog metal", which swiftly became the first refuge of the musically stunted imagination in our particular brackish pop backwater. Yes, I know there is good prog metal out there, but most of it is about as interesting as watching a Manchester Utd football match - it's all dull recyling of the same old weary riffs and guitar sounds ad infinitum. And don't get me started on throat-shredders...

So, down to business. If there's one thing Dream Theater have never lacked it's self-belief. Calling an album The Astonishing shows no lack of confidence, but of course leaves it open to ridicule. The worst part of this self-inflicted torture is that I have to listen to the thing, as it is an interminable splurge that even fans seem to be saying is about a week too long. I do not expect any sympathy, of course.

After some opening space age ambience, the thing gets going with a typically bombastic  instrumental featuring lots of time signature changes and portentous playing, as a cheesy as can be, replete with a synthesised choir. Entitled Dystopian Overture, it is about as far removed from its titular implication as can be. "Tacky" does not begin to describe it. It sounds like what Andrew Lloyd Webber would come up with if asked to write "in the style of prog". This is a musical, so there is a story which so I'm told as I'm listening on Spotify and don't have the lyrics to hand, concerms a future where music has been outlawed, only to be saved by a Hollywood style "little guy" hero. Pete Townshend should sue.

The Gift Of Music is a sub-standard AOR rocker with dreadful lyrics and the drummer...Jeez, this guy sounds like he has about eight arms, none of them doing anything interesting. It's like listening to a speeded up jackhammer, and about as painful. The following The Answer is the first of several tub-thumping ballads, and the the trite lyrics continue: "Why am I afraid of facing the unknown?" enquires the singer. Is it because you are in a comfortable niche that hasn't moved forward - with a few notable exceptions - in two decades, perchance?

And so it goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on.... fuck this I've got better things to do, as no doubt you have too. I highly recommend this album to anyone who is afraid of the dark, lives with mummy, and types angry missives on the internet while wearing nothing but a pair of boxers, unchanged in a week.

To conclude on a more serious note, the sad thing is, and I'll admit I'm not helping here, is that this steaming pile of faux thespian nonsense will garner far more attention than the genuinely progressive music that is out there, and anyone unfamiliar with "prog" will listen to this bombastic excess and have all their worst prejudices confirmed. Now, go away and do something useful...

Yours Witheringly, Roger McNasty

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Stone Premonitions - Three Sides Of The Circle

One of the delights of this amateur scribbling lark is receiving unsolicited music. Conversely, if the scribbler has a conscience then he or she feels a compunction to write about it, despite the impossibility of covering absolutely everything that may get sent their way.

Luckily it is a given that anything on the Stone Premonitions label is at the very least, interesting, so here I will attempt to do justice to three releases from the Cumbrian stable that landed unbidden on my doormat a few months ago.

NagMet - Water Is Conscience

First up is this strangely compelling oddity from a duo comprising American poet and and musician Daniel J. Harris, and Dutch keyboard player, producer and general tecchie whizzkid Nico Jongenelen. How they ended up on a label based in Cumbria is anyone's guess!

This is a very weird trip indeed, where Daniel's surreal poetry floats over Nico's soundtracks of found sounds, treated voices and instrumentation through a kaleidoscopic lysergically altered world. Some of the 24 tracks on this album are mere seconds long, others meld together to form avant sound suites where imagination is given free reign. Elbows On High is nearly seven minutes of sound and vocal collage that progresses from a mournful cello intro to chilled techno beats via "Living letters in milky balls, happy plans in fuzzy malls" across eerie plains, echoes all around. There is much humour to be found in here, too. iShirely chronicles a disease that creeps up from the toes to to the face. "Marching up my chest I did detest without rest dealing with my nipples was not very simple. I was doomed to a life of itching and bitching..." Sometimes there are no words, just gibberish voices reverberating around the stereo image.

The whole thing is a 50 minute continuous piece of music, there are no gaps between the tracks, which leads to all kinds of surprises. Suddenly out of nowhere, or more likely erewhon, a lovely piano melody floats by, later joined by a cello on the quite lovely Time & Less. This reverie is disrupted by Ha-PP-PP-PP-PP-PP-y (10 ways to make yourself happy), with its skittering techno beats and dislocated funk. Another highlight is The Swing, a nasty little gremlin lurching around to a kind of industrial proto-funk with a dirty synthetic guitar-like thing grinding away, and some great wordplay by Daniel: "Into darkness I yell, for I fell, for a spell, and I'm here to tell, about a swing. The chord goes on forever, not alone yet not together, until I swing."

This music is uncategorisable and quite odd. That's a couple of boxes ticked, then!

The Spectacles - Report From The Border

Far easier to get a handle on than NagMet is this straightforward and enjoyable album of modern folk songs, infused with a good-time vibe. Mixing down home country with a vaudevillian joie-de-vivre, the stripped down instrumentation aside from guitars both electric and acoustic includes banjo, kazoo, spoons, concertina, and ukelele, to name but a few items from the unplugged cupboard.

Big Screen and others have a similar feel to The Mekons' country infused songs, with Jan Croot and Penny Grennan's vocals making for a lower register parallel to Sally Timms' unaffected soulful tones. Four Hands features the two singers in acapella harmony, and the following traditional song Sally Gardens sees the two ladies joined by guitarist Andy Clarke for a three-part harmony, again unaccompanied.

There are some good songs on here, some in a trad folk fashion, some swingers like The Beck & Tarn Boys, and a fair few country shindigs. The pithy lyrics recount working life, love gone sour, the cycle of nature, and generally finding joy or sadness in the mundane, all addressed in a direct manner that complements the music.

One for the folkies!

Glodblug - Globule

Finally we have an album of Kosmische improvisations based on soundscapes left over from recording sessions by Stone Premonitions' raison d'etre, Census of Hallucinations. Globule is a 50-minute aural travelogue, ostensinsibly split into seven tracks given titles Glob 1 to Glob 7, where synth washes and sequencer rhythms, with added percussion and drum programming form the basis for guitarist John Simms to occasionally indulge his psychedelic muse with flights of liquid fret wizardry. Glob 4 is a particulalry fine example of the former Clear Blue Sky plank spanker's innate sense of melody and restraint, where our guitar hero sets off across deep space for a long trip, fuelled only by space dust and an untethered imagination, all filtered through an acid rock gauze.

The results are in a similar vein to ├śresund Space Collective, embellished with intermittent fiery Hillage-like guitar. While there is nothing particularly groundbreaking here, any lover of space rock synth ambience and languid acid-guitar is in for a treat. It works just as well played quietly as semi-meditative or work accompaniement, as it does turned up to 11, where it becomes transformative. Very nice indeedy!

All three of these releases can be found here - Stone Premonitions website

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