Sunday, October 18, 2015

Album Reviews, Old and New: ELP, Seawind, Steven Michael Miller, and Yoko Kanno

These four reviews were originally published on Sit Down Listen Up.com, in slightly different versions.


Emerson, Lake, and Palmer: Do the "Works" Still Work?

This was in my vinyl collection, and after digging it out of storage, I promptly ignored it for several months. Back in the early 1980’s, I’d rocked out to it. But now, all I could remember about it was huge, blown-up ostentation, grand sonic spectacle based on… not very much. Not that the concept was bad, of course: a solo project by each of Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer, then the three of them together for a finale. But, “crossover” has never worked for me (though that may be a relic of being a kid who listened to classical in an era when the “hip” kids subscribed to the meme that classical and Muzak were synonymous); so I was bothered by the idea of a major rock album being backed-up by a large (and sometimes seemingly unrehearsed) symphony orchestra. Then I listened to Symphonic Zeppelin again, and thought, well, a rock orchestra works well there, so maybe I could give this ELP LP another try.

Side One presents Keith Emerson’s “Piano Concerto no. 1”. Very classical concept, including the three movements. But, as a classical composition, it is deeply flawed. (Two obvious examples: in the first movement, the atonal intro and the jazzy cadenza have nothing to do either with each other or the rest of the piece; and the development section doesn’t really go anywhere, it just presents a second theme and then noodles around with its rhythms.) Yet I sat there listening to every detail, transfixed. Why? Answer: it isn’t classical at all, and I subconsciously wasn’t listening to it as classical. It’s an extended piece of progressive rock. Its interest and excitement are not derived from the composer’s personal rendering of classical formal structure, but from interplays of odd meters, alternation of solos and ensemble playing, and a building-up of high-energy riffs. The fact that only the keyboard remains unaltered (and the guitar, bass, and drums have been replaced by an orchestra) doesn’t really change anything: under that symphonic exterior, this is something that Tull, Yes, Floyd, Rush, or Kansas could have done during their most “prog” periods. And yes, it’s a lot of fun.

Not so with Side Two, five songs by Greg Lake. These are mostly forgettable power-ballads, with a voice like Neil Diamond over-singing, awful lyrics with forced rhymes, and runaway overdubbing. One song is recorded at about half the volume of the others, though it’s supposed to be a louder, rock number. Another features harmonica and elevator-guitar amplified above a string section, for an unnatural, forced sound. Despite all that, it’s not a total wasteland. “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight” has some interesting key-changes. “C’est La Vie” uses some memorable French folk instrumentation. Both are minor earworms; just ignore the words. “Closer to Believing” provides the “slow movement” for the entire double album, with shimmering strings that sometimes venture into atonality and even suggested mircotonality, and a contrapuntal passage near the end that is “classical” in the way that Emerson’s “Concerto” was not. The lyrics, to this song at least, aren’t all that bad either.

There are three actual classical “works” included in the Works. The first of these has a heavy metal title, and begins side three, Carl Palmer’s solo project: Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits” from the “Scythian Suite”. This “barbaric” music (under the heavy influence of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”) is more or less played straight, though the addition of Palmer’s continuous, flailing drum soloing turns it into a hectic, scary big band number (with strings). The rest of the side consists of more instrumentals, some great, some forgettable, all but one with manic drumming. There are two named after cities: “L.A. Nights” is a run-of-the-mill rocker with guitar solos, while “New Orleans” is an amazing bit of funk featuring wah-wahs. “Bach Two-Part Invention in D-minor” is the second classical piece; in this arrangement of the keyboard piece, Palmer plays mallets instruments rather than drums – but the string section is off-key and ruins the whole mood. “Food for Your Soul” isn’t really, though it includes an actual drum solo (no other instruments) and a nod to Ian Anderson’s flute. Finally, “Tank” is an arrangement of an instrumental from ELP’s first album. Oddly, Emerson’s keyboard improvisations in the middle section are transcribed note for note for violins, and again, they play off-key. Ugh! They should have left it alone – and, in the third section, they do – the three of them play what sounds like the original (with a slightly different keyboard solo) and add blasting brass chords behind them. Exciting, but in the end it’s merely an arrangement of the first version. And for some reason, it leaves out the drum solo.

Side 4 begins with the last of the three actual “classical” pieces, and the one that is the most transformed: Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”. Very symphonic at first (though with some added – and unnecessary – reverb), but ELP’s masterstroke was to turn this into a rockin’ blues number. The blues-rock emerges slowly, but eventually the Copland comes to an end and we’re left with a keyboard solo over a driving beat, sounding like nothing so much as an electric organ version of Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”. The music adds more and more blue notes, finally going completely, gloriously, insanely, Hendrix-y, atonal. Riffs from the Copland reemerge, and then the Fanfare is back, though the beat (and electric organ) are still there. The two styles duke it out until the end. This is my favorite part of the Works, though I don’t know if it’s worth buying the whole double album for this one track.

The last and longest song is “Pirates”, which attempts to be a grand finale by summing up all that’s come before. There are long orchestral passages (careful listeners will notice fragments from Emerson’s “Concerto”), synthesizer solos, sea chanties, Renaissance music, and odd meters, all leading to a rockin’ climax. Lake’s overwrought vocals finally find vindication as the thoroughly unsavory character of the pirate captain, though perhaps more suitable for the Broadway stage than a rock album.

So in the end, do these Works still work? Yes. No. Pick and choose between them: some are brilliant, some are fossils from an age of forced gigantism, most are in between. The concept and the orchestrations are interesting at times, banal at others, and the whole album has a consistent problem with volume balance. Now that I’ve listened to it again a couple of times, I’ve enjoyed it – but I might be embarrassed to recommend it heartily to others. On the other hand, it is a lot of fun, and maybe that’s all it needs to be.


A (Not So) Hidden Message from Funky Winds from the Sea

I first came across this record in college: Seawind, the album, by Seawind, the band. My friend introduced me to it. Though not one of those all-time masterpiece records, it is still unfortunate that it subsequently has been lost to time and obscurity. This is a cool 1970’/80’s funky music, akin to Earth Wind and Fire, with intricate rhythmic interplay and smokin’ horn solos.

The first track, “We Got a Way” starts up the funk immediately, though perhaps a little dated because of the “disco” beat. Like most album openers, this is intended as a hook, and thus (as if often the case) it’s catchy but less interesting than what follows.

In “You Gotta Be Willin’ to Loose (Part II)”, Pauline Wilson shows her vocal pyrotechnics in a (far too short) series of one-note glottal sound effects mixed with the words; the effect is almost pre-rap. I’ve also heard the same sound in Afropop, such as Toure Kunda Live. There’s no “Part I” to this song on the record, though it does sound slightly unfinished (or rather, un-begun) and may actually be a “jamming” coda to one that was not included.

The next two songs introduce the “theme” and message of the album (which, once one realizes it, was already present in the first two songs anyway). This is actually “Christian music”. It is not an example of bait-and-switch, though – the band was not trying to draw in unsuspecting listeners with “groovy” music and then hit them with an unexpected "religious" message. They were trying to do the exact opposite – put the musicianship back into the such music, where it had sorely been missed.

I had previously thought that no genre of music was so dull, so mind-numbingly banal, so badly written and performed (and consequently so ineffective at communicating its own message) as 1970’s/80’s “Contemporary Christian Music”. I once proclaimed to an acquaintance (and a big fan of the music) that it was neither contemporary, nor Christian, nor music; and I refused to listen to it because I am a Christian. Since then, of course, “Christian music” itself has improved to the levels of composition and musicianship of “regular” – whatever that means – mainstream pop and rock; but Seawind is both and an album and a band from back then in the dark ages.

To be fair, there were of course, even then, a few other bright lights among the many feeble flickers in the genre. John Michael Talbot, at least in his early albums such as "Come to the Quiet", was playing a kind of Renaissance-influenced folk music that was both interesting and magical. With his brother, Terry Talbot, he also recorded at least one interesting acoustic “prog” rock album, "The Painter", though it was a little heavy on the falsetto. Resurrection Band’s "Colors" was blistering hard rock / early metal; it sounded mostly like AC/DC with an occasional odd meter. Phil Keaggy was a master guitarist comparable to Dire Straights’ Mark Knopfler (though his lyrics tended to be as awkward as those of Little River Band). Kerry Livgren (of the band Kansas) made one good prog-rock album ("Seeds of Change") and one good R&B/rock album ("Timeline") before the record producers apparently told him to get more commercial.

…And then there was this record. Its Christian message was there, but never (unlike a lot of others in the same genre) “tacked on” to the music. The music and the lyrics, and therefore the message – no song with lyrics can avoid having a message – were melded into a seamless whole.

…End of disclaimer, and back to the songs. The third, “He Loves You” is a little more subdued that the previous two. The funk gives way to a gentler, slightly Brazilian feel, while Ms. Wilson shows the soulful side of her singing. There are moments where she sounds like Nina Simone.

“The Devil is a Liar” is a sermon to avoid worldly delights (which will leave you empty). Musically it is a combination of the styles of the previous two songs, with both a funky and lyrical side.

In “Love Song / Seawind”, the album takes a turn and things start to get really interesting. Unfortunately it begins with the unpromising vocals of Bud Nuanez over acoustic guitar – he attempts to sound like Jim Croce but doesn’t really. Then “Seawind” (the song) fades in, and we’re in a different world. Soprano sax, played by Kim Hutchcroft, over open fourths and fifths on acoustic guitar, recalls nothing so much as Paul Winter’s “Icarus”. Later there are hints of prog-rock synthesizers and off-beat drum accents. Fade out. With this, side A ends refreshed.

“Make Up Your Mind” is a throwback to Side A. The funk is back in force, now with Maynard Ferguson-style trumpet on top. The song suffers from disco vocal interjections (“get down!”) and thus, as sometimes happens, sounded “groovy” at the time it was recorded, but now, forty years on, just elicits a snicker.

The remainder of Side B is two long songs, both instrumental. “Praise (Part I)” (there’s that “part of a song” thing again) begins with blues piano and a sax tune, leading through several jazzy solos. There is a brief spate of scat singing (Ms. Wilson again), and the trumpet parts recall Miles Davis’ later work, such as "Tutu".

Then comes the epic. “Roadways (Parts I and II)” (finally, a song with both parts!) drops all pretense of being a “popular” number and is instead a full-fledged jazz composition. Enigmantic, slightly rock-ish sax and drums begin, leading to quietly dissonant electric piano chords, played by Larry Williams. An angular melody on the soprano sax winds along, sometimes doubled by flute. The soprano sax solos, with some “extended” techniques. Gradual crescendo, and a brief encounter with Chick Corea’s “The Brain” before repetitive-minimalist synthesizer begins the second part. There is a loud but measured full-ensemble outburst, then the music relaxes and the melody of the first part returns, now on trumpet doubled by electric organ. Soprano sax ends, with tranquil rhythms underneath.

If all of this analysis sounds dry, the music is most assuredly not. It’s not really a masterpiece, though it’s certainly a surprise for anyone who thinks that music from its time and genre had to be insipid and clichéd. It’s also a good addition to anyone’s collection of funk and even jazz from the same period.


Steven Michael Miller Between Noise and Silence

I ran across this memorial retrospective set of CDs at a concert of artists who’d worked with Steven Michael Miller. Since I had not heard of Mr. Miller at the time, I asked about the music. In the ensuing conversation, I was convinced to buy the CD set. I wasn’t disappointed.

There are eight CDs in this set, titled "Between Noise and Silence". The first CD is a collection of pieces called “Subterranea.” These are all very much twigs on the same branch. Majestic synthesizer chords and drones mingle with atmospheric, heavily echoed samples of various “outside” sounds: wind in trees, rivers, animals, traffic. Occasionally there is a serpentine melody on the Balinese flute. Overall these pieces remind me of nothing so much as the ambient music of Brian Eno (such as "On Land" or Side A of "Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks"). Perhaps there is also a little Ingram Marshall, who, it turns out, worked with Miller.

CDs 2 and 3 are a collection of improvisations, mostly collaborative. These are more avant-garde in style than the music on CD 1. In a way, though, they continue the same aesthetic. They are mostly hazy, half-audible extemporizations in space-time, with a lot of (real and suggested) silence. There are a few louder moments, such as in "Duo I" with David Dunn (electronics) and "Duet 2" with Steve Peters (electronics and field recordings); but generally these walk a tightrope between ambience and experimentalism. It is a world previously navigated by Cage and Feldman (though in a very different style).

CD 4 is a single long work, the installation titled “Glass Piece,” the audio part of an installation dedicated to Annea Lockwood (legendary electro-acoustic composer). This piece is the sounds of glass, certainly; to me it is the reverberations of great crystalline gongs and bells, each as large as a house, tapped and rubbed very gently.

CD 5 is a set of pieces with a much harder aesthetic, also purely electronic. “Slow Fire” is edge-of-your-seat tension created from samples of Ligeti’s string quartets and piano music, greatly slowed and amplified. At first listen, this is a drone piece – tones seem locked in hypersleep, barely moving – but careful listening reveals complicated interactions (as in both Ligeti and in drone music). “Three Pieces for Chris Mann” is its antithesis: musique concrète sounds come and go so quickly as to be unidentifiable. “In the Absence of the Sacred” is another high-tension study in found sound; here is some of the same prerecorded material as on CD 1 but treated as a harrowing lament for lost cultures.

One of the most fascinating pieces on the set is the short “Pulse Canon.” Tiny blips gather in an accelerating, cosmic polyrhythm, and become a relentless storm. More description would ruin the idea. It’s easy to hear what’s going on, but it has to be heard to be heard...

“The Flow of Time” is somewhat more ambient, but on this recording it seems to be merely a prelude to the next piece. “Pohon Bergunga” is from the sound-world of Xenakis’ “Voyage absolu des Unari vers Andromede” (on "Perspectives of New Music" vol. 28): a mad, wobbly cluster of siren-like computer-generated fractal glissandi that sometimes slow down to reveal that they are made of other (faster) glissandi, which in turn are made of still faster glissandi. “Twin Canon” is essentially the same piece made from stable drones rather than unstable slides. Overtones fade in to reveal that they are made of still higher, more microtonal, overtones, which in turn… Both pieces are fascinating as concepts, but to me at least, they are (like that one Xenakis piece) so mechanical and high-tension that they are nearly unlistenable.

CD 6, probably my favorite in the set, presents some pieces that are midway between the ambience of CD 1 and the nail-biting of CD 5. They may be quite different to different listeners. “Recirculations” seems at first merely a reiteration of “Twin Canon” – but one is struck immediately by its slower (!), more laid-back mood and straining to produce consonant harmonies from its dense microtonal overtones. (I have used similar resonances as the idée-fixe “mystic chord” in my day-long “StormSound Cycle” – in my case, they were made from partials from the deep bass sound, under the white noise, of waves crashing against a shore.) Eventually the sound collapses into a world of giant gongs heard from somewhere far away in an endless dimly-lit hallway, then builds back up to its opening material. “Points of Origin” is a piece of musique concrète in the style of Annea Lockwood (to whom it was dedicated); sounds are combined in interesting ways and unexpected juxtapositions, but are not processed. “Recirculations II” is a fantasy of CG reverberations that sometimes seem oddly akin to human speech, though altered and scattered into sonic nebulae that are somehow both ecstatic and sinister. Lastly, “Motors” is a drone piece made from unaltered recordings of electric, well, motors. This would seem to be completely non-musical (or even anti-musical) material, yet Miller manages to draw out a rich array of harmonies and microtones. This is a fascinating composition made from the most unpromising of material.

Taken all together, these form either a single day-long “album” with each separate CD a lengthy “song,” or a set of regular-length albums. In either case, the various pieces seem to comment on and extend each other. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, as it should be in any great album.

There are two more discs in the set. One is a DVD of videos featuring Miller’s music, and the other is a collection of pieces by other composers, in tribute to Miller (which forms an “album” in its own right). I will review one or both of those at a future date.


Yoko Kanno: A Shape-Changing Ghost (in the Shell)

I found this CD in the same case as the DVD of the TV show. I’d checked it out from the library. I didn’t like the show that much, but the CD was a bonus, and later I got my own copy. Most of the music was composed by Yoko Kanno, with whom I was familiar from the soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop. She is a well-known film composer in Japan.

A note before I continue: the title of the album (and the show) is Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Although this some of the quasi-English that’s popular in Japan (i.e. “Walkman” and “Pokari Sweat”), it isn’t nonsense. Meaning can be teased out of those two brand names by someone familiar with Japanese: a Walkman is probably something that goes with you while you walk, and “Pokari Sweat” is roughly like “Sweatbuster”. Likewise, "Ghost in the Shell" is probably better translated as “Spirit inside the Shell (of the Machine)”, and refers to the possibility of artificial intelligence being smart and complex enough to have a soul. (This is a cyberpunk world of artificial hackers and martial-arts wielding cyborgs.) “Stand Alone” refers to several episodes of the show that stand by themselves, not related to a larger story arc in the series. “Complex” is COM-plex, the noun form; an amalgamation of such “stand alone” episodes.

Back to the CD. An interesting thing about Ms. Kanno’s music is that we aren’t quite sure what we are listening to. It shapeshifts continuously. It’s mainstream “popular” music, certainly, but it defies all attempts to stick it in one of those boxes that the music industry provides for us. On the surface it’s mostly electronica, though more haunting in mood (however, hardcore Aphex Twin and Moby fans may dispute that it’s really “electronica”, and since when did electronica acquire that style of singing?) It’s reminiscent of 80’s post-punk bands like the Cocteau Twins and the Eurhythmics, but “world music” fans will notice a definite Balkan flavor. Some tracks are pure hard rock, others are funk, some are J-Pop (but with those strange vocals again); some are hybrids. Part of this ambiguity is created by the fact that, though Ms. Kanno composed most of the music, it’s being played by more than one “band”. There are different instruments and different singers – and sometimes the individual musicians move from one band to another. And yet somehow it all ties together. Ms. Kanno has a distinctive style which manifests itself mostly in a couple of unusual compositional techniques that affect how the music flows in time (more on those later) – and the overall shape of the album is that of a single, large-scale composition.

The lyrics, where they appear, are sung in amalgams of English, Japanese, and Russian.

The first track, “Run Rabbit Junk” (one of those quasi-English titles again, though I can’t explain this one) is played by Hideyuki Takahashi, and gets the music off to a loud punk/metal start with a driving beat. About halfway through, the listener is treated to one of Ms. Kanno’s compositional techniques: everything suddenly seems to stop but the rhythm and momentum are still there subliminally, and (after a few dreamlike seconds) they burst into the foreground again. Following this, the vocalists exclaim their ownership of a number of three-letter cyberpunk abbreviations – though I don’t know where this leads in the show.

ヤキトリ (“Yakitori”) is mostly 70’s – 80’s guitar solos. At times it sounds like the solo at the end of Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son”, with its stumbling off-meters; other times it reminds one of Van Halen, with lots of notes that don’t really coalesce; mostly it could be music for a monster truck rally. Fun, but grating after a while, and too over the top for my taste. (Yakitori is, of course, Japanese chicken kabobs.)

Ms. Kanno’s signature style begins with スタミナ・ローズ (“Stamina Rose”), though not very promisingly at first. Technobeat-driven synthesized African marimbas underscore Balkan harmonies sung by Ms. Kanno herself (under the name of Gabriela Robin).

“Surf” continues in somewhat the same mood, though relaxed and with a flute. Another of Mr. Kanno’s compositional techniques is in evidence: this is a slower piece, definitely, but there’s still that nervously quick (though understated) electronica beat underneath. It’s as if there are two pieces running along at the same time, diametrically opposed yet producing a harmonious whole.

“Where does this ocean go?” almost continues the same song, though now with heartfelt vocals by Ilaria Graziano. The lyrics, a little “slice of life” in English, seem a tad awkward at times (particularly the line about the man with a head like a melon), though the song expresses the classic longing for adventure. Björk’s “Hyperballad” has a similar tune (as noted on several websites), though Ms. Kanno’s piece isn’t really a cover and is more appealing musically.

“Train Search” is another guitar solo like “Yakitori”, though shorter and more composed. It is obviously background music to an action scene and doesn’t really do anything for the album. To me, it actually interrupts the flow of the music – and when I put this album on a playlist, I moved it next to “Yakitori”.

シベリアン・ドール・ハウス (“Siberian Dollhouse”) is a mysterious slow movement, at first with blues riffs on guitar, then with Ms. “Robin’s” half-audible vocals under dark synth ambience, and finally with a rising horror-glissando (leading unexpectedly to a major chord) and recalling The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”.

“Velveteen” picks up where “Siberian Dollhouse” left off, though relaxed. The rising horror has become a mere police siren. The beat starts up, and the rest of it is essentially a “pop” number – though in a minor key and with samples of traditional pow-wow songs under the instrumental parts.

“Lithium Flower” returns to the rock world, and brings back the male vocals, this time by Scott Matthew. This could have been a hit by any 70’s or 80’s rock group; English lyrics about an idealized woman are sung in a slightly gravelly voice over modal guitar cycles. Retro. Reminds me of early Foreigner.

“Home Stay” is an instrumental that is again retro – this time it’s classic funk. There is a trick in the bass line: it is actually one beat longer than the rest of the tune, so that every time it returns it’s on a different accent. I notice things like that.

“Inner Universe” is something of a recap of what has gone before. Electronica again, very fast beat under rather slow music again, Balkan voices again, with tight harmony. Again, as in the opening number, everything stops (but doesn’t) and then it builds back up. Several repeats of the refrain are harmonized differently, building to an ecstatic climax. It’s beautiful to hear, but if this is electronica, it’s from another world.

“Fish – Silent Cruise” is the longest song (except for “Yakitori”), and the climax of the album. Basically it’s all one long crescendo, accumulating from quiet, reflective wordless singing to techo/symphonic overload. Again, slow music with a fast beat. Some of the ambience is created by a real symphony orchestra, not synthesizers.

“Some Other Time” is a slow bubblegum pop number, here a bright-colored relaxation after the tension of “Fish – Silent Cruise”.

“Beauty is Within You” follows, and forget it. There isn’t much beauty within this overdone pop ballad, which, interestingly, wasn’t composed by Ms. Kanno...

“We’re the Great” is a very slow number for guitars and male vocals; it serves as an introduction to the final piece, モノクローム (“Monochrome”). This is something both truly unusual and completely familiar at the same time: electronica/pop over random synthesizer beeps. Though completely different stylistically, this is somewhat akin to some of the experiments by Pink Floyd (remember the random synth notes in “On the Run” on Dark Side of the Moon?). It brings the CD to a refreshed conclusion.

There are two more cuts, brief excerpts from loud, up-tempo songs found in the series (and on later volumes of a CD set). Those are better in their full versions, so I won’t talk about them here. I removed them on my iTunes playlist.

In the end, this is just a soundtrack album – but it’s more than that. The songs are (mostly) interesting, and there is a wide variety of moods, tempi, and instrumentation. They tie together, in large part because of that recurrent “slow music over a fast beat” and because of related modes and harmonies. Ms. Kanno was composing individual “pop” numbers in various styles, but with an ear to how they would sound together (both on the CD and as a soundworld for the show). The result is well worth a listen or two, especially without the anime to which they belong.


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