GRIDFAILURE: FURTHER LAYERS OF SOCIETAL COLLAPSE

(THE COMPOUND RECORDS; 2016)

gridfailure

I like noise! Noise is good. Particularly the conflagration of noise manifested by David Brenner, recording as the dark ambient project, Gridfailure. Five months after the release of the bone-jarring debut, ENSURING THE BLOODLINE ENDS HERE, Brenner is back with FURTHER LAYERS OF SOCIETAL COLLAPSE, an EP that is full of the best kinds of noise, utilizing field recordings, as well as heavily processed rock and pop instrumentation, lending the entire proceeding the air of a landscape decimated by industrial collapse. In less than thirty minutes, David (who is co-founder of the influential extreme music public relations firm, Earsplit) takes the listener on a trip that is – alternately – serene and pastoral, frightening and apocalyptic. In short, this is a sound pastiche for the thinking man. The seven-tracks, released on October 31 as a free download (name your own price) at Gridfailure’s Bandcamp page, is scheduled for a limited edition cassette release in the near future. In the meantime, feel free to listen below.

Gridfailure (David Brenner) (uncredited manipulated photo)

Gridfailure (David Brenner) (uncredited manipulated photo)

If you’re familiar with paranormal investigative shows like GHOST HUNTERS or GHOST ADVENTURES or the “found footage” of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, you will recognize the underlying vibe of “A Severing of Ties.” The entire thing plays like an EVP (electronic voice phenomena) session conducted deep in a haunted forest, with weird, disembodied voices buried in a sea of white noise. Toward the end of the track, some tribal percussion (courtesy of Full Scale Riot’s BJ Allen) peeks out of the miasma. “Digital Crush” maintains the thematic thread of the first piece, as the drums resurface briefly at the beginning, before more found sounds and other-worldly voices are introduced into the mix; what appears to be a ghostly single-note piano coda intrudes on the whole affair, while crickets, cicadas and other woodland noises filter in and out to great affect. On “Android Infusion,” the EVP detector has been replaced by a transistor radio tuned to a weak-signal free-form Jazz station transmitting from somewhere within a war zone. “Get Fucked Dance” sounds like a residual (looped) haunting at the site of a horrible train wreck, relaying images of doom, destruction, pain and… a Native American wind instrument?

With “Broken Systems,” the skittering and buzzing of insects reacting to the wildly fluctuating radio waves and apocryphal voices seem to announce the opening of the Gates of Hell. The sounds of forest creatures is slowly replaced by a fever dream of industrial cacophony on “Indian Point Direct Proximity Warning Tester.” This calm before the atomic fallout is, quite naturally, played out over the incessant drone of a warning siren. “Woodlands of Self-Impalement,” though the final track, is the pivotal centerpiece of this dystopian soundscape, encompassing nearly one third of the total time. Thunder in the distance heralds the heavy winds and the storm is upon us; the creatures – natural, spiritual, demonic – cease their chirping and moaning and laughing… the dream, the inner turmoil gains momentum as the white noise of despair overtakes all thought, leading to silence and the sweet release of…


BRIAN ENO: THE SHIP

(Warp Records; 2016)

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Brian Eno doesn’t release albums casually. It tends to be a big deal with him: He’ll start a project, mess around with it, change it substantially from the initial idea, mess around with it some more, and maybe scrap it for years, filed away in his vast archives for an unknown duration. Maybe, though, just MAYBE, he’ll like the results, or the specific parameters of the project dictate that it be released sooner rather than later, OR, a collaborator will inspire him or advise him to get the thing out, like, NOW. All those things seem to have taken place during the gestation of his latest Warp recording, THE SHIP, which began life as part of a sound installation and a provocative initial theme having to do with the Titanic and the folly of World War I, two oft-cited examples by Eno of man’s technological arrogance and delusional thinking that resulted in catastrophe and harsh lessons not learned well enough. Eno is certainly not interested in any linear history lesson, however, or even anything approaching a conventional song cycle. What we fans treasure about the man is the sonic EXPERIENCE he provides listeners: The studio innovation, haunting sounds, stylistic surprises and contextual shift from album to album. THE SHIP is a most welcome entry in Eno’s considerable canon: A consistently listenable platter that harkens back to previous releases, features familiar immersive ambient textures and breaks new ground simultaneously. Describing it is tough, but here are the main features of this remarkable work.

Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)

Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)

It consists of two very long pieces and two short ones. First up is what we used to call the “side-long” piece, “The Ship,” which commences with lovely, drifting ambience that certainly can make you think you’re on the vast open sea, under disarmingly calm skies. Much like Titanic’s passengers were, of course. Just when you’ve been lulled by a healthy slab of Eno’s familiar synthscape, the first surprise: Eno’s own vocals, intoning “The ship was from a willing land/The waves about it rose.” With his voice utilizing intervals both a fourth and an octave apart, Eno provides something we haven’t heard on one of his records for a long time. There are shades of “By This River” and the atmospheric feel of his classic ANOTHER GREEN WORLD here (which referenced water several times). “A slave to hopes of destiny/Illusion of control” is a line that pops up later in this section, clearly a key lyric in the context of the theme. Increasingly diverse sounds begin to enter… nautical beeps and pings, clanging sounds (it’s known that much of Eno’s childhood in the Woodbridge area of England found him soaking up the sounds of nearby shipyards and greats masts probably flapping in the wind), unsettling background voices and whispers. The ghosts of lost souls are active on this record, no doubt. The spell that is cast is a considerable one. You find yourself amazed that this innovative artist and composer is using all his familiar tricks, and yet somehow coming up with something fresh, something that gets under your skin once again. It’s kind of stunning. There is certainly a narrative at work here, but it doesn’t all need to be clearly discerned or “conventional.” This is MUSIC, after all. Not oral history. “Wave… after wave… after wave” a disembodied voice concludes in this shimmering, lovely track. The three-part “Fickle Sun” is up next, and this is a doozy in Eno’s vast output. The lengthy first part, titled simply “Fickle Sun,” again features ambient layers unfolding, but something really ominous quickly grabs our ears. A pulsing, uncertain bass keeps intruding at various volume levels, with distant brass and a threatening feeling imposing itself with increasing intensity. Eno’s voice again comes in, talking about “a cumulus of pride and will/Dissolved in all the oil and steel,” and other provocative lyrics. “The line is long, the line is gray/And humans turning back to clay/Right there beneath the fickle sun/The empty eyes/The end begun… ” (not sure about the last two words). Things begin to get ferociously intense after this passage. “There’s no one rowing anymore… ” Eno sings, an obvious image from the aftermath of the Titanic sinking. Then we hear pounding orchestral music, another big surprise on an Eno record. All hell has broken loose, and there wouldn’t even NEED to be words in the piece for it to be effective. But the combination of the evocative, minimalistic lyric passages and the enveloping music is simply a wonder. “All the boys are going down/Falling over one by one… ” our narrator tells us, now getting a piercing image from World War I into the mix. Sad, organ-like keys now adorn the unspooling narrative, with Eno’s voice receding or changing character dramatically. The next seven or eight minutes rank as one of the most powerful sections on any Eno album. It’s weird, it’s disturbing, it’s utterly beautiful and texturally gripping. It doesn’t need to be described in detail, but it’s classic Brian Eno, ending with a sequence of huge, lush chords and ghostly voices that are the work of a master. I’m STILL shivering from listening to this section repeatedly.

Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)

Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)

A spoken word essay delivered by Peter Serafinowicz and accompanied by simple, straight melodic piano, constitutes “The Hour Is Thin,” a short and memorable interlude. Eno has had more than a fair amount of spoken word on his recordings in recent years, but this piece is effective here, clearly addressing the nightmare of post World War I England and the changes that befell the populace. I love the last line, “The universe is required. Please notify the sun.” It’s immediately followed by another delightful surprise, a gorgeous Eno-sung cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.” It’s rare that Eno covers other artists, and when he does, he usually keeps such tracks tucked away in his studio. In fact, in recent interviews he talked about how much he liked this song and what it meant to him, but he couldn’t find the right context for this legendary recording until now. What a gem it is. “I’m set free to find a new illusion,” he sings, and Eno clearly regards that as a working mantra, tipping his hat to what Lou Reed and the Velvets meant to him in the process. Sweetly sad, captivating, filled with gorgeous synth work and Neil Catchpole’s fetching violin and viola contributions, “I’m Set Free” serves as an unlikely yet perfect coda for a truly stirring record. THE SHIP is the work of a master craftsman still finding ways to surprise both himself and his vast audience. Drift along with Brian Eno, folks… he’ll make sure you get safely to shore with new things to think about.


INSECT ARK: PORTAL/WELL

(Autumnsongs Records; 2015)

insect-ark-portal-well

For many years, I’ve worn it as a badge of pride that I was almost always the one, at whatever publication I wrote for, to champion the weirdest, darkest, most challenging music the publication received. I developed an interest in ambient and experimental music quite early, and although I don’t just automatically like things BECAUSE they are weird and dark, I sure can tell when a creative aesthetic is at work, and when the practitioners CARE what they are doing. There is no doubt that Insect Ark mean it, man. This PORTAL/WELL release, their debut, is a stunning journey to places most folks just won’t go. We’re talking serious, concentrated creepy atmospherics, a sonic template where drones exist at a frequency outside the comfort zone and metallic sounds emanating from a dark urban alley may be from a decaying structure trying to return to its original nature or from the titular “portal” to some very threatening subterranean place. And also, something WICKED this way DRUMS… the pounding, ominous percussion here on tracks like “The Collector” (I would NOT wanna know what he collects!) and “Octavia,” though played by a human being named Ashley Spungin, does NOT represent the sound of physical release, It simply is not the rhythm of anything but perhaps a tortured psyche. Spungin isn’t the auteur here, though. Remarkably, Insect Ark is almost entirely the vision of a woman, a remarkable female composer/multi-instrumentalist named Dana Schechter. Her past music includes the more luminous Bee and Flower project, and she is an animator and video artist working in the film business.

Insect Ark (Dana Schechter) (photo credit: LAUREN BILANKO)

Insect Ark (Dana Schechter) (photo credit: LAUREN BILANKO)

I can only guess Schechter’s reasons for making such unsettling, alien music. She’s probably heard some records by Lustmord and Nurse With Wound, or who knows, maybe she is working through her own inner demons with this stuff. The Insect Ark website helpfully relates: “Creating a personal soundtrack to the human psyche’s underbelly, Insect Ark weaves a brooding textural landscape, a starless night spiked with light and flash.” Yeah, THAT! Gosh, I am not seeing much light, though. “Portal” and “Parallel Twins” could be soundtracks for a modern horror film, something by a European director, perhaps, who pushes the envelope too far. Life is NOT a safe, fun thing as expressed in this music. And yet, there are moments of eerie, spellbinding ambient beauty, as on the haunting “Low Moon,” which fully falls into the genre category of “dark ambient” and probably bests a few male composers of that style in its purity. Not to put too fine an oh so sharp point ON it, but we’re not used to hearing women make music like this. It’s potent, scary and damn self-assured. Insect Ark do NOT want you to sleep comfortably or, in fact, to draw too much inspiration from the beauty of life when there’s plenty of nightmarish stuff also deserving of your attention. But still, this is only a record in the end. A vital, off-center, somewhat unhinged soundtrack to stumbling through the darkness in dangerous times. I admire what Insect Ark have conjured. It’s got a good “buzz” and you can TRANCE to it…


DANIEL LANOIS/ROCCO DELUCA

(May 5, 2015; THE DUCK ROOM at BLUEBERRY HILL, Saint Louis MO)

Daniel Lanois with Jim Wilson and Kyle Crane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Daniel Lanois with Jim Wilson and Kyle Crane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

For a guy who’s NOT a household name, Canadian musician/producer Daniel Lanois has sure had a huge impact on modern music. He engineered some of Brian Eno’s early ambient recordings, collaborated on Eno’s 1983 masterpiece APOLLO and some later works, co-produced U2 with Eno on seminal albums like THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE, THE JOSHUA TREE, ACHTUNG BABY and more, did peerless auteur-style producing duties for albums by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and others, and released some terrific, pleasant solo recordings of his own, among them ACADIE, FOR THE BEAUTY OF WYNONA, BELLADONNA and his brand-new FLESH AND MACHINE. Lanois is a gentle, philosophical musical visionary who seems utterly tuned in to the deepest aspects of artistic intent and maximum creative impact. His show at the Duck Room was surprising in the dynamic range of what was performed and the sharp-edged clarity of the sound.

Rocco DeLuca (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Rocco DeLuca (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The audience was first treated to a handful of songs by opener Rocco DeLuca, who has a soft voice of incandescent, emotive clarity, double the impact of similar intonation by, say, Bon Iver. “You sing like a bird, Rocco,” Lanois told him early on, in an apt compliment. The sound crew were clearly on their game right from the start, and this made every tune stand out, from the loud to the more gentle numbers.

Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Lanois delivered both about equally, with a major tribal aspect to the rhythmic foundation that had the audience really riveted. “Sioux Lookout,” a track from the new album, was introduced as a piece “about the balance with nature,” as Lanois explained the challenges and daunting experiences faced by the indigenous Canadian tribes he has so clearly been influenced by both musically and philosophically. And a beautiful instrumental piece was introduced with the comment “I wrote this song when I saw the empty eyes of a native compadre.” Lanois is adept at both instrumentals and “conventional” songs with vocals, and the show was divided roughly equally that way. A rousing, aggressive piece called “The Burning Spear” was put together “like a punk thing,” the artist told us, and indeed, it rocked and tranced the crowd out in delerious fashion. But then Lanois would turn around and do a tender song like “I Love You,” from 2003’s SHINE, which featured simple lyrics that expressed that sentiment unpretentiously, something he said that more songs need to do. Also performed from that album: “JJ Leaves L.A.,” one of several tunes showcasing Lanois on his “trusted friend,” the steel guitar. It’s definitely a signature element of his sound. And he did one of his best-known songs “The Maker” from ACADIE, drawing a tremendous response from a crowd that kept growing throughout the show, it seemed. Lanois was effusive with his praise for the audience and their enthusiastic reactions to the material. A highlight was the communal “Congregate,” which featured Rocco again on strong vocals, and which inspired a short commentary by Lanois about the value of gathering for special, magical moments in life. The crowd ate these moments up.

Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Worthy of special praise were the vocal harmonies by Lanois and “mighty” Jim Wilson (his bass player and sideman for over a decade). Wilson is a consummate musician who has sung and played guitar in another revered band called Mother Superior who have performed and recorded as Henry Rollins’ backing band. Lanois clearly has the utmost respect for Wilson judging from their amiable musical partnership and back and forth comments, and Wilson, all smiles at the show, obviously feels the same way. From the hypnotic rhythmic elements all night (courtesy of Kyle Crane), to the well-paced variety, soothing instrumental passages, and the affable warmth of master Lanois himself, this was a truly delightful, pleasing show all around. Lanois is something of a rare gem in the music industry, a guy whose actions and enthusiasm ripple throughout different genres, with lasting impact. One hopes he will return to St. Louis again before too long, and judging by the enthusiastic response tonight, that’s more than likely.


WHAT’S IT TO ME, ANYWAY?: THE 25 ALBUMS THAT MOST INFLUENCED MY LIFE, PART 2

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

It’s interesting how certain albums come to mean so much to you, the longer you are an active music fan. From 1976 to 1979, I worked at a major record store, which increased my access to all kinds of new and upcoming artists. I also began to read music magazines obsessively, so I was able to follow the music scene really attentively. Hundreds and hundreds of albums crossed my path during that time and beyond. I went to college from 1980 to 1983, and that, too, brought a ton of new artists into my life. So-called “new wave” music ruled at that time, with artists such as Elvis Costello, the English Beat, the Clash, the Cars and many more finding favor among people I hung out with, and my friend Tina Carl and I began trading and sharing and even dancing to a lot of the music at that time. There was so much stuff I loved, but the sheer volume of it probably prevented most of it from becoming INFLUENTIAL. And that is my focus here: what were the albums that actively, in a meaningful way, became an influence on my life and creative journey? So, here is part two of that list of 25, carrying us from the late 70s to the present…

14. TALKING HEADS: FEAR OF MUSIC and REMAIN IN LIGHT (tie)

FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)

FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)

This is the second time I am cheating by calling a TIE between two albums. I pretty much HAVE to, because each of these albums by the New York new wave group fronted by David Byrne was HUGE for me. FEAR OF MUSIC came out while I worked at Record Bar, in the summer. It was an amazing piece of work, quirky as hell, rhythmically unique and heavily atmospheric. Songs like “Air,” “Cities,” “Animals,” “Drugs” and the new wave dance anthem “Life During Wartime” were like catnip for my ever-growing interest in offbeat music. And the hypnotic piece “Mind” became the unofficial breakup song for me and that girl who looked like Joni Mitchell. I loved this band, and the fact they were produced by my new hero, Brian Eno, was a bonus. But the following year, while I was attending Webster University, the incomparable REMAIN IN LIGHT came out. Influenced by African high life music, and featuring Eno again as producer and even co-writer of many of the tracks, this was just a full-on masterpiece of innovative modern rock. I absolutely went gaga over it, and “Once In A Lifetime” remains, to this day, one of the most instantly captivating weird songs ever recorded. Topping things off, MTV was becoming a going concern, showcasing this new “music video” art form to a fast-growing, interested public, and the Heads’ video for this song got huge attention. My friend Ted Moniak and I also discussed this album at length in college, and I remember him taking a long verse from the song “Crosseyed and Painless”, and writing the lyrics on a piece of paper which he posted on a door in the theatre conservatory to make a point. These were major, heady days of music listening for me, always intense, always communal. REMAIN IN LIGHT is truly one of the greatest and most interesting albums of all time, and that coincided with it being influential for me in its awesome creativity, its often dark and globally inclusive mood, and a palpable sense of ALL things truly being possible now. It made me want to learn about ethnic music, and my mind just kept opening more and more…

15. NICK DRAKE: FIVE LEAVES LEFT

FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)

FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)

I didn’t know anything about Nick Drake when he was alive and making music (1969-1974). It was some years later that I learned about him through my friend, Ted. The doomed British singer/songwriter, who died at the age of 24 either through suicide or an accidental drug overdose (theories differ on that), was an instantly compelling new “find” for me. Nick always sounded like he was apart from the rest of humanity, a lonesome figure who couldn’t fit in and related more to nature and quiet moments than anything else. I probably identified a little too much with this, I have to say. FIVE LEAVES LEFT was his first album, and it’s one of the best debut albums ever. I love every song on it; “Time Has Told Me,” the gorgeous “River Man,” “Cello Song” and “Fruit Tree” are just a few of the timeless, intimate songs on this album. I began performing “River Man” as a musician myself some years later; the mood of isolation combined with a deep reverence and connection to nature, was a recurring and potent theme in Nick’s music. Also, the way his career never took off (fame eluded him during his lifetime; it took a clever Volkswagen commercial using his song “Pink Moon” to catapult him to real fame after his death) and the aching solitude made me start thinking much more about the uncertainties of being an artist and the pain of being perhaps too sensitive. This is essential singer/songwriter stuff, and will likely always be one of my top 10 albums of all time.

16. BRIAN ENO: ON LAND

ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)

ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)

I already covered Eno’s album DISCREET MUSIC, which found him inventing a new kind of music that baffled many listeners and critics at the time. And in 1979, he basically announced ambient music as an “official” new genre with the release of MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, labeled as “Ambient 1″ in his new series at the time. That album was influential, for sure, but 1982’s ON LAND was so far ahead of the game in this genre, so much farther than his own DISCREET MUSIC, in fact, that in a way, my life instantly changed right then and there. If DISCREET MUSIC had made me feel like dreams had come to life, ON LAND recreated the experience of being lost in nature, and thinking about the most private and long-gone of memories while doing so. It was a series of rather lengthy pieces with titles such as “Lizard Point,” “The Lost Day,” “Lantern Marsh” and “Unfamiliar Wind,” all of which were made in such a mysterious process that almost no recognizable instruments appeared on them. Eno had traveled deeply into new, mysterious musical territory, and in these heady days before the internet, finding albums like this and maybe, just MAYBE encountering another human being who liked it, made you part of a cult in a way. I was utterly, utterly shocked and amazed that an album like ON LAND, which vividly captured the way I felt when I was out in nature, watching birds and feeling the glorious solitude of my surroundings, could exist. I had literally never been so affected by an album before, and I went a little nuts. I started collecting every article and review of Eno I could find, even compiling a scrapbook. More significantly, I decided I had to write to Brian Eno himself and express my admiration. It was a crazy, bold impulse, but I was unstoppable; I wrote about a 25-page letter to Mister Eno telling him about how I had long dreamed of a kind of cinematic, pastoral music that would evoke landscapes and the mysteries of life, and how in awe I was that HE had single-handedly created this music. Late in 1982, one day when I was at Webster University, I was flabbergasted when Eno answered my letter. He was warmly appreciative of my enthusiasm, hand-wrote a 3-page letter to me, and shared some of his thoughts about this bold new music that was happening. We corresponded several times, and it was a highlight of my life. It’s possible that ON LAND is, in fact, the MOST influential album of my life, it depends on how you want to measure these things. But the way this album combined many of my interests, veered sharply into unknown and haunting new sonic territory and carried with it an entire new philosophy about recorded musical art, was to change the big picture for me forever. And the time I played it on my car stereo at sunrise while driving into the Grand Canyon National Park, is one of the most unforgettable listening experiences of my entire life.

17. COCTEAU TWINS: VICTORIALAND

VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)

VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)

Ah, the Cocteau Twins. Their fans sigh and swoon at the mere mention of this so-called “shoegaze” band (a lousy label that some critic made famous, even though none of the dreamy sounding bands saddled with that label could stand it). You’re lucky in life if you meet friends who introduce you to some new band that goes on to really affect you, a band you might not have encountered otherwise. That was the case with my first introduction to this ethereal Scottish trio. Liz Fraser, the sublimely gifted female singer who fronted the band, sang like no one else EVER, not even singing understandable lyrics until the last years of the band. Instead, fans were treated to wailing, intoning, swooping and soaring, shiver-inducing tones and unearthly vocal bursts that were uncategorizable. With her partner at the time, Robin Guthrie, who conjured one of the most recognizable and groundbreaking painterly guitar sounds to ever come along, the Cocteau Twins (joined by bassist Simon Raymonde on most of their albums) earned in instant cult following with their visionary sonic palette. Many of their albums are now considered classics, but VICTORIALAND, a largely acoustic and sparsely played recording, has some of their most singularly beautiful moments. It’s music that is not easy to describe. In many ways, it is ambient, because Liz Fraser does not sing understandable lyrics, and the overall mood, a haunted one, is what you respond to most. The music is wintery, solemn and desolately beautiful, filled with mystery and destinations unknown. Some friends and I listened to it one day while we were all sprawled out on the floor together at a party, in a totally receptive mood. There was a sense of discovery at this time in the mid 80s that was magical, and by the time the internet came along and music like this was analyzed and discussed to death by countless pundits, some of that mystery went away. But the Cocteaus’ powerful music endures (though they disbanded in the late 90s), and Robin Guthrie is now a prominent ambient musician and soundtrack composer, continuing the awesome legacy of this pioneering band.

How it influenced me: By proving that truly wondrous music could render lyrics irrelevant, by emphasizing mystery over almost everything else, by demonstrating that a female voice could power a kind of “new form of ambient,” and by partially inspiring me to start writing my first novel, a story about a girl who worshipped this band, and happens to get embroiled in a supernatural murder mystery. Not sure if the novel will get finished or not, but if it does, I am contacting Robin Guthrie to compose the score.

18. REM: AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)

This Athens, Georgia band became heroic in the ’90s for their status as one of the ultimate college bands and for helping to create the very notion of what “indie rock” meant. Michael Stipe had a unique, stylish approach to vocals (in the early days he utilized a kind of beguiling mumble), and there was something about the SOUND of these guys that was able to keep growing an audience year after year. “Losing My Religion” became their most classic song, but in 1992, they released AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE, an evocative song cycle about loss, change and disillusionment. Three of my favorite themes! This was an autumnal album, one that I played constantly and featured regularly on road trips with a couple of friends. It was conceptually solid, deeply moving and strangely comforting. I reacted most to the melancholy songs like “Try Not to Breathe” (a painful song about an old person’s last moments), “Sweetness Follows” (heartbreaking song, with potent cello playing, about the aftermath of a death in a family) “Nightswimming” and a personal favorite, “Find the River.” This album made me cry a few times, and I have to mention in particular that the song “Sweetness Follows,” a truly haunting piece, was something I listened to on the fateful day I found out that a close friend, and the founder of a publication I had written for, was killed in a horrible car accident coming home from Chicago. I was on the highway the same day, maybe an hour behind her, and didn’t find out ’til the next day what happened. It was a huge, tragic event. There were many upbeat REM songs, and I had fun growing with them album after album for almost 30 years. But it was their softer, more intimate songs that ultimately affected me the most. I don’t play this album that often because it brings back some painful memories, but it definitely had an impact.

19. PETE NAMLOOK: AIR 2

AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)

AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)

Considering that most non-aficionados consider “ambient” to be nothing more than background music, something probably with repetitive droning or tinkly keyboards and not much variety, it’s a huge surprise to discover that there’s actually a HUGE diversity of sounds and approaches in the world of ambient releases. That topic will be discussed in depth another time on this site, but I have to include a Pete Namlook album on my list because Pete, like Eno, created an entire world of ambient releases. He launched a private German record label called Fax in the early 90s, and began releasing limited-edition recordings that became collectors items fairly quickly. The releases spanned the musical spectrum from straight ambient to stuff heavy on beats to weird experimental things to jazz stylings and beyond. Fax fans were challenged by all this and discussed Pete’s work on several key websites. One of the best pairs of ambient recordings on Fax was the first two volumes in a series called AIR. These were meant to be expansive, “ethno-ambient” projects that included instrumentation far beyond mere drones and keyboards. AIR 2, in particular, was a spectacular album. It’s hard to even describe, because it constantly changes, from hypnotic travelogue soundscape (with subtle rhythms) to breezy synth to chanted middle-eastern sounding vocals to glassy, wind chimey stuff and more. “Traveling Without Moving” is the subtitle of the work overall, but it is so filled with diversity, and so enthralling to listen to while driving, that it became a personal landmark for me. I played the entire thing in my car while driving in the mountains of Colorado one evening, with some dangerous conditions happening, and it was one of the most amazing cinematic experiences of my life. This is real musical art, raising the notion of “ambient to a much, much higher level.”

How it influenced me: By creating a bold, fascinating new vision of what ambient could be, and by allowing me to lure friends and other newbies into the ambient “fold” by providing a stellar, immersive and unforgettable listening experience.

20. RADIOHEAD: OK COMPUTER

OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)

OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)

Radiohead took the music world by storm with this album. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and it was said to be an epic meditation on millennial angst and the growing encroachment of technology in our lives (with the subsequent alienation we were sure to face). I was utterly enthralled with this recording; it really did achieve some sort of pinnacle of creativity for a rock album. Having always loved high, emotive male voices, Thom Yorke’s singing on stunning tracks like “Paranoid Android,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “Let Down,” and “Lucky” was spine-tingling, and the arrangements (and production by Nigel Goodrich) maximized the emotional impact. I listened to this one over and over; it was a thoroughly modern rock masterpiece that took me back to the days of listening to Pink Floyd, Yes and the Moody Blues when I was a teen. The underlying anxiety about the future and the ups and downs that were soon to come with the pervasiveness of the internet and other technologies, were deeply ingrained in the musical aesthetic of this record.

How it influenced me: By announcing a new candidate for “Best group in the world,” showcasing powerful new songwriting and arrangements in a neo-prog rock idiom, and reminding me clearly of the power of writing music that echoed the times and tried to make people think and feel about our fate as humans.

21. THE DOMINO KINGS: LIFE AND 20

LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)

LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)

This is the only Missouri album on my list, and at this writing, it is out of print, sadly. The trio of guitarist Steve Newman, upright bassist Brian Capps and drummer Les Gallier, based in Springfield, play roots music that blends barroom country and early rock and roll into a snappy, lively formula that is a genuine pleasure to listen to. But that’s not why the album is on my list. It’s here because the album came out when I was an active music journalist for a publication called NOISYPAPER, and I was assigned to review a show by the Domino Kings. I met Brian Capps and struck up a friendship with him. Just a few years later, when I saw Brian in concert again, I was about to endure one of the most painful relationship breakups of my entire life, and Brian’s songs not only served as a bit of a soundtrack for this period, they made me want to dance through the heartache. The Kings were (and still ARE) crack musicians, capable of playing the kind of alcohol-fueled, lost-at-love rave-ups that patrons have been dancing to and enjoying for years. On this album, the Capps tunes “Borrow A Lie,” “Alice” (a wickedly catchy stomper about a bad, bad woman), “Don’t Be Indifferent” and “Steppin’ Out Again” all deal with the kind of women and relationships that tear a man’s soul apart. As this happened to me at the end of 2003 and the first part of 2004, I got to hear Brian Capps perform live several times, with most of these tunes in the mix. And he was kind enough to discuss relationships with me and tell me his own stories of romantic woe. Very cathartic and significant. Additionally, the Kings’ music increased my awareness that Springfield, Missouri was a center of musical vitality. Not far in my future at this point was a deep connection and involvement in that city that would affect my own music career dramatically.

22. EPHEMERA: BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE

BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)

BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)

It’s funny how one little action can end up leading to something much bigger, something you couldn’t predict. By 2002, I was working at an advertising agency, getting into the groove of internet communication and browsing, and trying to learn about new music and discover new things. I had read a few things about Norwegian music, just sort of casually, and I ended up purchasing a CD called THIS IS NORWAY on impulse. It was a compilation of Norwegian pop and rock bands, and there was a track by a band called Ephemera on there. I had never heard of them, and knew nothing about them. The song, “Last Thing,” featured several female singers offering beautiful, tight vocal harmonies, and unusually crystalline keyboards and production. It stood out, and I wanted to know more about this group. Nothing by them was available in the US, but I ordered this album, BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE. Lordy. It so far exceeded anything I could have expected, that it’s hard to put into words. It was like realizing your eyes have been impaired for a long time, causing you to never see certain details, and then being given a pair of stunning new glasses that brighten up the entire world, with colors, details and landscapes you were never aware of appearing vividly before you. The three women of Ephemera – Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen – are singer/songwriters of peerless, diamond-pure talent. Since I have an interview with Ingerlise pending, I’ll save most of my thoughts for that piece. But I was bowled over by this magical trio from the start, and they are one of my absolute favorite musical groups in the world. On BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE, tracks such as “Act,” “Air,” “Bye” and the title track are such heartbreakingly beautiful, with emotive, delicate singing and a level of purity that I had almost never heard on an American record. I love literally every song this band has recorded, and I came to the conclusion early on that they don’t really know how good they are. They are some kind of magical musical goddesses that simply do what they do, and trust that some people will like it. Ephemera opened up a new world to me, the world of Scandinavian pop music, which I would, within a year, be writing about regularly for a couple of different publications. They actually changed the way I LISTEN to music, because after absorbing the beauty of their vocals and the genius production techinques of their producer, Yngve Saetre, I could no longer respond the same way to typical American pop records. Here’s how passionately in love I am with Ephemera’s music. If there was a fire or a coming tornado, and I could only save a limited number of CDs from my collection, I’d grab an armful of ambient CDs and then use my other hand to grab my small stack of Ephemera CDs. They have been a HUGE, huge influence, and when I became a musician, I kept their intimate vocals in mind at all times as I advanced in my own career.

23. DANIELSON FAMILE: TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK

TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL' CHOPPIN' BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)

TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)

I never, never found so-called “Christian groups” musically interesting; the vast majority of what I heard in that vein seemed like the most shallow, over-reverent, musically insipid crap I could imagine. Nothing against Christianity, only something against boring music. But Lord God almighty! The Danielsons changed that in a big way. It is, of course, not cool or even accurate to call them a “Christian” band. In fact, they are so weird and arty that their first label, a Christian one called Tooth and Nail, dropped them after one album. Instead, Daniel Smith, the composer and frontman for this band along with a rotating cast of family members and friends, began to attract a following from the fringes of indie rock and outsider music. Smith has a very, very high voice, and he makes it even higher by singing one of the highest falsettos in the history of pop music. It is showcased on several tracks on this amazing, visionary album. But the entire album is notable for the focused PASSION on display, the extremely original songwriting, and the sense of communal empathy that pours from the whole thing. Less important than the Christianity of the band is their deep, poignant humanity and concern for the well-being of everyone, meaning every single listener. They really don’t PREACH per se, they simply share their souls, and they do it with powerful music that ranges from Beatles to Beefheart in influence. I’ve tried to share Danielson music with various friends, and it is honestly too much for a lot of them. When Smith ascends to that remarkable falsetto and starts ranting about something in the modern world, it results in a singular, aggressively original sound that is not meant for all. But the humanity and intensity of this album is undeniably hypnotic, emotional and yes, quite beautiful. Some of their later albums, although I like all of them, are at times spotty. But TELL ANOTHER JOKE… is a masterpiece to me.

How it influenced me: By demonstrating that religious themes on an album can be musically riveting, that the subject of confessed vulnerability (one of my favorites) is worth examining, and that weirdness and focused passion are absolutely compatible bedfellows, something I have kept in mind ever since.

24. LISA GERMANO: LULLABYE FOR LIQUID PIG

LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)

LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)

I decided to include this one among some of the final “candidates” for this list because it was a crystal-clear example of a dark, depressing album being cathartic at a time when I was lost. The very offbeat, non-commercial style of Ms Germano is an acquired taste, but fans of originality and darker artsy/folksy stuff can find a lot to love in her work. LULLABYE… was released to little fanfare late in 2003, right as I was breaking up with a girl named Star in an unexpected manner. I went into a downward spiral for a time, and this record is about just that, a downward spiral. Although I’d found other dark, sad albums in the past to be compelling, such as stuff by Neil Young, Lou Reed, Joy Division and others, Lisa Germano really let her worst fears and sorrows hang out, and the album was willfully uncommercial. Yet it had a lot of fragile beauty on it. There were some verses, and eerie sounds (inspired by struggles with alcoholism, reportedly) on this album that could absolutely get under your skin. One verse that almost brought me to tears, was “Without you here/Without your love/The world’s just THERE/It doesn’t move me.” The songs are generally short, and Ms Germano really sounds like she is fighting off a breakdown, which oughta sound familiar to anyone who has suddenly lost their love, or found themselves on the wrong end of a battle with substance abuse. This is not a fun album, but I’ll never forget how it provided therapy and catharsis during a pretty rotten four month stretch for me.

25. In order for this list to have a sense of “completeness” for me, I have to put FILM SOUNDTRACKS

FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)

FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)

for the final slot. I don’t mean loose collections of songs, I mean orchestral scores. I grew up with film music and I love it, and my brother is one of the most knowledgeable film soundtrack buffs in the country; he writes a column about it. Film music has been described as the “first cousin” of ambient music; it’s generally instrumental, generally evocative and mood-setting, and able to be created in many different musical idioms. Watching movies and TV shows all my life, I have to say that I always noticed the music, and the mood-enhancing nature of movie music got deeply into my psyche. When I write songs now, there is always part of me that hopes to capture something subtly cinematic. There are tons of soundtracks in my collection, but to round out this list of influences, I will pick three different ones: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the beautiful Elmer Bernstein score for the classic Gregory Peck movie (with a main theme that everyone loves and remembers); DANCES WITH WOLVES, a rapturous, Western-themed score by John Barry that covers as much terrain as the epic film itself does, and NEVER CRY WOLF, by the prolific Mark Isham, whose 1983 score was one of the first ambient soundtracks ever. Isham stated in interviews that he was influenced by Brian Eno, so… it figures I could identify with his movie work!

TEN OTHER INFLUENTIAL RECORDINGS THAT MISSED OUT ON THE MAIN LIST:

NEIL YOUNG: ZUMA… THE WHO: TOMMY… MIKE OLDFIELD: OMMADAWN… XTC: ENGLISH SETTLEMENT… THE SAMPLES: NO ROOM… THE RESIDENTS: NOT AVAILABLE… PHILIP GLASS: GLASSWORKS… HAROLD BUDD AND BRIAN ENO: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR… MUM: FINALLY WE ARE NO ONE… PINK FLOYD: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON

SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTION:

ROBYNN RAGLAND: MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT

MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)

MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)

Although it didn’t feel right to place this on the main list of 25, I need to include Robynn Ragland’s record because, first of all, it was one of the most well-written and well-produced collections of songs by a local artist during my early years as a writer, first for NOISYPAPER, and then for PLAYBACK STL and fLUSH. Appreciating artists in Saint Louis wasn’t always easy, but Robynn made it a cinch. Her true significance for me was that we became close friends, and she really encouraged me with my own writing and creative pursuits. And in a twist that neither of us could have foreseen, when I had my surprising success with the UP IN THE AIR song, Robynn became my manager for a few years. She was singularly responsible for my spectacular trip to Japan to promote the movie, and I could hardly forget something like that!


WHAT’S IT TO ME, ANYWAY?: THE 25 ALBUMS THAT MOST INFLUENCED MY LIFE, PART 1

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

Hey everyone, it’s 2015! Didja notice? Yep, it’s a symmetrical year three fourths of the way through the first fifth of the new millennium! I find that this is making me, and plenty of other people I’ve spoken to, think about numbers, halfway points, anniversaries, etc. For me, this year marks the major anniversary of a lot of key things in my life and career, and I plan to write about some of those right here at the Mule. It’s gonna be fun, so saddle up and take this trip with me, through the past, smartly! Not that I feel like acknowledging my age or anything, but I would say I have been a true “music fan” for 50 years now. As a bonafide baby boomer, I grew up in the ’60s listening to all that classic stuff that makes the “Best Ever” lists these days. Sometime in 1965, probably after the Beatles’ RUBBER SOUL album came out, I became aware of music in a bigger way than before. It was no longer just the radio hits my sisters were listening to incessantly on AM, now they were buying albums (mostly the Beatles at first), and the repeated playing of these began to affect my young ears with increasing intensity. I love melodies and good singing, and everyone at the time was into the Beatles. A new era was upon us, and it was exhilarating.

What I thought I would do to celebrate my 50 years of being an active listener, is pick the 25 albums that influenced me the most. Here at the Mule, we like to take things personally, that’s why a conventional list of “Best of All Time” or “Best of the Decade,” that kinda thing, is not much fun to do. Stuff like that is all over the web or in your latest issue of ROLLING STONE. And though fun, that kind of clinical exercise can get tedious. But if I tell you I’m going to make a list of 25 albums that truly affected my life, that either set something in motion, changed me or altered my musical taste in some way, well, I get all tingly just thinking about that. The list could be much longer, of course, but it’s important to have parameters. And I like the symmetry of “25 in 50,” ie: The 25 recordings that had the greatest personal impact in 50 years of listening. You will encounter some of the great classics in here, and you’ll also read about stuff you never heard of. Maybe you’ll be shocked that there are no Dylan, Rolling Stones or Beach Boys albums on my list. I’ll say it again, this is NOT a list of the most influential albums, period. It’s a list of what most influenced ME, and made my musical life what it is. This is a thoughtful, personal exercise, and I hope you’ll enjoy sharing it with me. Maybe it will encourage some of you to think about what music most made a difference to YOU, and affected your personality the most. Fun, right? Making something all about YOU is more honest and real than those tedious “Best of” lists. So, here we go. These albums will roughly be listed in the order that I encountered them, although I can’t absolutely swear to that. But… all of these works helped make me whatever and whoever the heck I am today. Enjoy!

1. THE BEATLES: REVOLVER

REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)

REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)

Although SERGEANT PEPPER… is usually cited as the greatest Beatles album, the 1966 classic REVOLVER had a bigger impact on me. It was the Fabs entering their psychedelic period, and my sisters, Therese and Pam, played this album all the time. I was fascinated by the unusual sounds on it (“Tomorrow Never Knows” was utterly hypnotic, as were the strings on “Eleanor Rigby”), and classic gems of songcraft like “Good Day Sunshine,” “I Want To Tell You” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” became lodged firmly in my young mind. I feel sad for people who never know the experience of growing up with a classic album like this.

How it influenced me: Gave me perhaps my first experience of enjoying an album all the way through, with melodies and sounds that seeped deep into my brain.

2. THE BEATLES: THE BEATLES (WHITE ALBUM)

THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)

THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)

Barely two years after REVOLVER, the Beatles had evolved so much that it was almost dizzying to a budding music fan at the time. By 1968, only my sister Therese was still home among my siblings, and this album got constant play. It was a weird, unsettling, enthralling experience to listen to it back then. I vividly remember a couple of times when I fell asleep on the extra bed in Therese’s room absorbing the strange, diverse tracks on this album. Each side had a unique flow; some songs rocked out (“Back in the USSR,” “Glass Onion”), some songs were folksy and pretty (“Mother Nature’s Son,” “Julia”) and some were scary and from a place I yearned to know more about (“Long Long Long,” “Revolution 9″) What a remarkable sonic journey this double album took fans on! Nobody at the time talked about the “divisions” within the Beatles, or how “self-indulgent” the album was. We simply ate it up, listened with fascination, and marveled at the new age of rock that was now dawning.

How it influenced me: The first massive song collection I ever lost myself in, with unforgettable moments across the musical spectrum, including the first moments on record to scare the crap out of me (the moaning sounds at the end of “Long Long Long” and the entire “Revolution 9″). Hearing dark, weird sounds on a record began for me, oddly, with the Fab Four.

3. THE MONKEES: PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED

PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)

PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)

In the late 60s, the Monkees were the OTHER band that captured the lion’s share of attention in my circles. We all knew the hits like we knew the shrubs in our front yard, and we watched the MONKEES TV show faithfully. This 1967 album was a superb collection of tunes that got constant play in my neighborhood. The previous Monkees albums seemed more like collections of big hits, but this one headed into some new territory. “Star Collector” was downright psychedelic, and Davy Jones sang it! “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was simply one of the best songs ever, ever, ever, one of the first songs to become a solid favorite for me. And many others stood out, like the minor-key laden “Words,” the Nesmith classic “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” and the Nilsson gem “Cuddly Toy,” which, decades later, would become a song I would sometimes perform live when I became a musician myself.

How it influenced me: A solid soundtrack to my childhood, full of innocence, whimsy and suburban dreams.

4. TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS: THE BEST OF…

THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)

THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)

From 1967 to 1970, Tommy James was a fixture on radio, with classic hit after classic hit. They were often in the summer, becoming wondrous summer classics like “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and “Crimson and Clover.” At every swimming pool where radio was in the background, Tommy James was a part of the atmosphere. And the first song I ever declared to be my personal favorite, was “Sweet Cherry Wine.” This song absolutely captivated me, and I would sometimes wait for it to come on the radio, getting very emotional when it did. It was a beautifully produced song, with background vocals that got under my skin and never left my memory. THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS was, I believe, the first album I bought with my own money. It’s possible a Monkees album preceded it in that regard; memory can be sketchy. But it was unquestionably the first hits collection I ever bought, and the first non Beatles or Monkees music to get repeat play in my life. A soundtrack for the year 1969 in particular.

How it influenced me: The sound of the last year before I became a teenager. The first record to actively make me aware of the magic of background vocals. A collection of songs I truly, truly could listen to over and over.

5. SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: BOOKENDS and BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (tie)

BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)

BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)

If you become a musician, some influences don’t become apparent to you right away; you might have to work on developing your style and think about the kinds of songs you want to do, before the stylistic touchstones become obvious. I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, and all but their first album were regular spins at our home in Kirkwood. Most of their songs struck me as sad, intimate and evocative, and the musical personality they presented… the tight harmonies, the sometimes quirky lyrics… was vivid and powerful. These two albums affected me about equally, the former for its melancholy musings on the passing of time (“Old Friends,” “Bookends”) and quirky sing-alongs (“Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo”), the latter for its epic production and exhilarating musical dramas (“Cecilia,” “El Condor Pasa,” “The Boxer,” the title track). This was one of a clutch of albums I listened to a great deal with an early girlfriend in 1972; such things stay with you. Years later, I fell in love with a girl actually NAMED Cecilia, and that song became significant in a very personal way. More importantly, Paul Simon’s songwriting stood out for me as artful, impactful stuff, and he is one of the composers I always mention as an influence on my own music and aesthetic.

6. CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: DEJA VU

DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)

DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)

They were called the “first big supergroup,” “the American Beatles” and more. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were not destined to sustain the kind of impact such lofty labels created expectations for, but they made this one incredible studio album as a foursome. It was a 1970 classic, and that year they were omnipresent. Every song was amazing, and the potency of their musical personalities was overwhelming if you were a fan of singer/songwriters. I was, and this album, plus the live album FOUR WAY STREET, essentially planted the seeds of my own desire to write songs. From the iconic cover photo to the peerless harmonies to the counterculture sass, this was an unmissable classic of its time. And that guy Neil…

How it influenced me: The songwriting. The personalities. The times!

7. NEIL YOUNG: HARVEST

HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)

HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)

It’s really not easy picking one Neil Young album for my list. Considering that Neil Young is one of the two most important and influential musicians in my entire life, it seems inadequate to talk about one album. It actually could have been ANY of his first four: the NEIL YOUNG debut, the epic Crazy Horse workout EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE in 1969, the popular fan favorite AFTER THE GOLDRUSH from 1970. All had an impact, but HARVEST was one of my high school soundtracks. I listened to it with my first real girlfriend. I was profoundly affected by Neil’s singing and arrangements throughout, and, quite simply, I was a different person by the time I fully absorbed this album. Neil Young was the first singer/songwriter I claimed as my own, the first to pervade my life and shift my understanding of the craft of songwriting. I memorized everything on this album; it became a huge soundtrack for me. I even liked the orchestration on “There’s a World,” which some reviewers lambasted. Everything in my music life changed after Neil Young; he’s even the artist that got me interested in reading reviews, which then led to my writing career. His influence was profound.

8. PINK FLOYD: MEDDLE

MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)

MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)

If you were in high school in the early to mid-’70s, Pink Floyd were a staple. FM radio played them all the time, and the longhairs and tokers were ALWAYS talking about them. DARK SIDE OF THE MOON was one of the first albums to become a genuine phenomenon, and it was absolutely everywhere when I was in high school. I was intrigued enough by the band to research all their earlier work, and I found their 1971 classic MEDDLE. That’s the one that burrowed into my brain. The trilogy of atmospheric gems on side one: “A Pillow of Winds,” “Fearless” and “San Tropez” stirred me with their smooth vocals, melancholy arrangements and haunted romanticism. I found these tracks more than a little compelling. And, as for “Echoes,” the spacey side-long excursion that graced side two, well, it was the first immersive space rock spectacle I had encountered, a headphone extravaganza for many of us buying our first stereo systems at the time. Progressive rock had arrived, and so had a plethora of mysterious sounds we’d never heard the likes of before, us teens.

How it influenced me: The dawn of headphones-ready space rock, David Gilmour and Rick Wright creating a perfect sonic template to serve Roger Waters’ lyrical ideas, and the important notion that something could be epic and intimate at the same time in music.

9. YES: CLOSE TO THE EDGE

CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)

CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)

And they WERE, too. Close to the edge of sonic possibilities at the time, as evidenced by the side-long title track that pretty much blew everyone’s mind. I didn’t truly listen to Yes with any depth until 1973, but CLOSE TO THE EDGE became a staple. Progressive rock was becoming one of the most popular genres, with Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and others dominating the talk among hardcore music fans at the time. With musicianship on a scale hardly imagined before, Jon Anderson’s soaring voice and “out there” lyrics, and passages of music that were so hypnotic and evocative that they could be said to represent the beginning of the power of “ambient sound” (which would transform my life a few years later), Yes were unrvaveling layers of new possibilities in music. I ate it all up, shared it with friends, and even began trying to memorize some of the more interesting lyrics.

How it influenced me: The mystical, far-reaching “subjects,” the compelling lyrics, the incredible purity of Jon Anderson’s voice, the early ambient sounds.

10. BLACK SABBATH: SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)

I was never much into what was called “heavy metal,” although both Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were huge during my teen years. I have no idea what first got me into Black Sabbath, but I listened to MASTER OF REALITY pretty often with the same girlfriend I mentioned in an early paragraph, and it had a lot of mystery about it. The heaviness of the riffs and the darker themes were quite compelling to me. I started reading some of the reviews of Black Sabbath, and by the time their fifth album came out, I was a senior in high school and a budding amateur musician. There seemed to be something of real substance to SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH to my ears at the time, and I even liked Ozzy Osbourne’s shrill voice. The oddest thing that happened, though, is that I began trying to play a couple of the songs on piano. I’d had a year or so of lessons, and I would occasionally try to just “pick out” chords or melodies from popular songs. Came up with my own versions of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and, inexplicably, “Sabbra Cadabra” from the Black Sabbath album. I was playing controlled double octaves, and I was doing it with all the energy I possessed. I had the structure of this song down pretty well! It got to the point where this was pretty impressive, I suppose, because I played it at a couple of parties and for a number of friends, who always seemed to clap. Inadvertently, Black Sabbath had given me my first taste of what it might be like to be a musician. That’s influential, ain’t it?

11. BRIAN ENO: DISCREET MUSIC

DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)

DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)

In a month or two, I’ll be doing a piece on Brian Eno for this site, so I don’t want to go into undue detail right now. But… people who know me, know that Eno is the single most influential musical artist of my life, just a shade more than Neil Young because of the differing STREAMS of influence he had. This 1975 album was a game changer, to say the least, and of earthshaking importance in my life. Try to imagine what it would be like to have your actual dreams and subconscious memories represented in musical terms. That’s what Eno’s first true “ambient” recording did for me. Consisting of wispy, ethereal, repeating and interweaving synth melodies, what Eno came up with was so new and different that no one really knew what to do with it at the time. I did, though. I listened to it late at night both through headphones and without. I played it any time I had a hangover, and the hangover would miraculously go away. I listened to it when I felt depressed, and I felt that, somehow, there was a force out there that understood me. “Miracle music,” I began to call this stuff, and it launched my lifetime love affair with ambient music. How did it influence me? In every possible way as a music listener. It asked questions that many people are STILL trying to answer. And a whole new world had opened up that I walked into with an open mind and open ears…

12. JONI MITCHELL: HEJIRA

HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)

HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)

By 1976, the legendary Joni Mitchell was exploring jazz stylings more and more in her music, and she was well past the stage of having conventional “hits” (1974’s COURT AND SPARK was her last album to feature anything like that). I’d been a fan, but HEJIRA was more than just a new album by a songwriter I loved; it was a restless travelogue by an artist at the peak of her powers. Songs such as “Amelia” (which referenced ill-fated pilot Amelia Earhart), “Song for Sharon” and “Refuge of the Road” really stirred me with their ruminations on life, memories and uncertainty, and furthered a growing desire I had to write meaningful things myself. If that weren’t enough, I fell in love with a girl not long after this that looked very much LIKE Joni Mitchell, and kind of worshipped her. So, me with my Neil Young obsession and this girl with her Joni fixation, began comparing notes and trading insights on our idols. It was heady stuff, and although it ended badly, this Joni Mitchell album in particular captured something emotionally potent that was not only on the recording itself, but echoed through my own personal life. And the lyrics of that “Refuge of the Roads” song are brilliant and sobering.

13. TELEVISION: MARQUEE MOON

MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)

MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)

Something strange and mysterious was going on in New York City in the mid ’70s, and my cousin Roxanne, who lived there, started talking to me about it. There were a lot of new bands playing at a club called CBGB’s, and Roxanne and I, who were already close partially due to shared letters and phone calls about relationships and the music we loved, began going to that club and others in NYC, regularly. A band called Television was getting a great deal of attention, and I didn’t think too much about this until I went to New York myself in 1977 and got to see them, with my cousin and my brother Kyle along for the experience. There’s a thing that happens when you see a band that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard. You get transported, you have your mind blown, and it expands your reference points for the old sonic vocabulary. Television had two incredible guitarists, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, and the mesmerizing interplay of the two lead guitars, coupled with bizarre, evocative lyrics and Verlaine’s charisma on stage, was unforgettable for anyone who saw the band. The term “new wave” was created to try to label bands like this; “punk” just wasn’t cutting it. These guys were musicians, and they were reaching for something out there that the punk bands couldn’t care less about. Roxanne sang me her favorite lyrics from the band over and over, even my snobby brother was affected, and I was left reeling by yet another brand new rock sound. The MARQUEE MOON album came out later in 1977 and took the indie music scene by storm. Some of the best guitar work ever played was on this album.

How it influenced me: By generating understanding of the far-reaching drama that two electric guitars could generate, seeing the experience of people getting swept away by music in the dingiest of dingy Bowery clubs (at a legendary time in rock music history), and by raising the stakes for underground music, which was also to generate so much press that the mere READING of reviews and articles at this time became an experience unto itself.


WARDRUNA: RUNALJOD – GAP VAR GINNUNGA

(INDIE RECORDINGS; reissue, 2014; original release, 2009)

Wardruna cover

Let’s just get this out of the way upfront. It IS okay to play favorites when you’re a music writer. I wouldn’t believe ANYONE who says they like everything the same; we all have our favorites. And while anyone bold enough to write about music or art in a public forum better at least be open-minded, it is normal and human to be drawn to certain things more than others. A whole host of factors determine one’s personal aesthetic and predilections, and these generally change as you grow older. So I just wanted to say all this by way of explaining my delirious response to the Norwegian group Wardruna. I’m well known for loving Scandinavian music, especially what comes out of Norway and the rustic forests of Finland. I also tend to love anything that’s weird and unclassifiable, and I am an avowed ambient music fanatic. So, imagine how enthralling it must be for me to encounter this Norse trio, who are plenty weird, plenty ambient, and absolutely committed to their quest to conjure up a sound that evokes old Viking mythology, the darkness along ancient rocky shores, and the fiery passions of a people so tied to a beautiful, cold, mountainous land far away that nothing else matters except their homes, their families, their lifestyle and their surroundings. The sound of this recording is not “unearthly” per se, although some may call it such. What it IS, though, is wild, untamed, eerie, primal, awe-inspiring and deeply mysterious. Parts of it sound like bits of the score from the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (it’s well-known that composer Howard Shore drew from Norse mythology for some elements of LOTR), parts are reminiscent of Dead Can Dance (only superficially, though) and most of it is rich in the traditional folk stylings of Norway’s boundless musical past.

Wardruna performs at Vikingskipshuset (The Viking Ship Museum) in Oslo  Norway, 2010 (photo credit: wardruna.com)

Wardruna performs at Vikingskipshuset (The Viking Ship Museum) in Oslo Norway, 2010 (photo credit: wardruna.com)

So, who is behind this spellbinding sound? Let’s meet them, shall we? The chief visionary is Einar Kvitrafn Selvik, who apparently writes everything and plays most of the instruments, along with his deep-register vocalizing. Lindy-Fay Hella is the woman in the group, and she contributes amazing, much needed female vocals. And Gaahl is credited on vocals and “conceptual contributions.” This GAP VAR GINNUNGA project is part one of a planned trilogy about runes. What’s that, you ask? Let’s just quote right from the group’s website here: “The ongoing RUNALJOD trilogy is a musical rendition of the 24 runes in what is often referred to as the Elder Futhark. Some of the recordings are done outdoors in places or under circumstances of significance to each rune. Wardruna primarily use old and historical instruments such as primitive deer-hide frame drums, kraviklyra, tagelharpe, mouth harp, goat horn, lur and more. Non-traditional instruments and other sources of sound like trees, rocks, water and torches are also used.” Are you better prepared now, listeners? Well, I doubt it, because no description is truly apt for the mighty, immersive, sonic grandeur this trio has forged. And lemme tell you, “forged” is a better word than something as bland as “recorded.” You don’t sit down and “record” stuff like this. You sculpt and chisel it out of the very foundation of your SOUL, using materials tied more to the earth than anything the average musician picks up. The vocal incantations, drones, ancient horns, percussive THUMPS and thoroughly mysterious other instruments take you to another time, another place, a dreamscape so far away from your normal reality that you can’t believe it exists out there. This is a history lesson without the names or events, a trip to an exotic place without having to drive, fly or sail, an experience in unbridled passion without having to touch or question the motivations of your partner. Wardruna are making living, breathing, stirring musical art that anyone with even mildly adventurous musical taste should revel in. It’s unforgettable, music that is at one with the ancient power of nature in a manner unattainable by most recordings.

Wardruna (Lindy-Fay and Kvitrafn) (publicity photo)

Wardruna (Lindy-Fay and Kvitrafn) (publicity photo)

And listen, picking out individual song titles is not particularly relevant in this case. It’s all of a piece, one track flowing into the next. The titles are in Norse anyway: “Hagal,” “Bjarkan,” “Jara,” “Laukr,” et cetera. Speaking of “Laukr,” by the time I got to that eighth track, I was already so deliriously grateful for what this group had laid down for us that I knew the kind of review I was going to write. This music renders most adjectives inadequate. Wardruna have power, majesty, the singular intent of all the best art, the confidence that what they are embarking on is more than worthy, and the musical skill to capture the organic ebb and flow common to the best listening experiences. This stuff isn’t for you if you only like pop or rock and roll. But if you liked being STIRRED, haunted and enthralled by music and the mysteries of life, check out Wardruna. You will NOT forget what you hear. Oh, and Norway? You keep raising the bar SO high for interesting aural creations, what are the rest of them out there gonna do? Not your problem, though… just keep on being beautiful, provocative and wildly yourself, dear. Some of us appreciate you a ton, and we’ll see to it that only the most DESERVING get to experience your secrets.


SARA RENAR: JESEN (AUTUMN)

(AQUARIUS RECORDS EP; Croatian import; 2014)

Sara Renar cover

Reviewing a singer/songwriter from another country, singing tunes in their native language, pretty much forces you to concentrate on the pure sound of their offerings, since you can’t follow along with the lyrics. Although I have listened to a fair amount of unique stuff from Europe, Sara Renar is the first singer I’ve listened to from Croatia. So I don’t have many reference points for her 7-song EP titled AUTUMN, or JESEN in her native tongue. I certainly wasn’t expecting a somber 2-minute ambient instrumental to kick things off. The title track was a bit plodding and not very original, but “Trag” was a bit more interesting, repetitive in a good way and using its two-chord simplicity to good effect. Another mid tempo vocal track, then a rather delicate piano and guitar instrumental called “Post Sezona” pretty much lets you know you’re listening to something rather unusual, aesthetically speaking. “Razmak” offers another surprise by beginning with squiggly sounding synth and drum machine and actual lyrics in English. But lest you get too comfortable, Renar switches back to her native Croatian, although the arrangement and feel of this track are so lithe and appealing by this point, you don’t really care. It’s a strong, energetic track. Things close out with an a cappella version of the title track, with two different vocal lines competing for your attention. It’s striking, and a good reminder of how much power the simple human voice can have when singing with conviction and this kind of potent drama. Renar has emotions to spare, and it’s a real kick to hear her going full tilt like this. I didn’t really need to know WHAT she was singing, I could simply tell SHE was into it, and that was enough.

Sara Renar (photo credit: DOONJA DOPSAJ)

Sara Renar (photo credit: DOONJA DOPSAJ)

Hard to say if Renar is an important artist on the basis of this EP, but one thing’s for sure, it does NOT follow a predictable formula. It’s a burst of somewhat nervous energy, with an exploratory feel, and it is curiously asexual in nature. Mostly, I liked it. I hope her next full-length will answer some of the questions that, creatively, this disc leaves hanging.


HELDON: ALLEZ-TEIA

(SUPERIOR VIADUCT/URUS RECORDS/DISJUNCTA RECORDS; vinyl only reissue, 2014; original release, 1975)

HELDON cover

No matter how much you follow music, no matter how well you think you know a certain genre, you can always be surprised by something previously unfamiliar. I am a long-time devotee of ambient and electronica, always have been, but somehow Heldon escaped my notice. The French prog-tronica pioneers made a clutch of well-received discs in the ’70s, and founder Richard Pinhas has released a ton of discs under his own name since then, as well as various collaborations with Merzbow, Pascal Comelade, John Livengood and others. But until this reissue of their amazing 1975 album, ALLEZ-TEIA (their second effort), I’d never heard of either Heldon or Richard Pinhas. That’s a shame, ’cause this is amazing, hypnotic stuff. In the early to mid-’70s, new and powerful sounds were beginning to permeate the fields of prog and electronica. With European artists such as Can, Neu, Kraftwerk and Cluster changing the sonic landscape, the possibilities for modern music expanded a hundredfold. Brian Eno and Robert Fripp blew more than a few minds with their static early ambient explorations on NO PUSSYFOOTING and EVENING STAR, and that’s a good starting point to talk about the music on ALLEZ-TEIA. The opening track is even called “In the Wake of King Fripp,” showing the group’s reverence not only for Fripp’s early innovations on guitar, but his continuing sojourns with King Crimson, obviously one of the most important progressive bands of that era. Another track,”Moebius,” is undoubtedly named after Dieter Moebius, one of the founding members of German electronic pioneers Cluster.

Heldon (Richard Pinhas and Georges Grunblatt) (uncredited photo)

Heldon (Richard Pinhas and Georges Grunblatt) (uncredited photo)

That Fripp and Eno sound, particularly as heard on EVENING STAR, is overtly referenced here; no attempt is made to hide how much Heldon loves the evocative but sometimes brittle sound Fripp conjured, especially when Eno got ahold of those repetitive tape loops and put entrancing layers of twinkly synths below them. In “Omar Diop Blondin,” anyone but the most avid Fripp connossieur would guess it was the maestro himself playing here, so close is the patented Frippertronic sound to what’s going on; the song, in fact, is dedicated to the pioneering ambient duo. But Pinhas starts playing this hypnotic little 5 or 6-note repeating sequence that the showier electric guitar glides and buzzes above in flashy style, and then something genuinely unique results. I’m surprised by how nostalgic this stuff makes me for an era long gone. The 12-minute “Fluence,” a slowly building classic of ’70s sequencer/synth trance, has an organic purity to it that sucks you right in; it never calls too much attention to any of its components the way a lot of overproduced similar stuff of later decades tended to do. And “Saint-Mikael… ” (the title is actually much longer than that, but I’ll spare you from the unwieldiness of it), probably the penultimate track here, is just smashing, an intimate close dance between guitar and ambient synth that truly wants to make you float away in relaxed ecstasy. The surprising switch to dual acoustic guitars at roughly the 7-minute mark is wondrous; in fact, Heldon’s use of acoustic guitars on a few tracks is evidently something of a rarity in their early recorded work.

Heldon (Georges Grunblatt and Richard Pinhas) (uncredited photo)

Heldon (Georges Grunblatt and Richard Pinhas) (uncredited photo)

One thing’s for sure; this music deserves to be heard. Pinhas and company had not only the chops, but the understanding of what makes trancey instrumental music work: the mood created, the graceful interplay of the instruments (so important when you’re dealing with technology that can be cold or overly detached sounding), and good editing instincts. This isn’t a long album, and it’s actually quite a breezy listen; even non prog-tronica fans could enjoy it. Nor does it sound dated, even though its references are mostly from decades past. ALLEZ-TEIA is highly recommended for any fans of that early ’70s electronic music genre; it’s a work of great, to use a word King Crimson loves, discipline. And for me, an Eno and ambient fanatic, this disc was a genuine revelation. It’s something I look forward to hearing multiple times, and I definitely don’t always say that about reissues like this.


DONATO DOZZY: DIMENSIONS

(MENTAL GROOVE RECORDS 12” vinyl EP; 2014)

Donato Dozzy Dimensions

This EP is a reissue of a 2006 recording by the multi-talented Italian DJ and techno producer who has released a plethora of works on many different labels, and is known for an interest in the trippy, psychedelic side of electronica (a style combining acid, techno and ambient). Rather than boring you with facts about Dozzy’s two-decades-plus long career, I’ll just describe these two tracks, which are fairly representative of at least the stuff I have heard by him: hypnotically repetitious, danceable (if you’re into that), and somewhat edgy. Most listeners of techno, ambient techno, or name-that-subgenre of electronica don’t care what the instrumentation is, only the result matters. What you want in this kind of music is something that serves up a potent groove, builds an atmosphere, and engages other parts of your anatomy than just your footsies.

Donato Dozzy (uncredited photo)

Donato Dozzy (uncredited photo)

These two tracks succeed in doing just that. “Gol” is the more interesting piece, with a pinging synth in the foreground, steady mechanized percussion, and percolating sonics moving in and out of the mix. The central groove is a strong one here; this is a ride you WANT to take. Halfway through, the ambient washes become pronounced and rather evocative, adding aural color in a way that complements the danceable tempo. This would be just about a perfect track for a ride to the store about three miles away, and its consistent edge makes it pretty damn engrossing. “Fazah,” a slightly shorter track, commences with some nice neo-tribal rhythm programming, wiry undercurrents laced with periodic crashes and whizzy sound effects, and ghostly, ambient pads that punctuate the mix just often enough to diversify the texture. Which is good, because the beat turns 4/4 dancefloor stomp pretty early on, and that’s fine if you wanna dance but would grow tedious if those other sounds weren’t there. At any rate, this EP is a nice, economical burst of energy that demands little but serves up just the tasty, tantalizing techno tidbits you didn’t know you were craving. This kind of music is sometimes best experienced in immersive but reasonably timed chunks like this, and as such, DIMENSIONS is, well, of just the right dimensions to please most casual electronica buffs.