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Instrumental Music

JOE OLNICK: WINK OF AN EYE

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

You gotta have patience to appreciate straight drone music. You know that expression people commonly use where someone talks too much? They’ll say of the party in question, “Oh he just drones on and on… ” In other words, someone is making a repetitive noise that someone else quickly gets tired of. Many listeners would say that about a lot of ambient music, especially the sub-genre that is primarily drone-based. But as a devoted ambient acolyte, I appreciate a good immersive drone, and Joe Olnick offers three of them on this here self-released outing. Olnick is a guitarist and producer mostly known for a sort of rock/funk/jazz hybrid that his Joe Olnick Band traffics in (“Funky Traffic” and “Downtown” earned spins on college radio). But he also digs ambient, and has been exploring the possibilities of what the guitar can do when, well, you process the shit out of it so it doesn’t hardly sound like a guitar anymore. WINK OF AN EYE apparently began as brief sections borrowed from an earlier ambient recording called BRIGHT PAINTINGS, and Olnick used what he calls “advanced processing techniques” to conjure up some layered space music.

There are only 3 pieces on this disc, curiously titled “Slow Funky Buildings,” “Slow Bright Buildings” and “Slow Modern Buildings.” All three are, you got it, slow. These are drones that can work as background ambience, and they are pleasant and captivating enough to hold your attention should you choose to pay it. But you won’t be suddenly bombarded by rude sonic bursts of weirdness, either. The “Slow Funky” track is most assuredly NOT funky… it’s made of subtly changing soundwaves that might remind you of a wild seashore, where the water comes into shore dramatically and then recedes. “Waves” is really the best word to describe this stuff. Not that much happens, but it’s still hypnotic. At 26 minutes, the “Slow Bright” track is longest, and it starts off more abrasive and metallic than its predecessor. I was reminded of Fripp and Eno’s “An Index of Metals,” only not as ominous as that opus. Olnick is not out to unnerve anyone; this really seems to be an exercise in how ambient a guitar can get when you manipulate the output very thoroughly. The answer? VERY ambient. You could possibly drift off to sleep with this one, although I wouldn’t call it “serene” or anything. “Slow Modern Buildings” does approach a kind of serenity, though. It’s a modest 11 minutes long, and turns the “evocative” dial up to at least “7.” You could take chunks of this piece and use ‘em in some arty indie film or documentary about wild places. Without any such context? You basically get a Joe Olnick ambient drone trio, which will be enough for some of us. No less than the legendary Robert Rich mastered this recording, which should tell you two things: One, it sounds terrific and enveloping, and two, Rich thought highly enough of the sonic excursions here to put his name on them.

JOE OLNICK (publicity photo)

You could say of virtually ANY ambient disc, “it’s not for everyone.” And this may bore non aficionados, for sure. But there is something very comfortable and unassuming about Olnick’s relaxed space music; he offers it up with the confidence that some folks will find it worthwhile. Olnick is NOT one of those artists who simply “drones on and on” without purpose. He’s got plenty of other things on his plate, but knowing he is into at least the occasional drone-fest makes WINK OF AN EYE rather special. I was a contented participant in the conversation that Olnick started with this release.

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES: INVASION

(SELF-RELEASED; 2019) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

John William Lowery, better known as John 5, currently plays guitar for both Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie and even logged time with David Lee Roth in the late ‘90s. His solo spans some fifteen years and nine studio albums, beginning with VERTIGO in 2004. His latest release with his band, the Creatures, INVASION is the topic of this review.

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5, Logan Miles Nix, Ian Ross) (publicity photo)

The album’s title track opens with some percussion and the eerie sound of wind whistling through the darkness; the creepy vibe almost reminds me of a Rob Zombie project, with its dark, percussion-fueled sound. A filtered guitar with a phaser slides over the top, playing a simple melody ‘til the end. All in all, the tune sets a good tone for the album. “I am John 5” starts with a robotic voice repeating “I am John 5” over and over again before the blistering lead kicks, something we’ve all come to expect from John 5. The tune shifts to the chorus, then into another solo section, even faster than the first and up an octave. The song breaks into a really groovy clean section with a funk feel and back into another phenomenal solo, extremely clean and distorted. This song is incredible! John does instrumental songs and albums as good as, if not better than some of the accepted greats (Satriani, Vai, Gilbert, Malmsteen). A badass riff kicks off “Midnight Mass.” The drumming on this one is also not to be overlooked… Logan Miles Nix is a monster on the kit. The song is an incredibly good metal track, even looking past the soloing (which, as always, is brilliant and super technical); it sounds like a cross between groove and extreme metal. The second half of the tune has the best riff and best soloing, as John breaks up the shred style for a minute, adopting a blistering Blues style that’s definitely killer. “Zoinks,” the only song I’d heard from the album before I sat to listen to the whole thing, is my favorite John 5 song to date and is VERY close to my favorite instrumental guitar piece of all time. It has everything you could possibly want: It begins with an amazing, slapping bass riff from Ian Ross that has enough pop and funk to make Flea jealous before moving into a section that sees John incorporating shred and sweeps and tapping into the overall melody; repetition of this part throughout the song is what won me over. About two and a half minutes in, the number breaks as the slapping part comes back heavy before John tears into a high speed solo with a really cool ascending and descending lick and a ridiculous sweep at the end before heading back to the original melody shortly before the end of the track. “Howdy” explores John’s “chicken pickin’” abilities. For those that are unfamiliar, chicken pickin’ incorporates your middle finger, ring finger and pinky finger, as well as a pick in your strumming hand to play extremely complex (usually Country or banjo-style) licks on the guitar. It’s extremely difficult and there are only a couple guitarists within the world of metal music who can do it well. As an avid banjo player, John 5 is one of the few. Along with the chicken pickin’, John adds some “traditional” Country licks over the two-step Country beat, very reminiscent of Les Paul and Chet Atkins. The tune also features a harmonic section in the middle that is really cool. About two minutes in, we’re hit with a VERY Les Paul-inspired section of licks that is beyond cool. After, the beat speeds up extremely fast and John breaks out an actual banjo! What a cool song!

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5 playing with Rob Zombie, 2016) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The album’s second half kicks off with “Crank It”/“Living With Ghosts,” which has a very strange sound indeed, sort of metal mixed with EDM at the start; when the melody/solo comes in, it’s just an absolute showcase of 5’s abilities. He does such a good job bringing the solo to you in a way that doesn’t feel excessive. It is incredible! The middle section between the two tunes slows things down with a clean section leading into a heavy, dirty rhythm guitar as John goes into a slow melodic solo with a wicked two guitar harmony section. There’s more insanity as the soloing heats up. The song ends after one more round of the dark, slower part. “Cactus Flower” opens with a quote from the Stephen King movie CARRIE and goes into a very different direction than anything we have heard so far on this album: The guitar sound is cleaner, the pace slower. It’s a great song for allowing yourself to drift away… super moody and great at evoking emotions, making you feel what John was trying to convey. The opening salvo of “I Want It All,” an arpeggio sweeping lick into a very intricate sliding lick, just shows how absurdly talented and amazing John 5 really is. The song dropped my jaw a couple times; as a guitar player, I’m in shock… it definitely showcases John’s abilities. Nestled toward the end of an album of killer music, “I Want It All” is a must listen. John throws a talk box in throughout the song, intoning the track’s title whenever there’s a break from the soloing. The main riff is full of everything you could want: Emotion, shred, distortion, unbridled technical prowess… just a killer track, an absolute GEM for any guitar player or fan of guitar instrumentals. To this reviewer’s ears, “I Like the Funk” almost sounds Tom Morello-inspired, FULL of that man’s emotion and undeniable groove. It’s got plenty of wah, pop and slapping, with some moments of absolute killer shred and insane bends that just make you… move. There’s a really awesome section at about 2:50 in, a call and response with a sample of a female singer (Lisa Forman) saying/chanting “I like the funk” and 5 just RIPPING licks afterwords. As a point of interest, Cinderella’s Fred Coury plays drums on the cut. The last song on the album is “Constant Sorrow,” a cover of the folk classic “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” written by Dick Burnett in 1913 and first recorded by Emry Arthur in 1928; it’s the song that George Clooney’s character sings in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?. Side note: My favorite version comes from a 2002 live Alison Krauss and Union Station. If you’ve never heard of Union Station, PLEASE PLEASE go check them out; they play Bluegrass and Country and are incredibly talented and woefully underrated. The song’s appearance here is John 5 paying tribute to the tune’s message and staying power. As always, John’s version is full of technical wizardry and skillful playing. I don’t know what more I can say about it; it is a solid instrumental cover and a really cool way to close out this album.

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5) (publicity photo)

If you have the time, sit yourself down and give the whole thing a listen. There is not a bad song on this album. I loved it! Every second is something worth hearing. If there is a complaint, it would be this: I would have liked to hear him slow things down just a bit more; I feel like those slower moments are the ones that make it original, setting it apart from other people. All in all, though, a solid 9 out of 10 and one of my favorite guitar albums ever. If you ever had any doubts about John 5’s talents, this record goes a long way in showing that he really is an incredible musician, one of the best guitarists on planet earth. He’s made great progress with these solo albums, with his playing maturing and changing, while still maintaining his original style. So, what are you waiting for? Check it out!

WEEKS ISLAND: DROSTE

(SELF-RELEASED DIGITAL EP; 2020)

All musical genres evolve and change, no matter what they started as. When Brian Eno coined the term “ambient” for the dreamy, drifty sound he became enamored with in the mid-’70s, it would have been impossible for him to imagine the different directions this stuff would go in over the next nearly half a century. APOLLO, the absolute ambient classic Eno created with his brother Roger and producing partner Daniel Lanois in 1983, found Lanois doing a strange thing: Introducing the pedal steel into otherwise spacey, Eno-esque soundscapes. It was an attempt to comment on astronauts reported fondness for traditional country music. Although viewed as sacrilege by ambient purists, somehow this new and unfamiliar blend worked.

Jonny Campos of Weeks Island (an ambient side project for the guitarist in Cajun band the Lost City Ramblers) was listening. He has just released DROSTE, a 5-track EP that features pedal steel and atmospheric background drone that removes almost every trace of anything you’d call “country.” This is meandering, often haunting ambience that makes a statement without wearing out its welcome. “Raccoon Island” could be the soundtrack for a couple lost in a swamp somewhere, evoking a non-panicky sort of displaced feeling, very much of the background-ish aesthetic that good ambient music excels at. “Fleur Pond” is more sparse but still gently cinematic, with Campos playing his chosen notes with definite deliberation. “Bayou La Chute” doesn’t vary too much, but the bending of a single string upward or downward adds drama and an evocation of being pretty far away from any familiar scenic touchstones. Curiously, this stuff is more purely ambient than Lanois’ diversions on the previously mentioned APOLLO. “Cybrien Bay” adds a repeating low-register tone for something a shade more intense and it contrasts nicely with Campos’ by now characteristic fluid pedal-steel flourishes. And the piece never makes it to the 3-minute mark, The opening “Point Fortuna” is nearly twice as long and represents Campos’ intention here the most memorably.

WEEKS ISLAND (Jonny Campos) (photo credit: WILL HAGAN)

With any sort of weird ambient music, it’s a given that it’s an “acquired taste.” But this is actually a nice little surprise… short, purposeful and totally authentic in its aims to create a southern-tinged atmospheric mini-set that has ambient textures but with pedal steel and the processing of it at the forefront. Let’s keep an eye and an ear on Jonny Campos; he’s demonstrated that he has a feel for this stuff, and meatier works may be in the offing down the road.

JON HASSELL: VERNAL EQUINOX

(NDEYA RECORDS; 2020 reissue)

Some artists stubbornly resist pigeonholing. I could put any number of Jon Hassell records on (and I have a fair number) at a social gathering, and I’d bet that at least one listener would come up and say, “What the heck is THIS?” It’s strange music, that’s all. And being helpful by saying “it occupies a space between ambient, Miles Davis-type jazz and world music” may or may not prepare the uninitiated. Hassell himself would eventually start branding his recordings as “Fourth World,” to signify a kind of foreign, multi-ethnic sound that, while centered around his very distinct trumpet style, would also take you somewhere new. A sort of “traditional” sound from a country that doesn’t truly exist.

JON HASSELL (David Rosenboom, Jon Hassell in 1977) (uncredited photo)

His first official album was VERNAL EQUINOX, which initially came out in 1977. It has now been remastered and reissued on Hassell’s own label. It’s kind of a disorienting little beast of a record, but it was original enough to catch the ears of Brian Eno, who wrote liner notes for this edition. Eno, of course, would go on to collaborate with Hassell on POSSIBLE MUSICS in 1980, and to produce a few records for the artist after that. For whatever it might illustrate, the noted music website Pitchfork included VERNAL EQUINOX as one of their “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” (it was listed at #47). And the evocative, often spacious quality of Hassell’s compositions does indeed fit comfortably into an ambient (albeit the edgy reaches of the genre) mode.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Most of the six pieces here are exotic, a bit misty-sounding and in thrall to the otherworldly timbre of Hassell’s trumpet. The instrument is sometimes processed to sound either partially muted, or vaporous, wafting through the air of whatever planet it’s coming from. “Viva Shona” features birdsong and sparse background instrumentation, the trumpet placed front and center. “Hex” lets Hassell carry on a very distinctive conversation, his tones developing in such a lively manner that you listen close to catch the amazing process as it evolves. What sounds like rainstick and bass adorns the background. Most listeners will be especially riveted by the two centerpiece tracks “Blues Nile” and the title track. The former piece gives us a slightly distorted, granular-sounding drone over which Hassell delivers sonic bursts that sound for all the world like a warning or “call to attention” for the citizens of an alien culture. Could be a pending invasion from that tribe over the hill! The clear separation between the trumpet and the sharp-edged drone is dramatic and compelling. Around the climax of the piece, Hassell lets loose a series of notes going up and down the scale of his chosen key, and you’ll likely stop whatever you’re doing to listen closely. As for the nearly 22-minute “Vernal Equinox,” it’s thoroughly engrossing, setting up a sparse but hypnotic landscape of background drone, hand drumming and a casually meandering trumpet, as though Hassell were patiently walking a lush rainforest trail, stopping to observe here and there but recording his observations in music with great passion at appropriate intervals. It’s a marvel, this track. I can only imagine the reactions of listeners encountering it for the first time. Things finish off with the short closer “Caracas Night,” with nocturnal nature sounds and some Miles-style blowing to bid you adieu in a slightly more traditional manner. It’s not a long album, this outing, but it will definitely make you feel like you’ve been somewhere.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Hassell’s later outings with Eno would bring him more acclaim (POWER SPOT is one of those distinct offerings), and there is more textural richness on the dramatically titled THE SURGEON OF THE NIGHT SKY RESTORES DEAD THINGS BY THE POWER OF SOUND and DREAM THEORY IN MALAYA, to name just a couple of gems. But it started here, with …EQUINOX. He’s a genuinely visionary player who took a much featured instrument and did things with it no one had ever done before. That takes a special kind of musicality and love of exploration that should certainly be celebrated.

4U: A SYMPHONIC CELEBRATION OF PRINCE

(October 14, 2018; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

Celebrity deaths are not new and I tend to ponder such passings for only a short time before moving on. Exceptions, of course, do happen. The first that really – make that REALLY – affected me was the plane crash that took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s entourage. Groucho Marx, a couple of months earlier, was big but… the deaths and the devastation to the entire Skynyrd band shook me. Others – Glen Buxton, Rick Nelson, Johnnie Johnson, Johnny Cash, David Bowie – all had profound affects on me, as did the untimely deaths of three musicians I had considered friends: God Lives Underwater vocalist David Reilly, and drummers Dustin Hengst and John “Beatz” Holohan of Damone and Bayside, respectively. With all of these (and a few others), my personal feeling of loss was palpable. All of them pale, however, to the majestic hole left by the departure of Prince Rogers Nelson in April, 2016. He always seemed to be so relatable. Not just to me or his legions of fans, but to those outside of his music’s scope, as well. Heck, even my Dad sat through and liked PURPLE RAIN. So, this was an evening that I knew I must be a part of. I was not disappointed!

4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (JAMES OLMSTEAD) (photo courtesy: JEN GRAY/ReviesSTL)

The show was delivered in two parts, as the project’s curator, the Roots’ Questlove, announced (via a recorded introduction). The first would highlight “deep cuts,” while the second half would feature the hits. The deep cuts came mostly from the movie UNDER THE CHERRY MOON. While the material – “Christopher Tracy’s Parade,” “I Wonder U,” “New Position,” among them – are fairly unknown to me, as I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, but having been arranged and orchestrated by Clare Fischer, they, seemingly, were no-brainers for this show. In a brilliant move, Quest had approached Fischer’s son, Brent, as he had worked with his father on several Prince projects. The first half also featured fairly different takes on songs like “Controversy” and the 1999 album cuts “Automatic” and “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” Complete surprises were the unreleased compositions “It Ain’t Over ‘til the Fat Lady Sings” and “All My Dreams,” leftovers from the UNDER THE CHERRY MOON sessions. More than twenty minutes into the show, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first song that I really recognized straight off. I certainly don’t mean to slight the talented band accompanying the orchestra; however, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first time that one of the group stepped forward for any type of sustained exposure as electric violinist Ginny Luke delivered a brilliant solo. For the first time, “1999” got some folks on their feet, shaking off the staid, almost sterile orchestra feel of the evening. Miss Luke, likewise, was on her feet, delivering the first minimal vocals of the evening, as well as a bit of booty shakin’ of her own. Bassist CJ Alexander, drummer Skeeter, electronic percussionist Titus Johnson and a still unidentified guitarist, steadfast all night long, seemed energized by the crowd, pushing into new heights of rocking funkiness. If this first half dealt us a somewhat laid-back take on the Prince legacy until the end, that ending certainly did bode well for part two.

4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (CJ ALEXANDER) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (THE UNKNOWN GUITARIST) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Totally eschewing that “stay in your seat, this is an orchestra” stuff, as “Let’s Go Crazy” kicked off part two and the front of the stage was crashed by a slew of hearty revellers. A Prince-worthy solo by Luke ended the number. “When Doves Cry” turned into a massive sing-along, with the Fabulous Fox crowd raising their voices as one. It was, for me, the first truly moving moment of the evening, though certain ly not the last. As Ginny Luke became more involved with the crowd, I mentally noted that she had turned into quite the show-stopper. “Little Red Corvette” sounded like it was made to be played in this orchestrated fashion. Mister Alexander delivered an absolutely amazing bass solo and the guitarist (does ANYBODY know this guy’s name?) definitely proved his funky mettle. The inherent funkiness of His Royal Purpleness continued on a cool version of “Kiss.” Though an odd choice (in my opinion) of “Starfish and Coffee” kinda slowed things down at just the right time before spilling into a majestic “Take Me With U.” A snippet of “Irresistible Bitch” followed before morphing into “Raspberry Beret.” The symphony took over for an incredible interlude that led into… the Revolution doing “Purple Rain?” Yes, at this point, the live band sat out and let the legendary moment from PURPLE RAIN speak for itself. Though we had being seeing images and visual cues of Prince all night, his voice literally (and, yes, I have used that word properly) sent a chill down my spine, put a lump in my throat and brought a tear to my eye. In fact, there were several audience members wiping away the tears during this one. The orchestra continued to accompany as Prince’s solo hit. It is, without any doubt in my head, one of the greatest, most soulful guitar workouts in the history of rock, funk, soul or any other genre of music. As the live band joined in, the already overwhelming emotions merely intensified. It was a brilliant finish to an absolutely stunning show! But, wait… after most of the musicians had quit the stage, the video screens came alive again, with the Man himself delivering those familiar words: “I ain’t done yet. Chalk one up for the Kid!” As Prince and the Revolution launched into “Baby I’m a Star” before the band and orchestra joined in amidst an insane light show. While the tune and the presentation was cool, it almost seemed anti-climactic after the stirring “Purple Rain.” My thanks go to Questlove and the Prince Trust for bringing this vision to life and for the band, conductor James Olmstead and the local musicians of the orchestra for an unforgettable evening celebrating the one, the only Prince.

4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (PRINCE) (uncredited photo)

CINEMATIK: CINEMATIK; ONE FULL MOON AWAY

(KACHINA RECORDS; 2001; 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

CINEMATIK (Neal Smith, Peter Catucci, Robert Mitchell) (photo credit: TONY LOEW)

Famed Alice Cooper percussionist Neal Smith has lent his name to many projects since the demise of that storied outfit some four-and-a-half decades ago – from the sublime (Billion Dollar Babies, Bouchard Dunaway and Smith) to the ridiculous (the big noise, hair metal of Ded Ringer) to the ridiculously sublime (Plasmatics and his own 1975 solo album, PLATINUM GOD). I’m not exactly sure where this project falls; it’s kind of a “musician’s project,” with textures generally unexplored in any of Neal’s other work. There are hints of the old Cooper sound, particularly a descending riff that spirals through “Temple Mental,” a tune from Cinematik’s eponymous debut. Much of Neal’s work on the trio’s two albums involves African and tribal percussion instruments rather than the standard “rock guy” drum kit that most of us associate with the “platinum God.”

Though there are touches of the old Neal Smith sound, much of the music is very… uh… cinematic. Neal’s bandmates, bassist/vocalist Peter Catucci and guitarist/vocalist Robert Mitchell, create an almost orchestral feel, allowing the understated percussion to flow through the (mostly) instrumental material of CINEMATIK and ONE FULL MOON AWAY, rather than drive the tunes forward. Occasionally, subtlety and power mean the same thing. That is never more evident than on the beautiful instrumental, “Awake,” a song from the first album. With Peter’s minimal use of the didgeridoo and his quietly throbbing bass and Neal’s less-is-more approach (on what sounds like either a tom-tom or a small hand drum and a tambourine) on the evocative Native American percussion, Robert weaves an elegant, slightly jazz-flavored guitar over, under, and through the tune leaving you spellbound. Peter’s didgeridoo comes to the fore a little more forcefully on the rather loopy, jazzy hip-hop of “Reckon Eyes.” Other high points of the first disc are “Nude Ellie,” the somehow transcendent “African Clay,” and the doom-heavy “Even In Sleep.” Peter Hickey guests on keyboards on “Nude Ellie” and “African Clay,” the latter of which also features a vocal performance by Maximillian Catucci; Grace Loew adds cello to the tune “Grace Beach.” I know that somebody somewhere is going to call the music of CINEMATIK “New Age.” If they do (or even if it looks like they’re thinking it), smack ’em! They deserve it (plus… they won’t hit ya back cuz they’re all peaceful and at one with self and universe… or some mumbo-jumbo crap like that)!

ONE FULL MOON AWAY pretty much picks up right where CINEMATIK left off, but tends to rock a bit more (maybe due to an unsolicited “New Age” tag-line haunting the guys from the first album). “Incognito” borders on rock and roll more than just about anything else on either release, with a “JAMES BOND” kinda vibe and the trio expanding their sound to include – among other things – a sax (provided by Klyph Johnson). Robert adds a little bit of Frippertronics-style guitar sound washes through-out the disc, all to good effect. This album also features more vocal tracks and more harmony and backing vocals than the first. Plus – inadvertent or homage – there are tracks that virtually scream “Alice Cooper!” The hypnotic “Million To One” is very reminiscent of “Halo of Flies.” In a slightly less chaotic fashion, of course. With Robert and Peter splitting lead vocal duties, I’m never quite sure who’s singing what, but I must say that one of the guys has definitely picked up a stylish Joe Walsh kind of phrasing, put to good use on “Unfrozen,” among others. The Native American percussion is back on a track called “Amorak,” but the over-all sound of the track is very spooky… a kind of swirling eddy of darkness. “Euriffodes” (sound it out and you’ll get the little inside joke) is an excuse for Neal to play a standard (if smaller than usual) drum-kit and for Robert to… ROCK OUT! The track is, possibly, the guys showing everybody that Steve Howe and Yes aren’t the only people who can pull off a song like this. Other high spots include the trippy “Murder In the Moon” and the percussion heavy Middle-Eastern fusion of the final track, “Simplas Childernz.” Peter adds the violin, clay flute, and berimbau to his instrumental onslaught, while guest players help to flesh out the sound: Grace Loew returns on cello, Rob Fraboni adds shaker to the goofy “Wolfman’s Holiday,” and Klyph Johnson is all over the place with his already noted sax work, as well as the occasional bassoon.

NEAL SMITH (photo credit: JIM SIATRAS)

Listening to the albums back-to-back, I’d have to give the nod to CINEMATIK on atmosphere alone, though the more up-tempo ONE FULL MOON AWAY definitely is worth obtaining, as well. It has been a while since these albums were released (they are copyrighted 2001 and 2002), and the three members have all gone on to other projects (most notably, Neal’s return to the rock arena with Joe Bouchard and Dennis Dunaway and Peter’s work on the Garrison Project album). However, the music that these three men make together is truly amazing. I, for one, am hoping for a third release from Cinematik.

JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS: GUILTY OF INNOCENCE

(MELODIC REVOLUTION RECORDS; 2017)

The music of Stratospheerius is a frenzied, brilliant amalgam of the Blues, Progressive Rock, Funk, improvisational Jazz, Classical and orchestral music, along with just about any other genre or sub-genre you can come up with. I’m not sure, but… there may also be a bit of the kitchen sink in there somewhere. Led by virtuoso violinist Joe Deninzon, a man sometimes referred to as “the Jimi Hendrix of the electric violin,” the quartet comes closest in spirit – if not in actual sonic delivery – to the early music (through, say, 1976’s ZOOT ALLURES) of Frank Zappa and his various groups. The resultant sound is a chaotic rush of genuine (and genius) eclecticism. There is certainly more than a little of something for everyone on the band’s fifth release, GUILTY OF INNOCENCE.

JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS (Aurelien Budynek, Joe Deninzon, Lucianna Padmore, Jamie Bishop) (uncredited photo)

The record kicks off with “Behind the Curtain.” With lyrics like “Welcome to the circus/It’s your biggest nightmare/Wear the scarlet letter/Scrutinized forever” and “Put your mask on/And tuck your shirt in/Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the song acts as a sort of catch-all warning against the behind-the-scenes machinations that fuel the music industry or intolerance or political correctness or… You get the point. With a heavy, pound-yer-face-in riff-a-rama approach, bassist Jamie Bishop and drummer Lucianna Padmore lay down an exceptionally tight groove allowing Deninzon and guitarist Aurelien Budynek to go crazy with wicked dueling solos. As an opening salvo or as a stand alone piece of music, this one is a near-perfect shot across the bow of accepted norms. “Take Your Medicine” is a nasty little piece of work about “glass houses” and “casting the first stone.” It’s a bass heavy blast of funkiness with Joe’s violin filling in nicely for a full horn section. Guitar, violin and vocals add a rather hard rock urgency to the proceedings, with another dose of wild soloing, a feature that lends a certain Zappa-esque quality to this record. According to Mister Deninzon, the title track (“Guilty of Innocence,” for those with a short memory span) was “inspired by my 2012 stint in jury duty and deals with crime and punishment. I was presiding on a rape trial and the guy who I thought was guilty got off practically scot-free.” Padmore and Bishop lay down a modest Ska-influenced groove, while spastic violin leads and muscular metal riffs drive the tune. The violins and bass take on an almost operatic quality during the break and, just because I enjoy mentioning musical touch-points to give the reader a better idea of what to expect, the song’s chorus has a very Who-like feel, melodically speaking. Piling on to that musical heritage, let me say that if you’re a fan of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones or the previously mentioned Frank Zappa, you’re gonna love this one. “Face” is a sombre little ditty, sort of a slow burn piece with scathing lyrics about people (lovers, partners, friends, perfect strangers) who are more than willing to openly attack you just for the pure enjoyment: “These scars ain’t healing/It’s too late to make amends/I dodge the bullet/Your tongue flies across the room/Build up the callous/’Til I grow numb to the doom and gloom.” A very Hendrix-ian solo by Deninzon adds a certain psychedelic (or maybe it’s “psychotic”) mania to the number. The introduction to the frantic retelling of the Muse hit “Hysteria” features glass-shattering soprano Melanie Mitrano before a warbling high-register vocal from Joe takes over; the latter fits the surrounding chaos of the tune perfectly. There’s a certain “Flight of the Bumble Bee” quality to the always on-point violin work, highlighted by a massive solo, all backed impeccably by the metal leanings of Stratospheerius.

Affluenza” is another funky number with “ripped from the headlines” lyrics about people who believe themselves superior to “the little people” and, therefore, above the law because of that superior wealth and high standards of living. The song has a kind of Living Colour rock vibe happening, with lyrical barbs aplenty over sharp jabs of guitar and violin. Guest performer Rave Tesar adds an oddly appealing set of synthesizer “bloops,” giving the whole thing a cool late ‘70s funk sound. A hard(ish) rocking, progressive sort of pop-metal thing with Queen-like aspirations, “Parallel Reality” is choke full of breathy vocals, an absolutely killer rhythm (and a melody line to match) and, of course, the usual high-minded violin/guitar interplay that makes this band and this album essential listening. “Game of Chicken” starts out sounding like it coulda been an OVER-NITE SENSATION outtake, but then turns into sort of a Kansas prog-pop kinda thing. The playing and soloing remain top-notch and raise the piece out of what could have been a severe abyss of doldrums. The wholly (holy?) improvisational “Dream Diary Cadenza” is a muscular, solo violin freakout rife with flashes of Hendrixisms, Van Halenisms, Beckisms, Zappaisms and any other guitar genius ism that you could ever bring to mind. A brilliant workout from a master technician of his chosen craft. “Soul Food” is a nearly thirteen minute extravaganza with a veritable orchestra of guest artists: Melanie Mitrano, Rave Tesar, guitarists Alex Skolnick (!) and Randy McStine, violinist Eddie Venegas, violist (?) Earl Maneein and cellists Patrice Jackson and Leo Grinhaus. The piece is epic in every musical sense of the word and is, truly, a fitting end to a superb album. You owe it to yourself to obtain GUILTY OF INNOCENCE; you can do so by visiting CD Baby, Amazon or any of the other “usual places” and, naturally, at the group’s Bandcamp page.

FRANK ZAPPA: QUAUDIOPHILIAC

(BARKING PUMPKIN RECORDS/ZAPPA FAMILY TRUST/DTS ENTERTAINMENT; Audio DVD, 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

To say that Frank Zappa was ahead of the musical curve – WAY ahead of the curve! – is, quite possibly, the understatement of this very young millennium. Recently, FZ’s eldest male offspring (the one titled “Dweezil”) discovered an old tape box, dated March 1, 1970, bearing his name (that would be “Dweezil.” We just went through this – in an earlier parenthetical aside – at the beginning of this impossibly rambling and circumlocutious sentence). The box contained a very early, unimaginably expansive recording of what would eventually become “Chunga’s Revenge,” recorded in an unto then unheard of separation/mix called “quadraphonic”; this recording, in fact, preceded the whole quadraphonic rage (“rage” may not be the best way to describe it, though… the process never really caught on with anyone other than audio geeks of the highest form) by several years and today’s hip new sound, Digital 5.1 Surround Sound by nearly three-and-a-half decades! That recording (in the guise of “Chunga Basement”) is now released in all of its four-channel glory, alongside nine other such experiments recorded by FZ and his various groups (Zappa, the Mothers, and… Dweezil, the proposed name of the new group with which Frank recorded this version of “Chunga… “). Dweezil (the son, not the band), after inquiring as to the existence of other like-minded recordings, has sequenced the ten tracks culled from the vaults of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, not chronologically, but with an eye (an ear?) toward maximum listenability. So, how’d the kid do? Let’s examine, shall we?

Frank and Dweezil Zappa (uncredited photo)

QUAUDIOPHILIAC begins with two of Zappa’s orchestral pieces, the first (“Naval Aviation In Art?”) comes from the much-contested LATHER (an historic four-album set that was whittled up and edited into five separate albums – STUDIO TAN, SLEEP DIRT, the two-record set LIVE IN NEW YORK, and ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES, the latter being the place that this tune eventually saw release); the second is a re-worked, unreleased “Lumpy Gravy” from the same session that spawned the former. The two tracks combined clock in at a robust 2:39. The third track comes from the same source, but features – for the first time here – a signature FZ guitar solo. The previously unreleased “Rollo” is everything that made you fall in love with Zappa’s music (except without the pee-pee and fart jokes): Intriguing time-changes, adventurous arrangements, squiggly guitar leads. This, friends and neighbors, is truly the stuff of which FZ’s legend was made!

Aynsley Dunbar, Frank Zappa (uncredited photo)

A previously unheard version of “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” retitled “Drooling Midrange Accountants On Easter Hay” by Dweezil, is next. The new name comes from an FZ quote in which he discusses the record business in – as you can tell – his usual glowing terms; this spot-on diatribe is now edited over an alternate arrangement of the tune. The next two songs – SHEIK YERBOUTI’s “Wild Love” and SHUT UP ‘N’ PLAY YER GUITAR SOME MORE’s “Ship Ahoy” – feature several musicians who cut their teeth in Zappa’s late ’70s bands: bassists Roy Estrada and Patrick O’Hearn, guitarist Adrian Belew, vocalist Napolean Murphey Brock, and uber-percussionist Terry Bozzio. Though the songs are familiar, the four-channel mixes bring out the hidden intricacies inherent in all of FZ’s music. The much bally-hooed (just how much? Well, check out the first paragraph of this here critically-motivated piece) “Dweezil” tape rears its magnificent head next. Apparently, Dweezil would have been a kind of Mothers super-group in a standard four-piece rock setting: FZ on guitar (and, presumably, vocals), Ian Underwood on keyboards, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and Max Bennett on bass. As far as I know, Zappa’s reasons for retiring Dweezil after this single recording session has never been revealed. Obviously, Frank decided to reconvene the Mothers in a newer, harder-edged version and to maintain his steadily growing solo career, as well. “Chunga’s Basement,” now, is merely a glimpse of what could have been.

Frank Zappa (photo credit: FRANK LEONHARDT/ASSOCIATED PRESS IMAGES)

The next two tracks are the oldest of these recordings, aside form the Dweezil tape. An unreleased live recording from 1974, “Venusian Time Bandits,” features three more impressive Mothers: George Duke, Chester Thompson, and Tom Fowler. While FZ usually went large – as on the WAKA/JAWAKA title track which follows – it is in the stripped down arrangements for four-piece combos that his own virtuosity is featured in its best light; there is no doubt as to the genius he displayed as a composer, a conductor, an arranger, a band leader. The thing that these smaller groups shows is that Zappa was an unselfish (though demanding) player. He was more than willing to stand aside and allow his bandmates to shine, but was able to play rings around just about anybody you could name when he chose. “Waka/Jawaka” is a prime example of FZ standing aside, allowing his compositional and arranging skills to dictate how the other musicians move the music along. “Basement Music #2,” a piece culled from the soundtrack to the BABY SNAKES movie, finishes the set off in fine fashion. Chil’uns, if the newly discovered mixes don’t sell you on this one, then the unreleased stuff is surely enough to convince each of you to become a QUAUDIOPHILIAC! Dude, this just reminds me how much I miss FZ… hopefully there’s more to come.

THE QUEBE SISTERS/TOMMY HALLORAN

(February 17, 2016; THE BALLROOM AT THE SHELDON CONCERT HALL, Saint Louis MO)

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I have long heard great things about the Sheldon Concert Hall but, though I have visited the venue in a sales capacity when I worked at WDLJ radio, I have never been to a show there. Needless to say, I was stoked for this one… not only would I have the pleasure of witnessing the amazing fiddling acumen of the three Quebe Sisters but, I would finally see a show at what has often been referred to as the “most acoustically perfect” room in the Midwest. Initially, I was brought low once I realized that the show was scheduled for another room at the Sheldon complex, the Ballroom located on the fourth floor. To call the Ballroom intimate is a bit of an understatement (the room is slightly larger than Off Broadway); the top floor location, high ceilings and general layout of the room concerned me: Would the acoustics be an issue here? Once the music started, however, all fears were laid aside, as the sound was phenomenal throughout the night.

Tommy Halloran (Abbie Steiling; Abbie Steiling, Tommy Halloran; Tommy Halloran) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Tommy Halloran (Abbie Steiling; Abbie Steiling, Tommy Halloran; Tommy Halloran) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Local Jazz and Blues artiste Tommy Halloran left his combo – the exquisitely titled Guerrilla Swing – at home but, he wasn’t alone… he brought violin player Abbie Steiling along to keep him company. The duo worked their way through a set of mostly original material, primarily from Halloran and the Guerrilla’s 2014 offering, UNDER THE CATALPA TREES, stopping along the way for offerings from Irving Berlin (the opening number, “My Walking Stick,” originally performed by Ethel Merman in 1938; other memorable versions were by Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong with the Mills Brothers) and Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter (“Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,” performed by Armstrong and Billie Holiday in the 1947 movie NEW ORLEANS). Tommy is a dabbler; he dabbles in a variety of styles, everything from Hot Jazz to Texas Swing to a form of jazzy Blues that is inherently Saint Louis in nature. Halloran has a supple, pleasant voice with just a hint of rasp on the uptempo tunes, like the… uh… highly-caffeinated “Caffeine.” His facial expressions, general demeanor and vocal phrasing bring to mind both Tom Waits and the incomparable Leon Redbone; his physical appearance and style of dress brings the term “disheveled gentleman chic” to mind. The more “love song” ballady numbers, like “Under the Catalpa Trees” and “Gardenias For Rita” highlighted Ms Steiling’s subtle, almost fragile violin work, as well as Tommy’s playful rhythm guitar; but, don’t think the pair incapable of kicking up a bit of the proverbial dust, if the tune called for it, as on “My Favorite Sin.” Even though this was my first exposure to Tommy Halloran, his is a familiar name in Saint Louis music circles. I can now understand the reverence with which many speak his name… I was left wanting more and would certainly relish the chance to hear a full-band dissertation from Guerrilla Swing in the future.

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As impressed as I was by Halloran and Steiling, this night definitely belonged to Grace, Sophia and Hulda Quebe (which, according to their website, rhymes with “maybe”). The sisters have all been fiddle champions, both in their home-state of Texas and on a national level. Accompanied by Daniel Parr on upright bass and Simon Stipp on guitar, the ladies proved themselves proficient in everything from the Western Swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Swing of Ray Benson to the Big Band sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman to the pure Country of Hank Williams, Connie Smith and Jeannie Seely and the myriad of connective styles between. The highlights came fast and furious, as the group kicked things of with an anthem of the Mexican Revolution of 1912, the instrumental workout, “Jesse Polka.” From there, it was on to a beautiful version of Hank Senior’s classic honky-tonk tear jerker, “Cold Cold Heart,” with amazing harmony vocals from the trio, huddled around a single microphone, like the radio and Opry stars of yore. The hillbilly boogie of Moon Mullican’s “Every Which A-Way” led into “Twin Guitar Special,” a classic fiddle hoedown from the Quebe’s biggest influence, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Bridging the gap between Western Swing and the “tear-in-my-beer” Country and Western tunes so prominent in the 1960s was a number written by Cindy Walker and recorded by Wills, “Going Away Party.” The high harmony vocals and the plaintive strains of the fiddles lend an air of authenticity that three twenty-somethings like Hulda, Grace and Sophia simply should not possess. “If I Talk To Him” is full-on Country misery, as Sophia takes the lead on the Connie Smith sob-fest; the harmonies, as always, are beautiful but, it’s also nice to hear each sister take a lead.

The Quebe Sisters (Daniel Parr; Grace, Sophia, Hulda Quebe; Simon Stipp) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The Quebe Sisters (Daniel Parr; Grace, Sophia, Hulda Quebe; Simon Stipp) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a couple of true Country tunes, a version of Roy Rogers’ “Along the Navajo Trail” (which was later recorded by – among others – Wills and the Playboys; the Quebes recorded a version with Benson and his group, Asleep At the Wheel last year for an album called STILL THE KING: CELEBRATING THE MUSIC OF BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS) and “Once a Day,” written by Bill Anderson and originally recorded by Connie Smith, things started to get a bit adventurous with trips down avenues rarely traveled by a group such as the Quebe Sisters. These excursions included “How High the Moon,” a Jazz number first recorded by Big Band legend Benny Goodman and a later, more popular version by the duo of Les Paul and Mary Ford; “Be My Life’s Companion,” a vocal hit for both crooners the Mills Brothers and Rosemary Clooney; the Rhythm and Blues barn-burner (and early template for the music we call Rock and Roll), “Teardrops From My Eyes,” a song that propelled Ruth Brown to the top of the R and B charts; and set-closer “It’s a Sin To Tell a Lie,” a Country Blues ballad made popular by Fats Waller and recorded by the Ink Spots, among many others. As each of the trio, as well as Stipp and Parr, performed near-mind-numbing solos and the Quebes displayed further talents with dual and triple harmony fiddle leads, I, nevertheless, found myself engulfed in the sound of the transcendent female voices, blending in perfect harmony. Both Jeannie Seely’s “Leaving and Saying Goodbye.” a hit for Faron Young, and one of Willie Nelson’s most examples beautiful compositions, “Summer of Roses,” sent chills down my spine.

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Daniel Parr, Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Daniel Parr, Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Aside from the already-alluded to “It’s a Sin To Tell a lie,” the final portion of the set was given over to classic Folk numbers, beginning with Woody Guthrie’s “Sally Goodin,” which turned into a fiery fiddle breakdown, again highlighting the individual and collective talents of the Quebe Sisters. Perhaps the most stirring moments of the show came with a medley of early nineteenth century Folk tunes, one quite English in origin, the other unmistakably American. Starting with the haunting “The Wayfaring Stranger,” the group’s strong vocals and the weariness evoked by the moans of the fiddles had the entire room transfixed; “Speed the Plow” was, likewise, very emotionally charged and moving. I’ve tried to give words to the soaring voices and exemplary playing of the Quebe Sisters; I’ve attempted to describe the genre-bending musical choices played on this night. I’m not exactly sure how best to describe what happened on the fourth floor of the Sheldon Concert Hall on the evening of February 17, 2016, other than to say that this was the music of America (call it “Americana,” if you must), played by what may very well be the best and the brightest we have to offer.

THE OXFORD COMA: PARIS IS MINE

(SELF RELEASED; 2015)

ParisIsMine

The Oxford Coma (only one “m”) is a Phoenix three-piece (I suppose we could call them a “power trio”) that has alternately been described as “psychedelic anxiety rock” or “the world’s heaviest jam band.” Call them what you will… I rather prefer “math genius metal.” A few seconds into “Canadian Question Mark,” the opening cut of the self-released PARIS IS MINE, it is obvious (to these ears, anyway) that this is something exceptional. The song, a sort of progressive hard rock instrumental affair (if there are vocals, they are minimal and buried deep in the mix), features a nice mid-tempo groove, with oddly appealing dissonant guitars and a humongous, thudding bass. Though the guitars sometimes sound as if the track is about to explode in a flurry of speed, the rhythm section remains solid. On “Ritaling,” James Williams offers a very punk rock kind of a bass line, while the vocals and guitars have a distinct mid-’90s Kansas City sound (think Season To Risk). There’s a heavier-than-the-rest section with a certain Tony Iommi-like heaviness in Billy Tegethoff’s guitar; the second half of the tune is sort of creepy, with great atmospheric work from Tegethoff. “Daisies” is trippy and psychedelic, with a chukka-chukka kind of rhythm guitar thing and near-Residents like vocal outbursts (Tegethoff and Williams are both credited as vocalists, but who sings what isn‘t listed). Once again, the bass and drums (the latter supplied by Patrick Williams) border on minimalist, leaving the almighty riff to do most of the heavy lifting. This isn’t metal, but it is suffocatingly heavy and there’s a great wah-infused solo at the end that is hard to ignore.

The Oxford Coma (Billy Tegethoff, Patrick Williams, James Williams) (publicity photo)
The Oxford Coma (Billy Tegethoff, Patrick Williams, James Williams) (publicity photo)

The Pulls” is propelled by heavier-than-thou bass and some understated (though still powerful) drumming, allowing for some excellent guitar and haunting vocals to hover just above the surface, giving the tune a demon-spawn sound akin to the offspring of some 1970s hard rock band and Stone Temple Pilots, circa their first three records. The next track, “Ados Watts Jam,” is exactly what the name implies: A jam. Clocking in at a robust ten-and-a-half minutes, the KC/Season To Risk comparisons find their way back into the conversation, with bullhorn vocals crawling just above the mix. There are also a couple of jazzy, Sabbath-esque breaks leading into the final, improvisational section of the tune, all of which proved to be quite entertaining. Even if the song doesn’t exactly fall into the “jam band” category, it is a stretch on the group’s standard song structure. The final track is well-known to rockers and blues aficionados the world over: “When the Levee Breaks,” The Oxford Coma’s version manages to out-heavy the Led Zeppelin version, with Patrick’s nearly ham-fisted Bonham-esque skin pounding and a massive guitar sound. This version is as far from Zeppelin’s version as their version was from the 1929 original by Kansas Joe McCoy and his wife, Memphis Minnie Lawlers. You can listen to (and purchase) PARIS IS MINE, as well as earlier releases, at the group’s Bandcamp page. You will not be disappointed! And, if you are… you need to acquire better taste in music.