ADULT CINEMA: TEASER TRAILER

(ILLICIT RECORDINGS; 2016/vinyl reissue, 2018)

North London-born Mike Weston is Adult Cinema. It is Weston’s purpose – some would call it his destiny, considering his familial legacy and musical heritage – to tear down and rebuild classic Progressive Rock in his own thoroughly modern image. TEASER TRAILER is the debut record from Adult Cinema, recently re-released (to coincide with the release of album number two, THIS IS YOUR LIFE) on glorious vinyl. Mike handles virtually everything on the self-produced recording. This approach means that most everything sounds exactly as the artist heard it in his head while writing the album. Also, I’ve gotta tell you that, though the vinyl version is the latest, the track order reviewed here is actually the original CD version. And, so, after getting those pieces of technical info out of the way, let’s look at the music itself, shall we?

Feel Your Eyes” gets things off to a very nice start, with a general approximation of early Steely Dan, some Doobie Brothers vibes, a Brian Eno era kind of Roxy Music psuedo-prog and just a sniff of early Gilmour period Floyd. The song features some great guitar, bass and a Hammond organ owned (but not played here) by a certain Mister Winwood. Adding to the atmosphere is some quite nice piano and Weston’s laconic, somewhat breathy vocal performance. Much of this album was originally released on a self-titled promotional/demo record before TEASER TRAILER was unleashed upon the world-at-large. Such is the case with the next song (as well as the opening track). Here, “Flowers” is presented in what I must assume is either a re-recorded or remixed version parenthetically called “Fallout Version.” I like this tune so much that whatever Mike wants to call it is fine with me. The number starts out as a very nice acoustic thing for the first couple of minutes before heading deeply into a Floydian psychedelia, complete with very Syd-like vocals. The track continues to mutate with a great hard rock ending, putting one in mind of early Uriah Heep or Hawkwind. “Asleep At the Wheel” is very trippy, with another solid dose of spacey Hawkwind noises, not a tribute to Ray Benson. The tune features a great bassline, while the piano and organ are very prominent throughout. Guest performer Paul Nelson’s guitar has a rather metronomic quality to it, adding to the late ‘60s psychedelic vibe. “Dreamt the Other Night (Prog Version)” would not sound out of place on DARK SIDE OF THE MOON or WISH YOU WERE HERE. Acoustic based, the song features understated guitar, powerful bass and a nice, simple drum pattern. Short and sweet, “Dreamt… ” really pulls you in. The album’s first half ends with a dramatic, sorta Styxian shanty, “We Sailed Across the Ocean.” The multi-layered vocals reinforces the Styx reference. There’s a thumping, swirling break before the tune begins ramping up with a slightly heavier organ sound and a dive-bombing bass pattern. This heavier turn is very Deep Purplish, save for a far lighter guitar sound (which is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way). The twist and turns in styles, if not genres, make the track a personal favorite.

ADULT CINEMA (Mike Weston) (photo credit: KENT MATTHEWS)

Got To Prove Myself Today” features a far more powerful vocal approach than the previous cuts on the album, matching the heavy feel of the song. Nelson returns, with an intricate guitar weaving its way through the organ and above the massive bass and drums that underpin everything. It all gives way to an acoustic guitar and piano coda that drives home the tune’s intent. In sort of an English Folk meets Country way, “My Tangled Mind” is filled with a nice acoustic guitar lead, some solid bass, pretty vocals and some darned fine whistling. The beauty and simplicity does the memory of the Beatles and, in fact, the entire British Invasion sound quite proud. “Rowboat” is featured in two versions on the original 2016 CD of TEASER TRAILER. The first (and the one featured on the vinyl reissue) is the original. Trippy, watery machinations of Paul Nelson’s guitar and a lugubrious bass runs throughout the mostly instrumental tune. The vocals are purposely buried in the mix but, checking the lyric sheet, it would appear that the story revolves around a troubled individual who, apparently, has killed and disposed of someone in a watery grave. The second version, offered as a “bonus track” on the CD, is called the “Southend Version.” It’s definitely a heavier take, featuring some serious Hammond organ. The vocals and the number’s true meaning comes into finer focus on this longer version (more than two minutes are added to the original’s 3:47 running time). With the guitars, bass and drums pushed to the front, the studio trickery is gone until the end of the song. If I had to choose one version to listen to on repeat, it would most assuredly be the latter. “Witches” is a rollicking kind of Dancehall Jazz, with some nice period drums from Andy Russell, Nelson moving over to upright bass, a player piano and a traditional Jazz trio featuring Weston’s Dad, Tony, on clarinet. The piano coda from “Witches” wanders back in on “La La La La La,” a rolling kind of tune delivering the tune’s sole lyric, “La” over and over again. The birds chirp, the guitar dips in and out of the mix, cementing a rather pleasant end to what is a better than average album. Head on over to Mike Weston’s website to get a free download of TEASER TRAILER and, while you’re there, pick up a copy of THIS IS YOUR LIFE, too.


KRISTEEN YOUNG: LIVE AT THE WITCH’S TIT

(SELF-RELEASED; 2017)

Holy crap, where did THIS thing come from? I’ve heard some Kristeen Young stuff before and thought it was unusual and compelling, but this record… whoa, mama! It’s full-on ass-kicking weirdness of the kind I used to revel in at the turn of the millennium. Young has been compared to Kate Bush before (her tendency to favor the higher registers, her unconventional delivery), but she also reminds me of a couple of Scandinavian singers such as Sofia Hardig and an artist whose name escapes me. Point is, there is a focused, melodious quality to Ms Young’s voice that you hear at times, but she is making the case here for high-stakes sonic melodrama. Young is a wild thing, untamed and sometimes scary. She takes a risk in virtually every song, and it’s breathtaking. You don’t hear stuff like this very often. And despite that title, this is NOT a live album. It’s Young’s eighth studio album and, although Tony Visconti is listed as co-producer and he has worked with Young for many years, this album was largely recorded just after David Bowie’s death; Kristeen has said Tony was not around that much. Bowie’s passing and the release of BLACKSTAR affected his availability during the sessions. Guitars growl, the bass lumbers around not necessarily keeping it linear, and Young herself stalks these soundscapes like an utterly fearless musical predator. It’s really quite glorious.

KRISTEEN YOUNG (uncredited photo)

In “You Might Be Ted, But I’m Sylvia,” a title that invites discourse, Young carefully balances some emotive, disciplined singing with a series of loud, boisterous piano octaves. At the one-minute mark, a ferocious sound emerges that sounds at first like it could be an attacking animal, but no, it’s an ominous synth sound distorted to resemble a primitive electric guitar, that bites instead. It’ll take a piece right outta ya if you aren’t prepared. “There’s a chance he might disappear,” the singer tells us, before intoning the song’s title, powerfully, preceded and followed by a hypnotically dissonant piano interval banged over and over, taking you prisoner. You CANNOT remain indifferent to the sound slicing into your ears here. You’ll either find it enthralling, as I did, or you’ll run away with your tail between your legs. “Why Am I a Feelmate” turns up the electronica, and takes things into territory occupied by the Knife (I’d be real surprised if Young was not familiar with Karin Dreijer). The vocal is spooky, partially distorted, and the music seems to celebrate chaos. And yet, Young’s control over this boundary-bashing sound is remarkable. I honestly feel rather inadequate to describe it. It’s thoroughly modern and thoroughly uninterested in anything but its own path. You can follow, yes, but you better stay a few steps behind, or something vicious may chomp into you. “These Are the Things I’m Not the Most” (another fascinating title) reminds me of what might happen if the Residents tried rapping for a bit, except the musical wilderness Young is wandering through here might freak out even the Residents. Yes, I just said that. This is really, truly strange rock music by any normal standard. But it DOES rock, and it does move and it does pulse. And it clubs you over the head sometimes, and it contemplates the universe sometimes, and it steps back with its arms crossed and simply stares at you sometimes. Often, in fact. And you don’t want to look away, cause that would make you a wimp. And you will be, some of you. This will put hairs on your chest, honestly. Or send you crying to Mommy.

KRISTEEN YOUNG (photo credit: TONY VISCONTI)

In “I Love You SOOOO Much,” Young sings “I have always been so alone… everything I say/No one can translate,” probably the album’s most self-revealing lyric. The relatively restrained keyboard and pretty-ish vocal really WANT to walk through the door that says “NORMAL,” but they end up entering the room next door, which is labeled “ACCESSIBLE BUT OFF-KILTER.” Young is just too much of an original spirit, after doing this thing for quite a few years, to settle for anything predictable. An early Eno-evoking guitar solo sees the track out the back door, and suddenly the tune ends. Lordy. “Catland” begins with a child’s voice wanting to coax a sound out of a “kitty cat,” but you just KNOW that kind of cuteness will be short-lived. It is. The song quickly turns into a crazed rocker with tempo and chord changes that the likes of Zappa might have admired. There is no attempt to please the audience here at all, unless you are, like me, in the audience that adores flat-out weird music. The word “challenging” was meant for discs like this. And it goes on and on: “Monkey On My Breast,” “I Know You Are a Coward” (you ARE, by the way, if this record overwhelms you), the short and sarcastic ghostly mini-song that calls itself “Everything About You is Always More Important Than Anything About Me,” which is pretty much the full lyric, uncharacteristically. “Come to the Party” offers another insistent piano track before rubbing your face in all sorts of other sounds. Young seems to be issuing an important psychic missive here, but you may or may not receive it. You are probably already whimpering in the back room by now. But she closes with “Different,” certainly the most obvious adjective that timid listeners will apply to this record. There is real melancholy at work in this song, and as this wildly original artist sings “But I’m different” repeatedly, it’s actually a bit touching. I have no idea in the world how audiences have responded to Kristeen Young in the past, and the fact that she is from Saint Louis has me beaming with pride right now. This record is absolutely fucking KILLER. Except for the newest Low album, there isn’t an album that has made a stronger impression on me this year. It’s insane, it’s fresh, it’s completely unpredictable, it’s weird as hell, and apparently proud to be so. Kristeen, I think I’d be afraid to talk to you in person, but allow me to say, totally sincerely, THANK you. Thanks for kicking every kind of ass in the world and showing that yes, a female singer/songwriter can beat most men when it comes to breaking the well-established rules of the game, and not have to apologize in the slightest. I’m in awe of this record. No, it wasn’t recorded live, but my God, does this thing have an unstoppable LIFE force flowing all through it.


VANILLA FUDGE

(March 22, 2019; WILDEY THEATRE, Edwardsville, IL)

I knew only a couple of things about Vanilla Fudge before I stepped into the Wildey Theatre to see them on March 22: One, that they had been around a long, long time, and two, that they took an old Supremes song called “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and did a spectacular, lengthy remaking of it that became a giant hit and established a kind of freeform, jammy trademark that still powers their style today. VF bear many of the trappings of a classic prog rock band: Long instrumental passages, tight vocal harmonies and multi-textured keyboard work (courtesy of Mark Stein) that occasionally sounds like a relic from another era. Which it sort of is. But what prog rockers do you know that start their show with… a MONKEES song? That almost made me fall over, their wildly unique take on “I’m A Believer,” which had a bigger impact on me than you might expect since I’d just seen the Dolenz and Nesmith show in Saint Charles not even a week prior. Wow! It was almost unrecognizable, but there it was… the beloved Neil Diamond-penned number. That was followed by something else unrecognizable but jammy, which they introduced as “a tribute to our old friends, the Doors.” And this one was… “Break On Through (To the Other Side,” which featured their own three-part harmonies, slowed down but repeated over and over on just the phrase “Break on through.” Okay, so now it was clear that we’d be treated to epic cover songs, done in a manner seldom heard before. These guys, original members Stein, guitarist Vince Martell, drummer extraordinaire Carmine Appice and “the new guy,” bassist Pete Bremy, who replaced Tim Bogert in 2010, have a curious aesthetic that is nostalgic but fresh, proggy but curiously low-key, sonically far out but couched in a downright neighborly stage demeanor. They told the story of dedicating Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” to Martin Luther King right after he was assassinated; it was sung by Appice here with tenderness and power, and laced by terrific organ work by Stein. Soon after they did a casual original both retro and vitally relevant, “Let’s Pray For Peace.” That was from their classic SPIRIT OF ‘67 album, and Stein talked about how the band had the chance to play it in Belgium not long after the terrorist incident there. Good as all this was, the show’s real highlights were yet to come.

VANILLA FUDGE (Mark Stein, Vince Martell, Carmine Appice, Pete Bremy) (photo credit: JIM FORD)

This song took up an entire side of our fourth album,” the band cheerfully announced, before launching into “Break Song,” an incredible extravaganza that was sometimes loud, sometimes soft but always musically engrossing, especially when it featured a borrowed chunk from Lee Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning” and then segued into “Season of the Witch,” which clearly took the audience to a whole new level of psychedelic nirvana. The vibe was like Kansas meets Yes at times, but actually, it was the kind of thing Vanilla Fudge excels at, these long, intricate, rapidly varying passages. It was clear to me that they were underrated… possibly because cover bands don’t often rise to the level of bands that do this sort of thing on their own material. But it was grand, and it was mesmerizing. So was the unbelievable drum solo Appice performed on “Shotgun,” a song they did on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, they told us. Drum solos can be tedious and overly cliched, but in all honesty, this was one of the best drum solos I’ve ever heard. Appice performed with muscular mastery, keeping it intense and focused, and doing a section with only one stick which you could see he was passing from one hand to the other. The sound was especially bracing and adrenaline-pumping for this showcase. And he justifiably earned a partial standing ovation. Next, Stein told the story of how long ago, in ‘68, a band opened for them featuring the “guy who had just left the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page.” At this time, Vanilla Fudge were at their peak, with three albums in the Top 40. These young whippersnappers, Led Zeppelin, may have opened for them this one occasion, but soon eclipsed them… and every other band by becoming the biggest thing in the rock world. Such is fate! The Fudge did a tribute album called OUT THROUGH THE IN DOOR, and they quoted from it with a fun combo of “Dazed and Confused” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” No, they aren’t the Zep, but this was still a nice, fun surprise. Everyone was waiting for the big hit, of course, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” They talked about the initial inspiration for it, which was an offhand exposure to the song outside a club in the ‘60s, and then invited the audience to sing along on the chorus. Who’s gonna refuse that offer? It’s their signature song, and they know it. A vibrant encore of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There,” then it was all over. I didn’t really expect to be so impressed by these guys. I’d heard a few of their songs before and sort of had an idea what I’d hear… lots of organ and guitar, long instrumentals. I had no idea. They are masterful musicians, nice guys, and unique in being able to survive performing long, often weird versions of other people’s classics. Not to mention having clearly one of the best drummers in the world in their lineup, and singing sterling three-part harmony. This was quite a fantastic show, to summarize. I’ve now been educated in the tasty stylings of “the Fudge,” and I won’t forget it.


BE BOP DELUXE: POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE… INTRODUCING BE BOP DELUXE

(EMI RECORDS/CAPITOL RECORDS; 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

So, it’s somewhere around the middle part of 1977 and I’m in the “I’ll buy virtually anything that ain’t disco or Country and Western music” mode that typified my life for several regrettable years (with wisdom and age, I’ve repented/recovered from that dark period, except for the disco… that’ll always suck!). While deciding on which 8 to 10 albums to buy on this particular day, I came across a two record set (one full-length album, one 12″ EP) with a striking black and white cover – a still from the classic silent German flick, METROPOLIS. The price was right, so I was soon the proud owner of LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE by something called Be Bop Deluxe. I’d seen a couple of studio albums by the group, of course, but I just could not get behind that name (or the inexplicably hideous cover art or… perhaps it was a deep-seeded fear of Jazz music, another of my quirky phobias of that bygone era)! But, great googley-moogley, chil’uns! When I dropped the needle on side one, track one (“Life In the Air Age”), my brain nearly exploded! This was great stuff… incredible stuff. “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape.” “Fair Exchange.” “Piece of Mine.” “Maid In Heaven.” These were absolutely magnificent slabs of sonic beauty, propelled by the lush, orchestral guitar style of Bill Nelson, the mad genius behind the quartet’s sound.

It was a VERY long time before I came into contact with another Be Bop Deluxe record (though I did purchase a couple of great imports by the then-solo Bill Nelson) – in fact, the band only managed one more album, DRASTIC PLASTIC, before packing it in. Now, a band of which Nelson says, “I don’t think about Be Bop Deluxe as often as fans of the band might presume,” is given its due with this 18-track “Best of… ” package alongside re-issues of the original five studio albums and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE (all with bonus tracks, naturally). Does it sound dated? Not as much as you’d think! In fact, I could think of a few current artists who would be regarded as the next big thing if they had recorded this stuff in the past couple of years.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1974 (Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, Ian Parkin, Bill Nelson, Robert Bryan) (photo credit: MICK ROCK)

This 18 track collection starts with the title song of the very first Be Bop Deluxe album. “Axe Victim” is rather a lost gem, full of the lyrical wryness and imagery that became a main-stay of not only this band, but of all of Bill Nelson’s subsequent projects (solo or with the group Red Noise). Of course, the benchmarks of Be Bop Deluxe were always Nelson’s guitar work and the solid interplay between the four men (on AXE VICTIM, Nelson was joined by guitarist/organist Ian Parkin, drummer Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, and bassist/vocalist Robert Bryan). The second track, also from that debut, “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape,” is fueled by Nelson’s ingenious arrangement (and a smoking guitar solo). The tune would later be retooled for the second version of the band, turning it into an almost orchestral live masterpiece.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia) (uncredited photo)

The band’s second album, 1975’s FUTURAMA, introduces drummer Simon Andrew David Fox and bassist Charlie Tumahai, with Nelson exerting his dominance on all fronts: all lead vocals, guitars, and keyboards are performed by him; all songwriting and arrangements are by him. FUTURAMA is the most well-represented release on POSTCARDS… , with four tracks (“Stage Whispers,” “Sister Seagull,” “Jean Cocteau,” and the wickedly cool “Maid In Heaven”). The wisdom of adding Tumahai and Fox is evident from the first notes of the charging train wreck that is “Stage Whispers.” The funky calypso break merely adds to the insanity, and – if I haven’t mentioned it yet, Bill Nelson can play that guitar thing! “Maid In Heaven” follows. Like “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape” and the song that follows, “Sister Seagull,” this tune became a live staple, taking on a new feel with the addition of Simon “Andy” Clark on keys. Speaking of “Sister Seagull,” again the guitars and the arrangement sets Nelson and Be Bop Deluxe apart from most acts of that time (or, for that matter, most acts that have followed in the 30 years since its release). The final track from FUTURAMA is a jazzy homage to “Jean Cocteau.” The song is a major departure for the group, but the trio show that they are more than capable of pulling off such a change of pace.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Charlie Tumahia, Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (photo credit: JOHN THORNTON)

By the time of the band’s third record, SUNBURST FINISH, Clark was well ensconced on keyboards. His impact is immediately felt on another live staple (and quite possibly the one song that you may have heard on the radio at some point), “Fair Exchange.” The interplay between guitarist and keyboardist on this track is a good example of the direction that the band was headed. Plus, it’s just a darn good song! “Ships In the Night” builds on the slightly Caribbean feel that was first explored during the break in “Stage Whispers.” The keyboards are, by turns, grandiose and whimsical… not an easy feat in the same song! “Blazing Apostles” re-introduces us to Bill Nelson, guitar hero. During the four-and-a-half minutes of the song, Nelson goes from metal crunch to jazzy runs to strident funk to fleet-fingered progressive solos.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia, Simon Fox) (publicity photo)

The group’s second release of 1976 (and fourth, over-all), MODERN MUSIC, finds the revitalized quartet performing as a more cohesive unit, though it is still quite obvious that Nelson is pulling all of the strings. “Kiss of Light” could have (should have) been a big hit back then; it would probably be a big hit if it were to be released today, with its rather staccato vocal delivery, especially on the chorus. The title track is as laid-back as Be Bop Deluxe ever got, with a lilting, slightly bluesy sound. “Twilight Capers” continues the orchestral approach that was adopted on the previous record, with guitars and keyboards ebbing and swelling throughout, leading to a short Jazz-inflected guitar solo at the outro. This is the band and the musical vision that Nelson took on the road, with the tour that eventually produced the amazing LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (uncredited photo)

And this is where the continuity of this release comes into question: The single tune from the live album, “Life In the Air Age,” the title track, if you will, does not follow “Twilight Capers.” Three songs from the group’s final release, DRASTIC PLASTIC, is wedged between the MODERN MUSIC and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE tracks. The tunes – “Electrical Language,” “Possession,” and “Islands of the Dead” – are fine songs, but it is very obvious that Nelson was tiring of Be Bop Deluxe and guitar-driven rock music. “Electrical Language” is powered more by the vocal performances than by guitar (or keyboards), while “Islands of the Dead” is a rather thoughtful, mostly acoustic piece. “Possession,” of the three, is the closest to what fans had come to expect from Be Bop Deluxe’s grand wizard of the nicely turned phrase (of both word and fretboard).

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Andrew Clark) (photo ourtesy: GAB ARCHIVES/REDFERNS)

“Life In the Air Age,” a track from SUNBURST FINISH, bears witness to just how great this group was as a live unit. The song itself is a progressive pop masterpiece and the band certainly prove their mettle in bringing it to life on stage. As good as they were in the studio, the fact that they were able to improve on those studio versions is a testament to the combined talents of the four musicians, and the arranging acumen of Bill Nelson, in particular. The final two tracks of the package brings it full circle (another continuity issue), with both the A and B sides of the first Be Bop Deluxe single, the independently produced and released “Teenage Archangel” and an early version of “Jets At Dawn,” a tune re-recorded for AXE VICTIM. The A side is, actually, a fairly standard sounding teenage-angst pop song. The B side, however, clocks in at nearly seven minutes and features some of the most exquisite guitar on this package. I just wish that the single tracks would have been sequenced as the lead tracks on this package, even though they were tack-on, bonus cuts for this version of POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE. Ah, well… you can’t have everything, but you can have a fairly comprehensive Be Bop Deluxe primer to hold you over until the proposed box set that Bill Nelson is reportedly working on.

BE BOP DELUXE (Bill Nelson, on stage November 1976) (uncredited photo)

UPDATE: Bill Nelson’s eight-disc box set, THE PRACTICE OF EVERY DAY LIFE: CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF RECORDINGS was finally released in 2011, featuring 34 choice cuts from the Be Bop Deluxe era. Aside form various compilations and reissues, Nelson continues to set a furious pace, releasing no less than four albums of new music this year alone. The last,DYNAMOS AND TREMOLOS is half synth-pop, half guitar rock, all instrumental.


A DYING PLANET: FACING THE INCURABLE

(CYNNORMAL LAB RECORDINGS; 2018)

Survival stories are the threads that we cling to when we are at our lowest. “If that person can overcome the things that should have destroyed them then, surely, I can overcome, too.” When we see or hear about someone who has overcome a devastating loss, a child who overcomes a withering illness or an unimaginable injury, we cheer, we cry tears of joy and triumph, we are moved to be… better. When a musician suffers such an injury and faces not only their own humanity but, the prospect of losing – not only their job, but the ability to create, to help or heal others through their music. Troy Tipton was on top of the indie-metal world, playing bass in Zero Hour, among others, when an injury and subsequent surgery left him unable to play. But, he overcame and, though he was unable to return to the bass, he truly found his voice. Literally. His family and band members say that Troy has always had a great voice; now, that voice has allowed him to create once more. FACING THE INCURABLE is Troy’s victory lap and it is not only catharsis for him, it is incredibly moving.

A DYING PLANET (Brian Hart, Troy and Jasun Tipton, Marco Bicca) (photo credit: BRIAN KIRKSEY)

Resist,” at 14 minutes sets the standard for what a great slice of heavy progressive rock should be. Troy wrote the lyrics and melodies and says the song is “is about the struggles I personally went through after having my left arm unsuccessfully operated on. I had been playing the bass guitar for twenty-five years before I was forced to hang it up. So many changes have occurred in my life since the day of my surgery. I am so grateful for the years of emotional support I’ve received from my twin brother, my father, and my wife. Paul Villarreall did an amazing vocal performance delivering the message.” And, Paul’s vocals are quite impressive, backed by heavy bass and drums while Troy’s brother, Jasun, supplies an ethereal guitar sound that still delivers some beefy riffage when needed, as well as keyboards that are atmospheric and definitely on-point for the musical style. A sobering piece of lyrical beauty, “Facing the Incurable” sends a shiver down the spine. Troy’s lyrics and vocals take center stage with several spoken word passages, delivering a message of hope to the millions facing debilitating, life-altering injuries or diseases. Jasun’s guitars coarse and weave over, under and through a stunningly effective slow groove with solid (dare I say, stellar?) underpinning from the rhythm section of bassist Brian Hart and drummer Marco Bicca. “Human Obsolescence,” about the fragile nature of our existence, features beautiful piano and a chiming guitar that powers the tune. Troy’s vocals are haunting and provocatively effective, coming off sounding a lot like Dennis DeYoung (if Dennis DeYoung were cool and not some clownish Vegas lounge singer), while Marco’s understated but powerful drumming and Brian’s nearly passive bass work play into the piece perfectly.

A DYING PLANET (Brian Hart, Jasun and Troy Tipton, Marco Bicca) (photo credit: BRIAN KIRKSEY)

Even though “Poisoning the Well” was written – with lyrics from Zero Hour’s Erik Rosvold – and the guitar parts (which are more percussive strokes rather than a series of notes, except for the solo) and vocals (also by Rosvold) were recorded several years ago, it fits perfectly within the theme and feel of the album. The drums and bass echo the brutal, heavy chords of the guitar making for a stark but striking piece of metal magic. “Missing” was the first song written and prompted in Troy a desire to try his hand at lyric writing, as well as singing them. Beautiful, fragile playing (including keys from guest Bill Jenkins of Enchant and Thought Chamber fame) gives way to a brittle vocal from Troy counterbalanced by a soaring performance by Luda Arno (Troy’s vocal coach) which, in turn, gives way to one of the most beautiful, evocative guitar solos you will ever hear. Is the number a cry of anguish to a love lost, a soul lost or a life lost? Hope amid the infinite struggle to merely be, to overcome any obstacle is the underlying, overwhelming theme of FACING THE INCURABLE; everything is summed up in this single, nearly nine-minute piece. The shortest track on the album, “Separation Anxiety,” is an instrumental that features Hart’s dexterous bass work and the supple, powerful drumming of Bicca with solid jabs of light from Jasun’s guitar interspersed with short, fleet-fingered runs. Though the tune is exceptionally good, amply displaying the instrumentalists’ abilities, it does come across as rather a second-thought add on to the basic concept of the album as a whole. Coming as it did, while I was facing uncertainties of my own (though, to be sure, nothing to the extent that Troy Tipton had experienced), this record is like a restorative balm to the soul; thank you for sharing it with us.


3.2: THE RULES HAVE CHANGED

(FRONTIER RECORDS; 2018)

In 1988, Geffen Records released an album of pop music with haughty (some would say pretentious) rock overtones by a band called 3. That band featured two-thirds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (the sixty-six percent that wasn’t Greg Lake) and multi-instrumentalist journeyman, Robert Berry. The partnership was an attempt to play the more melodic style of progressive rock which had given Palmer and Berry (with Asia and GTR, respectively) some successes in the previous few years. Maybe the impetus grew from Keith Emerson’s desire for a wider audience than he ever experienced in the Nice or ELP; a growing need to be accepted. Whatever brought the three together, the resulting record, … To THE POWER OF THREE, was well received. With the band doing well on the road, Keith began to feel stifled by the record company’s insistence that they strike while the iron was hot, virtually demanding that they return to the studio to begin work on album number two; Keith’s answer was simple: He quit. Fast forward to 2015. Robert found himself in conversations with Italy’s Frontier Records regarding a new project from 3; After consulting with Emerson (but, apparently, not Carl Palmer) regarding the possibility of resurrecting the band, the two began writing and demoing new material, scheduled studio time, signed contracts with Frontier and… as quickly as it began, it was over: Keith Emerson had committed suicide. Reeling from the loss, Berry set aside the project; after a time of grieving and reflecting, Robert decided to once again resurrect the project – utilizing songs and snippets of ideas that he and Emerson had shared – as a final farewell to his friend and band-mate. Working as a one man band, he began work on what would become THE RULES HAVE CHANGED under the name 3.2. Does it work? For the most part, I think so. The record is split fifty-fifty with new Berry compositions and pieces that he and Keith had been working on before the latter’s death. Still, Emerson’s larger-than-life character and overwhelming musical sensibility are felt throughout what Robert has accomplished here.

3.2 (Robert Berry) (publicity photo)

“One By One” starts with a magnificent, cinematic piano piece before a grandiose, symphonic blast of power propels the song into the first verse, where Mister Berry’s pop leanings are on display front-and-center. Here, the number takes on the feel and scope of an Asia-like progressive ballad; the instrumental passages convey a blend of piano-driven Jazz and Classical phrasing, which informed much of Emerson’s career. Time changes and sudden shifts in style over the tune’s seven-plus minutes, while off-putting at first blush eventually come into focus as the ultimate tribute and a heartfelt homage to Keith Emerson. On “Powerful Man,” the original intent of the group is brought into sharper focus, with what could be considered a more radio friendly sound within a simpler – by comparison – more compact and focused five minute rock song, led by Robert’s Emerson-inspired keyboard work. This certainly would not sound out of place nestled between the poppier works of GTR, Asia or even Trevor Rabin-era Yes. With the title track, the pomposity almost crushes the feel of what the artist was trying to convey, lyrically. The song is a double-edged sword, as the words could be taken as a betrayal by a lover or, more deeply, it may also be construed as an open letter in which Robert attempts to heal the wounds torn open by Emerson’s suicide. Perhaps “The Rules Have Changed” would have been better with a more stripped-down approach but, then, Keith Emerson was never known for his subtlety. Referencing many of Emerson’s most well-known riffs, “Our Bond” is, finally, Robert Berry’s soul stripped bare over the loss of a dear friend. Likewise, the music is stripped of any pretensions of grandiosity. This, the third of four numbers written solely by Berry, brought a shiver to my spine, particularly the perfect, lone piano that closes out the piece. It is, by far, my favorite track thus far.

“What You’re Dreaming Now” has the unmistakable mark of Keith Emerson and the glory days of ELP (as well as a bit of ELPowell ‘80s bombast) all over it; Berry’s vocal phrasing even shares a certain quality, if not timbre, with Greg Lake while his drumming exhibits the power of Cozy Powell along with the finesse of Carl Palmer. It may not be the strongest composition on the album, but for sheer progressive physicality, it’s hard to beat. The playful, almost joyful sound of WORKS-era Emerson, Lake and Palmer (I’m thinking something like “Tiger In a Spotlight” from …VOLUME TWO) are in full effect on “Somebody’s Watching,” with a pumping bass and a guitar set to “power chord stun.” The keyboards sound as if they could have been recorded by Emerson at any time over his illustrious career; as Keith has a co-writing and co-arrangement credit on the tune, one does wonder if Robert used a snippet of a demo that Keith had provided and built the track around that unfinished framework. “This Letter” starts off as beautiful ballad, with a nice acoustic guitar lead and hints and echoes of piano playing around and beneath a ragged vocal; an synth-derived orchestra plays in as the pace begins to quicken at about the halfway mark. All well and good but, the piece begins to morph into a sort of gypsy parody of itself shortly after the introduction of a ragtime piano and we are soon witness to the number devolving into something so far afield from where it began that the joy – for me, anyway – is sucked right out of it. It’s as if Berry has taken two very different songs and jammed them together in an attempt to… what? The first half borders on exceptional while the second half borders on theatrical overkill. Things are definitely back on track with the final track, “Your Mark On The World,” with power chords aplenty and the return of the Emerson penchant for verbose noodling on every keyboard he could get his hands on. As much as I dislike the second half of “This Letter” for that same verboseness, it works in the context of this more upbeat number. Oddly enough, the thing seemed to end way before it was actually over – at 5:20, Robert just… stops! It really felt like it could have and should have gone on for another two minutes, at least. Oh, well… such are the vagaries of Rock and Roll and, if it took me almost an entire record to find something to complain about, I’d say that Robert Berry has done Keith Emerson proud. Well done, Mister Berry!

3.2 (Robert Berry, Keith Emerson) (uncredited photo)


TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA

(9 May, 2018; PEABODY OPERA HOUSE, Saint Louis, MO)

From the Nazz through his various solo outings, masterful production work and, particularly the ten albums released under the Utopia banner, I have been a fan of Todd Rundgren for a very long time. Sure, my previous experience with the live Rundgren had left a bitter taste in my mouth, but… this was Utopia! I knew that I must see the reunited progressive pop quartet that was responsible for the final eight Utopia albums, including ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA and OOPS! WRONG PLANET; Todd would be reuniting with Kasim Sulton, John “Willie” Wilcox and the keyboardist from the initial Todd Rundgren’s Utopia records, Ralph Schuckett, supplanting Roger Powell, who had to step away from playing in 2009 because of his health. When Ralph was forced to recuse himself due to health concerns of his own, Rundgren’s son suggested they check out a guy named Gil Assayas, who stepped into the very large shoes left by Schucket and Powell. Though Sulton and Todd had continued working together since the band’s unofficial dissolution, Utopia had not played together on North American soil for over three decades. Let’s just say that I was more than mildly stoked when I received confirmation that I would be granted access to this show. Before delving into specifics, might I also say that I was not disappointed!

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The guys very wisely split the show into two very different sets: The first half featured the longer, more progressively-attuned material (primarily from the first offering, TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA and the concept album, RA) with a couple of covers tossed in for good measure; the second half of the show concentrated more on the skewed pop asthetics of later records like UTOPIA and SWING TO THE RIGHT. The stage configuration for the first set featured Rundgren center-stage (was there any doubt about that?), Kasim holding down stage right with Wilcox on a riser behind him and Assayas on a riser stage left… a very prog rock look, fitting perfectly with the music. And, what music! Opening the evening’s festivities was a medley of classic Utopia tunes – “Utopia,” “The Ikon” and “Another Life” – which Todd affectionately dubbed “the Storm” after the tempest had subsided. “As you may have surmised, there’s a thing going around and I got it!,” the Runt declared before, apparently, hocking up a lung and ripping into a killer version of the Move’s “Do Ya.” The sound was virtually immaculate other than the occasional over-modulation of Todd’s mic. “Freedom Fighters,” one of my favorite tunes from my favorite Utopia album, is up next and Gil Assayas’ keyboards are on-point with that record’s version.

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Todd Rundgren) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Kasim Sulton) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The high notes were not coming off too well, as Todd’s affliction seemed to get the better of him on “The Wheel.” Later in the tune, Rundgren’s solo falsetto voice sounded stronger, if a bit strained. A very nice version. Kasim Sulton took the lead on “Back On the Street.” The number has a thumping groove and Todd looked absolutely hyped to be working in a true band environment again. Leonard Bernstein’s kitschy-cool Broadway show tune, “Something’s Coming,” from WEST SIDE STORY, comes off sounding very much like a kitschy-cool Broadway show tune, a great detour from the progressive pop that is this bands bread and butter. Kasim was back on lead vocals for “Monument,” a rather lightweight attempt at a hit single from Utopia’s last official studio release, 1985’s POV. The song’s break, however, does feature a really nice solo from Rundgren and a cool short blast from Assayas. A very cool visual backdrop adds to the atmosphere and the power of Willie Wilcox and Assayas’ introduction for “Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise.” Sulton and Rundgren join in before a fist-pumping take of “Communion With the Sun,” highlighting the strength of an often-overlooked classic of the progressive era, RA. The coupling was absolutely great, with some nice vocal harmonies and all four players hitting on all cylinders. “Last of the New Wave Riders,” one of the stellar tracks from the group’s 1980 record, ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA, brought the first half of the show to a rousing conclusion. As the curtain closed, Todd tells the crowd, “We’ll see you in twenty.”

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Todd Rundgren, Willie Wilcox) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Willie Wilcox) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As the curtain opened for the second set to a recorded intro to “Road To Utopia,” a more traditional stage set-up was revealed, with Willie’s drums now sitting center-stage back, with Gil’s keyboard rig in basically the same spot it occupied before the break; both musicians were now situated on a level with Todd and Kasim, the previous set’s risers having been removed. A quick look at the time as the quartet took the stage again – playing a spirited version of one of my favorite numbers from Utopia’s “pop period” – indicated that they were gone for nearly forty minutes. The additional rest seemed to work wonders for Rundgren’s voice, so I cannot be upset over a break that was nearly twice as long as promised. This second set proved to be punchier than the first, with shorter, more melodic songs emphasizing a true band dynamic. The point is driven home by Kasim Sulton’s lead vocals on the next two tunes, POV’s “Play This Game” and the jazz-tinged “Swing To the Right.” “Trapped” featured a patented Rundgren guitar freakout and, though Todd continued to take a few vocal turns (mostly choruses and harmony parts), it seemed at this point that Kasim was doing most of the leads after the group’s return to the stage. I thought that it may have been Rundgren’s illness forcing a readjustment of the set list but, after checking set-lists from previous nights, it would appear that Sulton’s songs were bunched together like this since the beginning of the tour. “Set Me Free” gave way to a very nice version of “Love In Action,” with Todd once again taking the lead vocal. “Hammer In My Heart” seemed to indicate that the Wizard was saving his voice for the “radio/MTV hits.” Though obviously ailing, Rundgren continued to push through with some quite animated and very spirited guitar histrionics.

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Kasim Sulton, Todd Rundgren) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Gil Assayas) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Willie Wilcox got his “Ringo moment,” as he took the lead on “Princess of the Universe,” a very Nazz-like pop thing from 1982’s UTOPIA before Sulton again sings lead on “I Will Wait” from OBLIVION. A Philadelphian at heart, Todd always pushed a bit of the Philly Soul sound into his music. “Rock Love” was his “James Brown moment,” setting aside his guitar, exhorting the crowd and his bandmates like a Baptist preacher on a Sunday morning, to ever greater heights of ecstasy. Kasim, on guitar, played a nifty solo. With Sulton back on bass, Rundgren delivered a powerful, if strained (and guitar-less) “Love Is the Answer” as, finally, the audience rose to its feet for a sing-along, clap-along ending. With the Runt looking a little the worse for wear, he nonetheless strapped on the guitar for the final number of the show proper, “One World.” After a short break, the band returned for one final song, a cover of sorts – an emotional, Gospel-tinged “Just One Victory” from Todd’s 1973 solo release, A WIZARD, A TRUE STAR. The evening was everything I could have hoped for (well, I wouldn’t have minded if they did “Itch In My Brain” but, that’s a minor infraction) and, I gotta say, that even though he wasn’t feeling too well, Mister Rundgren looked pretty good for a guy that’s (mumble-mumble) years old.


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.


IT WAS FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY… A LOOK BACK AT THE MUSIC OF THE SUMMER OF LOVE

The Summer of Love (San Francisco, 1967) (photo credit: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE ARCHIVES)

The Summer of Love (San Francisco, 1967) (photo credit: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE ARCHIVES)

It’s hard to believe that this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called “Summer of Love,” highlighted by a major explosion of influential rock acts, mind-expanding music and… oh, yeah!… there was that landmark Beatles album, SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. 1967 was a watershed year for music; a year which saw the release of several important debut albums and a slew of downright great rock ‘n’ roll records.

Big Brother and the Holding Company (James Gurley, Sam Andrew, Janis Joplin, Dave Getz, Peter Albin) (publicity photo) Grateful Dead (Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan) (photo credit: HERB GREENE)

Big Brother and the Holding Company (James Gurley, Sam Andrew, Janis Joplin, Dave Getz, Peter Albin) (publicity photo) Grateful Dead (Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan) (photo credit: HERB GREENE)

The Doors’ first album came out early in the year, along with another important first step in the psychedelic movement, as SURREALISTIC PILLOW by the Jefferson Airplane, Grace Slick’s debut with the band. The Grateful Dead followed with their first album about a month later. At the same time, the Godfathers (and Godmother) of punk and alternative rock hit the ground running with the Velvet Underground’s opening salvo. Janis Joplin got some attention as the new singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, while a former US Army paratrooper, ex-pat who also played a little guitar released his first album, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, as front man of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Beatles came out with their magnum opus, SERGEANT PEPPER’S… on the first day of June; while they were recording what many consider the greatest album of all time, a band called the Pink Floyd were also working at Abbey Road Studios, just down the hall from the Fab Four, on their first album, Syd Barrett’s psychedelic masterpiece, THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN. Late in the year, Cream, Traffic, Buffalo Springfield and the Who gave us still more great music (in the forms of DISRAELI GEARS, MISTER FANTASY, BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD AGAIN and THE WHO SELL OUT, respectively). The Monkees, the Beatles, the Turtles, Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops and Lulu all hit the top of the singles charts with unforgettable tunes throughout the year. The year 1967 was, indeed, a watershed year for pop music and the year that rock and roll grew up, expanding musical limits and young minds the world over.

PINNACLE

THE BEATLES: SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND

SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND; The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (publicity photo)

SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND; The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (publicity photo)

Obviously, SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND is the standard by which all music released in 1967 (and, in fact, in the fifty years since) is measured. The album was a big surprise when it came out… lots of folks actually thought the Beatles might be breaking up because they hadn’t released anything new since February, with the single “Strawberry Fields Forever” (and, their last album, REVOLVER, hit the streets nearly a year earlier, in early August, 1966). Ironically, the John Lennon-penned “Strawberry Fields… ,” the very first song the Lads worked on for the album, didn’t even make the final cut. SERGEANT PEPPER’S was a true product of the great working relationship between the Beatles and their producer, George Martin, who took the band’s brilliant pop songs and grandiose ideas, molded them into a cohesive orchestral whole and just made everything work… beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The record’s last track, “A Day In the Life,” was immediately recognized as one of the Beatles’ best and most important songs; Lennon’s dreamy vocals at the start are still as haunting as ever and Paul McCartney’s amazing bass playing stands out, as it does throughout the entire album. Over the past fifty years, the Fab Four’s eighth full-length is as well known for the amazing cover by artist Peter Blake as for the thirteen tracks found within the sleeve; the songs, the performances, the production and the visuals all gelled to make SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND the single most memorable moment in the annals of not only popular music, but popular culture as a whole. Rock and roll and pop music would never be the same; the rock medium, in particular, would move away from looking at an album as merely a collection of singles to a well thought-out, cohesive set of songs, sequenced to be enjoyed in its entirety. I was just thirteen years old when the record came out and, even after five decades, I still appreciate and still enjoy all the great music that came from that “Summer of Love.”

TOP OF THE POPS: FIVE ALBUMS THAT CHANGED THE LANDSCAPE OF POP MUSIC

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: SURREALISTIC PILLOW

SURREALISTIC PILLOW; Jefferson Airplane (Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin) (uncredited photo)

SURREALISTIC PILLOW; Jefferson Airplane (Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin) (uncredited photo)

First and foremost, Jefferson Airplane’s SURREALISTIC PILLOW, their first with former Great Society singer Grace Slick, proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that a woman could rock the house down with the seminal Society leftovers, “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.” Grace quickly ascended to become one of, if not THE premier rock vocalists of her time. With Slick on board, the Airplane were quite successful, both commercially and critically, for several years, while “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” have become radio standards. Jefferson Airplane became one of the symbols of a new era in rock music with the psychedelic folk of SURREALISTIC PILLOW. I still enjoy listening to it.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO; The Velvet Underground (Nico, Andy Warhol, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale) (publicity photo)

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO; The Velvet Underground (Nico, Andy Warhol, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale) (publicity photo)

The Velvet Underground’s debut – “produced” by Andy Warhol and featuring (at Warhol’s behest) Teutonic femme fatale, Nico – didn’t really hit me until years later, but the record’s influence was very important to many of the groups that I got into in subsequent years. The original group – Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen (Mo) Tucker and Sterling Morrison – took quite a different approach to the commercial rock scene; their avant-garde sound, highlighted by great playing became the cornerstone that indie and alternative rock would build upon in the years since. As is often said, it may not have sold many copies, but everybody that heard it wanted to start a band; were the true alternative to pop music and started an underground rock movement that continues to reverberate throughout the music world.

THE DOORS: THE DOORS

THE DOORS; The Doors (Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Jim Morrison) (photo copyright: JOEL BRODSKY)

THE DOORS; The Doors (Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Jim Morrison) (photo copyright: JOEL BRODSKY)

Another band that dabbled in the darker side of the musical spectrum was the Doors, perhaps darker even than the Velvets. Of course, the quartet’s first album featured the classic rock fixture, “Light My Fire,” which propelled a tragic rock god, Jim Morrison, into a larger-than-life cult figure, but it was songs like the eleven-and-a-half minute epic, “The End,” that truly defined the band. Eight months later, the group’s second record, STRANGE DAYS, cemented Morrison’s shamanistic standing with “People Are Strange,” the evil intent of Moonlight Drive,” “Love Me Two Times” and another dark epic, “When the Music’s Over.” My favorite Doors album is actually MORRISON HOTEL from a couple of years later, but the groundwork was definitely laid on their classic first album.

THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE: ARE YOU EXPERIENCED

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED; The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell) (publicity photo)

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED; The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell) (publicity photo)

Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding hit big with their debut record, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, though I didn’t get into Hendrix until a few years later. Jimi took the world by storm, becoming rock’s big guitar hero, virtually supplanting England’s rock gods, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, soaring to ever greater heights in a meteoric four year career. Tragically, Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, along with the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones all passed on within a couple of years of each other (between July 1969 and July 1971), becoming the first “official” members of what would come to be known as popular music’s “27 Club.”

PINK FLOYD: THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN; Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters) (photo credit: ALAIN DISTER PHOTOSHOT)

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN; Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters) (photo credit: ALAIN DISTER PHOTOSHOT)

Finally, we have the first record from the Syd Barett-led Pink Floyd, THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN, a group and an album that was the impetus for the Progressive Rock movement, which would spawn such acts as King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, among others down the road. Oddly enough, the Floyd were recording their debut down the hall at Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles were producing their masterpiece. SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND was inspired by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ PET SOUNDS album which, in turn, was inspired by the Beatles’ own RUBBER SOUL. How much did what John, Paul, George and Ringo were doing in that neighboring studio inspire Syd, Roger, Rick and Nick? That’s what made the music of the era so memorable… groups and artists could no longer afford to stand on their laurels, they were continually pushed by others to up their game, to progress and change. For fifty years (and counting), that has been the lasting legacy of SERGEANT PEPPER’S… .


ASIA: SYMFONIA – LIVE IN BULGARIA 2013 WITH THE PLOVDIV OPERA ORCHESTRA

(FRONTIERS MUSIC; 2017)

Ain’t gonna lie… Asia’s self-titled debut album was one of my favorite – if not my absolute favorite – and most listened-to releases of 1982. Why? This type of supergroup progressive pomposity was well out of favor by the time of its release. Well, first and, perhaps, foremost was the fact that I would buy anything… make that ANYTHING that featured John Wetton on bass and vocals; the former Mogul Thrash, Family, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, UK and Wishbone Ash player was and remains one of my all-time favorite singers and bass players. Mister Wetton did not disappoint with this record! Next, Carl Palmer (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Atomic Rooster and Emerson, Lake and Powell… er… Emerson, Lake and Palmer) was much more than a drummer… he was a percussionist who could pound out a beat like John Bonham or lay down a swinging Jazz groove, a la Bill Ward or any number of his early influences like Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich, plus… BRAIN SALAD SURGERY and “Karn Evil 9.” Need I say more? The final pieces to the puzzle were 40 percent of the band that recorded my favorite Yes album, 1980’s DRAMA: Steve Howe, an innovative and virtuoso level guitarist and Geoff Downes, keyboard genius and former Buggle. I was in Prog Nerd Heaven even though I had been listening to tons of Punk Rock back then, including the Damned, XTC and the Jam (though those bands had taken their music down a more inventive, progressive path by that time). So, anyway… I was hooked from that very first power chord to “Heat of the Moment.” These guys were the real deal and I was more than ready to snatch up their next offering, ALPHA, released the following year. Yeah… it suffered from what many call “the (dreaded) sophomore slump” and the discouraging reception to the album led to the exit (temporary, though it was) of Wetton. John was back in time to record the next set, ASTRA, though Steve Howe had headed out the back door as the bassist was reentering through the front; Wetton’s return and Howe’s replacement, Mandy Meyer, couldn’t salvage the sinking ship and Asia became a distant memory as everyone moved on to other projects. The original four (Downes, Howe, Palmer, Wetton) reformed in 2006, releasing three albums of new material before Howe left once again in early 2013 (citing the wear and tear of juggling touring and recording schedules with both Asia and Yes). Which brings us to this album, featuring current guitarist Sam Coulson on what was his first tour with the band; released, unfortunately, six weeks after John Wetton lost his years-long fight with cancer, the quartet is in fine form – even if the set list is a bit spotty, which may have to do with the involvement of the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra during the second half more than anything else.

ASIA (Carl Palmer, John Wetton, Geoff Downes) (publicity still)

The album is broken up into two distinct parts: Asia performing as a standard four-piece rock band (Disc 1 of the 2 CD set) and accompanied by the orchestra on a somewhat more sedate set (Disc 2). The first set gets off to a rousing start with “Sole Survivor,” a track from the debut album. The core members of the group – Wetton, Palmer and Downes – are in fine fettle here. John’s voice is strong; Geoff’s keyboard work enters into (Jon) Lordian realms, heavy and intense; Carl’s drumming borders on hyperactive, with thunderous fills and a slightly quicker tempo than I remember from the original. Sam Coulson’s guitar parts offer a bit more heft than did Howe’s original which, alongside Palmer’s jackhammer delivery, gives a certain urgency to this updated arrangement. “Time Again” is a propulsive proto-metal behemoth, somehow reminiscent of Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” The guitar is more in line with the original and the backing vocals are on point, as well. It’s another great version of one of the prime cuts from the first record. Truth be told, when I first heard the lead track to 2012’s XXX album, “Face On the Bridge,” I did not like it. At all! It sounded like a sappy, sentimental “time has passed me by” ballad from a band whose time had, indeed, come and gone. Brother, was I wrong! How could I have missed on this one so badly? Here, the song bristles with a vigor that belies that inevitable passing of time. Compared to the original, though the song was barely a year old (release wise), in this setting, Wetton’s voice sounds even stronger, Downes delivers some inspired live flourishes and Coulson’s guitar adds a little somethin’-somethin’ that even the legendary Steve Howe couldn’t bring to the original. “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want),” from the group’s second record, is very much a product of its time. ALPHA saw the band move further into the realm of schmaltzy MTV/Journey balladry, leading to divisions within and an eventual split. This particular song isn’t really too bad, just not what Asia’s fans were expecting after that monster debut; now, thirty years later, the tune seems to take on a new relevance, especially with Wetton fighting various major illnesses. I’m sure the other three men on stage felt the emotional power that their singer put behind these lyrics during this tour.

ASIA (Carl Palmer) (publicity still)

Holy War,” a song from the OMEGA record, is a heavy prog ballad propelled forward, primarily, by Carl Palmer’s ferocious percussion and Geoff Downes’ keyboard artistry. Wetton seems to be loosening up by this point as his vocals become a bit more aggressive with a raspy sort of growl that fits perfectly within the context of the tune. An overblown symphonic intro from Geoff leads into the overblown progressive balladry of “An Extraordinary Life.” The lyrics are this number’s saving grace. John delivers his words with conviction, though – in the hands of lesser singers – such fare could well have been expressed in an overly dramatic, overwrought fashion. Finally… going all the way back to THEN AND NOW, the 1990 compilation of new and old, comes a power ballad that actually works! “Days Like These” is a great example of how well the Palmer/Wetton rhythm section complimented each other. This version also features a simple organ part from Downes and a spot on solo from Sam Coulson. It’s very nice to hear this one in a live setting. With “Open Your Eyes,” a weird vocoder intro turns into a very nice mid-tempo rocker featuring Wetton’s newly-positive and uplifting lyrics. Carl is particularly… uh… restrained here, showing us that, yes, he can be a true team player. There are more vocoder shenanigans during the middle break, which is a very operatic, chorusy thing that simmers just below John’s improvised vocals. Sam’s guitar fits quite comfortably within the confines of the song, shining especially bright on some very tasty solos and, his interplay with Downes’ organ to end the number is just awesome.

ASIA (Sam Coulson) (publicity still)

As the album’s name implies, Asia is joined for the second set by the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra. The first song with the orchestra, “Only Time Will Tell,” one of the many favorites from the group’s stunning debut, still sounds as fresh and vibrant as it did the first time I heard it, with Sam Coulson echoing that amazing Steve Howe riff, while adding a bit of his own flair to the tune. At this point, I’m not certain how the addition of the orchestra is going to work, as everything in this arrangement sounds exactly like Downes’ original keyboard embellishments. Even with the inevitable intermission between the band set and the introduction of the orchestra factored in, it seems strange to bookend the progressive power of “Only Time Will Tell” with a pair of the group’s more sedate numbers, “Open Your Eyes” and ALPHA’s “Don’t Cry.” With a slightly quicker tempo and Downes pretty much sticking to piano on the latter, the orchestra definitely adds to the overall sound of the piece. I’ve already praised John Wetton’s vocal performance but, really haven’t mentioned his bass work; as always, it is superb (in my estimation, Wetton was one of the best ever) and especially so on this song. Palmer again proves to be a master craftsman, playing deep in the pocket and offering a tasteful fill only when required. Next up is “Heroine.” Uh… okay… not a fan of this one. At all. Wetton’s voice is okay, Downes’ piano and the orchestra sound fine but, “Heroine” is just… BAD! It’s a sappy ballad that simply cannot escape its own sappiness.

ASIA (John Wetton) (publicity still)

I’m not too sure what this says about Asia’s recorded output but, with five songs from their stellar debut and another four from the artistically disappointing follow-up, ALPHA, it certainly seems that, as of 2013, the group was content to bask in the glory of those two records. “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes,” the fourth tune from that sophomore release, starts slow and features the epic build inherent in all early ‘80s power ballads, though with a bit of an edge due to Carl driving the band and orchestra with an accelerated tempo that is not unappealing for an all but forgotten thirty year old single from a mostly forgettable album. The final two numbers come from the formidable ASIA album. “Wildest Dreams” somehow seems more relevant today than it did 35 years ago. I’m not even sure how they even managed to pull this off (unless the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra also brought along a hefty chorus) but, the massive background vocals sound… if not over the top, at least completely out of place. Regardless, this is the quartet hitting on all cylinders, with an aggressive arrangement that highlights a cool duel between Sam and Geoff. The first song on the first side of that first record, “Heat of the Moment” may sound somewhat dated lyrically (featuring one of the most well-known couplets in Prog Rock history, “And now you find yourself in ‘82/The disco hotspots hold no charm for you”), but the power of the music and the conviction in Wetton’s voice still make it a crowd-pleasing sing-along… even in Bulgaria. The sheer firepower that the combined talents of John Wetton, Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer and then-newcomer Sam Coulson bring to bear on this version delivers a fantastic finish to a rather uneven show that may very well have suffered due to the limitations of playing with an orchestra.

I fully understand that this is a very different band than the one that recorded that 1982 debut offering… they are far more thoughtful and introspective, particularly after the health scares faced by their frontman throughout the latter part of their history and, well… let’s face it, apart from Coulson, they aren’t exactly young men. Even when considering the phenomenal accomplishments of Palmer, Wetton and Downes before and after ASIA, it must have been a hard pill to swallow realizing that the group was at their creative peak on their first album; it couldn’t have been easy trying to equal or outshine a record that could quite easily be released under the title ASIA’S GREATEST HITS with no additional material needed to bolster the original nine-track sequencing. However, having said that, shortcomings aside, this album does work as a fitting memorial to John Wetton, one of the true legends of Progressive Rock. I should point out here that I was privy only to the music tracks that make up just a part of the SYMFONIA package, which also contains a DVD (or Blu-Ray) of the concert; there is also a double vinyl set available, without the additional video media.