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.


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.


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.


AENAON: HYPNOSOPHY

(CODE666 RECORDS/AURAL MUSIC; 2016)

Aenaon is a Greek word that means “inexhaustible, indestructible, durable.” Aenaon is also a Greek progressive metal band formed in 2005 who, through several demos and split releases, an EP and two full-length albums, seem to be as durable and indestructible as their name implies. Now, two years after their last album, EXTANCE (and a year after a 7” split with Virus of Koch), the group tests their durability with HYPNOSOPHY, a record that stretches the boundaries of traditional black metal, veering toward an experimental sound that is every bit as groundbreaking in its scope as IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING was to psychedelic music in 1969. The band seems to evolve – as any good band should – with each new record; I can draw a fairly reliable line to two events in the career of Aenaon that sparked this evolution: The return of a former creative spark, guitarist Achilleas Kalantzis in 2009 and percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Nycriz joining in 2012. Lyricist/vocalist Astrous, Achilleas and the adventurous Nycriz have redefined metal music for the 2010s by introducing elements of the early free-form Jazz movement alongside liberal doses of their cultural heritage, via traditional Greek Folk music and instrumentation.

Aenaon (Achilleas Kalantzis, Orestis Zyrinis, Nycriz, Astrous) (photo credit: EVI SAVVA)

The album kicks off with “Oneirodynia,” a song that’s highly operatic in scope; there’s just something inherently unsettling about throat-ripping blackened vocals supported by a Wagnerian chorus. Equally damaging to the psyche are the dark, Jazz-like saxophone skronks – as an unlikely lead and solo instrument – supplied by the group’s newest member, Orestis Zyrinis. We are definitely off to a great start! Staccato guitar riffs, thumping, pumping bass and a massive drum assault introduce “Fire Walk With Me” before some imaginative – dare I say, “progressive” – guitar/keyboard interplay, via Achilleas and fellow guitarist, Anax (John Memos), takes center stage. The use of both Astrous’ harsh vocals (which are a wicked cross between Venom’s Cronos and King Diamond) and the clean vocals of guest, Giorgos Papagiannakis (Memos’ Absinthiana bandmate), along with blistering speed metal-like guitar solo, infuses a bit of the psychotic into the number and plays very well into the genre-bending sound of HYPNOSOPHY. “Earth Tomb,” for me, is a step back; not quite up to par with the record’s two opening salvos. The tune is features a rather repetitive operatic type of groove with a harsh spoken word section that does absolutely nothing for me (or the song itself, actually). I’m not saying that the song is devoid of any redeeming features; highlights include a moody guitar solo in the break, as well as the return of Orestis’ inventive sax work. I guess what I’m saying is that the thing isn’t horrible, just not great. Okay, so… next track, same as the last… sorta. With the vocals of Astrous sounding more ominous amid the slower groove and the voice of guest Sofia Sarri taking the lead, “Void” actually grows on you before the tune ends. In fact, the song – with its somber, vaguely Middle Eastern vibe – is far better than I had originally anticipated it to be a minute or so in. Yeah… okay, this one is a keeper.

Tunnel” kicks off the second half of the record. While further expanding the definition of the term, the number maintains an old school trash sound, with lightning fast guitar and sax (!) parts. Papagiannakis’ vocals have an odd Axl Rose quality that is not unappealing, while the drumming is powerful and jackhammer-fast; even the slower keyboard/sax break is cool – in a strange kinda Bowie or Foreigner way. I really like the dichotomy of sounds and styles on this one. “Thus Ocean Swells” is more of a straight-on slice of operatic metal with a heavy King Crimson progressive vibe. The clean vocals work exceptionally well in this context, while the harsher vocals seem woefully out of place; instrumentally, however, horns, keys and guitars all swirl around in a magnificent rush of Crimsonesque grandeur. The album closer (and magnum opus), a couplet of “Phronesis” and “Psychomagic” absolutely screams early ‘70s prog-rock excess – which I’m definitely a fan of, by the way – right from the song title(s) and fifteen-minute-plus length. A stick-in-your-brain guitar riff, powerful bass, awesome (not overly busy) drumming and Mel Collins-like sax runs inform the cool three-and-a-half-minute intro, as Nycriz’s drums pick up the pace around the five miute mark. Whereas Astrous’ harsh vocals seemed out of place on “Thus Ocean Swells,” here, his stage-whispered lyrics sound more at home, more demonic and ominous. A fitting way to close out a really solid record. It’s easy to create an album of heavy metal music in 2016, it’s a little harder to mine your own metal vein and develop a sub-genre in your own image; Aenaon has subverted the scene, reinvented the wheel and lain the fruit of their labors at the feet of those of us looking for a little more range within the realm of heavy music.


RED JASPER: 777

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2016)

5ce5f534-28e8-4464-9205-14e7af4ca701

Hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW – relatively speaking, anyway… before that January 2015 album, the band’s previous release was 1997’s ANAGRAMARY – comes the seventh and latest chapter of the progressively-inclined Red Jasper, called 777. Like its predecessor, the record is a gently rocking progressive affair… kinda like latter-day Genesis or early Gentle Giant, with just enough bite to keep the more hard rock-inclined among us happy (not to mention some Marillion-esque keyboard work and some very tasty guitar from time to time). 777 is sort of a sequel to the Clive Barker-inspired …SECRET SHOW, with the lyrics once again exploring the very personal religious imagery from that release; as vocalist David Clifford writes in his liner notes, “777 is described as the antithesis of 666.” The first track is called “7” and it has a definite Marillion feel, though without the harsh, powerful vocals of Derek Dick (better known as Fish) or even the smoother pop stylings of Steve Hogarth. Clifford hangs around the upper registers, sort of somewhere around Geddy Lee’s mid-period Rush stuff, while avoiding the nasally proclivities of that stalwart. “Nothing To Believe” features a galloping bass line from Jim Thornton and really cool multi-tracked and harmony riffing from guitarist Robin Harrison. The lyrics document the struggles of youth and, finally, rising above the chaos and dismay with the chorus, “That life has gone/But my life will carry on.” Bonus points to newish drummer Florin Werner for his indiscreet use of the cowbell throughout the tune. Shifting from a demented waltz to a punky, charging hard rock affair, the schizophrenic “She Waits” offers a little something for everybody, including a completely unhinged Harrison solo and more words-per-square-inch than most tunes. “Forth of Fife” could very easily be considered either an homage or a flat-out rip of the Genesis classic “Firth of Fifth.” It has so many like elements that it’s hard not to compare the two: Lloyd George’s amazing keyboard work, particularly the solo piano; a flute part that may or may not be another George keyboard creation (no mention of a flute appears anywhere in the album credits); more stellar fretwork from Harrison; a melody line that is quite reminiscent of the Genesis tune. Given all of these similarities, it wouldn’t be too difficult to consider “Forth of Fife” a musical parody of an iconic piece of progressive rock. Thankfully, the tune stands on its own, as the nods to the previous work manage to weave themselves into the songs original fabric, allowing the words and music to tell their own story, live in their own reality. The most forceful track thus far, “The Gathering” features all of the hallmarks of a great progressive number, falling somewhere between classic Yes and a more metallic Rush. The rhythm section, in particular, puts a little extra punch into their parts – Thornton’s bass moves from Chris Squire’s melodic picking style to something akin to Tony Levin’s fluid stick thumps, while Werner falls just south of the percussive overload created by Neal Peart. Even at eight-and-a-half minutes, the song never lagged and, in fact, seemed to end far sooner than I expected. Again, bonus points to the other three Jaspers, with amazing work turned in by Clifford, George and Harrison.

Red Jasper (Jon Thornton, Robin Harrison, David Clifford, Lloyd George, Florin Werner) (uncredited photo)

Red Jasper (Jon Thornton, Robin Harrison, David Clifford, Lloyd George, Florin Werner) (uncredited photo)

Reaching Out” begins with a lone, chiming guitar before developing into a really cool psuedo-’60s Folk-pop sort of affair. The addition of an “arena rock” keyboard solo (it reminds me of something Ken Hensley may have played during Uriah Heep’s heyday; David Byron called it the “Moog simplifier”), which could have rendered the song cheesy beyond repair, actually enhances the overall vibe. More late ’60s guitar highlights “Blessed With Gold,” a track that is equal parts “California Dreamin’,” Lordian (as in, Deep Purple’s Jon) keyboard bombast, Middle Eastern melodies and a certain “Arrh, matey” nautical theme. “Dragonfly” is a gauzy, pastoral number, with elegant fretwork from Harrison and keyboard washes from George. However, though Clifford’s ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS lyrics lend a child-like charm to the tune, it’s Werner’s percussive restraint and Thornton’s rather lilting bassline that really make the song work for me. It seems as though these Jaspers got most of their hard rocking tendencies out of their systems in the first half of 777, as “Paradise Folly” continues the Fairport Convention/English Folk sound prevalent on the second half. Another beautiful guitar solo from Harrison highlights the proceedings. “October and April” is listed as a bonus track. It’s a stripped-down cover of an obscure song by an even more obscure Finnish group called the Rasmus. Clifford duets with his daughter, Soheila, with brilliant accompaniment by Red Jasper’s original guitarist, Tony Heath, on a number that kinda reminds me of a Celtic version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” A nice, if rather light, end to an unassuming record that sort of sneaks up on you… before you realize what’s happening, your toes are a-tappin’ and you’re having a quietly good time with one of England’s best secret weapons of progressive music.


BILLY SHERWOOD: CITIZEN

(Frontiers Music; 2015)

album_cover_CITIZEN_55f05293426d5

Billy Sherwood seems to be a guy who doesn’t rattle easily. A guy who can step in and handle enormous responsibilities without flinching. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, he stepped in to some pretty big shoes, and helped a struggling Jon Anderson-fronted Yes continue their journey on both record and stage. Sherwood’s a big part of the sound on OPEN YOUR EYES and THE LADDER, both underrated. While releasing a series of solo albums and guesting on records all over the place, both proggy and not, Sherwood became a kind of go-to guy when a band needed not just a multi-instrumentalist, but an experienced engineer. Chris Squire, the legendary Yes bassist who succumbed to leukemia last year, initially picked Sherwood to replace him on bass for a huge 2015 Yes tour that Squire knew he couldn’t participate in. That’s no small thing and Sherwood, by all accounts, jumped in ready to go. But then, Squire left this mortal coil, and now, well, we have to assume Sherwood will continue with Yes, and might even be the point man for a brand new phase, one that none of us can anticipate yet. The guy is a fantastic, versatile musician, and he’s earned good karma a-plenty.

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Which brings us to CITIZEN, surprisingly Sherwood’s seventh or eighth solo album since 1999. It’s a solid platter, with appearances by Yes members both past and present, and the last song recorded by Chris Squire (he appears on the opening track, “The Citizen”). There’s a familiarity about the sound that you can’t deny, and it wouldn’t be fair to even think in terms of “Yes-lite” or something. These are muscular, strong compositions, and why not use musicians of the caliber of YES men such as Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman and Geoff Downes if you can? This is still a Sherwood album through and through, and he sings most of the lead vocals. Among standout tracks: “No Man’s Land,” a fizzy prog confection that alternates between memorably processed lead vocals, Yes-like harmonies, and a confidently anchored arrangement. “Age of the Atom” is a stirring piece that has a descending chord progression, a hooky chorus and some zippy keyboard playing… this one definitely sticks in the ear. By the way, this and “The Great Depression” may bring another progressive behemoth to mind – Genesis. Sherwood sounds a tad like Peter Gabriel at times, and it’s worth mentioning that Steve Hackett from that band is also featured on the record (on “Man and the Machine”). “Trail of Tears” is a tune Gabriel would love… it echoes his aesthetic about indigenous peoples and the subject matter definitely takes on the famed Native American death march of the 1800s. Some very airy, charming synth work is an interesting sonic counterpoint to the theme, and you can just enjoy this track musically without worrying about the history lesson. It’s really good, plain and simple. The aptly named “Escape Velocity” is suffused with Yes DNA… if you just heard this playing, especially during the chorus, you would guess it was likely the real YES, an unfamiliar track perhaps. This is really spirited stuff, and you will swear you can hear Squire on that chorus and bass (though it’s really Billy showing the world why he was Chris’ handpicked successor). Anyway, this is one of the album’s highlights. The ending really kicks ass. And so does the ending of the entire disc, “Written In the Centuries,” which finds current Yes lead singer Jon Davison outfront on vocals. Nice, tight harmonies, chiming guitars, mystical lyrics, tempo changes… why, YES, peeps, you’ll recognize this sound! But somehow it’s also… different. Fresh. It’s the Billy Sherwood approach to prog, and it’s plenty meaty!

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

The album has a story line, by the way, something about a lost soul being reincarnated into different historical periods. There’s a song about Galileo (featuring vocals from XTC’s Colin Moulding) and all sorts of references you’ll have fun trying to catch. But you don’t HAVE to know the theme or decipher the lyrics to appreciate this album. There’s a majesty about a lot of this stuff that shows the pedigree of the players. There are melodies, no song is all that long, and the sonics are nicely balanced between what all Yes fans might expect and fresher elements that Billy Sherwood, a thoughtful musician, took care to weave into the compositions. This CITIZEN is a reliable one indeed, and deserves to take its rightful place in the ever evolving community of Yes and related prog-dom. Nice job, Billy boy. I hope your pal Chris got to hear most of this before he said goodbye.


JOHN LODGE: 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO

(Esoteric Antenna; 2015)

maxresdefault

I’m rather late coming to this one, which is odd because I am a big Moody Blues fan. I think the Moodys are one of the most underrated (at least by official organizations) bands of all time, and in particular, I think Justin Hayward is an incredible singer/songwriter that deserves some kind of special creative inspiration award for the way he transformed the Moodys from an average ’60s pop band to an incredibly evocative, haunting poetic soft prog band. In fact, there is a new film out about the significance of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST in the annals of rock music. Okay, there were others involved in that process, but… it was mostly Justin. However, this review is supposed to be about John Lodge. His second solo disc is titled 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO, and it begs the question, as solo outings always do, what interesting things did John have to share with us that could not fit into the confines of the Moodys’ work? Well, maybe that’s not fair – a parent band generally has a signature sound that everyone contributes to; solo albums allow the “lesser” members to do something where they are in control. John Lodge is a vital part of the Moody Blues, and his collaborations with Justin Hayward have made for some of the best music of all time, up to and including their peerless 1975 BLUE JAYS outing. But vocally, he certainly takes a back seat to Justin’s emotive singing. That said, if you cue up the tune “Simply Magic,” you’ll not only get an acoustic charmer of a tune, you’ll get three Moody Blues – as Ray Thomas and Mike Pinder, both of whom left the band after their heyday, make guest appearances. It’s a breezy little tune. I didn’t respond much to “In My Mind” and “Get Me Out of Here,” both of which struck me as rather bland. Somewhat better is the violin and accordion-laden “Love Passed Me By,” a snappy little supper club tune that sounds like John Lodge making music far apart from his homies. He seems really engaged in this track. One thing, though… after years of making poetic, innovative music with his bros Justin Hayward and Graeme Edge, couldn’t Lodge come up with better lyrics than “Love passed me by/When you said goodbye/For another guy/Gone was the chance/Of our romance/When you said goodbye/Now as I lay in my cold and lonely room/It’s the day love passed me by.” C’mon, John, you were involved in tunes like “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Ride My Seesaw,” and “Question”… you’re gonna tell me that sophisticated comps like that didn’t raise the stakes for ya? Most is forgiven with the out and out rock & roll of “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” which is a ton of fun and might be as loose as Lodge has ever sounded in a recording studio. “Lose Your Love” is quite yucky, and Lodge doesn’t have an interesting enough voice or approach to pull off the bland lyrics and overly familiar subject matter here. The closing title track seems like an attempt to utilize some aspects of the Moodys’ sound in a solo context, and while it has a little bit of grandeur and definite forward motion, I couldn’t help wondering what the song might have risen to if Hayward had been the co-writer. Not much original here, honestly.

John Lodge (publicity photo courtesy: ROGERS AND COWAN)

John Lodge (publicity photo courtesy: ROGERS AND COWAN)

It’s gotta be tough, being in a legendary band and thinking you have more to say than what the band will allow. The creative impulse cannot be denied, but the fact is, countless solo albums from bands like the Moody Blues, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and others from the progressive era simply fell way short of expectations. Justin Hayward, as the primary force in the Moodys, always seemed so prolific that he had to get his solo stuff out there, and it retained a familiarity overall that kept fans pleased. While some of Lodge’s tunes rise to the level of melodic pleasantry, there is definitely a sense of something missing on 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO. You want it to be dramatic, like the title… searching, thoughtful, maybe even a little epic. At best, though, it is amiable, well-crafted and inoffensive. It’s a “question of imbalance,” a thwarted “search for the lost chord” that would stick with you somehow if these songs were richer in detail, even if most Moodys’ fans will at least be glad this second Lodge outing exists at all.


LINDA HOYLE: THE FETCH

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; English import, 2015)

8pp Booklet

Good Lord, talk about a long break between albums! It was way back in 1971 when Linda Hoyle released her debut, PIECE OF ME. Previously, she’d been in a band called Affinity. Now, 45 years later, we get THE FETCH, which is a reasonably… well, fetching collection of emotive, adult tunes about life and love and yearning. There’s a drowsy, late-night feel to tunes like “Cut and Run” and “Confessional” that can make you drift off to sleep if you’re just kinda lying around listening. The bass is a bit jazzy and the guitars somewhere between proggy and ambient; all instruments serve Hoyle’s mature voice, which has a warmth and sincerity to it that can pull you in if you are relaxed enough. At the same time, it’s not really that GRABBY, and Hoyle serves up a sound and aesthetic here that seem to come from a time now forgotten. I guess that is actually the case, and things FORGOTTEN are part of the subject matter here. “I sat beside a suicide whose love I sadly lost/Led a milkman’s horse to water as we slipped across the frost/Spent my youth researching meaning that was cheap at twice the cost” Hoyle sings in “Confessional,” as a litany of various memories floats by lyrically. It’s the sound of a woman who knows she has seen a lot of years, and yet is still moved by things.

“It’s the World” is one of the stronger tunes here, offering both violin and keyboards in its pleasing, almost jaunty arrangement. A mood of not-quite resignation permeates, and there is alcohol flowing in this music, methinks, although just enough to get through a bout of overthinking. Some of the sentiments can be unnerving. In the angst-ridden “Fortuna,” Hoyle sings: “There’s a formula for fate/She’ll just check out with your last chance/You try to fuck with a lady luck/She’ll offer you sand with a mocking hand/Spin on your heel and she’ll spin the wheel… ” And it’s followed by a reference to “lips older than death… ” Yikes. The imagery is strong but not the kind of thing you ever see on recordings by younger gals. This is the work of someone who has been around and has a few warnings for y’all. Hopefully with a benevolent spirit, though. “Snowy Night” is gentle and pretty and, “West of the Moon” is rhythmic, lyrically pleasing and strongly played and sung… definitely one of the more distinctive tracks here.

Linda Hoyle (uncredited photo)

Linda Hoyle (uncredited photo)

“Earth and Stars” employs vocal effects, spacey minimalism and a proggy feel to take Hoyle somewhere quite different from the other tracks. It’s worth mentioning that Roger Dean designed the cover of this album, and various trademarks of the prog era are hinted at here and there. Hoyle is no ordinary singer/songwriter who has been hiding for decades in the confines of whatever life she leads. Clearly she KNOWS music and loves it. This track and some of the others reveal as much. And in the closing “Acknowledgments,” which features a church organ in beguiling manner, Hoyle sings the names of performers throughout music history that she has loved or been influenced by, after each series of names concluding “Always be a part of me.” Hoyle likely won’t join the heady company of the legends she names, and her sound and style are too limiting (maybe too LATE?) to reach any kind of mass audience. But she is able to touch the spirit with her sentiments and her clear emotional delivery. THE FETCH is one woman’s personal update of a life she’s known, many years after the events happened. It’s nostalgic, wise, and melancholy, and unerringly human in an era where cheap gimmicks and flashy technology tend to draw the most attention.


EPICA/MOONSPELL/STARKILL

(January 30, 2016; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

Epica-Tour

I gotta admit, I wasn’t real sure what to expect out of Epica… I just knew that I really wanted to see legendary Portuguese Goth metallers, Moonspell, again. Serious doubts entered my mind about the whole night when it seemed as though this was going to be another one of those sparsely attended Saint Louis shows; with about 30 minutes to go before start time, the room was less than half full. However, to my utter surprise (and delight), each check over my shoulder saw the head count rise to the point that, by the time Starkill took the stage, the floor was packed. And, what a great evening of rock and roll was on hand for one and all, beginning with…

Starkill (Tony Keathley; Parker Jameson, Shaun Andruchuk; Shaun Andruchuk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Starkill (Tony Keathley; Parker Jameson, Shaun Andruchuk; Shaun Andruchuk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Chicago progressive speed merchants, Starkill. The band’s prime mover, Parker Jameson, showed himself adept at both dirty and clean vocal styles, as well as impressive lead and solo guitar… he was even responsible for the prerecorded keyboard parts featured throughout the six-song set. The show highlighted Starkill’s most recent release, VIRUS OF THE MIND with three songs, including their opening salvo, “Be Dead or Die.” Odd title aside, the tune featured an intense orchestral intro from Jameson and a massive drum sound. Surprisingly, the strongest material has yet to be officially released, “Burn Your World” and “Cloudless,” from an upcoming third album (after two albums with Century Media, the band is self-releasing this one with fan funding from Indiegogo); maybe the strength of these new songs comes from the fact that guitarist Tony Keathley and bassist Shaun Andruchuk are now firmly ensconced in the fold (VIRUS OF THE MIND was pretty much finished when they were brought on board). Andruchuk is an absolute beast, prowling the stage and giving the guitars and vocals ample underpinning alongside the borderline maniacal drum-bashing of Spencer Weidner. As impressive as the rhythm section is, this group’s strength lies in the vocals (with Keathley supporting Jameson with clean counter-vocals and, in some instances, nice harmonies) and the twin lead work from the fleet-fingered guitarists, put to particularly good use on “Virus of the Mind.” What could have been a fairly unextraordinary set of Death Metal was continually lifted to unexpected heights by the clean vocals of both Parker and Tony, Spencer’s percussive expertise and the use of Parker’s keyboard and orchestral embellishments. These guys can only get better.

Moonspell (Fernando Ribeiro; Mike Gaspar; Aires Pereira) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Moonspell (Fernando Ribeiro; Mike Gaspar; Aires Pereira) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Moonspell have always tended toward the dark, Gothic edges of metal. More recently, they have gone full-tilt into the Gothic sound and lyrical imagery of such bands as the Damned, True Sounds of Liberty (TSOL), Danzig (both the metal band and their punk Misfit leader) and the lugubrious funeral dirges of Type-O Negative. The band were ushered to the stage with the atmospheric, near-operatic (as in THE PHAMTOM OF… ) “La Baphomette,” the final track from their latest record, EXTINCT; as vocalist Fernando Ribeiro took to the boards, the recorded intro faded, replaced by the ponderous beats of Mike Gaspar’s drums and the massive sound of Pedro Paixao’s pipe organ for the haunting “Breathe (Until We Are No More),” the opening cut from the same album. Guitarist Ricardo Amorim and bassist Aires Pereira initially seemed to be completely buried in the mix with the nearly overwhelming volume of the pipe organ. However, the problem was soon rectified and, to paraphrase the dearly departed Lemmy, everything was louder than everything else, with Pereira’s bass adding to the rhythmic din laid down by Gaspar and Amorim’s tasty licks leading the way on Moonspell’s musical moonlight drive through the cemetery. The band seemed to kick into high gear with the title track from EXTINCT, particularly Ricardo, who delivered the first of many killer solos; they really hit their stride, however, on older tunes like the slow grind of “Awake” (from 1998’s IRRELIGIOUS album) and a pair of late set favorites from their 1995 debut, WOLFHEART (the eerie fist-pumper “Vampiria” and “Alma Mater,” which featured a very nice old-school rock solo from Amorim). Ribeiro hung around the lower registers, occasionally approximating the bone-rattling baritone of the sorely missed Peter Steele or, alternately, delivering the gutteral death-rattle of the genre – moving effortlessly between the two at the drop of a coffin lid… plus, his accent kinda reminded me of Bela Lugosi. As good as Starkill was, this was definitely the highlight of the evening for me; could the headliner hope to match or exceed what Moonspell brought to the stage?

Epica (Simone SImons; Mark Jansen; Arien van Weesenbeek) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Simone SImons; Mark Jansen; Arien van Weesenbeek) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Kicking their set off with a couple of tracks from their latest release (THE QUANTUM ENIGMA from 2014), from the get-go, it was obvious that the name of these Nederlanders’ game was speed and precision; guitarists Isaac Delahaye (the lone Belgian in the group) and Mark Jansen proved to be fleet-of-finger, while bassist Rob van der Loo and drummer Arien van Weesenbeek matched them with a wicked ferocity and keyboardist Coen Janssen added a touch of the symphonic. Of course, above all was the unbelievable mezzo-soprano voice of the lovely Simone Simons. “The Second Stone” and “The Essence of Silence” were formidable blasts of Wagnerian bombast, with mystical/metaphysical lyrics, alternating between Simons’ operatic vocals and Jansen’s harsh, throaty growl. Amidst a flurry of hair-whipping, it was obvious – much like Moonspell before them – that the band (and an appreciative audience) really started to have fun with the introduction of some fan-favorite older material, beginning with “Sensorium,” from the group’s debut release, THE PHANTOM AGONY. With “Martyr of the Free World,” Coen Janssen emerged from the shadows (and fog) engulfing stage-right’s back corner with a unique bowed keyboard, soloing and mugging for the crowd (and I still couldn’t get a decent shot of the third original member of the group, along with Simone and band founder, Mark Jansen); toward the end of the song, after basking in the much-deserved accolades of the packed room, Janssen returned to his omni-directional keyboard as Delahaye killed a lightning-quick solo.

Epica (Rob van der Loo; Mark Jansen; Simone SImons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Rob van der Loo; Mark Jansen; Simone SImons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As you may well guess, any band with the type of near-virtuosity that each member possesses is going to solo and solo often. On “Cry For the Moon,” it was Weesenbeek’s turn, as the hard-pounding drummer delivered a powerful, tastefully short exhibit of his abilities. The song itself, another track from THE PHANTOM AGONY, built from a basic, martial rhythm to an anthemic slow-simmer to a full-blown operatic tour de force, with a Teutonic-sounding choir (via a sample or backing tape) adding a new dimension to the already forceful vocals of Simone Simons. Though Epica has been called a “Gothic Metal” band, it really isn’t until “Storm the Sorrow” that I caught anything (other than certain lyrical content) remotely Gothic in their music, with the heavy, near-industrial riffage and doom-laden piano flourishes; the fact that the upbeat vocal performance belies the nightmarish lyrics only adds to the Goth feel… a real highlight. The brutally dark vibe continued, with Mark delivering more of his intense, harsh vocals throughout the next few songs,” including “The Obsessive Devotion” and, from THE QUANTUM ENIGMA, “Victims of Contengiency.” This darker sound also gave van der Loo a chance to shine with more complex bass lines, rather than sticking fairly close to the rhythmic patterns laid down by the drums and guitars; this complexity was best displayed on the title track to 2009’s DESIGN YOUR UNIVERSE, the closing number of the main set, which also featured some very nice multi-textured keyboard work from Coen.

Epica (Isaac Delahaye; Simone SImons; Mark Jansen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Isaac Delahaye; Simone SImons; Mark Jansen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unsated, the appreciative crowd refused to leave without hearing more; Epica was more than willing to oblige. With Janssen exhorting the rabid fans, he was soon joined by Weesenbeek, Delahaye and van der Loo, teasing the encore before Simons and Jansen returned for a stirring “Sancta Terra.” The band wasn’t messing around with a “one-and-done” trip back to the stage; they followed that tune with a great version of one of the stronger songs from THE QUANTUM ENIGMA, “Unchain Utopia.” If that wasn’t enough, refusing to go gentle into that good night, the sextet finished with a thundering version of the bombastic, anthemic epic, “Consign To Oblivion.” Like last November’s Amaranthe show at Pop’s, Epica eschewed the use of any visible, onstage amplification or monitors; however, where the sound was, at best, spotty for that earlier show, here, it was near perfect. The lighting, also, was some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory. So, earlier in this review, I asked the question, “Could Epica hope to match or exceed what Moonspell brought to the stage?” The answer, my friends, is an unequivocal, “Yes!” A great night of metal, from top to bottom.