Weekly Read: Espedair Street

There are worse reasons to read a book.

A few weeks ago Fish, original lead singer of Marillion and solo artist in his own right, put up a link to a news story from the 1990s. It was part of a regular series (apparently) about how famous people met each other. In this case, the other famous person was author Iain Banks. As a fan of both guys I naturally went to read the article. Imagine my surprise when someone else I love popped up:

Back in 1990, I was walking away from my lawyer’s office in London, disconsolate over the way my foolish litigation against my record company was going. I was drowning my sorrows with the novelist Neil Gaiman, and he asked if I’d ever read Espedair Street, the Iain Banks novel about Weird, a very tall Scottish rock star. I hadn’t, and Neil said: ‘‘You’ve got to read it – the hero of that book is you!’

Naturally I had to read the book, so I downloaded Espedair Street from Audible (not all of Banks’ stuff is available there, sadly) and dove in. It probably never had a chance of living up to the expectations that arose from this particular singularity of my geekdom.

The book is the story of Danny Weir, aka “Weird, bass player and songwriter for a band called Frozen Gold that broke big in the mid 1970s. Weird tells the story in flashback from his life in the 1980s living as a recluse in an old church filled with stockpiled goods from the Eastern Bloc (they don’t really trade in currency, he explains at one point). He has adventures in the modern worlds as he relates the band’s rise and fall.

Since Banks is a great writer the book is a good read just on the basic level of words – there are wonderful words on display here. And Weird is, for the most part, a pretty good guy to hang around with, moderately clever but never taking himself (or his success) so seriously that it goes to his head. Having said that, his story itself is kind of dull. It’s basically a series of anecdotes that could be pulled from any rockumentary kind of thing from that era. Weird comes off as the kind of guy who would be a frequent guest on talk shows because he’s always likely to whip out some tale from the past that’s outrageous enough to laugh at but not horrible. They are, at the least, entertaining.

The problem is that, eventually, things turn serious and the narrative can’t really support it. The band breaks up after one lead singer dies in a stage accident you could see happening to Spinal Tap (or in South Park), while the other is murdered by a Christian zealot during the “modern day” narrative. Weird blames himself for both, even though they weren’t his fault, so he turns into even more of a sulker, until he decides to pursue a long lost love (who, of course, welcomes him with open arms). It just all adds up to a nice read, but nothing more.

And, I have to say, the musical nature of things are more than a bit confused. Weird (and therefore Banks) occasionally drop the word “progressive” in talking about Frozen Gold’s music. There’s even a reference to the band releasing a double-LP all instrumental concept album – which is just about as prog as it gets! But the timeline doesn’t quite fit (the band is just getting signed about the time prog peaked commercially) and when contemporaries are name dropped it’s the standard classic rock fare – Zeppelin, the Stones – rather than, say Yes or King Crimson. Frankly, the idea that a new prog band hitting it big in the late 1970s is as out there as anything that appears in Banks’ Culture novels.

Was the combination of Banks and Fish, with the assist from Gaiman, the brilliance I’d hoped for? No, but it was still a pretty good read. That’s all you should really expect, right?

EspedairStreet

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Genesis – Ten of the Best?

Prog magazine recently asked their readers to help them identify the cream of the crop of Genesis tunes. Being that Genesis is one of my favorite bands I threw in my two cents, voting for the ten “best” (actually my favorites) tracks. I thought I’d provide some explanation of my choices, as well as point out one honorable mention that I couldn’t vote for in the poll.

As I suspected, this was pretty tough. I didn’t put any particular limitations on my choices (only one song from any album, etc.), but I did try and cover as much of the band’s history as I could. Here they are, arranged chronologically . . .

“The Musical Box” from Nursery Cryme (1971)

A great, weird, story song with a thunderous climax. It’s a great example of what the band was in between Anthony Philips leaving and Steve Hackett joining, as there’s lengthy bits where Tony Banks is filling in the lead guitar slot with a Hohner pianet run through a cranked up fuzz box.

“Watcher of the Skies” from Foxtrot (1972)

Two words – Mellotron intro. Yes, the tricky rhythm that takes over for that (courtesy of Phil Collins) is great, too, but there’s nothing quite like that huge, ominous opening – possible because Banks accidentally got the Mellotron to playback two tapes at once.

“Can-Utility and the Coastliners” from Foxtrot (1972)

All that’s great about classic Genesis in an easily digestible package. Mythical lyrics? Check (the story of King Canute and the waves). Multiple solos? Check (including Mellotron, not normally a solo instrument). Symphonic grandeur? You bet. If I need to play one song to someone to show them what Genesis was like in its prog heyday, this would be it.

“Firth of Fifth” from Selling England By the Pound (1973)

The song that launched a thousand prog bands. This is the template for symphonic prog going forward – classically inspired piano intro, more mythical lyrics, widdly synth solo followed by soaring guitar solo. And a flute solo! Never better than the original.

“In the Cage” from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)

It’s hard to take one track from The Lamb . . . because they work so well together, moving from one song to another. This is the best choice to pull out and let stand on its own, I think. Another great solo from Banks. Gabriel’s vocals are particularly good, too.

“Los Endos” from A Trick of the Tail (1976)

Must have been a lot of pressure to get this right, since calling it “The End” means it’s your concert closer for years to come. Of course, they did. I particularly like the call backs from earlier in the album (from “Dance on a Volcano”) and from before (the “there’s an angel standing in the sun . . .” subdued lyrics from “Supper’s Ready”).

“Blood on the Rooftops” from Wind & Wuthering (1976)

I didn’t really get into this track until I heard Steve Hackett playing it in recent years, but it’s really grown on me. Hackett’s nylon-string guitar work sits well with Banks’ Mellotron sweeps and Collins’ vocals/lyrics have a deep melancholy to them that really stands out. Fits the grey album cover perfectly.

“Cinema Show” from Seconds Out (1977)

The studio version of this track is great, but this live version (with Bill Bruford on drums) is epic. It’s one of those prog mini-epics that hit my sweet spot (see also, “Starless” by King Crimson and “Squarer for Maud” by National Health, among others), with the delicate vocal first section giving way to a fabulous (and notably three piece) instrumental section.

“Me & Sarah Jane” from Abacab (1981)

Another weird story song, this time about a guy who makes up a girlfriend (and then mourns her departure). Proof that the band could still do interesting musical things in a shorter, more outwardly pop kind of vein.

“Domino” from Invisible Touch (1986)

While the band climbed the pop charts they kept making lengthy, weird deep cuts that really came off well live. This works as kind of a later-day “Cinema Show,” with the song-based first section and driving second section. “We’re all the next in line,” as they say.

Honorable mention

“Behind the Lines > Duchess > Guide Vocal” from Duke (1980)

The Prog poll listed each track separately, which means I couldn’t vote for this hunk that leads off Duke. The band originally toyed with the idea of a lengthy Duke suite, but wound up breaking things up over the album (they did it all together live, though). I love how these three tunes work together, so I’ll add them to my list.

Am I right? Am I wrong? Does it matter? It’s all great!

Writers Can Do Research, You Know

You may remember last year when I finally got around to seeing Whiplash, the highly praised 2014 film about a young drummer and his abusive mentor, and that I didn’t much care for it. Based on that, when I saw a headline over at the AV Club about a “jazz musician who is not a fan of Whiplash” I smirked and decided to check it out. It actually led to a misconceptions about the nature of writing fiction that I wanted to highlight.

The review itself, which you can watch here, really isn’t as negative as the headline. In fact, the jazzer in question, Adam Neely, winds up by calling Whiplash “great,” so he doesn’t exactly take a dump on it. What he does is point out some things about modern jazz education that the movie gets wrong and laments that because Whiplash is about the only pop culture portrayal of that setting it’s likely to be what people think of it. I get it – I can similarly pick nits from just about any lawyer movie.

But before getting to that, Neely goes through a lot of stuff the movie gets right, highlighting a lot of inside details that ring true. He credits this to writer/director Damian Chazelle’s having been in a similar jazz ensemble in high school and goes so far as to say “these sorts of things could only come from playing in a jazz band.”

That’s where the writer in me started shaking his head.

It’s indisputable that Chazelle drew on his own experiences when writing Whiplash – he’s said so in interviews. However, the idea that only someone who had been through those experiences could write such a story fundamentally misunderstands what writers do. It’s a common mistake and one I blame on the one piece of advice about writing that just about everybody has heard – “write what you know.”

It’s not the worst advice, particularly for new writers. Learning the actual craft of writing fiction is easier when the story you’re telling is one you’re familiar with and takes place in the world you know. Having said that, it’s not an iron-clad piece of advice. After all, if all writers stuck to writing what they knew we’d have a lot fewer books and the genre of speculative fiction would shrink to near meaninglessness.

So writers spend a lot of time writing about what they don’t know. How? Research!

Research

In much the same way that an actor who’s going to play a police officer, say, will learn about what police officers do and how they do it, a writer who wanted to write about cops could do the same thing. There’s an entire section of one of the writer forums I hang out on dedicated to research and people looking for answers to questions from people who have actual expertise in that area.

That’s even true when you’re writing fantasy. As I’ve said before, one of the great things about fantasy is that you can make up anything you want, but it’s still important to have some realism about the world you’re creating. In The Water Road I had a character take an arrow to the leg. Since it wasn’t meant to be a fatal wound, I needed to know how to get it out. I did some research, found out that it’s more complicated than I thought and that the kind of arrow used could say something about the character that loosed it in the first place. Reality informed my fantasy.

So kudos to Chazelle for getting those details right, but he’s not the only one who could have done so. Any good writer would have done their research before writing a story set in a particular world. It’s part of what we do.

Research2

I do have to say one thing about Neely’s overall impression of Whiplash. It’s interesting that he points out one of the flaws in the film I did – that nobody seems to really enjoy the music they’re abusing themselves to make – but that for him, the musician, it didn’t harm the movie. For me it did, which just goes to show that even when two people agree on what’s wrong with a movie (or book or song or . . .), it means different things to them. Such is art.

Where the Magic Happens

Sometimes it’s interesting to see where creative types do their work, to get a feel for the environment that leads to their creativity. In the spirit of creative transparency, and the fact that it’s a new year and all, I thought I’d share mine.

This is where I work:

rcbcourthouse

Ha! That’s actually where I work, but it’s not really what I’m on about (my office is on the back side, anyway). Here’s where I get my creative juices flowing:

Studio2

If you’re thinking “that’s a lot of musical equipment for a writer’s room” you’re not wrong. It just so happens that the PC on the right is what I use both to do most of my writing and where I weave bits of music together to make a final product (like this).

Here’s another, more atmospheric pic, with everything turned on:

Studio3

For the gear curious out there – on the left there’s a Korg M50 (bottom, with a Kaosilator on the far end) and a Roland Gaia (top), then in the middle there’s a Nord Rack 2X and Alesis Micron, which controls the Nord (bottom), and a Novation Bass Station II and Moog Minitaur with Behringer controller (top). Everything runs into the Zoom R16 mixer/recorder in between.

The words, by contrast, go straight from my brain to the PC, via the keyboard, although I occasionally knock out some words in other locales. Who knew you could write so much on your phone?

I suppose that’s the real lesson – where does the magic happen? Everywhere.

Weekly Listen: Ones and Zeroes: Volume 0

At the end of my review of 3rDegree’s Ones and Zeroes: Volume 1, I wrote:

It’s a mess of awfully good music wrapped around an interesting idea. And the best thing? It’s only the first part!

Now that I’ve gotten familiar with the band’s follow up, I’m not so sure about that anymore.

The “first part” bit, I mean. The enthusiasm was completely warranted. But where does Volume 0 fit in to the chronology? It came second, after all, but it’s hardly a sequel. So it is a prequel? Not really. Is it better to listen to them in order of release or numerical order? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it doesn’t really matter, for a very unexpected reason – Volume 0 doesn’t really have anything to do with Volume 1. Conceptually, at least.

Hear me out.

Volume 1 tells, essentially, a single story about the impact of a fictional (gods, I hope) megacorp, Valhalla Biotech, that peddles various “life extension” technology. There was a through line running from stem to stern of the album, summed up by refrain “tell me what it means to be human.” This was helped along by the sometimes chilling asides from various Valhalla products and spokespersons.

Volume 0, by contrasts, covers a lot of different ground. “Olympia” deals with artificial beings who aren’t content to be submissive. “Perfect Babies” channels Brave New World and Gattaca and their (timely and relevant) fears of designer offspring. The epic “Click Away!” dives into the echo chamber of the Internet. Unlike Volume 1, there’s no connective tissue pulling these all together (the Valhalla announcements are absent, for example).

To put it another way, Volume 1 is a Black Mirror episode; Volume 0 is an entire season.

This isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, it’s probably a good idea not to just do a copy of Volume 1, since it’s hard to bottle lightning twice. Still, aside from the opening overture and a few riffs in the closing “Ones and Zeroes” there isn’t really a link between to the two albums. They’re separate things that stand on their own merits.

And Volume 0 has plenty of merits. Lyrically, the best tracks (“Olympia” and “Logical Conclusion,” in particular) create perfect little worlds, short stories of immediate impact and thougtfulness. The rest throw out interesting ideas and slip in some zingers for good measure (has a meaner chorus ever been sung other than “the future doesn’t need you at all?”).

Musically, 3rDegree continue to refine a sound that doesn’t really resemble anybody else. Bassist Robert James Pashman once told me that 3rDegree was (I’m seriously paraphrasing) “too straight forward for the prog crowd, but too weird for the mainstream.” That’s still true, although they’ve been embraced by the prog world in the past few years (and produced an epic in return!). But they’re at their best when the hooks and melodies come to the fore, to be supported by some interesting backing stuff and arrangements. That’s all backed up by playing that’s intricate and muscular, but rarely flashy. It takes a few listens to really get at what’s going on, which is always a good sign. I particularly dig that there’s lots of bass synth on this album.

One of the reasons I had to keep giving Volume 0 listens is because I had a hard time thinking about what to say about it. Here’s the thing – with each album since they got back together, 3rDegree have been stepping up their game in big ways. Volume 0, though, doesn’t feel like a big step forward. It feels like a consolidation, a restatement of what they’re about. That’s not in any way a bad thing.

What I’m saying is that Volume 0 is a great album. It’s musically and lyrically rich, filled with catchy tunes and great playing. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from 3rDegree at this point, right? They’re a band in top form and cranking out another excellent offering just isn’t a surprise at this point. So why don’t you have your copy yet?

Ones&Zeroes

Weekly Watch: Whiplash

Sometimes I come late to movies and the wait probably colors the experience. When Whiplash came out a few years ago it seemed like a movie I needed to see. It was critically praised, an Oscar winner, and about music. Sounded like it was right up my alley. But it slipped under my radar until, a few weeks ago, it popped up on TV (uncut) and I TiVoed it. After watching it, I kind of wish I’d just completely forgotten about it.

Whiplash, simply put, is one of the most overrated movies I think I’ve ever seen.

Since it’s been a while, there’s no need to avoid spoilers. The movie’s about a kid at a music conservatory, a drummer, who gets plucked from lower division drudgery by a famously abusive, prickly director to be part of his competition band. Lots of yelling and music occurs and our hero is broken down by his would be mentor. The ending is nicely ambiguous, as he either triumphs over this asshole or simply becomes just like him. It’s the best part of the film by far.

That’s because most of the other things that make up a movie – mainly the characters and the story itself – are lacking. Take the main character, who is so dull I can’t even remember his name. He has the charisma of a wet sponge, yet somehow manages a date with Supergirl (he dumps her later in the most on the nose “it’s not you, it’s me” speech ever put to film). His only goal appears to be getting famous, which he’s decided to do in 21st Century American by . . . becoming a jazz drummer. Sure, kid, whatever.

More formidable is his mentor, Fletcher, for which J.K. Simmons won an Oscar. Simmons gets to yell a lot, complete with vulgarities and insults that range from homophobic to anti-Semitic. There are no layers to this guy, no hint as to how he’s come to be the way he is. There’s a hint of a soul, when he finds out that a former student has hung himself, but it’s gone pretty quickly. Oh, and he’s nice to a little girl, but, you know, even Hitler liked dogs. Simmons’s performance at last has life to it.

What’s altogether not clear is why either character has anything to do with music. As one reviewer concluded:

What Whiplash ultimately champions isn’t really musicianship but empty, grandstanding virtuosity. Under Fletcher’s tutelage, Andrew never learns anything about nuance or dynamics; as designated by Chazelle, the measures of his artistic accomplishment are strictly speed and ferocity. The movie ends with Andrew executing one of those horrible, endless jerk-off solos that give jazz a bad name, though it’s presented as the ultimate victory.

Wet sponge only wants to be famous. When challenged about his career choice there’s no mention of love of music or trying to connect with the mysteries of the universe. He has no music background at home, so it’s not as if he’s trying to fulfill someone else’s dream. Just why would he put up with all the shit Fletcher sends his way?

Likewise, it’s never clear why Fletcher went into teaching music rather than, say, being a football coach. Make no mistake, his tactics aren’t about making better musicians or better people, they’re about one thing – winning competitions. I know from my own musical life that winning such things often means cranking up flashy technique at the expense of, you know, the music and that’s certainly true for Fletcher. Again, he’s not into the music itself, only the end goal of winning. More than that, the anecdote that underlies his philosophy of life/teaching isn’t true.

Which is what makes the film’s pivotal point so fucking stupid. The band is set to play at a competition a couple of hours into the hinterlands outside New York City. Fletcher, perfectionist that he is about these shows, doesn’t bother to charter a bus to take the band there. No, it’s every man (and it’s all, or at least mostly, men) for himself, with a helpful hint to leave earlier to beat the traffic. Naturally, wet sponge can’t manage that and manages to walk away to a car wreck to take his place, bleeding on stage. Rather than have the stand in take his place (the band hauls around multiple drummers, but every other spot is just a single – for whatever reason), Fletcher lets him play, which of course he can’t. It’s horribly dumb.

As, really, the whole movie is. Some of the cinematography is nice (sweeps across the horn section, nice lighting, etc.), but it’s service of absolutely nothing. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, clearly has a thing for jazz (he went on to make La La Land), but he doesn’t seem to enjoy it very much (as this article argues, the movie gets its jazz mythology wrong). As such, Whiplash isn’t much more than a lovingly shot portrait of an abusive relationship where neither party has any real motivation. If there’s anything more pointless than a drum solo, maybe that’s it.

Whiplash

 

Another ROSFest Down, Many More to Go

This year marked the 15th anniversary of ROSFest – the annual Rites of Spring Festival of progressive rock. Born near Philadelphia, it’s called the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg home since I’ve been going in 2011. The fest this year was as smoothly run as ever, with a lineup that wound up being one of the best I’ve seen. So what about those bands?

First up on Friday night was District 97, a band from Chicago who, it happens, were also at ROSFest for the first time in 2011. They went over really well, but their brand of heavy modern prog didn’t connect with me very much. So my expectations for this set was low, but I was pleasantly surprised. I liked the new material (from a forthcoming album they’re currently crowd funding) better than the old, so I’ll keep an ear on them going forward.

Headlining Friday was legendary fusion band Brand X, complete with original members Percy Jones (bass) and John Goodsall (guitar), who were joined by a drummer, keyboard player, and percussionist. They were, to be blunt, blazing. Any thought that a band that’s been around since the mid 1970s might be mellowing in their old age was put to bed early. All their stuff started to sound a bit samey after two hours, but it was an impressive kind of consistency.

Saturday began with a semi-local band, Cell 15, which at least has the most interesting origin story for ROSFest this year. The lead guy/drummer/keyboard player explained that he got out of prison in 1992 and that the first Cell 15 album was largely written while he was incarcerated. Good on him for getting out and turning his life around (from someone who sees people try, and fail, to do the same thing every day). The music itself was fairly standard Americanized symphonic prog (think Kansas and Spock’s Beard), which I enjoyed. However, the band relied way too heavily on canned music, particularly for very important and obvious synth leads. The reliance on the canned stuff is all the weirder given that they had a second drummer join them for a few tunes and, based on their new CD that I got, the main guy isn’t even the drummer on the album! Frustrating.

Up next was another American band, LA’s Perfect Beings. They were invited to ROSFest a couple of years ago, but two band members leaving put the kibosh on that. However, in prepping for that year’s fest I got their second album, which was pretty good, but nothing special. Their set this year focused on their new album, Vier, and was exceptional. In a weekend that sometimes tends to the showy and ostentatious, they made great use of quiet passages and empty space (somewhat like Marillion does, although they don’t sound a thing like them). My favorite surprise set of the weekend.

Italy’s Barock Project was the first band announced for this year’s festival, to a lot of enthusiasm. It’s easy to see why. This group of young guys (after one particular catchy tune the band leader declared “sometimes we’re a boy band!”) belts out a brand of what I’m going to start calling “up tempo party prog.” It’s kind of the same vibe as Moon Safari, although the two bands sound nothing alike. The result was a fun show, with lots of energy, but the music didn’t really stick with me. The highlight was a brief instrumental workout where the keyboard player channeled the spirit of Keith Emerson. They, too, appeared to have some canned stuff, but at least it was mostly in the background.

Years ago I was pawing through CDs in my local borders and came across an album from a band called Threshold. Somewhere in my mind I associated he name with a Celtic-influence prog band from Ohio, so I snatched it up. It seemed like a rare find. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized Threshold was actually a British prog metal band. It was not at all what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. When they were announced as the Saturday headliner I was interested to see if that album (Critical Mass, if you’re scoring at home) was representative of their stuff. Turns out it was, although they didn’t play anything from that album at ROSFest. They play melody proggy metal that doesn’t dip into the “balls ‘n’ chunk” aspects of metal too much. I enjoyed it. Tip to the lead singer though – don’t demand the audience sing along unless you’re sure they know the words!

Sunday morning, the “Church of Prog” slot, brought not one but two bands, playing short sets with a quick turnover. First up was Valdez, the current project of British ex-pat Simon Godfrey (who was also at ROSFest 2011 with Tinyfish – maybe he came and never left?). I was pleasantly surprised to see the band also included Tom Hyatt (of echolyn fame) on bass. Being completely unfamiliar with their stuff I was pleased with the set – melodic, proggy in spots, anthemic in others. Plus, Godfrey is a great front man (when one person in the crowd responded to a song announcement, he waited just a sec, then deadpanned, “thanks, Mum”). A highlight.

The other Church of Prog band was Lines in the Sky from Tennessee. Unfortunately for them, my brain had reached music saturation at that point, and I left after a few tunes.

Have you ever heard prog from Peru? In the flesh? I have! Flor de Loto took the stage Sunday afternoon and put on another high energy set full of riffy (a little too riffy, in spots) heavy prog. The most notable aspects of their set for me were the Spanish vocals and the presence in the band of a dedicated flautist, who mostly used native Andean instruments (he was introduced both as “the last Inca” and the “Ian Anderson of the Andes”). Also, their keyboard player fired back at the guy from Barock Project with a solo that owed a serious debt to Rick Wakeman. Fun stuff.

The first note I wrote about Special Providence (from Hungary) was “holy shit that’s a lot of notes.” If jazz metal is a thing, this band is the gold standard. They played really dense, seriously complex instrumental music that got all weird with rhythms and such. Sometimes I wasn’t convinced that the band seemed to be on the same page, but it all tended to work out. I preferred the tunes that leaned more heavily on the fusion side of things than the metal. An impressive set that grew on me the further it went on (which rarely happens).

Wrapping up things this year was Premiata Forneria Marconi – PFM. If you read my post about 10 influential albums, you’ll know that PFM is an important band to me. I was stoked to see them live, even if there’s very little of the original band left. No matter. This wasn’t the same guys who did Storia di un Minuto or Per Un Amico, but they played that material with a lot of heart, soul, and magic. The newer stuff wasn’t bad, either, but it pales in comparison to the classics. To have heard them played live to their fullest extent (like Brand X, these guys aren’t slowing down) was awesome and a great way to end the weekend.

My one beef, which is really minor, involves encores. We’ve all grown used to the “obligatory” encore, where the band leaves the stage with everyone in the building knowing they’re coming back for more. It’s a dumb ritual, but at least it seems somewhat organic. For at least a couple of sets at ROSFest this year, somebody (organizer George, I think) off stage took to the mic to urge the crowd on to “bring them back” to the stage. That, to me, is a bridge too far. We’re already passed the point where the encores are really genuine; stage managing them just seems tacky.

Will that keep me from coming back in 2019, with already announced headliners Riverside? Not on your life.

rosfest2018

UPDATE: Or, it appears, probably not. Shortly after this post went live the organizer of ROSFest announced that the festival was moving to Sarasota, Florida. A pleasant drive of a few hours turned into an epic road trip, or (even worse) flying. So it looks like this was my last ROSFest, after all. Fuck.

My Ten Albums

There’s been a thing going around Facebook for the past few weeks where, for ten days, people posted cover from a different album that made an impact on them and they’re still listening to. The whole point was to not explain the choices – but there’s too much blog fodder here to pass up. So here are my ten, in the order they went up – which is to say, pretty much randomly as pulled from my brain. I should point out these aren’t necessarily favorites or “best” albums by these artists, although they’re all pretty great (your mileage may vary, of course).

Genesis – Selling England By the Pound (1973)

 SEbtP

 I can’t say that this is the first Gabriel-era Genesis album I heard (my brother, Todd, had most, if not all, of them), but it is the one I first fell in love with. It was, to use an analogy I’ll come back to later, my gateway drug for progressive rock. Swelling mellotrons, soaring guitars, lyrics that were completely beyond comprehension to a grade schooler living in 1980s West Virginia – how could I resist?

Yes – Yessongs (1973)

YesSongs

Growing up when I did my music delivery vehicle of choice was (and still is) the CD, but I was just old enough to catch the end of the (first) age of vinyl. I actually bought a few LPs, this being the one that stood out. Not only because it’s 3 albums full of Yes in its prime, but because of that amazing Roger Dean gatefold sleeve. Appreciating album art is one of the great lost joys of the modern streaming generation.

Rush – Grace Under Pressure (1984)

GUP

This definitely falls into the “not my favorite” category (although I like it just fine), but this album makes the list because it was the first “new” album by a favorite band I ever bought. On cassette, no less. Sitting down to digest any album that’s new to you is fun, but digging into a completely new one by a favorite artist is a real treat, particularly back in the pre-Internet days when you might have little idea of what it actually sounded like!

IQ – Tales From the Lush Attic (1983)

 Lush Attic

 It’s no shock to say that progressive rock is a niche genre, at least since the heydays of the mid 1970s. That means that finding albums for me has rarely been as simple as heading down to the record store and hunting for something interest. Mail order catalogs and web retailers are a must. This album makes the list because it was in the first order I ever made from a mail order catalog (along with Camel’s Mirage and Gentle Giant’s Octopus) – not even over the Internet! There are better IQ albums, but it’s a landmark for my exploration of prog. And the cover’s cool.

echolyn – as the world (1995)

AtW

Mail order aside, sometimes you stumble across something that seems interesting and you take a chance. When I found as the world in the bin at the mighty Discount Den in Morgantown back in my college days I knew, vaguely, that they were a prog band. And I saw that this album released on a major label and had a big suite in the middle of it, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Took it home and was hooked on this band from the first track (which is all vocal harmonies and strings). Sometimes you get lucky, so it’s worth playing the game now and then.

Marillion – Afraid of Sunlight (1995)

AoS

You’re rarely lucky enough to discover a favorite band when their brand new. Usually, you come in somewhere in the middle of things, where a band’s heady back catalog can make the prospect of new music from them both tantalizing and a little worrying. Will the new stuff measure up to the old? Afraid of Sunlight was my first “new” Marillion album and, at the time, I didn’t care for much of it. It’s since gone on to be one of my favorite Marillion albums (favorites period, really), but the experience of being uneasy with it to begin with it something I’ve repeated many times over the years.

Radiohead – Kid A (2000)

KidA

I didn’t know I needed Kid A until I saw Radiohead perform “Idioteque” on Saturday Night Live. I’d come late to OK Computer and knew their new album wasn’t supposed to be anything like it, so I wasn’t all that interested. That performance changed my mind, in more ways than one. Not only did it cause me to buy the album, it caused me to open up an entirely different area of music to check out. Kid A was, for lack of a better word, my gateway drug to electronic music. I wouldn’t make the conscious choice to explore Kraftwerk or OMD or The Orb for another couple years, but this planted the seeds.

Spock’s Beard – The Light (1995)

TheLight

These days we take for granted the ability to sample music on the internet and buy with a press of a button. It was not always so. The Light was my first experience with internet commerce and it was a little rocky. I took an hour or so to download a few 30-second clips from songs (it was the guitar break in “Go the Way You Go” that sold me), then had to actually mail a check to California. It came back – twice – requiring a phone call from guitarist Alan Morse. When he found out I was at WVU he sang me a chorus of “Country Roads.” We got things straightened out and I became a Beard fan for life.

Sanguine Hum – Diving Bell (2010)

DivingBell

One of the great things about going to prog festivals is that I get exposed to lots of new bands. I’ve bought a lot of albums over the years because of that, but this one is special. Going into Sanguine Hum’s 2012 performance at ROSFest I knew nothing about them. I went in as cold as could be, completely ignorant. I didn’t just like what I heard – I was completely blown away. Ironically, I wound up getting this, the band’s only album at the time, from Amazon because the vendors had sold out and the band’s stash didn’t make it from the UK (I wound up snagging a couple EPs from the band’s prior incarnation, the wonderfully monikered Antique Seeking Nuns). Fresh, exciting, powerful new music is out there, even in the 2010s.

Premiata Forneria Marconi – Storia di un Minuto (1972)

Storia

Progressive rock is an outgrowth of a particular time in the UK, but it spread across the globe and resulted in some really rich regional scenes. Italy, in particular, was an early hotbed (Genesis and Van der Graff Generator both hit it big there first). This was the first album I got that was really “foreign,” without any English to be found, either in the lyrics or the liner notes (two times over – it’s a Japanese pressing!) and it convinced me that wasn’t going to be a stumbling block to discovering some wonderful music.

Lessons Learned from Swimming Blindly Through the Aural Seas

When I write I have some idea of where I’m going. As you can see from my experiment with trying to go free form, I need some structure when I write. Nonetheless, when I write I’m acting with intention and purpose – I see where I want to go and try to get there.

When I make music, it’s almost completely the opposite. Essentially, music comes about in one of two ways. First, I get a flash of inspiration when a riff or rhythm or something pops into my head (and, hopefully, onto the computer). Second, I take whatever winds up on “tape” and fiddle around with it, adding things, taking things away, and generally just figuring out what works. I very rarely come to a song idea with a clear conception of what the end product should be.

In other words, when I write, it’s like setting out to sea in a boat, with charts, a destination, and a plan on how to get there. When I make music, it’s more like diving in head first and seeing where the tide sees fit to deposit me. Swimming blindly, if you will.

That’s not to say that the drifting, searching musical creation doesn’t require making choices. Sometimes, those choices are relevant when it comes to thinking about writing, too.

I’ve been thinking about this lately after finishing a new song with the deviously serious title of “Dummy Tickle” (it’s embedded below). I have no idea where that title came from, because this song, all not-quite-four minutes of it, began five years ago.

Which brings me to lesson number one I’ve learned from making music – creativity takes time.

The DAW I use has a metadata field that lets you put just about anything you want in it. I always put (1) when I started the song; (2) when I finished “writing” it; and (3) when I got it in final form (mixed down, etc.). It’s a very rare thing when a song goes from idea to completion in a week or a month. Usually it takes a while, but not five years.

What was I doing with “Dummy Tickle” for five years? I’d like to say I tried out dozens of different things to try and bring the basic idea (that lazy, bouncy bass line and equally laid back melody) to bigger, better life. Nothing really clicked, nothing seemed right. I let it go for a while, but every time I went back and listened to unfinished tracks I thought “there’s something there” and marked it down as something to finish.

Finally, a few weeks ago, something clicked. I don’t know precisely what or why then – maybe a session of playing with the puppies trigger up some kind of endorphin rush or something. How couldn’t they?

Pups
Anyway, the damn burst and I started making progress. It just took some time to get there. Patience really is a virtue, especially when it comes to creative things.

Still, it wasn’t a matter of just banging out a few more notes and being done with things. I was in need of ideas for a transition, a middle section, and started playing around with a couple of chord progressions.

Then I hit on the second lesson I’ve learned from “Dummy Tickle” – sometimes, simpler is better.

I have a sign tacked to the wall in my studio:

Monphonist Pic

I put it up when I realized that a lot of the early electronic music I like – from ethereal Tangerine Dream to the synth-pop of The Human League and OMD – was done by people with access only to monophonic synthesizers (that is, ones that can make only one sound at a time). That is, they can only make one note at a time. By contrast, without even getting into the virtual synths in my arsenal, I can bring to bear 150 voices! At once! I only have 10 fingers, after all.

My point is I tend to think in chords, even thought single notes are often what’s called for. After struggling to find the right sequence for this song, I backed off and gave it a fresh look. And I looked at my sign. The heart of this song was that simple bass line, the simple melody. Don’t mess that up by building it up unnecessarily. Take the simple route. Thus, that middle section was composed entirely of monophonic lines weaving together – as was the rest of the song.

None of this is Earth shattering. Still, as creators sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the vision of more – more words, more notes, more colors – until you disappear up your own backside in search of your next complexity fix. Sometimes you have to step back and think about what works for the song, book, or whatever it is you’re making. Some of them are just simple little things that don’t have airs on being anything more.

“Dummy Tickle” is like that. A little goof of a tune, a good mood wrought by bouncy synths. Enjoy!

Yeah, OK, Now Tell Us Why

Sometimes science tells us things we already know. That’s good, because as “duh!” as those things sound, it’s good to have common experience backed up by rigorous study.

A similar thing popped up the other week. Most people, if their honest with themselves, will admit that their taste in music (popular music, at any rate) is inextricably linked to their youth. What you loved growing up is likely to stick with you. In other words, you eventually become your parents and think what the kids today listen to is noise and/or garbage (and possibly unAmerican!).

Seth Stevens-Davidowitz, writing in the New York Times (via), explains how he dove deep into the dataset that is Spotify. Using “data on how frequently every song is listened to by men and women of each particular age” he learned that:

The patterns were clear. Even though there is a recognized canon of rock music, there are big differences by birth year in how popular a song is.

Consider, for example, the song ‘Creep,’ by Radiohead. This is the 164th most popular song among men who are now 38 years old. But it is not in the top 300 for the cohort born 10 years earlier or 10 years later.

Note that they men who most like ‘Creep’ now were roughly 14 when the song came out in 1993. In fact, this is a consistent pattern.

He shows this over and over again with songs by artists as diverse as The Cure, Roy Orbison, and Van Morrison.

As I said, this isn’t much of a surprise. We all know people whose musical tastes calcified in 10th grade.

Even though I consider myself pretty open minded when it comes to music, I have to admit that my sweet spot, go to favorite kind of stuff, progressive rock, is what I first got hooked on when I was a kid. Sure, my horizons have expanded over the years (ironically, part of that includes rediscovering the pop music I shunned as a kid), but I most happily fall back into the arms of the Genesis, Yes, and Rush stuff I discovered when I was young.

Now that we have some deep data diving confirming this bit of common sense, the next hurdle is figuring out why this is the case. Stevens-Davidowitz’s survey doesn’t directly address that question, although he says in passing:

This also adds one more piece of evidence to the growing scientific consensus that we never really leave middle school and high school.

But why should that be the case? Peoples’ tastes change through their lives when it comes to other things. We eat different things, read different books, and watch different movies. What is it about music that ties it so tightly to adolescence? Maybe it’s because, for most people, that’s when music is most important to them and their identity. Music later in life tends to fade into the background (and not in an interesting way). Or maybe it’s pure nostalgia (although, again, not for other things?).

Either way, the answers lie beyond my range as a humble writer and lawyer. So get on it, science! Don’t just confirm what we know, tell us why!