In Praise of “Minor” Epics

If there’s one characteristic of progressive rock that stands out above the others it’s song length. From the get go, bands weren’t afraid to push the envelope well beyond your typical three-minute rock/pop song. “Epic” became a kind of watchword for prog (even though it’s clearly not required), to the extent that side-long epics (or even beyond!) became common place.

I love me some epics, but I’ve found over the years that the real sweet spot for prog seems to be in what I’d call the “mini-epic” range – songs that took up most of an album side, but not the entire thing. Some of my favorite songs fall into this range, so I thought I’d highlight and praise some of these mini-epics.

First, a note on precisely what we’re talking about. For the “classic” era (mostly the 1970s), we’re talking about songs, as I said, that didn’t take up an entire side of an album. For the “modern” era (everything else), I’m talking about songs of about the same stature, so between 10 and 15 minutes. Long enough to do lots of things, but short enough for the end-of-the-side palate cleanser to come after.

With that said, here’s ten of my favorites, five “classics” and six  more “modern” ones (‘cause I couldn’t decide which one to sacrifice).

“The Grand Wazoo” by Frank Zappa, from The Grand Wazoo (1972)

Zappa wasn’t know for epics (he tended to string together shorter songs that all segued together on a side), but his two “big band” albums had a few. The title track from The Grand Wazoo is my favorite of the lot (aside from the first 90 seconds or so of “Big Swifty”). Love the horns, love the slinky synth solo.

“And You and I” by Yes, from Close to the Edge (1972)

This barely passes the 10-minute mark (the live version is a bit quicker and doesn’t), but it still fits the bill, packing in so much, from Howe’s harmonics in the opening through Wakeman’s Minimoog solos, Anderson’s lilting vocal, and the supreme tightness of the Squire/Bruford rhythm section. Yes often went bigger, but rarely better.

 “Cinema Show” by Genesis, from Selling England by the Pound (1973)

Quite possibly my favorite hunk of Genesis ever, particularly the long instrumental second half. The vocal first part, with typically obscure mythological lyrics, is great, too, but the lengthy keyboard solo in the second half really sells it. Notably, the instrumental section is just the three piece – Banks, Collins, and Rutherford. A sign of things to come.

That said, the live version from Seconds Out is heads and shoulder better than the studio version.

“Starless” by King Crimson, from Red (1974)

King Crimson has covered so much stylistic ground that it’s hard to pick one favorite track, but if I was forced to pick one favorite Crim track, this would be it. Somewhat like “Cinema Show” it’s got a vocal intro followed by a lengthy instrumental coda, one that builds layers slowly until it finally explodes in aural widescreen. Love the Mellotron all over it, too.

“Squarer for Maud” by National Health, from Of Queues and Cures (1978)

National Health are my favorite of the bands that emerged from the “Canterbury scene,” mixing a loose, jazzy style of prog with lyrics that were often absurd or completely baffling. The only words here are a spoken-word musing on the word “luminous,” which leads into the lengthy instrumental coda. Are you noticing a theme here?

“Go the Way You Go” by Spock’s Beard, from The Light (1995)

A milestone for me, as it was the first bit of music I listened to over the Internet and the first album I bought over the Web. The listening was of a 30-second clip that (the guitar breakdown about halfway through) took gods know how long to download over dialup and the actual purchase only came after a phone call with guitarist Al Morse (he sang a chorus of “Country Roads” when he found out I was in WV), but that’s what the early days were like, kids!

“Russia On Ice” by Porcupine Tree, from Lightbulb Sun (2000)

Steven Wilson has always been great at playing with dynamics and mood. He uses both to maximum effect here, with the sluggish, barely there verses giving way to the lush, explosive choruses. Not my favorite of his work, but a great tune nonetheless.

“The Seventh House” by IQ, from The Seventh House (2000)

Even clunker albums have gems. The title track to The Seventh House stands heads and shoulders above the rest of what is a pretty weak IQ effort. The story of two WWI survivors coming to grips with their memories, it’s cinematic and emotional. I wish I understood what the whole “houses one through six” thing was about.

 “The Invisible Man” by Marillion, from Marbles (2004)

Just brilliant from start to finish. Atmospheric, brooding, and creepy song that manages to actually tell a tale worth telling. I think they’ve done this track every time I’ve seen them live since Marbles came out and I never get tired of it.

“The Island” by The Decemberists, from The Crane Wife (2006)

You don’t have to be hard-core proggers to dabble in the epic. On this album and the next The Decemberists really leaned into their prog influences, though – this even has a keyboard solo that’s very Keith Emmersony! Still, it works best because Colin Melloy works such great narratives in his songs and here, with a little more room to roam, makes full use of it.

“Microdeath Softstar” by Phideaux, from Doomsday Afternoon (2007)

I really wish an album about environmental disaster and mankind’s inability to do anything about it wasn’t becoming more and more relevant with each passing year. At least the music’s good, full of Phideaux’s trademark churn (I can’t think of a better way to describe it) and lots of tasty playing. At least the end times will have a good soundtrack.

What Does It Mean to “Sell Out”?

“Sell out!” Is there any worse insult to hurl at a creative person?

After all, writing or making music or whatever is supposed to come from the soul, right, and nothing good can come of creating art just to profit off of it. But what does it really mean to sell out and are most examples of “selling out” just really people getting lucky while doing something different?

I started thinking about this a while back when I stumbled across a list of “7 rock bands that were open about being sellouts.” The article doesn’t fulfill its promise – none of the artists listed are shown to have been “open” about selling out and, in at least one example with which I’m very familiar, there was no selling out, unless “selling out” is defined as only becoming hugely successful after years of not being so.

That example is Genesis.

Formed in the late 1960s at the English “public” school Charterhouse, Genesis was one of the leading lights of the progressive rock scene in the 1970s. Even after vocalist Peter Gabriel departed, they made two great prog albums. After guitarist Steve Hackett left in 1977, the band soldiered on as a trio and their sound started to change to something more streamlined and modern. It was that lineup that became absolutely huge in the 1980s, to the point where they were damned near everywhere.

This, naturally, led to some fans of the band’s 70s style walking away huffing about selling out. As the original article put it, after Gabriel left:

Phil Collins took over the vocal duties and over the course of a couple of subsequent Genesis albums changed the style of the band to a much more commercially viable one. He didn’t hide the fact that monetary gains influenced the decision to stray away from long progressive compositions and into simpler pop-rock arrangements.

There’s no link or reference for the “monetary gains influenced to decision to stray away from long progressive compositions” and most interviews I’ve seen suggest otherwise. For one thing, this narrative that Collins drove the stylistic change overlooks the contributions of keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarist/bassist Mike Rutherford. Most of the band’s big 80s hits were co-written by all three of them and there’s no evidence to suggest Banks and Rutherford were pulled in that direction by Collins against their will. Their solo projects show serious pop leanings and, arguably, the band’s first attempts at something more mainstream were written by Rutherford (“Your Own Special Way” from Wind and Wuthering) or all three of them (“Follow You, Follow Me”). Point is – the entire band was in on it.

And was this really selling out? “Selling out” implies some calculation on the part of the artist, of doing something for commercial gain that they wouldn’t otherwise do. Is that what happened with Genesis? It doesn’t look that way. By all indications, the band’s direction shifted because they wanted to do something different. They’d done all they wanted in the prog world, so why not explore some different areas? Banks in one interview explained that they’d “always did long and short songs, we just got better at the short ones” (he also denies that Collins’ solo success had an impact on the band’s music direction). At any rate, there doesn’t appear to be good evidence that the band stuck their collective fingers in the wind and said, “right, let’s go make some cash.” They did what they wanted to and it worked.

Yes is also on the list of “sellouts,” which makes even less sense, in context. Indeed, 90125 and the big single off of it, “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” sound radically different than Yes during its prog heyday, but there’s no indication that was done for coldly calculated economic reasons. The song wasn’t even a Yes song to start, as it was written by Trevor Rabin on his own, then brought into a band that wasn’t intended to be Yes. Hell, according this write up, Rabin was told it was “too weird to be a hit in America” – a hell of a way to sell out!

It appears to me that “sell out” is more an insult than an accurate description. It’s the kind of thing “real” fans scream when their favorite band changes course in a way they don’t like, a means of coping, I guess.

Which, you know, is okay. I can find great stuff throughout the Genesis catalog, but if you made me pick three of their albums to listen to for the rest of my life none of the trio stuff would make the cut. Others would choose differently, including my former boss (and Patrick Bateman), which is why music and art is so much fun. But there’s a difference between changing directions and making art that turns out to be popular and selling “to those who want buy.”

I’m not saying people don’t sell out, but I suspect it happens mostly in a losing effort. Big Generator looks much more like an attempt to cash in on the success of 90125 and “Owner,” but it wasn’t as huge so it kind of gets overlooked. Or it happens because of label pressures more than an artist’s desires (see Marillion’s Holidays In Eden). Mostly I think it’s a lazy epithet. The writer of that piece on “Owner,” even recognizing it was “too weird” to be a hit, still labels it selling out (even though he praises the song itself).

Besides, what’s wrong with shipping some units? Pop stars have kids (and ex wives) that need fed, too.

Thoughts On Buttered Cats

One of my favorite bands is Sanguine Hum, which marries intricate song writing and arrangements with an absurdist streak derived from the original Canterbury scene (not for nothing was an earlier version of the band called Antique Seeking Nuns). A few years ago they released a pair of concept albums – Now We Have Light and Now We Have Power – inspired by what’s called the “buttered cat paradox.” Did I mention the absurdist streak?

The buttered cat paradox is best explained in this short video, where butter is substituted with jam, but the principle is the same:

The further step upon which the Sanguine Hum albums are based is the idea that if the cat will hover off the ground, rotating, that the rotational force could be capture as a form of generating power. As one song from the first album goes:

The simplest way to describe
What is lighting up the night’s sky
Is rotatory fur!
It spins through the air.
We buttered their backs
Now we have light!
Now we have power!

This is, of course, basically a joke (remember the absurdum!), but the whole idea never sat right with me. If the cat wants to land on its feet and it’s falling feet first, why on Earth would it suddenly stop and start spinning? Sadly, my education left me without a good means of figuring this out. The closest I got to science in college was a survey-level Biology class, with nary a Physics class in sight. If you need someone to explain the histiocity of Holocaust denial or expound on legal philosophy, I’m your man. How things move in the universe, not so much.

I did some poking around and someone confirmed that I was right to think this doesn’t make any sense! The long and short of it involves the much larger mass of the cat as compared to the buttered/jammed toast:

So there it is – a completely hypothetical, terminally absurd thought experiment is debunked. I do take some satisfaction in this, even as I try to always keep in mind the MST3K motto to “repeat to yourself it’s just a[n album], you should really just relax.”

Let’s do just that, then, shall we?

Now We Have Light by Sanguine Hum

Now We Have Power by Sanguine Hum

My First Web Page!

I was trying to go all Marie Kondo on my bookmarks the other night when I came across an Internet Archive link to a fun bit of my past – my very first web page!

Now, this wasn’t the original version (for one thing, it was originally 100% image free!), but this gives you a fair idea of what things were like in the days before easy-to-use blog software like our platform here at WordPress. In fact, this was current to just before I started my current job. Each of those links went to a separate page, coded in HTML (very basically) by yours truly. What was I talking about back then?

Mostly music, if I’m honest. Probably the busiest part of the site, and the one that got me some connection with actual readers, was the album reviews page. Starting when I was in law school (when the page originally went up) I reviewed pretty near every album I got. As you can see from the list of reviews, I was digging into the expanding world of progressive rock, which I’d thought died in the 1970s. I stopped doing those (around 2000, it looks like) because I wound up only being interested in writing about the stuff that was really great or really awful and ignoring the stuff in the middle (which was most of it, after all). It’s the same reason these days that my “Weekly” posts aren’t anywhere near weekly – I really don’t write a review unless I have something to say about a piece of art these days.

Aside from reviews, I had the unmitigated Millennium-fueled gall to put together a list of the “Top 100 Musicals Works of the Twentieth Century.” Holy shit, the audacity! Even though I limited it to stuff I’d actually heard, I still must have been feeling pretty full of myself. These days if I did something similar I’d put “favorites” in the title prominently, just to make clear it was all one guy’s opinion. Digging around the Archive I found the list itself, which I’ll reproduce here for the sake of posterity:

First Suite in E-flat for Band, by Gustav Holst (1911)
Lu Sacre di Pritemps, by Igor Stravinsky (1913)
The Planets, by Gustav Holst (1918)
Firebird Suite, by Igor Stravinsky (1919)
The Pines of Rome, by Ottorino Respighi (1924)
Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin (1924)
Concerto de Aranjeuz, by Joaquin Rodrigo (1939)
Commando March, by Samuel Barber (1943)
Testament of Freedom, by Randall Thompson (1943)
Appalachian Spring Suite, by Aaron Copland (1945)
Symphony # 3, by Aaron Copland (1945)
Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, by Aaron Copland (1946)
La Fiesta Mexicana, by Owen Reed (1949)
Symphonic Songs for Band, by Robert Russell Bennett (1957)
Time Out, by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)
Kenton’s Christmas, by Stan Kenton (1961)
Symphony #13 (Babi Yar), by Dimitri Shastakovitch (1962)
Elegy for a Young American, by Robert LoPresti (1965)
Variations on a Korean Folk Song, by John Barnes Chance (1965)
Music for Prague 1968, by Karel Husa (1968)
Abbey Road, by The Beatles (1969)
Hot Rats, by Frank Zappa (1969)
In the Court of the Crimson King, an observation by King Crimson (1969)
Tommy, by The Who (1969)
Nursery Cryme, by Genesis (1971)
Pawn Hearts, by Van der Graff Generator (1971)
Storia di un Minuto, by Premiata Forneria Marconi (1971)
Fragile, by Yes (1972)
Close to the Edge, by Yes (1972)
Thick as a Brick, by Jethro Tull (1972)
Brain Salad Surgery, by Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1973)
Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd (1973)
Octopus, by Gentle Giant (1973)
Quadrophenia, by The Who (1973)
Selling England by the Pound, by Genesis (1973)
Red, by King Crimson (1973)
Relayer, by Yes (1974)
Electromagnets, by The Electromagnets (1975)
Katy Lied, by Steely Dan (1975)
The Rotters Club, by Hatfield and the North (1975)
Wish You Were Here, by Pink Floyd (1975)
Romantic Warrior, by Return to Forever (1976)
Seconds Out, by Genesis (1977)
Briefcase Full of Blues, by The Blues Brothers (1978)
Hemispheres, by Rush (1978)
Just A Game, by Triumph (1978)
Of Queues and Cures, by National Health (1978)
Please Don’t Touch, by Steve Hackett (1978)
UK, by UK (1978)
At Budokan, by Cheap Trick (1979)
Joe’s Garage, by Frank Zappa (1979)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by Stephen Sondheim (1979)
Discipline, by King Crimson (1981)
Moving Pictures, by Rush (1981)
You Are What You Is, by Frank Zappa (1981)
All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, by Pete Townshend (1981)
The Nightfly, by Donald Fagan (1982)
Under A Blood Red Sky, by U2 (1983)
Grace Under Pressure, by Rush (1984)
Misplaced Childhood, by Marillion (1985)
The Wake, by IQ (1985)
Bring on the Night, by Sting (1986)
Cold Snap, by Albert Collins (1986)
Graceland, by Paul Simon (1986)
Tones, by Eric Johnson (1986)
Symphony #1 (Lord of the Rings), by Johann de Meij (1988)
Vivid, by Living Color (1988)
High Tension Wires, by Steve Morse (1989)
Ah Via Musicom, by Eric Johnson (1990)
Toy Matinee, by Toy Matinee (1990)
Doo Dad, by Webb Wilder (1991)
II, by Animal Logic (1991)
Live At The Apollo, by B.B. King (1991)
The Sky Is Crying, by Stevie Ray Vaughn (1991)
The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, by Frank Zappa (1991)
After Hours, by Gary Moore (1992)
Bring ’em Back Alive, by The Dixie Dregs (1992)
Images and Words, by Dream Theater (1992)
Suffocating the Bloom . . ., by echolyn (1992)
UFO Tofu, by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (1992)
Blues Summit, by B.B. King (1993)
Deus ex Machina, by Deus ex Machina (1993)
Harbor Lights, by Bruce Hornsby (1993)
Mystic Mile, by Robben Ford and the Blue Line (1993)
Awake, by Dream Theater (1994)
Brave, by Marillion (1995)
Epilog, by Anglagard (1994)
Under the Table and Dreaming, by The Dave Mathews Band (1994)
Afraid of Sunlight, by Marillion (1995)
Alive In America, by Steely Dan (1995)
As The World, by echolyn (1995)
Hot House, by Bruce Hornsby (1995)
The Light, by Spock’s Beard (1995)
Live!, by The Police (1995)
Live Art, by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (1996)
Blood of the Berry, by Timothy Pure (1997)
more once more, by finneus gauge (1997)
OK Computer, by Radiohead (1997)
Sluggo!, by Mike Keneally and Beer For Dolphins (1997)
Vertu, by Vertu (1999)

You’ll also notice a link to what I called “Random Thoughts,” which was the closest thing I had to a regular blog back then (as you can see, “Random Thoughts Redux” was a blog proper, although it didn’t last long). This wasn’t a regular thing, more of a situation where if something struck me in a certain way I’d get riled up enough to write about it – sports, politics, a little bit of law. What’s completely missing, of course, is any writing about writing itself. I was several years away from starting to write fiction, much less releasing entire books of the stuff.

Other things on the old page were links to a project I did in law school called “Practical Moral Philosophy for Lawyers,” an attempt to grapple with some practical ethical questions in a different way. In typical lawyerly fashion, it doesn’t provide any hard answers. There were also links to my play-by-email fictional indoor soccer team, Morgantown Mountaineers FC (I think we won a couple of trophies over the years, but I can’t find any evidence of that) and my autocross exploits as Legal Eagle Racing (haltingly making a comeback in the Year of the Plague).

I’m not normally one to wallow in nostalgia. Still, it’s fun to look back at this and think I’ve been on the Internet, feeding the silence on and off for more than two decades. It’s hard to remember what it was like in the days before we all had instant platforms for sharing what we think. Whether that’s a development that’s good or bad, time will still tell.

The Big Black Hole In the Room

Thanks to Zinio I’m finally getting a chance to catch up on the issues of Prog magazine that I’ve missed during the pandemic. One of them, from June, has yet another of Prog’s famous lists (they love their lists over there), this one of the 50 most “influential” progressive rock albums of all time. As the intro makes clear, it was “not a list of the best prog albums of all time,” but rather a list of albums that are “pivotal in the ongoing development of progressive music.”

As with most lists, the best thing about it is that it can be a jumping off point for discussion. Nothing like this can ever be “definitive.” With that in mind, it makes sense that the list is skewed heavily toward the late 1960s and early 1970s when prog was emerging and at its commercial peak. I was pleased to see it didn’t end there, however, with releases all the way up to 2013 making the cut. There is, however, one pretty glaring hole in the list, which is pretty odd considering that the whole revitalization of the genre that made Prog possible happened then.

I’m talking about the 1990s.

The sole representative from the 90s is Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997), which is both an excellent album and an impressive reminder that expansive, odd, and small-p “progressive” rock could still find a commercial audience. But there was a lot of other important stuff going on in that decade that the list overlooks. Oddly, in some cases.

For example, Dream Theater’s 1989 debut album, When Dream and Day Unite, makes the cut. In a way that makes sense, as DT are the founding fathers of prog-metal and where better place to start than at the beginning? But the truth was not many people heard or cared about that album when it came out. What really broke DT, and announced the arrival of prog-metal, was their 1992 release, Images and Words. It’s practically the face that launched a thousand metal-tinged proggers (who kind of dominate things these days).

But that’s just one example. Here are some other important releases that are absent from the Prog list.

The Swedish Invasion

After the 1970s, prog wasn’t dead, but (to borrow a phrase from Frank Zappa) it did smell funny. While there was a slight resurgence with the neo-prog scene in the early 1980s, it didn’t get the kind of traction as the much had in the 70s. By the end of the decade, prog was very much on life support.

Two things happened in the 1990s that helped its resurgence, what some call the “third wave” of progressive rock. The first was that technology made the recording and releasing of music less expensive and put into the hands of musicians a better chance to get their music out there. The second, the real seismic shift, was the emergence of the Internet. Suddenly it didn’t matter that you were the only one in your town who knew Peter Gabriel was originally in Genesis – you could talk with other fans all over the world and be part of a real community.

A bit part of the enthusiasm that coursed through the Net in the early years was because of several bands from Sweden who helped kick off the third wave.

First up was Anglagard, whose debut album Hybris (1992) sounded like it was dropped out of 1973 via a time warp:

Hybris

It’s glorious, lush, mostly instrumental symphonic prog with lots of 70s hallmarks (Mellotron! Minimoog! Flutes!) and completely out of step with what was popular at the time. It also laid down a marker – people are still making this kind of music (and, to a certain extent, people are still buying it).

Anekdoten’s debut, Vemod (1993), falls into the same boat, although it takes its cues more from Wetton/Bruford era King Crimson than Anglagard does.

Beyond both of those, 1994 saw the release of The Flower King, a solo album by guitarist/vocalist Roine Stolt. Stolt himself wasn’t new – he was a teenage wunderkind in Kaipa during the 1970s – but this album was a return to a basic, very Yes-inspired, symphonic prog sound. Of course, it’s also essentially the debut album of The Flower Kings, who continue to crank through to this day. Stolt went on to lead that band while working with all sorts of other people in bands like Agents of Mercy, The Tangent, and Transatlantic. The Flower Kings itself brought the world the extraordinary bassist Jonas Reingold (and his band Karmakanic) and vocalist Hasse Brunnison’s band.

What all these bands have in common, and why they’re influential to the modern prog world, is they undeniably claimed the idea that “progressive rock” is as much a style – indebted to the original bands of the 1970s – as it is an idea or a rallying cry. There’s rock that progresses – continues to push the boundaries, wherever they may be – and there’s progressive rock as a label. These bands represent the real genesis (so to speak) of that modern, nostalgic prog path.

A Reinvigorated Old Guard

While prog itself might have struggled in the 1980s, that didn’t mean that all prog bands did. Some changed their sound up and had a hit (Yes), while others did the same and became one of the biggest pop bands in the universe (Genesis). That transition wasn’t so smooth for other bands, however, and they limped into the 90s like lost ships at sea.

After vocalist Pete Nichols left, IQ struggled on with a couple more albums that tried to tack into a slicker, more direct sound, with no real success (a couple of good tunes, though). In 1993, Nichols came back and the band jumped solidly back into the neo-prog territory they helped to chart with Ever.

Ever

It wasn’t the only example of a more establish act returning to their more progressive glory days.

Marillion had tried to go a little more pop on Holidays In Eden, but, again, it didn’t really work out (again, several good tunes, though!). As their relationship with their label deteriorated, then went and produced a sprawling concept album, Brave (1994). Not just a statement of intent to do whatever they wanted, it marked a shift in their sound where they started to emphasize atmosphere and mood more than juicy solos. You can hear that vibe everywhere from Gazpacho and Airbag to Pineapple Thief and Porcupine Tree (parts of it, anyway).

Not to be outdone, 1995 saw the roaring back of one of the classic 70s bands when King Crimson released THRAK. It, too, was somewhat backwards looking, melding the intricate dual guitar lines of the 1980s lineup with the thunderous power (two drummers! two bass-ish players!) of the 1970s. It arguably introduced Crimson to entire new audiences from the nu-metal and related scenes.

A New Brand of Odd

“What is prog?” is the evergreen debate on the Internet. If it means more than “stuff that sounds like the 1970s” – and it does – then you have to have some room in your array of influence for bands that might not fit the prog mold, but are just weird enough to embody the spirit of the genre.

Is Primus prog? Don’t know, don’t care, but there’s definitely some prog DNA in there. Their 1991 breakthrough Sailing the Seas of Cheese shows influences of Rush and King Crimson, some astounding musicianship, and just plain odd stuff that pushes it outside the mainstream. The same could be said for The Flaming Lips, who rang out the decade with The Soft Bulletin (1999), a skillfully layered collection of nouveau psychedelia. Arguably they’d go bigger (and proggier) later, but still.

Then there’s Talk Talk, who released their final album, Laughing Stock, in 1991. Much as I have tried this is an album I just can’t get into, but it’s been beloved by a generation of musicians that have come after it for its abstract, arty meanderings. I’ve read that, for some, it’s the origin of post-rock. If spawning a new genre isn’t influential, I don’t know what is.

Finally, in any discussion of the modern progressive scene you have to make room for jam bands. Not every one of those bands gets proggy points, but so many of them take such a diverse range of influences and throw them together with live improvisation that it’s hard to imagine something more progressive. While the scene dates back to the Grateful Dead, what really made it clear that a new generation would jump on that train was the success of Phish. While they’re most known for live shows (of course), their studio albums are worth note, too.

Rift

I’d put 1991’s Rift up there as their proggiest effort – it’s even a bloody concept album!

I’ll admit that I might be a bit sensitive when it comes to 1990s prog. This was the era, while I was in college and law school, that I rediscovered progressive rock – found out that it wasn’t dead and that the 1970s scene was broader and deeper than I’d ever imagined. Even putting that to one side, though, I think even the folks at Prog would admit that it wasn’t quite the nearly-barren wasteland it’s list portrays it to be. Not every album I talk about above should have made the cut, but at least a couple should have.

Weekly Read: Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War

Music, those who make it and consume it often think, is a universal language. A beautiful melody or an infectious rhythm or a soothing wash of noise doesn’t require any kind of verbal communication to enjoy. Surely if there’s something that can exist outside of the mess that is politics, music should be yet. Sadly, the takeaway from Jonathan Rosenberg’s Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War is that politics, like religion, poisons everything, in spite of anyone’s best intentions otherwise.

Dangerous Melodies examines this through a particular lens – the American classical music community and how it interact with the First and Second World Wars and the early part of the Cold War. In each era, political considerations informed what was played, by whom and where.

One of the fascinating things about the WWI section of this book (along with PANDEMIC, which of course covers that time period) is how fervent people were with regards to the war and the United States’ role in it. Of course, this was the period of the Sedition Act and the Supreme Court’s deeply horrible First Amendment law, but it really brings the xenophobia home when you hear about German musicians being interned for nothing more than their nationality.

German composers proved a particularly tricky proposition, since, at the time, the American classical music scene was heavily indebted to Germany composers and musicians. Wagner, of course, featured prominently in all this, but he at least had the good sense to be dead when the conflict began. Discussions about whether to continue to stage his operas or play his music were a bit more esoteric than those surrounding, say, Richard Strauss, who was both very popular in American concert halls and still alive to cash the checks.

If the issue during the First World War was what to do with Germans in general, in the Second World War there was some attempt to distinguish between garden variety Germans and actual Nazis. This was easier said than done, however, since some great conductors were at least Nazi-adjacent, if not actual (if unenthusiastic) party members. Their rehabilitation after the war mirrored those of their predecessors in the Great War – in that the result of the uproar had little to do with actual facts and more to do with repeated assertions of bad behavior (I shook my head reading how a judge in a court case involving one conduct admitted there was no evident to prove his alleged sin, but enough people believed it that it didn’t matter).

One odd part about the Second World War is that, at least as Dangerous Melodies tells it, is that Wagner came roaring back and was basically unscathed. To the extent the Nazis glorified him and tried to make a paragon of the Reich it didn’t impact his work being played in the United States. On the other hand, there’s no discussion of Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism, which would seem like a pretty good reason for programming other stuff while the Holocaust is happening.

Where the intersection of classical music and the two World Wars was largely about restricting what was played (with one notable exception I’ll discuss in a moment), once the Cold War begins the tables turn. The universalists gain the upper hand, only to see that universalism weaponized in the name of American foreign policy. American orchestras made numerous state-funded tours of Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain. At best this was benevolent cultural exchange, but there was also some hope that it might show the Soviets that we weren’t all a bunch of burger eating, beer swilling, country music fans, either.

As an aside, after I read this book I listened to the Wind of Change podcast. Done by Patrick Radden Keefe (he of the amazing Say Nothing), it’s a deep dive into the conspiracy theory that the CIA wrote the Scorpions’ late Cold War hit of the same name. It doesn’t really prove that, but along the way it talks about how the American government used the same kind of state-sponsored cultural junkets in more popular music forms, too – sometimes without the knowledge of the artists.

There was one composer whose career spanned the Second World War and Cold War to devastating effect. One of the most famous and celebrated musical achievements of the Second World War was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, called Leningrad. Premiering in 1942 it was seen as embodying the resistance of the residents of that city (now, once again, St. Petersburg) to a lengthy Nazi siege. There was even a kind of bidding war over the US premier! It was a big fucking deal in a way that I don’t think we can comprehend in 2020.

But when the Cold War began, Shostakovich was drafted into the Soviet Union’s culture war against the West. There’s an episode in the book where a conference arranged in New York – assailed by Red hunters for being anti-American – winds up becoming a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda, giving a not particularly enthusiastic speech condemning Western music that he pretty clearly didn’t write. Shostakovich got both the highs and the lows, in other words, of political influence in music.

As it happens, after I read the book, I dug out my recording of Shostakovich’s Seventh I have by the Dallas Symphony. The liner notes go into a little more detail on his most famous work and its political impact. According to his memoirs, published in 1979, it wasn’t the war anthem people made it out to be (it “had been planned” before the war started):

Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism, any form of it is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as being an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin.

* * *

Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.

Where does that leave music and politics? As Shostakovich learned, they’re inexorably intertwined. Thinking that music can escape the taint of politics when nothing else can is a pipe dream. At best what music can do, better than just about any other form of art, is escape the shackles of the political sometimes and reach across barriers. It ain’t much, but it ain’t nothing.

DangerousMelodies

New Tune – “Dance Party in the Pirates Courtyard”

Last spring the Fourth Circuit held an oral argument session in Charleston, South Carolina, rather than its usual home in Richmond. I had to go down there to argue a case, so I took the wife with me and we made a little vacation of it. Charleston is a neat old city, full of lots of history and architecture.

One day, while walking around, we passed this narrow passageway:

PiratesCourtyard (Small)

Something about the sign grabbed me. It wasn’t for a restaurant or bar and wasn’t any kind of historical marker. It was just a sign designating this places as Pirates Courtyard.

Almost immediately I got a riff in my head. Being that musical inspiration is usually fleeting for me, I did well to keep it going until we got back to the hotel. I jotted down the idea and, at the top of the legal pad with the notes, wrote “Dance Party in the Pirates Courtyard.” Usually I pick a title from my long list of nonsense phrases I keep handy just for that purpose, but this seemed to fit the riff and gave me some idea of what might come next.

After many months, and some good lockdown time, I’ve finally completed it. Does it really conjure a “dance party”? Probably not. It’s too slow, has a “chorus” in 7/4, and has an ambienty piano bridge. But I like it and it’s my song and I’ll call it whatever the fuck I like!
Anyway, here it is – hope you enjoy:

 

Decade – Favorite Songs

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

As I said last week, I listen to a lot of music. in trying to process all the great music from the last ten years I had to have some rules. Without rules we’re just animals, right? So far as music goes, that means . . .

1. Two lists – one of favorite albums (which dropped last week), one of favorite tunes. Nothing on the album list can contribute a track to the tunes list. While there’s no hard and fast rule that none of the favorite album artists could appear on this list, too, it just worked out that way.

2. One song per artist. Some of these albums are full of good songs and there are other albums from this decade, too, but I had to draw a line somewhere.

3. As with everything in this Decade series, these are my favorites. I don’t make the case that they’re the best, most important, most influential, or anything like that. This is just stuff that I really really like.

Got it? Good. Let’s rock . . .

“Starts With Nothing” from The Future Is Medieval by Kaiser Chiefs (2011)

It doesn’t start with nothing, of course, but with a synth pattern, some kick drum, and vocals. After a brief respite, the full band kicks in and things build from there to a titanic conclusion. In a list full of epic prog tracks, sometimes you just need a good rock tune. Kaiser Chiefs are kind of my go-to for that kind of thing – intelligent modern rock with just enough keyboards to keep things interesting. Yes, that is my final answer.

“King of Number 33” from King of Number 33 by DeeExpus (2011)

One of the great epics of the decade, it has a story that sounds too odd not to have some basis in fact. The “King” here is a mentally disabled guy who rides the same bus over and over, not hurting anybody, until one day he shows up with sword and starts demanding obedience from his “subjects.” It’s sad and tragic, but the music is really good, with lots of nice instrumental breaks. It leans to the heavier side of the scale (as lots of prog does these days), but it gets the balance just right.

“Titanic Calls Carpathia” from COMM by The Tangent (2011)

COMM, as you might guess from the title, is all about communication. It’s not surprise, then, that Andy Tillison would choose to root one of the album’s epic in the one of the first uses of wireless communication in history, the distress call from the sinking Titanic. The theme of distress runs through the tune, folding in everything from Apollo 13 to a lonely person with a cell phone. There’s a cynical streak, of course, Andy being Andy, with regard to what we do these days for “comm.” Musically, everybody in that version of The Tangent was on top of their game.

“Some Memorial” by echolyn from echolyn (aka “Window”) (2012)

I almost went with “Island,” the opening track on this album (echolyn’s best of the decade), since it kicks things off in such a dynamic way. At the end of the day, though, I had to go with the track that closes the first disc. I love the way it works through various moods, from detached and jazzy through angry and driving to the concluding “take a handful of seeds / and a mouthful of earth / lie down, become a garden” section. The strings are a particularly nice touch, contrasting nicely with Chris Buzby’s keys.

“Judas Unrepentant” from English Electric Part One by Big Big Train (2012)

I’ve written about this song before, the story of an art forger undone by the hints he himself left in his works. That’s great in itself, but the music has a bouncy, broad quality that sort of takes the piss out of the seriousness of the story. It’s hard not to love a song that allows you to loudly belt out in the car lines like “charged him with conspiracy to defraud”! Oh, and the guitar work from Dave Gregory, percolating in the background for the most part, is superb.

“Houndstooth” from Senna by Mahogany Frog (2012)

Mahogany Frog exist at the confluence of fusion-inspired instrumental prog, electronica, and jam bands. They’re amazing live (I had a chance to see them at ProgDay in 2010), but they’re equally good at putting the energy of live performance onto tape. This track (actually the first two tracks) from their latest (c’mon guys!) album distills all that makes them fun to listen to into under ten minutes. Wonderful vintage keys, thumping drums, spiraling guitars. Fantastic.

“I Can Teach You How to Lose a Fight” from The Unraveling by Knifeworld (2014)

First impressions are tough, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a better one than the opening track on Knifeworld’s 2014 opus, the first thing of theirs I heard. It’s all just slightly off, but in the best way. It starts off almost industrial, with just rhythm and vocals and occasional guitar, before it explodes to take in the kaleidoscope of sound that Knifeworld is. The lyrics are unsettling (the line “The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes” shows up as a song title later on the album). Seldom have I been so taken with a band so quickly.

“Remurdered” from Rave Tapes by Mogwai (2014)

Rave Tapes marries Mogwai’s usual guitar/bass/drum post rock with healthy dollops of electronics and synths. Nowhere does that come together better than “Remurdered” (what a great title for a song). It starts out with an insistent synth pulse with some spacey guitars before drums and seriously growly bass synth carries things away. It’s one of those songs that builds so well from sparse beginnings to thunderous conclusion.

“La Mitrailleuse” from The Punishment of Luxury by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (2017)

It’s old hat these days for bands that have been split up for decades to get back together and ride the nostalgia gravy train. Less usual is for said bands to make and release new material that’s worth listening to and can stand up with their best earlier work. Since returning with 2010’s dancy History of Modern, OMD has been doing just that. On The Punishment of Luxury they channeled a lot of Dazzle Ships, nowhere more than this track which is just layered vocals and the sounds of gunfire. Chilling and effective.

“Everything Is Awful” from I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists (2018)

If there was ever a song for our times, this is it (no coincidence that it’s the newest tune on this list). What makes it work is, despite the sentiment in the lyrics, the music is upbeat and creates this weird dissonance in your mind. You want to sing along with how awful things are. It’s like laughing in the face of tragedy or maybe a campfire song for the end of the world. Sometimes that’s the best you can do, so why not have a good song for it (see also, 3rDegree’s “A Nihilist’s Love Song”)?

Decade – Favorite Albums

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

I listen to a lot of music. There’s no way I could narrow down a decade’s worth of stuff to ten albums, so I had to have some rules. Without rules we’re just animals, right? So far as music goes, that means . . .

1. Two lists – one of favorite albums, one of favorite tunes (that one comes next week). Nothing on the album list can contribute a track to the tunes list.

2. One album per artist. Some of my favorites have had very good decades, but I didn’t want to fill up on them.

3. As with everything in this Decade series, these are my favorites. I don’t make the case that they’re the best, most important, most influential, or anything like that. This is just stuff that I really really like.

With those in mind, away we go . . .

The Long Division by 3rDegree (2012)

LongDivision

3rDegree had a really good decade. Either of their two Ones and Zeroes albums could have been the one I picked for this list since they’re great, too, but I keep coming back to this one. About half the songs are political, but not partisan, in that they cast a keen eye on our fucked up American system (sadly, it looks like they’ll remain relevant for years to come). The rest of the album contains what is perhaps my favorite tune by the band, “Memetic Pandemic,” and the wonderfully sing-songy “A Nihilist’s Love Song.”

Clockwork Angels by Rush (2012)

ClockworkAngels

They say you’re supposed to exit on a high note. Rush did. Their final studio album was a return to their proggy concept album roots. Sprawling and epic, they used some strings very effectively (and even took them on tour). It’s my favorite thing they’ve done since Neal’s tragedies and probably since the 1980s (I like the synths!). The story is a kind of steampunk Candide, better on record than in writing.

Gravity’s Dirty Work by Darkroom (2013)

GravitysDirtyWork

If I had one word to describe my musical decade it would be “Bandcamp.” The streaming/downloading/artist portal website has changed the way I discover new music. The ability to hear about a band and just put their name into Google with “bandcamp” after it generally puts a lot of music at my fingertips. Such is the case with Darkroom, an ambient duo I read about in Prog magazine (I’m pretty sure). The music here is dark and dreamy, with equal parts thick layers of electronics and solo guitar that glides overtop.

The Bones of What You Believe by Chvrches (2013)

BonesOfWhatYouBelieve

Modern synth-pop lives! I learned about this Scottish trio from Keyboard magazine. Not only did I really like what I heard, but I was stunned to find out they’re actually kind of popular. More than once I’ve heard Chvrches tunes on TV (or in a FIFA video game soundtrack) and turned to my wife, in amazement, to explain that I actually own this song. Anyway, all three of their albums released this decade have been great, but the first one holds a special place in my heart.

Execute and Breathe by Elephants of Scotland (2014)

ExecuteAndBreathe

If I had a second word to describe my decade in music it would be “ROSFest.” I saw lots of new (to me, at least) bands there before the fest moved from Gettysburg to Florida this year, including these guys. No elephants anywhere and they’re from Vermont, not Scotland, but their Rush-influenced (with more keyboards) prog is very good. My big beef with them at ROSFest was that they lacked a strong lead vocalist, but that’s less important for a studio record. I listen to this album a lot.

Live In America by Sanguine Hum (2014 – or maybe 2012)

LiveInAmerica

Speaking of ROSFest finds. When I saw this set in 2012 I had no idea who these guys were. By the end of it I was a huge fan. I even stood in the meet & greet line afterwards (which I never did), even though they didn’t have their new album for sale (got to talk to Matt Baber about the Rhodes he used, though, so it was all good). Another band that’s had a great decade, Sanguine Hum have cranked out a lot of great music recently, but this is still a favorite because it captures the experience of diving into the unknown and coming out the other end grinning like a loon.

The release date is a little confusing. I think it was released on Bandcamp in 2012 to those of us who preordered the DVD of the show, but that DVD (which came with a CD, too) didn’t arrive until 2014. Make of that what you will.

The Race for Space by Public Service Broadcasting (2015)

RaceForSpaceCCCP

Central to The Race for Space is a gimmick – taking dialogue and monologue from old films (usually propaganda and news stock) and turning them into lyrics for songs. Not just laying them over beds of electronics like folks have been doing forever, but actually trimming and manipulating them to work in the place of lyrics. That said, it’s a hell of a gimmick and works super well, whether it’s in the context of the slow building, brooding “Sputnik” or the infectious “Go!.” Musically there’s a lot of electronics, but a backbone of real drums (and even horns on one track) and some guitar that keeps things from getting too artificial.

Hand.Cannot.Erase by Steven Wilson (2015)

HandCannotErase

Like 3rDegree, Steve Wilson had a hell of a decade and I could almost have picked any of his albums for this list. I think this one – a concept album based on reports of a woman who died, alone, in her London apartment and wasn’t missed for years (not a typo) – brings together the various parts of Wilson’s style the best. There’s lengthy proggy instrumental stuff (the Minimoog solo on “Regret #9”  is almost worth the price of admission alone) alongside modern electronic-style stuff, and more direct pop songs. The concluding “Last Regret” is pretty straightforward, but heart breaking.

Fuck Everyone and Run by Marillion (2016)

FEAR

At this point, Marillion cranks out consistently good stuff that occasionally rises to great. FEAR is their latest great album, a sprawling epic of raw nerve feelings. A lot of it is political, at least in the broadest sense, and lands some punches (without them being as targeted directly as, say, “Gaza” from Sounds That Can’t Be Made). At first listen those big statements were the ones I gravitated towards (particularly the last movement of “The New Kings”), but my favorite track has come to be “The Leavers” (which, in spite of the title and when it was recorded has nothing to do with Brexit), an ode to the push-pull dynamics of touring.

Say So by Bent Knee (2016)

SaySo

Another ROSFest surprise. Although I’d listened to their prior album (on Bandcamp!) before seeing them, nothing really captures this band like a live setting. They make the most out of wild dynamic swings, shifting from hushed, almost whispered vocals over piano to full-bore riffage in the blink of an eye. It helps that keyboardist/vocalist Courtney Swain has the voice to tackle both ends of the spectrum with ease. They’re a prog band, but thoroughly modern (one member just manipulates the other musicians’’ sound on stage with a laptop) and really exciting.

I could go on and on about all the great music that came out over the past ten years, but I can safely call these favorites. Go check ‘em out.

Some Festive (?) Winter Music

Every year, sometime around the middle of December, I think to myself that I really should make some Christmas music. Of course, by that time it’s too late, so I shrug and go on with things. This year, however, I got my shit together soon enough to actually make some tunes for the season!

Naturally, there’s a twist.

When looking for a holiday tune or tunes to adapt I didn’t want anything too obvious. One of my main gripes with Christmas music is that people pass around the same few dozen carols that constantly get reworked without either making something new or digging deep for more obscure material. Original wasn’t really in the cards, since I don’t write words and you really need words for a new Xmas song to make any sense. So I tried to find something different, or at least new to my ears. If it happened to be in the public domain, even better.

The more I dug, the more the “season” in question shifted from “Christmas” to “winter.” I got really into the idea of doing something about surviving winter. I know people for whom the short days and the cold really make life miserable. I’m not a huge fan of them, either. So I settled on two olde folk songs that fit the theme.

The first is “Drive the Cold Winter Away” (also called “All Hail to the Days”), an English song dating back to about 1625. It’s all about seeing through the long, cold nights with friends and others and invokes scenes of parties, caroling, and all that jazz. Naturally that’s too upbeat for what I usually do, but I found this downtempo version by Loreena McKennitt and took my inspiration from it.

The second is “The Winter It Is Past” (also called “The Curragh of Kildare”), an Irish song, parts of which date back to at least the 1700s. There’s at least one version that includes lyrics by my great-great-great-whatever (sure, why not) Robert Burns. It’s all about the return of spring as well as the departure of a lover. The bitter and the sweet, as they say. The melody here is more traditional and upbeat than the first part, so I hope it’s a nice contrast.

I needed a name for this amalgam and wanted to express a sentiment like “winter sucks, but it gets better.” Thankfully, everything sounds better in Latin, so it became “Hiems Sugit, Sed is Gets Melius.” My old Latin teacher would approve, I think.

Without further ado, enjoy – and Happy Holidays!

If you’re interested, I tackled the same basic idea (winter giving forth to spring) a few years back in an original tune, “The Ice, The Sun.” It’s more ambient and sprawling.