Thursday, August 14, 2014

Music Review - Synergy - Cords

There's nothing like finding that you reviewed an album twice. This one is from 1998 for pay and the second is from 2013 for my own site so I guess I'm excused.

Originally released in 1979 on clear vinyl, Cords by Synergy gained a cult following among the rare few who knew of its existence. Created by electronica pioneer Larry Fast, keyboard player extraordinaire for Peter Gabriel, the Synergy project encompassed a series of all-synthesizer recordings in the late 70s and early 80s. The last recording was in 1987 and since that time, recordings from this series have become increasingly difficult to find. That is, until March of this year when Polygram reissued the entire set on compact disc, a medium, arguably, for which this all-digital music was destined.

"But hold on," you may be tempted to think to yourself. "Why would I want to listen to computer bleeps from the seventies?" Were these the standard fare of this album, you would be justified. However, twenty years after their creation, the Synergy recordings still sound suprisingly fresh and original. Far from being novelty music full of electronic bleeps and burps, Fast has composed classically based compositions embedded with elements from jazz and rock. The synthesizers do not attempt to mimic the sounds of a conventional orchestra but they do work together to create a unique yet full, orchestral sound.

Cords is composed of ten movements that are related by musical ideas, or cords, that run throughout the recording. Opening with "On Presuming To Be Modern I", Fast creates a thematic center for the rest of the work. Sounding like a 21st century string section, the movement is both expansive and heroic. The following piece "Phobos and Deimos Go To Mars" is a baroque-like, percussive, angular piece. "A Small Collection of Chords" is an intimate chamber piece. Simple and pretty, the bell and woodwind timbres create a delicate mood. "Full Moon Flyer" is an adventure in contrasts, one moment sounding like a gentle drifting through the night sky, the next an eerie, percussive dance. "Trellis" is an energetic, intricate weaving of melodies that play off each other in harpsichord-like tones. Of this album, my favorite piece is "Disruption in World Communications", a bit of program music that I have long wanted to arrange for marching band. Starting with a sweet, dainty melody on bells and flute, everything is fine and orderly until you hear a short, ugly glitch. The music ignores this intrusion, continuing merrily on its way, adding more instruments and parts to the communication system. The glitch multiplies, infecting the various parts of the "orchestra" until the whole of the "world communications" is seething in a chaotic mass of dissonance, pounding away with the theme of the original glitch. The work ends with a final "On Presuming to be Modern" which combines musical quotes from the other pieces into the original theme, bringing the piece to a satisfying close.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, September 1998.

Music Review - Yngwie Malmsteen - Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra

I think I'll give this one another listen RIGHT NOW!

It was Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen who made me take the plunge into the mysterious waters of "classical music" by recommending that all aspiring guitarists study Nicolo Paganini's piece 24 Caprices for Solo Violin. Although I was not a guitarist, I enjoyed Malmsteen's music and wanted to hear what might have influenced him. So it was off to the local Wooden Nickel for a shiny black platter (CDs were still a year or two away) that would lead to my immersion in the classical realm.

It is only fitting that Yngwie would eventually release a classical album of his own. This is not a collection of classical music covers such as the excellent CD by Accept-guitarist Wolf Hoffmann, but original compositions for a real orchestra with solo guitar. Overall, he succeeds. The opening track is based on one of my favorite Malmsteen compositions, "Icarus Dream Suite" from his first album. Here the main melodies are taken and transformed to the symphony, themes that were quite symphonic when played by a rock band over a decade ago and are right at home with a full orchestra. "Prelude to April" is another fine piece with lots of arpeggiated chords and chromatic runs against a soft string and choral background. In fact, this piece would be an easy fit on one of his rock records just by replacing the simple orchestra part with keyboards. The listener will find some nice horns melodies (most of the album is comprised of just the string section and guitar) in the tenth track which is very dramatic and compelling and although part of the concerto, it is a self-contained piece.

While the music in general is surprisingly good, there are a few shortcomings. By definition, a concerto is a solo instrument interacting with the orchestra. While there is some of that here, the majority of the music feels like Yngwie soloing over an orchestral background, not interacting with it. His trademark clean, lean Strat sound is a bit thin when trying to play against a full orchestra... it tends to get lost at times. But these are minor complaints for a project such as this. Yngwie is a big fan of Bach and Vivaldi and so the music is very influenced by the Baroque era. If you are a fan of Malmsteen's guitar playing, his instrumental pieces on his solo albums, or even a fan of Bach, this unique album deserves a place in your collection.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, February 2001.

Music Review - This Train - The Emperor's New Band

I have absolutely no memory of any songs on this album and it isn't in my collection. Sure seemed like I liked it, though.

Started as a diversion from their "real" bands, This Train soon surpassed the popularity of their respective bands with its rockabilly-based sound and humorous lyrics. The previous release, Mimes of the Old West, was hailed by critics as an instant classic, bringing many new fans into the fold. The Emperor's New Band attempts to build on this growing public awareness with mixed results.

While difficult to categorize due to the many styles includes on the CD, rockabilly is perhaps the base of most of the songs. "I Wanna Be Your Man" opens the album with a feel of a very early Beatles song mixed with Chuck Berry. "We'll Leave the Light On" draws on a big band sound with heaps of horns, although I can't listen to it without thinking of Motel 6. The title track breaks with the jazz-based sound, going instead to light rock with a tinge of country and "She's A Rocket" is a wonderful mix of full-out rock with big band horns! Most of the songs are very well written and withstand many repeat listens, being based on solid writing and not using rockabilly as a gimmick.

Lyrically, the range is from painful honesty to cynical sarcasm, often within the same line. Kudos (did I just say "kudos"?) for giving me a belly laugh with an unexpected Kiss reference in the song "Monstertruck 2000" through the line "Beth, I know you're lonely". Unexpected is probably what you should expect when it comes to the lyrics. The title track is about the thrill of playing music "before it … paid all yours bills" with references to VH-1, open mic nights, Betty Ford, and ex-wives who "need some closure." "Jazz", essentially a diatribe about the definition of real jazz, is definitely the strangest track and possibly the worst. "The Magic Bean" is an ode to coffee and "a protest song against decaf." Going beyond the hooky pop phrases, This Train has created a good, diverse follow-up to Mimes that is full of fun and definitely hits more than it misses.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, January 2000.

Music Review - Coyle & Sharpe - Audio Visionaries

Not exactly a "music" review but an early guerrilla comedy album.

When Tom Green was just an unfertilized egg in his mother's ovary, Jim Coyle and Mal Sharpe roamed the streets of San Francisco working their special brand of guerilla improvisational comedy. "Disguised" in business suits with a tape recorded hidden in a briefcase, these two would assault strangers with unusual requests and suggestions, capturing their reactions. Some of the best of these recordings are forever captured in the digital pits of Audio Visionaries, recordings that were originally rejected by the record company that signed Lenny Bruce as being "too sick."

Each of the hysterical vignettes on the CD starts with the duo posing an almost plausible question and then slowly leading the victim down the path to absurdity. For instance, on one track they offer someone an interesting job where they work in a pit. The person is interested and as the discussion continues, flames, bats, maniacs and almost certain death are added to the mix as the interviewee continues to consider the job offer. Another track finds Coyle and Sharpe drafting a third person into a new religion called "Three-ism" where three individuals join together and make decisions as one. They follow this man onto a bus, determining where and what they will have for dinner that evening, overriding any objections this man may have with a two-to-one vote. Elsewhere, they try to persuade people to implant a microphone in their brain in order to hear their thoughts before they think them, to trade a valuable word ("you can use it all day") for a cake, and attempt to persuade a woman to grow feathers as a fashion statement. Amazingly, most of the participants are taken in by the honest-sounding Sharpe and the dead-pan master Coyle. While most of the recordings on this CD are from 1963, they are not dated. In fact, many of the absurdities suggested to the unknowing victim have basis in the reality of 2000. If you enjoy The Daily Show correspondent segments, The Upright Citizens Bridge, Monty Python, or Tom Green, you must hear the insanity on this little silver platter.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2000.

Music Review - Super Furry Animals - Guerrilla

Their first album was sung entirely in their native Welsh tongue (a sample: "Gwir a chelwydd sydd mewn plisgyn") and it's only gotten better from then. Guerrilla, the third album from British post-alternative band Super Furry Animals finds an album with a manifesto, sucking in and regurgitating musical genres with an alarming alacrity. Punk, power-pop, techno, dance house, calypso, folk, and progressive rock are all thrown into the pot, simmering into a tasty stew, a new psychedelia for the new millennium. The song that first drew me to this band is "Do or Die", a literal two minute explosion of guitar punk/pop energy. I soon found other songs creeping into my consciousness, such as "Northern Lites" with it's steel drums, Caribbean brass, and salsa rhythm. "Keep the Cosmic Trigger Happy", with its "Penny Lane" beat and celestial lyrics is a direct descendant of Klaatu. The chaotic party feel of Pere Ubu infiltrates "Night Vision" which segues into the techno/dance house "Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home)", an ode to cellular technology. "A Specific Ocean" gives the listener a breather from this excited atmosphere with its ambient, beautiful, slow groove. Sonically, this album intentionally destroys the concept of "genre", gleefully crushing it under its furry foot. Quiet waves of synthesized sound are replaced with punk fuzz guitar and heavy drums which in turn are overcome with thick choruses replete with what can only be described as super furry animal voices (think Muppets on steroids). The music is imaginative, wigged out, abstract yet melodic, and totally fresh.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 1999.

Music Review - Super Furry Animals - Rings Around The World

Wild, wacky stuff, those Super Furry Animals. However their videos and anti-Christian lyrics stopped my purchases after two albums.

I was recently reading an interview with legendary producer Bob Ezrin (KISS Destroyer, Pink Floyd The Wall, the upcoming Jane's Addiction) where he lamented the current music industry trend where people are afraid of failure and thus stick to the proven, albeit tired, formats. One band that's not afraid to leap recklessly into the unproven void is Super Furry Animals, hereafter referred to either as Ted or SFA.

Fabricating a whirling kaleidoscopic blend of punk, prog, pop, electronica, folk, country, and rock, SFA have created a true headphone album full of shimmering textures and schizophrenic sounds. At times dreamy, experimental, driven, and bizarre, they remain grounded in some of their strongest melodies to date on their fifth release Rings Around The World, the first album ever to be released simultaneously on DVD with each song having its own animated video.

"Alternate Route To Vulcan Street" is a perfect opener and introduction to this band with crisp solo piano that melts into a wash wavering guitars and dreamlike vocoder vocals, all complimented by a lush string section and creaky noises in a cross between mellow XTC and Radiohead. Rich vocal harmonies similar to Crosby, Stills and Nash along with acoustic guitar begin "No Sympathy" with the haunting line "You deserve to die." While the song begins in folk, it ends in full-out polyrhythmic techno hysteria and the seamless transition between these two extremes simply must be heard to be believed. The hypocritical answer to "No Sympathy" immediately follows with "Juxtaposed With U" which revels in its sugary Love Boat strings and pop melody lyrics of "You've got to tolerate all those people that you hate."

In a more rock vein is "Sidewalk Serfer Girl" where ingeniously tuned rattling sounds give way to heavy guitar riffs, sonic squeals and an explosively catchy chorus. Retro handclaps pervade "Receptacle for the Respectable" which encapsulates nearly every side of SFA in under five minutes. Fun loving, catchy, jangly pop becomes melancholy country which ramps up to heavy techno with the title gruffly shouted above a din of guitars and keyboard noise. Another standout track is "[A] Touch Sensitive" which is a hypnotic instrumental of squishy synth tones and symphonic string figures that banter with orgasmic instrumental groans.

In Rings SFA manages to wrap sad, beautiful, crazy, chugging, experimental, luxurious soundscapes around psychedelic Beach Boys pop with teasingly warped imagery and wit. For those bored with the sameness of radio, Rings Around the World is the perfect antidote.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Music Review - Dave Thomas and foreigners - Bay City

For some reason, the music of Dave Thomas stands out in my memory in a curious yet endearing way. Around 2002 or so I would review almost every album sent to me by this New York firm (who has now gone completely modern jazz) and this was one of them. There is a haunting, nostalgic quality about this music that everyone should experience at least once. The album opens with a sharp, popping snare and bass drum, reminding me of the song "She Drives Me Crazy". But not for long. Instead of echo-laden piercing vocals of Fine Young Cannibals, the listener is lulled into a trance-like state by the singers subdued voice. David Thomas, of Pere Ubu fame, has created another intriguing collection, painting a cohesive picture in music and poetry, an entire lifetime captured on a single compact disc. The subject is Bay City, a fictional American city which is both affluent and morally debased. Against a backdrop of percussion (played by P.O. Jorgens), clarinet, vibraharp, and acoustic guitars, Thomas sings stories of regret and loss, his full, mellow voice perfectly evoking the feel of a hot Mississippi night by the river, the smell of mud and the lure of forbidden pleasures thick in the air. As with his last piece, Mirror Man, this album needs to be eaten whole. There is a cohesiveness to the CD, with each song setting the mood for the next, with loneliness being piled atop isolation. Opening with "Clouds of You", the main character sings of the history and spirit of Bay City with such haunting lines as " I hear the bones buried in the hills / I hear my brothers, my brothers still." Clarinets abound in "White Room" and Thomas's voice mirrors their sound, breaking in yearning as he sings to be free of the pull of Bay City. The music behind "Nobody Lives On The Moon" is a mixture of jangling swamp rock and African tribal drums... very unusual. "Salt" mixes in a health dose of sultry, steamy jazz while another track, "Shaky Hands", is almost experimental in nature with creative sound loops augmenting the instruments, but still keeping with the overall dark and musty feel of the album. Play this album and you'll be instantly transported to a dingy, muddy city on the outskirts of New Orleans, caught in time as the haunted lives of those both familiar and alien are unrolled before you.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, April 2000.