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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Syd Barrett: The Madcap Laughs


1) Terrapin; 2) No Good Trying; 3) Love You; 4) No Man's Land; 5) Dark Globe; 6) Here I Go; 7) Octopus; 8) Golden Hair; 9) Long Gone; 10) She Took A Long Cold Look; 11) Feel; 12) If It's In You; 13) Late Night.

General verdict: The big winner of the Musical Paralympic Contest of 1970, and its record is still waiting to be beat.

Considering the state of Syd Barrett in late '67, it is nothing short of an absolute miracle that he eventually managed to recover enough to get back to a recording studio — with a lot of help from his friends, of course, but still sufficiently conscious to work on new material. That Peter Jenner and Andrew King, Floyd's original managers, chose to cast their lot with Syd is understandable: he'd been the primary songwriter and visionary, and I doubt that listening to Roger Waters' early compositions such as ʽTake Up Thy Stethoscope And Walkʼ could have inspired a lot of con­fidence in his future songwriting career anyway. But that they actually managed to get Syd on his feet and squeeze out those last drops of artistic brilliance from him... well, I am in no position to judge if this conduct was sadistic or salvational, but I am amazed that this record even exists.

Granted, it is still a mess, but would we expect anything else from a man whose only live solo public performance consisted of four songs with a non-working microphone, after which he just stood up and left? With different producers and different scraps of working bands coming and going in the studio, with various sessions stretched over more than a whole year, with songs where you can almost feel how damn painful it must have been to work them up to the level of an actual song, The Madcap Laughs is more like The Madcap Does The Strain, and, frankly speaking, Syd's pose on the album cover also suggests the latter. Yet it is in many ways a fasci­nating strain, and I dare say that, while initial impressions of the record might not amount to much, it is one of those records that has a good chance of growing upon you as you go through life, and especially if, at any period in your life, you find yourself in an existential crisis. (Okay, breakups may count as existential crisis, too, but only if your other looks like Roger Waters).

To begin with, The Madcap Laughs is actually two mini-albums wrapped in a single package. Five of the tracks were laid down in April 1969 and produced by Malcolm Jones, with members of The Soft Machine helping Syd to achieve a fuller sound. Most of the others were recorded in the summer of the same year, with Gilmour and Waters now taking matters in their own hands and assisting Syd in producing and playing — said «assistance» much too often implying a rather spontaneous and free-form approach to things, meaning that the sound is comparably quite lo-fi, and the songs are much closer to ramblings than to songs. At the time, some people (including Jones) abhorred this treatment and even hinted that Syd's former bandmates were intentionally sabotaging his solo career; today, I guess we look back fondly at this kind of sound, because... well, where would Neutral Milk Hotel and other indie troubadours be without this acid pool of sloppy, incoherent inspiration?

In any case, much of what is here is acutely and strangely beautiful. Nothing sounds much like the material from Piper, because at the time of Piper Syd was still focused, and his songwriting still largely consisted of creative vignettes in which he painted either the terrifying vastness of space or the little comical figures from children's books. Here, almost everything comes from deep within — introspective, depressing, disturbing streaks of self-consciousness, as if the man set about to probe himself to death. It is pure coincidence that the album was eventually released in 1970, the year when confessional singer-songwriterism really took off, but in a way, it is the most devastating of all these records, being just as brutally honest and coming from the perspec­tive of a man who had pretty much buried himself alive — or, as he eloquently and understan­dingly puts it himself, "tattooed my brain all the way". (Its only contemporary competition comes from that other infamous lunatic across the ocean, Skip Spence, but that's what the difference between American and British perspectives is for).

Technically, most of the songs should be qualified as love ballads, which is somewhat curious in itself because there were no love songs whatsoever on Piper. Barrett did break up with one of his many girlfriends in 1968 and was allegedly going through rough times with another one in 1969, but something tells me that things would not be that much different had he been living alone all that time — the «you» that he sees the need to constantly address is merely a pretext to escape the maddening feel of loneliness.

The "I really love you, and I mean you" that opens the album is hardly directed at anyone in particular; in fact, it is quickly followed with a "I wouldn't see you, and I'd love to", implying that the second part is imaginary. Moreover, the entire atmosphere of ʽTerrapinʼ clearly paints the image of a long gone lunatic, sitting out there with non-blinking eyes, scraping together a few shards that are left from a formerly rich pool of emotions — the lyrics are half-sung, half-spoken in a way that could be equally well decoded as «loving and tender» or as «completely drained and devoid of any detectable emotion», depending on how actual feelings mix with traces of Syd's old-school haughty Britishness. The most amazing thing about it, though, is that the three lines of the verse form a perfectly shaped pop melody, every bit as well-written as anything on Piper. It is only when we get to the bridge that the man begins to ramble — "floating, bumping, noses dodge a tooth..." — and unlike the verse, the bridge never gets a proper resolution, just sort of leaving you hung up in mid-air. But then it is back to the verses again, and ultimately the track proudly shuffles along to a satisfactory conclusion. It is perfectly symbolic of Syd's overall state at the time, lapsing into a comatose condition only to re-emerge refreshed and ready for action, only to drop quasi-dead without notice at any unpredictable moment.

Not all the album is completely dominated by Syd's acoustic guitar: ʽNo Good Tryingʼ and ʽNo Man's Landʼ are fuzzy, distorted pieces of psychedelic blueswailing, particularly the former, where Soft Machine members are helping the man out to create the impression of hot, melted brains gradually evaporating into the atmosphere (special prize goes to Mike Ratledge's velvety organ tone). ʽNo Man's Landʼ, in comparison, is an idea in search of a proper song body, a search that is abandoned midway through but still leaves a weird aftertaste, like, here is a man who wanted to make a sinister statement, but ended up lost and confused, so was that even a threat, and should we be afraid or what? In any case, electric instrumentation does not hinder the flow of the album; it just adds to its overall messiness, and makes it easier to sit through, because if you are going to make something as sloppy as this, at least do your best to alternate acoustic sloppi­ness with electric one.

Arguably the most Piper-ish tune of the lot is ʽOctopusʼ — it has a name that would very much fit in with Piper's Siamese cats and scarecrows, it has psychedelic rather than befuddled love lyrics, and a cheery psycho-folk melody where, for once, Barrett manages to sing in an uplifted, though still stark raving mad, manner. (Unsurprisingly, it was one of the earliest songs written for the album, originally titled ʽClowns And Jugglersʼ; also unsurprisingly, it was chosen as the album's only single, though it never had any chances of charting). It is so cheery, in fact, that it stands at odds with most of the other material, usually melancholic or gloomy; the stimulating chorus of "please leave us here, close our eyes to the octopus ride!" is oddly reminiscent of "I'd like to be under the sea, in an octopus' garden" (why is it that octopi were so commonly associa­ted with magic and escapism back in the late Sixties?), but it is also as close as Syd personally got to his own ʽMagical Mystery Tourʼ, with the main difference being that he was not nearly as sympathetic to the idea of taking others with him.

As for the Waters/Gilmour-produced tracks (ʽOctopusʼ is one of them, by the way), I do not feel so bad about them. They are raw, and Syd often sounds on these tracks as if he were in one room and the microphone were in the other one, but I do not think this was an intentional (let alone evil) oversight on the part of the Floydsters — rather, on the other hand, it was an attempt to preserve Syd's legacy just the way it was created, to convey the atmosphere of self-loss and confusion; in short, a case of genuine application of lo-fi values where they actually mattered, as compared to future generations of self-important indie clowns who wouldn't know real suffering if it bit them in the ass. ʽDark Globeʼ (which may have served as a blueprint for a good half of Jeff Mangum's entire career) alone is utterly devastating, a cry for help and forgiveness ("won't you miss me? wouldn't you miss me at all?") that, unfortunately, could not be heard, or even if it could be heard, it was already too late. On the other hand, ʽGolden Hairʼ (based on a Joyce poem) and ʽLong Goneʼ are slow, murky, somber, almost creepy ballads (ʽLong Goneʼ, with its deep bass and Syd's gravelley singing, sounds like an early prototype of a Nick Cave murder ballad). And while I used to hate the flubby, tuneless, rambling attempts to sing on ʽIf It's In Youʼ — and in a way I still do, because my ears are too sensitive to positively react to Syd going for inebriated melisma on the "yes I'm thinking" bit — the song has a certain desperate, defiant charm to it (again, very much presaging Jeff Mangum's «drunken minstrel» acoustic challenges on Aeroplane).

That Syd was not completely spent as a musician, either, is especially evident on the last track: the basis of ʽLate Nightʼ was laid down in 1968, but in April '69 he was still capable of embel­lishing the song with several overdubbings of his slide guitar playing, creating a gorgeous «weeping wall» behind the main melody that works as a near-perfect conclusion for the album. But this, too, is just one of those momentary flashes of brilliance that come and go, because on the whole the album does not even begin to approach the imaginative depths of Syd's playing when he was still in secure control of his own mind.

Overall, as I am relistening to the thing now, almost half a century since its release and about twenty years since I first heard it myself, I am amazed at how tremendously modern it is — and how it puts to shame so many acclaimed indie singer-songwriters of the last two-three decades. Well, perhaps «puts to shame» is a bit strong: Barrett has the combined advantage of being a talented songwriter, a psychologically and physiologically broken down human being, and a trailblazer in an age when the world was still undecided about how to react to such manners of self-expression. In 2017, an album of such quality would probably be greeted with thunderous acclaim by the musical community (just look at the adulatory reception received by something like Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked At Me, whose creator is lucky to have a tenth part of Syd Barrett's talent); in 1970, some critics gave it nice, but confused reviews and that was that. But it might just turn out that the madcap has got the last laugh, after all.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

John Lennon: Wedding Album


1) John & Yoko; 2) Amsterdam; 3*) Who Has Seen The Wind; 4*) Listen, The Snow Is Falling; 5*) Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow).

General verdict: OK, they showed the world all the love in their hearts. But did people start treating them better?

It might be ridiculous, I know, but I am seriously tempted to declare ʽJohn & Yokoʼ, the, uhm, «expressive vocal performance» that occupies all of Side A of John and Yoko's Wedding Album, the absolute pinnacle of their avantgarde research program. Unlike everything else they did, it at least makes a bit of symbolic sense. You could say, for instance, that by trying out every possible variation of "John" and "Yoko" — from lethargic mumble to erotic purr to angry reproach to hysterical screaming, etc. — they are encapsulating the entire spectrum of male-female relation­ships in one condensed 22-minute package. You could also say that, at the very least, with this performance they actually make a loving tribute to themselves: neither Two Virgins nor Life With The Lions really managed to convey the mad passion they must have obviously had for each other in those wild days. In any case, it hits some sort of mark, and if there really is some sort of objective invisible line that separates «fake avantgarde art» from «true avantgarde art», I'd make a wild guess that, just for once, they did cross it here.

Naturally, this does not make the track very listenable: there are only so many ways you can spell out two names over 22 minutes, which means the guys inevitably have to repeat themselves, and towards the end, rely on overtly silly moves, such as muttering the names while chewing on apples (or carrots, whatever they were having that day). I kind of wish the performance had more script to it, so that they could, for instance, actually play out a story of romance, family life, conflicts and make-ups through these calls-and-responses: a more meticulous approach might have turned this into an almost Steve Reichian experience. Instead, emphasis seems to be on improvising, and you'd need a hell of a lot of inspiration to mesmerize people by yawning, stut­tering, and munching on apples, among other things. But at least they finally display a sense of humor about it, which makes it easier to stomach all the narcissism. (In parentheses, it may be necessary to remind that the track's primary influence is Stan Freberg's comedic masterpiece ʽJohn And Marshaʼ from 1951 — which did nearly the same thing far more efficiently in about three minutes' time; but then, Freberg's piece was openly comedic, whereas the Onos go as far as to substitute cheesy-soapy strings for the amplified sound of their own heartbeats, making no mistake about the seriousness of their intentions).

Contrastively, the second side (ʽAmsterdamʼ) regurgitates the same old shit. Yoko wailing PEEEEEACE! at the top of her razor-sharp lungs, making me hate high front vowels for the rest of me life; John and Yoko spilling banalities and stupidities on the same subject before a con­fused Dutch journalist; John and Yoko spilling more stupidities in front of each other; John and Yoko ordering breakfast in bed; John and Yoko going out into the street and having more silly conversations with bewildered Dutchmen; finally, John and Yoko having fun with an acoustic guitar and singing whatever comes in their heads. Essentially, this is just a sequel to the chronicle begun on Life With The Lions, and since not a lot of different things occurred in the interim, other than the happy couple getting married, it already feels redundant.

Again, to reward you for your patience the CD issue includes three bonus tracks — all of them sung by Yoko, but they are actually harmless, because when Yoko actually tries to sing, she is not too bad, and both ʽWho Has Seen The Windʼ and ʽListen, The Snow Is Fallingʼ are decent ballads with an oddly Christmas-like spirit, while the early acoustic version of ʽDon't Worry Kyokoʼ (whose bluesy riff is a variation on the Everly Brothers' ʽWake Up Little Susieʼ) has a shade of creepy to it. At the time, these songs usually ended up as B-sides to John's A-sides (since the couple was business-savvy enough to understand that sacrificing John's songwriting talents would cost them way too much), and while they are thematically far more in line with Yoko-focused LPs, the decision to save them from complete oblivion by integrating them with the Unfinished Music series is understandable.

Amazingly, Wedding Album actually made the US charts, climbing as high as #178: I guess that many (presumably, male) fans were unable to resist the urge to reward John with a nice wedding present — alternately, some might have confused it with the White Album, for all we know. But despite this surprising endorsement, the record would become the last in the Unfinished Music series, for reasons unknown: while subsequent albums would still occasionally include avant­garde experiments, and Yoko would continue her solo career, John seems to have had his thirst for the bizarre mostly quenched once The Beatles were formally no more. It is understandable that throughout 1968–69, he still felt himself under the chivalrous obligation of saving his melodic side for the band — yet it is also interesting that, once free from all shackles, he re-em­braced that melodic side with such a vengeance that only reaffirmed the somewhat artificial and forced nature of all that avantgarde posturing. In the end, I guess he liked being perceived as a rebel and contrarian, but probably not as a freak; and I have little doubt that he sometimes des­pised these eccentric creations of his just as strongly as he openly despised his ʽI Am The Walrusʼ stage. Except he rarely, if ever, talked about it, because it's one thing to upset your ex, such as Paul McCartney, and quite another one to upset your current partner.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Marvin Gaye & Mary Wells: Together

MARVIN GAYE: TOGETHER (1964) (w. Mary Wells)

1) Once Upon A Time; 2) Deed I Do; 3) Until I Met You; 4) Together; 5) (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons; 6) The Late, Late Show; 7) After The Lights Go Down Low; 8) Just Squeeze Me (But Don't Tease Me); 9) What's The Matter With You Baby; 10) You Came A Long Way From St. Louis.

General verdict: Some potential here, but hard to strike a brand new R&B fire with rusty old standards.

The first of Marvin's many duet albums with Motown's little ladies, Together is usually looked upon as a rather lackluster commencement, because (a) he did not have much time to strike up any real chemistry with Mary Wells, who was on her way out from Motown anyway, and (b) they might have had the clever idea, but in the hurry to realize it they forgot to provide the duo with any good songs — and had to fall back on the same old standards that made Marvin's early LP career such a boring chore to sit through.

Both of these reasons are true enough, but still, one should not underestimate the relative fresh­ness of this approach — indirectly reflected in the album's relative commercial success (#42 on the US charts may not seem like much, but it turned out to be one of Marvin's biggest sellers in the Sixties). There can be no doubt about who was the real top dog here: Wells had scored at least three more top 10 singles than Marvin by 1964, and her ʽMy Guyʼ was a steady #1 and one of the biggest songs of 1964, whereas Marvin was still struggling. Nevertheless, for male chauvi­nistic reasons, it still feels more like a Marvin than a Mary album: not only because the material is taken largely from the same pool as the songs on When I'm Alone I Cry, but also because Marvin takes the lead on most of the tracks, and because Mary Wells was no Aretha Franklin — sounding powerful and dominant was never her thing.

Still, what the heck, when the songs are lively enough, they do sound good together. Only one single (with two A-sides) was newly written for them by a Motown team led by Clarence Paul and Mickey Stevenson: ʽOnce Upon A Timeʼ is an unremarkable mid-tempo ballad for boring prom nights, but ʽWhat's The Matter With You Babyʼ is catchy fun. Hopping along its ʽShakin' All Overʼ-ish rhythm guitar, it is delightfully nervous and paints a convincing picture of Marvin and Mary as a nagging couple — he cheats on her, goes away, comes back, she still loves him but is in no hurry to forgive him, you know the typical Sixties drill: subtly poignant, but generally harmless and playful. Were there significantly more songs like that on the album, it might have accidentally become a minor masterpiece of the realtion-building variety.

As it is, too much space on this already way too short record is given over to material such as ʽ(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasonsʼ and the title track, which goes all the way back to rusty 1928. Admittedly, some of the oldies are given fun, lively new coatings — for instance, Roy Alfred's and Murray Berlin's ʽThe Late, Late Showʼ is not only sped up, but decorated with actual smooching between the protagonists that later turns into slapping... oh, my. In short, it is not com­pletely true that Marvin and Mary could not really get it on: it is more likely that they just did not get enough time and creative freedom to really get it on. But they did the best they could under the circumstances; and while of all of Motown's female superstars, Mary Wells tends to be the most forgotten today — largely because her career ended so soon, but also because she never tried to go for the «self-empowering» female image that is so much more relevant for present times — she has a certain old-school classy charm here that none of Marvin's future partners possessed. This is not necessarily a good thing (to many people, that old-school classy charm will translate as reserved stiffness), but at least it explains why listening to Together might not be such a complete waste of time if you already have all those critically acclaimed Gaye / Terrell collaborations.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Seven Swans


1) All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands; 2) The Dress Looks Nice On You; 3) In The Devil's Territory; 4) To Be Alone With You; 5) Abraham; 6) Sister; 7) Size Too Small; 8) We Won't Need Legs To Stand; 9) A Good Man Is Hard To Find; 10) He Woke Me Up Again; 11) Seven Swans; 12) The Transfiguration; 13*) I Went Dancing With My Sister; 14*) Waste Of What Your Kids Won't Have.

General verdict: A generic roots-pop album with nice soporific effects.

You will not find a review of this album anywhere that does not discuss its Christian symbolism, and you will find very few reviews of it that do not expressly and explicitly focus on its Christian symbolism, bypassing just about everything else. Seems like the average reviewer, before any­thing else, asks him/herself the question: «Should I ridicule this guy for believing in Christ and making a Christian folk record, or should he be redeemed for the indie-styled mix of intelligence, honesty, and passion displayed therein?» — and then proceeds to the predictable answer. Because, you see, the average Christian is a sick nut or a redneck, but some Christians are better than others, as long as they direct their spirituality in the right direction. «Good boy, Sufjan!» critics say, «have yourself an A+ for directing your spirituality in the right direction!»

Personally, I have no problems at all with religious imagery in the lyrics, no problems with any artist embracing any sort of faith, even Satanism, as long as this helps the music convey a power­ful, passionate message that sweeps your feelings off their feet, regardless of your own beliefs and values. And it is also quite clear that Sufjan Stevens never was and never will be your average Christian rocker, borrowing and chewing up truisms from the Bible and setting them to generic Southern rock chord patterns. Whether his own Biblical impressions are truly interesting and enlightening will ultimately depend on the listener: sometimes he limits himself to reminding us of certain important timechecks in the source (ʽAbrahamʼ; ʽThe Transfigurationʼ), sometimes he makes up his own apocalyptic visions — the title track, for instance, introduces "seven swans" as a harbinger of doom, which is curious considering the near-total lack of any swan imagery in the Bible itself — and sometimes he mixes religious concerns with his personal life experience, meaning that there is plenty of stuff to analyze if you feel like analyzing, or if you think that anybody named Sufjan is automatically entitled to life-changing mystical experiences and are getting yourself ready to become an adept.

Anyway, it's okay, there is nothing wrong with trying to pull up some roots and give them a 21st century boy kind of twist. What bothers me is not the conceptual framework of the album, but the simple fact that, even much more so than its predecessor, it is deadly, deadly, deadly dull: 46 minutes (53 if you count the extra two bonus tracks on the 7" disc) of slowly tickling, mildly pleasant monotony.

If you want to understand how the heck can this guy be so insanely productive, Seven Swans, due to its stripped-down nature, provides a good answer. Almost each of these tracks is a slow, conservative groove that consists of exactly one melodic line repeated over and over and over — and it's not even as if the melodic line itself were tremendously original; no, most of the time it is a fairly familiar pattern or variation that you have, no doubt, witnessed on a million folk or country albums. Any professional folkie could have come up with the entire musical backbone for this album in one single day, maybe less. The only song that has some sort of development is ʽSisterʼ, and that is only because of the decision to include an electric guitar solo that precedes the main vocal theme, making the whole thing slightly Neil Young-ish in approach. Other than that, everything is terribly static; the only saving grace is that most of the tracks are relatively short. Add to this Sufjan's usual manner of singing — the exact same expression at every moment of any given track — and voilà, the recipe for eternal slumber is ready.

«But wait!», you say, «what about the atmosphere?» Sure enough, there'd be no Sufjan Stevens without the atmosphere, and this time around, the atmosphere consists of overdubbing acoustic guitars, banjos, electric and acoustic pianos, occasional organs, quietly hush-hushed rhythm sections (often with no drums at all), and soothing harmonies from Sufjan's friends, the Danielson Famile (Daniel Smith and his friends-and-relatives). Again, on paper, this might sound like a very nice formula, and I can see how it could work efficiently even when framing a set of simple, minimalistic musical themes. The problem is with the themes — I am genuinely sorry, but the pock-pock puck-puck pick-picking of ʽIn The Devil's Territoryʼ, even when you repeat it on the banjo and the piano and add a few rippling (and equally robotic) guitar flourishes in between, is muzak to my ears; and it is also the kind of muzak that does not sit well with lyrics like "I saw the dragons drying, I saw the witches whine".

I respect everybody's right to be subdued and dazzled by the quasi-epic nature of something like the title track — because, at least nominally, it features some sort of crescendo, beginning humbly and meekly with just a stuttering banjo and then, four minutes later, joined by crashing drums, forcefully battered electric pianos, and shrill falsetto harmonies. This is Sufjan's personal take on The Revelation: first he recounts his version of the vision, and eventually he gets around to the Big Climactic Moment when, you know, the Lord announces to him that he is the Lord. And the Big Climactic Moment is presented in an original and «classy» manner — I admit that electric pianos and prolonged falsetto notes are not everybody's idea of a grand finale. Unfortunately, they are not everybody's idea for a good reason: it isn't a very good idea. Intellectually, perhaps, yes, it is interesting to see the conception of the Apocalypse so thoroughly cleansed of its terri­fying imagery and pretty much pressed into Sufjan Stevens' Patented Dollhouse. But feelings-wise, the song just consists of four minutes of limp banjo picking, followed by two more minutes of soft baroque-country with big drums.

As usual, then, this is one more triumph of style over substance. The man does not even seem to be trying to write a rootsy melody that would stir up deep feelings when played on an acoustic guitar, à la ʽBlackbirdʼ or ʽNever Going Back Againʼ — he simply picks out random patterns from the folk / bluegrass / country textbook, and proceeds to «ennoble» them with non-banal (but very blandly delivered) lyrics and pretty ear-candy overdubs. As far as I'm concerned, the whole thing is entirely worthless.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Radiohead: Kid A


1) Everything In Its Right Place; 2) Kid A; 3) The National Anthem; 4) How To Disappear Completely (And Never Be Found Again); 5) Treefingers; 6) Optimistic; 7) In Limbo; 8) Idioteque; 9) Morning Bell; 10) Motion Picture Soundtrack.

General verdict: An innovative, challenging, yet ultimately unengaging experience. Indifferent respect.

History repeating itself works just as fine for music as it does for... history. With OK Computer gaining the critical status of a Dark Side Of The Moon for the Nineties and easily making Radiohead the #1 Band That Matters in the whole wide world, they must have found themselves in the same type of crisis as Floyd in 1974: exhausted from all the hype, yet unavoidably obliged to eventually come up with something comparable in ambition, execution, and impact. Just as The Bends was a major creative leap over Pablo Honey, and the scope and pretense of OK Computer, in its turn, put The Bends to shame, so the next album had to represent yet another step forward. But in the year 2000, it was not at all clear whether a huge step forward within the confines of rock music (or traditional genres of music as a whole) was even possible, let alone whether Radiohead had enough genius left to make it. 

So, sometime around 1998-99, rumors began to circulate that Thom Yorke pretty much «had it» with rock music, particularly guitar-based rock music, and that even the concept of a clearly defined «melody» as such began to feel alien to him — a clear sign that he was looking for an answer well beyond the expectable and predictable, and that the band's (or at least, Yorke's personal) spirit of adventure had not yet run its course. During those years, he claims to have mostly listened to electronic artists like Autechre and Aphex Twin, sensing that it was them, with their totally different, but no less meaningful, sounds, rather than anybody else, who truly represented the music of tomorrow; and indeed, Radiohead's movement into the direction of computer software and IDM now seems an inevitable part of their destiny, the only thing they could do at the time in order to avoid the demon of stagnation. Not that they were alone in this enterprise or anything: on the whole, the revival of «raw» guitar rock, spurred on by the grunge movement at the beginning of the decade, was already winding down, and in the 2000s, only the laziest (or the most religiously conscious) bands would resist the temptation of merging their guitar playing with some computer-generated sound loops. Arguably, though, it is Kid A, and nothing else, that would become the symbolic flagship of the whole movement.

The album took almost a year and a half to complete (almost twice as much as OK Computer), as the band members never set themselves a specific deadline and had quite a few disagreements over particular ideas and directions, as well as a specific problem related to Yorke's temporary writer's block; nevertheless, not only did the band not break up (which was a real threat at some time), but they ended up delivering, escaping the creative breakdown trap of such infamously exploded projects as Smile and Lifehouse. Nobody jumped ship in the interim; even Nigel Godrich returned to the producer's seat, although now he had to guide the band through a com­pletely different type of journey. Electronic embellishments, however, were not the only new element in the reformed sound: for one thing, there is also a huge brass section on board (mostly for the purposes of adding an extra dimension to ʽThe National Anthemʼ), and then there is the Orchestra Of St. John's, providing strings for ʽHow To Disappear Completelyʼ. Talk about the benefits of a bigger budget...
Usually, the farther away we move from the peak years of a musical era, the more difficult it becomes to find an artist who can consistently up the antes and reinvent, redefine, or at least shake himself up, intensely peering with one eye into the deep past and another in the distant future. The rut eventually found Radiohead like it finds everybody, but Kid A was like that last extra challenge before you are welcomed to the rank of the true Immortals: «to achieve immortality, you must defeat yourself». In terms of general mood and atmosphere, Kid A is easily perceived as a sequel to OK Computer, but it still steps all the way out of that album's boundaries, and not just by adding electronic patterns: ʽNational Anthemʼ shows a strong avantgarde jazz influence, and Yorke's singing style on this album moves ever more in the direction of free-form revolutionaries like Tim Buckley (that is not to say he sounds much like Tim Buckley, which would not have been revolutionary at all; it is more a matter of allowing himself the same ample freedom with vocal modulations that Buckley had wrestled for himself decades ago). In a way, this is the first Radiohead album where lyrics almost do not matter (unless you want to spend useless hours trying to decode the Transcendental Meaning of lines like "there are two colours in my head / what is that you tried to say?" or "we've got heads on sticks, you've got ventriloquists"); what matters is the timbre and oscillation pattern of the vocalist, whose primary task is to contribute to the atmosphere.

Although Kid A has been called a «difficult album», many times over, I do not find it any more «difficult» than its primary electronic or avantgarde influences. For sure, its songs are more ambiguous than anything Radiohead had ever done before, but essentially it explores the exact same themes — loneliness, alienation, fear, paranoia, disillusionment, all the standard ingredients that Radiohead kept on their shelves since 1993; heck, if it didn't, it probably would not have caught on so easily with the general public. And for all its «progress», it has a number of very firm links with Radiohead's past that greatly assisted the public with catching on. ʽThe National Anthemʼ, for instance, despite all the infamous «jazz cacophony» created by a swirl of brass overdubs, rides atop a firm, solid, decisive bass groove that sounds not unlike the main riff of ʽParanoid Androidʼ. ʽOptimisticʼ is a clearly guitar-based pop-rocker that would have easily fit on The Bends (just throw in a bit of distortion, and you're done); ʽIn Limboʼ has the guitars-and-keyboards-floating-in-space aura of ʽSubterranean Homesick Alienʼ; and even if ʽMorning Bellʼ is completely dependent on a primarily electronic keyboard melody, it still sounds like one of Radiohead's traditionally soulful pleas to the Great God of Mercy. All the more respectable are the many ways in which these traditional elements interact with the novelty stuff — ranging from pure instrumental ambience (ʽTreefingersʼ) to psychedelic orchestral arrangements (ʽHow To Disappear Completelyʼ). In short, it is a dang clever album, regardless of how the listener might feel about it on the proverbial gut level.

Which inevitably brings us to how this one particular listener feels about it on the proverbial gut level. Or, rather, how he does not feel about it — because, in all honesty, I am so coarse that I do not genuinely feel anything about it, and have never been able to (for about 10 years since I first heard it, to make the perspective more clear). From what I have witnessed, there are usually two perspectives on Kid A: the 5-star and the 1-star perspective — one of those records where you either get it or you don't, and if you don't, there is no way to help you. My own ears are big fans of the 1-star perspective, suggesting that, for all of its innovative/creative thoroughness, Kid A is easily the most boring and inefficient «great» album ever released, and the fact that it has been symbolically called the greatest album of the 2000s by so many people can only reinforce the bitter irony encased in the equally symbolic question of «where have all the good times gone».

One does not really need to advance far beyond the first track of Kid A to form a general perspective on the whole thing. There are people out there who find ʽEverything In Its Right Placeʼ the perfect epitome of all the bleakness and desperation that accompanies Radiohead wherever they go. The deep keyboard tone, the repetitiveness, the somnambulant-depressive voice, the whispery overdubs, the electronic crescendos, all working towards that goal...

...alas, divisive opinion coming up: all I manage to hear is a repetitive, deeply annoying whine that hints at bleakness and desperation, but never goes for the real thing — working at best on a symbolic level, as if Yorke and his pals were staging a traditional Chinese theater play (which, I must stress, they are not). I mean, I get Michael Stipe, I get Lou Reed, I get Robert Smith, I get Portishead, I even get Radiohead themselves, of the ʽLuckyʼ variety, but this sounds tedious and annoying, and Yorke's mantra-like vocalizing eventually becomes a buzzing fly effect that simply shots my nerves (it gets even worse on ʽIdiotequeʼ, though). Mostly, though, it is a matter of that keyboard melody  — I have no idea whatsoever how it could cause even the slightest emotional ripple in anybody. Apparently, it does, leaving me stumped. At best, I can visualize somebody holding his breath for about four minutes and taking a relaxed swim right under the water's sur­face — a tad psychedelic, but hardly a cathartic experience.

Over the years, I have sincerely and desperately tried to find even one song on this album that would properly connect on an emotional level. The closest I ever got was with ʽOptimisticʼ, since, as I already said, it is the only song here clearly reminiscent of «old school» Radiohead, when they were content with writing real instrumental and vocal melodies, and it has got some really lovely vocal harmonies that offer a brief respite from the usual Thom Yorke caterwauling. It is still not a masterpiece, though, and it hardly compensates for the complete hollowness of everything else, and I literally mean everything. At best, they just sound derivative (ʽTreefingersʼ, an experiment in turning your guitar into an ambient organ, is listenable but hardly improves upon anything Brian Eno had done — heck, anything Adrian Belew had done), and at worst you get ʽIdiotequeʼ, easily the most irritating song in Radiohead's entire catalog — at least because of my urgent need to physically strangle Mr. Yorke for his, perhaps somewhat authentic, but irre­deemingly ugly attempt at impersonating a crazy person announcing the coming of the ice age.

That said, if this was all just a matter of an annoying vocalist... but I do not think Kid A would have worked for me as a purely instrumental album, either. Again, for all of its experimentation, I have no idea what it is exactly that should place it in the collective critical mind above all those 1990s masterpieces by the likes of Portishead or Björk. Most of the melodies here revel in minimalism while forgetting that good minimalism has to strive to place emotionally meaningful content into minimalistic note sequences — certainly not something the presence of which I could ever suspect in the title track. Test situation: take the minimalistic electronic keyboard melody of ʽEverything...ʼ or ʽMorning Bellʼ, compare it with, say, the similarly minimalistic (even similarly-toned) electronic keyboard of Portishead's ʽRoadsʼ, then tell me the difference. It is my firm conviction that the boys were so deeply entrenched in intellectual experimentalism here that they completely forsook substance for style.

It goes without saying that this whole judgement is a very subjective matter, and that Kid A may produce very different effects on people depending on their age, social and cultural background, and, perhaps most importantly, individual listening experiences. But in my personal case, changes in age and listening experience have had no effect whatsoever: from the beginning, I was certain that with Kid A, Radiohead completed the process of «losing the way» which was surreptitiously initiated with the still great OK Computer, and time, life, and supernatural spirits did nothing to clear me of that conviction, even though God knows I have tried groping for the album's hidden charm every now and then. No dice.

It also goes without saying that this review should not be taken too «prohibitively». Regardless of what this author has to say, Kid A has firmly gone down in musical history as an «Important Album», and any music lover / connoisseur needs to hear it at least once, preferably twice or more even if the initial reaction is negative. I am not quite sure of how influential it has been on the subsequent evolution of music (except, naturally, on Radiohead's own future career), but it has certainly been influential on the minds of music theorists and rock critics... and, well, it sold quite a bit, too. (And I am not even mentioning the details of the «leaking on Napster» story, which may have been the most influential aspect of the record, indeed).

Yet, as of now, I also strongly suspect that the success of Kid A is largely due to extra-musical considerations. What would be an objective definition of Kid A? «Most significant rock band in the world circa 1997-99, instead of making a carbon copy of its biggest success or commer­cializing its music for a bigger audience, bravely marches off in an experimental direction with a record that preserves their core values but presents them in a completely new set of musical textures». How could a thing like this not be successful? It simply couldn't. A simple alternative is that Kid A is truly musically brilliant, and it takes a different psychological constitution from mine to see it. But I am very wary of those perceptional bifurcations — being picky-picky, any time I have to choose between «brilliance» and «bullshit», I refuse to trust analytical judgements and place my full trust in intuition. In the case of Björk's Vespertine, for instance, intuition tells me to rationalize that album's nature as artistic genius. In the case of Kid A, intuition demands rationalizing things in the opposite direction. We could write papers and books a-plenty on the symbolic artistic meanings of everything going on here, but attuning your heart to this particular vibe is a different matter altogether.

For that matter, it might be useful to note that, upon release, reviews for Kid A were fairly mixed: Radiohead's newly-improved electronic textures displeased and perturbed quite a few of the critics, even if the band's overall reputation at the time was so high that the album still topped the charts both in the UK and in the US. Eventually, even most of the harsh-hearted critics relented, so today Kid A is generally regarded as an artistic triumph. In agreement with its reputation, the album has been re-released multiple times in various editions, the most comprehensive of which so far is the Special Edition from 2009 (not that it's a must-have or anything: where Special Editions of earlier albums are valuable because the bonus CDs throw on various B-sides and EPs that are otherwise unavailable, the Kid A era yielded no singles or EPs, and so all the bonus tracks there are just various live performances of Kid A material).

Friday, January 26, 2018

Joy Division: Substance

JOY DIVISION: SUBSTANCE (1988; 1978-1980)

1) Warsaw; 2) Leaders Of Men; 3) Digital; 4) Autosuggestion; 5) Transmission; 6) She's Lost Control; 7) Incubation; 8) Dead Souls; 9) Atmosphere; 10) Love Will Tear Us Apart; 11*) No Love Lost; 12*) Failures; 13*) Glass; 14*) From Safety To Where...?; 15*) Novelty; 16*) Komakino; 17*) These Days.

General verdict: An obligatory companion to the LPs — the band's entire lifestory as reflected in (damn good) music.

Still might be expendable, but Substance is the real deal. Another compilation, this one arrived at the dawn of the CD age, and its full CD version diligently collected most of the non-LP A-sides, B-sides, EPs, and shares on collective EPs that the band released over two years — nothing that was not previously available, but even in 1988, few people would go around scrounging for old 45's. Not coincidentally, the same year also saw the release of The Beatles' Past Masters, and it is nice to see Joy Division having gotten the comprehensive treatment as well so early on.

The tracks are mostly arranged in chronological order, with the exception that CD-exclusive tracks are tacked on at the end: if you have a digital copy, I highly recommend moving them to where they actually belong, so that the main line of Joy Division's evolution becomes fully transparent. At the very least, it feels a bit odd to have the young, crude, punkish Ian Curtis bark and sneer his way through ʽNo Love Lostʼ immediately after the so-much-younger-now, refined, romantic Ian Curtis dark-croons his way through ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ.

Anyone who is only familiar with the band's two major albums will be pleasantly surprised to learn that in the beginning, Joy Division were just a punk band — their first EP, An Ideal For Living, recorded in December '77, shows absolutely no signs of the doom and depression that would permeate their music one year later. Curtis opens ʽWarsawʼ, the first song on the EP that essentially opened Joy Division for the world and the world for Joy Division, with a rousing "3-5-0-1-2-5, GO!", much like Paul McCartney opened up The Beatles with the "one-two-three-four!" of ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ, and the first heavy, snappy guitar chords of the song might as well come from The Adverts or The Damned or any other respectable punk outfit of the era. Ian's lyrics at this point are angry and frustrated rather than fatalistic, and his voice bears no resem­blance to Jim Morrison whatsoever; and Sumner plays some of the wildest, choppiest, fastest, sloppiest licks of his career on ʽWarsawʼ and ʽFailuresʼ.

Is this early music good music? Well, the band has a good groove going on, and some of Sum­ner's riffs stick around — but I think it is safe to say that there is nothing particularly special about this sound, that Joy Division hadn't really found their own voice by then (they did find their name, though: I do believe that the Nazi-themed appellation better fits their early punkish stage, which still had a slightly «offensive» vibe, than the classic years). The first signs of the «classic» Joy Division arrive with ʽDigitalʼ and ʽGlassʼ off the Factory Sample EP — coming exactly one year after, this is where we find Curtis approbating his new gravelly voice, and the entire band essentially moving from «punk» to «post-punk», with funkier and more industrialized rhythm section grooves, more broken-up guitar riffs, and the first faint traces of brutal fatalism. Even so, their sound here is fairly generic — everybody, from Wire to Siouxsie & The Banshees, was playing this kind of stuff around 1978.

The first true JD classic here, of course, is ʽTransmissionʼ. The deep dark bass, the deep dark suicidal voice, the odd danceability of the song, the excruciating wail of the lead guitar, the ironically inane "dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio" chorus that parodies, mocks, and annihilates the very idea of having mindless fun — funny enough, it does not exactly sound like anything on Unknown Pleasures, released a few months before the single, precisely because it seems to, sarcastically, pander a bit to the dance-crazy crowds, just like a potential hit single should in 1979. The B-side, ʽNoveltyʼ, with its monumentally mournful ʽI Want You (She's So Heavy)ʼ vibe in the deceivingly brief intro, is a better fit for Pleasures, but, as befits a B-side, seems a bit underworked — no solid hook or memorable guitar riff.

Two more outtakes from Unknown Pleasures, originally emerging on the collective EP Earcom 2: Contradiction, sound exactly like any other track on there, but I have mixed feelings about the slowly plodding six-minute monster ʽAuto-Suggestionʼ — it seems to me like a less appealing, more meandering relative of ʽI Remember Nothingʼ: the band has not quite worked out a definite groove here, so it seems more like a Curtis poetry recital against a lazy background. Essentially, ʽI Remember Nothingʼ does everything this song tries to do and gets it right, so I can understand why they preferred to dump this one on an EP that nobody ever bought. I do like the relative shortness and the quirky, mousey bassline on ʽFrom Safety To Where...?ʼ.

Skipping a bit ahead, the last period in Joy Division's history was also oddly split, mood-wise, between LPs and singles. On one hand, you have Closer, with pretty much each of the songs on it either a nightmarish vision or a lament for the end of the world — on the other hand, you have ʽAtmosphereʼ and ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ, two songs that aren't exactly the epitome of happi­ness, of course, but show a tender-sensitive side to Ian that actually proves he is capable of sending out positive vibes to his imaginary correspondents (well, after all, so also did Jim Morri­son, and Curtis could not allow himself to lag behind his idol in anything). A possible problem with ʽAtmosphereʼ, the band's slow, solemn, celestial prayer, is that it clearly displays the limita­tions of Ian's voice — he was a technically weak singer, barely capable of holding prolonged notes, and you have to have the trademark «Keith Richards excuse» (of the «yes, he is hitting all the wrong notes, but it is SO much his soul that is singing, man!» variety) to tear up in the proper places, which is a bit hard for me to do.

ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ has no such problem, although I could personally never place it in my top 10 Joy Division tracks — the brilliance of the title is not quite enough to remedy the strange production decision of «losing» Ian's voice somewhere in between the tracks (although this can be remedied by listening to the original version from Pennine Studios, which is sometimes appended as an extra bonus track to Substance), and the shrill synthesizer lead part is an acquired taste, too. I guess what really rubs me the wrong way about the song is how it tries to accom­modate a happy vibe and a tragic vibe at the same time, and in this particular case, one somehow outcancels the other for me, leaving me somewhat indifferent to the singer's plight in the end. Others might find this musical contradiction charmingly enigmatic, but what can we do here? gut reactions cannot be fooled.

In any case, the song is a legit classic, and the best way to own it is by owning Substance as a whole — charting Joy Division's journey from punk to post-punk to who-needs-punk-when-we're-all-dying-inside, and even with a bit of last minute romantic spirit on the side. Few have been blessed with such an eventful journey over the course of a measly two-and-a-half years, and those who have been blessed... well, they're dead, kind of. Remember this when you're listening: what you're listening to is one man's speedy journey to the afterlife, etched in tapes and digits for the sakes of our personal entertainment. If that ain't «substance», I don't know what is.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

King Crimson: Lizard


1) Cirkus (Including Entry Of The Chameleons); 2) Indoor Games; 3) Happy Family; 4) Lady Of The Dancing Water; 5) Lizard: Prince Rupert Awakes / Bolero – The Peacock's Tale / The Battle Of Glass Tears / Big Top.

General verdict: King Crimson trying to be Yes or ELP does not work nearly as well as trying to be King Crimson.

At least Lizard nominally satisfies the definition of «progressive» — while it retains a lot of thematic links to the previous two albums, it also represents a conscious effort to shake up and rearrange the Crimson King formula. More complex and even more unpredictable than its elders, this is Fripp's bold attempt to drag the band into the as-of-yet unploughed fields of symph-prog and jazz-prog at the same time; and so, on one hand, you see Keith Tippett assuming a much larger role in the music-making process, and on the other, witness guest stars such as Jon Ander­son grace the studio with their solid mental presence. On the average, few progressive rock bands can be more dissimilar than Yes and King Crimson, but as late as 1970, Fripp was not completely sure about that himself.

In the days of my barely-tolerant-for-prog youth, I used to hate Lizard as one of the quint­essential examples of how progressive rock can go really, really wrong when experimental rule-breaking trumps over powerful melody and pleasant harmony. These days, I can think of plenty of records that commit that crime to a much higher degree than Lizard, and find that I am able to enjoy quite a few chunks of the album without much effort. But even so, looking at Lizard (and Islands, but we will get to that in its own time) from the contextual perspective of albums that surround it from both sides, I cannot get rid of the feeling that the whole thing was a tentative detour into territory where Fripp could find little inspiration — territory that should rather have been left for the likes of, say, Gentle Giant.

Because, like the stereotypical Gentle Giant, Lizard meanders between folk (including medieval folk and early folk-based classical) and modern jazz influences, but in a half-assed way. Once again, without McDonald Fripp is forced to play most of the Mellotrons himself, and he does not show the same love for the instrument as Ian did. And without Lake, the task of singing all the violent and all the tender bits falls to Gordon Haskell, and he does little else beside simply hitting the notes correctly. And without a clear-cut agenda, there is no feel of true musical passion flowing from this incarnation of the band: nobody seems capable of writing or recording even a single musical «theme for the ages».

On paper, the moods and themes of the compositions largely stay the same — epic-apocalyptic in the vein of ʽSchizoid Manʼ, tender-melancholic after the recipe of ʽI Talk To The Windʼ, and (latest addition) sneering-ironic in accordance with the formula of ʽCat Foodʼ. By 1973, they would pretty much scrap the tender-melancholic from the setlist, but the other two moods would remain; yet they would also be done with so much more fervor and dedication on Larks' Tongues In Aspic that I cannot help wondering if Fripp did not actually sleepwalk through much of these sessions. (Admittedly, Fripp himself seems to be wondering about the same thing: accor­ding to him, he did not really perceive the results as meaningful until the Steven Wilson remix of the album in 2009, and I am not sure if the statement was completely sincere or more of a pat on the back in Wilson's general direction).

The opening track, ʽCirkusʼ, is probably the finest of the lot, but that is not saying much: its main point of attraction is the ominous siren-like riff that oozes out of the magic box like an evil genie after each new verse-rant from Haskell. The piece features a complex arrangement that mixes folk rhythms, Spanish lead guitars, jazz saxes, and Sinfield's ever more convoluted poetic imagery in one big melting pot — this ridiculous world of ours as a circus arena — but as far as satisfying that ambitious goal is concerned, it is surprisingly inefficient. Mel Collins' saxes are just swirling around in soft improvisational patterns without making much of a difference, Spanish guitars buzz around like annoying insects, and the steady mid-tempo crawl of the song lulls and dulls attention. At their best, King Crimson jolt you with electric current or hold you in a tight grip of ever-rising tension; ʽCirkusʼ plods on smoothly and atmospherically, with little by way of peaks and valleys.

This attitude prevails for the rest of the album, except that most other tracks do not even have that spooky siren turn-on. Ten minutes on the first side are given over to post-ʽCat Foodʼ social criticism, with jazzy time signatures and distorted saxes taking on the figurative role of punches at bourgeois values — I am amused, actually, at how closely the vocal melody of ʽIndoor Gamesʼ trails the one of the Stones' ʽ19th Nervous Breakdownʼ (amazing if this were just a coincidence), but the track on the whole is just too soft and quiet throughout to register in memory: more about the groove than any solid melodic theme. ʽHappy Familyʼ is better, as it actually picks up steam towards the end, with some fairly hot interplay between Tippett and (surprise) Peter Sinfield him­self on the VCS3 synthesizer. But still, on the whole everything goes on in murmury-grumbly mode: the tracks slowly shuffle on with all players and singers holding back, almost as if they were trying not to offend the sleeping neighbours or something. Appropriately, the side ends with ʽLady Of The Dancing Waterʼ, a pleasant and utterly forgettable folk ballad where acoustic guitar, flute, and Gordon "I Know How To Sing" Haskell briefly meet, tip their hats to each other, and part ways even more nonchalantly than they did on ʽCadence And Cascadeʼ.

For the second side, Fripp and Sinfield have reserved their one and only stab at a side-long epic: ʽLizardʼ is King Crimson's ʽTarkusʼ, ʽClose To The Edgeʼ, and ʽSupper's Readyʼ at the same time, and it sorely loses to all three of those. Again, the only part of it that somehow clings to memory is the opening art-pop section where they invited Jon Anderson — the singalong-style chorus, about staking a Lizard by the throat, is catchy, though arguably one of the least King Crimsonian things in King Crimson history, perhaps more suitable for the Bee Gees or Bob Welch's Fleet­wood Mac (I can just picture Robert, hands above the head, going: "ALL TOGETHER NOW! SING IT! WAKE YOUR REASON'S HOLLOW VOTE!..."). After that, the suite goes through a variety of sections — jazzish, rockish, folkish, there's even a bit that is melodically reminiscent of ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ and prescient of ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspicʼ at the same time — and I cannot even accuse it of a lack of cohesion; on the contrary, there is perhaps too much cohesion, and too little contrast and development, not to mention a thorough lack of energy.

I am not saying that under different conditions Lizard could not have been done right. The underlying ideas and concepts are okay — so in the future, Fripp and Co. would cut out most of the folk / classical components of the formula, but on Court, the formula worked perfectly with these components. But King Crimson is primarily the brainchild of Fripp, and even though Fripp is credited with all of the songwriting, I discern surprisingly little of Fripp himself in this music: for one thing, his decision to cut down on guitar parts and play a lot of the keyboards was horren­dously wrong, and for another thing, Lizard is unjustifiedly democratic — too much space given over to Collins, Tippett, Haskell, and Sinfield's poetic ramblings (some people like to spend time decoding the symbolist meaning of his lyrics, but even if it turned out that they all represent one bigass anagram of The Book Of The Dead, I doubt that would influence my, or your, subcon­scious reaction to the music). All in all, a fairly common opinion is that, at the time of recording of Lizard, Fripp himself had very little understanding of where he wanted King Crimson to go, and while sometimes music made in a chaotic-transitional period can reflect a certain confused charm of this period, Robert Fripp is not Keith Richards, and he works best when his mind is perfectly well-oiled, rather than hazy and disconcerted. I mean, no offense, but you'd really have to be under the influence to invite Jon Anderson to sing on a King Crimson album. That's like, having Paul McCartney sing on a Stones album.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Pink Floyd: Ummagumma


1) Astronomy Domine; 2) Careful With That Axe, Eugene; 3) Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun; 4) A Saucerful Of Secrets; 5) Sysyphus (Pts. 1–4); 6) Grantchester Meadows; 7) Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict; 8) The Narrow Way (Pts. 1–3); 9) The Grand Vizier's Garden Party (Pts. 1­­–3).

General verdict: Sane people trying to sound crazy — not the best idea, but workable at times.

Ummagumma is not bad; rather, it seems misguided in a somewhat comical manner. It is arguably the culmination of Pink Floyd's uncomfortable «interregnum» period, when they were still under the invisible pressure from Syd's ghost — marketing themselves as unpredictable weirdos, loosely following the trends of avantgarde music, when in reality Gilmour wanted to play the blues, Wright wanted to revel in melancholy atmospherics, and Waters wanted to punch somebody in the face. Yet even under these warped conditions, Pink Floyd were determined to push on a unique agenda: they did not want to sound like anybody else, ensuring that even after all these years, even their most pointless albums still attract curiosity.

The decision to make a double LP, combining a chunk of their live show with a new studio experience, must have seemed novel at the time (though by no means unprecedented), but today looks particularly regrettable — as a live band, they were already excelling over much, if not most, competition, and if they so wanted a double album, a much safer bet would have simply been to release a double live one, perhaps including a few of their bold semi-improvisations along the way rather than providing us with alternate versions of previously released studio tracks. Even so, the version of ʽCareful With That Axe, Eugeneʼ captured here is the band's only classic that has earned this status exclusively through the live version — which totally destroys the studio B-side by making it longer, subtler, and more tense, and by amplifying Roger's demonic screams to a truly banshee-like state. Some might complain that after taking a short time to wind itself up, the jam takes too much time to wind down, but four minutes is precisely what it takes my nerves to calm down after Roger's screaming, particularly if headphones are involved. Like everything Pink Floyd did after Syd, the song is meticulously calculated for maximum psychological effect, but my only gripe with it is that although it is one of the greatest tributes to horror movies ever made, I cannot imagine any good horror movie in which all of its eight minutes could be used as part of the soundtrack. (Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, in which it was used under the title ʽCome In Number 51, Your Time Is Upʼ, was neither a horror movie nor, I'm afraid, a good one — slow-mo explosions are no visual match for this experience).

The other three live numbers, representing Floyd's space-rocker side, are all impressive, but there is less contrast between them and their studio prototypes. ʽAstronomy Domineʼ loses part of its crazy charm without all the studio overdubs, and Wright's quiet keyboard interludes do not make a lot of sense, but it is still awesome to see them bring back the Terrifying-Space vibe with the limited set of means that was available to them on stage. ʽSet The Controls For The Heart Of The Sunʼ is slightly expanded from its original vamp-like status to include more chaos and thunder on the solo plus yet another psychedelic Wright solo spot; and, surprisingly, ʽA Saucerful Of Secretsʼ, the one number that might have earned a real significant live transformation due to the relative freedom of all its different sections, is performed as close to the original as possible — which is a respectable effort in its own right, but ultimately superfluous.

Regardless, at least all four of these lengthy tracks are legitimate, meaningful, and emotionally impressive compositions — which is more than can be said about the studio part of the LP. For reasons beyond my immediate comprehension (but possibly, as it frequently is in such cases, related to financial issues), the studio LP was equally divided between all four members in com­positional terms: last time a thing like that happened, it was with The Who's A Quick One, and it did not end well at all.

Predictably, there is some fugly crap here. Nick Mason's piece, ʽGrand Vizier's Garden Partyʼ, begins and ends with a nice brief flute part from Nick's wife Lindy (chauvinistically uncredited), but its main section is an attempt to justify the concept of the Futuristic Drum Solo: I give credit to Nick for not wanting to fail at imitating Ginger Baker and John Bonham and doing something different instead, but a drum solo loaded with electronic effects, mutated through tape splicing, and consisting of short bits played at different tempos rather than long uninterrupted blasts is still a drum solo, and that is enough of an offense to get the Grand Vizier to decapitate you on the spot. Besides, how predictable it is for the drummer to «write» a drum solo?..

Moderately better is Rick Wright's ʽSysyphusʼ suite, whose main theme, with its painfully moo­ing synth, fatalistic Mellotron, and doom-laden timpani, is actually quite evocative of the poor king rolling his stone up the mountain. Unfortunately, soon afterwards it turns into a poor man's Chopin, then into an even poorer man's Alban Berg, then into an utterly poor man's John Cage, then segues into nature sounds and proto-New Age, and finally returns to the main theme after a set of disconnected musical hallucinations, presumably caused by Sysyphus ingesting too many mushrooms during one of his in-between-stone-pushing breaks. In a way, the whole thing is intriguing — Rick really does his best to be weird in a dozen different ways — but I think you can tell this was truly not his style.

Waters, the sly one, gets to have one of the most «normal» songs on the album, the lazy-summer-day ode ʽGrantchester Meadowsʼ, where he is found at his most Paul Simon-esque, with merely an acoustic guitar, birds, flies, and beautifully produced double-tracked vocals. An excellent song for relaxing and losing yourself in nature, it is unusually tender (but not sentimental) for Roger, and so lulling that its seven minutes fly by almost undetected. Once the irritating fly has finally been whacked, though, it segues by contrast into one of the album's most radical inventions — and, okay, it is easy as heck to condemn ʽSeveral Species Of Small Furry Animals...ʼ as gratui­tously egotistic crap, but now that we are in the 21st century, it is also fun to note that the track may be seen as the blueprint to a large chunk of the early experimental stuff by The Animal Collective. Actually, the craziness generated by Roger's dicking around with tape speeds, loops, and overdubs, is almost infectious for a couple of minutes — where the track really becomes insufferable is when the fake Scottish accent comes in. Not only is it ethnographically and linguis­tically incorrect to mix up Scots with Picts (about whom, frankly enough, we have no idea what they sounded like), but the effect is just not very funny, and turns what might have been an almost mind-blowing sonic experiment at the time into Benny Hill for no reason.

No wonder, either, that the most openly «musical» chunk of them all belongs to Dave: the first part of ʽThe Narrow Wayʼ is a pleasant acoustic folk instrumental (in much the same vein as Jimmy Page's work from the same period), the second is gruff stoner rock led by a heavy, almost Sabbath-esque guitar riff, and the third is a nice proto-ʽEchoesʼ piece of bluesy art-rock, clearly undercooked but also clearly the most «Floydish» piece of them all. This was Gilmour's first significant solo credit with the band (discounting ʽA Spanish Pieceʼ from More), and while he still had a long way to go at the moment, you can already totally see his trademark signature, and totally (but probably secretly) respect his decision to participate in as little of this bullshit game as possible.

The real bad news about these four distinct chunks is that it could have worked — if the band members were ready to each show their true faces. But I think that Gilmour is the only one here who actually dares to be completely honest with the listener; the rest are too dominated with the parts they are supposed to be playing in order to hold on to their Artistic License. There is so much collective talent in the band that even this forced and uncomfortable nature of the album does not prevent it from being part-time intriguing, part-time hilarious, and part-time charming; nevertheless, as a work of avantgarde art it does not stand proper competition with the likes of, say, The Soft Machine, who, conversely, only succeeded as long as they were weird. The Hip­gnosis album cover is really cool, though — first and last time that the post-Barrett band would be featured on the front sleeve... and so many times!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

George Harrison: Electronic Sound


1) Under The Mersey Wall; 2) No Time Or Space.

General verdict: Where the boundary between testing equipment and making art moogically disappears.

Well, one thing is for certain: nobody in his right mind will dare call George Harrison «The Quiet Beatle» upon listening to this album. Only the second and already the last record to be produced on Apple's eccentricity-oriented side label, Zapple, Electronic Sound is a bold, challenging, pioneering exploration of the universe's sonic capacities that not only puts to shame everything The Beatles, collectively or individually, had come up with to that date, but should also hold its own against such pioneers of electronic music as Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and the entire Krautrock scene.

Actually, the major difference that makes all the difference is that George Harrison himself — the quiet Beatle curse strikes whether we like it or not — never called it «art», or wrote any self-important manifestos on the subject, or made it the aural part of a Yoko Ono installation, or, in fact, did anything about it except slap an example of his own childlike painting on the front sleeve. Other than that, I actually struggle to understand why, for instance, some of the earliest Kraftwerk albums should be (as they typically do) branded as «avantgarde art», whereas Elec­tronic Sound is usually hushed up as, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, embarrassing.

Ultimately, it is a matter of knowledge. We know that George Harrison was deeply intrigued and fascinated by new sounds, and that he went out and bought a brand new Moog synth from Moog himself. We know that one of the pieces was edited from a demonstration of the Moog that Bernie Krause gave to George in California. We know that the other one was recorded entirely by George himself at his own home in Surrey (poor, poor Surrey inhabitants of 1968 and 1969 that had to endure both George and Yoko-John). We know that George never, ever did anything even remotely reminiscent of this again — but we also know that he did use the Moog in the sessions for Abbey Road, professionally and melodically, having tested it beforehand in a variety of ways. In light of all this knowledge, we have the right to say that Electronic Sound is not an artistic statement, but simply forty minutes of knob-twiddling in order to get accustomed to this brand new Leviathan of Sound.

If we did not know any of that, what could be our reaction? Well, a lot of this obviously sounds very psychedelic. Some bits could be described as «ambient», some as «industrial», some as «proto-glitch», some as «noise» (in the Art sense of the word), and some could even be sneaked onto an Aphex Twin album and you'd hardly notice. Most could be sneaked onto a Hawkwind album and you'd definitely not notice. If your knowledge of old and modern electronic music is sufficiently advanced, you'd never once feel bothered here — after all, George had the tact not to invite Yoko Ono into the studio for company, and outside of that, a tortured Moog still sounds much better than, say, a tortured violin. But, as it happens, we are told that this is not art: this is merely a technical demonstration of the possibility of the Moog to sound like everything from the Northern wind to a malfunctioning nuclear reactor to an inebriated space alien passing out in your bathroom. And, as any technical demonstration of anything technically produced in 1969, the album has long since passed its date of expiration.

Also, just to confirm that I have, in fact, listened to this album in its entirety, I must state that its second side (ʽNo Time Or Spaceʼ) sounds more adventurous and generally «far-out-there» than the first one, ʽUnder The Mersey Wallʼ. The latter is mostly hushing, hissing, and bleeping; the former occasionally evolves into a full-blown space battle, and the sound, overall, is fuller and more three-dimensional. I guess, after all, that Krause's demonstration was not nearly as instruc­tive for his pupil as it could have been — there was probably no danger of George Harrison evolving into Vangelis or Klaus Schulze at any given point in time. On the other hand, could Vangelis or Klaus Schulze have come up with that insanely catchy, yet also transcendental-soun­ding little Moog countermelody on ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ? Even if you think "yes", I'd rather you not say it out loud — out of simple courtesy.