Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Someone once said of Louis Armstrong, "He was put on this Earth to make people happy." I feel the same way about the Kids of Widney High, whom a coworker introduced me to this week. I knew of them after reading an article in Answer Me! more than 10 years ago, but I'd never heard their work. I'll admit that it wasn't something I felt like seeking out. The sole purpose of "outing" this music seemed to be so that stoners could laugh at it.

Spinning Special Music From Special Kids (1989), Let's Get Busy (1999), and Act Your Age (2003) all day left me in a daze. The first album's hit me so hard that I needed prodding from my coworker to listen to it again and truly discover the raw, unflinching, devastating tunes it contains. I was interested (and my psyche was a little grateful) to hear that the follow-up albums are much more polished (almost as if Widney High had been auditioning students before deeming them eligible to enroll), and feature some undeniably kick-ass material: "Pretty Girls," "Christmas is the Time," and the unbelievably great "Life Without the Cow" [MP3]. It's as good as anything They Might Be Giants has ever done.

Of course, I got home last night and mentioned the Kids to fancylady, who launched into renditions of all the hits from Special Music.... Guess I'm late to the party on this one.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

To see ourselves as others see us...

Nick Terry reviewing The Devin Townsend Band's Synchestra in the new issue of Decibel:
"Apologies to any of our readers in Vancouver, but whatever they put in the water up there, you guys are fucked."

After watching our city's contribution to the Turin Olympics closing ceremonies, I couldn't agree more. That was supremely embarrassing.

BTW, Terry gave the record an 8/10, calling it "the perfect '80s Rush album."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Retrogressive Progressive Obsessive

Inspired by a thread at Doomed To Rock, I decided to pick some of my favourite progressive rock albums from the ’90s to the present. A lot of my choices reflect a time when I was discovering a lot of new bands and labels—the same time, funnily enough, that I first got on the Web. It was 1997. The "progressive revival" of the early '80s hadn't left me with anything but a few treasured Marillion and IQ albums. I'd become pissed off with indie rock's apathetic lack of craft and was enthusiastically catching up with the metal scene. Then, prompted by a few magazine articles and the much-maligned Billboard Guide to Progressive Music, I found a whole new vein of underground music... I got out my credit card and began clicking "Confirm Your Order." I got up to date in no time, and was overjoyed to hear that progressive rock was thriving, free from major label tyranny and the notion of having a "hit" that killed the '70s and '80s bands. The new bands were making music for all the right reasons.

For this list, I decided to stay within the boundaries of what I consider the classic prog sound, so a lot of these albums are unabashedly retro (I don’t want to get into the retrogressive progressive rock debate—I'll just say that the issue doesn’t keep me awake at night). Other albums on the list might push the boundaries a little more. As a general rule, I steered clear of heavy metal, which is often the most complex, progressive music in existence. Progressive metal albums like Gorguts’ Obscura and River of Corticone by Sacramentary Abolishment might have to wait for another list to get their fair dues.

In chronological order, then…

1. Landberk – Lonely Land (Laser’s Edge, 1992)
Right before Anglagard’s epoch-making debut album, Landberk arrived, a very different but no less remarkable band who released three studio albums then tragically vanished. Lonely Land is the English-language version of their debut album (some say they prefer the original Swedish version, which I’ve never heard). There’s nothing off-puttingly indulgent about their music, in fact it rocks in a gently headbangable way. Landberk prefer to groove rather than slam you around the room with dozens of rapid-fire changes. They’re accessible in the same way a band like Katatonia is. Their overwhelming melancholy is their own worst enemy—or most valuable asset, depending on your POV. Landberk’s sound revolves around Stefan Dimle’s barbed-wire bass, a swathe of Mellotron, and the stürm and twang of Reine Fiske’s guitar, whose seething tone I find so compelling I’ve sought out a number of his recordings, from the amazing Morte Macabre album, to the debut EP from Paatos, to his current contributions to the ultra-hip psyche band Dungen.

2. IQ – Ever (Giant Electric Pea, 1993)
After an abortive two-album major label foray, IQ added new bassist John Jowitt and old singer Peter Nicholls, and returned stronger than ever with…Ever. While their contemporaries Marillion fought to distance themselves from the progressive rock genre, IQ embraced it, favouring their audience with a string of quality releases up to the present day. As a result, they’ve found themselves the flagbearers of “neo-prog” a virtually meaningless, often pejorative, label that’s become common use in the years after Ever. I have a real soft spot for these guys, and Ever remains (ever-so-slightly) the best of their post-80s output—stately, confident, and dramatic.

3. Anglagard – Epilog (Private label, 1994)
These Swedes sent shock waves through the community (such as it was in 1992) when their debut Hybris was released. Much as Metallica took earlier metal influences and ramped them up to new levels of mania, Anglagard took the “good bits” of '70s progressive rock and built a better beast. The turn-on-a-dime epic instrumentals on Epilog are marvels of tight, intricate playing, dynamics, and melodic exploration. And the band's rich, organic sound—heavy on the flute, Mellotron and Hammond—must have been a revelation to ears longing for relief from the blocky, overblown production that ruled the '80s. They released only two studio albums, but their influence lives on in bands like Norway’s Wobbler. The crack cocaine of progressive rock, Epilog still delivers a satisfying jolt.

4. White Willow – Ignis Fatuus (Laser’s Edge, 1995)
This Norwegian collective’s debut album has a very pastoral feel, heavy on the acoustic guitars, flute, soothing Moog tones, and female vocals. Amazingly White Willow have kept it together enough to release three more albums, each with an increasingly extreme light/heavy dynamic. Ignis Fatuus has its aggressive moments, as heard on the fiery keyboard solo in “Lord of Night” and the powerful doom-crunch of “Cryptomenysis.” Elaborate madrigals like “The Withering of the Boughs” and “Now In These Fairy Lands” (quiet in the back, please) dominate the album, though, making for a pleasant (though never bland), listen located somewhere between Harmonium and Jethro Tull, suffused with melancholy that colours a lot of Scandinavian music. Don’t be deceived by the fiercely subtle nature of this album. Leader Jacob Holm-Lupo is down with the black metal, so he’s in touch with the dark side.

5. Spock’s Beard – Beware of Darkness (Radiant, 1996)
The Beard are loved and loathed equally, with “fanboy” and “progsnob” the discussion board epithets of choice whenever their music is debated. Whatever—they did a lot to rejuvenate interest in the genre in the '90s. Neal Morse is an ace songwriter, able to stir The Beatles, Yes, and Gentle Giant into an infectiously catchy prog soup. Sure, they’re sometimes sappy, and they’re not taking the music anywhere new, but when I want to hear something to pick up my mood, I put on the Beard. BoD gets the nod over debut album The Light (1992) and V (2000) for the presence of "The Doorway" and “Time Has Come,” my all-time favourite Beard epic.

6. Happy Family – Toscco (1997, Cuneiform)
Zeuhl-inspired instrumental madness from this Japanese quartet, who beat the tar out of their instruments for the length of this album. With songs like "The Sushi Bar (with bad face, bad manners, and bad taste)" and "He is Coming at Tokyo Station," the music really captures the feeling of a frenetic urban existence. I find it a lot more palatable than Ruins (the widely accepted benchmark for Japanese avant-rock craziness) because there’s more space in the music, more grooving, and more drama. This album flat-out rocks.

7. Present – Certitudes (Cuneiform, 1998)
Dark and twisted nightmare music from Belgians with ties to legendary chamber rock outfit Univers Zero. Present are far more guitar-centric than Univers Zero, with a sound approaching Voivod performing Philip Glass compositions.

8. Anathema – Alternative 4 (Peaceville, 1998)
Anathema went from being an okay doom metal band to an excellent hard-driving progressive rock band with this breakthrough album. The emotional overload and sense of continuity of these songs reminds me a lot of Marillion’s Clutching at Straws, and Vincent Cavanaugh’s vocal delivery recalls Roger Waters. My friend Smash and I logged a good many hours with this album when it came out, and it's never grown old.

9. Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dream (1999, Snapper)
Band leader Steve Wilson would probably have an aneurysm if he saw his band sharing space with certain others on this list, but what roundup of progressive rock from the last decade and a half could omit Porcupine Tree? Stupid Dream is just one of a string of excellent releases from these guys, probably the one that set the standard until their latest masterpiece, Deadwing. From orchestral pop songs to epic Floydian excursions, P. Tree has it covered. Wilson’s musical and lyrical depth is constantly amazing, and from a production standpoint, he makes some of the best-sounding records you’ll ever hear these days.

10. Kevin Gilbert – The Shaming of the True (2000, KMG)
Kevin Gilbert was an LA-based songwriter/musician and a member of the Tuesday Night Music Club, the songwriting workshop that unleashed Sheryl Crow upon the world. I would guess that the circumstances behind Crow’s rise to fame generated a lot of the bitterness that fuelled The Shaming of the True, Gilbert’s concept album about the dark side of the music business. (Gilbert passed away before the album was finished. Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard and others assembled the album from demos, live recordings and other sources—not that you can tell.) The story follows a promising young artist, Johnny Virgil, as he’s chewed up and spat out by the industry. The genius of this album lies in its songs. They're actually very commercial and radio friendly, ironically reflecting the hit-factory mentality that the album rails against. They’re a diverse lot, at times recalling Peter Gabriel's rhythm-based style (Gilbert once staged a full-length live version of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). And check out the incredible vocal tapestry of "Suit Fugue (Dance of the A&R Men") and the scathing "Fun," which includes a memorable verse about a certain “Sheryl”. It’s an inspiring album—a labour of love and an incandescent purging of spite.

Morte Macabre, Symphonic Holocaust; Guapo, Black Oni; Anekdoten, From Within; Tiamat, Wildhoney; Djam Karet, Live at Orion

Monday, February 13, 2006

I finished work on the new issue of Unrestrained! last week. I still feel like I'm coming up for air, as the last few days of every issue get pretty intense. I talked to Norway's Green Carnation, Toronto's Martin Popoff, and Maple Ridge's Devin Townsend for this edition, so I'll try to post some interview leftovers in the coming weeks.

I'll start with Devin Townsend, who's just released one of his finest albums ever, Synchestra, with the Devin Townsend Band. It's a homespun yet epic record, full of surprises and nonchalant genius. He's a great guy to talk to, and I regret that I couldn't include the full scope of our conversation in my U! piece, which ended up being a sort of guided tour through the songs on the new album.

I asked Devin about the guests he had on Synchestra—guests like Steve Vai, who gave Townsend one of his first big breaks as vocalist on Vai's Sex and Religion album in 1993.

You’ve got Steve Vai playing a solo on the song "Triumph." You've mentioned before that it was sort of a renewal of your creative relationship.

"Yeah, and also closing the door on a 12-year cycle. It was 12 years ago that I did that Vai thing, which kind of launched me in some peculiar directions personally and professionally. I think I spent quite a few of those years in a combination of ruing it and blaming him. I think it took me 12 years to get past that and realize the opportunity that it actually was and realizing the friend that I’ve actually got in that guy. While a lot of people had the opportunity to go to music university to learn their craft, I had the opportunity to go to 'Steve School' and learn lots about the practical application of the music, like the touring and the management end of it and the production and obviously guitar and vocals...as far into it as videos and band dynamic and all this kind of shit. Being able to apply that to my own works has shaped me in a way that it’s hard to picture myself without [all that] at this point. So having Steve perform on a song lke 'Triumph' I think lets bygones be bygones. I mean, personally Steve and I have been fine since the second year after that, but professionally I’ve just been going down so many weird paths for so long that to get out of that cycle by having him appear on the record is really therapeutic."

Did you have any specific instructions for him on the song or did you just say "Go ahead and do your thing"?

"Yeah, the only specific instruction I had was 'Here’s the file—rock it.'"

There’s a female vocalist on the album too. Who is that?

"Well, Nick Tyzio is our sound man. He’s been our sound guy for Strapping Young Lad for a while now, and he’s a really good sound man and a really good guy. Because Synchestra has a pretty family-oriented theme to it I tried to find people who were within our circle, and Deborah is Nick’s wife. She’s got a really good voice and she’s got a lot of things that she’ll be doing in the future. She’s really talented, so it was good to be able to utilize her voice for this."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Oh boy, a trip to the post office to pick up stuff from The End Records.
CirculusThe Lick on the Tip of an Envelope That's Yet to be Sent
What the what is going on here? Surely it bears further investigation. Blackmore's Night, I challenge thee to a joust.
Canvas Solaris—Penumbra Diffuse
Instrumental tech-metal's where it's at for me these days. It's so seldom that I hear a metal vocalist who really contributes anything to the music, so do away with them, I say. Shrink-wrap sticker: "Fans of Spiral Architect, King Crimson, and Don Caballero will be challenged from the opening notes." I'm up for a bit of that.
Justin Broadrick's new thing.
The Gathering—A Sound Relief DVD
Shrink-wrap sticker: "...a must for any fan of Portishead [cool], Mogwai [righteous], Evanescence [D-OHH!], etc."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

I’m still jamming on Sundays at the Sox house, where I’ve been bashing away for at least 15 years now. The jam room is the same as ever, a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling tangle of patch cables, pedal boards, mike stands and cobwebs presided over by brittle posters of Geddy, Ozzy and Lemmy. Only the refreshments have changed. The days of homebrew and homegrown are over. Instead we’re downing Chai and bottled water and fresh fruit and cheese strings, all supplied by mother Sox, whom I’m sure is delighted by the straight-edge Sunday philosophy. We’re like friggin’ Aerosmith these days. Last time I was over, we had the Monk/Coltrane live album playing on the stereo as we passed the teapot around, and I heard Scum mutter, “God, what a bunch of nellies.”

We still play bloody loud, though, and, in the grand Sox tradition, we record everything. Getting a good room mix onto tape (or hard drive) wasn’t so difficult when we were a trio-plus-vocalist, but now that twin guitars have become such a big part of our “sound,” the huge swirl of frequencies has really muddied the recordings. I think turning down would help, but the guys love their Marshall stacks too much to do that. We’ve been using noise gates on the drum mikes to stop the guitars bleeding through. They definitely help, but I really dislike the resulting sound. Not only is every drum hit clipped a tiny bit, but the elements of the kit that don’t pack a huge wallop—like the high hat and ride cymbal—end up not triggering the gates and are inaudible on the recordings. Forget about playing grace notes or cross-sticking on the snare…it simply won’t register. Kick, snare, toms—boom-boom-tap—are about all that makes it through the gates.

So I worry, I complain, I bear with it. It’s not my room, it’s not my equipment, and I’m just the guy who gets to hang around with musicians…you know the joke. But as of last week, I feel better about the situation. Each issue of Decibel magazine features a lengthy piece about a “Hall of Fame” album, an extensive revisitation of some classic record that rounds up fresh interviews with band members talking about the good old days and how they really had no idea they were making a classic at the time, etc.

The Decibel folks have displayed good taste in their picks thus far, and I’m all over each issue like white on rice. In the latest issue, they consecrate Cathedral’s Forest of Equilibrium, a fantastically miserable album made by, it turns out, fantastically miserable young men. And what did Mike Smail, an American drummer who went to England to play on Cathedral’s legendary debut album, think of the end result?

“Well, I was kinda disappointed that there were absolutely no cymbals on that recording…”