Saturday, April 25, 2009

Riff Salad and Music Cake

The prog revival’s been going since 1983, and it’s all coming good now, trust me.

Wobbler—Afterglow (Termo)
Norway’s Wobbler were signed to the Laser’s Edge a few years ago, releasing Hinterland to some good reviews, and making their U.S. debut at Nearfest. Afterglow is the follow-up...of sorts. It features rerecorded versions of the two tracks from their demo (long available via the band’s website) surrounded by a few minor instrumental pieces. Although at 34 minutes it barely attains status as an album (it’s the same length as Per un Amico!), it’s a valuable addition to Wobbler’s brief discography. Wobbler aren’t the most cutting-edge band, and I think they’re quite proud of that. Their sound is straight from the early ’70s, when Genesis, PFM and Banco had their mellotrons going at full pelt. Each member of the band is an excellent player, but the true star of the show is keyboardist Lars Fredrik Frøislie’s collection of vintage ‘trons, Moogs and organs. Wobbler seem intent on taking the baton from Anglagard with regards to being a modern band working with ancient sounds. The two bands’ approaches are quite similar—“organic” analog tones, restless structures, constant shifts between light and shade, and minimal vocals. Wobbler are more aggressive overall, but this is sometimes their downfall. The songs lurch from riff to riff, with barely any respite, and while you’re wowed by what’s happening, it's hard to retain anything afterward. Little is allowed to build and develop, or repeated to any effect. “Imperial Winter White” does have an introductory motif that comes back at the end, but when it does, after 12 minutes of riff salad it’s too late to have any impact. Compositionally, “In Taberna” (formerly “Leprechaun”) works better, and anyway, it’s a couple minutes shorter than “Imperial...” so it has fewer chances to get lost during its travels. Don't get me wrong; I love me some Wobbler, and I’m glad to have this material in its new format (Frøislie himself painted that dandy cover). The whole enterprise is so true to itself I can almost forgive the lack of flow in the songs. I just have to remember that this is early material (10 years old now) and hope that the band, regressive as their style is, will show some progression with their new material.

Diagonal—Diagonal (Rise Above)
Rise Above describe Diagonal as a “musical cake,” so I’m helping myself to a big slice of whatever this barmy army has got cooling in the kitchen. The British septet have angled themselves toward the jazzy sounds of Caravan and other Canterbury bands, as well as English psychedelia and proto-metal. Like Caravan, they have a keen sense of pop songwriting and melody while being unafraid to swing a heavy hammer and smash polite convention to pieces. There aren’t a lot of bands with one foot in the metal scene (via their label) mining this vein of influences, although Kosmos and Dead Man have dug into it a bit. “Semi Permeable Men-brain” lays out all the elements in aggressive and eccentric (aggressively eccentric) fashion. It kicks off with some heavy riffing in 5/4, lays back for a mellow verse in waltz time, revs up for some cosmic boogie, and then everybody solos, including a phase-shifted drum workout to end it off. It rules. “Child of the Thunder-Cloud” has a gentler approach, reminiscent of Cressida and Spring, before taking off for a high-energy excursion in 9/8. Sometimes they’re mellow, as on “Deathwatch” or bluesy, as on “Pact” which features a pants-wettingly effective electric piano solo. In contrast to Wobbler, the arrangements are loose and groovy, adaptable enough to contain both tight technical passages and stretched-out soloing. The verve and force Diagonal brings to this style makes them a good fit with the Rise Above label. Anachronistic they may be, but they clearly know and love what they’re doing. This music may have been underground back in the day, but at least a few of its adherents got a crack at the big time. To play in this style now is a virtual guarantee of indifference from (what’s left of) the industry at large. Bless them for getting out of their collective heads and making this fantastic noise.

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