Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Yes—March 20 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre

I’ve been lucky enough to see most of the classic prog greats—Rush, Genesis, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Van der Graaf Generator—but never Yes. When I was in high school they toured Western Canada for 90125, and while I liked that album, it sure wasn’t the Yes of the previous decade, and I snobbishly decided not to go.

I followed Yes casually for the next couple decades, occasionally checking in to little reward. The Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album was a real bummer, and I couldn’t bring myself to touch that Union enterprise. By the latter half of the '90s there was a whole new progressive rock scene to get into and the Yes soap opera just seemed silly and irrelevant. I had Spock’s Beard, the revitalized IQ, and mail-order labels like The Laser’s Edge and Cuneiform Records to keep me busy, not to mention a burgeoning international metal scene that to me represented the true spirit of “progressive”.

But now I’m old and nostalgic, and it seems that the keepers of the Yes legacy are too. When I had the chance to go to their show last week at the Queen E (thanks to the loveable Luke Meat), I did indeed seize it. The lineup of Howe/Squire/White/Downes and newish vocalist Jon Davison looked respectable, and the show’s format of presenting three classic albums in their entirety guaranteed a solid setlist, albeit an predictable one. The three albums in question, The Yes AlbumClose to the Edge, and Going for the One, contain five or six of my favourite songs of all time. I was looking forward to hearing them in a live setting.

“I saw Yes in 1974, and it cost five bucks! And you know who opened for them? THE EAGLES!” You always get these people at the old-time prog shows. I reckon I was the only person in the joint who hadn’t seen them on the Relayer tour. The lights went down at 7:30, quelling the babbling of aging nerds. Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite came on the PA; the band’s traditional walk-on music. This was just like the real thing. Hold on, it was the real thing. That gnome/hippy figure was Steve Howe, and there was Chris Squire with requisite Rickenbacker. Geoff Downes stood among three banks of keyboards. They started with "Close to the Edge" and played the rest of the album in order. It was all bang-on, especially Davison whose voice soared, note perfect all the way. Sure he wasn’t their original vocalist, but his performance was a marvellous tribute to Jon Anderson’s melodic talents.

The stage production was Spartan—nothing in the way of a “set” and minimal backline. A screen behind the drum kit presented animated Roger Dean vistas, rainbow-hued butterflies, mysterious figures in yogic poses, and other suitably-Yeslike imagery. As well, the screen introduced each song with a title card (e.g. “Siberian Khatru” Close to the Edge (1972)).

Going for the One was next, with Steve Howe kicking out the jams on pedal steel guitar. He had a good style of shoving the wheeled contraption off stage whenever he was done with it. A roadie would put it back in place when it was time for another go. Davison’s performance on “Turn of the Century” was a highlight of the GftO segment and earned him a standing ovation. “Parallels” sounded creaky in comparison; probably the only instance where I thought the band could have pounded out a song with more authority. For “Awaken” Howe put on an odd-looking headstock-less guitar. Not to be outdone, Squire emerged with a triple-neck bass/guitar contraption. Hope he has a good supply of Robaxacet for this tour! He’s not a poser, our Chris—he did indeed play on all three necks during the course of the song.

After a 20-minute intermission and some words from Howe praising Vancouver for its more European feel compared to America (“cosmopolitan” was the word he used), they embarked on The Yes Album (1971). They slayed it too, especially on Howe’s solo spot, “The Clap”. Seeing him in action live confirmed his status as a guitar god. After the musical jigsaw that is “Perpetual Change” they left the stage briefly before resuming with “Roundabout” for an encore. This started two folks dancing and going nuts in the aisle at the front of the stage. Maybe the song had been their first dance song at their wedding, in which case I wish I'd been invited to that wedding. They were allowed to boogie down until the first chorus, when they were beaten to a pulp by security and tossed out (kidding).

It really was a great night. The only downside was going home and facing the wrath of Mrs. Mule, who’ll probably never forgive me for not bringing her along. Now that this is published, I’ll never speak of this again.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part Two

Black Wizard—Young Wisdom (self-released, LP on War on Music)
A deadly distillation of all things hairy, sweaty and rocking, Young Wisdom was so good that we reviewed it twice at Hellbound last year. If it weren’t for the extraordinary debut of a certain other, related band, this would have been the local release of 2013.

Shooting Guns—Brotherhood of the Ram (Pre-Rock)
These Saskatoon proponents of “Pilsner-fuelled mayhem” are flat out one of the coolest bands in Canada. Getting to see them do their thing again at the Cobalt last year was a real treat. I don’t think Brotherhood of the Ram was out at that point, but they did play large chunks of it, I’m pretty sure. Sticking to their instrumental ethic for this six-track riff jamboree is a smart move. Having some guy yell overtop this would only ruin the party. The LP has a distinct vibe on each side, starting with a trio of swirling heavy numbers, each as untamed and expansive as the prairie landscape, then settling down on side two for a couple of more placid tracks (the Shooting Guns sound collides with latter-day Earth to great effect on “Go Blind”) before “No Fans” shuts things down with a final blowout. It’s quite a ride.

Subrosa—More Constant Than the Gods (Profound Lore)
Subrosa are a little bit magical. They’re not a heavy metal band, but damn, they’re heavy. They’re bluesy while avoiding of the obvious scales and structures of the genre. Only loss and longing remain. They’re extremely Gothic, but sure as hell not “goth”. Their violin-laced sludge trudge has a stern beauty, sort of a tar-pit-as-reflecting pool effect. I hear them less as a metal band than the offspring of the heavier strain of ‘90s alt-rock. Imagine if PJ Harvey, post-Rid of Me had bought bigger amps after and got really into Melvins, or if Slint had found that interested female vocalist and, again, got really into Melvins. This is a much louder, more confident album than their previous album. at the same time, it’s more brave in its willingness to whisper-sing its most intimate thoughts.

Boards of Canada—Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp)
I don’t know from IDM or whatever genre Boards of Canada inhabits. Everything sounds like prog to my ears anyway. Tomorrow’s Harvest, to me, is comfort music. It doesn’t try to “rock” and unlike a lot of the music I listen to, it’s not structured to shock the listener. Spooky and meticulously layered, each of the 17 tracks explores its little cluster of sounds for a tantalizingly brief time before moving on to the next track, the next idea. In lesser hands, this type of music tends to drone on for no reason than wanting to use the word “monolithic” in the press release. The discipline here is admirable, and just as there’s nothing very risky or jarring on Tomorrow’s Harvest, it also fit in with my ‘playing it safe’ ethos for 2013.

Kadavar—Abra Kadavar (Nuclear Blast)

Maybe they’re trying a little too hard, these Kadavar freaks, considering the live-off-the-floor recording, the blown-out vocals, the beards and the aged-looking cover photo. They’re like a new pair of pre-faded jeans. But damn, they fit and they feel good and it’s a classic look, right? Their genius is in avoiding being an obvious homage to any specific band. They weld together a bunch of blues and proto-metal styles to create a retro sound of their own, same as I think Graveyard have done. Stylistically, they draw from more sources than Graveyard, though, colouring songs like “Doomsday Machine” and “Dust” with strokes of arena-rock flash. Guitarist/vocalist Lupus Lindemann often sounds a bit like Klaus Meine; maybe that’s what does it. The production is minimal as possible, with a single guitar hard panned left, bass on the right, vocals straight up the middle. Nailing that perfect take must have been a nail-biting process, but the energy and excitement you can hear on Abra Kadavar was well worth it.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part One

As I said, I wasn't feeling acquisitive or inquisitive during 2013, so I'm doing 20 albums this time out. Here are the first five...

Necromonkey—Necroplex (Exergy Music)
I reviewed the madcap adventures of these Swedish boffins running wild in the analog wonderland of Rothhandle Studio here. Looks like they’ve been beavering away lately, so there’ll be more on Necromonkey here in 2014, mark my words.

Windhand—Soma (Relapse)
I love it when an album creeps up on you after making an underwhelming first impression. Soma started haunting me after the third or fourth listen. My initial thoughts were, “Well, anyone can do that.” That being super-slow, super-downtuned doom with riffs built from a handful of power chords. However, the atmosphere and, most importantly, the songs started to invade my consciousness. With Dorthia Cottrell’s distant voice providing a fragile human element wailing against the massed wattage burning through the mix, Windhand do have something special going on. To me, Soma’s combination of power and intrigue signals they’re on the verge of making a real masterpiece. I found myself wanting them to integrate their acoustic side more with the doom metal within the same song—on Soma, the lovely “Evergreen” stands on its own sandwiched between the heavy epics—but no doubt this would restrict what they could pull off live. There is one track that does pull everything Windhand does all together, and that is “Boleskine.” Half an hour in length, and equally loved and disparaged by various critics, it feels less like a song than a Beckett radio play (with guitar chords in place of dialogue), considering its feeling of dread and hopelessness and eventually an all-consuming anticipation for the end.

Earthless—From the Ages (Tee Pee)
It’s a long-running joke in my weekend basement band: whenever we decide to “just jam,” we have almost exactly 12 minutes worth of ideas and licks before the proceedings come to a sorry end. Earthless don’t have this problem—14 minutes is about the right length for them, and they have no trouble keeping the momentum up. In fact, on the title track of this all-instrumental rockfest, they smash through that time barrier and rock out for a full half hour. Eddie Glass can do incredible things on the guitar. It’s amazing that the rhythm section can keep up with him. It’s sort of a marriage between Robin Trower and electric Miles—it’s all about pushing it, prolonging the ecstatic moment and achieving hypnotic bliss. Earthless do it through Glass’s prolific (to say the least) soloing or the cavalcade of cycling riffs on “Violence of the Red Sea.”

Locrian—Return to Annihilation (Relapse)
Last year’s split with Horseback pointed me towards the new one from Chicago duo Locrian. Return to Annihilation is as bleak as its cover, a landscape scoured by washes of keening guitar, pulsing synths and screamed (and, I feel, expendable) vocals. It’s admirable in its scope and insistence in dragging you along for the ride. The 15-minute title suite is a tripartite wonder, traversing Agalloch-like dark folk, a Mellotron and Moog-dominated Italian horror soundtrack section, and a patient buildup towards a cacophonous finale. Although it’s tough to embrace something so intended to disturb, long passages and sometimes entire tracks are unequivocally enjoyable. I like the album more every time I hear it. Locrian’s alchemy of sounds bristles with invention—nobody else sounded like this in 2013.

Burning Ghats—Something Other Than Yourself
This local hardcore quartet weren’t messing around when they recorded this jarring and grim 12-inch debut. The record spins at 45 RPM; the music churns at a number of velocities, all of them pulverising. Reviewed in full here.