Feb 6, 2019

MERKIN MANOR - Music From Merkin Manor (Windi Records WLPS-1003, 1973)

Provo, Utah in March 1967 was not like the many other American towns during this period. While the air was a buzz elsewhere with new sounds of garage, psychedelic, and hard rock music and long hair was becoming the norm amongst rebellious youth, the small town of Orem remained staunchly Mormon and Conservative. Rocky Baum and Ralph Hemingway were buddies in High School and from time to time, Ralph would vocalize tunes to Rocky's accompaniment. But there was something missing; They sorely needed a beat and other instruments to complete their sound. By the summer of 1969, they enlisted the services of Alan Newell on drums, Kent Balog on bass, and Doug Hinkins on lead guitar. And they needed a name: Rocky tells me this came from flipping through countless pages of an unabridged dictionary until the name “Merkin” jumped out at the band; Rod conveys quite a different story; the name was derived from an obscure offbeat movie,"Can Huronyomous Merkin Succeed with Mercy Hump ?".

As in the case in any developing band, someone's parents house became the rehearsal hall for the band; in this instance it was Doug's living room. Despite all the antics that teenagers would go through (like a friend sticking his head in the bass drum to hear better), it wasn't long before they realized playing original music was much more exciting than copying the popular songs of the day. It was soon after this that their high school friend Rod Olsen assumed the part of manager, getting them jobs at the local schools, colleges, bowling alleys, etc. He also got the band more structured by providing them business cards, posters, flyers, promo tapes, and all the other things to promote a band.

It was obvious as things progressed that Ralph was the consummate entertainer. As lead vocalist, he became the conduit between the band and the audience. His rapport with the audience was outstanding and engaging. He had an uncanny ability to entertain(and shocking with the ad lib song about Mary Ellen walking under a bridge at a Halloween dance). Ralph would swing the mic over his head wildly never losing control.One time he had himself auctioned off as a door prize and dressed up inside a wrapped box wearing leotards and big lips!!

In 1970, Al was replaced by Kent's twin brother Gary to continue on as their drummer and Doug was replaced by Robert Barney as their lead guitarist. They then added a sixth member, Richard Leavitt, on keyboards through a want ad. Merkin was now emerging with a new and fuller sound, and the close bond between the Balog twins gave them a stronger foundation. It was becoming evident that Robert, though youngest & smallest, was the best musician and Richard had been trained as a classical pianist. It was at this time the bonus and previously unreleased tracks "Maybe Someday" and "Cry On My Shoulder" were recorded at Brigham Young University Recording Operations Department on a 4 Track system.

By 1971,Rod felt it was time to get them more exposure, and soon after embarked on a project to record them live, and send out tapes to potential producers and record companies. In late January that year, they were contacted by gay Young of Kommittee Productions and were on their way to Los Angeles for a recording session at Walden Sound Recorders in Redondo Beach. It was an exciting experience tor them; all the instruments, recording gear, and talented engineers, etc. Rocky recalls an engineer by the name of Rolf who did an outstanding job on special effects. The sessions were completed in just 4 days and the band did their best to minimize the drug intake. The first documented airing of the LP came soon after in San Francisco. Sundaze Music arranged a tour of Colorado which included stops in Vail,and Leadville.

New Year's Eve 1972 was the crowning moment of their trip;20 below outside, bikers, local, tourists, and even a few friends from Utah showed up-the place was packed! Rocky thinks someone may have slipped something into the kegs of beer, as everyone was dancing wildly and the girls were climbing onstage to dance with the band. The band returned to Utah and began playing the ski areas (Snowbird), local colleges and clubs. In February 1973 the Merkin Manor album was finally released. When the band reviewed the song writing credits, it became apparent that the other members were upset that Rocky was solely given this credit. 

To this day, Rocky believes he did nothing wrong; he had written the lyrics and melodies but never intended the other members to be left out. However the band's feelings were could not be changed, and Rocky was asked to leave the band. Rocky's pending prediction of this sentiment can be heard on Track 9 "We're all here together., through all this bad weather". The band played on for a few years under the name Merkin but broke up in 1974. Ralph, Kent and Gary started a new band, Robert started his own group. Rocky went back to school, Robert returned to the church, and Rod became a ski bum at a local ski resort. The final track on this record, "A Father's Song" was written by Rocky during the recording sessions but not included on the LP. Rocky recorded this in 1983 with "The Rocky Baum Project". It is a stunning recollection of his relationship with his father. Rocky put it very eloquently "A Father's Song" exemplifies some of the emotions that arose between fathers and their hippie sons during that very difficult time of social realignment.(i.e., long hair, loud music, differing political views, and recreational drugs).

Feb 4, 2019

THE HARD TIMES - Blew Mind (World Pacific Records WPS-21867, 1967)

The Hard Times certainly enjoyed some hard times - almost 40 years of obscurity to be exact - but thanks once again to the fine folks at Rev-Ola Records, a lost 1960s group with riches of talent and musical goodness has been unearthed to be rediscovered in this modern age of rediscovery. The Hard Times were one of many groups trying for the big time in mid 60s California, but unlike groups who did make it big like The Mamas and Papas, The Doors, Arthur Lee's Love, and Buffalo Springfield, The Hard Times were a mere blip on the map. Like many groups of the time, The Hard Times showed us their best work first on their 45 singles. The Hard Times 45s have been sought after for years now, so to have them all collected in one spot, along with their sole LP from 1967, "Blew Mind", is a true revelation. Like their fellow "Where the Action Is" cohorts The Robbs (both groups served as house band for the Dick Clark produced teen pop program), The Hard Times put out a slew of amazing folk rock gems on 45s.

Centering attention on The Hard Time singles compiled for the very first time (and included as bonus tracks) is indeed a real treat. Not only does it become apparent that The Hard Times were an excellent folk rock outfit equal to groups like The Robbs, it becomes apparent just who the unsung heroes of this group are: Hard Times' songwriters Rudy Romero and Bill Richardson. Rudy and Bill wrote a number of The Hard Times' songs included here, and a few of the singles were re-recorded for the Blew Mind LP, while others were not. "You're Bound To Cry" is a folk rock gem which includes an excellent melody played on the mournful sounding harmonica and wouldn't sound out of place on The Rolling Stones' "Between the Buttons". "That's All I'll Do" continues with a more rollicking sound, but retains that haunting harmonica. "Goodbye" has wonderful harmonies and folk rock guitar work in a Beatlesque way, and certainly sounds more together on the 45 version as compared to the stereo LP version, but either version shows the band in a strong light. "There'll Be a Time" has a great introduction combining strummed guitar riff and the harmonica, but doesn't hold up as well during the verse. 

"They Said No" works the rocking sound a bit better, with angsty vocals that are only slightly tempered by the harmony background vocals and slapping rhythm that would have surely got the kids dancing back in 1966. A really amazing find is the Al Kooper composition "Sad Sad Sunshine", which sounds like Goffin/King's "Wasn't Born to Follow" (the song The Byrds sang in "Easy Rider" - which incidentally The Robbs covered as well), any fan of that song could do much worse than to check out this song. Wow, what a great song - the 45 version and the LP version have different feels to them too which make for interesting comparisons. "Fortune Teller" was the closest The Hard Times came to a hit, and while it pales in comparison to other versions of this song, it certainly will be a favorite of anyone who checks out this great album. "Give to Me Your Love" is a Rudy composed tune performed by The New Phoenix and produced by Mama Cass Elliot which has some peeling guitar licks and a haunting melody which opens up nicely thanks to the sweet vocals (Thanks - its b-side is an instrumental version of the a-side).

A few of the songs from the "Blew Mind" LP stand out too. The aforementioned "Fortune Teller" is probably stronger in its LP version, and a real standout tune. "Play It for Me" is probably my favorite Hard Times LP track, with it's giddy instrumentation and harmony vocals; it makes me smile every time I hear it. "Take a Look Around" is a really sweet ode to the things we take to granted in this world, and is a truly inspiring moment. "Not Me" combines a Beatlesque guitar riff with Donovan styled vocals, and is a groovy angsty LP track. "I'm Not a Rock" is another Donovan styled rocker, which isn't half bad. "Under the Sunlight" is an interesting attempt at a more psychedelized folk rock tune, which doesn't wholly work, but does end up with some interesting pop guitar work. The really tremendous psych moment that does work wonders is the odd title tune, "Blew Mind" combines droney guitar and gong hits with radio broadcasts sampled in and a psych melody with a mantra like vocal singing about "Blew...Blew....Blew Mind".

The downside to the "Blew Mind" LP is a handful of so-so covers which were no doubt the idea of the record company (indeed much of the album was reportedly recorded by session musicians). Songs like "Candy Man" (which does get a pretty unique arrangement), "Colours" (the Donovan tune), and The Beatles' "Here, There and Everywhere" all have an easy pop feel to them, but don't seem to match the goodness of the best by The Hard Times. Great find of a great time indeed.

Jan 18, 2019

RALPH TOWNER - Solo Concert (ECM Records 1173, 1980)

Musical innovation is no easy feat. It not only requires an innate talent, but also a devotion to the art that is not blinded by the commercial glare of the popular culture. Ralph Towner is such an innovator on the modern musical landscape, his ideas ever fresh, though they span a career of more than forty years. Best known as the lead composer, guitarist, and keyboardist for the acoustic jazz ensemble "Oregon", Towner has also had a rich and varied solo career that has seen fruitful and memorable musical collaboration with such great modern musicians as Gary Burton, John Abercrombie, Egberto Gismonti, Larry Coryell, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, and Gary Peacock. Towner was born in Chehalis, Washington on March 1st, 1940 into a musical family, his mother a piano teacher and his father a trumpet player. Towner and his siblings were raised in a nurturing and empowering environment that encouraged free musical experimentation and expression. In 1958, Towner enrolled in the University of Oregon as an art major, later changing his major to composition. He soon thereafter met bassist Glen Moore who would become a lifelong musical partner in the band Oregon.

It was about this time that Towner discovered the early LPs of Bill Evans, whom Towner emulated and whose influence he began to incorporate into his own piano style and composition. It was not much longer until Towner also bought a classical guitar on a lark and became entranced enough with the instrument that the early 1960s saw him heading to Vienna to study classical guitar with Karl Scheit. In 1968 Towner moved to New York City and immersed himself in the New York jazz scene, eventually landing a position with the Paul Winter Consort where the friendships and musical partnering with Glen Moore, Paul McCandless, and Collin Walcott were forged, a musical chemistry which was destined to alchemize into the band Oregon. Paul Winter also bestowed Towner with his first 12-string guitar. Towner has since coaxed the 12-string into imbuing his work with such a characteristic uniqueness that most jazz fans, given the two keywords "12-string" and "jazz" would immediately blurt the name Ralph Towner.

Towner’s working relationship with producer Manfred Eicher of ECM Records began in 1972 and would provide a forum for his growth as a leader and collaborator with other jazz giants, all while concomitantly breaking open musical frontiers with Oregon throughout the intervening years. ECM’s roster of low-volume acts was decidedly contrary to the amplified popular zeitgeist of the era, and provided Towner an opportunity to connect and create with some of the more iconoclastic and innovative artists of the musical culture in the 1970s. Towner’s ECM years also saw his most minimalist, yet most bold, endeavor. "Solo Concert", released in 1980 on ECM, was conceptually elemental, a solo live guitar recital. Yet, no one to date had ever synthesized classical contrapuntal composition with improvisational and oddly-metered jazz like this before, especially in such a risky arena as a live performance. Such solo work would later become Towner’s signature on recordings such as "Ana" and "Anthem", or augmented only by Gary Peacock’s bass on "Oracle" and "A Closer View".

Like any true artist, however, experimentation with technology was simultaneously and paradoxically leading Towner away from this bare-bones approach to composition and performance in 1983 when he began to incorporate the Prophet 5 keyboard synthesizer into his compositions, both with Oregon and his ECM recordings. The Prophet 5 afforded an entirely new dimension to his writing, as well as to the brazen and quirky character of the "free-form" improvisatory pieces for which Oregon had become infamous.

Just as Towner’s solo career has seen evolution, his partnership with Oregon would likewise undergo transformations as one might anticipate that any enduring relationship might do. Sadly, in 1984, percussionist Collin Walcott and manager Jo Härting were killed in Germany in a collision involving Oregon’s tour bus. Towner and McCandless escaped serious injury in the back of the vehicle. The emotional scars would however be deep, and it at first seemed doubtful that Walcott’s critical contribution to Oregon’s musical tapestry, lost so tragically, could ever be resurrected by any replacement. Time would luckily find that the intent of Oregon’s musical message was vehement enough to again find spontaneous expression after grief. Two subsequent world-class percussionists of a like mind, and gifted with rhythmic virtuosity, Trilok Gurtu in 1992 and Mark Walker in 1997, would share in and expand on Oregon’s vision. That vision would explode in an epic way in 2000 upon release of "Oregon in Moscow", an orchestral double-CD recorded with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, earning the ensemble four Grammy nominations.

Towner’s creativity and virtuosity into the new millennium retain all the vitality of his younger years, even now into his 70s. Always in service to the music, he continues to have a knack for fostering new musical relationships with those who share a mission to synergize art into a sum greater than its parts, recently and most notably with Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel and Australian guitarist Slava Grigoryan, a trio colloquially known as "MGT." Likewise, his later jazz duos with Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and Argentine clarinetist Javier Girotto have reaffirmed his unique niche in the international world of improvisational jazz. Ralph Towner has come full circle with the 2017 release of "My Foolish Heart," his 26th recording for ECM records, and an homage to the jazz pianist who inspired Towner on his original quest for compositional innovation, Bill Evans.

Jan 15, 2019

ICEHOUSE - Primitive Man (Regular Records RRLP1204, 1982)

One of the most iconic Australian bands ever, Icehouse, was formed by Iva Davies, the front man and musical creative force, that lead the band to an amazing 28 platinum albums, eight top 10 albums and over thirty Top 40 singles. Iva was born as Ivor Davies on the 22nd May 1955 in New South Wales, Australia. He later adapted to Iva after there was a misspelling on the label of a single released prior to the formation Flowers. The youngest of three siblings, Iva grew up in a musical household with both parents’ members of the local choir. When only 6 years old, Iva fell in love with his first of many instruments, the bagpipes, and after begging his parent’s for lessons, Iva had to wait till he was seven before his fingers could stretch over the chanter’s holes in order to learn how to play the instrument. Iva later made the move to the oboe with the help of his first year music teacher at Epping High. It was in July 1975 that Iva’s career really began with the release of his first single by RCA Records with "Leading Lady" and B side "I’m Gonna Give You All My Love". But it wasn’t until January 1980 that Iva put his name on the map when the successful pub band he founded, Flowers, signed a recording contract with Regular Records. In 1980 their debut album called "Icehouse" made it into the Top 5, becoming the highest ever selling debut album in Australia.

Icehouse’s success continued with the band performing their first overseas tour and the release of their second album, "Primitive Man", which surpassed the success of their debut album. It was this album that produced the anthem for Australians, "Great Southern Land", which made it into the Top 5. Whilst touring the band seized different opportunities that arose including Iva, who travelled to Tokyo in 1984 to write the song "Walking to the Beat" for the Yellow Magic Orchestra star, Yukihiro Takahashi. Two months later, Iva returned to Japan to tour as a member of superband, drawn from all over the world by Takahashi. Icehouse’s success continued with the album "Man Of Colours", which contained the hit singles "Crazy" and "Electric Blue" that topped both the US airplay and sales charts. This album became the highest local selling album by an Australian group ever. For "Man Of Colours" Iva himself created the artwork of a man clasping a bunch of coloured flowers by investing in a box of 5 crayons (which he still has till this day) and a black felt pen.

With a career spanning over 30 years, Icehouse has continued to delight millions with their music, wellknown and loved by audiences across generations. Icehouse has played to sellout audiences in Australia and has toured extensively. Icehouse began in 1977 as a Sydney-based pub rock band called Flowers, who were the highest paid unsigned act in Australia at the time. In 1980 Flowers scored a record deal with Regular Records and released their first album, "Icehouse", which received critical acclaim and reached multi-platinum status in Australia and New Zealand. It soon became the highest selling debut album in Australia. The iconic cover art for the album, featuring branches intertwined, was created by Flowers drummer John Lloyd, a former art student. After performing their song "Icehouse" at the Countdown Awards, the band was awarded with the Johnny O’Keefe Award for Best New Talent of 1980. In 1981, Flowers changed their name to Icehouse as it went international in order to avoid conflicts with another group. With their new name, the band embarked on their first overseas tour, taking on the US, Canada and the UK. The singles "Icehouse" and "We Can Get Together" were released in Europe and America, and the evocative Russell Mulcahey video for "Icehouse" generated much interest.

Icehouse’s second album "Primitive Man", produced the classic Aussie anthem "Great Southern Land" which reached number 5 on the Australian singles charts. "Primitive Man" also included the single "Hey Little Girl", a UK Top 20 Hit with Icehouse performing the song on Top of the Pops. The album sold over 650000 copies when released in Australia and is a favourite in Europe and the US, where Icehouse still has many fans. During this time Icehouse also supported David Bowie during Bowie’s European leg of the Serious Moonlight tour. It was the 1987 "Man of Colours" album, however, that made Icehouse a true international success, with smash hits "Crazy" and "Electric Blue" peaking near the top of both the US airplay and sales charts. "Man of Colours" became the highest local-selling album by an Australian band, and Icehouse's most successful album, selling more than a million copies in Australia and reaching gold status in Canada.

With as many as nineteen musicians who have been (or still are) members of Icehouse, it is songwriter, guitarist and lead vocalist Iva Davies who is the band’s creative heart and driving force. Many of the musicians who have been a part of the band were from Australia, but several were from the UK, including bass player Guy Pratt, keyboardist Andy Qunta and Sax player and keyboardist Simon Lloyd. A famous guest artist was Brian Eno, who was featured on the 1986 album "Measure For Measure". Eno had previously worked with Roxy Music, David Bowie and U2. In 2006, Icehouse was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame, being described as one of the most successful Australian bands of the 80s and 90s. With an uncompromising approach to music production they created songs that ranged from pure pop escapism to edgy, lavish synthesized pieces. Beyond Icehouse Iva has, and still continues, to showcase his musical skills for films, ballet, television and special events. Over the years he has composed scores for two of the most successful ballets for the Sydney Dance Company, "Boxes" (1985) and "Berlin" (1995). True commendation for his works came when, after 30 years as founder and Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Company, Graeme Murphy chose to close his Directorship with a return season of Berlin in 2007.

Iva’s score "The Ghost of Time" was also performed with Richard Tognetti and Sydney Symphony Orchestra on Millennium Eve at the Sydney Opera House as part of International Millennium Celebrations telecast to over 3.5 billion people worldwide. In 2003 Iva also co-composed the film score for Peter Weir’s "Master and Commander" starring Russell Crowe. Critics from around the world praised his work with the Washington Post saying: an unforgettable score. Icehouse and Iva Davies have won many awards including the Countdown Award for the Most Popular Male Performer, an ARIA award for the Best Album for Man of Colours, an ARIA for Highest Selling Album for Man of Colours, and an ARIA Award for The Ghost of Time in 2000. The band was inducted in the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2006. In recent years Iva Davies has maintained a presence in the Australian media with appearances in a variety of music & entertainment, TV and radio shows, and in interviews and featured press articles. 2011 and into 2012 saw Iva Davies and Icehouse headline a number of major music festivals in Australia and New Zealand including Homebake and the Breath Of Life Festival, which brought him more prime time media appearances including a number of on-air live performances. This coincided with the highly successful special release of the "White Heat" greatest hits CD & DVD which sold to Gold levels in just 2 weeks.

In January 2012 Iva was made a Friend Of Australia for the G’Day Australia campaign in the USA where he wined and dined with Hollywood stars, music celebrities and government ministers and performed a live set including Great Southern Land and Electric Blue. On January 26th 2012 he was honoured as official Australia Day Ambassador including featuring in a number of Tourism Australia videos. Iva was made an Australia Day Ambassador in 2001 and every year on Australia Day travels to a different region of New South Wales, on behalf of the Australia Day Council, to take part in and perform official duties for local Australia Day activities. Outside his musical activities, Iva has a long history of contributing back to the community from which he comes. Since the 1990s he has been, and remains, an Ambassador for the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy Australia, a non-profit organization which assists in treating those with physical and intellectual disabilities via the power of music. He has a long association going back to the late 1980s with the Salvation Army Red Shield Appeal where he works every year that he is in Australia, either door-knocking or at one of the events on the day. Iva is also a Patron of Entertainment Assist, the local arm of Music Cares which supports artists and their families who have fallen on hard times.

All albums in the Icehouse catalogue were re-released in May 2012 with a focus on the 30th Anniversary Edition of "Primitive Man" and the 30th Anniversary Edition of "Man Of Colours". Between October and November of 2012 Iva Davies and Icehouse performed to sell-out audiences on their Primitive Colours Tour which showcased the songs from the two Anniversary albums plus other favourites from the Icehouse pantheon of hits. Due to the success of the Tour, the band has been invited to present several ‘Encore’ performances in January 2013. Icehouse was also invited to perform several special events during the year. In June 2013 Iva was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to the music and entertainment industry as a songwriter and performer, and to the community. Davies closed 2013 with a bit of fun called "DubHouse", where he and an expanded band rework the songs of Icehouse and some much-loved cover songs with reggae, bluebeat and dancehall feels and is looking forward to continuing his and Icehouse’s musical journey.

FRANK ZAPPA - Thing-Fish 
(Barking Pumpkin Records 1984 - Original Recordings from 1976-1983)

 "Thing-Fish" by Frank Zappa was originally released as a triple album box set on Barking Pumpkin Records in 1984. It was billed as a cast recording for a proposed musical of the same name, which was ultimately not produced by Zappa, but later performed in 2003, ten years after his death. The album's storyline is inspired by Broadway theatre, AIDS, eugenics, conspiracy theories, feminism, homosexuality and African American culture. It involves an evil, racist prince/theater critic who creates a disease intended to eradicate African Americans and homosexuals. The disease is tested on prisoners who are turned into "Mammy Nuns" led by the story's narrator, "Thing-Fish". The story within a story is a satire of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant couple, Harry and Rhonda (actually played by Italian-Americans), who attend a play performed by the "Mammy Nuns", and find themselves confronted with their pasts: Harry presented as a homosexual boy, Rhonda presented as a sex doll brought to life.

The story was constructed during the recording sessions, which included producing new overdubs for recordings which previously appeared on Zappa's albums "Zoot Allures", "Tinseltown Rebellion", "You Are What You Is" and "Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch". The release of the album was delayed when Barking Pumpkin Records' previous distributor, MCA, refused to distribute the album. It was instead released by Capitol Records in the United States, accompanied by a "Warning/Guarantee" written by Zappa himself. "Thing-Fish" was initially received poorly by critics, who criticized the use of previously recorded material, but has since been reappraised for its highly satirical content. Before leaving for London to record with the London Symphony Orchestra, Frank Zappa was home during Christmas season in 1982, and kept busy by writing, producing treatments for three films and a Broadway musical called "Thing-Fish". Between 1981 and 1982, Broadway theatre had shifted from conservative musicals to experimental plays that were viewed as either being pretentious or vulgar. "Thing-Fish" satirized statements made by theater critics at the time, as well as arguing against the dumbing down of American culture. Previously, Zappa unsuccessfully attempted to stage two musicals on Broadway, "Hunchentoot", which formed the basis for the compact disc reissue of "Sleep Dirt", and a musical adaptation of William S. Burroughs' The Naked Lunch. "Thing-Fish" also drew conceptual themes from AIDS, feminism, gay chic, conspiracy theories and issues of class, greed and race.

The script was developed by recording songs beforehand; much of the songs in the play were previously recorded for other albums, including "Zoot Allures", "Tinseltown Rebellion", "You Are What You Is" and "Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch". New vocals were combined with previously released tracks and new Synclavier music. In addition to the new songs, the previously recorded songs include new overdubs moving this storyline forward. As the recording process continued, Zappa brought in revised scripts and improved the work by editing or changing aspects with which he was dissatisfied. Zappa attempted to produce "Thing-Fish" as a Broadway production. In promotion of the planned musical, a photo sequence based upon the "Briefcase Boogie" scene was shot for the pornographic magazine Hustler, accompanied by plot excerpts from the scene. The sequence was 28 pages long. While the album was released, Zappa was unable to raise the $5 million budget in order to produce the play, and shelved the project. Subsequently, "Thing-Fish" dialogue appeared on the album Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, during the piece "Porn Wars". The album was adapted for a limited stage production that took place in England in 2003. Many elaborate details were changed due to the small scale of the production.

Frank Zappa stated: "The simple thought behind Thing-Fish is that somebody manufactured a disease called AIDS and they tested it. They were developing it as a weapon and they tested it on convicts, the same way as they used to do experiments on black inmates, using syphilis. That's documented. They used to do these experiments with syphilis on black inmates in US prisons. That's fact. So we take it one step further and they're concocting the special disease which is genetically specific to get rid of 'all highly rhythmic individuals and sissy boys.' So I postulate that they do this test in a prison and part of the test backfires and these mutants are created." The "Thing-Fish" characterization was performed by Ike Willis, who helped shape the dialogue himself using African American Vernacular English According to Willis, "in my family, we sort of joke around with dialects, and what it sounded like to me was the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. I asked Frank if he had ever heard of this guy, and he said, 'No,' so I started giving him examples of Dunbar's work, and eventually, that ended up being a big influence on the Thing-Fish dialect."

Minstrel shows served as a source of satire within the storyline. The "Thing-Fish" characterization is also seen as satirizing Amos 'n' Andy, a successful radio series and controversial television series which drew protests from the NAACP, who perceived the dialect spoken by the main characters and supporting character Kingfish as being portrayed as being "too dumb to speak English." Additionally, Zappa satirized the Mammy archetype; the AIDS-like disease in the storyline turns prisoners into "Mammy Nuns" which are round and dress like Aunt Jemima. The Mammy archetype derives from the fictional character Mammy, as portrayed by Hattie McDaniel in the film Gone With The Wind. "Thing-Fish" is delivered as a story within a story, focusing on a spoiled White Anglo-Saxon Protestant couple, Harry and Rhonda, who attend a play that initially begins as being about and starring the Mammy Nuns. The story ultimately ends up following these characters through a series of ideological fads. It is revealed that Harry had become a homosexual as a result of the women's liberation movement, which caused him to lose all sexual desire for women; the younger versions of the characters are portrayed in the characters "Harry-As-A-Boy" and "Artificial Rhonda", with the young Rhonda being portrayed as a rubber sex doll, while her older counterpart becomes increasingly fascistic and feminist towards the end of the story.

The concept of Thing-Fish satirized minstrel shows. "Mammy Nuns" resemble blackface performers. The prologue is delivered as a spoken monologue over an instrumental piece with a heavy rock guitar riff. It is followed by the song "The Mammy Nuns", which originated as a hard rock instrumental, which appears in a live recording as "The Mammy Anthem" on "You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 1", and opened performances in June and July 1982. "Galoot Up-Date" is an altered version of the recording "The Blue Light", which appeared on Zappa's album "Tinseltown Rebellion". As Harry and Rhonda express admiration for the "performance" of the Evil Prince, an early version of Zappa's Synclavier composition "Amnerika" is heard. "Clowns on Velvet" was performed live as a spirited, playful instrumental. A recording of the instrumental version featuring guitarist Al Di Meola was planned for release on the album "Tinseltown Rebellion", but DiMeola refused its release. Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, appearing as the character Brown Moses, delivered running commentary in the song "He's So Gay", and sang the song "Brown Moses", which was influenced by soul and gospel music. The play's first act is concluded with "Artificial Rhonda", a rewrite of the song "Ms. Pinky", which appeared on "Zoot Allures".

The next track begins with early Synclavier music by Zappa, and the computerized voice of "The Crab-Grass Baby", followed by the Mammy Nuns singing "The White Boy Troubles". The Evil Prince, defeated at his own hands, delivers a soliloquy in the form of a Broadway piano ballad, "Wistful Wit a Fist-Full". The "Thing-Fish" album was identified as an 'original cast recording'. Barking Pumpkin Records prepared to release the album with distribution by MCA Records. MCA produced a test pressing of the triple LP set, but withdrew their distribution after a woman in their quality control department became offended and upset by the album's content. A deal was quickly made with EMI Records, which would allow "Them Or Us" and "Thing-Fish" to be distributed by Capitol Records in the United States. Zappa wrote a "warning" which appeared on the inner sleeves of these albums, as well as Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, which stated that the albums contained content which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress, and a "guarantee" which stated that the lyrics would not cause eternal torment in the place where the guy with the horns and pointed stick conducts his business.

"Thing-Fish" was poorly received by critics upon initial release; a common thread of criticism was that many of the songs on this album derived from previously released recordings, and some detractors considered it to be nothing more than a compilation album. Barry Miles found it to be one of his least substantive works. More recently the album has been reappraised, described by Kevin Courrier in Dangerous kitchen: the subversive world of Zappa as a compendium of Zappa's most explicit attacks on political and sexual hypocrisy in American culture collected together in one huge volley. In Frank Zappa and musical theatre: ugly ugly o'phan Annie and really deep, intense, thought-provoking Broadway symbolism, "Thing-Fish" is described as an extraordinary example of bricolage. As reviewed by François Couture for the website Allmusic, Couture described "Thing-Fish" as Zappa's most controversial, misunderstood, overlooked album, stating that it was not a masterpiece, but more than rehashed material.

Jan 11, 2019

GENE CLARK - Flying High (A&M Records 540 725-2, 1998)

There's not many that could write a song like Gene. Take one song, "Spanish Guitar". A song that which no less than Bob Dylan said was 'something I or anybody else would have been proud to have written'. We open with "You Showed Me" a song never properly recorded by The Byrds but turned into a hit by The Turtles a few years later. And by The Lightning Seeds in England many years later. The guy could write songs. We have a couple of Gene's finest Byrds moments before we move onto the solo material. "Set You Free This Time" is just so good. That slight quiver is his voice is everything. He wasn't a fabulous singer I suppose but he could sing and that quiver in his voice invested everything he did with a tremendous emotional quality. Besides, the likes of "'Set You Free This Time" contains some of the greatest lyrics written by anybody. No wonder Bob admired his song writing. "She Don't Care About Time" is a superlative Byrds single that inexplicably was never included on a regular Byrds album. Its just fabulous, the guitars jangle away and it's pop music. Prime Beatles influenced music that in turn influenced The Beatles not least George Harrison who was a huge fan of The Byrds.

Moving on through the first couple of solo records i've already covered we have highlights with the ridiculously happy "Tried So Hard", the stone cold classic "Train Leaves Here This Morning" and the simply brilliant "Why Not Your Baby". And, on this compilation at least, a couple of rarities. Rarities ? Gene recorded a single "The French Girl" / "Los Angeles" after his solo debut. The single never gained release and Gene ultimately decided to ditch that particular style and move more towards a country rock style. "The French Girl": this is such a fantastic song. Supremely melodic, the quiver in his voice present and correct and some fantastically romantic evocative lyrics. This song gets to me every time. It was never released ? It should have been number one! Really. And, "Los Angeles". Rock and Roll. Sorry, i'm getting carried away, but really, these songs are just so damn good and grin inducing. Everybody should get hold of these two songs. They really are that good.

More quality out-takes here. Gene had a bunch of them. "I Pity The Poor Immigrant" - a great Dylan cover given a rock beat but still retaining a country flavour. "Something's Wrong" from "Fantastic Expedition" sounding as great and wondrous as ever. The decent "Polly" (later covered by Ian Matthews) and "Dark Hollow" - yet more Gene Clark out-takes better than most writers best moments. A special mention for the two songs at the end of the first disc. "She's The Kind Of Girl" and "One In A Hundred" were Byrds re-unions. The mixes here are different to those that later emerged and were recorded with Jim Dickson The Byrds original mentor. They are simply fantastic, far superior to anything The Byrds were doing at that stage. The jangle is present, the harmonies are stupendous. Really. And, "She's The Kind Of Girl" is simply beautiful.

Highlights of the second disc of course include the songs taken from his classic "No Other" album from 1974. We open with some beautiful acoustic songs, "With Tomorrow" and "Spanish Guitar". "Spanish Guitar" especially is a thing to behold. A wonderful song, heartbreaking and beautiful again. A number of pleasant songs pass by until we reach the next moment of pure genius. "Full Circle Song" - the version here is different to the version on The Byrds largely disappointing 1973 reunion album. This is Gene's original version and dammit if it isn't wonderful! Wonderfully recorded and performed, a little Byrds jangle in the guitar and its just so uplifiting and happy. No wonder The Byrds wanted it to open their reunion album. This song always makes me smile and makes me happy. "I Remember The Railroad" is so atmospheric, wonderfully desolate in feel. Skipping the "No Other" songs for the moment, the remainder of the record is tasteful, quality but never again reaching heights of genius. Gene had something of a bad lifestyle and a drinking habit that ultimately cost him his life. "Fair And Tender Ladies" however is late period Gene Clark and does send a chill up the spine. A beautiful folk song with added female harmonies.

"No Other" was the album Gene recorded for Asylum Records with a budget that went way over what had been originally allocated. The production was state of the art, experimental. The songs were all 5, 6 and 7 minutes plus and daring in their ambition. They remind me of Bob Dylan's "Desire" album which was released in 1976. "No Other" came out in 1974. "Silver Raven" and "The True One" are both amongst the best songs Gene ever wrote. And, then ? "Lady Of The North". This is the one. The emotional quiver, fantastic vocals actually, some of the best he ever did. Soaring musical parts, a song in sections each one adding to the last. Violin! Desire! "flying high, above the clouds. we lay in grassy meadows, the earth was like a pillow - for our dreams". Wonderful lyrics, great piano. One of the finest six minutes in musical history. It's 4.30pm in the afternoon. I'm half way through the song. I've not drunk any alcohol, i'm sober and sane. One of the best songs and performances of all time. And of course of of the greatest so called "Best Of" albums ever released. A collection worth to have.


Jan 10, 2019

SHAWN PHILLIPS - At The BBC (Hux Records HUX102, 2009)

It’s something of a cliché to say it but unbelievably Shawn Phillips remains on the periphery of mainstream rock, despite selling hundreds of thousands of albums and singles since he first came on to the scene in the 1960s. Once famously described by the late rock impresario Bill Graham as ‘the best kept secret in the music business’, Shawn has collaborated with the good and great, from Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton, to Donovan and Bernie Taupin, was cast to play the lead in the original production of Jesus Christ Superstar (he had to pull out due to his other music commitments), written soundtracks for and starred in movie,s and yet he’s as far as ever from being a household name. Born in Fort Worth, Texas on February 3, 1943, Shawn was smitten by pop music from an early age. ‘My father gave me a Stella guitar when I was six, and it started there’, he recalls. ‘ Texas blues and rock’n’roll on the radio - "Rockin’ Robin" for one, and the Everly Brothers and such’. In 1959 he left Texas, ‘because the police wanted me for my automobile. It was fast’, and he ended up in the US Navy for the next three years until he was discharged. ‘Honorable discharge’, he now quips, ‘it was due to medical reasons. I had too much cartilage in my knees (it’s called Osgoodschlatter’s Disease. A lot of young sports people get it). I later had it corrected’.

As fate would have it, he ended up in Southern California where he befriended singer/guitarist Tim Hardin. ‘I met Tim in LA around 1962’, he recounts, ‘after we had known each other for several weeks, he suggested we go to New York ’. The folk revival was in full swing and Greenwich Village was awash with a wave of new talent, they were soon rubbing shoulders with the likes of Fred Neil, Ritchie Havens and a young Bob Dylan. As he later joked, ‘I played every class A club that exists in the United States from the ‘Hungry I’ on down to the other end. The best gig I ever had was the Café Au-Go-Go when it opened, with Lenny Bruce’. But there was obviously a bit of the Woody Guthrie in Shawn, he’s always been a travelling man. Whilst in Toronto he met the classical Indian musician Ravi Shankar and ‘he set me off with the desire to play sitar. I left the States to go to India to study the instrument. I got waylaid in London by Denis Preston, who heard me sing at a party and asked me if I wanted to make a record. I told him sure as long as there’s no time clause to the contract. Never got to India but I learned to play the instrument anyway’.

It was in London in Ivor Moraint’s famous Music Store that Shawn met Donovan Leitch, who was just enjoying his first taste of fame and they shared a fruitful if brief relationship, with Shawn touring America with the young guitarist, they even played the Pete Seger TV show, where Shawn was interviewed by the great ex-Weavers singer about the sitar and mentor Ravi Shankar. But the relationship with Donovan was rather one-way and in 1971 Shawn would observe, ‘we wrote a lot of things together and there wasn’t over much said about my part. The only thing I ever got credit for was "Little Tin Soldier" on the "Fairy Tale" album. We co-wrote "Season of the Witch". We were sitting there on the floor and I was playing my guitar and Don started making up words to what I was playing. And I made up that funny little riff that you hear on the original ‘Season of the Witch’. The "Sunshine Superman", I co-wrote most of the stuff on that’. However, Shawn’s stay in the UK was cut short by the Home Office, ‘the English government said my work permit had expired and I must leave England for three months’, a short bout in jail in Dublin and a stay in Paris followed, before Shawn found a new base in Italy. ‘My friend Casy Deiss told me to go to Positano and return after three months was up. I didn’t’. This little Mediterranean fishing village was to be Phillips’s home for the next 13 years, and its friendly, gentle atmosphere would provide him with the perfect environment to write and develop as a musician.

He’d already recorded a number of singles and albums for various EMI imprints, but in 1968 he signed to A&M and embarked on a project which should have cemented his reputation as not only a gifted composer, a fine singer, highly innovative guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, but also as a musician willing to take chances. It should have catapulted him into the big time. Recorded at Trident Studios in London with producer Jonathan Weston, Shawn began his most ambitious work to date, Trilogy. Unfortunately as he later opined, it ‘took me four and a half years to make and it took them (A&M Records) about two weeks to take apart’. All that music that he’d been soaking up since his first got into the business five years before poured out in an amazing splurge of creativity and originality, written against that sweeping psychedelic backdrop of the late 60s, it combined elements of jazz, rock, folk, blues, gospel, classical and his love of Indian music to stunning effect. It should have been his masterwork, his "Solid Air" or "Sgt. Pepper". It was a tragedy that the work was never released as it was intended. As Shawn recounted to Goldmine in 2006: 'the Trilogy was actually made and presented to A&M Records with the stipulation that each album would be released separately so that people would not have to buy all three at once. Everyone at A&M said yes to this project except one man, an executive at A&M. He considered it was unrealistic and looked at it solely from a financial standpoint, never even considering the artistic endeavour involved. He was the comptroller at the time. He made me take the Trilogy apart and put eight of the songs on to one album, which became "Contribution". The rest, with the exception of one or two songs, went on to "Second Contribution". This man was one of the forerunners for the desolate miasma the music business is today’.One can only ponder on what might have been had the original concept prevailed.

Even so these two records, which eventually emerged in 1970, are not without their pleasures, the first LP featured some great Phillips songs and also superlative playing not just from Shawn but from old ‘Slow Hand’ himself on "Man Hole Covered Wagon", and Messrs Winwood, Capaldi and Wood (Traffic) on ‘For RFK, JFK and MLK’. ‘Every single song was recorded in less than three takes and the master vocals were not overdubbed later but were done in the same moment’, says Shawn. Second Contribution was more experimental and abstract with fabulous orchestrations from Paul Buckmaster. Despite these major frustrations with his record label, Shawn came to record his first Peel session on something of a roll. Although never well marketed, "Contribution" was described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘one of 1970’s better efforts’. On Saturday afternoon 29th August he’d played unbilled to an audience of some 500000 people at the third Isle of Wight Pop Festival. The previous December he had also released a well-received Yuletide 45, "A Christmas Song". Indeed, side by side with the broadcast of his first BBC session, Rolling Stone had also just given him a highly positive centre spread, written by noted critic Chet Flippo. The timing could not have been better.

Phillips’s staunchest fans already know what a treat these Beeb recordings are, but with 38 years of hindsight it strikes this scribe somewhat odd that in the realms of ‘legendary sessions’ done by ‘Auntie’, this is never mentioned in despatches. To these ears at least, it’s up there with the likes of Tim Buckley’s legendary 68 recordings for the corporation. Kicking off with "Hey Miss Lonely" which he would later re-do in 1972 in LA with highly regarded session men Lee Sklar and Sneeky Pete Kleinow as part of the sessions for Faces, this gets us off to a cracking start. Shawn’s memories of this session are at best sketchy but he wryly adds, ‘Fuck me! Did I do that ? OK, the acoustic tunes are what they are, and I notice I flat picked "Hey Miss Lonely", I finger pick it now, and can’t remember when I started doing that’. The version on Faces is a gentler take with a country lilt rounded out by Sklar’s lovely bubbling bass and Pete’s sweet steel. The Radio 1 recording here maybe a rawer snapshot but both versions work equally well. In contrast "Spring Wind" is a reading take of the 9 ½ minute full-blown electric epic found on 1971’s "Collaboration" - an introspective, brooding piece which features some incredibly dexterous picking from the man and the lower range of his wonderfully elastic voice. "Salty Tears" is a bluesy number, with superb harmonising between his guitar lines and voice, Shawn could flick from a low rumble to a soaring falsetto in the blink of an eye, this is a performance of one of the more obscure songs in his catalogue that only ever saw the light of day as the flipside of the 1974 single "All the Kings and Castles" - and it’s the only number on the session to use an electric guitar and the way he wields his Fender Telecaster is just jaw-droppingly brilliant.

For most musicians a performance like that would be hard to top but the last two numbers from March 1971 are just as potent, and both taken from the aforementioned "Contribution" LP. Shawn’s driving 12-string playing is given full flight on "Withered Roses". The song starts with a stunning raga-like sequence - shades of the great Fred Neal and David Crosby here - before a full onslaught of super-fast picking. In 2008 Shawn observes, ‘I have a conundrum. I’ve been thinking about playing "Withered Roses" again in concert, but instead of an acoustic 12-string, I would use an electric 12-string. Peter Robinson has my original Gibson 12 string at his home in LA. He sampled it for use on his New England Digital Synclavier. I would rather it be in safe place, as it is the second 12 string Gibson made, after the prototype. Barney Kessel got the first one. We played a session together once, and he played mine, and I played his, and he offered to trade mine for his, with $500 on top of that. I said, “Don’t think so. Thanks anyway”’. "L. Ballad" is just gorgeous, one of his best - a song brimming with mystery and imagination that has undergone various transformations. Here somewhat reminiscent of the best work by the Tims (Hardin, Rose and Buckley), it was later re-done for Faces where Shawn was backed up by Skaila Kanga on harp and the 85-piece David Katz Orchestra with a haunting, majestic arrangement courtesy of Paul Buckmaster. Even so, this unadorned solo version is hard to fault, it’s the real jewel in the crown of this first BBC set. By the time he came to do the next BBC session for Bob Harris in March 1973, Shawn was regularly working with a backing band which featured

Drummer Barry de Souza, guitarist Tony Walmsley and keyboard player Peter Robinson. As Peter recalls, ‘I met Shawn in the autumn of 1971. My long standing friend and fellow Royal Academy of Music alumnus, Paul Buckmaster, had met Shawn during the recording of Contribution and took me over to see him at his flat located in one of London ’s famously secluded squares. We instantly hit it off and we all talked endlessly until the wee hours. It was during these dialogues that Shawn asked me to play keyboards on his next album. We took the songs from "Contribution", "Second Contribution" and "Collaboration" on the road and I played with Shawn for the next five years in concert. On the Bob Harris Show we had no bass player at that time and so I played all the bass parts on Fender Rhodes bass keyboard. The only other group I knew about that utilised this instrument was the Doors’. First up is "Spaceman", done for the "Collaboration" album, a number says Shawn ‘prompted by my getting hit on, on the street, by various sundry Jesus freaks, whom I would invariably leave standing speechless, because I would remind them of the origins of the bible, and the myriad cultures that actually contributed to its writing, much of which was long before Jesus. For someone who loves Jesus so much, they weren’t real happy with the truth. Also contributing to it was a blonde lady (now long forgotten), that piqued my fancy’. "Not Quite Nonsense" was another song from the Contribution record – something of a humorous break-neck tongue-twister - ‘”will the lady in the rear please be kind enough to take her lovely hat off”’, was actually the line that set the writing of the song off’, he says, ‘I like the ending as well, “and we’ll call a stop to all that’s not harmonic”. There wasn’t anything left to say. Dead stop’.

There is a pair of aces from the Faces record: "Anello" has a Donovan flavour particularly in the vocal phrasing, not surprising given their earlier friendship, whilst "I Took A Walk" shows the more political side of Phillips’ song writing. Talking now of the versions recorded for Bob Harris, Shawn says: ‘OK, what you have to remember is that in the studio when you’re trying to make an album, you have time to create several different moments, whereas in the radio studio you’ve got to get it right the first time. Each situation is different’. The take of "Took A Walk" is certainly faster and snappier, with Robinson’ electric keyboards adding a funkier edge compared to the one on the record. The final contribution to this session is another gem: "Dream Queen", later recorded for 1974’s "Bright White" album, is pretty much another solo performance. Phillips adds, ‘I think the guitar I was playing was a Fender 6-string bass. I had turned the bridge around, so I could put guitar strings on it’.

When Phillips came to do his second Peel show in October 1974 former Big Three bassist Johnny Gustafson had replaced Tony Walmsley. Gustafson had already played with Shawn on "Spaceman" and had been in the prog-rock organ-led power trio with Peter Robinson, Quatermass, and they’d co-headlined concerts together so this was a grand reunion. The funk elements that had been peeping through on the Harris recordings were now given full reign. Phillips’s music was now following a heavy jazz-funk direction. Peter Robinson recalls, ‘we recorded an album called "Furthermore" which made several musical turns to funk and extended improvisations. We were asked to record again for the Beeb in 1974, for John Peel. What a gentleman. He treated us so well and, I think, it made us play better. Thank you John!’ The final tracks on this Hux release are all based on tracks recorded for that LP. Talking about this change of style, Phillips now observes, ‘Truthfully, I have to pass the buck on to Pete (Robinson) and Paul (Buckmaster). They opened my mind to soooo much music: Stockhausen, Miles, Penderecki, composers who made music that made you run out of the fucking room.’

About that final Peel session, he adds: ‘I have to say that I think they were amazing moments. Dude, Miles would be proud. The jam on "See You / Planscape" is wonderful. ’92 years’ is funk personified, and "Talking in the Garden" / "Furthermore" just flat out smokes. I can’t believe the tempo on "January 1st". Great energy by everyone involved’. Gustafson adds: ‘It’s difficult to say how the music evolved, but Shawn was always open to ideas as long as it didn’t interfere with his original concept. For instance, when we rehearsed "January 1st" in Los Angeles, there wasn’t an arrangement as such so after a few attempts I tried something quite fast that I thought might fit in with Barry’s drum pattern. It was just a repeated bass riff spread over an A flat minor 7th scale. It seemed to work after it was played more staccato’. Peter Robinson, who played B3 Hammond Organ, Moog and ARP synthesizers, Fender Rhodes piano, clavinets ‘and the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure’ says, ‘Everything was done in one take! At the end of the song "Planscape", one can distinguish a somewhat truncated version of a tune that Paul Buckmaster wrote for Miles Davis. I think secretly Paul’s a little pissed off that Miles never credited him with the composition so here it is, quoted as if to quietly cock a snoot.’

Going by these recordings, live gigs at the time must have been extraordinary - there’s an incredible electricity to them that had not been over evident in his earlier work. Shawn’s fixation with this type of music would see him go on to work with various ex-Herbie Hancock Headhunters sidemen, on records like "Rumplestiltskin’s Resolve", whilst the spaced out jazz-funk jams would reach their zenith on 1977’s "Spaced" and the 16-minute "Came To Say Goodbye". Sadly he has as yet never returned to the portals of Broadcasting House, but he has gone on to enjoy a long career as a musician and continues making interesting records and playing gigs to this day. He’s currently living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa , where in between writing and touring, he works as an emergency medical technician and fire fighter. He remains outspoken too - when I spoke to him about the BBC sessions, he finished with a typically forthright burst of Phillips insight - ‘now I got a question for you. Why don’t we hear music like this today ? Where are the artists and musicians that create at that level ? Seems everybody wants to play rock, blues or pop. For me today rock is standard chords with amps at 11, and no substance, and pop is oversimplified, and panders to the raging hormones of adolescent teenagers, and I don’t play blues, because I’m not black, and have no conception of the depths of despair those people suffered under such oppression, and never will. Any white guy that says they can identify with that is deluding themselves’.

Dec 25, 2018

THE OCEAN - Heliocentric / Anthropocentric
(Pelagic Records PEL 004/008, 2010)

As the first in a two part companionship album revolving heavily around religious critique and a humanistic (and quite often negative) study of the Christian faith, "Heliocentric" represents the beginning of a new era for Germany-based post metal act The Ocean. While I had listened to "Anthropocentric" (the second half) before this one, I was already a fan of this band's complex and intelligent music from the 'Precambrian' days onwards, and my expectations were high for the next album. This band has always been prone to take on the most ambitious topics ("Precambrian" revolved around the creation of the Earth itself) and "Heliocentric" is no exception to this rule. A deeply thought-provoking concept by all standards, "Heliocentric" does ultimately disappoint my high expectations however. While the album is graced with some brilliant moments and lyrics that will surely upstart more than a few existential debates, the band's new direction does feel basic and less effectively executed than some of the great albums they have released in the past.

With a new vocalist here, the sound of the band is obviously changed a fair bit. While the abrasive growls are the same as they have always been (that is, a mixed bag), the introduction of Loic Rossetti is one of the more skilled singers the band has seen through its revolving door of musicians. However, while "Anthropocentric" shows the singer's talent in an excellent light, "Heliocentric" feels as if it stretches the vocalist's style in the wrong direction, usually towards a more abrasive direction that could vaguely be compared with the harsh style of Metallica vocalist James Hetfield. Ironically, many aspects of The Ocean's music have actually become much more melodic and harmonious since the atonal and unsettling sounds of 2007's "Precambrian". Even going as far as to have a piano-driven ballad like "Ptolemy Was Wrong", "Heliocentric" does see the band going in a slightly less complex direction with their music, and that did often feel to me like The Ocean's greatest strength; their meticulously crafted arrangements. Songs like "Metaphysics Of The Hangman" are driven by chorus structures, and while this doesn't necessarily mean that the music will be worse, in The Ocean's case, it does. Mixed results on Rossetti's new vocals,some inconsistent writing, and a more accessible direction? Doesn't sound good, but the album is far from being poor, and still sports a good deal of strengths.

First among the positive aspects of "Heliocentric" is the lyrical content and concept. On an even calibre with "Anthropocentric" here, the lyrics generally revolve around the Church's resentment towards science, as well as to debunk Creationism (a theme further developed with the second part) and question the existence of a divine entity. While this will offend some Christian listeners surely, the lyrics are written quite tastefully, touching upon the subjects through a poetic, often metaphorical language that really becomes the highlight of the album. The Ocean's "Heliocentric" is certainly one of the weaker points of The Ocean's career, especially considering when the band has had such success with releasing absolutely phenomenal records. in the past. However, tracks like "Firmament" and "The Origin Of Species" and a few others provide a great listening experience typical of the band's output. While the album did not reach my expectations however, it would pave the way for "Anthropocentric", which is the real masterpiece to be spawned from this project.

With 2007's "Precambrian", The Ocean (also known as Ocean Collective) came out with a two disc concept epic concerning nothing less than the turbulent creation of the planet Earth. To follow up something so vast, 2010 witnessed the band now releasing two companion albums, each dealing with such topics as the creation of man, the idea of god, and religion. Suffice to say, The Ocean are never short of ambition in the projects they choose to take. While the critique of religion and faith is as ripe a concept as any for a metal album, "Heliocentric" did end up being a bit of a disappointment. Luckily, the second installment in this chapter of The Ocean turned out to be quite a return to power for the band. With "Anthropocentric", The Ocean releases one of their most potent efforts yet, with a concept and lyrical content as profound and fiery as the music it is driven by. When speaking of the sound of this album, there is definitely a more conventional melodic sense here (like "Heliocentric") than there used to be, in no small part due to the addition of new vocalist Loïc Rossetti, whose clean singing is featured quite prominently here. However, unlike "Heliocentric", very little of the heaviness and experimentation is relinquished, and there is a very good balance between the heavier vocals and lighter melodic singing. With many of the songs, the clean vocals make some pretty catchy and memorable hooks, but luckily don't feel superficial by doing so.

The title track leads off the album in full force; a nine minute episode of sludgy heaviness, mixed with rhythmic experimentation. While the track begins in a very typical, atonal style for The Ocean, the differences and developments start to be heard when the clean vocals come in, three and a half minutes into the album. In direct contrast to the brute growls, the vocals are often beautifully harmonized, although some of the more stylized singing of Loïc Rossetti can get a tad nasal at times. At least as far as the first track is concerned, the highlights reside in the beautiful mellower moments, where The Ocean gets to properly show their new grasp for great melodies. Another highlight of the album is the single-worthy "She Was The Universe", which is a memorable powerhouse from start to finish, despite being highly rhythmically irregular. Along with many of the songs here, the chorus is kept quite melodic. Other noteworthy songs include "The Grand Inquisitor III", which is the most 'out there' track on "Anthropocentric" - an electronic trip-hop acid tweak of an interlude- and "Wille zum Untergang", a very post-rockish track that showcases the band's more ethereal nature. The only song here that isn't excellent is "Sewers Of The Soul", which keeps a relatively up- tempo, rock vibe without showing the same compositional complexity and intricacy of the rest of the album.

Lyrically, the material here is bound to cause some controversy, especially among the more religiously-inclined listeners. As was true with "Heliocentric", "Anthropocentric" is a harsh, to- the-point critique of Christian fundamentalism and hypocrisy. Philosophical opinions aside, the subject matter is intregated well into a sort of intellectual and thought-provoking poetry that's sure to stir up some debate amongst metalheads. "Anthropocentric" may very well be a rival of "Precambrian" for The Ocean's greatest work to date. Despite having one or two songs that feel a bit less inspired than the rest, "Anthropocentric" is a true definition of the 'thinking man's metal'; highly complex and frenetic sludge metal, mixed with a truly ambitious scope. An interesting album, The Ocean's mastery of aesthetic and innovation is readily evident in spades.

Dec 24, 2018

SYRINX - Qualia (Aeon Records AEON02, 2009)

Syrinx is a side project of mainly guys from NIL: David Maurin on acoustic guitar, Benjamin Croizy on keyboards and Samuel Maurin on bass accomplished with Philippe Maullet on drums. The alliance took place already at 1999 when they decided to create music of new form. At first they remained anonymous: ''They work together to attain a common goal which bears the name of Syrinx: thus, the name and career of each musician are unimportant'' and they named the band as Syrinx: ''Syrinx normally designs a nymph from Greek mythology. This concept does not belong exclusively to this mythology. It not only existed before it, but it exists to this very day. Syrinx, then, is the origin of this music". According to the band, the form of their music is Metamorphic Music fulfilling three conditions: 1) It is constructed on rhythmical and melodic themes which develop, change, and metamorphose in a subtle way into other themes. Depending on the effects intended, this process is more or less perceived by the listener. If this metamorphic construction is elaborated correctly, it can lead to the two following consequences: 2) It induces a special interior state in the listener. In fact, all music influences our movements, our emotions and our will-power, whether we are conscious of this or not. Syrinx' music is precisely conceived in this sense to operate an internal transmutation, an interior metamorphosis of the listener. 3) In the place where it is played, it creates a sort of climate: it contains in itself all that is necessary to be able to catch on progressively in the physical area where it is propagated. After the music has stopped, it still impregnates the area. A sensitive person can feel this phenomenon, even if he or she were not present at the time of its diffusion.

What do you get when a fabulous acoustic guitarist meets up with a spectacular drummer ? Well, after nailing a mellotron-mad keyboardist (is there a more glorious sound than acoustic guitar and the mighty 'tron ?) and enlist a bass player with rolling fingers and you wind up with a French quartet named Syrinx. On their sophomore 2008 effort Qualia, the band expands their thematic instrumental only approach, calling it "Metamorphic Music", a textured canvas on which the musicians simply layer on details that delve deeply into incredible mutations, a clearly jazz-rock fusion that swerves into dense symphonics on a dime, the splendid David Maurin acoustic guitar in the spotlight. His likely brother Samuel Maurin supplies strenuous bass excursions, closer to Weidorje's Paganotti in that it's up- front and very center, like a musical spinal cord. Ivoryman Benjamin Croizy colors intensely with mostly the afore-mentioned mellotron but also tosses in some sparkling e-piano, rolling organ and somewhat metallic synthesizer ornamentations. The music is not far from fellow French acts Priam, Taal, Xang, Nebelnest and Nil (all three players save for the drummer were members of this legendary Annecy band) as well as obvious King Crimson tendencies (the mathematically precise bicycle acoustic guitar a la Fripp) , while drummer Phillipe Maullet could easily nail a Bill Bruford audition.

If you have any lingering doubts about my sanity, you need to protect yours upon feasting your ears on the opening masterpiece "Liber Nonacris", a nearly 20 minute python track that will slowly engulf you whole and digest you later! Tempestuous, at times veering toward insanity but somehow exceedingly controlled, or better yet, controlling, the delivery is breath- taking and audacious. This has to be one of the best epic instrumentals ever in progland. Fans of every stripe would find glee in the recipe, where blistering technique meets vaporous Gothicism. There are undeniable hints of eerie schizophrenia, emotional discomfort, obtuse irrationality and a yearning for some sort of salvation. Creepy, in a good way. The style can also morph into quasi-soundtrack-ish mode, as if the band was commissioned for some spectral horror movie, "Acheiropoietes" is a moody, somber and unforgiving canvas of sound. Led by a soprano saxophone that has no handcuffs, the piece at first is perhaps the jazziest here, very stop/start and stark. Cemetery anthem, binary for quite a while and then, BOOM the mellotron takes this into much more pleasant surroundings, lush and symphonic. A few simple drumstick moves and the mood becomes chaotic again. Like a crazed rat caught in a labyrinth, there I no possible escape, move forward at your peril or retreat into doom. All along the victorious bass keeps the acceleration gasping for air.

On the massive and over 14 minute long "Le Grand Dieu Pan", after a simmering piano intro where complacency and occasional cello eruption rule the day, the churning organ takes over leadership duties and, for all intended purposes, does not let go until the end, ably assisted by the wild guitar and manic drumming. Croizy then audaciously administers some synthesized fantasy, the bass burping along like some doped-up nurse, raising the angst to improbable levels of tension. Somber piano and grave flute combine to further the despondence. Pan is the Greek god of the shepherds and flocks, nature of mountain wilds, hunting and pastoral music, and companion of the nymphs, so its presence here is self- evident within the context of the song. Eventually, the arrangement is guided into a more symphonic complexion, the guitar and the bass getting very technical, the drums highly syncopated and poly-rhythmic. The piano returns majestically, with profound seriousness until they all explode on their instruments, Samuel in particular getting nasty on his four stringed monster. Just tremendous talent on display here, this is music you can enjoy as a whole or in part, following each instrument individually. Darn, I love that many options.

The brief five minutes finale is a wordplay on the "21st Circle" instead of century (hmm, never thought of that) but in fact, just a mellotron-infested ditty with great intensity and a strange growling slash (that devilish bass and effects) , David delivering a supersonic acoustic foray that would make Andres Segovia proud and Maullet pounding his heart out. The King Crimson influences are loving and overt but that jazzy craziness is just to expunge over. Tremendous listening experience. Gorgeous artwork. A classic.