January 29, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Châteauvallon, France 8-25-76 (AUD 3CDR)

At a little over three hours, the second concert in Châteauvallon on August 25, 1976 is almost twice as long as the previous night's performance and was again recorded from audience, possibly by the same person. Unfortunately, the copy which circulates contains several glaring errors in the text file and it took me several listens just to sort it all out. So, here is the actual running order and timings for all three discs:

Disc 1 (70:57): 1.Opening improvisation (12:12); 2.Out Where Others Dwell (5:57)> 3.Images (piano intro) (3:10)> 4.Images (9:48); 5.Spontaneous Simplicity (13:34); 6.Satellites Are Spinning (7:27); 7.Rose Room (9:30); 8.Velvet (9:18).

Disc 2 (75:07): 1.Angels & Demons At Play>Watusi (24:24); 2.Unknown title (7:43); 3.King Porter Stomp (3:46); 4.Slippery Horn (3:45); 5.Opus in Springtime (10:21); 6.El Is a Sound of Joy (7:11); 7.Taking a Chance on Chancey (5:19); 8.Face The Music (7:48)> 9.Don’t Blame Me (4:47).

Disc 3 (48:24): 1.The Shadow World (23:33); 2.Enlightenment (2:17); 3.Astro Nation>We Travel The Spaceways>Second Stop Is Jupiter (22:33).

As you can see, that is a lot of music! Sound quality is marginally better than the previous show, with more defined bass and drums and slightly less hiss and distortion—but it’s still pretty rough going. And, although you can hear female singers in the background, I do not think June Tyson is present since John Gilmore once again leads the choir. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic performance from start to finish, from the opening improvisation (featuring Marshall Allen’s keening oboe) to the closing space chants. The ensembles are spirited and tightly disciplined while all the soloists are in fine form, especially Gilmore, who simply plays his ass off all night long. Take “Velvet,” for instance: this is an outstanding example of Gilmore at his absolute best. I know I’m always saying this or that solo is “incredible,” but that’s not just hyperbole—it’s true! Gilmore was one of the finest tenor saxophonists of his generation and nowhere is this more apparent than here. More mind-blowing Gilmore can be heard on “Images”; “Satellites Are Spinning”; “Spontaneous Simplicity”; and “Face The Music”—not to mention his usual antics on “The Shadow World” or the big band classics, “Rose Room”; “King Porter Stomp”; and “Slippery Horn,” where he again plays clarinet. This is Gilmore at the peak of his powers, no doubt about it, and Sonny has given him free reign to blow his brains out on this night. "Incredible" is simply the only best word to describe John Gilmore.

Ra is provided a piano and plays a romantic yet aggressive, Cecil Taylor-ish intro to “Images,” but abandons it later on for organ and Rocksichord (both with and without the whooshing phase-shifter). Perhaps there were technical problems with the acoustic instrument, but it sounds fine to me. Oh well. Regardless, his playing is inspired throughout, with his buzzing and whirring electric keyboards giving the old-timey numbers a modern edge while propelling tracks like “The Shadow World”; “Angels & Demons At Play”; and “Watusi” into the stratosphere. These last two tunes could sometimes drag on a bit—but not here! On “Angels,” Ra whips up a “mad-scientist” organ blast to accompany Gilmore’s solo and he gets the tenor saxophonist barking like a dog through his horn. Totally outrageous! There is one mystery tune that is particularly intriguing (disc 2, track 2). Is this a composition or an improvisation—or both? It starts out with modal arpeggios on the Rocksichord and Gilmore hazily outlining a descending melody amidst disorienting flurries of notes, false harmonics and altissimo squeals. Ra takes over for a bit, the harmony wandering further and further afield until Vincent Chancey comes in on his precariously intonated French horn. Then Ra pushes a button, thinning the electronic texture and starts comping a swinging vamp—and the rhythm section comes in with a cha-cha! Huh? Chancey continues his balancing act until Ra brings the piece to a close with a dissonant false cadence. Very beautiful, but what exactly is this? Who knows?! Another wonderful Ra moment comes after “Face The Music,” when Sonny launches into the 1933 McHugh/Fields pop song, “Don’t Blame Me,” on solo organ. Just lovely.

A five-thousand word blow-by-blow of this epic show seems like a pointless exercise (or maybe it's beyond the limited number of words in my vocabulary). It’s a stunningly great performance; just take my word for it. If you can tolerate the less-than-great sound quality, it is a richly rewarding listen—if only to hear Gilmore at his finest. According to Prof. Campbell, “Rose Room” and “Satellites Are Spinning” appear on the 1978 double-LP, Unity (Horo—Italy HDP 19-20) (see pp.226-227). Frankly, I’m not so sure about that—we’ll have to try and figure it out when we get there. But, if true, it means a high-quality recording of this concert is possibly stashed away in the Sun Ra archives somewhere. An official release of this complete show (or whatever is extant) would certainly be a worthy addition to the discography—are you listening, Art Yard? Ah well, one can dream, anyway, right? In the meantime, this “bootleg” recording will have to do.


Speaking of Art Yard, they have recently released a new two-CD set entitled, Wake Up Angels: Live At The Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972-1973-1974 (Art Yard CD12). According to the description on Downtown Music Gallery’s website, there is supposedly additional material included on this edition not included on the original releases on Total Energy (now out of print)—but I don’t see how that is possible, given that the number of discs has been reduced from three to two. Anyone out there know for sure what the deal is with this? Please let me know!

January 28, 2012

Playlist Week of 1-28-12

Europe '72

* Marais: Pieces De Viole Du Troisieme Livre, 1711 (Savall, et al.) (Alia Vox SACD)
* Marais: Pieces De Viole Du Quatrieme Livre, 1717 (Savall, et al.) (Alia Vox SACD)
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Veneziano (Archiv Produktion CD)
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Italiano (Archiv Produktion CD)
* Beethoven: String Quartet, Op.130 (Alban Berg Quartett) (EMI Classics CD)
* Sun Ra: Chateauvallon, France 8-25-76 (AUD 3CDR)
* Sun Ra: Solo Piano Vol.1 (Improvising Artists, Inc. CD)
* Sun Ra: St. Louis Blues: Solo Piano Vol.2 (Improvising Artists, Inc. CD)
* Wayne Shorter Quartet: Piazza Della Riforma, Lugano, Switzerland 7-13-01 (SBD CDR)
* John Abercrombie & Ralph Towner: Audi Max TU, Vienna, Austria 5-11-84 (FM 2CDR)
* John Abercrombie Quartet: Wait Till You See Her (ECM CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: Travels (ECM 2LP)
* Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet: Apparent Distance (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Olu Dara: In The World: From Natchez To New York (Atlantic HDCD)
* Grateful Dead: City Hall, Newcastle, England 4/11/72 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 3HDCD)
* Grateful Dead: Musikhalle, Hamburg West Germany 4/29/72 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 3HDCD)
* Grateful Dead: Olympia Theatre, Paris, France 5/3/72 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 4HDCD)
* Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left (Island CD)†
* Nick Drake: Bryter Layter (Island CD)†
* Nick Drake: Pink Moon (Island CD)†
* King Crimson: Beat (DGM HDCD)
* Genesis: A Trick Of The Tail (Atco LP)
* Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky (d.1) (Ardent/Rhino 4CD)
* Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Echo (Warner Bros. CD)
* The Police: Synchronicity (A&M SACD)
* Shockabilly: The Ghost Of Shockabilly (Shimmy Disc CD)
* Bob Mould: Workbook (Virgin LP)
* Yo La Tengo: Painful (Matador CD)†/‡
* Yo La Tengo: “Shaker” (B-sides) (Matador CDEP)†/‡
* Yo La Tengo: “From A Motel 6” (B-sides) (Matador CDEP)†/‡
* Beck: Sea Change (Geffen/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* Gastr Del Sol: The Serpentine Similar (Teenbeat/Drag City LP)
* Gastr Del Sol: Crookt Crackt Or Fly (Drag City LP)
* Gastr Del Sol: Mirror Repair (Drag City CDEP)
* Porcupine Tree: Recordings (KScope CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: In Absentia (Lava/Atlantic CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: Deadwing (Lava/Atlantic CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: Fear Of A Blank Planet (Atlantic CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: Nil Recurring (KScope CDEP)†
* Porcupine Tree: The Incident (Roadrunner 2CD)†
* Steven Wilson: Grace For Drowning (KScope 2CD)
* Opeth: Still Life (Peaceville/Icarus CD)†
* Opeth: Blackwater Park (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)(†)
* Opeth: Damnation (Music Forn Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Opeth: Ghost Reveries (Roadrunner CD)(†)
* Opeth: Watershed (Roadrunner CD)†
* Opeth: In Live Concert At The Royal Albert Hall (Roadrunner 2DVD/3CD)†/‡
* Opeth: Heritage (Roadrunner CD+DVD/2LP)(†)
* Katatonia: The Great Cold Distance (Peaceville CD)
* Tool: Lateralus (Volcano HDCD)
* Agalloch: Marrow Of The Spirit (Profound Lore CD)(†)



Several folks have asked me for a show-by-show rundown of the Grateful Dead: Complete Europe ’72 box set, so I thought I’d share some preliminary thoughts after having lived with it for a while. All twenty-two shows are still available (minus the box and books) for $450.00 at dead.net—at about six bucks a disc it’s a relative bargain—and hardcore Deadheads will want them all. For the less obsessed, Europe ’72 Vol.2, a two-disc compilation is nicely done and contains the unique “Dark Star>The Other One” pairing from the Bickershaw Festival on 5/7; that may be all most people need. And, if you already have previous archival releases from this tour, like Hundred Year Hall; Steppin’ Out With The Grateful Dead; or Rockin’ The Rhein, you will probably want to hold on to those discs no matter what since the sound quality is noticeably better than what is found here. I attribute this fact to the sheer magnitude of the Complete Europe ’72 project, which prevented the kind of time and care being put into the mixing that makes those earlier releases sound so sweet(ened). That said, the workmanlike mixes found here are fine and certainly sound way better than the “soundboard” tapes which previously circulated (which I suspect are actually rough mixes of the multitrack tapes). As with all other official releases over the last several years, the CDs are mastered in HDCD and benefit greatly from proper decoding, revealing extended dynamic range and smoother frequency response than with vanilla Red Book playback (though that sounds good, too).

What makes this tour so special? For one thing, it’s the last one with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, arguably the Grateful Dead’s original leader and frontman, who, despite failing health, wrote a bunch of new songs for the occasion and gives his all on rave-ups like “Good Lovin’”; “Caution (Do Not Stop On The Tracks)”; and “Turn On Your Lovelight.” He even contributes some tasty Hammond organ and percussion from time to time—if you don’t look at the photos, you can hardly tell he has less than a year to live. Moreover, new keyboardist, Keith Godchaux, has really started to come into his own and he propels the group to new heights with his mellifluous, multi-stylistic piano playing. Finally, the entire band sounds overjoyed to be on an extended working vacation and inspired by the glamour and glorious acoustics of the prestigious Old World venues in which they (sometimes) found themselves performing. They deliver powerful, remarkably professional shows night after night—even in the more mundane settings like the low-ceilinged lunchroom at Aarhus University or the sterile broadcast studios of Radio Luxembourg and “The Beat Club” in Bremen. Each show is also available individually and, while every one of them is worth hearing, some are definitely better than others. The first sets are somewhat repetitive, with “Mr. Charlie” being performed at all twenty-two shows. Even so, Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing is so fluidly inventive (and the tone of his modified Stratocaster so completely gorgeous); each version of this relatively simple song is subtly different, making them well worth listening to. But it’s all about the jams for me and every night has either a “Dark Star” or “Truckin’>The Other One” of epic proportions—how can you go wrong? But for those who wish to pick and choose, herewith is my individual assessment:

Wembley Empire Pool, London, England 4/7/72 (3CD)
Wembley Empire Pool, London, England 4/8/72 (3CD)

The tour got off to a bumpy start. These shows were supposed to occur at the fabled Rainbow Theatre, but financial problems had temporarily caused it to shut down, leaving the Dead to scramble to find an alternate venue. At the last minute, the cavernous Wembley Empire Pool was made available and the shows went on as scheduled. Perhaps because of these logistical difficulties, the first night is the only recording with significant flaws: “Big Boss Man” stopped recording with less than a minute to go in the song and is therefore omitted on CD and while “Casey Jones” was apprently performed later in the same set it was not recorded at all. Despite these technical glitches, the playing is incredibly strong, capped with an hour-long jam: “Truckin’>The Other One>Drums>The Other One>El Paso>The Other One>Wharf Rat” Whew! The second night is even better, with the incredible “Dark Star>Sugar Magnolia>Caution” sequence appearing on the better-sounding Steppin’ Out set.

City Hall, Newcastle, England 4/11/72 (3CD)
A nondescript concrete venue with terrible acoustics leads to a somewhat subdued performance. Typically good, but not terribly memorable either except for maybe Garcia’s pedal steel accompaniment on “Looks Like Rain” and a jazzy “Other One.” An off night, booked en route to the Continent.

Tivoli Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark 4/14/72 (4CD)
A couple days’ rest and a posh concert hall does the band a world of good and they deliver a long, twenty-nine song concert. Garcia again jumps on the pedal steel for “Looks Like Rain” and the “Dark Star” is long and exquisitely spacey, with a thoroughly ecstatic segue into “Sugar Magnolia.” A note-perfect show with a richly reverberant acoustic.

Stakladen, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark 4/16/72 (3CD)
The “lunchroom” show. The Dead give it their best, but the ambience is a little tense. The overflowing crowd is going bonkers, climbing the rafters and threatening to take over the stage. Garcia responds appropriately with “Dire Wolf” (“don’t murder me!”). “Truckin’” devolves into an interesting seventeen-minute jam before resolving into a strangely short “Other One>Me & My Uncle>Other One” sequence. Very odd; I guess you had to be there.

Tivoli Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark 4/17/72 (3CD)
Back to the Tivoli, this time for a TV broadcast. This is the famous “Bozo & Bolo” performance, where the band wears clown masks for one song—even Jerry! It’s a shame a DVD is not included, but my “bootleg” copy is fine. This is another great show, if a little less polished than the previous one. It opens with a semi-rare “Cold Rain & Snow” and features the first performance of “He’s Gone,” in its embryonic form, minus the bridge and coda. Curiously, they reprise the “Dark Star” sequence in the second set but with a very different, more aggressive feel with Garcia doing some nice slide and fingerpicking work during the twenty-four minute “Caution.” Another totally great show.

Beat Club, Bremen, West Germany 4/16/72 (1CD)
Another TV broadcast, this time recorded in the tiny confines of the Studio 3 of Radio Bremen. Unlike most bands, who would record a quick rendition of whatever single they were promoting, the Dead play an eighty-minute set, including a long “Truckin’>The Other One” that must have bewildered the stoic TV technicians. Since this was not a concert per se, two takes of “Playing in the Band” are attempted and some songs breakdown hilariously. As it turns out, only the “hit” single, “One More Saturday Night” was ever broadcast. Blair Jackson’s liner notes hint that video of the complete performance might someday be released—but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Rheinhalle, Dusseldorf, West Germany 4/24/72 (4CD)
Rockin’ The Rhein sounds a bit better, but is incomplete. “Dark Star>Me & My Uncle>Dark Star” is where it’s at, so choose your poison.

Jahrhundert Halle, Frankfurt, West Germany 4/26/72 (4CD)
Another long show with lots of great songs and inspired performances. Hundred Year Hall presents highlights on two discs in better sound (now out of print), but it’s nice to have the whole thing. One of only three performances of “Turn On Your Lovelight” on this tour.

Musikhalle, Hamburg, West Germany 4/29/72 (3CD)
Overshadowed by Hundred Year Hall and the Paris shows a few nights later, this one is rather short and while it has its ups and downs, it opens with a nicely jammed “Playing in the Band," a rare occurrence in any year. The second set features an outrageously dissonant, thirty minute “Dark Star” into “Sugar Magnolia,” ending with a nicely-jammed “Caution.” What more could you want?

Olympia Theatre, Paris, France 5/3/72 (4CD)
Olympia Theatre, Paris, France 5/4/72 (4CD)

The Paris shows are revered for good reason, with five songs appearing on the original Europe ’72 LP (with overdubbed vocals) and spectacular performances all the way around. Those overdubbed vocals are hardly noticeable and do not interfere with the flow of the concerts so don’t worry about it. Both shows are lengthy affairs, spread out across four densely-packed discs. The first night has an epic eighty-minute jam cemented by “The Other One” while night two gets the “Dark Star.” Both are essential.

Bickershaw Festival, Wigan, England 5/7/72 (4CD)
A cold and rainy outdoor festival, the Dead bring some California sunshine to the proceedings, delivering a solid, at times transcendent, show. The hour-long “Dark Star>The Other One>Sing Me Back Home” appears on Europe ’72 Vol.2, but really stands out in the midst of this sprawling, surprisingly mellow concert in the mud. Pigpen attempts “Lovelight” again, but the inclement conditions keep it short.

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Holland 5/10/72 (4CD)
Finding themselves in one of the finest halls in all of Europe, the Dead are on their best behavior—a near-perfect show with “Truckin’>Drums>The Other One>Me & Bobby McGee>The Other One>Wharf Rat” taking up all of disc three. “He’s Gone” appears on the original Europe ’72 LP, with the vocal coda, which was added later in overdubbing sessions. It’s interesting to hear “He’s Gone” develop over the course of the tour; while songs like “Ramble On Rose” and “Tennessee Jed” seemed to have been born fully grown, “He’s Gone” took a while to come together.

Grote Zaal De Doelen, Rotterdam, Holland 5/11/72 (4CD)
As good as the Amsterdam show is, I like the Rotterdam show even better. The band is a little looser and the forty-five minute “Dark Star” is by far one of my all-time favorites. Essential.

Lille Fairgrounds, Lille, France 5/13/72 (3CD)
The Dead were supposed to play the Opera de Lille (or perhaps La Rotonde in the town of Faches-Thumesnil, outside of Lille) on May 5 or 6 but those plans were scuttled by an altercation with a self-styled revolutionary after the second Paris concert. Remember, this is not too long after the 1968 student uprisings that nearly toppled the French government and young idiots were still feeling encouraged to behave badly. After the band and management rebuffed his increasing aggressive entreaties (by dumping a bucket of ice cream on his head), he responded by sabotaging the equipment truck, pouring water in the gas tank. The Dead found themselves at the edge of the Belgian frontier with no gear and a restive audience. The concert had to be abruptly cancelled and the band barely escaped out of the bathroom window (documented by photos in the booklet included in the box set). To make amends, a free show was negotiated for the 13th. The band set up in the middle of a park and put on a remarkably relaxed concert, considering the ill-feelings the whole episode generated. Bob Weir songs dominate the show with a long “Playing in the Band” in the first set and an extended “Truckin’>The Other One” in the second. You can sense, though, they’re playing it safe in hostile territory. Frankly, the story is more interesting than the music.

La Grande Salle Du Grande Theatre, Luxembourg 5/16/72 (2CD)
Recorded for broadcast on Radio Luxembourg in front of a small invited audience, this show has circulated widely amongst Deadheads ever since. It offers everything that makes Europe ’72 so special—tight performances, exceptional jamming—and packs it into a miniaturized setting. Even though the “Truckin’>Other One” sequence is cut in half, it still packs a punch. As a radio broadcast, it is just about exactly perfect; but this is not the first show I’m going to grab when I’m looking for some E72. Maybe it’s a bit too perfect, without enough edge to keep it interesting. Casual listeners would do well to check it out since it makes for an unusually accessible introduction to the band.

Kongressaal, Munich, West Germany 5/18/72 (3CD)
I wasn’t very familiar with this show at all, but, boy, it’s a stunner. The first set is long and energetically played and the old electrified jug-band tune, “Sitting on Top Of The World” makes a welcome reappearance to open the second. A twenty-eight minute “Dark Star” is deliciously weird and twisted as it winds its way to a cathartic “Morning Dew.” Incredible!

Lyceum Theatre, London, England 5/23/72 (3CD)
Lyceum Theatre, London, England 5/24/72 (3CD)
Lyceum Theatre, London, England 5/25/72 (4CD)
Lyceum Theatre, London, England 5/26/72 (4CD)

To top it off, could these last four nights of the tour be the best of them all? Yes, I do believe so. 5/23 was new to me and it’s a corker: “Sitting On Top Of The World” returns again, followed by a ridiculous cover of “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” Maybe there was something in the water (or the Kool-Aid) but this is one of those shows where even “Mexicali Blues” sparkles—the forty-minute “Dark Star>Morning Dew” is just the icing on the cake. The next night is just as good, though, with another “Rockin’ Pneumonia” and the only performance of “Black Peter” of the tour. The usual “Truckin’>Drums>The Other One” jam is concluded with a heartfelt “Sing Me Back Home,” Merle Haggard’s heartbreaking prison ballad—a beautiful rendition. 5/25 stretches things out even further with some interesting song choices. “Brokedown Palace” makes a rare appearance in the first set and the second gets an unusual sequencing: “Uncle John’s Band>Wharf Rat>Dark Star>Sugar Magnolia; Comes A Time; El Paso; Sitting On Top Of The World.” Wow! As if that couldn’t be topped, 5/26 is just a mind-blower, start to finish. It’s almost like they knew they had accomplished what they set out to do: conquer Europe, record a killer live album and go home. The audience is in the spirit: their spontaneous clapping of the Bo Diddley beat prompts a rare first-set “Not Fade Away>Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad>Not Fade Away.” A crazy-collage of “Truckin’>The Other One>Drums>The Other One>Morning Dew>The Other One>Sing Me Back Home” is just as wild as it looks. Without their usual set closer, the show ends with what feels like a series of encores; fitting, I suppose, given the last night of the tour. While some of this stuff is on Steppin’ Out, I couldn’t live without any of these four complete shows. Essential.

Well, there you have it. Rumor has it their cooking up the next multi-disc box set for 2012. Some ideas floating around are Fall ’73 and Spring ’90. I may sound like a heretic, but of those two choices I would pick Spring ’90. Sure, Fall ’73 is a peak period—but they were only recorded to two-track tape, copies of which circulate widely (with some exceptions). Spring ’90, on the other hand, was recorded to multitrack and was arguably the pinnacle of the Brent Mydland era—the era in which I discovered the band. Whatever they put out, I will likely buy it anyway since I am a hopeless Deadhead. But I’d love to see the same lavish attention devoted to the 1980s and 1990s as they have given the 1970s (the Formerly The Warlocks box being the lone exception). But that’s just me. Purists should be overjoyed with the Complete Europe ’72 box set—and this is evidenced by its quick sellout. Now, how about the rest of us weirdoes, the really hardcore Deadheads? We want it ALL.

January 22, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Châteauvallon, France 8-24-76 (AUD 2CDR)

The Arkestra stayed in Europe almost two months during the summer of 1976, opening the tour at Mutualité in Paris on July 8 and immediately traveling to Switzerland to record Live At Montreux on the 9th. On July 10, the band was in Pescara, Italy where an eighteen-minute portion of their performance was broadcast on RAI, Italian state television but I have not seen this (I do not believe a recording circulates). From there, the tour crisscrossed the continent: July 11 in Nimes, France; July 18 at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Gravenhage, Netherlands; July 20 at Giornate del Jazz in Ravenna, Italy (an audience recording is purported to exist, but I don't have it); July 25 at La Pinéde, Juan les Pins, France; back to Montreux on August 6; Arles, France on August 7; and, after recording Cosmos at Studio Hautefeuille in Paris, concluded the tour with two shows at Châteauvallon on August 24 and 25. (See Campbell & Trent pp.222-227.) These last two concerts were recorded from the audience (probably by the same person) and is widely traded amongst Sun Ra collectors. The sets are mostly complete and while the sound quality is not very good (hissy, boomy, distorted, etc.), they are certainly listenable, as these things go (a little tweaking of the EQ helps tremendously).

At only about one-hundred minutes, the concert on the 24th is considerably shorter than on the 25th and is notable for the absence of June Tyson (leaving John Gilmore to lead the way on most of the sing-a-longs). Perhaps this was an impromptu appearance by the Arkestra, with the “official” gig being the 25th? Moreover, Sonny has not been provided a piano, meaning the old-timey numbers have a souped-up, electrified feel quite different from the Montreux arrangements. In any event, they would play a more conventional set the following night.

The opening improvisation has a wonderfully exotic, “Strange Strings” sound that goes on for a few minutes until Gilmore starts chanting “For The Sunrise” and Sun Ra enters the stage to enthusiastic applause. After a world-shattering space chord, “Discipline 27” follows. The band sounds big and full-bodied (if dimly recorded), the baritone saxophones heading the charge while Ahmed Abdullah delivers a tasty trumpet solo. Then Sonny charges into “The Shadow World” and we’re off! Despite the dodgy sound quality, this seventeen-plus minute version is extraordinary. We get the usual freakouts from Gilmore on tenor sax and Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet, followed by a mad-scientist organ solo from Ra—but then there’s a long, spacey group improvisation featuring colorfully smeared trumpet (Chris Capers?) and James Jacson’s throaty bassoon (!) and it goes about as far out there as the I've ever heard the Arkestra go! Astounding! After Ra signals a quick reprise of the fanatically complicated head, the sudden ending is met with stunned silence from the crowd. Seriously, all you can hear is tape hiss!

Undeterred, Duke Ellington’s “Lightnin’” is taken at a rollicking tempo but the ensembles sound a little shaky and Ra’s phasey Rocksichord sound is just plain strange. Meanwhile “Watusi” is the usual (including an overlong drum solo from Clifford Jarvis), but it has an unusually skronky improv in the middle that makes it worthwhile. The old Noble Sissle/Fletcher Henderson stomper, “Yeah Man!” is even better, with Gilmore on clarinet for the surrealistically authentic-sounding ensemble sections and switching to tenor sax for a rip-snorting solo. Incredible! But then an awkward version of “Taking a Chance on Chancey” follows, Ra duetting with Vincent Chancey’s wobbly French horn, sometimes accompanied by eerie drum taps and a distant flute. Very weird—and not in a good way. The new composition, “Jazz From An Unknown Planet,” is given one last performance and yields a nice trombone solo from Craig Harris. Too bad this tune was apparently dropped from the repertoire; it definitely had some promise. Next up, Ra’s swirling organ gives “Take The A-Train” a circus-like feel and although Gilmore tries his best during his solo, he never quite builds up a full head of steam and the overall effect is muted by the incongruously maudlin organ swells. Oh well; it is a noble effort nonetheless.

“Space Is The Place” is given a surprisingly energetic reading, led by Gilmore’s vocals and augmented by a howling alto solo from Danny Davis. Or, rather, I’m guessing it’s Davis. Honestly, I have a hard time telling him apart from Marshall Allen. Based on his flute and oboe playing, I think Allen’s playing is slightly more lyrical and brilliantly virtuosic than Davis—but I could be wrong. Anyway, it’s ragingly great solo, whoever it is. The tempo slows as they effortlessly segue into “Lights on a Satellite,” which features a gorgeous tenor solo from Gilmore atop a delicate arrangement of swooshing Rocksichord and twittering flutes. Although the woefully unbalanced recording is difficult to hear through, it is a lovely rendition of one of my favorite Ra compositions. A hypnotic “Love In Outer Space” is driven by Sonny’s furious comping on the Rocksichord and a tasty solo from Abdullah. For some reason, “Images” is less successful: although Abdullah and Gilmore deliver the goods, the band never really takes flight. Well, they certainly make up for it during the lengthy “space chant” segment that opens with “Theme of the Stargazers” and moves through “Next Stop Mars,” “Second Stop Is Jupiter” and concludes with “Calling Planet Earth.” The singing and chanting is ultimately overwhelmed by waves of freestyle group improvisation which gets crazier and more intense as it goes along: buzzing trombones, screaming saxophones, bashing drums and impressionistic, almost rock-ish chording from Ra—until, finally, Sonny goes completely nuts on the electronic keyboards, driving the crowd into a spaced-out frenzy. Just when you can’t take it anymore, Ra eases the band into “We Travel The Spaceways” to end the set. Wowza!

This show is a decidedly mixed bag with iffy sound and inconsistent performances—yet the group improvisations are particularly strong and “The Shadow World” is just about as good as it gets. Accordingly, it’s definitely worth seeking out if you’re a hardcore fan—but I wouldn’t recommend it to a novice. We’ll take a listen to the second Châteauvallon show next time on Sun Ra Sunday. See you then!

January 21, 2012

Playlist Week of 1-21-12

Mastodon - Opeth Tour

* Hesperion XXI (Savall): Orient-Occident 1200-1700 (Alia Vox SACD)
* Hesperion XXI (Savall): La Folia 1490-1701 (Alia Vox SACD)
* Marais: Pieces a Deux Violes du Premier Livre, 1686 (Savall, et al.) (Alia Vox SACD)
* Marais: Pieces a Deux Violes du Second Livre, 1701 (Savall, et al.) (Alia Vox SACD)
* Berio: Sinfonia/Ekphrasis (Göteborgs Symphoniker/Eötvös) (Deutsche Grammophon CD)
* Feldman: For Frank O’Hara, etc. (New Millennium Ensemble) (KOCH CD)
* Lachenmann: String Quartets (Stadler Quartet) (NEOS SACD)
* John Coltrane: Ballads (Impulse!/MCA CD)
* John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (Impulse!/Verve SACD)
* Bobby Hutcherson: Total Eclipse (Blue Note CD)
* Sun Ra: Châteauvallon, France 8-24-76 (AUD 2CDR)
* Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny: Beyond The Missouri Sky (Verve CD)
* The Thirteenth Assembly: (un)sentimental (Important CD)
* The Thirteenth Assembly: Station Direct (Important CD)
* Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (Motown/Mobile Fidelity SACD)
* Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul/Aretha Now (Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* The Beatles: Beatles For Sale (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Help! (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1987/2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Revolver (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* Grateful Dead: Rheinhalle, Düsseldorf, West Germany 4/24/72 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 4HDCD_
* Grateful Dead: Wake Of The Flood (GDP/Mobile Fidelity LP)
* Grateful Dead: Formerly The Warlocks: Hampton, VA 1989 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 6HDCD)
* Alexander “Skip” Spence: Oar (Sundazed CD)
* Pink Floyd: Animals (Pinkfloyd/EMI CD)
* Fleetwood Mac: Bare Trees (Reprise/Pioneer—Japan LP)
* Fleetwood Mac: Mystery To Me (Reprise LP)
* Fleetwood Mac: Fleetwood Mac (Reprise LP)
* Roxy Music: Avalon (Virgin HDCD)
* King Crimson: Discipline (DGM HDCD)
* Tony Levin/David Torn/Alan White: Levin Torn White (Lazy Bones CD)†
* Adrian Belew: Desire Caught By The Tail (Island LP)
* The Police: Zenyatta Mondatta (A&M SACD)
* The Police: Ghost In The Machine (A&M SACD)
* Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts (Matador CD)†
* Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros. HDCD)
* Radiohead: In Rainbows (TBD CD)†
* Radiohead: The King Of Limbs (Ticker Tape/TBD CD)†
* Tortoise: TNT (Thrill Jockey HDCD)
* Isotope 217°: The Unstable Molecule (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Isotope 217°: utonian_automatic (Thrill Jockey HDCD)
* Isotope 217°: Who Stole The I-Walkman? (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Porcupine Tree: Recordings (KScope CD)
* Porcupine Tree: In Absentia (Lava/Atlantic CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: Deadwing (Lava/Atlantic CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: Fear Of A Blank Planet (Atlantic CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: Nil Recurring (KScope CDEP)†
* Porcupine Tree: The Incident (Roadrunner 2CD)†
* Steven Wilson: Grace For Drowning (KScope 2CD)†
* Opeth: Morningrise (Candlelight CD)†
* Opeth: My Arms, Your Hearse (Candlelight CD)†(‡)
* Opeth: Still Life (Peaceville/Icarus CD)†
* Opeth: Blackwater Park (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Opeth: Damnation (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Opeth: Ghost Reveries (Roadrunner HDCD)(†)
* Opeth: Watershed (Roadrunner CD)†
* Opeth: Heritage (Roadrunner CD/DVD)†
* Mastodon: Leviathan (Relapse CD)†
* Mastodon: Blood Mountain (Reprise CD)†
* Mastodon: Crack The Skye (Reprise 2-45RPM LP)
* Mastodon: The Hunter (Reprise 2-45RPM LP)
* The Black Keys: Attack & Release (Nonesuch CD/LP)(†/‡)
* The Black Keys: Brothers (Nonesuch CD/2LP)(†/‡)
* The Black Keys: El Camino (Nonesuch LP)


For the last week or so, rumors have been swirling about a Mastodon/Opeth tour of the U.S. in April and they were finally confirmed on Friday by Mastodon’s singer/bassist, Troy Sanders, in an interview with Belgian state radio, Studio Brussel. No official dates have been announced, but no matter what, I’m going to try to see one of these shows—in fact, I’ll travel a great distance to do so. It’s funny how I have recently gotten way into both of these bands (writing about them here and here) and now they’re going out on a co-headlining tour together. I almost feel…trendy—it’s like, now I have to go! Frankly, I haven’t felt this excited about rock music in a long time and both of these bands are superb (Mastodon's "Curl of the Burl" has been nominated for a Grammy, for whatever that is worth). As a bonus, the mysterious Swedish Satanists, Ghost, are supposed to open the shows. Oooh! Scary! This is gonna be truly awesome and I don’t want to miss it!

January 15, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday


with a glow like sunset and a
pillow-like dawn
strange worlds whirl in my mind
with the living people of the living
strange dreams in my dream world
a world
strange dreams
strange world

--Sun Ra

January 14, 2012

Playlist Week of 1-14-12

The Return of GBV

* Vivaldi: “Manchester” Sonatas (Romanesca) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Handel: Trio Sonatas Op.2 & Op.5 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue (Columbia/Legacy SACD)
* Bobby Hutcherson: Stick-Up! (Blue Note CD)
* Sun Ra: Cosmos (Cobra/Spalax CD)
* Sun Ra: Chateauvallon, France 8-25-76 (d.1)(AUD 3CDR)
* Bob Dylan: Infidels (Columbia SACD)
* Bob Dylan: Oh Mercy (Columbia SACD)
* Bob Dylan: “Love And Theft” (Columbia SACD)
* Grateful Dead: Wembley Empire Pool, London, England 4/7/72 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 3HDCD)
* Grateful Dead: Tivoli Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark 4/14/72 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 3HDCD)
* Grateful Dead: Tivoli Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark 4/17/72 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 3HDCD)
* Jerry Garcia Band: How Sweet It Is… (GDP/Arista HDCD)
* Carlos Santana & John McLaughlin: Love Devotion Surrender (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Joni Mitchell: Hejira (Asylum HDCD)
* Joni Mitchell: Painting With Words And Music (Insight/Eagle Rock DVD)
* Crosby Stills & Nash: Crosby Stills & Nash (Atlantic/Audio Fidelity CD)
* Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball (Elektra/Asylum HDCD)
* Pink Floyd: The Dark Side Of The Moon (Capitol SACD)
* Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (Experience Edition) (d.1) (Pinkfloyd/EMI CD)
* Genesis: Live (Charisma LP)
* Genesis: Selling England By The Pound (Charisma LP)
* Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (Atco/Classic 2LP)
* Phil Collins: Face Value (Atlantic/Audio Fidelity CD)
* Phil Collins: Hello, I Must Be Going! (Atlantic/Audio Fidelity CD)
* Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA DVD-A)
* U2: Achtung Baby (Deluxe Edition) (d.1) (Island/Universal 2CD)
* U2: Zooropa (Island CD)
* Wipers: Box Set (d.1)(Zeno 3CD)†
* Guided By Voices: Let’s Go Eat The Factory (GBV, Inc. LP/CD)
* Guided By Voices: “Doughnut For A Snowman” (side B) (Fire 7”)
* Guided By Voices: “Chocolate Boy” (side B) (GBV, Inc. 7”)
* Wilco: Kicking Television: Live In Chicago (Nonesuch 4LP)
* Opeth: Orchid (Candlelight CD)†
* Opeth: Morningrise (Candlelight CD)†
* Opeth: My Arms, Your Hearse (Candlelight CD)†
* Opeth: Still Life (Peaceville/Icarus CD)†
* Opeth: Blackwater Park (Music For Nations/Koch CD)†
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/Koch CD)†
* Opeth: Damnation (Music For Nations/Koch CD)†/‡
* Opeth: Ghost Reveries (Roadrunner CD)†(‡)
* Opeth: Watershed (Roadrunner CD)†(‡)
* Opeth: Live In Concert At The Royal Albert Hall (Roadrunner 2DVD/3CD)
* Opeth: Heritage (Roadrunner CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: In Absentia (Lava/Atlantic CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: Deadwing (Lava/Atlantic CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: Fear Of A Blank Planet (Atlantic CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: Nil Recurring (Transmission/KScope CDEP)(†)
* Porcupine Tree: The Incident (Roadrunner CD)†
* Steven Wilson: Grace For Drowning (KScope 2CD)†
* Ray LaMontagne: Till The Sun Turns Black (RCA/Legacy LP)
* Ray LaMontagne: Gossip In The Grain (RCA/Legacy 2LP)



When the so-called “classic lineup” of Guided By Voices reunited in 2010 for a one-off performance to celebrate Matador Records’ Twenty-First Anniversary, they apparently found it enjoyable enough to do a few more concerts—which then led to a full-blown, year-long tour. Six years after Robert Pollard retired the name and fourteen years since this particular grouping (with Tobin Sprout on guitar and vocals, Mitch Mitchell (no, not that Mitch Mitchell!) on lead guitar, Greg Demos on bass and Kevin Fennell on drums), it was a nothing less than the miraculous rebirth of a legendary band. With the accolades they were receiving for their live shows, it only made sense for the reunited band to make a record, possibly rekindling the magic that made those old GBV albums like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes so classic to begin with. To that end, the band returned to the homegrown lo-fi recording techniques and spontaneous, collagist songwriting approaches which defined those particular albums. Let’s Go Eat The Factory is the result and, while not quite the equal of those classic discs from the 1990s, it’s a surprisingly edgy, experimental-sounding record—a brave effort for what could have been an easy cash-in on their well-deserved victory lap.

In typical record-obsessed fashion, three seven-inch singles were released on three different labels in anticipation of the album’s January 1 release date, with the double-A sided “We Won’t Apologize For The Human Race”/ “The Unsinkable fats Domino” coming out on Matador; the UK label Fire Records getting “Doughnut For A Snowman” (with four B-sides); and, finally, Pollard's own GBV, Inc. putting out “Chocolate Boy” b/w Sprout’s lovely B-side, “As The Girls Sing Downing,” pressed on heavyweight chocolate colored vinyl that looks good enough to eat! All these songs are strange and fragmented (that’s a good thing) and, as usual, the picture sleeves feature Robert Pollard’s fantastical collages. But as cool as these singles are, the A-side songs seem to fit better within the context of the album proper—and Let’s Go Eat The Factory is a fine album that gets better with each listen.

The most striking thing is the return of Tobin Sprout, whose plaintive voice and quirky pop sensibilities always made for a welcome foil for Pollard’s cocksure, rock-god posturing. Some of the strongest songs on the album belong to Sprout, such as “Spider Fighter,” a chugging rocker that yields to a beautifully sad piano/vocal coda, or the arena rock spirituality of “God Loves Us”—and then there’s the pretty ballads, “Who Invented The Sun,” and “Old Bones.” Furthermore, Sprout also adds atmospheric samples and swooning keyboards to several tracks, giving these shambolic songs an orchestral sheen. Frankly, Sprout nearly steals the show. But Pollard sounds happy to be collaborating again with his old friends, playing guitar and singing with gusto, just like the old days. Even if there’s no obvious “hit” on the record, it sounds like they’re having fun just banging it out, being in a band. That makes Let’s Go Eat The Factory fun to listen to, twenty-two weird and wonderful songs in forty-two minutes—perfect on LP (which is housed in a gorgeous gatefold sleeve). “I challenge you to rock!” Pollard announces on “Either Nelson,” a Wire-ish punk number peppered with Sprout’s jazzy piano. We must enthusiastically accept his challenge! It’s never too late!

There was some uproar back in December when the GBV abruptly canceled their 2012 tour, leading to speculation that the band had broken up yet again. Rather, the band has recorded another album due out in the spring with yet another one in the works for the fall. Sounds like things are getting serious! Moreover, GBV performed “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” on The Late Show With David Letterman on January 3—a rare mass-media appearance and an opportunity to bring the band to a wider audience. Sadly, Demos took a nasty spill on stage—perhaps he was a bit too excited! Fortunately, he was uninjured and got up to complete the song like a true rock ’n’ roll hero. Predictably, Letterman had a field day with it. Check it out; it’s GBV who are truly unsinkable:

You can also download a FREE MP3 of “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” here. Good stuff!

January 8, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Cosmos (Cobra/Spalax CD)

While on their fourth tour of Europe in August 1976, the Arkestra (a portion of it, anyway) entered Studio Hautefeuille in Paris to record an album for the French Cobra label, which released later in the year as Cosmos (COB 37001). I originally wrote about this album way back in 2009, when I first started posting Sun Ra Sunday (and before I started the chronological assessment) and this is what I had to say:


According to Robert L. Campbell’s discography (1st ed.), this LP was also issued on Musicdistribution 60005 and Inner City IC 1020 shortly after the original Cobra release. It was first re-issued on compact disc by the French Buda label (82479) but the original CD apparently suffers from a boomingly bass-heavy mix. This 1999 issue on Spalax purports to correct that deficiency - but I’m not so sure; it sounds lopsided still, with prominent electric bass and distant drums. Regardless, this is one of my very favorite Sun Ra records.

The sonic imbalances no doubt have to something to do with the cramped quarters of the recording studio. According to French horn player (!), Vincent Chauncey, the Arkestra was reduced to a core group of twelve musicians for this session due to the limited space (Campbell (1st ed.) p.73). Oh, but what a group! Along with Chauncey, Ra’s faithful stalwarts, John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Danny Davis, Danny Thompson, Elo Omoe, and Jac Jackson fill out the reed section while Ahmed Abdullah plays sensitive, tasteful trumpet and the incredible Craig Harris virtuosically holds down the trombone chair. The rhythm section consists of R. Anthony Bunn on (nice, but overloud) electric bass, Larry Bright on (barely audible) drums, and, of course, Sun Ra himself on the electric Rocksichord. Caught in the midst of a European tour, the Arkestra sounds well-rehearsed, at the top of their game.

But as great as the band sounds on this date, it is Ra’s electric keyboard that makes this such a delightfully engaging record for me. Throughout the album, Ra’s Rocksichord has this weird, wire-thin, reedy sound quality, upon which he pours some molasses-thick phase-shifter that hisses away incessantly in the background. Now, in anyone else’s hands, this would be unbelievably cheesy, even amateurish. Yet Ra guilelessly tackles the wide variety material and, through his visionary technical abilities, miraculously balances the seemingly limited electronic keyboard textures with the expansive, acoustic Arkestra to create a decidedly strange, but appropriately otherworldly ambience. Ra’s ultra-spacey keyboard turns tracks like “Interstellar Low-Ways,”, “Moonship Journey,” and “Journey Among the Stars” into dreamy, nearly narcotic reveries. Even the more straightforwardly big-band-ish tracks like “The Mystery of Two,” “Neo Project #2,” and the aptly-titled “Jazz From an Unknown Planet” are transformed by Ra’s swooshing, buzzing Rocksichord. The brief title track stands out as a vehicle for another classic John Gilmore solo on tenor saxophone atop an intense Arkestra arrangement, but overall the mood is pretty and mellow and perfect for a Sunday evening.


Not really too much to add except to update the citation to the second edition of the discography (Campbell & Trent p.225). It is a curious feeling coming back to this record after three years (!) of listening to what came before. While it is like visiting an old friend, I now hear Cosmos as clearly a minor effort compared to many of the classic albums of this period. It’s an odd mixture of remakes of older material combined with newer, swing-oriented compositions that is less than totally satisfying, like a slightly off gig. But it remains a favorite record of mine, if only for Sonny’s blissfully phased-out Rocksichord sound. The “narcotic reveries” of “Interstellar Low Ways”, “Moonship Journey” and “Journey Among The Stars” are the standout tracks in that regard, and are essential listening, in my opinion. Cosmos is worth seeking out for those tracks alone; everything else is just a bonus.

January 7, 2012

Playlist Week of 1-07-11

Opeth - Heritage

* Gesualdo: Tenebrae (Hilliard Ensemble) (ECM 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Motets (Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki) (BIS SACD)
* Bobby Hutcherson: Waiting (Blue Note LP)
* Jackie McLean: Destination Out! (Blue Note LP)
* Grachan Moncur III: Some Other Stuff (Blue Note LP)
* Sun Ra: Cosmos (Cobra/Spalax CD)
* Sun Ra: Chateauvallon, France 8-24-76 (AUD 2CDR)
* Charlie Haden Quartet West: The Art Of The Song (Verve CD)
* Pat Metheny/Dave Holland/Roy Haynes: Berlin Jazzfest 11-02-90 (FM 2CDR)
* The Thirteenth Assembly: (un)sentimental (Important CD)
* The Thirteenth Assembly: Station Direct (Important CD)
* Johnny Mathis: Open Fire, Two Guitars (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Grateful Dead: Anthem Of The Sun (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Grateful Dead: Aoxomoxoa (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Grateful Dead: Aoxomoxoa (selections) (Warner Bros./Rhino CD)
* Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Van Morrison: Moondance (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Joni Mitchell: Wild Things Run Fast (Geffen LP)
* Tom Waits: Bad As Me (Anti- LP)
* Santana: Caravanserai (Columbia/Mobile Fidelity SACD)
* Pink Floyd: Meddle (Pinkfloyd/EMI CD)
* Pink Floyd: Obscured By Clouds (Pinkfloyd/EMI CD)
* King Crimson: Park West, Chicago, IL August 7, 2008 (DGM FLAC>2CDR)
* Genesis: Nursery Cryme (Charisma LP)
* Genesis: Foxtrot (Charisma LP)
* Guided By Voices: Let’s Go Eat The Factory (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Uncle Tupelo: Anodyne (Sire/Rhino LP)
* Porcupine Tree: In Absentia (Lava/Atlantic CD)(†)(‡)
* Porcupine Tree: Deadwing (Lava/Atlantic CD)†(‡)
* Porcupine Tree: Fear Of A Blank Planet (Atlantic CD)
* Porcupine Tree: The Incident (Roadrunner 2CD)(†)
* Steven Wilson: Grace For Drowning (KScope 2CD)(†)
* Opeth: Orchid (Candlelight CD)†
* Opeth: Morningrise (Candlelight CD)†
* Opeth: My Arms, Your Hearse (Candlelight CD)†
* Opeth: Still Life (Peaceville/Icarus CD)(†)
* Opeth: Blackwater Park (Music For Nations/Koch CD)(†)
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/Koch CD)†
* Opeth: Damnation (Music For Nations/Koch CD)
* Opeth: Ghost Reveries (Roadrunner CD)
* Opeth: Watershed (Roadrunner CD)
* Opeth: Heritage (Roadrunner CD+DVD/2LP)
* Opeth: Newport Music Hall, Columbus, OH 9-26-11 (AUD 2CDR)
* Mastodon: Crack The Skye (Reprise 2-45RPM LP)
* Mastodon: The Hunter (Reprise 2-45RPM LP)
* Baroness: The Red Album (Relapse CD)†



As you can see, my prog/metal obsession continues unabated. After reading my recent post about Mastodon, a friend suggested I check out the Swedish band, Opeth, whose new record, Heritage, has created controversy amongst fans for its abandonment of “death growl” vocals and a full-on adoption of a prog-rock sound, complete with antique Rhodes pianos and Mellotrons. Well, that sounded pretty good to me! I picked it up and enjoyed it quite a bit, but it was not nearly as heavy as I expected. Sounding more like ‘70s-era King Crimson than Megadeth, I could understand why fans of this (formerly?) extreme metal band would be disappointed. Intrigued, I decided to work my way backwards and listen to their previous record, 2008’s Watershed. With that, it started to make a bit more sense. Watershed is plenty heavy, believe me, but with plenty of proggy influences. And while I still find the guttural growling unintentionally hilarious, I am slowly starting to get used to it. In fact, I find Mikael Åkerfeldt’s voice is startlingly expressive, in its own peculiar way. The more I listen, the more I like it. By now, I have to admit: I’ve fallen in love with this band.

As you can see, I have listened to all ten of Opeth’s albums (or “observations” as Åkerfeldt calls them) in the past week (as well as an audience recording from their recent tour) and I am completely blown away by their breadth of vision and sheer musicality. For such a narrowly defined genre (at least in the popular imagination), Opeth makes putative “heavy metal” music that is all-encompassing: hard and soft, from gentle folk tunes to abrasive noise, from graceful fingerpicking to head-banging riffs, with wildly imaginative compositional structures and jazz-inflected rhythms—all within one (usually very long) song. This is seriously sophisticated music: eschewing the usual verse-chorus-bridge structure, Opeth creates epic constructions of contrasting passagework and intricately modulating meters, not so much “songs” as “suites” of a sort—an approach right out of the prog-rock playbook. Accordingly, it should come to no surprise to anyone familiar with the band’s history that they would one day make a record like Heritage. Heck, there were "clean" vocals, acoustic guitars and piano (!) on their very first album, 1995’s Orchid, where, remarkably enough, their ambitions barely outstrip their inchoate abilities. The truth is, Opeth has not made a bad record in its entire twenty-plus year career, an extraordinary achievement in this day and age. So, why had I never heard of them? Because they exist in the heavy metal ghetto, where most folks fear to tread.

Which brings us back to Heritage. Much has been made of the lack of growling on this record (and on the subsequent tour), leading to accusations of “sell-out” amongst death-metal purists. Like I said, I personally find the “Cookie Monster” vocals utterly ridiculous while conceding that Åkerfeldt has a surprisingly eloquent grunt—but, let’s face it, nobody can do that to their throat for twenty years without losing their voice altogether. Let’s give the guy a break! 2003’s Damnation, a record which also featured exclusively “clean” vocals is widely seen to be a masterpiece (and I agree)—so, why the hate? Frankly, I think it has to do with the keyboards. Heavy metal is predominately guitar music: an electric guitar wielded like a magic wand, like a pulsating phallus. Keyboards – especially synthesizers—are seen as signs of weakness, a sell-out. Almost by definition, synthesizers do not rock. While the presence of keyboards is almost subliminal on Damnation, they are exceedingly prominent on Heritage—heck, it sounds like Weather Report at times. That’s fine with me, but hardcore metal-heads are justifiably upset. Let’s just call it what it is: art rock. In an era of “American Idol” pop-glop homogeneity and fractured sub-underground scenes, I don’t see that as a particularly lucrative career move. But then again, any attempt to escape the heavy metal ghetto is seen as a “sell-out” to adherents. Well, whatever. I’m sold. So, what next?

Åkerfeldt has recorded an album under the moniker Storm Corrosion with Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, who has worked with Opeth on and off ever since 2001’s Blackwater Park (and whose sonic fingerprints are all over Heritage). The self-titled album is due out in April and it is supposed to be even proggier than Heritage—complete with strings and horns. Can’t wait! Opeth is currently on an extensive world tour and I sure wish I had known about them back in September when they played the Cannery Ballroom on the 28th. Oh well, maybe next time. Thanks to the Internet, I’ve been able to audition a decent-sounding audience tape from a couple nights before and—wow!—they are as impressive live as on record. Åkerfeldt is not only fine singer/songwriter and fluent guitarist; he’s a charming and surprisingly humorous front-man…a little like a modern day Zappa. Oh dear, I think I’m falling in love. Thankfully, my wife thinks Opeth is pretty great, too, so it’s all good. See for yourself with this tantalizing excerpt of “Nepenthe” from the new album, recorded live at Nyhestmorgon, TV4 Sweden on September 13, 2011:

January 1, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday (New Year Edition)


I have forgotten
the old ways
the old paths
I seek
I seek a new way
not like this new place of one dimensions
not like this place
this place of shame confused with glory
but a vaster realm
of profitable enlightened vision
a region of chromatic truths
abstracts of living design
full of warmth
and sundry planes of light from other
and sundry planes of light from other

--Sun Ra