Monday, June 14, 2010


King Crimson/1970

It’s usually referred to as a “career killer.” You know, that album. The one an artist would release – the wacky, incomprehensible and (most importantly) unlistenable album. Leaving even the most hardcore fans scratching their heads in utter confusion, while fair-weather fans simply said “Heard enough” and moved on, never to return. Which brings us to Lizard, the third album by King Crimson. But first, some background. King Crimson burst onto the scene in 1969 with a debut album considered the iconic template for progressive rock at the time. With doom-and-gloom sci-fi/fantasy lyrics about 21st Century Schizoid Men, sung amidst a darkly orchestral, spooky atmosphere thanks to an instrument called the Mellotron, In the Court of the Crimson King became an instant classic. Sadly, the original lineup suffered a meltdown after the first U.S. tour and by 1970 guitarist Robert Fripp was pretty much on his own. However, this also provided the opportunity to mold King Crimson into his own vision. Now, he could hand-pick the personnel and lead them into uncharted musical territory, deep into a murky concoction of rock, classical and most predominantly on Lizard, jazz. Thus, Fripp assembled a horny jazz section (or would that be a jazzy horn section?); probably the first oboe player ever to get credited on a rock album; a mad avante-jazz piano pounder named Keith Tippett; and a core lineup consisting of Gordon Haskell (bass, lead vocals, laughing) and Andy McCulloch (drums). The lead-off track “Cirkus” sets the stage for Lizard’s oddly detached strangeness, a musical journey through a circus from hell – based around an ominous Mellotron riff, sung with Haskell’s deep, ghoulish voice and featuring some of lyricist Peter Sinfield’s most mind-pummeling lyrics:

“Night: her sable dome scattered with diamonds,
Fused my dust from a light year,
Squeezed me to her breast, sowed me with carbon,
Strung my warp across time.”

Try singin’ that one to yourself whilst strolling in the sunshine. Things continue with “Indoor Games” and “Happy Family,” two quirky, meandering, and strangely entertaining tracks, and the serene and pretty “Lady of the Dancing Water,” until we get to the epic, sidelong “Lizard” song suite. The first section, “Prince Rupert Awakes” is sung by guest vocalist Jon Anderson (Yes) and his angelic, choirboy voice belies the usual perversity of Sinfield’s warped lyrics:

“Wake your reasons’ hollow vote
Wear your blizzard season coat
Burn a bridge and burn a boat
Stake a Lizard by the throat.”

Hmmmmm. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Lizards might have a problem with that. What follows is a long, jazzy bolero section where the horn players get to “do their thing” and blow their brains out (bookended by Robin Miller’s pretty oboe melody) which segues into “The Battle of Glass Tears.” Here, all heck breaks loose and the album succumbs to a cacophony of musical warfare and dissonant chaos (not unlike “The Devil’s Triangle,” the epic from their previous album In the Wake of Poseidon) where mighty Mellotrons moan, horns blare and bleat in a free-form jazz orgy, while the listener…just wants it all to mercifully end. Which it does, eventually. The battle is over, the smoke has cleared, leaving us with Fripp’s solitary, eerily sustained guitar lines played over a somber drum beat…almost as if his guitar is the vulture, slowly circling the dead on the battlefield. Not a pretty thought, but then Lizard is not a pretty album (though it does have its moments of dark beauty). And things got even uglier after it was recorded. Haskell refused to go on tour because he hated the lyrics. Both he and McCulloch bolted, and Fripp was once again a King without a Crimson. He would regroup (excuse the pun) and form yet another lineup for the next album, Islands, hopefully undoing the damage to his kingdom inflicted by the evil Lizard.

Essential tracks: “Cirkus” “Indoor Games” “Prince Rupert Awakes” “Bolero – The Peacock’s Tale” “The Battle of Glass Tears”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Time And A Word


There was a time, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s specifically, when rock bands routinely hooked up with orchestras. Think of it as a rather high-brow jam session. The bands (made up of many classically trained, artsy-fartsy British musicians) figured it was a good way to pump up their artistic street cred. Thus, bands like The Moody Blues, Deep Purple, The Nice and others pursued this risky musical experimentation at least for one album. And not always with a great deal of success. Another such band was Yes. After their somewhat tentative yet brimming-with-potential debut album, the self-titled Yes, it was time to ratchet things up in the “serious” and “deep” departments. In other words, time to call the guys in tuxedos. Now, in the case of previously mentioned Deep Purple and their Concerto for Group and Orchestra album, rock band and orchestra simply fought each other like two extremely loud pugilists duking it out in the ring. With Time and a Word, the orchestra tends to just get in the way. And, as with things that get in the way, there’s a possibility you’ll stumble over them. The album gets off to a promising start with opening track “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed,” as frantic strings and bombastic horns immediately propel the music forward. But once we get to the Big Valley-ish western theme music in the middle section, the orchestra becomes more of a drag (as in a drag on the forward motion of the track). This sense of drag is indicative of the entire album. Although the band/orchestra combination is slightly more seamless in subsequent epics like “Then,” “Everydays” or “The Prophet,” you’re still left with the feeling that if the band could just get that orchestra off its back, things would really heat up. And, as evidenced by bonus tracks minus the orchestra on the recently remastered CD, that feeling is probably accurate. There’s a noticeable energy and vibrancy to the tracks sans orchestra and one can only wonder what the entire album would have sounded like. Oh, well. It was a valiant experiment in its day. However, regardless of the orchestra issue, Yes had come a long way from their debut in terms of songwriting and performing. The classic Yes template was starting to seriously gel, with ingeniously arranged multi-section tracks, recurring musical themes, indecipherable lyrics and those choirboy vocals/harmonies of Jon Anderson. Chris Squire’s dominating Rickenbacker bass is right were it belongs – up front and in your face – while guitarist Peter Banks (this would be his final appearance on a Yes album) plays some of his most explosive fret work. Evidently it was his dismay over the orchestra drowning out his guitar in the album’s final mix that caused Banks to ultimately leave the band. Organist Tony Kaye and drummer Bill Bruford would also be gone within a year or so. But Yes rebounded nicely from the misstep that many believe Time and a Word to be. By late ’71, they would release their masterpiece Fragile, the album that catapulted them to the upper echelons of rock star fame and fortune. By then, Yes would no longer need the heavy-handed orchestration that hampered Time and a Word. New keyboard man Rick Wakeman – with his Mellotrons and synthesizers – would be able to handle the orchestration just fine by himself.

Recommended tracks: “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” “Then” “Sweet Dreams” “The Prophet” “Astral Traveler”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Love Beach

Emerson, Lake & Palmer/1979

Let’s cut right to the chase: the album cover. Here we have Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer. Three progressive rock gods. The first progressive rock super group. They stand amidst the tropical fauna, the sun romantically setting on the horizon. Dressed in shirts right out of the Saturday Night Fever wardrobe department, unbuttoned in front to show their manly, woolly chests. It’s as if the photographer said “Dudes, before you head out to the disco to pick up some chicks, let’s get a cover shot for the next album.” This one definitely belongs right up there in the What the Hell Were They Thinking Hall of Fame. Might as well nominate the album title, too, while we're at it. Love Beach? Really? Love Beach?? Let’s move on to the music. The first half of the album contains a selection of mostly short, radio-friendly (at least in their minds) tracks with such awe-inspiring song titles as “All I Want Is You,” “Taste of My Love” and “The Gambler.” Heard enough? These insipid little ditties – from the band that brought you prog masterpieces like “Take a Pebble,” “Tarkus” and “The Endless Enigma” – well, this stuff is just embarrassing and not really worth discussing. The second half of Love Beach at least makes a somewhat valiant attempt at respectability. A four-part song suite entitled “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman” tells the story of a young English lad enlisting in the army to fight for crown and country. Granted, the concept is a bit over the top in its stuffy air of Victorian gallantry, but there are echoes of ELP greatness past: the melodic bombast of “Prologue: The Education of a Gentleman,” the classic Emerson grand piano flourishes in “Love at First Sight,” and the punchy synth riffs punctuating “Letters from the Front.” The final section, “Honourable Company (A March)” recalls previous ELP instrumentals “Aquatarkus” or “Abaddon’s Bolero” with Emerson building the arrangement around a catchy, repetitive main synth melody. One can almost visualize our honorable soldiers marching off into the sunset to this track…when, in reality, it was ELP marching into musical infamy. Love Beach received deservedly scathing reviews all around, got zero radio airplay (not surprisingly) and further fueled the argument of late-‘70s punks and new wavers that prog was a dead dinosaur. Also not surprising was the fact (to come out later) that Love Beach was merely a contractual obligation to Atlantic Records. ELP owed the label one more album, even though they were planning to call it quits. Which explains the “Let’s just go into the studio and get it over with so we can put an end to this fiasco” vibe of the entire project. Once the album was completed, the three band members then went their separate ways, slinking off into the island wilderness and signaling an end to a classic era…while leaving us with a musical document (and hilarious album cover) that would haunt them forever.

Essential tracks: “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Salty Dog

Procol Harum/1969

Admit it. You could probably live without ever hearing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” again. It’s not like you haven’t already heard it a zillion times, played to death on “Oldies” radio stations. Which is really a shame, because it truly is a great song. Secondly, it painted an awesome band – Procol Harum – into the dreaded “one-hit wonder” category. And that is totally inaccurate. They released ten strong albums between 1967 and 1977. With their second album, Shine On Brightly (see my previous review) Procol avoided the “sophomore jinx” altogether with a masterpiece that was leaps and bounds ahead of their debut in terms of songwriting, arranging and production. A tough act to follow, indeed, but A Salty Dog was surely up to the task. You knew you were living through a progressive era when, after dropping needle to vinyl on a rock album, the first thing you heard was an orchestral string section gently playing somber, mournful staccato notes, as pianist/vocalist Gary Brooker sings:

“All hands on deck
We’ve run afloat
I heard the captain cry
Explore the ship; replace the cook
Let no one leave alive”

A clarion call to the crew or to the listener? Either way, this nautically themed title track (a theme that carries through the entire album as well as the cover) with its lush orchestration was about as far from standard rock ‘n roll as you could get. Nothing new, really, for Procol – a band that mixed heavy blues with heavy Bach about as easily as most bands mixed their rock with roll. Not that this band couldn’t rock. How could they not, with Robin Trower on guitar? His nasty licks go full tilt in heavier tracks like “The Devil Came From Kansas” or the bluesy grunge of “Juicy John Pink.” But in more esoteric numbers like the epic, orchestrated “Wreck of the Hesperus” his guitar is used in a much more decisive way, as if just another instrument in the orchestra (he would tire of this approach and ultimately leave the band for a successful solo career where he could play without such constraints.) The sad, mournful vibe that permeates the album is perfectly reflected in organist Mathew Fisher’s almost hymn-like “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the album’s closing track. Its stately organ chords create a thick, soft cushion for Fisher’s haunting vocals:

“I sat me down to write a simple story
Which maybe in the end became a song
The words have all been writ by one before me
We're taking turns in trying to pass them on
Oh, we're taking turns in trying to pass them on”

With A Salty Dog, Procol had indeed passed their “simple story” on with a timeless, unforgettable album…one that many would argue would be their finest hour. Unfortunately, Fisher left the band after the tour for this album – taking with him a part of Procol’s soul that would be difficult (if not impossible) to replace.

Essential tracks: “A Salty Dog” “The Devil Came From Kansas” “Wreck of the Hesperus” “Pilgrim’s Promise”

Thursday, March 11, 2010



Yes indeed, by late-1971 the world was certainly ready for these guys. The smoke had begun to clear from the cultural explosion of the 1960s and it was now time to move full speed ahead into the shiny new decade. And Yes was just the band to lead the charge. Having gradually evolved their sound with the first two Yes albums, they ultimately established the classic Yes template on their third album, The Yes Album. The formula went something like this: Extended, multi-section songs with mind-jarring twists and turns; played with the dexterous expertise of musicians like nimble-fingered guitarist Steve Howe, fingers flying all over the place; firmly anchored by Chris Squire’s Rickenbacker bass thump, offset by drummer Bill Bruford’s busy tapping; all cushioned by Tony Kaye’s thick Hammond organ and the ever-chirping high-pitched vocals of Jon Anderson. Yet, something still wasn’t quite right. The expansive new music being prepared for Fragile demanded a broader multi-colored sound palette, one that organist Kaye just wasn’t providing. So, out with Kaye and in with keyboard maestro Rick Wakeman, complete with organ, piano, synthesizer and mellotron among other sundry ivories to tickle. Now, for those who can’t quite stomach hearing lead-off track “Roundabout” played yet again on classic rock radio, put it into proper perspective. At the time, “Roundabout” was totally unique, a breath of fresh air featuring all that was good about Yes. The strong melody gallops along on the back of Squire’s rollicking bass riff, with Howe’s guitar piercing in and out while rookie member Wakeman let’s loose with a couple scorching organ solos – all decorated with those choir-boy vocals and harmonies. Played to death on FM radio? Sadly, yes. But still an amazing, timeless track when heard in the right frame of mind. Sprinkled throughout Fragile are little solo snippets featuring individual members doing their own thing. But it is the two other Yes epics that ensure this album's iconic status. “South Side of the Sky” is probably as heavy as Yes ever got, with its churning verses and soaring choruses interrupted by Wakeman’s stately grand piano interlude and those ethereal Yes harmonies, before chugging back into the ominous, ice-cold main riff. Then there is “Heart of the Sunrise,” the first true Yes epic, setting the stage for many epics to come. The massive King Crimson-ish opening guitar/bass line grabs your attention much like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat might. This shock gives way to the first of appearance of Wakeman’s ghostly and gorgeous mellotron on a Yes album, as the spooky string-section-from-another-planet floats and drifts for a brief yet beautiful pause in the intensity – before the crazy riff kicks back in and delivers your ears to Anderson’s angelic, gentle first verse:

“Love comes to you
And you follow
Lose one
On to the heart of the sunrise
Sharp, distance
How can the wind
With its arms all around me”

Not sure what it all means (a common reaction to Jon Anderson’s lyrics) but it sounds nice. The arrangement meanders from verses to chorus, before segueing through Wakeman’s quirky synthesizer and piano sections and the recurring head-banger of an opening riff, before a grand climax in which Anderson is literally singing his heart out. If the word “masterpiece” could be applied to anything in the entire Yes cannon, it should be tagged onto this near-perfect 11-minute slice of prog sweetness. And a fitting finale it is. Fragile was a huge artistic, commercial and critical success, an album at the right time (1971, though released here in early ’72) and in the right place (the USA, with an audience enthusiastically willing to jump on the prog bandwagon). According to some sources, Fragile spent an astonishing 46 weeks on the Billboard album charts, peaking at #4. The first Yes album to feature the fantasy artwork of Roger Dean (he would create the next five Yes album covers), Fragile got everything right and propelled the band into the upper stratosphere of early-‘70s rock stardom and stadium-sized gigs. But, much like the planet exploding into pieces on the back of the album cover, Yes would soon face a splintering of its own personnel – not to mention a rapidly changing musical landscape, with attitudes soon to become highly critical of anything remotely connected with Progressive Rock.

Essential Tracks: “Roundabout” “South Side of the Sky” “Long Distance Runaround” “Heart of the Sunrise”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ars Longa Vita Brevis

The Nice/1968

In 1968, livin’ in the USA was getting a little crazy. Protests against the Vietnam War were raging. Rock music was evolving into a heavy, political mouthpiece of the counter culture. The original Pepsi generation was thumbing its nose at the straight-laced “establishment” of their parents. Long-haired musicians were smoking pot and getting high. It was a little different over in England. There, the musicians were getting high brow. Since there was no war to protest, things were a bit more mellow and sedate. While their American counterparts cranked up the amps to 11 for maximum distortion levels, the Brits were playing concertos and pleasantly mingling with orchestras. This musical dichotomy was perfectly symbolized by The Nice and their second album Ars Longa Vita Brevis. For starters, you could assume an album with an artsy fartsy title like that wouldn’t be one you’d hear at the next antiwar rally. The British philosophy was that rock music had now come of age, all grown up and perfectly capable of reinterpreting and reinvigorating the classics. And if any band was up to the task, it was The Nice. Based around the classical/jazz keyboard work of a young and extremely talented Keith Emerson, the album kicks off with the scorching instrumental tour de force “America” from West Side Story. Here, they ignite Leonard Bernstein’s score with Emerson’s purcussive Hammond organ playing the main theme, wrapped around guitarist Davy O’List’s propulsive power chords (O’List would depart the band after recording this one track.) To bolster their classical street cred, Emerson drops in snatches of Debussy’s "New World Symphony" for good measure. Evidently Bernstein himself was not amused by these young British upstarts messing with his tune. He was also annoyed after learning Emerson had set fire to an American flag during a recent performance of the piece. Legend has it that the boys ran into Bernstein at a New York recording studio, where one of the smart-alecky band members yelled out “Hey, Lenny, how’s it hangin’?” which probably did nothing to further endear them to Maestro Bernstein. Following this kick-Ars album opener, subsequent tracks like “Daddy, Where Did I Come From?” and “Happy Freuds” settle into a quirky, whimsical British psychedelia more reminiscent of the band’s debut album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, and definitely way out of step with the ’68 Zeitgeist of the USA. Things settle down and get more serious with a rather staid, low-key interpretation of Sibelius’ “Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite” based around Emerson’s lone keyboard, but lacking the fire and intensity of “America” (a killer live rendition of “Karelia” can be heard on the later album Five Bridges.) Which brings us to the main course of this album, the title track/concerto. Broken up into several sections with intimidating titles like “Prelude/First Movement – Awakening,” “Second Movement – Realisation” and “Coda – Extension to the Big Note” – and now complete with an actual orchestra – the extended piece doesn’t quite live up to the challenge. One major problem is the lack of a memorable main melody that weaves it all together, a recurring theme to guide the listener through these meandering movements of keyboard noodlings, orchestral climaxes and drum solos. Things perk up a bit with “Third Movement – Acceptance/Brandenburger,” where they borrow from Bach and bounce the jaunty melody off the orchestra. It’s one of the few moments where the rock band/orchestra partnership actually works well. But overall, this concerto inspires mostly droopy-eyed yawning. Though pointing the way to the progressive rock era yet to come, Ars Longa Vita Brevis was too over the top for restless American audiences of 1968. They wanted revolution, and not necessarily the musical kind. Not surprisingly, the album (with its distinctive neon-color X-ray album cover) sunk like a stone. The Nice would record several more albums, but it wouldn’t be until Emerson left the band and teamed up with Greg Lake and Carl Palmer that progressive rock (and Emerson’s career) would truly explode. On the original album sleeve, Emerson summed up the album and its title: “Tomorrow is yesterday's history and art will still be there, even if life terminates.” Ars Longa Vita Brevis is still here, but whether or not it’s truly art will long be debated.

Essential Tracks: “America” “Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite” “Third Movement – Brandenburger

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thick As A Brick

Jethro Tull/1972

When is a concept album not really a concept album? Well, you’d think if the artist who created it says it’s not a concept album, then that should pretty much resolve the issue. Yet, to this very day, there are critics and fans alike who still maintain the 1971 Jethro Tull album Aqualung is a concept album. Even after head maestro Ian Anderson set the record straight, referring to it as simply “a collection of songs.” So it was, when embarking upon the follow-up album, that a mischievous gleam appeared in they eye of merry prankster Anderson. “It’s a concept album you want? I GOT YOUR CONCEPT ALBUM!” Thus, Jethro Tull hunkered down in the studio, stitching together a few song fragments here, some chord progressions there, another motif or two in the middle for good measure, etc. The grand result? Thick as a Brick, consisting of two album-side epics with the minimalistic titles “Part I” and “Part II.” The concept and lyrics, deliberately vague with tongue firmly planted in cheek, revolved around the absurd adventures of fictitious little tyke “Gerald Bostock” and were strongly inspired by the then-exploding popularity of TV British comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In other words, it was all in good fun. If the concept itself was unfathomable and over the top, the music was unlike anything heard on a previous Tull album. For starters, the familiar bluesy, guitar-dominated riffs of Martin Barre were now replaced by the churning Hammond organ of John Evan. Now, Barre’s searing guitar lines would be used to simply orchestrate and punctuate the ever-twiddling keyboard parts. Things start out innocently enough with a quaint acoustic guitar and flute passage, creating a pleasant folky English vibe – although Anderson’s opening lyrics immediately throw down the gauntlet:

“Really don't mind if you sit this one out.
My words but a whisper -- your deafness a SHOUT.
I may make you feel but I can't make you think.
Your sperm's in the gutter -- your love's in the sink.”

Okay. This could get interesting. The folky atmosphere soon gives way to a typically heavy Tull guitar line, which is quickly jettisoned in favor of the now dominate, ever-present organ (sometimes doubled with piano). Musical passages segue and morph from one stately organ march to another – all topped off with Andersons jaunty, mad Pied Piper flute lines expertly laid over the top. If anything, this stuff sounded more like the prog chamber-rock workouts of early Genesis than it did a proper Jethro Tull album – complete with difficult time signatures and the melody shuffling of a typical prog piece. “Part II” tends to stumble out of the gate a bit, with a succession of herky-jerky, stop-and-start passages that don’t quite to catch on or establish any solid footing. These inconsistent meanderings are followed by an uncharacteristically (for this album) somber, minor-key dirge that tends to overstay its welcome. But fear not, for keyboard man Evan soon kick-starts it back up with the return of his growling Hammond, now churning and galloping its way to this epic album’s climactic conclusion – with many of the previous motifs from “Part I” briefly and frantically reappearing, before all this madness finally settles back down to the acoustic guitar picking that began the album, as Anderson sings:

“So you ride yourselves over the fields and
you make all your animal deals and
your wise men don't know how it feels to be thick as a brick.”

How does it feel to be thick as a brick? Don’t even try to decipher these lyrics or apply any logic. It’s best to just go along with the joke – which was reinforced with an insanely creative album cover that unfolded into “Gerald Bostock’s” imaginary hometown newspaper, complete with fully written articles, photos, puzzles, horoscopes, etc. Legend has it that it took the group longer to create the newspaper than it did the music. Thick as a Brick was a huge hit in its day, even as it alienated part of the band’s fan base that preferred the less cluttered, blues-rock/guitar-oriented music of earlier outings. It’s considered a Progressive Rock masterpiece, even as it skewers (albeit good-naturedly) the prog concept albums of the era. Jethro Tull/Ian Anderson would soon unleash yet another “concept album” in 1973 with the follow-up, A Passion Play. Unfortunately, nobody got the joke that time around. (For a lively discussion on the pros and cons of the much loved/much despised concept album, see my previous post.)

Essential tracks: This album should be heard in its entirety.