Monday, December 21, 2009

Voyage Of The Acolyte

Steve Hackett/1975

It’s commonly referred to as “an embarrassment of riches.” In the case of Genesis, it was an overabundance of talent. Not only were these guys great players, but also great songwriters/composers. Problem was, there's only so much space on an album. So somebody's material had to be sacrificed. This great wealth fueled the five albums leading up to their magnum opus in 1974, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, before the wheels abruptly came off. Lead singer Peter Gabriel quit immediately after The Lamb tour for an ultimately successful (but maddeningly slow) solo career. Genesis was now left to wander in the wilderness sans that one crucial element: a lead singer. Having lost their eccentric, much-talked-about vocalist and media focus (Gabriel was getting all the buzz, the guy on stage wearing bizarre costumes and scary masks, acting out the characters in the songs, etc.) some fans felt the band had lost its soul. If not its soul, then at least its bat-winged figurehead. So it was, during this tumultuous downtime when people were unsure if Genesis would even continue to exist, that guitarist Steve Hackett decided to take a break from the madness and record a solo album – using all the music floating around in his head that would probably not make it onto a Genesis album, especially with material from keyboardist Tony Banks and bassist Mike Rutherford crowding him out. Thus, Voyage of the Acolyte was released and – in the absence of a proper Genesis album – was looked upon as a legitimate Genesis album in its own right. And why not? Reinforcing this perception was the fact that both Rutherford and Genesis drummer/vocalist Phil Collins contributed mightily to Acolyte. Not surprisingly, the album sounded very much like a Genesis album…minus Gabriel, of course. The familiar lush mellotrons were present and accounted for, wafting across moody-scary-symphonic landscapes like “Hands of the Priestess” and “Shadow of the Hierophant,” both tracks resembling long-lost instrumental sections from some alternate-universe Genesis epic. Add to that Collins’ familiar voice on "Star of Sirius" (having sung harmonies and the occasional lead vocal on previous Genesis albums) plus his drum playing throughout the album, and things are sounding more and more like Genesis all the time. Add one final and recognizable Genesis ingredient – Hackett’s wailing, sighing, bobbing and weaving guitar lines – and who needs Genesis when you’ve got all this? What keeps Acolyte from actually becoming a Genesis album clone (aside from the fact that Banks didn’t participate) is a pervading atmosphere of longing, melancholy and menace. Whereas a Genesis album would lean a bit toward the ominously quaint and quirky, this one is more ominously solemn and spooky. When not sounding like the mournful music one might hear at a church memorial service for a lost friend, it pummels you with martial riffs like an aural army of darkness marching through your living room. Genesis, as it turned out, would survive just fine and reach even greater success (with Collins eventually taking on the front-man/lead vocalist role) than ever attained in the Gabriel/Hackett years. And Hackett, after thoroughly enjoying his first taste of a musical dictatorship (where he, most importantly, was the dictator) would stay with Genesis for only two more albums before embarking on his own full-time solo career, thus eliminating any limitations on his contributions to an album. In a sense, it was this “phantom” Genesis album that inspired another crucial loss for the real Genesis – and a fateful new voyage for Hackett.

Essential Tracks: “Ace of Wands” “Hands of the Priestess/A Tower Struck Down” “Shadow of the Hierophant”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Emerson, Lake & Palmer/1971

Here’s a great idea for a Prog concept: the zany adventures of a creature called Tarkus – a cuddly little guy who’s part armadillo/part Panzer tank. We follow the mayhem that ensues, as our thickly armored mechanized mammal frolics along, flashing his two huge canons while engaging in fierce battle with a host of dastardly, nasty creatures. It’s all illustrated in sci-fi comic book fashion inside the gatefold album cover. Yes, Virginia, there really was a time when people would write rock music and lyrics around such wild and wacky stories. To the uninitiated, it would all seem rather geeky and…well, Trekkie-like, if not for one important aspect: the music. Based around a military-industrial-complex-strength keyboard riff by maestro/Hammond organ abuser Keith Emerson, “Tarkus” (the sidelong song suite) opens with a churning, grindingly unmelodic and impossible-to-whistle main theme that perfectly reflects the once-upon-a-blitzkrieg fairytale. Deviously skittering and scampering up and down the musical scale in god-knows-what time signature, this ominous, recurring keyboard theme (pummeled along by drummer Carl Palmer) is punctuated throughout by interludes of Greg Lake’s lovely, choirboy vocals on sections like the King Crimson-ish “Stones of Years,” and in the dark, ominous anti-war vibe that hangs over “Battlefield.” But it is Emerson’s keyboard gymnastics on organ, piano and Moog synthesizer that dominate “Tarkus” and exhilarate like no other keyboard player of the era could – punching, slapping, whacking, jabbing, fondling, hell, even stabbing his Hammond with knives (as he did when ELP performed live). If their 1970 debut album made people sit up from their late-‘60s stupor and take notice – with it’s popular “Lucky Man” single and Emerson’s manhandling of the Moog – then Tarkus (the album) would further cement the band’s reputation as one of the emerging Prog Rock leaders of the pack. Unfortunately, the tough-act-to-follow masterpiece that took up an entire side of vinyl consigned much of the material on Side 2 squarely in the let-down category. Aside from “Bitches Crystal” and “A Time and a Place,” both of which sound like they could have been outtakes from the first album, the remaining material tends to lack the electrifying intensity and focus of the “Tarkus” suite. It would be several more albums before ELP would achieve what many consider to be their ultimate masterwork, Brain Salad Surgery. Despite critical accusations of over-the-top bombast and in-your-face artistic indulgence (what some would argue ultimately brought down the band in the late ‘70s), it was ELP and their strange pet – an armed-to-the-teeth armadillo on tank treads – that initially made the world safe for the newly hatched musical genre called Prog Rock.

Essential Tracks: “Tarkus” “Bitches Crystal” “A Time and a Place”

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In The Court Of The Crimson King

King Crimson/1969

First, I’d like to apologize to my neighbor Joanne. The little sister of one of my pals at the time, she made the mistake of innocently strolling into my house and gazing upon a certain album cover leaning against the couch. Letting out a blood-curdling scream, the youngster tearfully turned and ran like hell out the front door. Oh, the contorted, fearful, agonized grimace…no, not on Joanne’s face. I’m talking about the face on the album cover. If ever there was an album cover that perfectly reflected the menacing musical vision tucked therein, it was In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson. Catching the hippie-dippy, peace ‘n love crowd with their proverbial bell bottoms down, this debut album (subtitled “An Observation by King Crimson”) mysteriously appeared on the record racks with no warning in late ’69. It was almost as if the frightfully grimacing face on the cover was beckoning you, “Come…buy this album…if you dare.” While peaceniks and pinkos were still strumming and singing about social injustice, all the King’s men were busily creating this darkly disturbing, surrealistic fantasy world – resplendent with 21st Century schizoid men, solemn and spooky epitaphs and a warped royal court of dancing puppets, fire witches and funeral marches. If the Beatles proved that rock music could be art on Sgt. Peppers, King Crimson took the ball and ran with it, straight down into their own cozy little netherworld. This is an album of subtle shadings and mind-bending contrasts, set amidst distinctive jazz and classical overtones – perfectly balancing the extreme sonic violence and chaos of lead-off track “21st Century Schizoid Man” (which could be construed as an anti-war song, albeit one from hell) with the flute-fluttering, pastoral beauty of “I Talk to the Wind” – slyly casting its spell, drawing you into its enchanting yet unnerving depths. Contributing to the album’s atmospherics is the mighty mellotron, played expertly by Ian McDonald. A keyboard instrument that replicates the sound of violins, brass and choirs via pre-recorded tapes, the mellotron adds a ghostly, unhinged spookiness to the music – yes, it sounds like an orchestral string section, but one with an alien-like other-worldliness. During your next out-of-body experience, the mellotron will most likely be what you hear in the background. It’s used most effectively on the album’s two epic tracks, “Epitaph” and the album closer, “The Court of the Crimson King.” Based around a majestic mellotron riff, the music on this track slowly weaves through lyricist Peter Sinfield’s Brothers-Grimm-on-acid fantasy poetics:

“On soft grey mornings widows cry,
The wise men share a joke;
I run to grasp divining signs
To satisfy the hoax.
The yellow jester does not play
But gently pulls the strings
And smiles as the puppets dance
In the court of the crimson king.”

What does it all mean? That’s not the point. It’s not so much what the lyrics mean, but more the creepy, nightmarish vision they create. The track culminates in a false crescendo, fooling you into thinking this bad trip is over, followed by several moments of silence and the stark tapping of a cymbal, before the main mellotron riff re-emerges more massive and menacing than ever – finally ascending into a dizzying, dissonant “swooshing” sound, like what you might hear at the very point of waking up from a really bad dream. Or, in this case a beautiful nightmare. The dark, somewhat twisted vibe on this album is appropriate, as King Crimson seemed to be cursed from the start. Cover artist Barry Godber died of a heart attack shortly after the album was released. The band suffered its own coronary after its initial U.S. tour, with McDonald exiting (followed later by singer/bassist Greg Lake and drummer Michael Giles). This particular lineup of King Crimson, stillborn as it were, would take on legendary status while the band morphed and mutated with constantly changing personnel on subsequent albums – all under the watchful eye of lone original member, guitarist Robert Fripp (who continues to manage all things King Crimson to this very day). Though probably not the first Progressive Rock album, In the Court of the Crimson King was certainly the harbinger of things to come at the dawning of a new decade. Rock music would become more impressionistic, more artistic, more risk-taking…to its own detriment, some would argue (those who preferred their music to be exclusively of the sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll variety). But even now, 40 years later, this iconic album continues to transcend time and haunt all who have (or will) come in contact with it – still exerting a strangely disturbing, yet irresistible spell.

Essential Tracks: “21st Century Schizoid Man” “I Talk to the Wind” “Epitaph” “In the Court of the Crimson King”

Monday, December 7, 2009


Alan Parsons Project/1978

How many Pet Rocks does it take to build a pyramid? Such were the heavy philosophical questions being contemplated by those with expanded consciousness back in the 1970s – a time when pyramids, Pet Rocks, Rubik's Cubes and healing crystals were all the rage. While Steve Martin sang about King Tut, the Alan Parsons Project delved into the intrigue and mystery of ancient Egypt on their third concept album, Pyramid. Basically more of a partnership than a project, APP was built around the songwriting/production duo of Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson. The twosome would enlist an ever-changing lineup of guest vocalists and musicians to execute their progressive-leaning musical visions. Parsons was no stranger to success, having cut his teeth as an engineer on several albums you may be vaguely familiar with – Abbey Road and The Dark Side of the Moon – graduating to full-blown producer on a few others. Scotsman Woolfson on the other hand, introduced the world to that iconic generational anthem, “Kung Fu Fighting,” by Carl Douglas. However, it would soon become clear that Woolfson was no slouch in the songwriting/arranging/orchestrating department. After securing a huge hit with previous album I Robot, APP set their musical sights on I Mummy. Not really progressive in the grand style of, say, a Genesis or a Yes album, tracks on an APP album tended to be shorter, with ample pop hooks surrounded by smart, sophisticated arrangements and orchestrations. Pyramid is, not surprisingly, heavily influenced by the Beatles ­– it’s not hard to imagine Paul McCartney singing lead vocals on melodic tracks like "What Goes Up" or the gorgeous closing ballad "Shadow of a Lonely Man." John Lennon's more acerbic vocal take would fit quite nicely (and ironically) on "Can't Take It With You." Unfortunately, at that particular time Paul was flying high with Wings and John was preoccupied with baking bread. So, APP drafted a different cast of supporting characters, including Colin Blunestone (whose sweet voice you’ll recall singing “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” by the Zombies in the previous decade). His soft, spooky vocal performance on "The Eagle Will Rise Again," is one of the highlights of the album. Sprinkled throughout this elegantly produced prog/pop landscape are several keyboard-based instrumentals to help round out the “progressive” side of things (the MO of most APP albums). Not quite the commercial (or some might argue artistic) success of I Robot or subsequent hit-laden albums like Eye in the Sky and Turn of a Friendly Card, Pyramid lacked the heavy radio airplay of those albums and might well be considered the “lost” APP album. But for inquiring minds seeking to excavate ancient ‘70s musical artifacts, this particular Pyramid is well worth exploring. (Ed. Note: Review dedicated to the memory of Eric Woolfson, 1945-2009.)

Essential Tracks: “What Goes Up” “The Eagle Will Rise Again” “Can’t Take It With You” “Shadow of a Lonely Man”

Tuesday, December 1, 2009



War. What is it good for? Absolutely nuthin’ (say it again). Or, in the case of Yes and Relayer, a good topic for their special brand of conceptual epic. Not to mention a relevant topic in 1974 (as the Vietnam war still raged, albeit with a dwindling U.S. presence) compared to, say, the ancient Indian spiritual scriptures Yes explored on their previous album, Tales from Topographic Oceans. On that particular outing, the boys suffered an all-out assault from critics who accused Yes of over-indulgent musical dithering. So, with new keyboardist Patrick Moraz recruited for his pyrotechnic, music-as-sound-effect technique, Yes threw subtlety right out the window and ratcheted up the intensity level. Think of it as Yes on steroids. Take the epic side-long track, “The Gates of Delirium.” It’s basically the soundtrack to the World War of your choice. Bombs exploding. Bullets flying. People dying. Fun stuff. Kicking off with a flittering, skittering instrumental section similar to the opening sequence of earlier Yes epic “Close to the Edge,” we’re soon inspired by lead vocalist Jon Anderson’s clarion call to service:

“Stand and fight, we do consider
Reminded of an inner pact between us
That’s seen as we go
And ride there
In motion
To fields in debts of honor defending”

With forces sufficiently marshalled by Anderson, Yes leads us into the horrors of battle – a nightmarish musical landscape of squealing, squawking, screaming, searing guitars and synthesizers feverishly strafing the eardrums. It amounts to a blitzkrieg of atonal sonic fury, all to drive home the point that war is a nasty business indeed. This section is not an easy listen, but it definitely gets your attention. When the fighting finally stops, the smoke gradually clears and peace prevails, the music slowly segues into a soft symphonic minor-key finale, as Anderson’s angel-from-on-high voice reappears amidst the carnage:

“Soon oh soon the light
Pass within and soothe this endless night
And wait here for you
Our reason to be here”

This sweet, sad, mellotron-drenched section ends on a lone ascending note, suggesting mankind must reach high for the light (which always seems just beyond reach). Things don’t exactly let up with the following track, “Sound Chaser.” If the critics didn’t like the slow, methodical tide of Topographic Oceans, then Yes would take a more in-your-face approach here – a chaotic explosion of keyboards, pumped up with intensive, speed-of-light riffing by guitarist Steve Howe and bassist Chris Squire, dripping with King Crimson-meets-Mahavishnu Orchestra influences. This jazzy/fusionistic workout (punctuated by Howe’s mad electric flamenco guitar interlude) is unlike anything Yes had done previously – or would ever do again. Relayer concludes with the kinder, gentler “To Be Over,” slowly fading in like gently cascading waves as Howe’s simple guitar lines evolve into layers of lush keyboards and choir-like vocals. It’s almost as if Yes is saying “Sorry we blew your brains out with those other two tracks, please allow us put your head back together with this tune…” It’s actually one of the more gorgeous and melodic pieces in the Yes canon. Housed in yet another fantasy art cover by Roger Dean, Relayer has assumed legendary status over the decades – considered by some as the final masterpiece of the classic ‘70s-era Yes. And, sadly, Relayer is still very relevant in 2009. After all, we’re still hearing a lot about war these days, aren’t we.

Essential Tracks: Best to hear Relayer as a complete musical statement.