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