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

1 comment:

  1. If it wasn't for Nice, you'd never have ELP. Period.