Dream On, Edgar Froese

Tangerine Dream
Tangerine Dream

Edgar Froese, the influential pioneer behind the group Tangerine Dream passed away January 20 at age 70. I had the rare opportunity to see him and the band perform at the Yes sponsored Cruise to the Edge show in April 2014, and while saddened at his passing am happy to report on his lifetime of achievement on full display last year.

Linda Spa
Linda Spa

Somehow during these last forty years collecting all manner of progressive rock, I’ve not ended up owning many Tangerine Dream albums, even though they recorded over 100 studio and live records, along with more than 60 film scores. However, I’ve been aware of them and their influence on any number of other bands, and on entire musical movements including krautrock, ambient (often dark, as with Zeit) and electronic (dance, trance). Much of their work is improvisational around minimalist arrangements, often not bound to traditional song structure. Some has much in common with contemporary classical music, and all driven by electronic keyboards and percussion. Almost all of it is instrumental, though some 12-19th century poetry and a few vocal tracks found their way into the work.

Ulrich Schnauss
Ulrich Schnauss

When I think of Tangerine Dream, what stands out is their pioneering use of tape loops and analog sequencers – forming the basis for long compositions that allow for improvisation on guitar, keys, winds and other instruments atop the repeated phrases. Their music had the power to capture complex emotions, deftly used for instance in the cult classic film Sorcerer.

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The Man and his Hat!

What we witnessed in concert last year was a band still at the peak of their powers delivering a set of sequencer laden electronic music that held tight the audience’s attention. The stage overflowed with spectacular waves of sequenced and synthesized sound, punctuated by inclusion of winding electronic guitar and violin leads, winds, and percussion. Colorful lighting including the use of lasers, which they had deployed in groundbreaking ways in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, were still on display making the whole experience at times serene, at others exciting, and throughout very dreamy and surreal. Edgar said a few words, but let the music do the talking.

Edgar leaves behind a huge body of work, having been massively influential in the world of music. I hear his voice in so many bands, from Daft Punk to Radiohead – from Paul van Dyk to Porcupine Tree and Steve Wilson. He will be missed, but will live on via this vast catalog and it’s admirers.

Genesis: Seconds Out, First In

Genesis_SOutGenesis released the double live album Seconds Out, their last consecutive album to feature guitarist Steve Hackett, in 1977. Steve left the band near the end of mixing sessions for this album, and ended what for many is the most important period of their history. Amazingly, in those two short years, with Phil Collins doing dual duty on both drums and vocals and Steve bringing in his best work to date, Genesis recorded some of the greatest progressive / classical rock albums of the 1970’s – namely Trick of the Tail and the pastoral, gorgeous masterpiece Wind & Wuthering. These studio albums and the tours to promote them, in 1976 and 1977, along with the live recordings on Seconds Out stand today as some of the band’s finest hours. The Wind & Wuthering tour was also my first opportunity to see Genesis perform live.

 

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genesis_philvocal_bradowenOn that night, nearly 40 years ago, on March 24, 1977, we drove to the Los Angeles Forum to bear witness to these artists. By then I’d seen about a dozen concerts, starting with Cat Stevens, and continuing with Jethro Tull, Yes, Queen and other luminaries of Genesis, but this was the one I’d really been waiting for. I can still recall an overwhelming elation as the lights dimmed and Chester counted the band into the opening number, “Squonk” during which Phil warmed his still childlike voice for a long night. I recall the impressive tambourine dance he performed on I Know What I Like”, the dual drum solo on “Cinema Show”, and the moment he got behind his kit during the complex sweeping midsection of “Robbery, Assault and Battery,” proving to all who listened what a powerful yet nuanced performer he was.

genesis_steve_bradowenNo longer sitting for the shows, Steve stood and commanded attention, stomping and swaying to accentuate his parts, including the haunting majestic solo on “Firth of Fifth,” his opening lead heralding the “Eleventh Earl of Mar,” and the aggressive jam on the brilliant “Unquiet Slumbers” instrumental. While Steve rightly complained of having his compositions squeezed off of these releases, his playing on every track that did make the records is off the charts, his ability to make the guitar drive melody unparalleled. Forget even calling out the technical and artistic brilliance of Tony Banks on keys and Michael Rutherford on guitar and bass – these were a given and their talents were on full display. At the time, these four players, along with Chester Thompson on drums were my number one musical heroes and they delivered the goods. It’s all on the record.

Genesis_TrickGenesis_WindGenesis_SpotAs a document of their ability to deliver impressive performances without Gabriel, the Seconds Out album is as timely and effective live chronicle as any in the progressive rock genre. Mostly complete renditions of their songs, from Foxtrot (1972) through to Wind & The Wuthering (1976), made up the set list culled from the the 1977 tour, with Cinema Show featuring Bill Bruford on drums, from the 1976 tour. Small snippets of one song each from their earliest albums Trespass and Nursery Crime were also mixed within the set. This approach was new to their shows then, and it worked, although longer medleys would become deeply annoying in their later more commercial years as a way to grant only passing reference to their early recordings. Also a few gems from the tours were left out, including a lot of Wind & Wuthering and it’s companion EP Spot the Pigeon, but given the length of their shows these would have yielded a four-album set! All of the recordings from these two tours are sonically amazing, though some may complain about the mix, which subverts a bit of Steve’s work, and leaves the lowest bass notes from Michael Rutherford inaudible. Vocals, drums and keys up front, as was so often the case. Still it yields an enjoyable set and an important offering.

genesis_tony_bradowengenesis_mike_bradowenVisually, the Wind & Wuthering tour itself was simple. While films and projections had been abandoned after the Trick of the Tail show, the subsequent outing honed their live skills, with the focus being on musicianship, and the lights that made it all visible. One of the simple most effective accents was the use of rows of vertical white spotlights with billowing smoke traveling through them, shown on the cover of Seconds Out. And, for the finale of “Super’s Ready” Phil’s ascent to a riser dressed in white to deliver the “Apocalypse in 9/8” segment was unforgettable. There is a decent film covering about half the Trick of the Tail tour, included in the latest re-master of that album, which actually hit theaters at the time. Though short, it is a great document, even if cut in parts with annoying silent films that interrupt the performance footage. It’s also on YouTube here Genesis – In Concert 1976.  For the 1977 Wind & Wuthering tour there is scant film, all of poor quality. Instead, there are some very nice complete audio recordings from this year that augment Seconds Out, which will lend a bit of insight as to this, arguably the better of the two outings.

genesis_phil_bradowenTogether, the albums of this period, Trick of the Tail, Wind & Wuthering, Seconds Out and the Spot the Pigeon EP deserve more respect and attention from critics and those chronicling the history of Genesis than they receive. Much of the press surrounding this band has been grossly unfair, with this period basically ignored given the performance art that preceded it, and commercial appeal that followed it. This was again the case with the recent documentary “Genesis: Together and Apart/Sum of the Parts.” Instead, one could easily argue that the band produced their crowning achievements during this time. This was music and art blended seamlessly together – there is a kind of magic woven through the tracks that fuels the imagination. I know what I like, and I was there, so here’s a recommendation: skip the Genesis R-Kive set and the documentary, and pick up these four albums – along with Steve Hackett’s first solo album Voyage of the Acolyte (1975) – now that’s the best way to establish an archive for these master craftsmen.

(photos by Brad Owen at The Atomic Co)

Jethro Tull’s Long, Exceptional, Songs

Jethro Tull      photo @Barry Wentzell
Jethro Tull photo @Barry Wentzell

I’ve been on record for a long time in these pages as to my love for progressive rock music, and in particular, the work of Jethro Tull. This superb band, led by prolific composer and multi-instrumentalist Ian Anderson, released about 20 studio albums over 30 years after forming in the late 1960’s, beginning with This Was in 1969 and ending with J-Tull Dot Com in 1999. This along with a number of collections, live albums, and a Christmas album from 2003 represent one of the great rock collections in music history. Last year I reviewed a wonderful book by Brian Rabey on the group’s legacy, which included extensive interviews with Ian Anderson and many of the band members through the years. Afterwards I went on the hunt for the next book on the subject, and was elated to discover an incredible and unique study of their two finest progressive rock albums.

JT_TwoLong_CoverThe book is Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play – Inside Two Long Songs, by Tim Smolko. Tim holds master’s degrees in Musicology and Library Science and as such he takes a scholarly approach to coverage of these two albums, along with the band itself, and the nature of progressive rock music in general. The subject albums, Thick as a Brick (1972) and the subsequent release, A Passion Play (1973), both topped billboard charts despite each being one long song lasting over 40 minutes. Both are considered progressive rock masterworks, taking that mantle alongside other luminaries such as Yes’ Close to the Edge, Gentle Giant’s Octopus, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, and Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Both albums have been re-released over the last two years as definitive re-masters assembled by the illustrious Steve Wilson and are thus ripe for re-examination!

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For any fan of Jethro Tull, progressive rock, and in particular these two albums, this book is an absolute revelation. I’ve not read another tome on a musician or their art that delves as deeply as this into the origin and context of a work, the compositional approach taken, it’s presentation, or it’s place in music history. The book contains some exhaustive passages documenting both compositions from a musician’s perspective. Dedicated fans who know the musical themes and lyrics in these long songs will enjoy this most while more casual fans may skim through some of the more detailed parts of the study.

Tim begins by establishing these records in the context of the 1970’s period of rock music, focusing on how Ian incorporated elements of medieval and Renaissance culture and music into the work, which had been shaped mostly by American blues and British folk influences. Tim outlines how an interest in preindustrial culture arose within Britain in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and how this was related to the ecology movement, the popularity of fantasy and medieval stories, and explosion of contemporary folk on both sides of the pond.   Of particular interest is his explanation of the extended form of song known as the medieval “lai”, how the form was used by troubadours, beginning in the thirteenth century, and how it was incorporated by Ian into these compositions.   One aspect of the structure that is relatable is the potential repetition of material from the first stanza into the last, with all that comes between employing an unconstrained framework – some parts even improvised. These are aspects of both Jethro Tull albums familiar to fans, such as the two repeated refrains:

And your wise men don’t know how it feel
To be thick as a brick

There was a rush along the Fulham road
There was a hush in the Passion Play

and the sometimes abrupt changes in meter, key, and song structure throughout. After this fascinating introduction, JT_TAABTim delves into Thick as a Brick first, followed by A Passion Play, including a segment detailing the aborted Chateau d’Isaster recordings that preceded the latter. He explains the strophic, AABA, verse-chorus and compound forms using examples most readers will know, including Tull’s but also Led Zeppelin, Queen and others. Then he writes a detailed study of the artwork, lyrics, music, and meaning of each. In order to illuminate the content of these long songs, Tim maps out the musical structure of each – reprinting lyrics and detailing and comparing different sections from several angles. This results in elaborate tables displaying each vocal and instrumental section mapping the song form, meter, pitch, lyrics, and time codes to these so that the informed reader may follow and gain insight as these complex compositions progress from start to finish.

One table that is quite useful maps entire length of each album into it’s numbered vocal and instrumental passages, in order, showing which band member or collaborator played what instruments in each. As I’ve always been fascinated by the few years during which Ian played soprano saxophone, it was wonderful to see those occurrences mapped out across each album. This was also how I confirmed before talking to Dee Palmer about this period, my recollection that strings were utilized only in the last instrumental segment of Thick as a Brick and “The Hare” segment of A Passion Play. Strings came back to the fore in Tull for the follow-up albums Warchild and particularly for Minstrel in the Gallery. In this way, Tim’s scholarly approach and detailed reporting adds much to a listeners understanding of what they are hearing.

JT_PassionTim goes on to recount the live concerts staged for each of these albums, the critical reception, the curious impact of Monty Python and even the availability of any live audio and video content (which for the record is, not much!)   The conclusion brings focus to these complex, sometimes inexplicable works, with some final commentary. Inevitably, there is a comparison and Tim joins most observers in naming Thick as a Brick the better of the two, possibly just so that A Passion Play fanatics like me have something to argue about.

For those readers who are not musicians and for whom “motives”, “pitch” and “song form” are foreign concepts, segments of chapters in the book will be challenging. Fortunately, the writer employs a clear, readable text to accompany these sections, so that even if one may feel a bit lost in the most technical parts, we are always returned quickly to relatable information, quotes from Ian Anderson himself, and other anecdotes. It’s worth spending a little extra time to study the text, so as to come away with a greater understanding of how pop/rock and progressive rock music is constructed. Ultimately it’s a rewarding celebration of these two outstanding albums and a reminder that the prog movement has created some of the most important and interesting musical art of the ages. It’s one of the most thoroughly researched, scholarly, and informative books on this genre ever released. Having poured over these albums in every format over the years, I was surprised to arrive at the last page with an even greater understanding of and passion for their mastery. “Geared toward the exceptional rather than the average” as Gerald would say. Highly recommended.

Rocket Scientists Refuel

rocketscientists-refuel_cover_sqr_rgb_1000x1000Rocket Scientists are the California prog-rock band founded in 1993 staffed by Erik Norlander (keyboards, vocals), Mark McCrite (guitars, vocals), and Don Schiff (bass, viola, cello, mandolin, plus). Their new release comes some 22 years after they began, the aptly titled Refuel. This, and the sister EP Supernatural Highways from earlier last year, demonstrate that the band is focused on compositions over noodling, on content over form. This is, above all, “listenable” progressive craft – songs build and flow naturally, and themes of renewal in the lyrics are relatable. For aficionados, you will hear the chops, and all the things we expect from skilled musicians who are reaching beyond pop, but above all the songs take center stage.  Erik himself emphasizes this in the liner notes and states the case for song craft above all else.

The band is in top form on this record. Songs like “It’s Over” –one of Mark’s best pieces, are driven by drummer Gregg Bissonette’s propulsive beats, which are key throughout. Mark’s lead vocals express the melody with lyrics that adhere as across the album to the theme of transitions – of shedding the past and chasing new beginnings – refueling for a new day:

I wish that I could just start over
And feel alive again
Wake me up to face the new day
One more chance to shed my skin
‘Cause it’s over

rocketscientists_2014_promo_firstupBass player Don Schiff penned two fine instrumentals and adds beautifully to the acoustic bits with lots of viola, cello, and mandolin. His playing on both fretted and fretless Stick continually impresses – highlighted nicely in their videos. This plus guests players on trumpet and trombone really round out the sound of the band.

Mark’s opening instrumental, the title track “Refuel” gives the group a chance to showcase their playing, with a fine central melody also expressed via chorus that includes Lana Lane, who also sings lead with Erik on the final track. The second song, “She’s Getting Hysterical” and following rocker “Martial” both written by Erik, are some of his best compositions, something impressive to find on a late era record by any band. All in all this one will certainly be considered by listeners to be a fantastic addition to their collection.

I caught up with Erik this week to get some more color on the new release:

[D]: What led you to pursue this next Rocket Scientists project at this time – is there a sense of special causality?

[Erik] We launched this recording project at the end of 2012 with the idea of doing something new to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our first release, which would occur the next year in 2013. So Mark, Don and I all started writing music and passing around demos, and we did a lot of recording throughout 2013. As you know, we ended up writing a bit too much for a single album, or at least for a cohesive single album regardless of length. So at the beginning of 2014, we released the Supernatural Highways album, a 30-minute all-instrumental EP that was really Part One of this greater project. We shot a 26-minute video for the main song, “Traveler on the Supernatural Highways,” at the very end of 2013 — right between Christmas and New Years if memory serves — and then released it on the same day as the album in early 2014. We then took the first three quarters of 2014 to finish the rest of the recordings, which became the Refuel album, a full-length album in the modern sense with both vocal and instrumental tracks. More of a “traditional Rocket Scientists album,” if such a thing exists!

rocketscientists_2014_promo_0808_bigI made the decision to not announce either album too early or even talk about them too much while they still being created. I saw so many other artists — friends and strangers both — that talked so much about what they were *going* to do, what great music they were *going* to release, all the great musicians they were *going* to work with. It all got really stale to me, even a bit irritating. We could throw around some clichés like “talk is cheap,” “actions speak louder than words,” all that kind of stuff. But that was really my mindset. I didn’t want to *talk* about what was coming, what I was doing. I just wanted to DO it. I wanted to complete the work in the way that I wanted it done — no compromises, no deadlines, no release date promises — and once it was safely wrapped up and off to the manufacturer, THEN announce it. This approach shocked a lot of people, and the first 2014 release surprise even some close friends! Obviously after the Supernatural Highways release, I did have to mention that there was “more music coming,” but beyond that, I made no promises and provided no details. It may have cost us some sales in the end as this is not the way albums are promoted in the traditional sense. There is always a run-up of some kind, some advance promotion, etc. But these are strange days we are living in, and the old rules don’t seem to apply anymore. So why not try something new!

[D]: Now in your third decade in Rocket Scientists, how has your writing process matured with Mark, Don and your other collaborators?  What part of this comes when you are together vs. writing separately?

[Erik] In the past, the songwriting process would often be that one of the guys handed me an idea, and I finished it. I took it the final distance and turned it into an actual song. Sometimes that just meant writing lyrics, sometimes some musical elements like a clever bridge or interlude, or sometimes adding a complete song core section like a chorus. It was very much a serial process. Now on Refuel, there is actually little *writing* collaboration. I think the only song that has two writers credited is “It’s Over,” which is primarily a Mark McCrite song that Don Schiff added to. The rest of the compositions are singularly penned, and all three of us individually contributed important songs to album.

rocketscientists_2014_promo_0844_bigThat might sound *less* collaborative than before! But what came during the production process was where the real collaboration happened. We worked as a group or two at a time as myself and Mark, Mark and Don, Don and myself, all three incarnations, and during those sessions we built on each other’s songs and expanded each other’s vision with a true band spirit. I don’t think any of us felt like “session players” when we were working on the others’ songs. We all had total liberty to flesh them out as we imagined. And that made for a fantastic collaboration in the end. Even the long video for “Traveler on the Supernatural Highways” was a total collaborative effort. We discussed some concepts and how to execute the thing without bringing in an expensive film crew, and I think what came out of that is a very honest, very sincere music video that really represents we musicians doing what we do!

[D]: How did the demise of “Asia Featuring John Payne” play into the timeline and recent events?  How so also your work with the Galactic Collective?

[Erik] The “Asia Featuring John Payne” project continually promised new original material for 6 full years … and in the end only released one original song after all that! I had such high hopes for the band. It was supposed to be the point at which the “Original Asia” and this new band, “Asia Featuring John Payne,” diverged and did their own things, forged their own individual futures. That’s what I signed on for, in any case. But it just didn’t go that way, and I’m afraid John Payne took a different path than what the fans — and of course some of the band members including myself — wanted and logically expected. I did give quite a lot to the project, and a big part of that was songwriting. But as literal years passed and no original material was released, I had to make the hard decision to start re-purposing my compositions for something else. I wrote a song called “Believe” for the Asia project that I ended up re-recording for the Lana Lane — El Dorado Hotel album. And then the lead track from the new Rocket Scientists — Refuel album is “She’s Getting Hysterical.” This is a song I wrote for Asia Featuring John Payne in 2007 right after joining the band. It was never pursued. There are other tracks on Refuel that could have easily gone into the Asia direction, “Cheshire Cat Smile” and “The Fading Light” definitely have that kind of harmonic and melodic structure. But I wrote those songs much later into the life of Asia Featuring John Payne, and I simply didn’t offer them to the band since I had so many other compositions hanging in limbo there. You can only beat your head against a brick wall for so long until you realize that the brick wall is not moving, you are not getting anywhere, and hey, this hurts!

rocketscientists_2014_promo_0071_bigAs far as The Galactic Collective, that is the project that keeps on going and going! This started off as a studio project in 2009 where I wanted to re-record 10 of my favorite instrumental compositions from various albums but do them all with a singular, unified approach as a new instrumental album. That’s where the “collective” part comes from! It is truly a collection of songs that was re-imagined. The album was quite well-received, and I put together a live band with the three main musicians from the studio album. We played some good dates including the 2011 Rites of Spring Festival (aka RoSFest) where we recorded the Live in Gettysburg album and DVD. After that, I set about recording the next project, the Lana Lane — El Dorado Hotel album that was released early in 2012. But something strange happened. People kept offering me gigs for “The Galactic Collective.” It was a fine set of music, and music that I really enjoyed performing. So I actually did several little tours of The Galactic Collective in 2013 and 2014 that took us all over the US and even down to Mexico — not once but twice! — for several shows there. The last run down to Mexico was for three theater concerts in late 2014. Mark McCrite joined me on that tour as the guitarist which worked really well as we were just wrapping up the Refuel album after some pretty intense work together throughout the year.

Q: The focus of this release is the songwriting not the gadgets, but just to be sure, are there any notable new instruments to speak of or any left behind that fans or musicians would be interested in knowing about?

[Erik] There are some great new instruments that came into the Rocket Scientists galaxy for the 2014 releases, but none of them are synthesizers! I still rely on my classic keyboards like the Moog synths, the Hammond organ, the Mellotron, the Rhodes, and hey, the grand piano. But the new things that came to these productions actually are via Don Schiff and Mark McCrite! In the time since the last Rocket Scientists recording (2007), Don Schiff taught himself the cello and viola. He had of course played upright bass / contrabass, so it was perhaps more “adapting” to the smaller stringed instruments rather than learning something totally new. But Don dove in with both feet and came back to the band with this whole new tonal and arrangement technique. I even loaned him my mandolin, which he used on the Refuel album quite a bit and is still at Don’s studio today. And I have no plans to ask for it back anytime soon! Don also has a new Emmett Chapman invention, the half-fretless NS/Stick. Don has been playing the original prototype of the NS/Stick since 1998, a fretted 8-string instrument. But Don had been discussing ideas with Emmett to create a new version that would have the 4 lowest strings fretless and the top 4 strings fretted. Emmett of course built another amazing instrument here, and Don played it quite extensively on both Supernatural Highways and Refuel. Then Mark McCrite brought some new guitars to the sessions. He had some new acoustic guitars, of course, even including an acoustic baritone guitar! Those sounded great as we would expect from Mark, but the real surprise was this fairly straight-ahead Les Paul Gold Top guitar with P90 pickups. Something about that particular guitar and Mark’s playing style really interact in an amazing way, especially for his lead work. He still brings out his 70s Strat for when that sound is called for, but this Gold Top Les Paul is really something special.

[D]: The third video for this album is coming out shortly – how do videos today impact your ability to get the music out there and heard? Any plans to perform live soon?

[Erik] I have no plans to tour as Rocket Scientists, but you never know what happens, what offers hit the table – so I should never say never! But, I decided instead to put a great deal of effort into several music videos for the 2014 albums. Don and Mark really supported that idea, and so we pursued it fairly aggressively. The beginning of 2014 saw the 26-minute video for “Traveler on the Supernatural Highways” which was self-produced by the band. Then for the Refuel videos, I enlisted my friend, Erik Nielsen, who shot the Asia Featuring John Payne “Seasons Will Change” video and had joined us on some of The Galactic Collective tours. Erik Nielsen had recently partnered with an excellent screenwriter-director-producer friend named Heidi Hornbacher, and the two them basically formed a production company. I asked them to create videos for the Refuel album, and so far the results have been great! We released the “She’s Getting Hysterical” video first, at the very end of November 2014, and then we followed that up with the “It’s Over” video just before Christmas. We’ll release the next one in January, and then another one after that for which we’ve already shot the footage!

I do intend to continue touring with The Galactic Collective musicians, although the name will have to change once I start introducing new material there since “The Galactic Collective” really refers to that specific body of work.

Here’s hoping a chance to present Refuel does arise and we see more of the Rocket Scientists out of the lab, into a clinic near you! In the meantime, this new release is highly recommended.