Tag Archives: Ambient

Happy The Man

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Rick Kennell

While working on my upcoming book on rock concerts and films of the 1970’s, I’m thinking about how to organize the chapters. A recent idea is to break down the list of bands into categories, like “Rock Gods,” “Entertainers,” “Shaman,” and a few others. I left a chapter open for Happy The Man, and am thinking that of all the types of bands we loved in that decade, they belong most firmly in the category of “Virtuosos.” I discovered Happy The Man quite by accident, as an epic composition from their debut album “Mr. Mirror’s Reflections On Dreams” was played on a local radio station in San Luis Obispo just before a feature on the band Camel. My college roommates and I had just become fans of Camel, and planned a trip to the Roxy theater in Los Angeles to see them for the first time supporting the album Breathless (1978). Little did we know we would not be hearing their amazingly talented keyboardist Pete Bardens at that show, as he sadly left the band prior to the tour. Even more surprising was when Camel’s follow-up I Can See Your House From Here (1979) included compositions and keyboards from Happy The Man alumni, Kit Watkins, the “slow-hand” of the bending synth lead (yes, that’s a Clapton reference!). With all this kismet, my friends and I became avid fans of these guys and their brand of complex polyrhythmic progressive rock.

HTM_DebutCover_72dpiWhat we soon learned is that Happy The Man was the most ambitious American progressive rock band on record. Founded by guitarist Stanley Whitaker and bassist Rick Kennell in the early 70s, the band worked in studio and on stage for five years, eventually gelling as an ensemble by the mid 70s with Kit Watkins (keyboards, flute), Frank Wyatt (vocals, keyboards, saxophone, flute) and drummer Mike Beck. This lineup was signed to the Arista label after they arranged a showcase in New York to see the band – including label president Clive Davis – in the summer of 1976. At that point, the group went into the studio to record their first self-titled album Happy The Man, released in August 1977.

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The band was enamored with the engineering and production on Birds of Fire (1973) by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and when Arista asked them to submit a three producer “wish list” it read: 1. Ken Scott, 2. Ken Scott, and 3. Ken Scott. Ken was known for work with artists such as Jeff Beck, Supertramp, Elton John, David Bowie and the Beatles. In a mix-up that benefited the band, their demos were sent to the west coast Arista office in the east-to-west coast “pouch.” Ken went over to Arista expecting to pick up another project he was considering, but the HTM Demos were handed to him instead. He loved the band and came to Washington D.C. for a showcase at the Cellar Door a week or two later. As he already had time on hold at A&M Studios for another project, everything came together very quickly. The result is a debut album that is striking in its beauty and complexity – bridging jazz, classic and symphonic rock to produce a unique sonic experience. It’s been justly hailed by critics over the years, most recently making the top 50 list of “The Greatest Progressive Rock Albums of all Time” at Rolling Stone magazine. The band toured around the east coast of the U.S. with their largest show supporting Hot Tuna for more than 10,000 festival goers in Long Island, New York.

HTM_CraftHandsCover_72dpiTheir second album Crafty Hands (1978) was similarly enthralling and featured new drummer Ron Riddle. It kicks off with the vaguely sinister “Service With A Smile,” and features arguably the best concise introduction to the band. Ron was an early original member of The Cars and this tune was written in tandem with their keyboard player Greg Hawkes. Another standout track “I Forgot To Push It,” features staccato interplay, hand claps, and an enticing example of smoking-hot dual leads on guitar and synth. Bassist Rick Kennell recalls, “The name came when the band was attempting to record an early demo of the song, and when the playing ended, Kit proclaimed I forgot to push it! meaning he did not push the record button. It went on to become a tongue-in-cheek rallying cry for the band when Arista couldn’t really figure out how to market, promote or push the band.”

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It’s tragic and short sighted that Arista declined to release and distribute their 3rd effort, which was recorded with the fantastic French drummer Coco Roussel, leading to their breakup. The group never had the label’s support to tour west of the Mississippi; much less the U.K. and Europe. Kennell added, “In 1979, with the advent of the disco and punk movements, and bands like Talking Heads becoming popular, the suits at Arista had a three martini lunch – and decided to drop every progressive act on the label – including our band, Phil Collin’s Brand X, Aldo Nova and Stomu Yamashta’s Go.”

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Stanley Whitaker

Listening through their entire catalog, which was augmented in the 1980’s with releases of their earlier work, their 3rd effort, and a live concert recording, it’s hard to describe the emotional impact this band’s adventurous music can have on attentive listeners. Passages of dreamy atmospheric beauty mix with challenging, assertive, serpentine adventures. For the uninitiated, take a listen to the opener on their debut “Starborne,” which invokes a sonic trip to the stars. Brace yourself then for the amazing interlocking leads on “Stumpy Meets The Firecracker in Stencil Forest.”

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Frank Wyatt

Now try to compare these sounds to any band you’ve ever heard – very difficult indeed. I’ve heard a few tracks from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa that could be referenced, but this band was clearly onto something utterly unique and exceptional. The interplay between Watkin’s keys, Whitaker’s guitars, and Wyatt’s keys and winds backed by Kennell’s exquisite bass leads and Beck/Riddle’s percussion – demonstrate a level of musical competence that places this rare band above most of their contemporaries.

The group reunited in the year 2000 with new keyboardist David Rosenthal replacing Kit Watkins for a show at Nearfest followed later by release of The Muse Awakens (2004). Though this was a very worthy new start for the band, no additional work has been released since under this original moniker. However band members are always busy, working together on albums under the names Oblivion Sun and Pedal Giant Animals. Stan Whitaker also lent his chops to the short-lived ensemble Ten Jinn. Anyone captured by their work would be well served by picking up any of these more recent albums.

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Kit Watkins

Also notable is the long solo career of keyboard and winds player Kit Watkins. After working with Camel, his solo recordings ranged from songs that invoke the allegro jams of his former band, to lighter jazz-influenced collections like the fabulous album In Time, on which he worked again with drummer Coco Roussel. In addition, Kit has recorded and released more than two-dozen peaceful, ambient albums and occasionally darker works beginning with Azure (1989). Hard to pick favorites from so many wonderful albums, but interested listeners might start with Sunstruck (1990) and Beauty Drifting (1996). Check for these recordings on CD Baby.

ON FILM

HTM_LiveCover_72dpiThough Happy The Man eventually released an exciting, at times sonically startling live album on CD, Live (1978), and performed more than four-dozen concerts during the 70s in New England, there is almost no known film of the band playing in concert. Dedicated fans can access a short documentary from the 1970s and two songs performed live at their Nearfest reunion show here.

In addition, Kit can be seen playing live on the film The Gathering (2005) in his most contemplative mode, ala Beauty Drifting, performing solo works during a rare one-man concert. All of these releases are recommended for any fan or interested collector.

 

 

David Bowie’s Legacy

BowieDavid_Live1_72dpiI can’t imagine what popular music would have been like had there not been a David Bowie. He was a musician, actor, artist and fashionista with such an innate ability to anticipate cultural trends that he remained relevant for over four decades. Somehow Bowie always seemed young and fresh, in large part due to his uncanny way of reinventing himself regularly, collecting personalities, going from crooner to glam-rock star, to the dispassionate “thin white duke,” and the art-rock inventor of the progressive “Berlin trilogy” and beyond. He was, according to one commentator upon his passing, “of the time, at every time.” He remains one of the most recognized personalities in the world, and he is already missed greatly.

While the second stage of his career as Ziggy Stardust, king of glam rock was not my favorite era, I knew other teenagers who lived for this music particularly those on the Hollywood side of the Santa Monica Mountains. Many of these friends never felt they fit in, never believed that anyone understood or spoke for them before Bowie stepped onto the scene with his shocking hair, makeup, dress and confident androgynous manner. If the man never recorded a thing after 1974 he would still be canonized today, yet he continued to change and influence generations. After the Ziggy Stardust tour and movie, Bowie retired that persona, and recorded his last mostly glam album, Diamond Dogs, in 1974. Next up, Young Americans found Bowie delving into American funk and “plastic soul.”

BowieDavid_StationtoStation3CD_72dpiBut for this writer, it’s the next album, the 1976 classic Station to Station that really galvanized my interest. The record found Bowie experimenting with synthesizers and the kind of metronomic beat found in German Krautrock. The balance of ice and passion is clear as the title track begins with the ominous sound of trains and minor tones then building to a resolve that emerges into the jubilant final third, beginning with the exclamation, “It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love!” Funk and soul tracks like the hits “Golden Years” and “TVC 15” are upbeat, while “Stay” is a grittier boogie, driven forward by an irresistibly funky guitar riff. The beautiful romantic ballad “Wild is the Wind,” the sole cover, must be Bowie’s most spectacular, inspirational vocal performance on record. It’s a tremendous album that represents a bridge between the prior work Young Americans, and the colder ambient classic Low to come.

BowieDavid_StationToStationLiveCover_72dpiBowie’s persona for Station to Station was called the “thin white duke” clad in white shirt, black pants and waistcoat, and passionate dispassion. One writer described Bowie’s new alter ego as a “hollow man who sang songs of romance with an agonized intensity… ice masquerading as fire.” The tour supporting Station to Station stopped at the LA Forum for three nights in February that same year, putting the man and his new myth on display. Bowie reportedly took the stage, sang sixteen songs and left the building stoically. It was a rehearsed, perfunctory yet riveting experience according to those I knew who were able to attend, and as documented in a bootleg film of the rehearsals for the concert tour, and a recording captured one month later at the Nassau Coliseum in New Jersey. That complete live set was released in 2010 on two CDs included as part of a special three CD edition of Station to Station that also came with a booklet, some photos and other extras.

BowieDavid_StageCDCover_72dpiBowie’s recorded output became even more interesting during the next phase of his career, the so-called “Berlin Trilogy,” working with progressive artists Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Iggy Pop and producer Tony Visconti among others. The resulting albums Low and “Heroes” (1977), and Lodger (1979) are inventive, varied and always surprising. The world tour for Low and “Heroes” found Bowie is perfect voice and brimming with energy, playing with a supporting band of luminaries that included Adrian Belew and Carlos Alomar on guitars, George Murray on bass, Dennis Davis on drums, Roger Powell and Sean Mayes on keys, and Simon House on violin. Recordings from the tour were assembled for the double live album Stage, released in 1978. That album in its original form garnered some complaints due to tinkering with the song order, and other issues. More recently the album was remastered and rereleased on CD with those complaints addressed, the complete set of songs in their original order presented in a compelling stereo mix.

ON FILM

BowieDavid_ZiggyDVDCover_72dpiThe best official film of David Bowie’s career in the 1970s is the 1973 movie Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – The Motion Picture. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, this is a rare chance to see Bowie during his glam period, taking the stage wrapped in his most influential alter ego. Fifteen songs from the set list are presented, along with a few behind the scenes shots of Bowie back stage. It’s not a polished product; the sound is flawed, sometimes brash, and lots of shots are blurry. But the 1.33:1 framing exposing extra grain and grit seems somehow representative of the early years of the Glam movement. The film played in movie theaters in the early 1970s for a brief time, and was later screened frequently as a cult classic.

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The next official Bowie film would not be released until the Serious Moonlight tour of 1983 was captured for the home video market. It means that there is no officially released video to document several key concert tours in the intervening years from 1974 to 1982. Possibly the best film that was made captured a jubilant, well-groomed Bowie performing at the NHK Hall in Budokan Japan on December 12, 1978 on the last night of the Low and “Heroes” tour. Bowie himself is a revelation, leading his all-star band surrounded by pulsating fluorescent light tubes through a show that clearly influenced a host of new wave artists who followed. An hour of this fabulous concert was broadcast on Japanese television including a thirteen-minute rendition of the title track from Station to Station, with an intro that, courtesy of Adrian Belew’s wall of guitar distortion and accompanying keyboards, winds down imaginary train tracks for more than five minutes before Bowie appears and the melody kicks in. The film is well preserved and available on YouTube or via an unofficial DVD release from heavymetalweb.net

BowieDavid_Live5_72dpiThere were other televised performances during this time that are also of value. About forty minutes of a live performance at the Beat Club were captured for the German music program Musikladen. Six songs at the Dallas Convention Center and four on Saturday Night Live were broadcast in the U.S. Apparently, performances at Earls Court in London were also filmed, with excerpts shown on the tube there, but this footage has also not been released. It’s a shame that all of this concert footage, particularly the NHK Hall content, has not been expanded, remastered and released officially, rather than on bootlegs and low-res copies on YouTube. Yes, we can enjoy the official audio on the double-album Stage, but we are lacking important video content of this very visual artist. Maybe now with our hero sadly departed, as we gain perspective on the overall arc of his massively successful career, the remaining proof of his mastery will surface.

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Tokyo Film Setlist:

  1. Warszawa
  2. Heroes
  3. Fame
  4. Beauty and the Beast
  5. Five years
  6. Soul Love
  7. Star
  8. Hang on to yourself
  9. Ziggy Stardust
  10. Suffragette city
  11. Station to Station
  12. TVC 15

Station to Station, 1978

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDXBeu3198c

Complete Tokyo concert:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaKpJl4D8bc

Live at Beat Club Musikladen 1978

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClDO1_dH0DU

 

 

 

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.

Daniel Lanois – in the Flesh, with Machines

lanois_sample2Daniel Lanois is the famous producer, engineer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist from Canada, whose work with U2, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and others are often award winning milestones for those artists. Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree come immediately to mind. What would be less familiar to many listeners are his solo albums, each a unique and beautiful work of art – some song-driven with vocals, and others instrumental.

lanois_acadieLanois had plenty of time as producer and engineer from 1976 through the 80’s before he released his first and arguably greatest record, Acadie (1989). Flavored with bayou blues, Cajun folk, and ambient, flowing soundscapes, Acadie also includes Daniel’s beautiful lead vocals, some in English, others in French. The opening pair of rock hymnals, “Still Water” and “The Maker” still make their way into his set lists. “The Maker” is a spiritual song that sets the tone for the rest of the album, beginning with some choice lyrics:

Oh, oh, deep water
Black and cold like the night
I stand with arms wide open
I’ve run a twisted line
I’m a stranger in the eyes of the Maker

lanois_jimMy favorite is the haunting, bewitching track “St Ann’s Gold” that’s just Daniel and his guitar with a bit of synth backing – a serene masterpiece. Guest collaborators include Brian Eno, the Neville brothers, and U2’s backing band. Musically the record is a combination of many influences, expressed with heavy guitar atmospherics, backed by Eno’s ambient keyboard soundscapes. It’s an instant classic that belongs in every music lover’s collection. Other releases by Lanois that I would highlight include the follow up For the Beauty of Wynona (1993) that’s much like Acadie, Belladonna (2005), an instrumental album featuring his astonishing steel pedal guitar, and Black Dub (2010) on which he partnered with Trixie Whitley for her soulful vocals.

lanois_sample1Lanois’ most recent release, Flesh and Machine, is another fascinating album that focuses on his instrumental, ambient side. It’s the closest he’s come to the work he did with Brian Eno in the early 80’s, but with a darker, brooding palette. Of this record, Daniel states, “I decided to be as inventive as I can be and try and take people on a journey, the way I remember records did when I was a kid — you know, you’d put on an album and trip out to it and feel like a different person after listening.” I took the opportunity to go on that trip, and see him perform live at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, on November 17, 2014.

The shlanois_slideow was also itself on the dark and brooding side, as is the new work that made up most of the set list. Daniel spent much of the time hunched over a set of keys triggered gadgets that used samples of guitar, steel guitar, piano and voice to create the sound palette from which he dubbed and processed live on the stage. For several tracks, he came up front to play that steel pedal guitar, and for the encores took center stage to perform a few earlier tracks on guitar and vocals including “The Maker”.

lanois_brianA highlight of the show was Daniel’s long time drummer, Brian Blade, who I first saw on his 1993 tour playing a finely tuned kit with both his hands and sticks. Brian is a first rate musician who played superbly as usual, slipping in between the seams on quieter works, or driving the sonically aggressive parts with his jazz-influenced leads. Bassist Jim Wilson deftly alternated between electric bass and upright bass pedals to color the lanois_videolower end and harmonize with Daniel on the few vocal tracks. The visuals significantly added to the show as the lighting tech used a video toaster type of process to manipulate short films and images in union with the beat, and to great psychedelic effect. Catch this tour in your town should it make the journey, and witness this artist in the flesh, and with his machines.

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Ozric Tentacles Indescribable at the Independent

The Ozrics Live
The Ozrics Live

How many adjectives does it take to describe a band’s sound? Defining the sound of instrumental band Ozric Tentacles could take a couple dozen, but might best be summarized as “psychedelic-hippy-jam-trance-reggae-space-rock.” More to the point, listening to a track from the 2000 release “The Hidden Step,” my son Aidan described them as “Arabian porn music!” In reality, the Ozrics mix jazz-fusion, reggae/dub, and space-rock forms with eastern flavored trance/ambient, sequencers and sound effects, creating a unique brew that is truly their own. Listen to the track “Sunhair” from 1993’s “Jurassic Shift” and you will know instantly if this music is for you. If it is, you will find more than 25 varied and rewarding album releases to explore.

Ed Wynne
Ed Wynne

Last Wednesday night, May 27, 2009 at the Independent, founding member guitarist-synth player Ed Wynne led what is now a four piece band through a cosmic three hour set. The set list included several earlier tracks, such as “Saucers” from 1991’s “Stangeitude” (a personal favorite) which Ed played on acoustic guitar.  These identifiable tracks were needed to balance the more jam-band oriented excursions, and I would have preferred more of them, particularly in the second half of the show. During many of these segments the keyboards were too far back in the mix, robbing the sound of some of the more trance-inspired bits. Still it was an amazing set, and very effectively showcased new material from 2009’s superb “The Yum Yum Tree“.

This unique band Continue reading Ozric Tentacles Indescribable at the Independent