Tag Archives: Symphonic Rock

Electric Light Orchestra’s Summer Bash

elo2016_bow_144dpiElectric Light Orchestra (ELO) was an enduring British band that deftly combined orchestral instrumentation and infectious pop rock. Founder Jeff Lynne was principal writer and producer, leading the band through several incarnations, all influenced by The Beatles, Chuck Berry and other rock pioneers. From 1972 to 1986 ELO racked up more than a dozen top 20 songs on UK and US charts. Now billed as Jeff Lynne’s ELO they have been back out on the road with Lynne up front, long time band member and arranger Richard Tandy on keyboards and a crack group of musicians and vocalists, including Lynne’s daughter, as backup.

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Seeing the new ensemble September 10, 2016, on the second of three sold-out nights at the Hollywood Bowl was like stepping back in time, as Lynne, band, and orchestra faithfully replicated every note of the original ELO compositions, along with a few newer tracks from Lynne’s most recent album. At around 80 minutes, incredibly, nearly every track on the set list was originally a hit or at least massively popular FM radio staple for ELO, including “Evil Woman,” “All Over the World,” “Livin’ Thing,” “Telephone Line,” “Turn to Stone” and on through seventeen songs, ending inevitably with “Roll Over Beethoven,” which as one would expect, highlighted the immense contribution of the Hollywood Bowl orchestra let by conductor Thomas Wilkins while fireworks lit the night sky. Highlights for this fan included “Mr. Blue Sky” during which original Tandy mouthed the refrain on an original or sound-alike vocorder, and “Wild West Hero,” a suite that always showed off their more creative side.

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Lynne has never been much of an extrovert onstage. Going right back to the band’s beginnings he stands in place, letting the music and his clear vocals communicate his message, saying almost nothing between tracks save for brief salutations. In fact, original band members who are no longer part of the group, including long time partner Roy Wood, along with violin and cello players were the most physical performers, accentuating the music back in the day. Today a lot of the expression falls to always-upbeat bass guru Lee Pomeroy and a couple of the other current players who are inclined. To augment this, the staging has always been and continues to be spectacular. The band made extensive use of unique lighting including then-emerging laser lights, and they continue in this tradition today. The stage at the Bowl, with its semi-oval canopy, lighting rig, front projections and fireworks, as seen recently when Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour played there, offer an opportunity to masterfully present these impressive lighting and visuals. It’s an entertainment on its own-threatening to but not rendering music as accompaniment to the spectacle. Instead, Lynne’s ELO with orchestra gave us a perfect show, leaving the audience enthralled long after the last notes faded.

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For this short tour, Lynne scheduled a mere five nights in Los Angeles and New York. They play Wembley in London next year – the only scheduled appearance I see for now. In my view, this would be worth a trip over the pond or for Brits, into crowded London for an evening of strange magic!

 

Journey into Rick’s Box Set

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Rick Wakeman

On a rainy day in 1974 when I was just 14 years old, one of my crowd’s older friends came down to our hangout with two records that would come to shape my musical tastes forever.  One was Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, and the second was Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.  We sat transfixed by these exhilarating albums and in particular Rick’s “Journey” sounded fantastic, mystical, as a perfect blend of rock and classical music.  This album started my own long journey as a collector of progressive rock music, focused first on the many practitioners who were mixing classical and rock forms to build large and dramatic soundscapes.  It helped that early on in my own musical education I was exposed to Mozart, Bach, Stravinsky, and so many of the classical masters.  To me, Rick’s music fit right into that pantheon.

rickjourneyJourney to the Center of the Earth was, then, for me the perfect record with which to start my collection.  It combined the best of so many things we had all been discovering – a conceptual framework such as The Who’s Tommy, use of real symphony orchestra, and lots of that (then) “new” futuristic Moog synthesizer sound.  Add narration dramatically delivered by actor David Hemmings, he of the film Camelot (1967) and so many others, and we have one of the most beloved prog rock epics of the era.

In 1998 EMI Classics commissioned Rick to create Return to the Center of the Earth.  At our house, this became my son’s first purchase-upon-release CD as by the young age of 6 he had already been introduced to Rick’s Journey and Arthur.  He was also very familiar with the narrator, Patrick Stewart, due to his role as the captain on the series Star Trek Next Generation. This album became a favorite in our home, with the spectacular instrumental “Dance of a Thousand Lights” as musical highlight.  

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 4.22.55 PMMany readers will already be familiar with the fact that the original Journey album was taken from a live performance, and that a studio recording had not been attempted until 2012 after original sheet music and notations from the 1973 performances once thought lost, were found.  It’s this new recording that is included in Rick’s new limited edition boxed set for Journey and Return.  This album has been available since last year, and is now the subject of a new box set.

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 4.25.25 PMThe set is a very nice collection of these two albums, Journey to the Center of the Earth (Studio, 2012) and Return to the Center of the Earth (1998).  It arrives with a numbered certificate, a print from Roger Dean signed by both Rick and Roger, a lengthy booklet with writings by Rick, liner notes, all lyrics including narration, and several new and old photographs to chart this history.  While I would have added more photos, the booklet itself is a nice read, and includes many gems from Rick – a few of these being:

  • Rick dreamed of creating something like this after attending a performance of Peter and the Wolf to witness “the wonders of putting a story to music”
  • Rick played on the live orchestral version of the Who’s Tommy at the Rainbow Theater in 1972, and Lou Reisner who produced that show, signed on the do Journey
  • David Bowie’s advice to “listen to my own musical thoughts and dreams” was influential while navigating the path to Journey, itself an uphill battle
  • In 2009 a battered and water damaged conductor’s case was sent to Rick from Australia with a score from the original Journey performances.
  • Only 2 live performances of Return were staged – both in Canada (so you can’t always blame Canada!)

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 4.23.55 PMThe boxed set includes a CD each for the albums Journey (Studio, 2012) and Return, which sit in one album sized binder with the booklet.  Then, each recording is treated to a two album pressing, each pair in their own binder, without extra accompaniment.  I’m not as much a fan of albums which span multiple disks, but these sound fantastic in this vinyl format – something we’ve gone back to over the last several years for our favorite recordings.

All in all a very nice presentation and wonderful set piece to any fan’s collection of Rick’s many works.  To be complete, be sure to retain a copy of your original Journey recording from 1974, along with a good DVD pressing of that concert captured live in Australia (1975) – This is also available as part of the Rick Wakeman live box set from Gonzo.  It’s a miracle that we have it for posterity given the number of important key progressive rock tours that were not filmed. 

The Power and the Glory Rise Again

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Gentle Giant was one of the most adventurous and rewarding British bands to ply the progressive rock trade in the 1970’s. Their career represented a perfect arc from the beginning to the end of the decade, starting with their debut Gentle Giant, and ending with the more strident rock attack of Civilian. In between, Giant crafted nine studio and one double live release that remain important studies in composition rife with counterpoint, multi-instrumentalism, and eclecticism.

In 1974, at the mid point of their short career, the brilliant The Power and the Glory, was released. The compositions were tighter, a bit more straight-forward than their work to that point, and the album sported an excellent concept with intelligible lyrics detailing a story of power and corruption. Gentle Giant’s albums prior to this release represent some of the most esoteric, and uncompromising progressive rock ever put to vinyl. By this point, while still not being quite commercial, their work seemed even more assured, and less encumbered by more obscure sounds on their previous outings. It’s follow up Free Hand would become their most popular studio album and commercial success, but the writing, performance and recording technique that led to that accomplishment starts with this album.

P1010695While there have been several re-releases of Gentle Giant albums over the years to produce better CD sound, and to reproduce their artistic packaging, most have not resulted in state of the art sound. This time Steve Wilson took the helm, as he has with so many other bands of this era, and produced the now definitive version of this classic. There hasn’t been a lot of discernible tinkering with the stereo version that occupies disk one, just an overall improved mix, deeper bass response, and clarity in the midrange. Disc two’s DVD features a 5.1 surround sound mix which is a revelation. Like Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, reviewed last issue, the surround mix allows for previously indiscernible sonic detail to come forth.

P1010704Extra tracks include “The Power and the Glory” single, not found on the original album, and on disc one an alternative instrumental version of “Aspirations.” The original version of “Aspirations” is one of keyboard, vibraphone player and raconteur Kerry Minnear’s most beautiful vocals. This instrumental version gives the listener a chance to try to sing as he did (probably in your car on the way to work) though it’s a mighty challenge to hit those choir boy tones!  On disc two, instead of only “Aspirations,” the entire album is presented a second time without vocals which allows the listener to catch even more of the complex musical interplay, particularly between guitarist Gary Green and Kerry Minnear’s many keys. Try tackling singer Derek Shulman’s exhausting vocals on Cogs in Cogs as a reminder of his range and power. This may be drummer John Weather’s best moment on record, and the gutsiest power-chords from guitarist Gary Green. The bonus studio track and a flat stereo mix are also included.

P1010701Making this release truly special, the 5.1 DVD presentation includes lyrics and videos prepared by bassist / multi-instrumentalist Ray Shulman which illustrate the story and content of each track. This presentation is unlike anything I’ve seen from another band. The content is graphical, using illustrations of playing cards, people, places, and things along with some fairly psychedelic imagery at times to represent the contrapuntal instrumental interplay. Lyrics appear or scroll through the picture in creative ways that add to your appreciation of the compositions. If you are inclined to pay attention while listening and watching you will be rewarded with these clever visuals that make the collection worth every penny.

On a related note, the tour that follows this album was captured on video in Germany and California on the wonderful Giant on the Box DVD release. It would have been fun to find the filmed material here as well but if you purchase that DVD as a companion piece you will own a complete set of the most rare Gentle Giant material available. Seeing this band play live is critical to gaining a complete appreciation of their work.

While some may wonder why this level of release didn’t begin with Three Friends, Octopus, or In A Glass House, there is something about the more friendly rock-and-prog The Power and the Glory which makes it a great place to start, beyond who owns the rights to the material. All in all, highly recommended.