The idea of dividing an artist into periods or eras is a very seductive one – preferring the ‘fusion years’ of Miles Davis over the ‘cool jazz’ of his beginnings, or Frank Zappa’s musique concrete over his more obscenity-riddled pop tunes in his later years. Although this is certainly a legitimate distinction in both examples given above, it is regardless something applied to the artist retrospectively. It’s fairly rare we ever hear the artist talking about their work in such strict, easily distinguished partitions. All the works bleed together; something that arose in one earlier piece of writing or music flourishes in the next and becomes the focus – the creation of a piece of art is far more complex and organic than these simple labels suggest.
Yet what about when these labels are applied by the artist? On the release of 1979’s Lodger, David Bowie announces this album to be the third part of a ‘triptych’ alongside 1977’s Low and “Heroes”. Brian Eno – Bowie’s musical collaborator over all three of these albums – also starts to refer these albums as a trilogy. The Berlin Triptych is born.
Just by calling these albums a collective whole, it definitively changes our experience of them as listeners. A trilogy perhaps even more so. We expect the first part (in this case, Low) to introduce us to ideas that will carry throughout the works, the second part (“Heroes”) to expand and experiment with these ideas, and the third (Lodger) to hark back to the original as well as providing us a sense of closure. A beginning, a middle and an end.
The first jazz album I ever bought was Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. As a jazz neophyte, it was a challenging listen. I saw 15+ minute tracks in the running order and thought this was something I had experience in, given my love of prog rock epics. How naive I was. The album is comprised of six improvised pieces of music with one or two themes being explored throughout; this requires a very different type of listening from what I was used to. Bass lines would loop for ten or so minutes at a time. Producer extraordinaire Teo Macero would perform some of the first instances of sampling by cutting and looping sections of improvised solos, morphing them into recurring melody lines.
The album’s opener is the Joe Zawinul-penned “Pharaoh’s Dance”. Zawinul’s keys flutter amongst drums, percussion and multiple bassists all playing simultaneously, with Bennie Maupin’s woodwinds and John McLaughlin’s guitar fleshing out this ethereal soundscape. And then Miles Davis’ trumpet enters a few minutes in, floating over the top of the mix and quickly gaining a passionate intensity. The music really does simmer like the album’s title implies, and I’ve always associated it since with summer music. The heat of the playing and the free-form nature of it all just made me want to lie back in the sun and chill, in spite of the music’s apparent chaos. It was nothing like anything else I had heard, and I wanted more.
But where would I look? The man with the trumpet had such an enormous back catalogue, that I was incredibly intimidated as where to go next. So I looked to players who I enjoyed from Bitches Brew. Jazz is typically a far more incestuous genre than rock, so tracking players and finding other albums they played on worked incredibly well as a way to get myself more exposure to this otherwise unknown genre to me. Of course, basing this search around Bitches Brew, considered the seminal jazz fusion record, meant the artists and albums I found typically dabbled in that genre. But pushing through I also discovered the beauty of hard bop and beyond.
Below is a chart I’ve made that’s quite personal. It tracks all the artists I’ve discovered that all link back to my first jazz album. These are just the albums I have that I can link back, so it’s far from a definitive list and I’m sure some of you will have plenty more (see: my incredibly small Coltrane collection). Others show artists I have plenty more albums by, but could find only one link with the albums I own (see: Mingus). I’m also not including albums I own, but haven’t really delved into properly yet (e.g. Shakti, Ornette Coleman). All the links are made from me referring to album liner notes or Wikipedia, and I’m hoping both are accurate.
Looking at the graph, it’s interesting how clear some of my obsessions are: Herbie Hancock’s gorgeous keyboard stylings lead to 15 albums (and one song – listed as such because I only have it on a best of compilation). But there were some surprising discoveries, like the relatively direct link from Weather Report to Swedish progressive death metallers Opeth. Anyway, here you have it: Bitch Degrees of Separation.
An interactive map of the graph is available here (FYI it seems a little temperamental in Chrome). Otherwise, click on the graph below for a closer look.
Island were a four-piece avant-garde progressive rock group from Switzerland. They released their debut album Pictures in 1977 and vanished into obscurity, which is an absolute shame, as the album is a relatively unknown classic of the progressive rock area.
One of the key elements that makes Island sound so different right out of the gate is their choice of instrumentation. There is no guitar or bass – the latter role is fulfilled by bass-pedals. Instead, the focus is on percussion, keyboards, vocals and wind instruments (sax, flute and clarinet). That sounds crowded, but there is still a lot of space on the album. Each instrument sounds isolated by itself – on its own island, if you will – yet stills gels with the rest of the band. Over the course of the album’s five tracks, the dark, lonely atmosphere is palpable, conjuring up images of an alien landscape.
In fact, it’s one of the more perfect uses of H.R. Giger for an album cover. The music shifts between worlds, morphing from progressive rock to zeuhl to chamber music to jazz to combining it all together and making the beautiful, yet freakish monster that is this album. This is the music Xenomorphs would create.
“Introduction” certainly does a good job of giving the album’s feel. The track begins with monkish chanting before the clarinet takes over, providing an eerie, yet wistful atmosphere. Whispering vocals creep in, building towards a frenzy alongside the percussion for the pure aural chaos that is the finale. Its one and a half minute duration perfectly encapsulates the creepiness and hints at the prog that we’re about to be treated to over the course of the album.
The 16-minute title track “Pictures” is my personal favourite, running the gamut of all the genres mentioned above, culminating in a truly fascinating, multifarious piece of music. Of particular note are the vocal lines that intertwine and reach beyond Gentle Giant-levels of complexity, as well as a great saxophone solo.
The first 4 minutes of “Herold And King (Dloreh)” are deceptively simple. Brooding, beautiful piano plays before the track erupts, only to implode back in upon itself for some incomprehensible, a cappella craziness, leading to the single greatest non sequitur ever shouted in music:
‘HE ILLUMINATES THE SENATE!’
So it’s not to say the band doesn’t have a sense of humour; I’m not sure I can ever hear the line ‘Gastric! Juices!’ without chuckling.
It’s not an album you can necessarily expect to fully appreciate on the first few listens. These are pieces that reward multiple listens, and the complexity of some of these pieces cannot be understated.
The CD version ends with a 23 minute bonus track titled “Empty Bottles”, which is very different from the rest of Pictures. It’s more in line with the Canterbury scene or jazz fusion, and just shows how capable these musicians were of playing any style of music. It’s a great piece, exploring many different jams, the peak being halfway through the track where we are treated to a surprisingly catchy and uplifting section. It’s very different to what came before, but not unwelcome.
These are some very good musicians playing some very challenging music that defies any single genre. Fans of Univers Zero who want something a little more prog should definitely check this out.
This is the first studio album by Mats/Morgan since 2005’s Thanks for Flying With Us. For those not initiated with the singularly unique sound of these skilled Swedes, the brains behind Mats/Morgan are Morgan Ågren (drums) and Mats Öberg (keyboards). Both child prodigies on their respective instruments, the duo became of particular note when Frank Zappa met them while on tour. Suitably impressed at their mastery of his own work, he took them under his wing and acted as a teacher and mentor.
The technically challenging and playful qualities of Zappa’s music have definitely carried over to Mats/Morgan’s own work, but the band certainly aren’t restricting themselves to pure Zappa worship. On their latest release [schack tati], Mats/Morgan delves into old school progressive rock, jazz fusion and dance music to name a few genres. “Dracul of Nancy” is where 8-bit Nintendo music collides with saxophones and polyrhythms, whilst things take a more introspective turn for the mainly keyboard-driven lengthy instrumental “Mr. Piccand”.
Limitless textures and sounds are explored here. You’d expect so much from such a skilled keyboardist (who’s blind, by the way!), but it’s pleasantly surprising to hear so many different styles employed by Ågren. Acoustic and electronic drums are both utilised to their full ability, alongside samples, electronic glitches and a variety of percussion. Pick any two tracks and there’s a different keyboard patch, a different drum sound. These subtle changes add a lot to [schack tati] overall, and that the album still manages to escaping sounding schizophrenic is admirable.
If fact, the incorporation of the aforementioned glitches into their already expansive palette of rhythms leads to some of the best parts of the album, the heavily electronic “Walk Here” and the much jazzier and frenzied “Rappel”.
However, the stand-out track has to be the album opener “Rubber Sky”. Keyboards dance around the simple yet killer groove set in place by Ågren (playing drums, guitar and bass). The groove drops away completely for some of the only vocals on the album – sung by Morgan’s son, Alvin Ågren. The childish (literally) vocals add that playful, undeniably Zappa-esque quality to the music, particularly when juxtaposed with the heavy bass and guitar grooves. “Rubber Sky” rocks hard, fitting a lot into its three minute runtime without sounding like it’s doing so. Part of me laments that the track isn’t particularly indicative of [schack tati] as a whole, as I’d love to hear more music in this vein.
To their credit, no track overstays its welcome. Mats/Morgan manage to fit their unique brand of experimental instrumental music into short nuggets of gold – most of the 12 tracks sit comfortably between 2 and 4 minutes. Everything is honed down to a fine art, so not surprising it was 9 years between albums. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another 9 years for another, but if it’s generating music of this quality I certainly won’t mind too much.
The second and final installment on my overview of The Residents work. If you’ve not read it yet, check out part one.
Oh…1990s Residents. This is where we see concept overreach musical execution. It’s a shame, as we end up with some of the most interesting ideas being explored over these albums, and the band embracing the new MIDI technology is certainly admirable. They also embraced video gaming in a big way, and over the course of three albums (starting with 1991’s Freak Show and ending with 1996’s Have a Bad Day) created several ambitious multimedia pieces that are hard to separate from their interactive counterpart. The only one that properly approaches a standard game would be Bad Day on the Midway – for which Have a Bad Day is the soundtrack. I’ve played it several times (it’s a timed game so you have to play several times to discover the stories for all the different characters) and thoroughly enjoyed it, but separating the music from the game unfortunately severely impacts it. This is really noticeable for me when I listen to 1994’s The Gingerbread Man, as I’ve not played the game. Given the music involves reinterpretation of the same motif over and over again, it can get a little grating and even boring. I only wonder what it would be like to engage with the entire work.
Samuel Beckett’s play Not I finds the stage immersed in complete darkness apart from a single spot of light covering an actresses’ mouth, which utters a four part monologue. Then the play ends. I am a huge fan of Beckett’s novels (I also love Waiting for Godot – I just haven’t read or seen any of his other plays), but even reading about Not I makes me wonder: would I enjoy this play? I might admire Beckett’s continual honing of his singular, existential idea down to something as small as a light on a woman’s mouth, but am I literally going to enjoy sitting in a theatre, watching a play comprising of just that?
I wrote an article for Echoes and Dust, looking at songs by progressive rock groups that are 4 minutes or under to see if they can still encapsulate the sound of the bands. Plenty of bands and music lie herein, so check it out!
I wrote a feature article for the website Echoes and Dust on a band I thought could use a little more attention, the avant-garde Belgian group Univers Zero. I look over some of their key albums over the years, and it was a lot of fun (albeit an odd, creepy bone-chilling sort of fun) going back through their discography.
I recently interviewed Marco Minnemann for the website Echoes and Dust, which you can read here. You can also check out my review of his album EEPShere.
If you’ve not heard the work of Marco Minnemann, I strongly recommend you check him out. He drums for pretty much everyone awesome, but also is one of those people I’m incredibly envious of; he has an ability to play every instrument ever at the highest level.