This time we have a wide sampling of progrock bands--stylistically and chronologically. Two old classics in concert, two modern studio releases, and a surprise jazz bonus.
CARAVAN: Ether Way (CD on Hux Records)
This CD offers 61 minutes of classic Canterbury music recorded live in various BBC sessions from 1975-77.
For these performances Caravan was: Pye Hastings (on guitar and vocals), Geoffrey Richardson (on viola), Richard Coughlan (on drums), with appearances by Mike Wedgewood (on bass in 1975-76), Dave Sinclair (on keyboards in 1975), Jan Schelhaas (on keyboards in 1976), and Dek Messecar (on bass in 1977).
Caravan has a distinctly fanciful overall sound, blending growling guitar with feverish viola to produce a classically tinged hoe-down. The viola provides a fiddle-sound to the tunes more so than any symphonic edge, resulting in a jubilant overtone that can be quite dizzying. The drumming is versatile and clever, propelling the tunes with enticing rhythms. The central fun is often the vocals, though, crooning tales of simple lives made regal by self-realization. Hastings' voice carries a rich atmospheric quality that is quite haunting and appealing.
These melodies are infectious with their optimism--from the celebratory sentiments of "The Show of our Lives" to the romantic longing that leads to a manic explosion in "Darbsong Conshirto".
The performances are masterful, and the recording quality are masterful.
DJAM KARET: A Night for Baku (CD on Cuneiform Records)
This release from 2003 features 60 minutes of searing guitar rock.
Djam Karet is: Gayle Ellett, Mike Henderson, Chuck Oken Jr, Henry J. Osborne, and new member Aaron Kenyon on bass. Also appearing is ambient maestro Steve Roach providing guitar atmospheres on one track.
Over the years, California-based Djam Karet has won considerable renown and respect for their dazzling guitar-dominated progressive music, earning Rolling Stone's accolade of "Number Two Independent Album of the Year" in 1989 for their "Reflections from the Firepool" release.
With "A Night for Baku", the band deliver an astounding dose of intensely complex instrumental melodies and stratosphere-scraping crescendos. Multiple lead guitars wail and scream with emphatic passion, evoking sonic fingernails that dig into the audience's cerebellum with their relentless fervor. Rapid-fire drumming propels this savage frenzy to even higher velocities. Gritty basslines flow like liquid through the molten mix, rumbling like collapsing mountains. The fusion of these sounds rages like an effervescent phoenix, emerging from cloudbanks of heavenly proportions to explode into panoramic displays across the sky, blazing brilliantly enough to blind even by daylight.
The real difference this time, though, is the band's elevated application of keyboards to their fiery style. Sweeping keyboard riffs soar throughout the music like grand serpents of ethereal mist, bestowing an expansive nature to the band's ardent sound. Synthesizers squeal and warble, lending unearthly flavor to the already hallucinatory demeanor of the music.
Normally prone to favor improvisation, the band employs meticulous preparations this time in devising the music on this album. The compositions are incredible tight, possessing literally no breathing room. This tuneage assaults the listener with a pleasant intensity, inspirational and profound in its fierce pressure.
For those too lazy to look it up: Baku are mythical inhabitants of the dream world, valiant warriors who devour nightmares in Japanese folklore. And: Djam Karet is an Indonesian word that translates loosely as "elastic time."
GENTLE GIANT: Totally Out of the Woods (double CD on Hux Records)
This release from 2000 features 84 minutes of passionate live performances by the legendary progrock ensemble Gentle Giant, spanning from 1970 to 1975.
Gentle Giant (who sadly no longer record music) was (in 1973): Derek Shulman (on saxophone, bass, and recorder), Ray Shulman (on bass, violin, and acoustic guitar), John Weathers (on drums and percussion), Kerry Minear (on keyboards and cello), and Gary Green (on electric and acoustic guitars). (Everyone provides vocals, generating a luscious tapestry of lyrical antics.) The 1970 tracks feature Martin Smith (on drums) and Phil Shulman (on vocals).
Included are: a pair of tunes from 1970, including the rare track "City Hermit"; several "In a Glasshouse" pieces from 1973; excerpts from "Octopus" from 1973; a live demo version of "Free Hand"; sessions featuring more material from the "Free Hand" album; and more.
One of the aspects that made Gentle Giant unique in the Seventies (and still thrilling today) is the band's predilection for mixing classical and electric instruments. Their sound was not just symphonic, it was a strange brew of chamber music and rock, dazzling for its perplexing unity and unpredictability.
Emphatic guitars (both acoustic and electric) provide ecstatic passages that merge modern and traditional structure into an amazing new sonic creature. Swaying keyboards of versatile quality lend a classical drama to the melodies, often rivaling the guitars' nimble-fingered delivery. Intricate percussion is relentless and meticulously applied. Basslines rumble with cohesive growls that act as a strange subterranean counterpart to the aerial ballet of the numerous horns and woodwinds.
Another of Gentle Giant's signature elements is the band's polyphonic vocals. Lyrics flitter from person to person, creating complex harmonies that spiral into blinding epics of verbal constructions. Each of the voices of the band members display different resonant qualities, making their comfortable union a stunning experience to behold.
To engage in such split-second musical constructions may be easy using modern studio techniques, but to successfully produce such sonic acrobatics live in concert is an awe-inspiring miracle that deserves to be marveled at.
There is no one in modern music doing material like Gentle Giant, making such classic live recordings as this a gem to be sought out and jealously coveted.
ROBERTA PIKET & ALTERNATING CURRENT: I'm Back in Therapy and It's All Your Fault (CD on Thirteenth Note Records)
This CD from 2002 offers 69 minutes of sizzling, keyboard-driven jazz.
With Piket at the keyboard helm, Alternating Current is: Bruce Arnold, Cliff Schmitt, and Kirk Driscoll.
With a notable career as an acoustic pianist, Piket ventures forth into the exciting realm of electricity with this release, seating herself at a vintage Wurlitzer electric piano aided with an assortment of tastefully chosen effects pedals.
More instrumental jazz than "progrock", these tunes are upbeat and swinging. With nimble-fingered Piket at the core, guitar, bass and drums orbit her eccentric firmament like sonic offspring who are devoutly attuned to the centerpoint.
The music is a fair mixture of fast-and-complex and sultry-and-smooth. While the keyboard belts out lavish melodies, searing guitar and thunderous basslines spin a variety of stunning embellishments while the jazz-tempered drums offer beats-in-constant-change. Funk frequently creeps into the flavor of the tuneage, energizing the lilting harmonies.
CHRISTIAN VANDER: Les Cygnes et les Corbeaux (CD on Seventh Records)
The mastermind behind Zuehl standard Magma returns with this 2002 release of 66 minutes of intense choral/orchestral extravaganza.
Authoritative and demanding vocals by Vander and his wife Stella flourish in this music. Vander's imposing voice is commanding and vast, while Stella's vocals are floral and quasi-operatic, pleading and celebratory. The lyrics are in French, but frequently the voices are utilized in non-verbal fashion, belting out staccato warbles that are a versatile instrument onto themselves. Choirs supply further vocal foundation.
While a full orchestra (electronically programmed by Stella and rendered by Vander himself) supports this magnum opus, grand piano is the dominant instrument. This keyboard mirrors Vander's vocal power, resounding with classical chords that generate dense cloudbanks of majestic properties. Fender piano provides a modern edge to the traditional overtones wrought by the fanciful flues and dramatic horns and emphatic violins. Percussion is minimal, restricted to incidental orchestral crescendos. No guitar, no bass, no unworldly synthesizers. Overall, this music conveys a particular earthy quality.
The melodies are complex and involved, the structure employing recurrent themes that grow more intense with each resurgence. Numerous passages build relentlessly, amassing strength like a gathering storm, accreting energy until they explode with furious pinnacles of passion.
This music is exhausting, but equally invigorating, as Vander's ardor becomes infectious, filling the audience's collective chest with proud breaths and victorious rushes.
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