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Friday, January 13, 2006
Weekend Reissue Roundup #35: 01/14/06
Artist: album (label, release date) 1-5 stars
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer: Works, Vol. 1 (JVC Japan, January 10, 2006) ***
Marillion: Script For A Jester's Tear (Toshiba EMI, January 10, 2006) ****
Slowdive: Pygmalion (Castle Music UK, January 10, 2006) ****
Atomic Rooster: Made In England (Sony Japan, January 10, 2006) ****
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer: Works, Vol. 1
Pity the unsuspecting modern listener who wanders into Works, Vol. 1 unwittingly. As one of the most muddled, bombastic, scattershot albums from this muddled, bombastic, scattershot band, one of the quintessential dinosaurs of the progressive rock era, it's a far cry from easy listening. Works Vol. 1 is notorious within the band's catalog as well. Released in March, 1977 as a double album, it marked the trio on the verge of breakup. When the record company nixed the idea of each member recording a solo album, a compromise was reached; 3 of the 4 sides were solo sides, one per member. The fourth side was a band collaboration. So, we get Keith Emerson's "Piano Concerto No. 1", a lengthy grad-student-esque piece that recycles some classical conventions without ever really gelling into something memorable. Greg Lake's five numbers are florid art-rock, intermittently sprinkled with interesting textures and art-rock flourishes, but done in by Lake's earnest vocals and fairly silly lyrics. Of these, the Lake-Sinfield "C'est la Vie" is the best; sounding like the Moody Blues on thorazine; "Lend Your Love To Me" is a romantic epic laden under ambitious strings. Carl Palmer's numbers come closest to rock, thanks mainly to Joe Walsh's guitar; "New Orleans" ambles along with a Walsh guitar, saxophone, and some pretty good drumming from Palmer, although it doesn't suggest New orleans itself except abstractly. The only real fun on the album however, is the lone classic: a no holds barred overindulgence of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare For The Common Man" which is one of the perfect distillations of this band's essence; at 9:38, it is neither succinct or to the point. But as an uptempo rocker with abrasive synth and gigantic tympani, it's also as close to a toe-tapper as the album gets. Works, Vol. 1 ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end; peaking at #12, it represented a slippage from prior releases that became serious when Works, Vol. 2 appeared later in the year. Love Beach, from 1978, marked the end of an era; savaged by critics, and a poor seller, it was the last ELP album to crack the top-100, with the exception of Black Moon in 1992.
Marillion: Script For A Jester's Tear
Formed in 1979, Marillion was a progressive rock band formed at the end of the progressive rock era. As such, it should have been doomed from birth; on the heels of the collapse of Yes, ELP, and other titans of the era, progressive rock had fallen as far from style as a genre can be by the early 80's. Marillion avoided extinction by leaning on the guitars and synthesizers in a more streamlined, metallic fashion; as a result, they truly did sound of the 1980's, instead of a warmed over 70's dinosaur. Script For A Jester's Tear was their 1983 debut, theatrical, complex, and ambitious. While the vocals by Fish (Derek Dick) are over the top, they're knowingly so, which alleviates them of a lot of unintended humor. Guitarist Steve Rothery is the biggest hero, his unconventional leads help propel the title track into epic proportions and helps keep Fish in check at his more reckless moments. "Garden Party", on the other hand, is a lower key slow number built around an echoed Brian Jelliman synthesizer that noodles along for nearly four minutes before switching into an uptempo rocker; Jelliman recalls Rick Wakeman during the crescendo at the end. "Forgotten Sons" is the best moment; part aggressive rocker, part sound collage, it works up a heady atmosphere and leaves room for the musicians to stretch out. For art-rock starved music fans in the 80's, Marillian was a godsend, and Script For A Jester's Tear established the basic template from which they'd draw for decades. While it peaked at a weak #175, subsequent albums did better. Is it essential listening? Their cult will tell you it is; more discriminating music fans may have difficulty adjusting to Fish's histrionic vocals and the very 1980's sounding production. But for prog-rock veterans who never got around to checking out Marillion, this isn't a bad place to start.
Slowdive's 1992 classic, Souvlaki, remains one of the high points of the shoegaze movement. Textured, varied, gorgeous, and elegiac, it captured all of what was good about shoegaze; the abstract textures, the warped song structure, the layered sound. By 1995, shoegaze was history; nearly all of the original shoegaze bands had broken up or radically altered their sound. Pygmalion, Slowdive's final effort, is the sound of a shoegaze band trying to find a way out of the corner they had painted themselves in. Neil Halstead took complete control of the band for Pygmalion; so much so that bassist Nick Chaplin and guitarist Christian Savill split during the sessions. Rachel Goswell contributes lyrics and vocals, and new drummer Ian McCutcheon joins the band, but it's mostly Halstead's show. It isn't shoegaze; if anything, it's akin to Brian Eno's ambient music. Most of it is hushed, muted, built on eerie synth structures, with ghostly echoed vocals, and instrumentation buried so deeply in the mix and played so understatedly, you barely realize it's there. Attacked by fans and Creation records honcho Alan McGee (who dropped them within weeks) as a sleep inducer, it really is a lot better than that. What it really represents is an odd netherworld where Slowdive was making its transformation to new incarnation Mojave 3, which featured Halstead, Goswell, and McCutcheon in the service of lonesome Cowboy Junkies style material. On Pygmalion, the Mojave 3 textures are here; only the songs are missing. As ambient music, it's very good if somewhat repetitive; "Trellisaze" is almost ominous in its cloudy amorphous structure; "Blue Skied an' Clear" is fully formed dream pop with some good Halstead vocals, "Crazy For You" borders on sound collage, and hits some interesting dissonance along its way to hypnotic oblivion. Pygmalion, perhaps unintentionally, embodies Brian Eno's theory of ambient music as music that never dominates, but rewards closer listening. Shoegaze fans might not love it, but dream pop fans might like this very much.
Atomic Rooster: Made In England
Atomic Rooster was a U.K. progressive rock act that made its debut in 1970 with a lineup of Vincent Crane (ex-Crazy World of Arthur Brown) on organ, Nick Graham on bass, and Carl Palmer on drums. Following the debut, Palmer joined ELP, and Graham quit, leaving Crane to reassemble the band. A second lineup lasted into 1972 and fell apart; Crane once again reassembled the band from scratch with singer Chris Farlowe (who had a few U.K. hits in the 60's, notably the Stones' "Out Of Time") , guitarist Steve Bolton, bassist Bill Smith, and drummer Rick Parnell. Made In England, from 1972, was the first album from the third Atomic Rooster lineup, and is arguably the best disc of their career. It's a surprising record; unlike their progressive peers of the day, Atomic Rooster actually manages an offhand funkiness on Made In England. "Little Bit Of Inner Air" is atmospheric and slinky, with its multiple percussion and crying guitar; in some ways it sounds a lot like vintage Spirit. "All In Satan's Name" is another good one, with a boogie rhythm, upfront guitars, and howling vocal that lend it an almost Southern rock touch, although the psychedelic keyboard workout is pure U.K. progressive rock, recalling Deep Purple. "Space Cowboy" arrives by transponder and takes its title literally, but therein lies its fun. Made In England is just as silly as any other prog-rock album you can name, but it rocks a lot more than many albums from the era do, which goes a long way towards making it a worthwhile listen today. Crane would continue to lead version of the group into the 1980's. He later joined Dexy's Midnight Runners after their breakthrough, but when they failed to follow up their success, his career stalled. He committed suicide in 1989.
Also out this week: Three from David Bowie (Stage, David Live, Platinum Collection) on Virgin; Love Songs by late r&b diva Phyllis Hyman on Arista; Between the Bridges by 90's Canadian power-pop kings Sloan; It's Not What You Think It Is!?!! by electronica outfit Tek 9; and Strangers In The Night by 70's metal unit UFO.
Freeway Jam is still catching up from its slack period; another update is planned for tonight. Disregard the dates; they reflect when the article was supposed to go up...