It’s been a long time coming, but on Thursday October 14th Porcupine Tree played a very special sold out gig (well nearly sold out, if it wasn’t for Cliff Richard….but that’s another story) at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London. I’m sure I wasn’t the only fan sat there in the hallowed home of the Proms feeling more than just a tinge of pride at the fact that Steven Wilson and the boys had defied the odds of a woefully disinterested music industry to become, effectively, the biggest UK band that no one has ever heard of! A cursory glance around the various bars before the gig reveal something wonderful about Porcupine Tree’s audience which is they are, to quote the title of a recent Tree song, remarkably “normal”. A wonderful feeling that anyone and everyone is allowed into the party based on their love of the music, rather than how much prime time exposure the artist has accrued, or what the current state of their love life is in Heat magazine. Refreshing indeed.
The Albert Hall gig was the second of two special fan orientated shows (the first at Radio City in New York) that aimed to explore the back catalogue more fully throughout an expanded three hour set starting with an acoustic opening slot. Wilson and the band came across extremely relaxed on stage as the first of many Cliff Richard references were made (Sir Cliff was in the middle of a run of shows at the Hall), and the atmosphere was intimate and friendly from the start. But this was never going to be a greatest hits show as was instantly made apparent by starting with two songs rarely, or never played live before: Stranger by the Minute and Small Fish. Considering that when Small Fish was first released in 1993 on the Up the Downstair album it probably sold less copies than there were people in the Albert Hall, it was a surreal experience. After five acoustic songs the stage was cleared to make way for the electric instruments, and as the house lights faded the familiar orchestral opening chord of Even Less faded in over the PA and, for me, the gig begin for real. But of course this being no ordinary gig we were instead treated to the full length 14 min version of the song. I’d been at a gig in 1997 when Porcupine Tree opened with this same long version of Even Less as an unknown “new” track, and then having to wait until 1999 for the song to appear on the album Stupid Dream albeit in truncated form. There were maybe thirty people in the room at the first gig, but 13 years on the song is if anything even more powerful as it blasted out to thousands of fans who all unanimously abandoned their seats in favour of standing for the vast majority of the three hours. Following up with a crowd pleasing Open Car from Deadwing established the vibe for the rest of the evening with longer, older pieces being interspersed with new tracks: in the “oldies” camp were such epics as the Sky Moves Sideways (phase 1) and the title track of Up the Downstair, both of which reminded the audience of a side of the band that has long since been left behind – dance influenced beats and long spacey improvisation that all sounded as relevant and thrilling now as anything the band has released in recent years. Wilson really let himself go on many of tunes with some great effects laden guitar solos at ear bleeding volume. In fact, the sound in general was easily the best rock sound I’d heard in that particular hall, with Steven’s voice in particular crystal clear above all of the intricate textures. The lights and visuals were also to the same standard, with the great yet disturbing robot animation for Bonnie the Cat really standing out.
The new album was not played in full as many had expected seeing as it was the last night of the tour, but a generous enough portion of it was played, possibly for the last time in a while – 13 months is a long time to be playing the same stuff over and over again – but it all sounded as good as it had a year before when I’d heard it at Bristol’s Colston Hall, albeit with a little less of the nervous tension that surrounds the early days of a tour. A final treat came in the encore in the form of one more epic tune – the centre piece of the Deadwing album Arriving Somewhere But Not Here. And of course Trains rounded things off complete with Gavin Harrison magic trick and a mid song thank you to everyone that had made the tour such a success, including a slightly anxious looking lighting engineer who was giving Wilson the “look at your watch” hand signal as the band’s 11pm curfew was dangerously close.
I’ve been lucky enough to see a few special Porcupine Tree shows: Shepherds Bush Empire, the first headlining slot at the Astoria and the aforementioned “intimate” performance on the tail end of the Signify tour. This show probably beats the lot in terms of being “special”, but ironically there were so many unique elements to the three hours that it somehow didn’t manage to eclipse the show a year before at Bristol – not least because of seeing a complete performance of the Incident at that show, plus a few rarities such as Remember Me Lover and Buying New Soul. But, at its best Porcupine Tree at the Albert Hall were as mesmerising and powerful as any rock band, progressive or otherwise, could hope to be – and the real impression was simply one of celebration of all that they have achieved with hopefully a lot more still to come.
Part 2 of Joe Travers’ archaeological exploration of the Zappa vault resulted in probably the most controversial ZFT release thus far: an old cassette containing a rehearsal from FZ’s preliminary explorations with the repertoire for the albums that would soon come to be known as Waka/Jawaka and the Grand Wazoo. So, what’s wrong with it? Well, the sound is somewhat “roomy”, with the room in question being a wretched sounding rehearsal space in Hollywood. A boomy, nasty tone that will be tragically familiar to anyone who has rented a second rate rehearsal space anywhere in the world, only to hear their music being sonically destroyed by rooms that were not meant to have notes played in them! So, the sound sucks….but actually, that is for me the only real issue to complain about. What you have here is the chance to be a fly on the wall at the turning point of one of Frank’s most fascinating projects – and the fact that the music is some considerable distance away from the finished result only adds to the intrigue. Blessed Relief and bits of Greggery Peccary all appear in radically different forms, plus The Grand Wazoo itself with lyrics!!
You also get to hear FZ painstakingly teaching parts to the musicians by rote with guitar in hand (probably still confined to his wheelchair too)….and despite all of the “magic” that we know and love from the finished recordings, there is a matter of fact, almost perfunctory nature to these rehearsals that reminds the listener that behind every FZ masterpiece was a shit load of hard graft. The end of the cassette is quite revealing as Frank and Aynsley Dunbar play a new section, that in the end wasn’t incorporated into the finished work (although the Mothers had played it on stage previously) and Frank says that he hopes that he’ll have time to copy out parts before the next rehearsal. There is some chat about what day is best for the next meeting and who can make it, and as the recording abruptly cuts of, you are left with a real sense of the normality of Frank’s day to day existence in 1972.
Or you are bored to tears and regretting splashing out the full CD price (plus shipping) for a hard to listen to bootleg with lots of talking and songs you already own in better versions! Well, either opinion is fair. I’m not sure how many times I listen to this one, but I am glad I own it.
Lots and lots of awesome stuff being fed into the eardrums of late, including an obscene amount of the works of Kimara Sajn and his recording projects Polyethylene Pet and +1, as well as some wonderful 20th century classical discoveries and more (we’ll add the pics just as soon as our server starts behaving itself!):
1. Kimara Sajn – Moment/Festival (2002)
2. Kimara Sajn – Life Stories (2009)
3. Polyethylene Pet – Distortion Parade (2006, but based on older recordings)
4. +1 – Day of our Lives (2000)
5. Aaron Copland – The Young Pioneers (complete works for Piano)
6. Roy Harper – HQ (1975)
7. Emerson Lake and Palmer – Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends (1974)
8. Present – Triskaidekaphobie/Le Poison Qui Rend Foi (1980/1985)
9. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)
10. Leonard Bernstein – Mass (1971)
11. Todd Rundgren’s Utopia – first album (1974)
12. Terraformation – Gardens Under Ground (2010)
13. Karda Estra – Constellations (2003)
14. Rush – Moving Pictures (1981)
A real surprise this one, but as with the Halloween DVDaudio, the success really depends on if you have a 5:1 system….which I don’t. So…what’s in it for the Luddite who doesn’t really fancy positioning a multitude of speakers around his already crowded living space? Well, actually many tasty treats – and perhaps one track that could even make it into a Zappa top 10 songs list.
The premise for this cumbersomely titled album was the notion that Frank was interested in multi-channel mixing as early as 1970, as demonstrated by a “quad” recording of Chunga’s Revenge made in the Zappa basement that has a wonderfully intimate and loose feel to it that feels as though you are sat in the corner of the room next to the bass amp – and this is just the stereo mix. Of course, Frank did release quadraphonic mixes of albums in the 70’s, such as Overnite Sensation, and there are other examples of previously released Zappa tracks (Wild Love, Naval Aviation In Art?) in the surround sound mode, and of course for “boring” stereo dwellers such as myself it’s these moments that hold little interest. Although, as any Hardcore Zappa fan knows, it’s always fun to hear familiar songs in a different context which is of course a major Zappa speciality.
But what of the gold buried within the album? Look no further than Rollo. It’s strange to consider the poor results of many rock/orchestra collaborations in the light of the joyously successful noise that Frank manages to produce here. It just seems so natural to have these seemingly opposing musical forces wailing away together live on stage in 1975. But of course, it’s the composition that is king – previously released as the coda to the 1979 live version of Yellow Snow (You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol: 1) and actually dating much further back to the 1972 “Petit Wazoo” tour, Rollo really is Frank at his best. Comically heroic brass fanfares, funky clavinet driven grooves, a biting guitar solo and a remarkable sense of orchestration (listen to when everyone starts folding in after the brief cor anglais solo near the end) all show Frank to be at the top of his game. Dweezil sums it up in the liner notes: Bitchen!
The best of the rest is an unoverdubbed Waka-Jawaka, which is perhaps less interesting to listen to but more thought provoking as to the level of further composition that was to come in order to provide the piece’s conclusion. Then there is the wonderful Basement Music #2, a further example of Frank enjoying messing around with early electronics that was a precursor to his later obsession with the Synclavier. And in a similar spirit there is a hitherto unheard version of the vamps from Easter Hay and Deathless Horsie overlaid with a stinging yet poignant Zappa interview about the state of the music industry.
So, with the caveat about 5:1 taken into account, this was certainly a fun and interesting release.
That fairly unassuming collection of knobs and circuits above is an analogue sequencer. A device created to allow a musician to…well, basically sit back and generally not do an awful lot. Simply put, each row of switches above is designated to one note generated by a synthesizer with the possibility to then build up longer sequencers of notes if needed that can be set to loop ad infinitum. Certainly, once sequencers developed in the ’80’s they brought with them a whole host of musical problems and woefully poor music. But, for a while in the ’70’s, they were COOL AS HELL!!! In a way, the sequencer fulfilled the roll of the fiqured bass in Baroque music, or perhaps more closely, the drone of the Shruti box in Indian classical music. In other words, it established a bed over which something else could happen. But, initially, the synth sequencer could also be the main attraction, so unique was this pulsating modulating sound. As with any great new discovery, it could also quickly become a musical cul-de-sac, but these examples below show the sequencer at its most inventive:
1. Pink Floyd – On the Run (1973)
Done using the rather cute little EMS Synthi AKS synth (pictured above), On the Run features a sped up 8 note sequencer pattern appropriately enough symbolising the pressures of modern life. I’m not sure what the earliest recorded use of a sequencer is, but you can bet that for many people this was the first time that they had heard, what was literally to become the future.
2. ELP – Karn Evil 9 3rd Impression (1973)
It has to be said that using a Moog Sequencer to illustrate the fear that technology could potentially one day get out of control was a stroke of genius on the part of Keith Emerson. Once the slightly low budget sci-fi song lyrics come to an end with a computer, in 2001 style, gaining the upper hand against humanity, the instruments fade out to reveal a very metallic and out of tune sounding pattern that slowly starts to increase speed to a point where the musical phrase is lost in a swirl of noise before finally cutting off abruptly as the record ends. The live version took this to even further extremes with the Modular Moog belching out smoke as the sequencer runs amok.
3. Todd Rundgren – A Wizard! A True Star! (1973) Todd (1974) Initiation (1975)
Whereas the German contingent (see below) would use the sequencer for steady, trance inducing pulse based music, Todd on these albums as well as with Utopia figured out that fast sequences could be used to spray psychedelic bursts of sound into the mix. The results are chaotic and disorientating, and must have taken hours of work to set up. Listen for example to the final moments of An Elpee’s Worth of Toons from Todd.
4. Tangerine Dream – Phaedra (1974)
After four albums of deeply experimental electro-acoustic music, Tangerine Dream got a bit of cash from Virgin Records and decided that a career in synth porn was the future for them (see picture). Phaedra is where it all begins with the very tried and tested formula of – a few mins atmospheric noises/a few mysterious eerie mellotron chords….and then fade in the sequencer!! – which perhaps would get a little overdone after Rubycon and Richochet, but here still sounds wonderfully on the edge. The synth sounds a little like they’ve only just managed to get it to make those sounds too and it could break at any moment, which I like.
5. Klaus Schulze – Timewind (1975) through to Live (1980)
A ridiculous amount of classic Sequencer patterns can be found on all of Klaus’s mid to late ’70’s albums, which work in a very similar territory to Tangerine Dream. My personal favorite is the opening pattern of Bellistique from Live,and on this and all the others Klaus uses a delay effect to create a greater rhythmic complexity from what were only relatively simple melodic shapes.
6. John Surman – Upon Reflection (1979)
Surprisingly, for a label that prides itself on its standards of acoustic recording clarity, ECM has many magical examples of early sequencer usage, made all the more thrilling for their being re-contextualised within the framework of non-electric improvisation. Surman’s first few records for the label see him developing an interest in synth loops as a backdrop for soloing or layering – an idea that he had been working on for sometime since before joining ECM.
7. Azimuth – first album (1977)
John Surman is to be thanked for my all time favourite sequencer moment, as he was the one who suggested the idea to John Taylor of using the Synthi AKS in conjunction with piano and the voice of Norma Winstone. Manfred Eicher made the additional suggestion of bringing on board Kenny Wheeler and thus the classic chamber jazz group Azimuth was born. There are two tracks featuring synth and both are equally worthy, with perhaps the ultimate moment coming around 2 mins into the Tunnel as swirling sequencer drifts in beneath the improvising piano.
Here at TFS the influence of these recordings can be felt particularly in the work of our ambient project Nunbient. For those interested, check out the latest download EP Pagans, which is full of strange drifting electronics of the kind that first appeared in the above recordings.
1. Autechre – Oversteps (2010)
2. Autechre – Amber (1994)
3. Peter Hammill – A Black Box (1980)
4. Belbury Poly – The Willows (2005)
5. The Necks – Hanging Gardens (2002)
6. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1969)
7. Genesis – And Then There Were Three (1978)
8. Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)
1. Squarepusher – Just a Souvenir (2008)
2. Steven Wilson – Cover Versions 1 to 6 (2010)
3. Kimara Sajn – Life Stories (2009)
4. Pat Metheny – Orchestrion (2010)
5. Anthony Phillips – Private Parts and Pieces (the whole lot…all 10 of em!)
6. Genesis – Selling England By The Pound (1973…not the remixed version!!)
7. Bass Communion – Chiaroscuro (2009)
8. Bill Evans – Explorations (1961)
A Semi Regular Look into the World of “Difficult” Music
Michael Mantler/Carla Bley – 13 and 3/4
Loosely affiliated with ECM via a distribution deal, WATT records was the collaborative label established by composers Bley and Mantler to exclusively present their own music. And just as well, as even in the “golden age” that this was recorded in (1975) you can’t imagine too many record labels saying, “yeah, ok…why not?” to this music. This is a seriously dark and disturbing orchestral/free jazz/minimalist/cacophonous hell fire of an album, or at least 50% of it is. Bley’s 3/4, is appropriately enough in a lurching waltz-time for the most part, with its main child-like piano part sounding like Steve Reich without the theoretical posturing, mixed with a slightly inebriated version of the main theme from The Godfather. It’s still a challenge though, but anyone who has enjoyed her epic Escalator Over The Hill will find the subtly humorous, yet adventurous score very pleasing .
Over on the other side of the record however, Mantler’s 13 makes Carla Bley’s piece feel like the Carpenters. Imagine one of those horribly jarring orchestral moments that you get when someone gets stabbed in a horror movie – then keep that sound going. Then keep it going some more. Then remove all sense of structure and tonality and why not add a second orchestra to the mix? Yes that’s right, no less than 8 trumpets, 6 trombones, 4 french horns, 2 bass trombones and 3 tubas constitute mearly the brass element, and that’s already enough for Mahler and Wagner to get slightly wet eyed over. It also sounds as though the sax section from the Glenn Miller orchestra have accidentally crash landed into the studio as well. Though ultimately as impressive a sound as this makes, what is particularly stomach churning about the piece is its intensity, almost to the point where by the end you literally can’t take it any more (as I’m sat typing this the final deranged onslaught of the piece is genuinely causing me mild breathing difficulties!) But, despite that the work is strangely compelling. Again, like a horror film there is something about it where you just can’t take your eyes or ears off it, no matter how horrific it gets. And everyone looks to be having a very pleasant afternoon in the woods on the back cover, so that’s nice.
Although not available on CD, those of you with Spotify access can hear the opening 3 mins of Mantler’s half of the album on the recent ECM retrospective of Michael Mantler called Review:
An agonizing 15 month wait was on the cards for Zappa fanatics after the release of Halloween and it did sort of feel as if the Vault may have involuntarily sealed itself up, especially as the ZFT had begun their curious policy of less than helpful information distribution: i.e, you got a new Zappa album in your hands roughly a few days or so after they announced it, with precious little promotional build up and little or no explanation as to why any particular release had been chosen. So it was with Joe’s Corsage that appeared somewhat unexpectedly in May 2004. The Zappas though had really shot themselves in the foot in terms of fan expectations by making available the film trailer for the Roxy Performances a few years before, as any release that didn’t in some way feature Frank and the Mothers live on stage in December ’73 would inevitably be a tad dissapointing. Despite that though, the concept of the “Joe’s” series was an interesting one: Joe Travers, now firmly trusted with the alarm code for the Vault had been given a further licence to collate releases of particularly unique historical value, that might otherwise not fit in to any other project.
First up in the collection (which at the time of writing is currently at four volumes) were a selection of pre – Freak Out demos by the “original” Mothers featuring, on the first four tracks, second guitarist Henry Vestine, plus a few covers (the Wedding Dress Song/Handsome Cabin Boy combo makes an early appearance here) and a few brief spoken word sections with Zappa talking about the early days. There’s also a fun early version of Take Your Clothes of When You Dance with different lyrics. Sound quality is quite stunning considering the era, and overall this brief CD makes a nice little companion to both Freak Out and the Mystery Disc and Lost Episodes albums. But, you can’t help feeling that maybe it’s real home would have been on the giant MOFO boxset from a few years down the line. The following “Joe’s” albums (each with it’s own bewilderingly obscure rhyme for Garage) would produce even more controversey regarding just what Zappa fans were prepared to pay for. But before that there was yet another unexpected release in the form of Quaudiophiliac….
1. Ralph Towner – Solo Concert (1979)
2. Ralph Towner – Chiaroscuro (2009)
3. Harmonia – Deluxe (1975)
4. Cluster – Sowiesoso (1976)
5. Mike Keneally – Scambot (2009)
6. Magma – Emehntehtt Re (2009)
7. David Bowie – Stage (1978)
8. David Bowie – Outside (1995)
9. Anthony Phillips – 1984 (1981)
10. Art Bears – Hopes and Fears (1978)