All posts by Thaddeus Wert

High school math teacher and fan of all kinds of music, but most of all prog.

In Praise of Compact Discs

Compact Disc edit

Now that sales of physical music product have cratered, and streaming is the default delivery mode for the majority of music fans, I want to raise a glass to the lowly compact disc. The decision by Tool to release their long-awaited Fear Inoculum only via streaming and digital download is probably the final nail in the CD’s coffin.

It’s hard to convey what a magical technological leap forward the compact disc was for serious consumers of music in the early 1980’s. I came of age in the ’70s, when the only choice was vinyl or cassette tape (8-track was so horrible, I never gave it a thought). I bought hundreds of LPs, and every time I opened a new one, I prayed that it wouldn’t have a scratch or skip. By the late ’70s, record companies were pressing records on such thin vinyl that you were all but guaranteed to have a warped album to deal with. To this day, whenever I listen to Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, I expect to hear a skip at the 2:34 mark, because that is where my LP had a scratch.

When compact disc players’ price dropped below $400, I jumped at the chance to buy one. The first CD I bought? Roxy Music’s Avalon. I still have it. What a relief to not have to get up every 20 minutes to turn the record over! What a relief to know that I could listen to an entire album without a skip, pop, or wiggle! CDs took up much less space than LPs, and those plastic jewel boxes were so cool.

Suddenly, albums that were 2-disc sets in vinyl were now single-disc CDs. It’s almost as if Bob Dylan knew that one day there would be the right medium for Blonde on Blonde. I’m currently working my way through Keith Jarrett’s monumental Sun Bear Concerts. When it was released in 1978, it was a ten LP set, and his brilliant long-form improvisations were interrupted by the time limitations of an LP’s side. On CD, it is five discs (plus an encore one), and every performance is complete. I get to immerse myself in the flow of Jarrett’s genius without the rude interruption of the needle hitting the end of the grooves.

Yes, I know that analog vinyl sounds “warmer” than digital CDs. However, with a nice amp and speakers, CDs sound incredible: beautiful stereo separation, and amazing dynamic range. (If you can find a copy, check out the jazz group Flim and the BBs’ Tricycle on DMP from 1983. You will jump out of your chair when the full group kicks in on the first track.) I will trade an uninterrupted Beethoven’s Ninth for some subjective “warmth” any day.

NME recently reported that vinyl sales are outperforming CD sales for the first time since 1986. My 2017 Mazda 3 came with Bluetooth and USB ports, but no CD player. At my local used books/music/movies store the “bargain” bins for CDS are overflowing with 25 cent copies of stuff from the ’80s and ’90s. Heck, it looks like even Blu-Rays are on the path to extinction, now that Samsung is not manufacturing players for them any more.

My only question is this: what if someone at Spotify, or Google, or Amazon, or Apple decides that that album or movie you really like is not acceptable in polite circles any more? When you only own a license to stream something, it can be taken away very easily, and there isn’t a blessed thing you can do about it.

Laughing Stock’s Sunrise: No Laughing Matter

You have to admire a group that name themselves after one of the most legendary albums in prog history, and Norway’s Laughing Stock live up to their namesake.  Jan Mikael Sørensen, Håvard Enge, and Jan Erik Kirkevold Nilsen have released a very fine album that leaves me wanting more.

They certainly reference all the right artists, calling to mind Pink Floyd one moment, King Crimson another, Porcupine Tree, Close to the Edge-era Yes, and of course, Talk Talk (literally singing in the song Echoes, “I still believe in you”). What is so  appealing about Laughing Stock is their ability to absorb and honor those influences while forging a distinctive sound of their own. Not quite pop, not quite prog, not quite folk, but a wonderful combination of them all.

The album begins with a clanging alarm bell on Sunrise, which is followed by a television playing in the background, a la Wish You Were Here. Somber vocals – accompanied by acoustic guitar – chant, “Stay awake, take me to daybreak – sunrise.” Drums, mellotron, bass, and guitar are gradually added to the mix to great effect.

The album is a song cycle chronicling daylight hours, Sunset, Fading Light, a Darkest Hour, and finally, Another Sunrise. The third track, Afraid, is a great song, where they sing “I’m afraid, afraid of the morning/When dreams are fading away/I’m afraid, afraid of the light/Rising daylight, come out to play/What the hell is wrong?” A loping guitar riff pushes the song along as bits of sitar weave in and out of the background. It’s slightly unsettling, yet very attractive.

In Sunset, they sing, “I am falling for you” over a gorgeous acoustic guitar, drums, and bass melody. Beach Boys -like harmonies abound, and everything seems to be at peace. It’s a beautiful track. As a matter of fact the entire album is a beautiful piece of work – primarily acoustic, featuring slower tempos with deliberate pacing. Not until Darkest Hour do we hear some serious rock, and it is excellent. Imagine King Crimson and Porcupine Tree getting together for a slow jam session, and that gives you an idea of its atmosphere.

Sunrise is being released on Apollon records. It’s the perfect thing to listen to at the end of a long day when you want to relax and unwind. However, it’s definitely not background music, as their sophisticated lyrics conjure grown-up themes. Highly recommended!

 

 

 

The Elegant Art-Pop of Manuel Schmid und Marek Arnold

One of the most delightful aspects of prog music is the convoluted networks of artists that can lead one to discover surprising hidden treasures. My latest vein of musical gold is an album by German artists Manuel Schmid and Marek Arnold. Their album, Zeiten, is my favorite of 2019 so far. (It was released in December 2018, and I wasn’t aware of it until March of this year, so I’m counting it as a 2019 release.)

How did an American fan of prog rock find this relatively obscure album that is sung entirely in German? Even Schmid’s official website is in German, so it’s incomprehensible to me. Well, I am a big admirer of the Australian group, Southern Empire. Sean Timms is their keyboardist and main songwriter. He is also a member of another excellent prog group, Damanek. Damanek includes multi-instrumentalist Marek Arnold. I noticed that Arnold’s newest project was Zeiten, and, voila!, I found this gem of an album

Zeiten is entirely sung in German, but that hasn’t detracted from my enjoyment of it one bit. I wish I could tell you what the songs are about, but based on the official video for Kleines Glück, I would say they are about relationships. Zeiten itself means “times” or an era in one’s life. All I know is that every song is perfectly crafted jewel.

Schmid and Arnold’s melodies are beautiful and delicate, catchy without being cloying, and deceptively complex. The instrumentation is primarily keyboards based, and mostly acoustic. There are very tasteful synth flourishes and electric guitar solos, but none of them overwhelm the beauty of the underlying melodies. Stiller Schrei features Schmid singing with a string quartet, and it is comparable to a work by Schubert.

Schmid has a wonderful voice – warm, clear, and strong without any histrionics. Arnold supplies sympathetic accompaniment with keyboards, synths, and sax. Their talents combine to create some of the most seductive music I’ve ever heard.

Here is the video for Kleines Glückwhich I assume is a bittersweet meditation on memories of childhood:

 

1980s Synthpop Redux

Early ’80s synthpop, an often maligned style of music, is having a resurgence in popularity. Maybe it’s the nostalgia generated by Netflix hits like Stranger Things, but there is a new appreciation for music that was first produced in the early 1980s by artists like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Howard Jones, Gary Numan, Ultravox, Camouflage, early Tears For Fears, and Depeche Mode. If you’re like me, and you’ve always had a soft spot in your heart for those groups, then today’s new synth wizards are a lot of fun to listen to.

Gunship,  from the UK, has two albums out, and they are both excellent. Their latest, Dark All Day, is very melodic with prominent rhythm.  The video for the title track has over 3 million views, so there is definitely an audience for their style of music.

The Fixt label curates a synthwave playlist on Spotify called Neon that features their stable of artists. You can hear the latest tracks from Soul Extract, The Bad Dreamers, 3Force, and many others there.

Two of my favorite synthwave artists are also on Fixt: The Anix and Scandroid. Scandroid is a project of Fixt label founder Klayton, and he is an unabashed lover of classic synthpop new wave. He even included a fine cover of Tears For Fears’ “Shout” on his first album.

The Anix is darker and more modern sounding.  Their excellent album, Shadow Movement, is set in a dystopian future, and it features catchy melodies linked to relentless beats.

Finally, LA-based I Will Never Be The Same is the brainchild of Josh Atchley. His music combines Nine Inch Nails industrial style with the melodicism of Depeche Mode and The Cure. Add a dash of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and you have an irresistible mix. Take a listen to “Last Goodbye”:

These recommendations barely scratch the surface of the fun and interesting music that synthwavers are releasing now. Check them out, and let us know your current guilty pleasures in the comments below!

 

Jesus Christ The Exorcist

Just when you think you have Neal Morse figured out, he throws another curve ball. His latest project is “a progressive rock musical”, and it is unlike anything else he has produced.

First, Neal himself is not a prominent voice here. He only sings the part of Pilate, along with very minor contributions as a demon and a disciple. Second, this really is a musical, where one song flows seamlessly into another. To fully appreciate it, the listener needs to set aside the time to listen to it in one setting. Third, stylistically this is the most diverse set of songs Neal has written. In his own words, “There are touching ballads, rousing ensemble pieces, classical elements, and dramatic Broadway musical type songs, as well.”

The role of Jesus is performed by Ted Leonard, and he is perfect for it – authoritative one minute, combative the next, and achingly tender in other settings. It’s one of Leonard’s finest performances. Another standout performer is Nick D’Virgilio as Judas, where he manages to convey his initial excitement at Jesus’ early miracles, and then his confusion and disillusionment when he realizes his rabbi isn’t going to overthrow the Roman oppression of Israel. His anguish in “Dark Is The Night” is palpable as he sings,

Jesus there must be some other way
Of conquering the enemy
How can you help us
If you are dead and gone?

Speaking of Jesus, Morse’s version is definitely not the same as the Jesus Christ Superstar from the early ’70s. Where Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus was the happy, hip leader of a group of countercultural provocateurs, Morse’s is a man of action. As I listened to Jesus Christ The Exorcist, the Gospel of Mark came to mind: to the point, not a lot of parables or theological discussions, but many examples of active ministry. Morse’s Jesus is the one in the title: an exorcist waging spiritual battle against the devil and his demons. In many ways, it’s a refreshing portrait. Morse strips the story of Jesus down to the bare essentials – his baptism, temptation, casting out seven demons from Mary, saving the madman of the Gadarenes, the Last Supper, his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. If someone who had no idea who Jesus Christ was listened to this album, he or she would have a pretty good understanding afterwards.

What about the music? Neal still has the gift of beautiful melody, and “Love Has Called My Name” is one of the catchiest songs he’s ever composed. There are some fairly heavy tracks (“Get Behind Me Satan”, for example), some singer/songwriter songs (the aforementioned “Dark Is The Night”), some blues (“The Woman of Seven Devils”), and some very nice prog (“Jesus’ Temptation”). “There’s A Highway” sounds like it could be blasting out of a late-70s FM rock radio station.

The vocal performances are uniformly excellent, especially Talon David as Mary Magdalene. Neal wrote and produced the entire piece, as well as playing guitar, keyboards, bass, and percussion. Eric Gillette from the Neal Morse Band plays drums (!), and long-time collaborator Randy George is on bass. Paul Bielatowicz plays lead guitar. There’s also a string orchestra, horns, male chorus, female chorus, and a kitchen sink (just kidding!).

If you’re a fan of Neal, you probably already have this. If his occasional flights of prog excess have made you wary of his music, give this a try – it covers more familiar musical territory. Even if you are not a Christian, give it a listen. It’s actually not as “preachy” as Morse’s earlier Testimony albums, and his gift for composing a memorable melody really shines here, making Jesus Christ The Exorcist one of the most enjoyable musical experiences of 2019.

 

Rocketman Reaches the Stars

Rocketman

The Elton John biopic, Rocketman, opened this weekend, and it is an amazing film. From 1970 through 1976, his music was inescapable on radio: AM top 40 radio was saturated with Elton songs, and FM progressive rock stations played his deeper album cuts. For several years, Elton John was the biggest musical star on the planet.

So it makes sense, given the success of the recent Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, to give Sir John the same treatment. However, Rocketman is a far more successful film. It begins with Elton stomping down the hallway of a rehab center in an outrageous devil costume with horns and wings. He bursts into a group therapy session, confesses his many sins, and begins talking about his life. As he opens up more and more about his childhood and early career, he gradually removes various parts of his costume, until he eventually looks like everyone else in the group.

What makes Rocketman such a memorable experience is director Dexter Fletcher’s decision to make this a musical, and not a documentary. His willingness to play loose with the chronological sequence of John’s hits, and let them serve the overall narrative of his life may annoy some fans, but it works. Throughout the movie, there are surrealistic sequences of singing and dancing that are wonderfully entertaining.

For example, a very young Reg Dwight (Elton’s real name) is asked to play a song in the local pub. He begins playing piano tentatively, but at the urging of his family quickly rips into “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”. The walls of the pub recede, and an young Elton – several years older – is running through a carnival belting out the lyrics while followed by a troupe of choreographed dancers. It’s a thrilling moment that drives home his promise and talent.

Another highlight is the moment when he and lifelong collaborator Bernie Taupin first meet and agree to work together. As Elton tries out the first few chords of “Your Song” while peering at Bernie’s handwritten lyrics, the audience is swept up into the excitement of their discovery that they are going to be huge.

No rock biopic would be complete without the star’s obligatory descent into drugs and paranoia, and Rocketman pulls no punches. As he gets bigger and bigger, and more and more people depend on his touring to fuel their greed, he gradually succumbs to every temptation given him. And this is where Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton deserves praise: his vocals are extraordinary, and his portrayal of Elton’s slow descent into drug and alcohol-fueled madness is harrowing. He truly deserves an Oscar for his work.

Of course, Elton’s sexual preferences are no secret, and they are an integral part of the story from the beginning. There are some love scenes that, quite frankly, would never have made it to the screen a few years ago. That said, everything in the movie is there for a reason, and nothing is gratuitous. His brief marriage to Renate is covered sympathetically, and his brotherly bond with Bernie is a constant source of strength and stability throughout the turmoil of his career.

The final scenes where Elton confronts his demons, both chemical and familial, are uplifting and satisfying. If you grew up in the 1970s as I did, or you are simply a fan of Elton, Rocketman is a fitting tribute to one of the most talented composers and performers of our lifetime.