Looking death straight in the eye
You will never feel that much alive
For anyone in the prog world, Roine Stolt is a grand and solid name, a trusted master of the craft and a man as honest about his opinions as anyone ever has been in the rock world. From The Flower Kings to Transatlantic to Anderson-Stolt to Steve Hackett’s band, Stolt is anywhere and everywhere excellence is.
Simply put, when I think of Stolt, I imagine that other master of amazing things, Tom Bombadil. And, yes, that means Goldberry is nearby. “He is.”
The new Flower Kings, WAITING FOR MIRACLES, is a thing of beauty, delicate yet everlasting. Sounding a bit like FLOWER POWER and SPACE REVOLVER, the new album has everything a fan loves: mystery, lingering, soaring, contemplating, undulation.
This is glorious and mighty prog.
The album opens with the fragile and compelling “House of Cards,” moving immediately into the Tennyson-esque rage against fate, “Black Flag.” Followed by ten-minute “Miracles for America,” a plea for the future of the free world, and then another ten-minute track, “Vertigo,” disk one is nothing if not dizzying. If there’s a rock anthem on the album, it’s track no. five, “The Bridge,” which might very well have topped the rock charts in 1983, with its reminder of the theme of the album, “waiting for miracles.” “Ascending to the Stars,” track six of disk one, gives us a mysterious and dark Flower King, an instrumental and orchestra joy somewhat reminiscent of Kansas in its heyday. Despite its name, “Wicked Old Symphony” is the poppiest of the tracks on disk one, a track that hints at the Beatles as well as early 1970’s America. “The Rebel Circus,” track eight, is another wildly wacky and infectious instrumental, followed by the intense and aptly-named, “Sleeping with the Enemy.” The final track of disk one, “The Crowning of Greed,” is a poem, at once reflective in theme, and progressive in tone.
Disk two is much shorter than disk one, and I have no idea if it’s meant to be a “bonus disk” or a continuation of the album. That track one of disk two is a reprise of track one of disk one does nothing to answer my confusion about all of this. Track two, “Spirals,” is a feast of electronica and reminds us once again of the theme of the album: “Call on miracles—For America.” “Steampunk,” the third track of disk two, seems to take us back into the world of adventures. If “Black Flag” followed the voyages of Ulysses, “Steampunk” has us follow Aeneas. The final full track of the album, “We Were Always Here,” is a rather beautiful rock song, reminding us of life and its unending beauties. “It’s so simple in its purities/All that genius—life energies/like forgotten springs of melody.” Disk two ends with the 52-second long bluesy circus piece, “Busking at Brobank.”
Overall, WAITING FOR MIRACLES, is a joy. It’s not just a joy as a Flower Kings album, it’s a joy as a rock album. Anyone serious about his or her rock music should add this to the collection. One final note—while I’m not wild about the cover art (too political for my tastes), I absolutely love the interior art, making a physical purchase of WAITING a must.
P.S. I proudly bought my copy from my favorite store, Burning Shed.
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.
Thirty years ago, Simple Minds released a gem, Street Fighting Years. It sounded almost nothing like the previous albums–the bombastic Once Upon a Time; the fay New Gold Dream; or the mesmerizing Sons and Fascination. Far more Peter Gabriel in restrained rage than Ultravox or U2, Street Fighting Years lived up to its title: a lush, nuanced, and political affair, all managed by the incomparable Trevor Horn.
Sadly, it was the last album on which keyboardist Michael MacNeil played a central role, giving the band a much needed depth.
At times Celtic, at times Norse, and at times just Simple Minds, Street Fighting Years was a last cry before the wilderness of grunge and techno swamped us all.
In the mail today: a new paperback edition of Spirit of Talk Talk, the 2012 history/coffee table book/tribute to this indefinable British band.
To quote publisher Rocket88’s blurb:
Filled with art director James Marsh’s fabulous designs and photos from every stage of the band’s career, the book includes a preface by founder member Simon Brenner, contributions and tributes from musicians, friends and fans, plus a heartfelt afterword honouring founder and leader Mark Hollis.
Eight pages of new material include brief interviews with band members Lee Harris and Paul Webb (who didn’t contribute to the original edition), more photos and the above mentioned afterword by music journalist Chris Roberts.
Talk Talk came a long way from the Duran Duran clones that I saw open for Elvis Costello back in the summer of 1982. On first perusal, Spirit of Talk Talk is every bit as enigmatically beautiful as the music they made on The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. The book can be ordered direct from Rocket88 or through the best online music shop in the world, Burning Shed.
As some of you might now, I’m in the middle of completing a book manuscript on the history of the Inklings for ISI Books. Here’s my partial list of critical moments in the creation of Tolkien’s larger mythology, from its earliest hints to the publication of The Hobbit.
“Bidding of the Minstrel” (poem) Winter 1914
“Tinfang Warble” (Poem) 1914
On Francis Thompson (paper) 1914
“Earendil” (poem) September 1914
“Kalevala; or Land of Heroes” (paper) November 22, 1914
“The Story of Kullervo,” (story) late 1914
“Qenya Lexicon” (dictionary) 1915
On the Kalevala (paper) February 1915
“Man in the Moon” (poem) March 1915
“Sea Chant of an Elder Day” (poem) March 1915
“Cottage of Lost Play” (Poem) April 27-28, 1915
“Shores of Faery” (poem) July 1915
“The Happy Mariners” (poem) July 1915
“A Song of Aryador” (poem) September 12, 1915
“Kortirion Among the Trees” (Poem) November 21-28, 1915
“Over Old Hills and Far Away” (Poem) December 1915-February 1916
“Habbanan Beneath the Stars” (Poem) December 1915 or June 1916
Prelude, Inward, Sorrowful (poems) March 16-18, 1916
“The Fall of Gondolin” (story) 1916-1917
“Tale of Tinuviel” (story) 1917
“Cottage of Lost Play” (story) February 12, 1917
The Music of the Ainur (story) Between November 1918 and Spring 1920
“Turin Turambar & the Dragon” (story) 1919
“The Fall of Gondolin” (story aloud) Spring 1920
“Lay of the Children of H” (poem) 1920-1925
“The City of the Gods” (poem) 1923
Question if Beren a man or elf 1925-1926
“Lay of Leithian (poem) 1925-September 1931
“The Silmarillion” (story) 1926
“Silmarillion/Sketch” (story) 1926
“Intro to Elder Edda” (paper) November 17, 1926
“Mythopoeia” (poem) September 1931-November 1935
The Hobbit (novel) Late 1928-1936
“The Quenta” (story) 1930
“Earliest Annals of Valinor” 1930
“Annals of Beleriand” 1930
Second version of Silmarillion 1930-1937
“New Lay of Volunga” (poem) early 1930s
“New Lay of Gudrún” (poem) early 1930s
“A Secret Vice” (paper) 1931
“Fall of Arthur” (poem) 1931-1934
“Beowulf: Monsters and Critics” (paper) November 25, 1936
“The Lost Road” (story) 1936-37
“The Fall of Númenor” (story) 1936-37
Draft of Silmarillion to Allen/Unwin November 1937
“On Fairy Stories” (paper) March 8, 1939
 CJRT, HOME 2, 269.
 CJRT, HOME 1, 107.
Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 30.
 CJRT, HOME 2, 267; Garth has it on November 27, 1914; see Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 41.
 Flieger, ed., The Story of Kullervo, 63, 91.
 Parma Eldalamberon 12 (1998).
 Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 42.
 CJRT, HOME 1, 202.
 Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 42.
 CJRT, HOME 1, 27.
 CJRT, HOME 2, 271.
 CJRT, HOME 2, 273.
 CJRT, HOME 1, 25.
 CJRT, HOME 1, 108.
 CJRT, HOME 1, 91.
 CJRT, HOME 2, 295.
 CJRT, HOME 2, 146; and CJRT, The Children of Húrin, 9.
 CJRT, HOME 2, 3.
 Edith writes out story for JRRT, HOME 1, 13.
 CJRT, HOME 1, 45
 CJRT, The Children of Húrin, 9.
 To the Exeter College Essay Club, in CJRT, HOME 2, 199.
 CJRT, HOME 3, 1.
 CJRT, HOME 1, 136
 CJRT, HOME 2, 52.
 CJRT, HOME 3, 1.
 CJRT, HOME 2, 300.
 CJRT, HOME 4, 11.
 CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 16.
 CJRT, Tree and Leaf, 7.
 “The Hobbit,” in Scull and Hammond, JRRT Companion and Guide, Reader’s Guide 1, 509-522.
 CJRT, HOME 4, 76.
 CJRT, HOME 4, 1.
 CJRT, HOME 4, 1.
 CJRT, HOME 5, 107.
 CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 5.
 CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 5.
 Given for Johnson Society, Pembroke College. See Fimi and Higgins, eds, A Secret Vice, xii.
 CJRT, Fall of Arthur, 10-11.
 CJRT, The Monsters and the Critics, 1; and Drout, ed., Beowulf and the Critics.
 CJRT, HOME 5, 8-9.
 CJRT, HOME 5, 7-9.
 CJRT, HOME 5, 107
 CJRT, The Monsters and the Critics, 3.
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.