Category Archives: Art

Another Miracle: The Flower Kings at 25

Interior art, Flower Kings, WAITING FOR MIRACLES (Sony/Inside Out, 2019).

Looking death straight in the eye

You will never feel that much alive

—Roine Stolt

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.

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.

lush simple minds: street fighting years

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.

Spirit of Talk Talk

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.

Critical Moments: Tolkien’s Mythology, 1914-1937

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[1]

“Tinfang Warble” (Poem)                          1914[2]

On Francis Thompson (paper)                 1914[3]

“Earendil” (poem)                                       September 1914[4]

“Kalevala; or Land of Heroes” (paper)     November 22, 1914[5]

“The Story of Kullervo,” (story)                late 1914

“Qenya Lexicon” (dictionary)                    1915[6]

On the Kalevala (paper)                              February 1915[7]

“Man in the Moon” (poem)                        March 1915[8]

“Sea Chant of an Elder Day” (poem)       March 1915[9]

“Cottage of Lost Play” (Poem)                   April 27-28, 1915[10]

“Shores of Faery” (poem)                          July 1915[11]

“The Happy Mariners” (poem)                  July 1915[12]

“A Song of Aryador” (poem)                     September 12, 1915


“Kortirion Among the Trees” (Poem)      November 21-28, 1915[13]

“Over Old Hills and Far Away” (Poem) December 1915-February 1916[14]

“Habbanan Beneath the Stars” (Poem)   December 1915 or June 1916[15]

Prelude, Inward, Sorrowful (poems)       March 16-18, 1916[16]

“The Fall of Gondolin” (story)                  1916-1917[17]

“Tale of Tinuviel” (story)                            1917[18]

“Cottage of Lost Play” (story)                    February 12, 1917[19]

The Music of the Ainur (story)                  Between November 1918 and Spring 1920[20]

“Turin Turambar & the Dragon” (story) 1919[21]

“The Fall of Gondolin” (story aloud)       Spring 1920[22]

“Lay of the Children of H” (poem)           1920-1925[23]

“The City of the Gods” (poem)                 1923[24]

Question if Beren a man or elf                 1925-1926[25]

“Lay of Leithian (poem)                             1925-September 1931[26]

“The Silmarillion” (story)                           1926[27]

“Silmarillion/Sketch” (story)                     1926[28]

“Intro to Elder Edda” (paper)                   November 17, 1926[29]

“Mythopoeia” (poem)                                  September 1931-November 1935[30]

The Hobbit (novel)                                      Late 1928-1936[31]

“The Quenta” (story)                                   1930[32]

“Earliest Annals of Valinor”                      1930[33]

“Annals of Beleriand”                                 1930[34]

Second version of Silmarillion                 1930-1937[35]

“New Lay of Volunga” (poem)                   early 1930s[36]

“New Lay of Gudrún” (poem)                   early 1930s[37]

“A Secret Vice” (paper)                              1931[38]

“Fall of Arthur” (poem)                              1931-1934[39]

“Beowulf: Monsters and Critics” (paper) November 25, 1936[40]

“The Lost Road” (story)                             1936-37[41]

“The Fall of Númenor” (story)                  1936-37[42]

Draft of Silmarillion to Allen/Unwin      November 1937[43]

“On Fairy Stories” (paper)                         March 8, 1939[44]


Sources

[1] CJRT, HOME 2, 269.

[2] CJRT, HOME 1, 107.

[3]Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 30.

[4] CJRT, HOME 2, 267; Garth has it on November 27, 1914; see Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 41.

[5] Flieger, ed., The Story of Kullervo, 63, 91.

[6] Parma Eldalamberon 12 (1998).

[7] Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 42.

[8] CJRT, HOME 1, 202.

[9] Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 42.

[10] CJRT, HOME 1, 27.

[11] CJRT, HOME 2, 271.

[12] CJRT, HOME 2, 273.

[13] CJRT, HOME 1, 25.

[14] CJRT, HOME 1, 108.

[15] CJRT, HOME 1, 91.

[16] CJRT, HOME 2, 295.

[17] CJRT, HOME 2, 146; and CJRT, The Children of Húrin, 9.

[18] CJRT, HOME 2, 3.

[19] Edith writes out story for JRRT, HOME 1, 13.

[20] CJRT, HOME 1, 45

[21] CJRT, The Children of Húrin, 9.

[22] To the Exeter College Essay Club, in CJRT, HOME 2, 199.

[23] CJRT, HOME 3, 1.

[24] CJRT, HOME 1, 136

[25] CJRT, HOME 2, 52.

[26] CJRT, HOME 3, 1.

[27] CJRT, HOME 2, 300.

[28] CJRT, HOME 4, 11.

[29] CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 16.

[30] CJRT, Tree and Leaf, 7.

[31] “The Hobbit,” in Scull and Hammond, JRRT Companion and Guide, Reader’s Guide 1, 509-522.

[32] CJRT, HOME 4, 76.

[33] CJRT, HOME 4, 1.

[34] CJRT, HOME 4, 1.

[35] CJRT, HOME 5, 107.

[36] CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 5.

[37] CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 5.

[38] Given for Johnson Society, Pembroke College.  See Fimi and Higgins, eds, A Secret Vice, xii.

[39] CJRT, Fall of Arthur, 10-11.

[40] CJRT, The Monsters and the Critics, 1; and Drout, ed., Beowulf and the Critics.

[41] CJRT, HOME 5, 8-9.

[42] CJRT, HOME 5, 7-9.

[43] CJRT, HOME 5, 107

[44] CJRT, The Monsters and the Critics, 3.

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.

Lonely Robot Finally Comes Home

Under Stars

John Mitchell (Arena, Frost*, Kino, It Bites) has just released Under Stars, and it is a fitting conclusion to his Lonely Robot trilogy. Full of oblique lyrics sung by Mitchell in his gruff tenor, every song is a melodic tour de force. The trilogy is ostensibly about an astronaut (the lonely robot?) who eventually finds his way back home after some surrealistic detours. In John’s words, “It represents the human condition. I’m not suggesting that human beings behave like robots, but so many people lead regimented lives and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and not realise or know how to get out of it.”

Please Come Home
The First Album Of The Trilogy

A recurring theme throughout the trilogy is the call to “Please come home.” In Under Stars, he finally makes it. The album begins with “Terminal Earth”, in which a Vangelis-inspired instrumental emerges out of radio static. In “Ancient Ascendant”, the astronaut is chided for his aloofness: “Ancient ascendant, well I think that we should talk/We may be evolutionary but it’s a backward walk.” “Icarus” features some tasty vintage early-80s sounding synths, while the title track is a beautiful ballad that tugs at the heartstrings. It also happens to contain one of Mitchell’s finest guitar solos – lean, clean, and lyrical.

In “The Only Time I Don’t Belong Is Now”, the astronaut gradually comes to terms with his humanity, and he cries out, “I know that I’m alive without a doubt/The seasons changing, history waiting/The only time I don’t belong is now.”

“When Gravity Fails” takes on superficial social media virtue-signaling with the lines, “Checking in with false empathy/Do you feel #proud, proud?” In “How Bright Is The Sun”, he laments, “We’re basking in the progress; we’re blinded by the cost/And in the forward motion, we’ve never been so lost.”

BIg Dream
The Second Album

The album’s overarching theme seems to be the necessity of embracing one’s common bond with all of humanity. The astronaut tried to separate himself from everyone through a sense of superiority, but he only succeeded in realizing his own incompleteness. As the final song, “An Ending” reassures him (in a reprise of the theme from the first album), “Please come home, lonely robot/Your heart is beautiful, programmed to receive.” No man is an island, indeed.

Taken together, the Lonely Robot Trilogy is a magnificent achievement by one of rock’s most talented artists. John Mitchell has an unerring ear for a seductive melody, and the instrumental chops to back it up. The thematic material might be pretentious in another’s hands, but Mitchell’s lyrics are elusive enough to suggest multiple meanings on several levels. This is music for thoughtful persons, who happen to appreciate finely crafted melodies.