On Instrumental Music – Old and New
Teaser: I’m working on a review of “Winter Garden”, the new instrumental CD by Eraldo Bernocchi, Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie on the RareNoiseRecords label.
In a recent broadcast of the American Public Media program “On Being”, Krista Tippett was talking with the late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue who noted, “Music is what language would love to be if it could.” It’s a fascinating interview on what O’Donohue explored throughout his short life (he died at the age of 52 in 2008) and called “the invisible world” and ties to spirituality, mysticism, beauty, and ties to his Irish homeland and history.
While I don’t necessarily think written or spoken language is inferior to music, instrumental works can evoke instantaneous memories or emotions that are often indescribable. Certainly, spoken words or sung lyrics can elevate, or make more familiar, the emotion of a piece, but I have always been fascinated by instrumental music, from early to modern as well as current forms (either as pure electronic or combined acoustic, found-sampled sound coupled with electronic music).
I often return to familiar musicians for new work and to revisit their earlier works. Many long-established artists continue to explore and reinvent themselves. Brian Eno and his many collaborators is an example of such an artist. With the demise of so many traditional record shops (especially in rural and suburban areas), I have found it increasingly difficult to find new music. Time was when I could walk into my local record shop and “Bob” who I had known for years knew my tastes in music, but also knew I was open for new explorations. If I was on the hunt for something new, “Bob” always had great ideas, but now he’s gone.
It has taken me some time, but slowly, I am finding new sources for music (in addition to word-of-mouth from friends), whether it’s direct from independent music labels, music related websites, podcasts or referrals from musicians. I have also found the (almost instant) crowd-sourcing aspect of Twitter to be very helpful for finding legal sources for artist’s works when some outlets are out of stock.
Music comes from unlikely sources too. Recently I was listening to an NPR Heavy Metal (not my usual haunt) genre podcast from NPR’s All Songs Considered, and NPR Music’s Lars Gotrich paused between Metal songs to refer to a young electronic/drone musician from the Chicago area named, Nicholas Szczepanik. The piece that Lars sampled was a short excerpt from NS’s mid-2011 release “Please Stop Loving Me”, a single 48 minute track, a portion of which is here:
Certainly, some people will react differently, but my reaction to “PSLM” was instantaneous and visceral. The layering of the sound, the reaching for something and when almost at the point of contact the music shifts slightly to another layered emotion, feeling or color. Yet, I found the piece incredibly relaxing and comforting despite its density. It took me a few tries to find a CD of the work, but thanks to that instant crowd-sourcing at Twitter, I found a copy in France from: http://www.bassesfrequences.org/ Jerome, the owner of the website, could not have gotten me the CD much faster. “PSLM” is a really remarkable work. I look forward to Nicholas’s forthcoming releases.
Nicholas has two LP releases coming soon (that’s right folks, vinyl) : “The Truth of Transience” available at: http://www.isounderscore.com/ and “We Make Life Sad”, soon to be available at: http://www.mewelesite.be/ (and it looks like the LP will be pressed with clear vinyl).
Nick Magnus – Children of Another God – CD
Magick Nuns Records – MNCD 1002: http://www.magnus-music.com/coag.htm
1) Children of Another God, 2) Doctor Prometheus, 3) Twenty Summers, 4) Identity Theft, 5) The Colony is King, 6) Crimewave Monkeys, 7) The Others, 8) Babel Tower, 9) Howl the Stars Down
Short version: Buy this CD; it’s one of the best progressive rock albums, front to back that you will ever hear. It’s beautifully produced, packaged and recorded and the videos at Nick’s website work very well with the story of the album.
Long version: Nick was first a student steeped in analog synthesizers and keyboard works with progressive bands such as The Enid and Autumn. The latter band made a recording in 1977 when Nick was a mere 22 and it was released privately as a CD entitled “Oceanworld” in 1999 on Autumn Records. Before his solo career started Nick was best known as a long time collaborator with Steve Hackett until the late 1980s. There’s a very good history of Nick’s career at his website. He has also recorded as a guest musician with Renaissance, China Crisis and many others.
Nick is also a pioneer in the transition from an analog to digital recording studio and keyboards. He was also largely responsible for what’s probably the first recording of the Linn Drum on Steve Hackett’s LP “Cured” in 1981. For some, this was Steve’s most pop LP, but it established Steve as more of a songwriter, in addition to his well known instrumental works. Nick’s playing, engineering and production work had a great influence of Hackett’s sound during that period. Nick over time has also created an almost flawless analog “sound” to digital recording and sampled instruments. Since the early 1990s he has been sought out as a consultant on digital recording techniques and electronic percussion. And although in the earlier days he worked with one of my favorite keyboard instruments, the Mellotron (and successor Novatron), his work continues to feature this instrument in a sampled digital form. He was also a large force behind the now out-of-print and much sought-after 1993 CD on the Voiceprint label, “Rime of the Ancient Sampler”, which features the Mellotron and Chamberlin recorded in many forms in original works by a well-known cast of progressive artists from Wooly Wolstenholme (Barclay James Harvest) to Michael Pinder (Moody Blues). Nick’s recording on this CD is an alternate mix of his piece “Night of the Condor” from his 1993 solo Voiceprint CD (VP142CD) “Straight On Till Morning” (“SOTM”).
“Children of Another God” (“COAG”) is the follow-up to Nick’s previous solo works “SOTM”, “Inhaling Green”, “Hexameron” and collaborations with Pete Hicks (former Steve Hackett vocalist) “Flat Pack” and John Hackett’s (Steve’s brother) marvelous CD “Checking Out of London”. “COAG” has some familiar guest artists: Steve Hackett, John Hackett, Tony Patterson (Re-Genesis and solo works), Pete Hicks, Linda John-Pierre, Andy Neve and Glenn Tollett.
“COAG” is (as many progressive works are) a concept album; it tells a story, but it is subject to the interpretation of the listener. Nick’s other collaborator is lyricist Dick Foster, who has contributed lyrics and the back-story to some of Nick’s other solo works. Briefly, the story is contemporary and plausible; ten cloned brothers are violently separated at birth and are drawn together later in adult life. The album has a motto, “Conformity is Power, Diversity is Progress”. I’ll let the listener draw their own conclusions on the outcome of the story and the social commentary, but these are certainly issues that we face as a society as science races ahead of public policy.
The CD starts with the anthem and story “COAG” (video at Nick’s website and youtube along with two other videos). Tony Patterson is the vocalist and everything that a solid progressive album should have is present: guitars, keyboards, Mellotron strings and choir and bass pedals—the song and story builds and then will fill your listening room. “Doctor Prometheus” with Pete Hicks providing vocals, follows with an instantly memorable rhythm and Greek story line that parallels the concept and adds wit (for those not familiar with the myth of Prometheus, search the web or reach for your Greek mythology books!). As is the case with many of Nick’s works, he often pays an homage to other progressive artists and “Twenty Summers”, which serves as an instrumental link to the fourth track “Identity Theft” includes rhythms and sounds that will be familiar to many from Yes to an instantly recognizable homage to the short-lived band UK (“In The Dead of Night”) from their 1977 eponymous LP. “Identity Theft” is, I think, Nick’s solo vocal debut (video also at Nick’s website) and once the song begins he is joined by ex-Enid bassist Glenn Tollett who provides a sensual jazz-like acoustic bass line that intertwines with sonorous wine-glass sampling and vibraphone throughout the song—the story of the clones continues. “The Colony is King” includes chilling vocals by Andy Neve and features sweeping flute from John Hackett and screaming riffs from Steve Hackett’s Fernandes guitar, paralleled with haunting Mellotron—this is a beautiful recording and pulls one into the emotion of the story; a nightmare soundtrack of sorts.
Pete Hicks returns for “Crimewave Monkeys” with a musical introduction that will challenge the sonic and dynamic capabilities of any audio system—a broad and sweeping recording that quickly transitions into a tight rhythmic riff and the vocals depicting a fast-paced hyped twenty-four hour news cycle reporting violence; strong social commentary here. Next is Linda John-Pierre’s emotional vocal presenting a mother’s story of receiving a son and then how the boy is taken by “The Others”, the song’s title. The sentimental power of this piece is very evident and some may criticize it for not being truly a “progressive” work, but the lyrics provide the guidance for the treatment of the music and for me it works very well with the whole.
More history books required along with contemporary parallels in the next track “Babel Tower” sung by Tony Patterson (with his Peter Gabriel-esque vocal treatment); this is where the story, like the tower, falls and we are returned to a reprise of the opening theme of “COAG”, more stirring and sonically broader than the first, but this is not the end. There is a postscript: “Howl the Stars Down” is a somber conclusion to the story, brilliantly sung by Tony Patterson; the song, the vocals and the lyrics are raw, tragic and have the feeling of being in slow motion. This is Tony’s own vocal sound, no imitation here. Nick’s piano and strings paint a stark reality and the vocals are nothing but beautiful.
This work is the complete package; in music and story, from beginning to end, beautifully recorded, played and told. Listen to it over and over; it will be well worth your time.
More on Nick Magnus: Although not well known for this, Nick and Dick Foster recently (and quietly) released an album of “pop” songs in 2009, available only as a download from his website, under the moniker “Magnus & Foster – Don’t Look Back”. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like beautifully crafted songs, catchy tunes and thoughtful lyrics, it’s well worth it!
This review was first published at Audiokarma.org in 2010
Harold Budd – In The Mist – CD
Darla DRL248 – 2011 http://darla.com/index.php
Track Listing: The Whispers: 1) Haru Spring, 2) The Whispers, 3) The Startled, 4) The Foundry (For Mika Vainio), 5) The Art of Mirrors (after Derek Jarman) Gunfighters: 6) Three-Fingered Jack, 7) Greek George, 8) Black Bart Shadows: 9) Come Back To Me In Dreams, 10) Parallel Night, 11) Sun at 6 Windows, 12) The Panther of Small Favors, 13) Mars and the Artist (after Cy Twombly)
It was an early morning in the studio in late April, 1980 after a long night of drafting with temperamental Rapidiograph pens on mylar. Black turned to indigo, then to purple, red-orange and finally a golden sun was in through the high studio windows. It was the first light of the morning and “First Light” from Harold Budd & Brian Eno’s “Ambient 2 – The Plateaux of Mirror” was playing on a stereo belonging to my studio-mate Bill. This was my introduction to the first of many Harold Budd (born 1936) solo and collaborative works. I knew Eno’s own work, his collaborations with Robert Fripp and the glam-rock days of Roxy Music. Budd and Eno’s work together was music of sonorous ambience and while stark, it was broadly spatial and filled our studio as did the rising sun. Later that morning I went to the college record shop and bought a copy of the LP (and I still have it). Eno and Budd collaborated again in 1984 on the Editions EG album, “The Pearl”.
Prior to “Ambient 2”, Budd’s early compositions were collected on the 1978 Editions EG release “The Pavilion of Dreams”. Since then Budd has released nearly forty solo and collaborative works with Robin Guthrie, Elizabeth Fraser, Simon Raymonde, Clive Wright, Eraldo Bernocchi, Hector Lazou, Andy Partridge, Zeitgeist and Daniel Lanois among others.
In 2004, with the release of the double CD “Avalon Sutra/As Long As I Can Hold My Breath” (on Samadhi Sound) it was rumored that Budd had retired, having started his career as a composer in the 1960s and then a teacher of music composition at the California Institute of the Arts from 1970 to 1976. Curiously, in 2005, his retirement seemed short-lived and work surfaced again: collaborations with Eraldo Bernocchi (“Fragments from the Inside”, recorded live for an art installation) and Robin Guthrie (formerly of the Cocteau Twins), a soundtrack for the film “Mysterious Skin”. Since then, Budd has been quite prolific with more than twelve recordings released in the last six years.
Budd’s instrumentations vary from stark piano, electronically treated piano, processed synthesizers to string quartets and spoken voice. One piano piece “The Room” from the 1988 release “The White Arcades” was later expanded to an entire album of “rooms” in 2000, entitled “The Room”. There is also an album of two Budd improvised piano sessions, produced by Daniel Lanois in 2003 that was secretly recorded at Lanois’ house and released as “La Bella Vista”. In 2007, Budd released solo and separate collaborative works with guitarists Clive Wright & Robin Guthrie on Darla Records.
“In The Mist” is Budd’s first solo work since 2004. It is divided into three sections: The Whispers, Gunfighters and Shadows. Whispers: Starts with the first five notes of “Haru Spring”, the reality of an untreated piano and gradually each piece merges into a dream-state with the subsequent treated piano pieces. In these, time and sound are gently altered. The sensation (for me) is that of being in a half-waking state. There on the edge and lingering in between, suspended. Budd has a unique way of paring mood, sound, space and atmosphere down to the barest of essentials, yet his pieces never bear the cliché sound or rhythms of so many other artists labeled as producing ambient music.
Gunfighters: These pieces are darker in tone, have more identifiable melodic structures and seem more about telling stories, as the titles might suggest. They do seem to have American southwestern ambience to them. Like with Whispers, the opening piece uses the piano as the primary instrument with the latter two pieces having a more altered sound (with electronics and light synthetic percussion). The pieces have a cinematic quality, with imagined, yet tangible visuals. The last piece “Black Bart” is marginally sinister, with a pulsing drone throughout and punctuated with untreated piano.
Shadows: Is a departure from the other two sections and a string quartet is used exclusively. Though the textures and harmonies are broader, the mood is somber and to my ears (and eyes) the colors are varying shades of gray and the feeling is poignant yet abstract. “Sun At 6 Windows” appears to be about passing time, but here there is no altered sound or bending, it’s straight with a mood that is reflective and sentimental.
I know at some point, it will be inevitable that Harold Budd will retire, but it is my hope that it is still far into the future. I revisit Harold Budd’s works of the last thirty years often, especially during times where quiet reflection is needed. I recommend this beautiful and simply packaged CD and also urge a journey to discover Budd’s earlier works, both solo and collaborative; they are enriching on many levels.
Budd Discography: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Budd
Appeared in the December, 2011 Hifi Zine: http://www.hifizine.com/2011/12/harold-budd-in-the-mist/
Will Samson – Hello Friends, Goodbye Friends – CD
2011 PLOP/NATURE BLISS Distributed in USA by Darla
http://willsamson.bandcamp.com/ & http://willsamson.co.uk/
Tracks 1) My Broken Mirror, 2) Panda Bears, 3) Meet me at Home, 4) Find me in the Ocean, 5) Violins and Polaroids, 6) Sleeping, 7) Friends, 8) Great Plains
I know very little of Will Samson’s prior project “Himalaya” other than some youtube video uploads, but I picked up his new album “Hello Friends, Goodbye Friends” after reading a description at online music merchant Darla.com, and I took a chance. After a number of years of searching for, acquiring and tweaking various pieces of vintage and new audio equipment, I have finally turned back to finding new music as well as revisiting old friends and their new material on both CD and vinyl. I like all sorts of music, except angry-man-head-bangin’ rap and heavy metal of a similar ilk.
Samson is of diverse national heritage (Chilean, Indian and Italian), born in England, lived in Australia and currently resides in Berlin, Germany. I was instantly struck by the power of this deeply personal album. It’s a real gem. Most music takes time to grow on me, often with eight or ten listens of an album, and even then, I might have only two or three favorite pieces.
It is evident that the young Mr. Samson is on a voyage of discovery—both sonic and life. I was also drawn to the story behind the music (journeying though Europe, Asia and the Himalayas at 19, one way ticket, self-doubt, celebration, loneliness & joyfulness), but only after hearing the album and wanting to know more. Some might classify his work as ambient, folk, indie and when loaded into iTunes it curiously comes up classified as “pop”. This music just takes the World and slows it down allowing for contemplation of the music and perhaps various issues that consume one’s own life. The songs are beautifully crafted, in a way, similar to F. M. Cornog’s (of East River Pipe), yet they lack the edgy subjects and politics that F. M. often explores.
The first piece on the CD, “My Broken Mirror” starts with a shimmering of acoustic guitar and what appears to be a light electric guitar overdub used almost like a horn, to beckon the listener mournfully “Ooo…it’s going to get easier…”. Yet the spirit of the music is uplifting and optimistic. Later on in the CD ,“Friends” is reminiscent of Anthony Phillips’ beautiful piece “God if I saw Her Now” from his first solo album “The Geese and the Ghost”. Every piece on “Hello Friends…” stands on its own, yet all function well together as a collective whole.
The recordings are stark (made with an eight-track recorder, a gift from his father before his travels and mixed by Samson) and there are many ambient sounds deep in the soundstage, footsteps across a room, the inner workings of a piano or the click of the recorder’s controls. Will Samson mixes his normal and falsetto voices in various pieces, almost chants of sorts and for some this may be bothersome, but stick with it. The supporting instrumentation appears to be parlor guitar, electric guitar with some effects, bass and piano with minimal electronic treatments and light percussion.
The album is an intimate personal meditation, yet is sonically broad like the mountainscapes depicted in the cover art. The CD’s jacket is a small gate-fold LP, typical of many Japanese releases. The album is little over thirty-eight minutes, which is far too short and leaves me wanting more, but one can be rewarded again with the replay button. This is the kind of album that makes me want to buy copies and give them to as many friends as I can think who would appreciate something as beautiful and rare as this album is.
Appeared in the September, 2011 Hifi Zine: http://www.hifizine.com/issues/september-2011/
Unless credited otherwise, photos and posts are Copyrighted © 2011-2012 by wajobu. Album artwork and photography copyrights are owned by the artist and/or their respective record labels.