When is a musical work true invention? When is it referential? When is it derivative? Can a work influenced by previous work still be considered original or innovative? I suppose these are questions that could spark a (sometimes heated) discussion like: “What audio speakers sound the best? Is it the east coast or west coast sound?” Often, the proper answer is: “What ever speakers sound best to one’s own ears.”
Generally, I think that most art, design and music works are built on the foundations that came before them and there really is little actual invention, more on the side of innovation or variants of an original. Dig deeply enough and one even can see that Frank Lloyd Wright’s and other modern architectural works (many seemingly original) have been influenced by the works of others or by some reference to design in nature or distant history (like many of Wright’s LA houses of the 1920s being highly influenced by ancient Mayan temples).
I’m certainly not an expert on the extensive back catalogs of Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry, Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson (including Wilson’s various side projects), but I have enough of their music in my collection to know that I generally like their respective work (some albums, in my opinion, being better than others—that’s the subjective part, like the what speakers sound better question). Bryan Ferry and Steven Wilson are from two different musical generations and have been influenced by different works and people, but there is some overlap.
Ferry has noted that much of his seminal listening, writing and songs were influenced by early and mid-20th century instrumental jazz (including Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman): “I loved the way the great soloists would pick up a tune and shake it up – go somewhere completely different – and then return gracefully back to the melody, as if nothing had happened.” With these influences and those of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, King Crimson and others, Ferry’s band Roxy Music (with a number of different musicians, including Brian Eno and later Eddie Jobson) would go on to create quite innovative and often influential art-glam-pop-progressive rock works in the 1970s and early 80s in addition to Ferry’s distinctive solo works.
Steven Wilson works within a cauldron of many genres (progressive rock, metal, ambient and jazz fusion), and it’s clear from his remixing/remastering work (such as the King Crimson back-catalog, most recently Larks’ Tongues in Aspic) that he has both a deep affection for those influences as well as a respect for the history behind them. Wilson’s latest album The Raven That Refused To Sing is steeped in a mind-bending brew of musical influences, yet stays safely on the side of creatively paying homage while avoiding pastiche or cliché. Throughout the album he tips his hat with musical phrases and instrumental sounds that have kept me looking back into my music collection for their roots (a most welcome research project).
Steven Wilson – Luminol
Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing
Whether it’s a soaring guitar bend of Pink Floyd, a vocal introduction reminiscent of McDonald and Giles’ Tomorrow’s People, a Mellotron phrase from Genesis’ Watcher of the Skies, an electric guitar intro akin to the band Focus, acoustic guitar phrases of Ant Phillips’ The Geese and the Ghost or flute phrases of Jethro Tull, Wilson and his current band blend these deftly into the rather sullen tale of The Raven… I can also hear more recent parallels in the menacing track The Holy Drinker, to the works of (Miles Davis scholar) Bob Belden’s jazz-fusion Animation project (the recent post-9/11 track Provocatism from the album Transparent Heart). The musical and sonic success of this album is also thanks to the great live studio engineering care of Alan Parsons and gifted musicians Nick Beggs, Guthrie Govan, Adam Holzman, Marco Minnemann, Theo Travis and Jakko Jakszyk who have interpreted Wilson’s vision into a cohesive and often stunning recording. The dynamics and emotions are broad, from the aggressive percussion/bass opening to the somber balladic close of the title track. There are minimal overdubs on the album, except for using an original King Crimson MKII Mellotron (recorded at DGM).
The Bryan Ferry Orchestra – Do The Strand
In contrast, Bryan Ferry is reinterpreting his own past work with vocals removed, leaving the melodies and harmonies of the original songs, and they’re are filtered through a time machine that brings the listener back to Ferry’s earliest musical influences—the sound, orchestration and recording techniques of the roaring and often buoyant 1920s. Some fans of Roxy Music or Ferry’s original work don’t seem to appreciate the effort (especially the sound treatment, and the monaural recording), but being that I enjoy original pre-and jazz-age acoustic recordings, I think it’s a favorable re-examination of Ferry’s work while avoiding the temptation reissue yet another compilation for the sake of churning a back-catalog. In fact, the recording sounds almost identical to the hi-fidelity of that period, a Victor Orthophonic reproducer and Victrola.
The Bryan Ferry Orchestra – The Jazz Age – The Reinterpreted Tracks
Bryan Ferry – The Jazz Age – The Original Tracks
I like both of these albums very much, for different reasons, and while they are clearly influenced by works before them, they stand very well on their own. Are either as groundbreaking as King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King? No (again, my subjective opinion). On the positive side, after a somewhat cool start, Steven Wilson’s album has been growing on me (my favorite track, by far, is Drive Home), whereas I liked Ferry’s album almost instantly—I was hooked by Do The Strand. Are either of these albums what I would consider the best of 2013? It’s a bit early for that–let’s wait and see.
Steven Wilson – Drive Home
RareNoiseRecords RNR028 – Time: 76:59 (CD & Digital Files)
Label & Soundfiles: http://www.rarenoiserecords.com/jukebox/animation/transparent-heart/
Artist Website: http://www.animationismusic.com/
Band: Bob Belden: sax/flute; Peter Clagett: trumpet & effects; Jacob Smith: bass; Roberto Verastegui: keyboards & samplers; Matt Young: drums
Tracks: 1) Terra Incognito; 2) Urbanoia; 3) Cry In The Wind; 4) Transparent Heart; 5) Seven Towers; 6) Provocatism; 7) Vanishment; 8) Occupy!
Bob Belden is a composer, arranger, conductor, musician as well as past head of A&R for Blue Note Records. He is also has a strong sense of the history of Jazz, including being a scholar of the works of Miles Davis, and having received Grammy Awards for the reissues of Miles Davis’s work on Columbia Records. In his own work, Belden is a story-teller of the lives of others, whether orchestral, jazz-fusion or soundtracks.
Perhaps his best known works are the 2001 Grammy Award-winning Black Dahlia (the mysterious tragic death of actress Elizabeth Short’s in 1947) and the more recent collective world jazz fusion productions (with Miles Davis alums) Miles From India (2008), and Miles Español – New Sketches of Spain (2011). In the guise of the project known as Animation, Belden released the album Asiento in 2010, a live interpretation of Miles Davis’s 1970 album Bitches Brew, along with a 2011 3D60 surround sound remix of the album, entitled Agemo (both on RareNoiseRecords).
Belden’s latest album Transparent Heart represents a shift in his work; this time the story is his own. It is a musical memoir of his life in New York City for more than the past three decades, and the dramatic changes seen since his first arrival in Manhattan in 1979 with Woody Herman’s band—the post-disco era. Not only is this album personal, it’s also a social and political history and commentary of this period. There are common threads throughout the decades (not the least of which is fear: from Communism to terrorism and the latest, the corporate takeover of America and the rise and fall of Wall Street and the financial sector and the revolt against it and corporate dominance).
During this period there was a gradual change from the mean streets of the 1970s (as depicted in the films French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and especially my favorite Taxi Driver) to the gentrification and commercialization of many areas throughout the five boroughs of NYC. We have seen huge changes since the 1970s in the music and arts scene, and in places like Times Square, Harlem and Greenwich Village. New York City in 1979 was a LONG way from Belden’s own home in Goose Creek, South Carolina. For Transparent Heart, Belden assembled a group of young musicians from his alma mater, the University of North Texas, ranging in age from 19 to 32.
Like the opening to a 1970s era film, Terra Incognito is the overview, the panning shot of Manhattan with its cavernous avenues of towers, and Belden’s first impressions seen wide-eyed with young optimism. It’s a majestic and confident arrival, although a view from above. By contrast, in this new city, there is another side; despite the city’s size and population there is isolation and the unknown, and living in the rough neighborhoods, a long way from home is what Urbanoia is about (and the old NYC time clock on the other end of the phone, a companion to some). The track also has a contrasting section, more up-tempo giving the impression of a city on the move; pulsing and lurching. Trumpet and soprano sax trade solos like people dodging the traffic of the rhythm section in mid-town or up-town. There are phrases in this track that remind me of works by Weather Report (funk and fusion), Miroslav Vitous’s Magical Shepard, and even sections of Deodato’s (popular at the time on the radio) 2001 Space Odyssey, a reinterpretation of Strauss.
As big as New York City is, there is also the personal side to the city, and encounters with people in need. Cry In The Wind recounts the aftermath of a woman in Belden’s neighborhood being stabbed, and him staying with her until help arrived. It’s the somber voices of solo flute and trumpet, and the isolation of the moment. Some of the hopeful opening themes are reintroduced in Transparent Heart, this time with a more turbulent undercurrent pulse of the city and stronger rhythms. This is the era of Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock (with the ground-breaking hard-hitting percussive and inventive track Rockit) and a bit later, Miles Davis’s Tutu. This was also the time when there was a great effort by NYC authorities to fight crime and clean-up the streets.
In some respects Seven Towers begins its life in February of 1993 with the first terrorist bombing on the World Trade Center. First-responder and air-traffic control radios open the track, and the undercurrent of rhythm and state of alert and fear that surrounded the south of Manhattan for eight years until September 11, 2001 when the bottom fell out of everything (security and economic). The track deteriorates into a frenzy of chaotic and searching rhythms and solos as the events unfold. Scattered electric piano, flute and drums continue in the middle of the track as if they are the ongoing cloud of debris and smoke that existed for days after the attack as determined rescuers cleared the debris and searched for survivors. The track closes with a building and re-energized rhythm and trumpet solo, as if Manhattan is determined to recover, and get back to normal.
After the 9/11 attack lower Manhattan was a different place, businesses closed, clean-up began, people were searching for missing loved-ones, and NYC was in a constant state of alert. Posters and memorials appeared spontaneously as people ventured out onto the streets to see the aftermath of the attacks. Provocatism is about the post-9/11 experience, survival, surveillance and exploration in the neighborhoods, with an energetic pace of fighting for survival. Much like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, many residents in lower Manhattan, including artists and musicians left the area and could no longer afford to return as damaged neighborhoods were redeveloped. Vanishment is the embodiment of this sense of loss; a lone flute, mournful rhythm, and the lament of a muted trumpet.
With the Recession economic meltdown of the mid to late 2000s, it was the big banks and Wall Street financial institutions that received the bailouts, not the people whose jobs, assets and homes were lost due to risky bundled investments sold by the very institutions that received the bailouts (perceived by many as economic terrorism by corporations against citizens who ultimately would pay the bill). The reaction was (and still is) the Occupy Wall Street movement that spread across America. The final track Occupy! expresses the anger and frustration of the protesters and law enforcement trying to contain the crowds. In this the full band plays the part of the crowds of protesters (sometimes organized chaos) and solos are the voices of the town halls and mike-checks interlaced with field and law enforcement recordings. Glimpses of the original (although altered and subdued) trumpet and sax theme return from Terra Incognito to illustrate that it’s still Manhattan, but things have changed with the passage of time.
Transparent Heart is an album of discovery, wide-eyed optimism, conflict, activism, conflicting ideologies, displacement, and the results of terrorism (warfare and economic) on a city, its art-scene and most of all, its people. This is not an album for sitting down and relaxing to; it’s a thoughtful, skillful and eye-opening musical diary that forces reflection about the state of our world, politics and economic foundations in the spirit of composers and activists like Stravinsky and Copland. It’s thought-provoking and riveting.
This is a solicited review.