My Inner Prog Geek

76This blog was never supposed to have much prog-rock content, as I’d left that phase of life behind. But I’m starting to listen again, just a little.

What I’m finding is that the things that ultimately turned me away from prog — the pretentious air and melodrama; the worship of bombastic musicianship; the lyrical posing or the smug “I’m such a misfit” self-pity or (worst of all) outright misogyny — are still there. I didn’t imagine them. But some of the musicianship is honestly good, and some of the chording, particularly in the Canterbury styles, is still attractive and nostalgic to me.

I’ve been exploring in fits and starts, inspired by the terrific output of the band Knifeworld. A genre search on Bandcamp turned up Thieves’ Kitchen, with an appropriately British sound and an honest-to-goodness mellotron in their arsenal. I’ve always disliked mellotron, I have to admit, but Thieves’ Kitchen does a great job re-creating that keyboard-heavy style that’s all airy and pretty and melodic. I’ve been enjoying their Clockwork Universe album quite a lot.

The real tipping point, though, was Ready Player One. In parallel with revisiting my prog roots, I’ve been rediscovering my sci-fi fandom.

I’ve avoided sci-fi for a lot of the same reasons as prog, and in both cases I’ve gravitated toward things that are more ambitious and, for my taste, better (jazz and literary fiction, respectively). The sci-fi tide returned two Christmases ago, when I was under duress to fill out a wish list (I have relatives who are way into Christmas gifting) and started throwing books onto it. I’d just seen William Gibson’s The Peripheral at a bookstore, so — what the heck.

rpoThat book turned out to be a fun ride. So, knowing that I liked in Gibson’s writing in general, I finally picked up a copy of Neuromancer, more than 30 years late. And it blew me away.

I’d be lying if I said I voraciously dived into sci-fi at that point, but I began considering it more and ended up reading Ready Player One at the behest of friends. If nothing else, I wanted to make sure I got to it before the movie came out.

Ready Player One is by no means deep or even well plotted. But it’s fun, and it leans heavy on nostalgia from the mid-1980s of my high school years. The way the book serves up references to TV, movies, music, and video games is almost pandering — but I didn’t care. I devoured it greedily.

And after reading the second half of the book in one sitting, I stayed up all night listening to Rush, who figure heavily as a plot point.

You know what? Rush holds up, all these years later.

Now, if you have a problem with Neil Peart’s over-cerebral lyrics or Geddy Lee’s voice, I can’t help you. They’re part of the package. But Lee’s bass, now that I’m actually listening, is phenomenal. Peart’s drumming is still over-the-top, but it’s awe-inspiring in a Cirque-du-Soliel way and richly creative. Alex Lifeson’s guitar chords are still dense and a little brain-bending (check out his patient dissection of “Tom Sawyer,” spelling out exactly what those chords are) and his solos still excite me. And I’m relishing the experimental touches that I used to ignore — like the patient synths and drums stretches on “The Weapon,” or the entire song “Red Lenses,” which sounded so weird back then but so perfectly normal today.

Now I’m playing Rush during car trips. The kids don’t seem impressed.

412And so it continues. Last week, I found myself in Austin. There wasn’t time to visit Waterloo, but my hotel was within walking distance of a spot called Encore Records, a store specializing in metal, with racks devoted to other genres including prog. (It also has the obligatory Used CD rack. It occurred to me the “used” section of every CD store has essentially become a 1990s time capsule.)

I had to buy something, so arbitrarily, I dipped back into the world of Porcupine Tree. Specifically, I bought Steven Wilson’s “4 1/2.” Lyrically, I have a lot of problems with it. “Don’t hate me / I’m not special like you” is that particular breed of wannabe-poetical that turned me off on prog in the first place. But the music tickles that latent prog center of my brain. Like a visit to an old neighborhood, it feels a little bit retrograde, a little bit indulgent, and a little bit like rediscovering a piece of who I’ve always been.

Jack o’ the Clock: The Old City

Jack o’ the ClockRepetitions of the Old City – I (self-released, 2016)

Jack o’ the Clock performs Tuesday, Jan. 24, at Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th Street, San Francisco). Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows open; it’s a combination I’ve written about previously.

a2120824628_16Jack o’ the Clock‘s sixth album is another engaging collection of songs with prog smarts, jazz chops, and a folk/acoustic sheen.

The band’s chamber-pop aesthetic will get an update as of tomorrow, when they perform their first show without bassoonist and vocalist Kate McLoughlin, who has left the Bay Area. It takes two people to replace her: Thea Kelley will handling vocals — often backing frontman Damon Waitkus, sometimes taking the lead herself — and Ivor Holloway will be playing woodwinds. Bassoon isn’t among them, alas. But his sax and clarinet will have a similar effect playing in tandem with Emily Packard’s violin.

As I’ve been noting since 2011, the band has been a laboratory for an adventurous style of pop songwriting, one that uses prog as its base but adds so many other layers. Repetitions of the Old City continues the expansion of that formula and provides plenty to like: a folky twang to the guitar and violin on “When the Door Opens, It Opens on Everything,” or the long, twisting melodies that open “.22, or, Denny Takes One for the Team.”

Waitkus specializes in brainy, poetic lyrics filled with yearning. From “When the Door Opens,” one passage I particularly like: “The sun is like a dying coal, a feeble slap / across the face of February. Now there’s a / vacant house in disarray, the clocks all stopped, / the mirrors face the ceiling.”

The acoustic sounds on Repetitions are lucious, as always, but Jack o’ the Clock is by no means a straight folk band. Modern electronic touches abound. “Videos of the Dead,” for example, is a rather charming tune (despite the title) overlaid with ghostly guitar effects courtesy of guest artist Fred Frith.

It’s wonderful that the band has stuck together for so long. They’re always working on the next set of material, so expect some fresh sounds at the Bottom of the Hill show.

As for the album, it’s been out for about six months and got a good amount of attention. You can see some details on the band’s home page, including a link to an interview with Waitkus on the prog podcast Deep Cuts, complete with thoughts about the meaning of the “Old City” of the album’s title.

You can hear the entire album on Bandcamp.

‘La Villa Strangiato’ for Percussion

The Rush instrumental “La Villa Strangiato” turns out to be pleasantly anthemic when played on xylophone, marimba, and glockenspiel. Given the time of year, you can even convince yourself it has a holiday sound. Happy new year!

That was recorded in June 2015 at the Universidade de São Paulo, campus Ribeirão Preto. The track was arranged by Philipe Davis. Carolina Raany is playing marimba, while Kleber Tertuliano is on the vibes and glockenspiel. For something more directly festive-sounding, they’ve also filmed a video of “Losa” by composer Emmanuel Séjourné.

Reconnaissance Fly Flies Again (II)

Reconnaissance FlyOff by One (self-released, 2016)

reconfly-offby2The lighthearted and consciously nerdy prog group Reconnaissance Fly is back with an EP (available at Bandcamp) and a couple of shows: Oct. 15 at the Berkeley Arts Festival space and Oct. 26 at the the Octopus literary salon in Oakland.

The core elements are still there: Polly Moller’s operatic vocals (and occasional flute), Amanda Chaudhary’s jazzy electric piano, and bassist Tim Walters’ brainy, Canterbury-inspired prog compositions. He wrote four of the songs on Off by One, with Chaudhary contributing the fifth.

Some changes have been afoot. Some of it is in the personnel — since recording the EP, Chaudhary has left the band, replaced by Brett Carson on keys — and some in the songwriting.  Not all the lyrics are “poetry” taken from spam emails; “Everyone Sang” is a poem by British WWI solder and antiwar activist Sigfried Sassoon, set to a pensive, artsy melody.

And while prog is still at the band’s core, other musical styles are poking out. “Itzirktna” uses a mix of loungy jazz and a funky break to get its musical point across. “Dressed for Yesterday’s Weather” is an instrumental that opens with a pastoral Canterbury feel that includes Moller on flute, but it builds into a segment with a guitar line that’s a cross between surf jazz and courtly Renaissance melodies.

“Undeciphered” has a snappy, jazzy feel as it plays around with time signatures. The title apparently comes from the lyrics, which seem to be truly undeciphered jibberish that Moller happily chirps through.

Reconnaissance Fly certainly has a sense of humor and a touch of goofiness. But they produce seriously good prog rock with a side of jazzy swing. Great to see them back.

Treasure Hunting at Tokyo’s Disk Union


Disk Union organizes its prog CDs by country. How cool is that.

Not only that, but artists within a country are filed next to the proper supergroup. So the Genesis shelf is where you’ll find Tony Banks and Anthony Phillips, while the Yes shelf includes Peter Banks, Badger (which includes Tony Kaye), and White, the band fronted by drummer Alan White.

The links run deep. The King Crimson section included Bill Bruford’s jazz band Earthworks and the colossal Centipede, whose more-than-50 members happen to include Keith Tippett.

imageThis comes up because yes, I’ve just taken a trip to Japan, and my first-ever visit to Disk Union was a highlight. I think of the store as a colony creature, a sprawl of genre-specific ministores spread across a few Shinjuku blocks, with satellites around the city and in the suburbs. The “main” store occupies all seven floors of one building, with one specialty per floor. Program was on Floor 3.

Other parts of Disk Union occupy random floors of other buildings on the same street. Jazz, for example, is on a ground floor at the end of the block.

Most at of my time was spent in the Prog section. I went farther upstairs to check out indie rock and ’80s, bypassing the classic rock floor, where they were playing the Sgt. Pepper album. (Each store/floor plays its own relevant music. I love The Beatles, but my taste for classic rock has waned.) I also peeked at the 7th Floor punk section — where the clerk was playing a Japanese band that was basically indie rock with ragged, screaming vocals. It was an odd breed of punk, but it was a good antidote to the sugary music that I’d been hearing for the entire trip.

The punk section seemed legit, by the way. Sub genres included power-pop-punk, melodic punk, harder stuff bordering on metal (the proper Metal store is in another building), and classic ’70s/’80s acts, including plenty from Japan.

My haul from Disk Union was entirely prog: the aforementioned White and Centipede albums; a ’70s British band called Gryphon, which is what the clerk was playing as I shopped; and a Japanese band called Asturia, selected after I pressed the clerk for a recommendation.

What these things have in common is that I’d never encountered them at home. CDs are a pricey luxury in Japan, running at ¥2500 or ¥3000 ($25 to $30) for new titles, so there wasn’t much leeway for the novelty of a “J”-version of a known quantity. I was also more hesitant than normal when it came to taking a chance on a random title.

The price is also why I didn’t buy from the Jazz store. The small avant-garde section was robust, but the titles were mostly familiar; they either originated in the States or could be easily obtained there. Too bad — an avant-jazz bin used to be a treasured find, but the Internet’s trove of news has made surprises harder to come by. That’s the downside to having access to such online riches.

Yes, I’m the Guy Who Likes Tales from Topographic Oceans

Tales_From_Topographic_OceansI didn’t realize Chris Squire had been diagnosed with cancer, so his death this week took me completely by surprise. He really was my favorite member of Yes. His thundering, mile-a-minute bass lines, sometimes indistinguishable from a guitar, were a hallmark of the band’s sound. As has been noted elsewhere, he’ll be missed.

Jason Crane — who’s interviewed literally hundreds of musicians for his podcast, The Jazz Session — decided to celebrate Squire’s life by listening to Yes’ entire studio catalogue. Brave man; Tormato is in there, after all. He tweeted the whole experience, which apparently clocked in at something like 17 hours.

But that got me to thinking about what I ought to listen to, because I suddenly realized it’s been years since I really listened to any Yes. Fragile and The Yes Album are obvious touchstones, but I’ve got a soft spot for Going for the One (which included “Parallels,” which I think was the first Yes song credited solely to Squire) and even Relayer (maybe just because it seems so obscure an album).

I settled for a YouTube spin of “Close to the Edge,” live from 1977. Difficult to hear Squire’s bass parts, but it was good to hear after all these years.

Then I remembered Tales from Topographic Oceans.

Even though Tormato, like, exists, I get the feeling Topographic Oceans is the band’s most reviled album. It’s a double album with four tracks — one song per side — and it’s a concept album, where the concept comes from a footnote in an eastern-religion book Jon Anderson was reading. Granted, it’s a “lengthy” footnote about shastric scriptures that cover vast expanses of life: religion, art, music, architecture, social living. It’s probably pages long.

The pretentiousness of it all is what turns people off, I think. But to me, this album sings. “The Revealing Science of God” (a.k.a. Side One) stands up to any of the band’s other side-long pieces. It’s got a dramatic intro buildup that really works, and it’s even got a catchy riff to hang onto. Side Three, “The Ancient,” is where things get a little weird, with a chaotic rustle of a jam interrupted by Anderson speak-singing what appear to be various ancient names for the sun. But even that part works for me.

I’ll admit to some outside influence. Topographic Oceans is best enjoyed on vinyl, because of that gorgeous Roger Dean cover art and the gatefold packaging with all the lyrics splayed out. It’s a beautiful album.

Then there’s the way that old songs unlock memories. I bought Topographic Oceans during a particuarly good summer at home during my college years, when our high school clique was spending a lot of time together. The hot weather made it hard to sleep, so I’d open the bedroom window and listen to records in the moonlight.

So… yeah. I’m going to give that one a spin.

squire-fishoutOf course, the more direct way to fete Squire is to play Fish out of Water, his excellent 1975 solo album. It stands up well against Yes’ own catalogue; if you’re a fan, you owe it to yourself to hear this one for its mix of songwriting and instrumental rigor. “Hold Out Your Hand” is a solid, tough-handed song with prog shadings, and “Lucky Seven” is a catchy, low-key 7/8 jam (try not to think of The Who’s “Eminence Front”). And I really enjoy the proggy jam on “Silently Falling.”

Squire would probably prefer that people remember some of his more recent work, too, but I didn’t keep up with any of it, other than hearing bits of Squackett, his band with Steve Hackett. As you might expect, it’s got an AOR sheen rather than any prog magic.

So, those would be my picks. Squire deserves a more thorough tribute than just spinning “The Fish” again. And if you must investigate Tormato, I’ll admit that I like “Release Release,” and Squire’s own “Onward” is a pretty little lullabye of a song.

Prog Out on Sunday, Dec. 14

Interesting progressive-rock-related bill coming up Sunday night, Dec. 14, at a venue I’m not familiar with: Leo’s Music Club (5447 Telegraph Ave, Oakland):

MiRthkon is a prog band mixing heavy guitars with saxophones and bass clarinets, a mix of rock intensity and cerebral whimsy. My last mention of them was a show with Kayo Dot. Here they are live in a more recent show: Rock in Opposition 2013.

Surplus 1980 is Moe! Staiano’s post-punk band, a spastic loudness that’s gleaming with intelligence. They’ve been on hiatus; the band’s most recent output was a 10″ vinyl record that’s available at Squidco, among other places.

Jack o’ the Clock — which mixes the bucolic and the highbrow in a stew of prog, folk, classical, and jazz, is the band I’ve seen the most often out of these three. They’ve been taking a break as well, woodshedding new material, according to the emailer they sent out. Here’s some audience video of a performance from September a year ago.

Fusion from Catalonia

Xavi ReijaResolution (Moonjune, 2014)

Xavi Rejia -- Resolution (Moonjune, 2014)I have to admit, I was drawn to this album by a review on the Monsieur Délire blog, not only because this guy’s name starts with “X,” but because he’s Catalan.

Friends of mine have hosted me in Barcelona twice now, and through them, I’ve learned a little bit about the Catalan people and their centuries-long struggle for independence, a fight that’s still not over. You can see the pride in the Catalan flag draped over so many balconies around the city. The review made the CD sound interesting, and the thought of hearing a bit of jazz/prog out of Catalunya was intriguing.

Resolution is a guitar-trio album that fits in that space between jazz fusion and progressive rock. I have a soft spot for this stuff. I feel like I’ve kind of outgrown some of the power-guitar licks, but I still love counting out the odd time signatures. This album shows maturity and depth more than prog flashiness; even though it rocks out frequently, it tilts toward a mature jazz sound, and that’s what I really enjoy about it.

My favorite track is the mini-suite, “Gravity” — winding and exploratory, where you can luxuriate in the spaces between Dusan Jevtovic’s guitar phases and savor the glassy bass solo put up by Bernat Hernández. Later, it breaks into a rock-hero groove, showcasing Reija’s drumming over a simple bass pulse.

In a setting like this, though, it’s the electric bass that I really enjoy listening to. Credit Percy Jones of Brand X for that. (I heard him before I got exposed to Jaco Pastorius; that’s just the breaks.) One highlight in that regard is “Macroscope,” where Reija sets up a complex groove for Hernández’s thick, bubbling soloing.

Hear some samples on eMusic, or take a look at “Flying to Nowhere,” below.

A Band Called Jupiter Holiday (a.k.a., When Marketing Actually Works)

Jupiter Holiday T-shirt, still in good conditionA few years back, I made a couple of trips down to Terrapin Station, a now defunct bar in Boise, Idaho, that featured jam bands (the bar’s core influence is pretty obvious). It was one of the friendliest bars I’ve ever been in — folks who’d strike up a conversation out of the blue, happy bartenders, just a great vibe. The one strike against it was the pervasive smell of cigarette smoke — not just a little of it, but a thick, spongy layer that had soaked into the walls. I think Idaho has passed non-smoking laws, but they came too late for this place.

Smoke aside, I had a good time at Terrapin. I land in Boise a couple of times a year to visit family, and it’s nice to experience what the city has to offer.

I enjoyed most of the music I saw there, but I remember only one of the bands: Jupiter Holiday —  because I bought their T-shirt.

Here’s what I recall: I liked the band, and the shirts (plain white with a plain blue-and-red logo on one side) were just $5. And I was in the market for more non-black, non-“fancy” T-shirts to get me between laundry days in the summer. Sold!

I still wear the shirt. For a few years now, I’ve seen it every couple of weeks in my drawer or coming out of the drier. Sometimes I’ll pause for a moment and wonder what happened to that band.

Jupiter Holiday's album - I'll scan a bigger image when I get home from BoiseWell, earlier this winter, I was walking through The Record Exchange, an honest-to-god CD store in downtown Boise, and there on a rack … was a CD by the band Jupiter Holiday, released earlier in 2013.

I knew who they were and I knew I’d enjoyed one of their shows back when. All because of that T-shirt.

So yeah, I bought the CD. It’s called Deep, Delicious, Secret Surprise, and it’s quite good. A mix of poppy prog rock (prog chords, mostly 4/4 tempos) and some jam-band atmosphere. It’s bright, upbeat, nonobvious rock. You might like it if you’d be into a happier Porcupine Tree with some country twang, or an less heavy Rush that focused mainly on the melodies, or a sober and clear-headed Grateful Dead.

So there you go: Marketing really can work sometimes.

As for the band, their web site (which was up in January) appears to be gone. I hope they stick around and keep making music, though. I could always use another T-shirt.

Reconnaissance Fly Turns Spam Into Prog Rock

Reconnaissance FlyFlower Futures (Edgetone, 2014)

Source: Bandcamp; click to go therePolly Moller’s experiements with spoetry — poetry made from the babble of spam emails — has come to a fruition in the band Reconnaissance Fly, which adds prog-rock and avant-garde musical backings for a new kind of songwriting.

Now they’ve got their newest album out, called Flower Futures (Edgetone, 2014), and they’ll be promoting it with a show at the Berkeley Arts Festival space (2133 University Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, Feb. 1.

It’s full of Canterbury sounds: electric piano, jazzy chords, and stumbling time signatures. Snatches of free improvisation crop up here and there. And flute! In addition to fronting the band with operatic alto vocals, Moller plays flute alongside the band’s woodwind or guitar leads.

Much of the music does feel patterned after the lyrics, which transforms the nonsense into something more ably amusing or even pretty. The musical passages never settle into verse/chorus patterns, but they occasionally lock in on particularly funny or strange phrases for some songlike repetition. Free improv segments on “The Party Constraint” and “Seemed to be Divided in Twain” form around controlled bursts, so that the abstract music actually makes more “sense” than the lyrics do — or, maybe the music helps create more meaning for the words.

The songwriting did start with the lyrics. Moller says she assigned spoems to band members who then wrote the music. “Tim [Walters, bassist]’s tunes reflect his love for Rock in Opposition and progressive rock, Amanda [Chaudhary, keyboards] gave us our graphic scores for improvisation, and mine are kind of all over the place,” she writes in an email.

The album was more than four years in the making and survived a couple of band shifts — notably, saxophonist Chris Broderick departing, with Rich Lesnik taking his place. The band’s history makes for a pretty good read, actually. (By the way, these same folks formed the bulk of the Cardiacs tribute band founded by Moe! Staiano.)

You can hear parts of the album (and of course buy the whole thing) on Bandcamp. Try the ’70s prog sound of “Sanse Is Crede nza” or the Henry Cow chamber-funk of “An Empty Rectangle” for songs that’ll grab the ear quickly. I’m also partial to the proggy “One Should Never.”