Saturday, December 21, 2013

"Take this with you to work next week!" Prog Rock Discoveries on (what else?) someone else's list

Discussed: PopMatters' 10 Best Progressive (and Metal) Albums of 2013

I tend to think my interest in Progressive Rock was fanned into flame only recently, with my accidental discovery of Steven Wilson, via Porcupine Tree.* Wilson’s album, The Raven That Refused To Sing is among the musical highlights of this last year for me. I enjoyed it immensely — the technical virtuosity, the literary pretensions, the cartoonishness of it all — as I enjoy just about everything Wilson’s put out.** This guy gives Raven a proper rave, sparing me the trouble. I tend to prefer the crunchier Insurgentes and Fear of a Blank Planet to it, but there’s no denying just what a powerful package Raven is.

In fact, I expected the album to top a chart like this, but to my surprise it occupies the #2 slot.

"#2? Really?"

Anathema’s Universal gets the crown. I hadn’t heard a single song by the band, but this super-highly recommended live album seemed like the ideal place to start, so I clicked over to the digital warehouse and hit “download album.”

What a mistake. I should have watched the video first.

The band and orchestra are clearly “on,” the crowd is obviously loving it — it’s a sympatico moment for all involved. But, wow, is this scene ever not for me. It reminds me of nothing so much as a David Crowder Band concert. The temptation is to declare that if you’re a rock band (“Prog” or otherwise) that draws natural comparisons to an Evangelical Christian worship band, something’s wrong. A more charitable tack is to acknowledge that both acts clearly (and similarly) appeal to that deep ineffable “something” in their audiences. Good on ‘em, good for ‘em. Good bye.

Moving down to #3, then, I vaguely recalled encountering Devin Townsend’s name and slightly kooky/slightly sinister demeanor in the pages of Revolver magazine (a yearly beach-read for me). Beyond the fact that he was Canadian, and originally signed by Frank Zappa’s beleaguered guitarist, Steve Vai, I knew nothing of the man or his music.

Kooky meets Sinister

Chastened by experience, I clicked the video. Vai shows up as a talking head, delivering a cheesy invocation. The track is titled “Grace”: was this going to be another sleepy, soppy “Anathema moment”? I kept watching, and . . .

Now that’s more like it!

The portentous disjunctive lyrics, delivered with such conviction within this extravagant Europa/Cirque du Soleil/mash-up mosh pit hits my inner sweet-spot — pretty hard.  I wouldn’t just put The Retinal Circus at the very top of the list, I’d assign it a league of its own.

Speaking as a glib newcomer, Townsend’s concert seems to offer a surprisingly satisfactory survey of his staggeringly enormous catalogue. A magnificent introduction, a delicious, well-edited spectacle — an approachable format all the way around — The Retinal Circus has me circling back to see what I’ve been missing.

A lot, apparently. Townsend’s webpage is its own merry wonderment, and includes a complete discography, on which he comments with bracing candor. Merry Christmas to me — and, if this is your sort of thing, you too.

Actually, Merry Christmas to you regardless. Thanks for reading. Goodbye ’13, hello ’14.

*I was a young adolescent when Prog Rock was in its hey-day, and had little use for the genre at the time. Not for me the castrato-choral noodlings of Yes, the flute-whiffling of Jethro Tull, the studied drollery of Emerson Lake & Palmer (things might have been different if I’d had an older brother). Sure, I admired RUSH, but after 2112 they CLEARLY shifted from a “Prog” outfit to a “Power Rock Trio” — right?

The dude doth protest, of course. The truth is almost all the bands I’ve adored slip comfortably into Prog Rock’s loose uniform — beginning, especially, with the Christian Rock outfits. Themes of cosmic significance, an eagerness to try (and frequently fail at) new stylistic genres, stage shows that hammer home What It’s All About — most of those early Christian bands were Prog pretenders, really.

The bands that followed all fell into similar slots. Talking Heads, Pink Floyd, The Police, Peter Gabriel — even adroit Trickster figures like Tom Waits, or Donald Fagen and Walter Becker . . . an argument could be made that they all in fact have deep roots in the larger Prog tree.

But submitting to such enthusiasm is merely the flipside of the Prog Embarrassment Factor.

**Wilson was born in ’67, so for me he plays like a slightly younger, cranky, British brother who’s keen on Hitchens. Now, I can’t speak with any authority on that final conviction***, but Wilson is unmistakably British and does indeed get cranky where claims of religious certainty are concerned.

***Wilson’s thematic explorations suggest, to me at least, a vague techno-paganism. Wilson's site is here.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mid-December Melt-Down

Well, it happened again, this time on a Sunday morning. My Church Face, normally a rictus of (I hope) benign engagement, weakened as the song played on, then finally crumbled, forcing me to discretely hanky away tears and schnodda. When the service concluded I bee-lined for home and consulted my account of my first encounter with the song, to see what, if anything was different. I noticed I was missing a verse in the original posting. Apparently the interweb doesn't have the second verse (added by a second author, 24 years after the original) so here, in its entirety, is the song I pathetically attempted to sing:

          All Poor Ones and Humble

All poor ones and humble
and all those who stumble
come hastening, and feel not afraid;
for Jesus our treasure,
with love past all measure,
in lowly poor manger was laid.
Though wise men who found him
laid rich gifts around him,
yet oxen they gave him their hay,
and Jesus in beauty
accepted their duty, contented in manger he lay.
Then haste we to show him
the praises we owe him;
our service he ne'er can despise;
whose love still is able
to show us that stable,
where softly in manger he lies.
The Christ Child will lead us,
the Good Shepherd feed us
and with us abide till his day.
Then hatred he'll banish,
then sorrow will vanish,
and death and despair flee away.
And he shall reign ever,
and nothing shall sever
from us the great love of our King;
his peace and his pity
shall bless his fair city;
his praises we ever shall sing.
Then haste we to show him
the praises we owe him;
our service he ne'er can despise;
whose love still is able
to show us that stable,
where softly in manger he lies.
Words: v.1 Katharine Emily Roberts 1927, alt, v.2 William Thomas Penmar Davies 1951
Music: Welsh carol, harm. Erik Routley 1951

Analysis: there are a couple of aspects to this song which allow it to slip past 48 years of cultivated resistance. Foremost is its unfamiliarity. For many years O Holy Night had a similar penetrative reach, but these days it takes a very rare talent for that song to stir much depth of effect in me. This was the second time I'd sung All Poor Ones and Humble, so it's still “new” to me.

Second is the ease of its harmonies. To wit:

That bass line is a snap for a Mennonite plough-boy to catch and sing along to. It doesn't swing over Middle C — the tendency for most hymns and (shudder) choruses penned after Vatican II, and a very personal pet peeve of mine. Any “bass line” that hovers around Middle C and higher isn’t a bass line at all — it’s a baritone.

Perhaps more crucially, the bass line is also novel enough to nudge a little investment of personality into its delivery. It is the Welsh equivalent of the Song of the Volga Boatmen — somber, sober, serious — everything the bass voice is built to communicate. It rather mischievously entices said Mennonite plough-boy to march off the muddy field and join the other somber, sober, serious chaps in the congregation to deliver the full weight of this song's convictions and sentiments — until they boomerang back on the unsuspecting doofus, and reduce his final chorus to a discrete percussion of throat-clearing and nose-honking.

Oh, well. I can only hope this second meditation on All Poor Ones and Humble will elevate it into the zeitgeist, right up there with O Holy Night, making it a seasonal standard, so that my resistance accrues until I'm able to sing the song to conclusion — preferably before my own conclusion occurs and I discover precisely to what degree “his peace and his pity/shall bless his fair city.”

Right then: defences are clearly back up, so let's shift gears to Progressive Rock — a genre I consider to be very much in league with the song above.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lists, continued.

On the topic of listicles, my blogger-buddy Joel Swagman has put together a list of his favourite narrative history books, over here. Joel is a feet-on-the-street history enthusiast, fascinated by (but by no means fixated on) those scenes where the Left takes centre stage (so to speak). Do check him out. He may save you further reading. Better yet, he may entice you on to further vistas.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Making a list, and checking it ... well, probably not checking it at all, to be honest.

It's listicle season, again. Music, movies, books, what-have-you. Do you bother with any of it? If so, which ones?

For me, the older I get, the fewer I attend to. At the end of December, I'll head over to Metacritic to see which games made the year's top ten. By April (June, at the latest) those should all be affordable, and I'll nab the ones that looked most interesting.

There are book lists I'll glance at, just to see if there isn't the occasional oddball the prestige outfits missed (or ignored). I haven't seen anyone put Aleksandar Hemon's The Story Of My Lives on any such list, so here's me, whacking the dinner-bell on its behalf.

For some reason, I've gone cold on movie lists. I really could not be arsed, and I'm damned if I can put my finger on precisely why that is. I've cooled toward movies, too (obviously). It's not that they're dead to me — I recently enjoyed The Way Way Back, and consider Gravity to be this year's Mandatory-Pay-The-Bucks-And-Sit-In-The-Theatre-You-Won't-Regret-It movie. I could mull over the unique insights and minor quibbles I had with both movies, but neither of these experiences caught me with the emotional urgency of, say, the fourth season of Friday Night Lights.

That's not to sing the standard chorus of “Television Is Better Than The Movies” (although you'll get little argument from me on that score). But I can remember a week some sixteen years ago when my wife and I spent five hours in a hospital emergency room with our infant daughter possessed by a raging fever that could not be tamed, and when we finally returned home with a correct diagnosis and the appropriate antibiotics, I could not fall asleep, so I went out to see L.A. Confidential and was just SO BLOODY GRATEFUL to experience a flickering projection that could pull me out of all that and so immersively into its own weirdo, whacked-out world for a solid two-hour stretch, that OF COURSE I had to write about it. What other response was there?

But movies aren't really that, anymore. Even Gravity, which gets so close to that, serves as a glum reminder of just how much closer Cuaron got to that with Children Of Men (my God, what a devastating movie — still. Here's a list-topper for you: Children Of Men was the movie of the last ten years, and remains as yet unchallenged for the current decade. Discuss).

And then there's Music — holy shit and holy cow, what list could possibly do any justice to the pre-Cambrian explosion of little scenes, little audiences, little bands and the sub-sub-sub-sub-genres that have proliferated like so many digital spermatozoa and ovum? No, we bedraggled listeners have to stake a particular claim on our peculiar aural fixations, and if you just happen to have a list that might speak to said fixations — well, okay, I'll take a look.

Which brings me to PopMatters' 10 Best Progressive (and Metal) Albums, here.

To be continued.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Frozen Thaws Me Out

My ringette-playin' daughter and I found ourselves with seven hours' time to kill between tournament games last weekend, so we hoofed it to a movieplex to see what we could see. Pickings were slim, as you are probably aware, made all the moreso by some necessary preconditions: my daughter had to stay in a competitive frame of mind, so no downers; also, nothing so intense as to distract from the day at hand; funny is good, especially if it accompanies uplift.

The only movie to meet these criteria, of course, was Disney's Fozen.

I didn't hold out much hope for the experience — we'd seen Brave and were underwhelmed. But I glanced at the 16-year-old beside me and realized that my days of seeing anything like this with her, prior to her introducing children of her own to the world, were just about at a close. So I squared my shoulders, swiped the plastic and marched into the theatre.

I liked it — we liked it. But, against all odds, I liked it.

John Lasseter's name came up early, which did nothing to inspire confidence. Considering what a paint-by-numbers outfit Pixar has become, it struck me as unlikely that Lasseter had anything left up his Hawaiian shirt-sleeves to reinvigorate Disney.

The introductory Mickey Mouse short set me straight, pretty quickly. It hits all the surreal notes that the Steamboat Willy-era rodent did, with exactly the right wacky digital flourishes to bring it all into the here-and-now. It's fun, and it's funny — for fun's sake — with none of the moral freight that's come with the recent Pixar shorts.

Plenty of time for moral freight in the feature, of course. It's Disney, so Lessons Must Be Learned, hopefully with a lot of goofy (sic) sugar to help the medicine go down.

Frozen delivers as expected, catching me off-guard at many of its most common signature flourishes. Music, for instance — the movie is lousy with it, clearly setting itself up for the stages of Broadway and your local elementary school. Every time the strings swept in to signify another belt-busting number, my heart sank a little, only to get roused up to the base of my throat, making swallowing difficult. So cheesy. So spot-on.

It helps that I'm the father of daughters, of course. Watching two sisters struggle with expressing the fierceness of their love for each other, without raising undue expectations, well . . . you've got me choking up just typing that cheap summary statement.

But I think the real brilliance in this film is the way Disney/Lasseter acknowledge both the stupidity and even perniciousness of the usual Disney Animation Tropes, before finally committing to their undeniable appeal. “True Love At First Sight” — what a crock! What a caper! What fun!

Throw in an enchanted snowman who likes warm hugs and can't wait to see his first summer, and you've got a movie I don't in the least begrudge seeing more than once.

From Disney. And Lasseter. Whodathunkit?

(Oh, and we won the game.)