VARIOUS ARTISTS (ED RUSH, TRACE & NICO) – Torque (1997)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Consider this my contractual obligations review. Quite honestly I was unable to sit through this album even once. I’m sure there are people out there who can appreciate this and therefore write something meaningful about it, but I cannot. What immediately hits you in the face is a very aggressive, driving drum beat. Everything else is pretty much is a soundscape accompanying this drumbeat, and this drumbeat, with little significant difference, dominates each and every track. The soundscapes do have some interesting elements, but ultimately it’s all about that drumbeat. I don’t like it and don’t care to hear it, so that pretty much negates any other attribute of this music. Not for me, sorry!
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A YEAR IN MUSIC: PETER HAMMILL – …All That Might Have Been… (2014)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 2014
Review by: Andreas Georgi

Peter Hammill is a rare breed. Very few rock artists in their 60’s are still producing top quality material that is not rehashing their old glory. This album is a welcome new addition to his work.

Peter Hammill’s discography is long, convoluted, highly eclectic, and it must be said, rather erratic. After a long relative weak patch in the late 80’s and 90’s he’s been on an upswing in the last 12 years or so. Starting with 2009’s “Thin Air”, he has released consistently challenging and rewarding music. His music is intense, dark, and defies categorization. His recent work incorporates a lot of avant-garde elements like sound treatments and dissonance. Hammill’s work is never “easy listening”, and his albums always take repeated listenings to reveal themselves to the listener. This certainly applies to this new album. I’ve been a big fan of his music, and of his recent work, so I am not coming at this new album as a novice. Nevertheless I have to say that it’s taken time to grow on me over the last couple of months – more so that his previous albums. The first listening was underwhelming, to be honest. Ultimately, though, I have come to appreciate it as another high point in his career.

The album, comes in 3 formats. There are two versions of the CD release.  The “Cine” version is like a movie for the ears, with short segments moving in and out in a continuous sequence. This is the version PH considers the “primary” one. The format reminds me of his “Incoherence” album (2003), but this one is much more eclectic and certainly doesn’t suffer from that album’s monochromatic “sameyness”. The release I have is a 3-CD set that has two further versions. The “Songs” version presents the material in a relatively conventional individual song format, although listening to this, it will be evident that there is nothing conventional about these songs. The third format are versions of the basic instrumental tracks. This version is very good, but ultimately not as impressive as the other two, although it does verify that the music has a definite cinematic feel to it. Listening to this disk, I am reminded a bit (although it shouldn’t be overstated) of Peter Gabriel’s movie music. Having 3 versions (2 with vocals) probably didn’t help me absorb the material into my gray matter. Perhaps I should have familiarized myself with one version at a time.

As far as a “plot” for the “movie” goes – I have no idea what it is. PH rarely spells out his ideas in a didactic “message song” way. The only thing I can say is that it seems the characters get themselves in rather unpleasant circumstances. The whole album has a sense of ambiguity and precariousness throughout it. The musical elements are the ones that he has used in the recent past, and it sounds most similar to 2012’s “Consequences”. He uses overdubbed falsetto vocals as a counterpoint to the lead vocals’ narration, which have been compared to a Greek chorus. The music itself tends to me mostly slow-paced with relatively sparse, often echoing instrumentation.

So, in a nutshell, this is another solid contribution to PH’s discography, and fans who like his recent works will definitely want to pick it up, and won’t be disappointed – just be prepared to give it time.

This review is also posted on Amazon here.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: ANAÏS MITCHELL – xoa (2014)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 2014
Review by: Graham Warnken

Anaïs Mitchell can certainly never be accused of a lack of ambition. Her most well-known project is the folk opera Hadestown (currently playing as an acclaimed Off-Broadway show), which transplants the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a Great Depression-type American dystopia and features guests such as Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (Orpheus) and Ani DiFranco (Persephone). The fact that that album is even coherent is an achievement—that it’s one of the best releases of its year is incredible.

Due to her fans’ desire to see many of the full-band numbers from Hadestown and its follow-up Young Man in America recorded solo, as well as Mitchell’s desire to release a few new songs and re-record earlier pieces she deemed unsatisfactory in their original form, 2014 saw the release of xoa. It’s an oddball fusion of a greatest-hits collection with an inverted demo reel, familiar numbers rendered new in their stripped-down format and new songs peeking their way through the sea of music from days gone by. Fortunately, what could have been a perfunctory toss-off ends up being a wonderful album in its own right, equalling and often outright improving upon the earlier material that gives it life.

As with each of Mitchell’s preceding records, xoa is a mix of the personal and the political. The former category includes the heartbreaking “Out of Pawn”, written as a letter from a Katrina survivor to an uncle who didn’t make it; “Come September”, the lament of a migrant picker jilted by her lover; and “Now You Know”, a quietly gorgeous fusion of lullaby and lovesong, among others. Each of these tracks elevates sentiments that could come across as maudlin, thanks to the craft with which Mitchell shapes her lyrics. Internal rhyme and alliteration are constant presences, but avoid calling undue attention to themselves; the sonic rhythms formed by these poetic devices are as natural as they are precise, drawing the listener in unawares. The same holds true for the record’s political half—the propagandic round “Why We Build the Wall” (written a decade before America’s current Trump problem), the barren climate-change panorama of “Any Way the Wind Blows”, the desperate hungry yowl of “Young Man in America”, rise above mere polemic due to the wit and intelligence with which their words are wrought.

Besides wordplay, another constant is emotion. Playful and joyful numbers are lifted up by the little-girl lilt of Mitchell’s tongue, which seems genuinely pleased to be here; desolate dirges are delivered with a grief that’s completely believable. Perhaps the most effective emotional moment on the record comes with its re-recorded version of “Your Fonder Heart”, originally present on Mitchell’s The Brightness. In its original version, the song is a warm, teasing greeting to someone who could be a friend come out to play or a lover with whom to wander under the stars, evoking memories of adolescent summer evenings in all their nostalgia-tinged glory. The xoa recording takes the exact same melody and lyrics and twists it into something entirely new—the arrangement, sparse and bare, summons a vision of a caffeine-insomniac awake at two in the morning with no idea how to sleep, and Mitchell’s voice is crushed and yearning. The juxtaposition of the two cuts is startling; it’s as if they’re bookends on a broken relationship, and in hindsight complete each other.

I don’t know that xoa is the album I would direct new listeners to as a starting point for Mitchell—a couple of the Hadestown cuts don’t make much sense out of context, and while there’s the cohesive sound of Mitchell alone on her guitar the subject matter is too varied to form a unified album. That said, it’s the record of hers I find myself listening to the most, and is easily in my top ten albums. In almost every step it takes it improves on material that was already incredibly good, intimate and perfectly constructed. It’s the latest in a long string of storytelling achievements from the current Queen of Folk Music.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: PHISH – Fuego (2014)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 2014
Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn


Phish started in the late 80’s but only got to be somewhat famous after 1995, when Jerry Garcia (of Grateful Dead fame) died, and Phish more or less became the new leaders of the jam band scene. They tour a lot and, not unlike the Grateful Dead, concerts and live cd’s are ‘where it’s at’. Although they never formally broke up, there are some hiatuses in their career and Fuego is their latest studio album (from a year, 2014, about which we’ll have to wait some time before we can pass a final judgment as to its musical quality).
Things I like about the album are the absolute virtuosity by all members on their respective instruments (Trey Anastasio, on guitar, lead vocals and main composer, gets most credits but they’re all masters of their instruments), the way they ooze musicianship, the variety in the songs, the non-sensical lyrics and even, sometimes the emotions they convey in their songs.
On this album, “The Line” and “Wombat” are the silly songs (to my ears) but all others rule, especially the title track, “Devotion To A Dream”, “Winterqueen”, “Sing Monica” and “Waiting All Night”. Be warned though, these versions are nowhere near their definitive renditions; you’ll have to download or buy one of their concerts. Check it out and discover how musicians can make a living and have fun at the same time!

RODRIGUEZ – Cold Fact (1970)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Ah, 1970! Right in the middle of the golden age of rock music, amidst such epically successful records like Paranoid, After the Gold Rush, Led Zeppelin III or Cosmo’s Factory, comes this effort by initially little-known singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. Who is this Detroit-born Mexican-American with cool shades and a weird first name (given to him because he was the sixth child in his family)? Is he another Dylan-Donovan-Cat Stevens rip-off or the great forgotten hero of the hippie generation, overlooked in every country but South Africa and Australia? Yeah I’m serious, look it up if you don’t believe me – in South Africa they even thought he was dead at some point, with his fans considering him a great tragic artist akin to Morrison or Hendrix. Then a couple of decades later they found out he was alive and revived his career, but that’s another story… So who is this Sugar Man of rock music after all?

It turns out that he is just a very good songwriter and a pretty idiosyncratic singer who was merely unlucky to finish his recording career too early (after exactly two albums). Cold Fact is his debut and frankly it doesn’t feel much like a debut album – Rodriguez appears here already as an accomplished musician who has enough great material for a brilliant 30+ minutes LP. 

And it is partly true as well – he polished his songs by performing them in bars and clubs for several years before releasing this album, so Cold Fact is a result of a lot of hard work that somehow still feels almost effortless. Of course, “Sugar Man” is his calling card, his most famous and memorable song, but this is not the case of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” at all, because the other tracks are in fact worthy of your attention as well. My particular favourites include the raunchy guitar-driven “Only Good for Conversation”, the lyrically bitter “Hate Street Dialogue” and the light-heartedly melodic “I Wonder”. I would also love to praise the hell out of playing and singing but I’m afraid this review will get overlong and boring if I start describing it in too much detail. So I’ll just say that the eclectic instrumentation is a delight to my ears, and Sixto’s singing breathes personality and gives off a shining charisma – I mean you can actually FEEL what kind of a man he is merely from the way he delivers these verses. He’s obviously a swell guy, this Rodriguez, though slightly disillusioned by the world around him. And have I already mentioned his cool shades? Well they are cool enough to mention them twice, and when you hear these songs you can almost see them in front of your eyes. And that calm and collected fella behind them, too.

So, long story short, this album rules, it might actually become one of my favourite albums of 1970. That’s a cold fact for you. Take care.

RAGNARÖK – Ragnarök (1976)

Review by: B. B. Fultz
Album assigned by: A.A

Ragnarök is a Swedish band from the seventies. A number of sources list them as “progressive folk” in the vein of Jethro Tull. For me, this distinction is clear for Tull because I’m familiar with the textures of medieval English folk music, but I have little idea how Swedish folk/traditional music sounds, so I’ll have to take their word for it. From what I remember of Nordic mythology, Ragnarök roughly translates to “Twilight of the Gods” — the final war that heralds the end of the old gods and the old world. The album cover does indeed depict a Twilight sky, but no apocalyptic battles … just a shadowy figure on a bicycle riding down a winding country road toward an oncoming bus. I do not know who is riding the bike or who is driving the bus, and there is no clear indication whether the two will pass one another or collide head on, so the message is unclear. On the cover, the umlaut-dots in “Ragnarök” look like two more stars in the night sky. Who knows, maybe they are? In stark contrast to the name, the cover is very pastoral, almost idyllic. The looming black cloud seems to be the only hint that something ominous could be on the way.
The reason I’ve tried to decipher the album cover is because the music itself has no lyrics, so it doesn’t explain what any of this has to do with the end of the world. Maybe they just thought it would be a cool name for a band?
The music itself is essentially an acoustic tapestry of different moods and textures. The “progressive folk” label is misleading because it has none of the trademark elements of Prog. No futuristic sound effects or Keith Emerson synth solos here. In fact I don’t think there ARE any synthesizers on this album, and very little keyboards. About the only real connection to Prog is an occasional jazz influence on the guitar solos and some tricky drum syncopations. It’s a lot closer to Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull than it is to ELP or Yes. The song titles are in Swedish, but I listened to the songs before I deciphered the titles, to absorb the various moods neutrally. The album mostly follows a folk pattern, yet there are a variety of subtle nuances here.
Färval Köpenhamn (translated to “Father Choice in Dubai?” … I split up Farval syllabically, so I’m not sure of the accuracy here) begins the album on a simple folk pattern of interwoven acoustic guitars in the style of David Gilmour (both the early and latter days of Pink Floyd) crossed with something else I can’t recall. It’s wistful sounding in that way a good Gilmour acoustic track is. This Pink Floydish quality recurs in several songs, including the very next song, called Promenader (“Walks”) … a longer and more complex song with an attractive guitar melody and spacey/dreamy solos laid atop a mellow jazzy background. Stoner rock of sorts, but of very high quality.
Nybakat bröd (“Freshly Baked Bread”) shifts gears into a mid-tempo medieval ballad. As soon as I heard the opening notes, I thought Jethro Tull … amusingly, a few seconds later a flute made its first appearance on the album, and I had to smile (did I call it, or what?). If you heard this without knowing all of Tull’s back catalogue you could easily confuse it for one of Ian Anderson’s Elizabethan forays. Purposeful and meticulous minstrel-strumming with a sense of forward motion. Yet ere you climb on your steed and make haste, it is over, and we’re falling into the Dagarnas Skum (“Days of Foam”) and another Pink Floydian fugue state. The longest song on the album, it begins almost too softly to be heard, climbing out of the gloom in a way reminiscent of “Echoes.” It has some VERY Gilmour-sounding guitar playing, and all of these surreal little background chirps and chimes that make the whole thing sound somewhere halfway between dreaming and waking. When the flute comes in, it sounds so right it seems almost preordained. Soft sibilant percussion appears and intertwines with the rest, sometimes steadily, sometimes in convoluted little syncopations. The whole thing is amazing — if I didn’t know the band I would swear I was listening to early 70s Pink Floyd at the top of their game. I can only assume the Foam in the title is sea-foam … it’s a dreamy undersea world, like Echoes, where “everything is green and submarine.” The finale of Side One, beautiful and sad and deep, a song where everything flows together just so, like some fable that gets better with each retelling. Simply a great piece of music.
Side Two begins with a return to the land of Tull, and Ragnarök’s answer to Bouree’ … a super-short (44 seconds) flute solo called Polska fran Kalmar (“Polish From Kalmar”) and essentially the prelude Fabriksfunky (“Factory Funky?” Not sure on this one). Fabriksfunky is an interesting one, another smooth jazz-rocker reminiscent of Robin Trower. The rhythm section as well as the tone of the guitar solos all remind me of the Trower song “Somebody’s Calling” — one of his best, by the way. Then things slow down a little again with Tatanga mani (“Walking Buffalo” and the only non-Swedish title, apparently it’s borrowed from Amerindian dialects). This is the one that most reminds me of a Yes song, at least in the beginning. The tumbling acoustic runs are reminiscent of Steve Howe’s better moments. The first half of the song consists of these noodling little acoustic fingerings, almost like it’s looking for direction. Partway through it turns into something quite different, a kind of Flamenco lounge number on the acoustic with nifty little bass runs. Somehow they bring the flute into it toward the end. And somehow it works. Don’t ask me how though. It’s really more like “aimlessly wandering buffalo” or maybe “schizophrenic buffalo looking for its medication” because it never sounds like the same song for long. It gets a little disorienting at times, but at least it’s never dull.
The last few songs don’t cover much new ground — Fjottot (no idea what it means) brings us back to ELP. It has a bouncy circus-like sound with an almost hurdy-gurdy style background, like you caught Keith Emerson in a playful mood and then he realized you were there and abruptly stopped playing after a minute and a half of noodling around. It’s a little too short, but it’s fun while it lasts. Stiltje-uppbrott (“Lull Breakup”) returns to a solemn introspective mood, at least at first, then breaks into a rousing medieval-esque acoustic barrage complete with a very emphatic flute (back to Tull again). I’m guessing it’s about the lonely period after a romantic break-up (the “lull” between partners) where one is in a numb lethargy and then suddenly snaps out of it. The closing song Vattenpussar (“Water Kisses”) starts very softly with wistful sounding little chiming keyboard notes weaving with a lonely and bluesy electric guitar, building into a strange kind of jazz-rock-blues thing that I can’t exactly describe, with a horns section (at least they sound like horns) that verges on something from Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats album, or almost … then dwindles back to its soft beginnings … then ends. It was a good song to end the album on because somehow it just SOUNDS like a coda. But don’t ask me exactly how or why.
For an album where most of the songs follow a similar theme, I’m a little surprised this review turned out so long. These are all basically guitar-based folk songs, aside from the one flute solo (which was basically a prologue to a guitar song). But there’s so much going on, so many different moods and textures and shadings of meaning, that it seems impossible to do it justice with a brief review. George might be able to pull that off, but I don’t think I can. This music was nothing totally new or unique, not even back in 1976, and they seem to borrow from a lot of other, more famous bands. Yet they mix these elements in a novel way, making it all somehow greater than the sum of its parts. I have no idea what freshly-baked bread or sea foam or buffalos have to do with the end of the world, but even if I don’t understand it, I still feel like I “get” it. This is not an album of certainties, it’s an album of nuances. In fact it’s so nuanced I think adding lyrics would just have been a distraction. It’s an amazing rainbow of moods and emotions and whimseys, and an ideal example of what a few competent musicians are capable of when they stop trying to explain life and the world and everything, and simply concentrate on making good music. This is an album of contemporary folk rock and that’s about it, so I suppose it’s nothing special. But not being special is what makes it so special. Thumbs up, 4 or 5 stars, whatever … just go listen to it. This is an album that should be heard, and heard often.

GROVER WASHINGTON JR. – Mister Magic (1975)

Review by: Syd Spence

Album assigned by: Eric Pember


I’ve always loved the idea of jazz fusion. Take the blistering Coltrane style sax solo, slap it over a thick diamond hard funk groove, and you’d be nearing audio perfection. Yet, barring a few Miles Davis albums, I’ve been perennially disappointed by it and I think I’ve figured out why. See most of the Jazz Fusion artists are old bop pros, far from their experimental youth. They reach the ‘70s and go, “the kids are diggin this funk stuff, with its simple rhythms and electric bass. Hey, why don’t we combine smooth jazz melodies with these popular rhythms. Then we will make so much dough we can start buying smack again.” Essentially, a lot of jazz fusion like Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, etc sounds to my ears like proto Kenny G. It’s a little more academic (with it’s weird time signatures), but in the end it’s generally easy listening, and lacking that Coltrane edge. It’s like the Jazz equivalent of AOR, it’s not quite adult contemporary but it’s getting there. 

Anyways, that leaves us to this album, Mr. Magic, which exudes literally all those qualities. Its melodies are smooth, the instrumentation is tight, the arrangements are a little quirky (to a non jazz ear). But the whole thing is so damn safe that it’s just ready made for a some adventurous elevator. 

Case in point, the star of the show, the 12 minute long centerpiece, “Earth Tones.” The track starts with the band creating a tremendous near psychedelic ambience with it’s mix of electric piano, animal sounds and bass noodling. And then horns and drums, bass come in and it sounds great, just thick and awesome, but then your mind focuses on the melody and … it’s just, well it sounds like music used for scene changes in a ‘70s made for tv movie. Then they mess with the time signature and Grover comes in does some jazz soloing business and it sounds great again, and then it’s time for another scene change in The Young and the Restless. And this happens throughout the 12 minutes, cool jazz funkery, periodicly being interupted by that all too friendly melody. And this is the most adventurous and interesting track of the bunch, completely ruined by such a conventional melody. 

The rest of the album varies’ from smooth jazz meets hollywood strings to limp funk tunes. The best of which is probably Black Frost. It’s pretty much a straight funk tune that’s just missing that James Brown spark. It’s not bad, but not really something you need either. 

Overall, I don’t like jazz fusion but if you do, you’d probably love this record. Just go in expecting that cool smooth academic jazz fusion like the Weather Report. Me, I’ll continue fantasizing about John Coltrane joining Parliament.