BÉLA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES – Greatest Hits of the 20th Century (1999)

Review by: Jonathan Moss
Album assigned by: Graeme Oxley

This a very fun album. It’s essentially a mix of bluegrass and jazz fusion. Now I’ve heard some jazz fusion and little bluegrass (unless CBGB bands like The Ramones count) but this wryly titled compilation makes the fusion very appealing.

Since the album is a compilation it is quite varied, with a lot of speedy and virtuosic tracks at the beginning and some slower more atmospheric ones later one. The song Vix 9 sounds quite Yessish and proggish in general but outside of that the album is more poppy, whilst still retaining a jazzy edge. With the exception of the Dave Matthews sung (which is good but would have been better if Colin Newman of Wire fame had sung it) song Communication all the songs on the album are instrumental.   

Of course, the main draw of the album is Béla Fleck who plays banjo the way Frank Zappa plays guitar (okay, I know comparing one good player to another is lazy and doesn’t really encapsulate their style. Just trust me, he’s good). He plays all sorts of fast, bendy lines, although he can also play in a slower more relaxed style. The important thing- as with all truly great virtuosos, in my view at least- isn’t just that he’s really talented musically at the thing but also melodically, playing a variety of fun, quirky riffs.

The rest of the band is really talented as well, though. The whole album is full of tasteful guitar riffs and some really complicated and melodic bass stuff. It’s kind of like Primus, one instrument is the main attraction but the other players are still great.
Something I forgot to mention earlier so will awkwardly do now is that one of the songs (Stomping Grounds) is live. This is a good decision though the song doesn’t sound tremendously different from that studio stuff, except a bit more spontaneous and lively, I guess.

The most impressive thing I can say about this album is that despite all the instrumental talent on display the whole thing sounds very down to earth. I love a lot of prog but I couldn’t really say that about any prog group. On the other hand “unpretentious music for pretentious people” isn’t the most glamorous title so maybe Van Der Graaf Generator had the right idea.

In all seriousness this is an album I’d definitely recommend, and if it wasn’t for the hypocrisy for not doing so myself yet I’d say check their other albums out as well. 

THE ROCHES – The Roches (1979)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Jeremiah Methven

I remember the Roches & at least some bits of their first album from “the days” primarily because of their affiliation with Robert Fripp (he produced the album and plays a few guitar parts. Tony Levin plays on it too. Terre Roche did some vocals on Fripp’s “Exposure” album of the same year). Because of this association and also because they played in the downtown NYC clubs they somehow managed to find a place in the punk/new wave / underground music scene, even though their music didn’t fit the mold. Though not “punk” in their sound in any way, listening to this album (and this the only one of their albums I’ve heard), it’s not hard to see why this would appeal to an “alternative” audience.

The music centers around the harmonies of the three Roche sisters. Maggie sings in a surprisingly deep contralto voice. Terre sings in a high register, and Suzzie is in the middle. The lead is mostly alternated between Suzzie and Terre, but it’s not always easy to discern who’s singing what (except for Maggie’s parts). The individual voices are not really outstanding on their own, but the sum is definitely greater than the parts. The harmonies range from sweet and ethereal to (presumably deliberately) off-key and silly, perfectly matching the subject matter. The instrumentation is sparse and perfectly complements the vocals, never getting in the way. Fripp plays a few leads in his signature style. The Fripp treatment is most notable on “Hammond Song”.

The album starts off with the autobiographical “We”, which I guarantee will be a total earworm in your head for days after hearing it (“We are Maggie and Terre and Suzzie”…there it goes again!). The harmonies here are deliberately silly and somewhat childish sounding to match the humorous lyrics. Silly, but fun stuff. The next song, ““Hammond Song” is where they really start to show their chops, and is one of the highlights of the album. The harmonies range from ethereal to an almost avant-garde dissonance which is accentuated by Fripp’s guitar and Frippertronic atmospherics. “The Troubles” makes reference to the then-current violent conflict in the middle of silly lyrics about banalities like “hope they have health food in Ireland”. “Mr. Sellack” for all its witty comments about menial work, is ultimately about abandoned dreams. “The Married Men” is the most endearing song about adultery that I can think of. “The Train” suggests the barriers we put up around ourselves (perhaps necessarily) in public – “Can’t we have a party? Would he rather have a party?/After all we have to sit here and he’s even drinking a beer/ I want to ask him what’s his name/ But I can’t ’cause I’m so afraid of the man on the train” and “Pretty and High” is another highlight, but there are no weak ones. The lyrics are witty and engaging, but never didactic or obvious, as folkies tend to be all too often . They leave a lot of room for ambiguity and interpretation. Overall a definite thumbs up.

EMIKA – Drei (2015)

Review by: Tristan Peterson
Album assigned by: Markus Pilskog

FFO: Sufjan Stevens, Blank Banshee, Deadmau5, Autechre

Emika is an English classical and electronic musician, with Czech heritage, by way of Berlin, Germany.  On this album, Drei, she delivers extremely cold, slightly glitchy textures (mostly Moog created) and beats, but with poppy melodies to carry the songs through.

The glaring issue, which becomes apparent by the second track, is that these songs don’t NEED pop elements and hooks to them.  The foundation she created, especially her glitched-out vocal samples, are strong enough to where her rather generic and monotone timbre detracts from what’s going on in the background.  Now, this isn’t the case with all the songs, but it does happen on most of them.

Like I said earlier, it does have a lot of plusses.  The Moog textures and beats have a very cold, almost paranoid quality to them, and the way she also treats some of her chopped up vocal samples only adds to the atmosphere that she creates behind herself.

Overall the record is rather enjoyable for what it is, though certainly not the best thing in the world. That being said, whoever happens to be reading this should give it a listen.

RATING: 7/10
FAVORITE TRACK: Miracles (Prelude) 

TRIANA – El Patio (1975)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

Abre la puerta niña
que el día va a comenzar…

(Open the door, girl,
The day will begin…)

And indeed, listening to this album felt very much like opening the door to a new and exciting world – the world of Spanish prog rock. You know, that 70s genre with mellotron solos and a dozen of time signature changes per song? However, this record is a far cry from ELP, Genesis, King Crimson and the like, and not just because it was recorded in a different language. Indeed it incorporates some of the classic prog elements (most of them borrowed from Triana’s British counterparts, I guess), with particularly some guitar and keyboard solos sounding really proggy. But thankfully complexity for the sake of complexity and instrumental prowess for the sake of instrumental prowess are not the purpose of this album. This was obviously recorded by very skillful musicians, but they’re not here to show off, they’re here to take you to some otherworldly version of southern Spain (my first guess was Andalusia, and Wikipedia tells me I was absolutely right – Triana are an Andalusian band), the one with passionate minstrels in large hats singing flamenco serenades for hot Spanish ladies standing on their balconies in long silk red dresses. Which brings me to the subject of the second important musical element of this album – the flamenco. It is indeed hard to imagine an English or American band recording such an album, or at least making a convincing rendering of specifically Spanish cultural values and motifs (similar to the fact that something like Selling England by the Pound could never have been recorded by any band but a British one). And this is obviously the greatest strength of this record – it effectively merges progressive rock with inherently, authentically Spanish folk music, and not in an overtly experimental way, too – this is in fact a very accessible and easily enjoyable record with a pleasant, melodic sound and strong, emotional vocals from Jesús de la Rosa Luque. So, it’s basically 40 minutes of lovely flamenco guitars, great singing, hooks, authentic Spanish atmosphere, more hooks, more awesome singing, as well as slightly trite and very vague but never in the least way bad lyrics (obviously I don’t understand the language, but I found the translations). What’s not to like here?

My only real complaint would be a lack of diversity. The seven songs present here are all beautiful, but even after 5 or 6 listens I have a problem separating most of them from each other – they have very similar melodies, similar arrangements and even similar lyrical matter. However, two tracks still stand out from the rest. The opening song, Abre la puerta, is probably the most proggy number here, and it isn’t one bit worse than the best British prog-rock cuts of that era. Amazingly, it is also the longest track on the record – however I find myself never growing tired of its numerous vocal hooks and great instrumental solos. And the chorus, referenced in the quote above, is EASILY the most memorable thing on the album. The second great song is En el lago, which struck me as a somewhat ‘psychedelic’ number, with a nice interplay between melancholy keyboards and powerful singing creating a pretty unique atmosphere. The weird-sounding ‘schizoid’ ending of the song, when guitars, keyboards and drums culminate in a hurricane of sound, is really cool too. The rest of the songs are also pretty good, it’s just they are not nearly as memorable.

Summing this up – this is a truly great album that made me want to dig into Spanish rock more. It has all the vibe of a 70s prog album, yet in the end offers so much more, because it is not trying hard to be ‘progressive’ or experimental while it does attempt to be heartfelt, sincere and authentically Spanish, and gloriously succeeds.

PASSENGER OF SHIT – Passenger of Shit 7 (2011)

Review by: Syd Spence
Album assigned by: Franco Micale

This is hardcore. Well, one of the numerous variants that only anal retentive speed freaks care about.

This is House music and Hip Hop’s delinquent offspring. As the years rolled on, clubs and club music began increasing the tempo of that disco beat. The primary cause of increasing the tempo was of course the popularity of stimulant drugs and well, this is the end result. Manic, intense electronic BOOMBOOMBOOM BWAH. Music that is impossible to dance with a party with, but excellent for having a seizure to. To use rock terms, House music is the Beatles and this type of music is Agoraphobic Nosebleed.

That is the history? How about the music. Well, it’s fast, intense and fun. Passenger of Shit does the great hardcore trick of periodically breaking up the intense BOOBOBOOBBOBOpm with melodic slower bits that bring up video games and what have you. This makes the intense bits more fun. I will say the chief strike against this album is a bit of the periodic screamed vocals and the sophomoric humor. I mean sometimes it’s funny and absurd, but it quickly gets annoying. I mean screaming profanity can only get you so far.  

Overall, it’s good at what it does, but I’m gonna be honest here, I doubt I’ll ever put this on again. I’m getting to the point in my life where I’d rather have a developing interesting rhythm in my electronic music and not the machine gun BOOM BOOMs of hardcore. I have a feeling I would have loved this record in my youth and played the fuck out of it to annoy my square peers. So should you get this? Is your veins coursing with dopamine and testosterone? If the answer is yes! this album is great. As for me, I’m gonna put on some reggae.


Review by: Markus Pilskog
Album assigned by: Pip Poodlez

Though I am somewhat aware that it exists as a cultural phenomenon, I have never really dealt much with steampunk as a scene, and wasn’t even aware it had a musical section as well. Therefore, I had few ideas on how Steam Powered Giraffe might sound prior to listening (Victorian-era style industrial?) except that I guessed (correctly) it would be some quite theatrical stuff. The band is made up of 3 members from San Diego who met while studying Theatre Arts (obviously), starting out as a pantomime act(!) and centered around the core of the Bennett twins. They dress up as three robotic characters called The Spine, Rabbit and Hatchworth, and the lyrics seem to revolve around these robots’ daily adventures and the world the band has constructed around them (including the titular giraffe). Apparently, the band has made a web comic about these robots as well, so for anyone interested; I guess it’s freely available.

In the time-honored tradition of Sgt. Pepper, the album starts by welcoming you to the show and introducing the band, before closing the show right before the end. What lies between, however is mostly folksy music with a lot of different instruments (guitars, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles and accordion), giving you that good old 19th century feeling. To the band’s credit, they manage to make the album quite diverse, both stylistically (country, old-time pop, cabaret, and mostly folk styles I don’t know the name of) in tempo and structure (many songs change considerably during its runtime) which suits the theatrical style of the album quite well. The instrumental arrangements are done quite well, with the varied use of instruments and small details helping to give the feel that the band is looking for. At many points while listening to the album, I found myself smiling because of the cheerful nature of many of the songs and the whimsical lyrics. The album is never hilariously funny, but a song like “Ice Cream Parade”, with a brilliant change halfway through the song, is quite entertaining. Also, a song like “Electricity is in My Soul” showcases a smart use of sounds, containing one of the better uses of a talk box I have heard in some time.

One of the areas that the band is really excelling in is vocal harmonies. All of their members are accomplished vocalists, and though a bit theatrical on their own, the album is filled with great vocal harmonies. Especially “Brass Goggles” (one of the highlights) features a really cool a capella section which showcase their vocal talents to the fullest. However, what this track also showcases is something that is a bit lacking in the rest of the songs, namely catchiness (it has a cool drunken chorus) and general songwriting. Most of the songs sound like they should (thanks to both good arrangements and really good production), but the songs themselves are seldom very engaging after first listen. I don’t think the concept itself is a hindrance to this, and several of the songs seem to beg for some jolly crowd-participating singing, though this seldom happens. Few of the melodies are very memorable, which is a problem since the album never really tries to reach you on a larger spiritual level. While listening to this album, I was reminded of Katzenjammer (Norwegian band), who plays similar music (no steampunk and less theatrical though), but are generally more memorable and gripping.

In the end, what saves the album, and ultimately makes it somewhat satisfying, is the execution of the concept and style of the album, which is done very professionally, especially when considering that they weren’t particularly old at the time. They already show that they know how transitions in the songs can work out, and they manage to make you feel good when listening to the music, even though the album does not stay with you for a long while. They have most of the prerequisites for making a really good album, and even if they’re not there yet, I would still conclude that this is a worthwhile listen. 

SLAPP HAPPY / HENRY COW – Desperate Straights (1975)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi

Tracks: Some Questions About Hats, The Owl, A Worm Is At Work, Bad Alchemy, Europa, Desperate Straights, Riding Tigers, Apes in Capes, Strayed, Giants, Excerpt From The Messiah, In The Sickbay, Caucasian Lullaby

A merger. Two bands made this album together, Henry Cow and Slapp Happy. And they were so happy with the results that they decided to merge after that. Maybe more bands should do so. The remnants of the Beatles and the Stones. A recipe for disastrous success.  I think not. It might solve a bass problem though.

Bands as corporations with a lifespan of centuries.

Prog pop. That’s the genre here, I just found out. I just found out this genre existed. So far I only knew of prog rock.

Indeed, do not expect “rock”. Slapp Happy will not “rock you” on this album. A comforting thought when it comes to prog.

The general mood on this album is reflective and cerebral. And it is very artsy.

The first song “Some questions about hats” took me to Weimar. Kurtweilland. Hanns Eislerland. German Expressionism. That sets the tone for most of the songs on this album. The music is largely staccato, with intricate signatures and unexpected melodic twists. The instruments used on these tracks are for the most part acoustic; piano, bass guitar and drums are the main instruments. The arrangements then are filled out with violins, woodwinds, trumpets and the occasional electric guitar and Wurlitzer. Dagmar Krause uses her plainsong voice in a high register and the supposedly poetic lyrics are provided by Peter Blegvad. By the way, to simply state Weimar would be incorrect as I hear different influences in these songs as well, like Canterbury style prog, (free)jazz and John Cage’ compositions for piano, prepared or raw.

I’ll categorize these tracks as avant-garde Weimar chamber pop. In them on first hearing everything sounded a bit askew but once I got used to the sound I found these generally short pieces quite beautiful in an offbeat way. Slapp Happy / Henry Cow obviously knew what they were doing without the apparent urge to impress with prowess. In fact, overall the record sounds quite lean. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an influence on the more melodic post-punk experimentalists like Tuxedomoon and Minimal Compact and even nineties alternative rock acts like dEUS and Tindersticks. It must be my imagination but sometimes the violin parts even remind me of those in “Different Trains” by Steve Reich.

All the non-instrumental tracks, bar one, are sung by Dagmar Krause. Her voice took me some time to get used to. It is more in the European classical / cabaret style than pop/rock. She has a funny german accent and I can easily imagine her singing the “Dreigrosschenoper”. At times though she sounds shrill and quivering, especially in the high register. Witchy and childish at times. On first hearing “Some questions about hats” I thought: “well, surely this must be the wicked witch from the East”. However for the most part she sounds quite pleasant even if she’s no Lotte Lenya. On the contrary in  “Excerpt From The Messiah” she even sounds like Yoko Ono, complete with Onowarblings. Not that I mind one bit, of course.

Not all songs live in Weimar however and there are four that sound quite differently. The title track is a beautiful piano dominated instrumental that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a late sixties Beach Boys album. “Strayed” is a poppy, clean guitar driven song, sung by Peter Blegvad, that on first hearing sounds quite conventional until you realize it is actually a bossa nova and could well have been produced in the nineties by let’s say Cake. The aforementioned “Excerpt From The Messiah” (a Händel cover, no less) is the most rockist track complete with distorted electric guitars. Still this is no shit that stinks. It has a great line though: “He hid not his face from shame and spitting”. I suppose that’s about Jesus Christ. Finally the last track consists almost entirely  of slowly ascending lonely notes on the piano and woodwinds without reaching a conclusion. This is music of lonesome foghorns that blow, solitary walks through deserted industrial wastelands and fortified coastal regions or as in my case bicycle rides in the rain through the polder with windmills and pumping stations at night. It works. Spooky.

Do I know some people who would hate this album? Yes I do. Those who do not like art in their music and they are legion. In fact, I intend to use this album to evacuate my birthday party  in December.

It’s a good album though and quite unlike any other I heard so far. If you are exhausted by Zarah Leander, Suzi Quatro, Li’l Kim and Amanda Lear you need this album. Even if it might take you some effort. That’s okay. I do not approve of laziness.

Oh, so  do I like it? I do, even if at times it’s a bit too cerebral to actually love. It is good. This is paletti. Pico bello. Sombrero!

Favorite tracks: “The Owl”, “A Worm Is At Work”, “Desperate Straights”, “Strayed” and “Caucasian Lullaby”.