STEVEN WILSON – Grace for Drowning (2011)

Review by: Ali Ghoneim
Album assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn 

Steven Wilson has been behind many of the recent reissues of classic prog rock albums, and after listening to one his own albums, it’s easy to see why. This is a guy who is thoroughly familiar with the prog sound. Unfortunately, while that makes him suited to helming reissuing projects, it doesn’t help make albums like Grace for Drowning terribly exciting. The album faithfully reproduces elements of ITCOTCK-era King Crimson — the apocalyptic choirs, soothing mellotron, hysterical sax, etc. – and mixes them in with drum machines and some metal guitar heroics. The end product bears much of the form of a prog rock album, but in my opinion little of its spirit. I can’t put my finger on it, but the album comes off like the pet project of someone who is more of a producer than a songwriter, making all of the songs seem a bit perfunctory. Instead of being an independently vital and distinct work, Grace for Drowning ends up sounding like a generic calling card for Wilson’s skills as an excellent producer.  
To be fair, I should probably give his other albums a shot before I write him off like this.

PROCOL HARUM – A Salty Dog (1969)

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by: Ali Ghoneim 

 

I own a version of the album without the title song A Salty Dog (I own a 2cd version of the the first 4 albums, that also includes the debut album, called Procol harum, without A Whiter Shade Of Pale, go figure), but I will separately review that song at the end.

So my album starts with The Milk Of Human Kindness. With its folky melody and quite bluesy guitar it sounds rather unlike ‘classic Procol harum’, but the voice is Gary Brooker and when the organ joins for the chorus it’s unmistakably Procol harum. Although the guitar sound doesn’t really work for me, it’s an energetic opener.

The second song, Too Much Between Us, is more subdued, with nice acoustic guitar. Paul McCartney would be proud of this song; it’s that nice!

The Devil Came From Kansas starts relatively promising with the verses, but it turns out to be rather mediocre further on. I think it’s the mix of power chords on the guitar, the silly drumming and the whiney group singing. The guitar solo’s are nice, however.

Boredom starts with sleighride sounds ( like a Beach boys Xmas song), but turns out to be more tropical. A nice stylistic excursion, albeit not very substantial. Once again, the singing doesn’t really seem to fit the happy melody but that may be because it tries to convey boredom. With the slightly more enthusiastic yelling at the end you would expect the song to speed up and end in a frenzied hysteria, but nope…

Juicy John Pink starts with bluesy guitar and harmonica and remains a bluesy song throughout. It’s an OK performance, but this really is like ELP playing Are You Ready Eddy?, showing stylistic diversity for the sake of it. And any number of bands of the era could do this better, from Paul Butterfield to Cream.

Wreck Of The Hesperus sounds like a more piano driven and speeded up version of Whiter Shade Of Pale, with added orchestra. An impressive song nonetheless.

All This And More, again, is a very typical Procol Harum song. I like how the vocals, piano and the guitar mix; this is one well arranged song.

Crucifiction Lane is distinguished more by Trowers’ singing than by his guitar playing. It’s sort of a power ballad that suffers a little from a lack of dynamics: there is no strong build up towards a glorious finale, but the instrumental ending is nice.

Pilgrim’s Progress is a little Paul McCartneyesque once more: nice vocal lines but the organ moves into Whiter Shade territory pretty soon. The hand clapping at the end gives it almost a gospel feeling.

A Salty Dog really belongs here, as it gave the album its title. It starts and ends with seagulls screeching. It’s a very solemn song, mostly because of the organ, but also because the singing is by far the best on this song.

On the whole I would call this album more symphonic rock than progressive rock, as only in the double keyboards (and in the song titles) something proggy could be discerned. The orchestral flourishes and some nice compositions elevate it above the pop music of the day, but instrumental virtuosity, tricky time signatures and heavy philosophical or mystical lyrics are mostly absent. Not having listened to it for a few years it was actually quite a bit more middle of the road than I remembered. It’s pleasant music, but I somehow expected something more challenging of it.

RAY BARRETTO – Acid (1968)

Review by: Ali Ghoneim
Album assigned by: Alejandro Muñoz G

When a Latin jazz musician releases an album called Acid — in 1968 no less — you would be forgiven for assuming it combines latin music with psychedelic rock. You would be forgiven, but you’d still be wrong. Not a hint, lick or indeed dab of psychedelia is on the entire thing (the eight minute long improvisation of Espiritu Libre comes close, but when the improv is this dry, it’s just called jazz). The only psychedelic thing about the album isn’t even on the album, it’s on the cover. What a waste of psychedelic font.

Not that Acid is a straightforward latin jazz record. It does draw influence from 60s soul/rock and tries to give them a latin spin, but the end result doesn’t really transform these genres in any significant way. A Deeper Shade of Soul sounds like a medley of covers rather than anything truly transcending typical soul. In fact, its melodies seem to be snatched from Twist and Shout and Summer Nights. The Soul Drummers is a bit of a slog except for that section near the end when the horns kick into high gear. And while Mercy, Mercy, Baby is a pretty good song, everything cool about it has nothing to do with the fact that Ray is belting your stock 60s soul/rock lyrics over latin percussion. Finally, Teacher of Love is Ray’s unconvincing attempt at hippy rock lyrics, not that actual hippy rock lyrics are all that convincing in the first place. Here’s a sampling:

I come to my class tonight
Don’t be late or you’ll be left behind
Cause I’m the loving loving man
I’m the teacher of love
(teacher won’t you teach me tonight!)

Stupendous. (That means it’s stupid, right?)

Where the album really shines is on its more straightforward latin tracks. All of the songs were written by Ray Barretto, a percussionist, but the real stars on display here are in the horn section. Just listen to the explosive horn riff that opens the first and best track, El Nuevo Barretto. It is the definition of a pick-me-up. Once that groove kicks, it’s hard to not let yourself be transported to a more pleasant state of mind. Think this is the kind of music George Clinton meant when he coined the term “mood control”. 

ROY WOOD – Boulders (1973)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Ali Ghoneim

I’ve read interesting things about Roy Wood, as well as his bands Wizard & the Move, though I’ve never actually heard any of his work until now. Part of the reason that I’ve never been motivated enough to check it out is that I am not at all a fan of ELO, the most famous band associated with him. I am also not familiar with the ELO stuff featuring him, but it’s possible to see a connection between the ELO I do know and this stuff. I must say I like this a lot better, though.

As far as the music goes, it’s hard to describe, but I will try. It’s vaguely Beatle-esque pop with strong folk influence. There are also touches of Beach Boys harmonies and 50’s rock ‘n’ roll. He plays almost all the instruments on the album himself. All the songs are very strong melodically. A couple of them have quirky qualities to them, most notably “Ms. Clarke and the Computer”, which sounds like a children’s song sung by a 70’s computer voice, which in the middle inexplicably turns into jazz for a couple of measures before resuming. “When Grandma Plays the Banjo” sounds just like you think it would. Amusing but not one I’ll likely go back to again. This one, “Rock Medley” and “Rock Down Low” don’t work for me much, but all the other ones are very good.

Thumbs up on this one.

This review is also posted on Amazon here.

TYRANNOSAURUS REX – Unicorn (1969)

Review by: Andreas Georgi

Album assigned by: Ali Ghoneim

In the USA, where I grew up and live, T-Rex is known for the one song that was a hit on American rock radio, correctly named “Get It On”, but euphemistically renamed “Bang a Gong”. This is a damn shame because they (he – Marc Bolan, actually) made a bunch of really great and unique albums. I do not know the two albums before this one, but this one is generally considered a step up. “Unicorn” is their 3rd album, and the last featuring percussionist Steve Peregrine Took. Bolan fired him later that year for a variety of issues – drug habits, attitude, etc. In a sense it’s a shame because, even though Marc Bolan was always the driving force of T-Rex – really he WAS T-Rex, Took was actually quite a talented guy. This is the last album before a transition to electric rock and glam stardom over the next 3 albums. Listeners who are only familiar with “Get It On” or with the “Electric Warrior” albums will be quite surprised by this album. This album is still almost entirely acoustic, with Bolan playing acoustic guitar & vocals, and Took on various percussion, harmony vocals and other assorted instruments. There are a number of elements which were definitely played down on T-Rex’s later glam stuff, namely a fair amount of surrealist weirdness and dissonant vocals (“bleating” (as George S put it) and “Punch and Judy” have been used as descriptions) which might be an acquired taste for some. If I had to describe the music, picture a cross of Donovan, Syd Barrett, and themes from Tolkien and William Blake. It’s very much of its time (1969), but does not fare worse for it at all. It’s not dated – it’s timeless! I won’t give a song by song description, but it’s a solid album. The last song features a poem narrated by John Peele.

I would recommend the version of the album with the extra tracks. Most of them are alternate takes of songs on the album and are fine, but no great revelations. There are, however, two versions each of the A and B sides of the single following this album, which still featured Took, “King of the Rumbling Spires” / “Do You Remember?”, both of which are great. The A side is the first Tyrannosaurus Rex song to feature an overtly hard, electric sound, along with a wonderfully dissonant melotron at the end, and is one of their highlights, I think. The B side is great too. The single version features Bolan on lead vocals and Took harmonizing, while the alternate take reverses the roles, with Steve Peregrine Took on lead vocals, and Bolan accompanying. It’s revelatory how good Took is, actually (in both roles). Alas, only room for one ego in the band. Of course the first T-Rex album you should get is “Electric Warrior”, but do not neglect this one or several others which are great. All the albums from this one through “Tanx” in 1973 are must-haves for fans of T-Rex. 

Five stars – Thumbs Up!

This review is also on Amazon here.

BERNIE SANDERS AND 30 VERMONT ARTISTS – We Shall Overcome (1987)

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by: Ali Ghoneim

Well, what do we have here?
 
Oh, Freedom – In principle a nice gospelly, anti-slavery tune, performed very generically, with a weird monologue (presumably by Bernie) in the middle. After that he joins in the singing, which doesn’t really add anything of quality, to put it mildly.
 
The Banks of Marble –  Bernie starts singing solo this time, and it’s pathetic: his phrasing, his diction, his (total lack of) sense of rhythm. He sounds like a priest, recorded separately, with music added later. With the (little) chorus you can hear the other singers desperately trying to make up for Bernie’s lack of talent. Second verse is more of the same. Loving Phish, Adam Green, Ween and many 60’s artists, I’m no stranger to silly lyrics but this beats everything, and detracts from the musical enjoyment, such as it is.
 
Where Have All the Flowers Gone –  This starts with a traditional drumming pattern that reminds me of an old Christmas song that I can’t be bothered to check. Some electric piano creeps in, and then Bernie with a pacifist sermon. He really likes long enumerations. When the chorus starts, hearing several professional voices comes as a relief: some are a little whiny, but they’re certainly adequate.
 
This Land Is Your Land – A reggae-ish intro doesn’t make things any easier for Bernie; his delivery is painful to hear and sounds insincere. This is strange, come to think of it, as most likely Bernie believes what he’s ‘singing’ and probably had a hand in his lyrics as well. The music and the ‘back-up’ singers are certainly OK, but it still sounds like a low budget version of songs like We are the world of the same era.
 
We Shall Overcome – “In many ways, the world in which we’re living today is an extremely depressing place. It’s hard to deny that, and it’s wrong to deny that”. No Bernie, it isn’t difficult or wrong to deny that. Having a choir sing We shall overcome (with nice electric guitar) may be true in most cases, but it doesn’t help your message. A message that, even thirty years ago, seemed to imply that government can solve all life’s problems, on an individual level, for society as a whole, and even for the whole world: just give politicians more power!
 
What to make of it? Curiosity value? Certainly, with him being a current presidential candidate and all. Musically it’s nothing special: happy gospel music with dated 80’s production values. Some nice voices, a nice organ tone or electric guitar here and there, but even without Bernie’s ‘contributions’ it’s nothing special. ‘Bland’ is the word I think.
 
It’s also very short, 5 songs, half an hour, but already too long to not bore the hell out of you. Lyrically it’s even more outdated, bordering on the insane: with a mix of faith and socialism Bernie tries to make the listener feel guilty, failing miserably but making a fool of himself.
 
Emotionally charged? Sort of. I switched between outright laughter, frustrated anger and annoyed mockery, so on an emotional level he certainly got to me, once. But I will absolutely never listen to it again. Bernie lost any sympathy I might have felt for him as an underdog in the American presidential elections. I’d even prefer Trump over Sanders as the worlds’ next US president, and that’s saying something.
 
In fact I’d prefer most tv evangelists of the 80’s and 90’s over his pathetic semi-religious hippy shit. Any tune can be a nice singalong song at any of his campaign meetings, but playing the cd (including his spoken parts) out loud at these meetings, is bound to make him lose the nomination.
 
In the end, this half hour taught me a lot about American politics I more or less feared and did not want to know…

NEGATIVLAND – Dispepsi (1997)

Review by: Ali Ghoneim
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

Dispepsi is an anti-consumerism, anti-commercial, anti-soft drink record by a group called Negativland. It alternates between sample heavy soundscapes and a couple straightforward songs. The more trad songs parody commercial jingles, which have thankfully gone out of fashion in the 21st century. All I will say about the parodies is that the basic melodies and singsongy vocals get their point across at the expense of enjoyability. Even the mixing on some of lead vocals sounds hollow. I couldn’t tell whether this was meant to reflect the soulless nature of jingles or just the band’s vocal talent; Dispepsi is my first and only Negativland record. “Aluminum or Glass” is the most honest attempt at an unironic tune, and even it sounds way too middle of the road to be memorable.
 
What Negativland is much more adept at is putting together sample-based music. Brooding sax and jittery dance music soundtrack the whole experience, showing that the band has way more musical talent on hand than they let on during the parody tracks. The group samples everything from TV spots, radio jingles, interviews with industry professionals, ad execs, testimonials from regular jacks like you and me to endorsements from famous jacks like Michael Jacks(on). This might all sound incredibly boring and pretentious, and while the latter is certainly true, the end result is actually dazzling –if a bit dizzying at times. The samples are mixed and matched and juxtaposed and repeated and repeated and repeated, but not TOO much. Five different interview samples will start and stop interchangeably, building and dropping threads, weaving them into a cohesive whole remarkable for sample based music, all the while underpinned by a kaleidoscope of shorter samples bursting left and right. It’s as if the Avalanches took a media studies course. It’s blunt and pretentious as hell, but boy does it ever keep your attention.