YES – Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)

Review by: Jonathan Moss
Assigned by: Irfan Hidayatullah

 

This is without a doubt one of the best albums Yes have ever done. Easily top five, perhaps top three. Definitely in the pantheon of top prog albums in general. God, its such a fucking good album. Why? The whole package man, its got almost everything that makes Yes good (it is missing one rather crucial element, which should be obvious to Yes fans). Jon Anderson’s esoteric religious lyrics, his bizarrely high pitched but melodically pleasing and strangely friendly vocals, Chris Squire’s thick, busy and catchy bass lines, Steve Howe’s acidic, hooky guitar playing, Rick Wakeman’s ear grabbing, rich keyboard textures and symphonic playing (though at points he does seem to cross into cheesy sci-fi territory, but that gives the album a goofy charm rather than diminishing it in any serious way), and last but certainly not least, co-producer Eddie Offord, who manages to get a nice, clear separation between the instruments. Oh, and Alan White’s competent drumming.

Of course, this album does have a reputation for pretension, and at eighty minutes with four songs, I can’t really argue with that. However, I will argue that there’s nothing entirely wrong with being pretentious. Obviously it can result in a lot of pretty crappy music, but so can music that’s lacking in pretension, like most modern indie bands. So I guess I would call this album an example of successful pretentious music.

Besides, the album manages not to be monotonous through a variety of ways. For one, the four songs all have a different mood from each other, and within those songs there are different moods, and different sections, like an experimental novel written by multiple people, but with a similar vision. It helps, that as Mark Prindle pointed out, the album is not particularly bombastic. All the songs are pretty, and they generally sound too mystical and withdrawn to get extroverted, as bombastic music requires. I swear, if he’d been born later, Jon Anderson would have been a great neofolk artist. And Rick Wakeman would be a synthpop legend!

The way the instruments intertwine is amazing as well, it shows something of a lack of ego in the band, because although the instruments all get their own moments and in general sound fantastic, they work together beautifully at all times, never fighting for supremacy. In this regard they are like a good team of improvisatory comedians (this comparison will definitely be used sardonically).

On to the songs now! It starts off with “The Revealing Science of God”, which is definitely my favourite song on the album. It starts off with these mysterious ambient sounds, then starts to build in intensity, as Jon chants his lyrics, before the bass joins in and launches into a fantastic melody along with a majestic mellotron line from Wakeman. The song just has such a sense of joy to it, it sounds like celebration music for some esoteric religious party. Steve’s guitar playing is clean and melodic, almost byrdsy, but with a jazzy edge. It’s amazing how much the band can get out the beginning, just Jon’s angelic “what happened to wonders we once knew so well” bit, the bouncy guitar, catchy as fuck guitar and heavenly synth. This launches on to a tenser, more hard rocking bit, with aggressive but tuneful guitar playing and an uncertain vocal melody from Jon. And then! A very pretty synth bit, the song can’t stay tense, its just too jolly! It does become more chilled out though, kind of back to the proto-ambient vibe. For a prog epic its not that similar to something like Supper’s Ready, its more like “Close to the Edge”, it has different sections, but it always returns to the same themes. Of course, each times with variations, like a different riff or a frantic piano bit. Layer it more and keep it interesting and multifaceted while following the same melody, which is good, because what a fucking melody it is. Steve gets a very weird guitar solo as well, it becomes more pretty and conventional, but at the beginning it sounds almost like something that could be used in an artsier new wave song as a goofy sound effect. This leads to the “young christians see it” bit, which has an epic and of course, religious vibe, with some mellow synth playing. The song ends on a bouncy, joyous note, with spastic keyboard and bass, before getting more mellow, with dramatic singing from Jon, before returning triumphantly to the central melody.

The next song, “The Remembering”, opens with pretty swirly keyboards. The atmosphere of the song is mellow and lush, this is aided by Steve Howe’s hypnotic guitar line. This gives the song a sleepy energy, like animals napping in a humid jungle. This is followed by an ominous keyboard line and a more energetic bit. The guitar line is poppy and the bass is smooth. Then there is what I regard as the best bit in the song, because during it the percussion is actually punchy! Alan White temporarily stops being shite. Of course, the chiming acoustic guitar helps as well. It reminds me of The Wicker Man, only if it hadn’t been a horror film. The song ends on a cool celestial section, with beautiful guitar and choir like mellotron. The song can get repetitive within its structure but, along no Revealing Science, it is still a very strong song, though not quite a classic.

Admittedly, “The Ancient” is pretty bad. The song has its moments, like a pretty folk pop bit near the end, which could almost pass as its own song, and some interesting noises. But outside of this it has some of the ugliest guitar playing Steve Howe has done on record, just a kind of squealing atonal mess. The percussion doesn’t work either, it is overly busy. It’s just a very formless, confused song. It’s like they tried to go from prog to outright avant-garde. Leave that to Crimson, guys. The noises, for me make me conceptualise it as a kind of proto-Gates of Delirium, even if they don’t actually sound much alike. Ultimately it just sounds like video game music for some forgettable 90s game.

Luckily the song ends with an absolute classic, and the second best song on the album. This is of course “Ritual”. The best bit of the song is the “nous somme du soleil” chant. This occurs twice, relatively early in the song, featuring the beautiful chant of that title from Jon, under carefree, sweeping guitar and catchy bass. It creates this religious atmosphere, but one of joy, like a charismatic Church, but not at all! It’s reprised again at the end, but this time it’s more mellow, with otherworldly tinkling piano. These sections are for me definitely the highlight of the song, they convey something I cannot put to words, a spectral beauty. Something life affirming. However, if the rest of the song was junk, it would still be filler, so luckily the rest of the song is pretty great. Throughout it features various pretty vocal performances from Jon, pretty guitar leads and riffs (including at one point a nice punchy riff) from Steve and Squire’s catchy bass playing. There is also a good hard rocking bit, though it still retains the fundamental optimism of the tune. The song is a beautiful epic mantra, just not as quite as realised as revealing science.

Jesus, look how long this review is. Now I understand why critics hated prog so much, it is hard to review succinctly, unlike a punk song where you can just say “catchy aggressive guitar riff and sneering vocals”. Well, that doesn’t change that this album is great, even if one of the songs blows and it does suffer from padding. The classics make up for it!
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FRANK OCEAN – Blonde (2016)

Review by: Eric Pember
Assigned by: Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan

 

 
I hadn’t really heard Frank Ocean before now. I did like “Pyramids” because of John Mayer’s David Gilmour-esque guitar solo (which is still his only reason for existing, as far as I’m concerned), but that was about it.

I admit that I’m pretty suspicious of this type of music. It seems very calculated to appeal to those who are too smart for normal Top 40 pop, but at the same time feel distanced from truly experimental music. That also describes me relatively well (I’ve taken to calling myself a “contratarian populist” lately), and thus, I should be able to like this music.

However, I just can’t bring myself to do so. I suspect that part of it is modern production standards. I know that sounds like such a rockist thing to say, and it kinda is, but I can’t get myself not to feel that way. I know that rationally, that’s not true, since I quite like Janelle Monae and Kendrick Lamar. Then again, I’m told that both of them throw back to earlier epochs with their sound, so that’s probably why.

(I’m gonna note right now before I go further that I don’t feel like everything should sound like it did in the 1960s, as much as I like the general sound of the era. It’s just the pop production of this decade that really annoys me, somehow.)

I did start to get used to the production after a few tracks, but that’s when I unveiled another layer. Much of this album sounded like a variant on white guy with acoustic guitar (or as Todd in the Shadows calls it, WGWAG) music. It’s just that, buried underneath modernistic production and the trappings of R&B/soul music, it sounds suave enough to lure in the kind of people who’d usually be repelled by music like this.

Thankfully, after that, yet another layer peeled off and the album suddenly started showing actual potential. “Solo (Reprise)” is written and performed by Andre 3000, which is always a treat. “Pretty Sweet” then manages to build off the momentum that interlude created with some pretty clever atmospherics, which make me want to go back and listen to Channel Orange, because I’ve heard that album is full of that kind of thing.

Unfortunately, immediately after that one more layer peeled off, and the onion was revealed to be rotten from the beginning. “Pretty Sweet” is followed by a potentially-justifiable-but-probably-useless spoken word interlude about Facebook, then it unfortunately returns to the modernistic production and WIGWAG stylizations. So much for the promise the preceding two tracks showed, I guess.

The last layer then peels off, and the album just flatlines in a weird mass of Radiohead-esque emptiness that’s probably supposed to mean something, but doesn’t really add up to anything.

Sorry Star Trek II Wrath of Khan, but I can’t bring myself to like this album, although I could if more of it sounded like “Pretty Sweet”.

THE JIM CARROLL BAND – Catholic Boy (1980)

Review by: Charly Saenz
Album assigned by: B.B. Fultz

 

 

Well, somebody said once: “music, like life itself, is cyclic”. So, that means we regularly need a reboot. Humans need to get back (to somewhere they feel like) home, and Music needs to go back to.. well, rock’n roll. Even the good ol’ Beatles had in their short but meaningful career a return to roots (“Get back, Jojo!”).

And Punk was the best reboot that Rock and Roll could think of, at the time at least, with all those Elton John wigs and Styx shining suits. But .. Do you remember that weird band from the late 80s, “Pop Will Eat Itself”? (You don’t? Lucky you, but the name was great). Well, as any major movement, or government or world leader (Hey Romans, I’m looking at you!), no matter how big you get.. You’re scheduled to fall down.

And “Punk ate itself”. Or well the system ate it.. “streamlined it”. But those who survived, those who reconfigured themselves, did great stuff at least for a longer while (Clash, Jam, Cure, etc). The Sex Pistols would apparently reject any “dinosaur rock” reference, but they ended up acknowledging people like Lennon or The Doors.

Thus, Best Punk learned to reconnect with the raw emotion of rock and roll, that was the key, more than any  plastic hairdo – enter Jim Carroll.

Jim was a writer, primarily. I bet that’s how he established some bond with Patti Smith, with whom he got to play about 1978. “Catholic boy” is his band’s first album. And let me tell you, as a quick spoiler, that it rocks (and pops!) really fine.

Jim’s music in this album is good ol’ rock and roll, with great poppy hooks and professional playing. It will turn up as a slow rocking tune in “Day And Night” (female vocals and all), like the early and best Bruce Springsteen. Or feverish and punkish in the opening classic, “Wicked Gravity” and also in  “Three Sisters”. “People Who Died” is another fast rocker, featured on a LOT of movies out there. And the lyrics of course, cut to the bone, and the punk/joyful tone only adds to the wow factor: “Those are people who died, died/They were all my friends, and they died”..

“Crow” reminds me of The Stones’ “Shattered” and it makes sense, being that the Stones’ New Wavish album.

Highlights however are the more adventurous and moody songs like “City Drops Into The Night”. Or The winding “It’s Too Late” and its magnificent guitar work. “Catholic Boy” is a hell of a closer with that punctuating bass riff.

A hell of rock and roll album made with the heart by a Rocker, and of course a Writer. Read those lyrics, the guy will thank you from somewhere above or below where he’s staying with the (other) People Who Died.

Keep on rockin’!

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.