Genre Confusion

Out of the need to organize my work and my deadlines, I did a little experiment, putting the new releases under discussion here, Newspeak’s sweet light crude, Fracture: The Music of Pat Muchmore, played by Anti-Social Music, and Observatories from The Blue Cranes into an iTunes playlist. Then I added What We All Came to Need , the latest recording from the instrumental metal quartet Pelican, and hit the blend button . . . er, turned the shuffle feature on. How well did it work? This well:

. . . Delicious . . . I shuffled, reshuffled, shuffled again, and each time as the tracks flowed from one to the other, “I Would Prefer Not To” to “Love, Love, Love” to “Ephemeral” to “Grandpa’s Hands” to “Ωå∑(Portrait_7,**NY06),” I enjoyed the time-dissolving pleasure of being lost in a world of music that satisfied me in the way that listening to well-known and well-loved music does while feeling the pleasant, dislocating thrill of hearing ideas that carried me across horizons of style. These four recordings are very different, the four sets of artists – a rock band, a sort-of-rock horn band, a sort-of-rock new music band, and a sort-of-thrash new music band – very different but all speaking with a common, and broad, set of experiences and values.

I’m starting to think strongly that the defining music of my generation (I’m at the very end of the Baby Boom) and the ones that have followed is progressive rock. That idea is going to strike terror in the hearts of many a socially conscious music fan, but I would urge them to relax and accept the truth. I mean not the imaginary cliché of progressive-rock, the kind of metronomic, fussily complicated rhythm and polyphony garbed in the trappings of bullshit mythological metaphysics that was the decadent tail of jazz-rock fusion music (a good example of this is most of Romantic Warrior, a record I used to love as a teenager and I am still fond of Stanley Clarke’s rubbery bass slide during his “fours” on “The Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant“). (Oh, and this is the first band I ever saw in concert) I mean bands and musicians in rock who wanted to get beyond the basic four-four backbeat and three chords and verse-chorus song form, who appreciated musicianship, despite some unfortunate turns towards science-fiction/fantasy lyrics. I mean the chain of bands from Frank Zappa and Can to Yes, King Crimson, Styx, Kansas, Rush and Boston. Radiohead is a progressive rock band. XTC is fundamentally a progressive rock band. Björk is fundamentally a progressive rock musician. The clothes and personal manners may change, but just listen to the music, to how it’s made and what it does, especially for a sense of magnificence, the ambition to create something that swelling, expansive and symphonic. Prog-rock at it’s best is sincere, and the combination of cynicism and socially cutting-edge popular music is compelling enough that most of us want to at least be able to look like we belong in the hippest company, even though when we wander through the grocery store, we dig how the dopamine kicks in when “More Than a Feeling” comes in over the PA.

Don’t fear the hair . . .

I’m not going to review the Pelican recording, I got it because they got my dopamine going at a Doom Metal extravaganza last year and the music continues to give me that pleasure, but they fit into this story in two ways; the first is that their instrumental rock is progressive at its core, and second that they sound great next to these other groups, providing a fundamental anchor of driving harmonic resolution and soaring melodic craft that is the place where all this music is coming from and in the end will return to. This is what I mean: from this . . .

We don’t have to go very far to this . . .

But of course we’ve also gone quite far. The sensibilities are sympathetic, the goals are the same although the stylistic and aesthetic means are different. But Newspeak, lead by composer, drummer and new music executive David T. Little, is as much a rock band as a new-music band, a book-end with Victoire. They play a piece by Missy Mazzoli, “In Spite of All This,” that, in this muscular, loud rock context, marks her as the composer who, more than any other, is both defining and destroying the alt-classical genre. All the tracks on the CD are from a different composer, and all these composers are in complete sympathy with this band. It’s as if they all go home and listen to “Starship Trooper.” Little’s title cut may be the most self-consciously prog-rock of the bunch, and the recording is consistently confident and relaxed about this carefully built and organized, thrillingly loud, new classical music with a backbeat. Along with the consistent aesthetic there’s a fascinating variety spanning the aggressive to the mysterious to the tragically lyrical. Stefan Weissman’s “I Would Prefer Not To” and Caleb Burhans “Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI” are especially compelling. I have heard this band play live a few times and still wasn’t prepared for the depth and complexity of what they are doing. They are loud, with the sonic power of Pelican, and have been let down by inadequate sound systems. Hearing the details and shape of what they are doing is revelatory, this is a provocative recording that’s also fun and satisfying to listen to, and it may be as seminal for the next generation of composers as Icebreaker’s debut CD was for this one.

One track is notable,”Brennschluß” from composer Pat Muchmore. It’s starts off with the febrile sonics of one of Ligeti’s cloud pieces, then jumps into pure thrash. But deliberate, intended thrash. That’s the essence of the collection of his pieces played by Anti-Social Music, an aggressively teeth-rattling release. His sensibility is farther from Pelican and closer to John Zorn’s Naked City, but without the cop-out of irony, and so his record comes off as appropriately threatening. But only at first. Behind the calculated irreverence of titles like “Shitfuckcumbastard” is a composer who is precise, exacting, skilled enough to make the most exact music sound chaotic and improvised music sound placid and simple and who has an almost swooning Romantic streak pretty close to the surface. The unpronounceable title mentioned in the second paragraph develops from a multi-phonic trombone solo, into an electronic drone, into an organ chord, into a beguiling conversation eliding acoustic and electronic events. His “brokenAphorism” pieces abbrade and console at the same time. This is a fascinating record and collection of work. Muchmore seems to be interested in the kind of upfront challenge designed to scare off casual listeners, trusting that those who last after the initial sonic assault will have the ears, minds and hearts to discern that what he’s up to is serious, seriously well-made, and also seriously well-played by Anti-Social Music. Think of this recording as prog-rock classical with a salting of post-Sex Pistols punk. It’s grown on me from “what the fuck?” to “hey, I want to hear that again.”

And the Blue Cranes . . . is this the truest jazz-rock band ever? Where Miles Davis made jazz that knew Hendrix and Sly Stone, this band makes music that is rock in style and jazz in spirit, a dish whose ingredients include The Bad Plus, Bill Frisell’s take on Americana, Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Or, try this; imagine doo-wop played by a traveling carnival band’s saxophone section, with a strong back-beat and solos. Observatories is nothing but pleasure, track to track (listen to selections here). The band plays all original material, except for Wayne Horvitz’s take on Satie, “Love, Love, Love,” and everything works. The sound and style are unique, and one they’ve clearly developed through a lot of thought and practice. They may make music like you’ve never heard before, but every note and gesture sounds so lived-in, so purposeful and confident. The opening “Grandpa’s Hands” has some of the most deliciously velvety sax playing you’ll hear, from leader Reed Wallsmith and Joe “Sly Pig” Cunningham, while the standout track is “Maddie Mae (Was A Good Girl),” seven minutes of everything that makes this band so remarkable; lyrical, country blues, driving drums from Ji Tanzer, a crunchy guitar solo by Timothy Young, all coming together into an achingly wistful and rousing expression. The following “Broken Windmills,” with it’s hint of “You’re Nobody TIll Somebody Loves You,” is forceful and poignant. And there’s more wonderful music after that. The Blue Cranes have come out the other end of prog- and jazz-rock and are making something new, progressive jazz, anyone?

Fracture and Observatories are available now, sweet light crude is comes out Tuesday, November 16. Catch Newspeak celebrating it’s release at Littlefield in Brooklyn on Sunday, November 14.

One comment

  • Thank you for writing about the Blue Cranes, certainly one of the best bands here in Portland. One correction: it’s Reed (not Craig) Wallsmith.

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