Manic Moonlight

sea moon

On Friday Crotchety Man took his camera to the Crich Tramway Village in picturesque Derbyshire. He spent several hours the following day sifting through the photos, cropping them, straightening them and adjusting them for exposure and contrast. A selection was then published as an album on the photo hosting website, flickr. In doing so the photographer noticed a curious little icon next to the flickr logo that hadn’t been there before. It looked like two iced doughnuts, one with blue icing, the other one pink. The Crotchety eyes immediately became quantum entangled with that icon, instantaneously taking on its curious state.

There was no tooltip annotation on the doughnut image to give a clue to its purpose but the mouse pointer’s shape indicated a link to another location somewhere else in cyberspace. Could this be a wormhole to a new and fascinating digital world? Or had the page been hacked and the dual doughnuts were the button that opens a Pandora’s box of viruses and trojans? With fingers crossed Crotchety Man clicked.

With considerable relief the cyberspace adventurer found himself transported to a stunningly attractive page labelled SmugMug + flickr. It seems that flickr is now part of SmugMug, a photo hosting site that also provides a platform for photographers to publicise and sell their photos. The contrast between the two sites is startling. Where flickr looks tired and boring SmugMug sparkles with a freshness and vitality rarely seen on the Web. Where flickr is functional and business-like SmugMug is casual and engaging. But, above all, the promotional images on SmugMug knock the flickr ones into a cocked hat.

Needless to say, SmugMug proper requires a subscription (starting at $3.99 per month) but flickr does not. Even so, that trip into a nearby cyberworld reminded me that there is a whole new generation of websites that are making the most of modern computer technology to create immensely exciting places for casual web browsers to visit. Take musicglue, for example. Like bandcamp it provides a place for musicians to publicise and sell their work, taking a cut of the proceeds. But musicglue makes better use of the latest Web technologies to create a site with exceptional visual appeal.

“What has all this got to do with the Track of the Week?”, I hear you ask. Well, this time I’ve chosen Manic Moonlight by the Norwegian post-rock band, SKAAR, who have a presence on both bandcamp and musicglue.

I heard this track the other day when playing my latest Release Radar. My first thought was that Kate Bush had a new song out. A female voice was wailing and swooping like Catherine pleading at the window to be let in to Wuthering Heights. But this voice was less ghoulish than that first single by Kate Bush and the backing band was more jagged rock than heather-soft pop.

On investigation the Crotchety databanks soon added a few sparse details about the band. They are Karla Lesley Jaeger (vocals), Andreas Melve (guitar), Petter Soltvedt (guitar), Ulf Jonsson Legernes (drums), David Magyel (piano) and Thor Saunes-Skarsgaard (bass and synth). They are based in Bergen, Norway and the band’s Facebook page describes their music as “Progressive Eclectic Rock”. This latest single fits that label rather well and it pleases old Crotchety Man greatly.

SKAAR

Also on the Radar

In fact, my Radar playlist this week contained an embarrassment of riches. I think Spotify has located Crotchety Man’s idiosyncratic sweet spot and locked on with unerring accuracy. So here, once again, is another smorgasbord of tracks that are new and carry the Crotchety stamp of approval. If the Radar continues to be so fecund I may make this a regular feature.

A Humdrum Star

surface of the sun

For as long as the human race has existed we have tried to understand our place in the universe. It’s a question that goes beyond “where are we?” to the deeper mystery of “who are we?”. And scientists have given us some of the answers.

We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.

― Carl Sagan

gogo penguin

I think it is safe to assume that GoGo Penguin took the title of their latest album, A Humdrum Star from that thought-provoking Carl Sagan quote. Did they choose that title to suggest this, their fourth album, has the answer to some deep mystery? Or are they hinting that it is just the next, unremarkable work in a continuing series? They haven’t told us, so we’ll probably never know.

What is clear, though, from listening to the album is that Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (double bass) and Rob Turner (drums) have a fiery plasma of music running through their veins. The laws of physics explain why the Earth orbits the sun and why we can’t walk through walls; perhaps one day a Theory Of Everything will explain what compels GoGo Penguin to compose and perform their particular form of sunny, uplifting modern jazz.



— 1 —

A Humdrum Star starts with a spacious, spiritual piece called Prayer. There are no stars here. Space is a dark, empty place that we are slowly drifting through. The vacuum has sucked away all substance; there is nothing to carry a sound. But nature abhors a vacuum and our disembodied minds fill the void with slow piano chords echoing the machinery of creation. If God has a voice we are hearing it now. It seems to say, “Be at peace.”

— 2 —

Ahead a pinprick of light appears. Then another. Soon a billion stars are sparkling in the blackness. They pirouette around each other aggregating into loose luminous balls, cosmic dancers with swirling skirts. It is the beginning of time. The heavens are as black as a blanket of Raven feathers, the stars peeping out like beady eyes. We are now scudding through the heavens as if the Creator has given us angel wings. And we carry His joy towards our destination with an irrepressible lust for life.

— 3 —

But our body is not yet formed. We are in Bardo, alive but not corporeal. For the time being we are free to go where we please, to explore this fresh new universe and to marvel at its beauty. There are shapeless nebulae, there are spiral galaxies, there are stars of many hues and sizes. There are spinning neutron stars spewing out beams of high energy radiation and there are fearsome black holes sucking everything into their gaping maw. It is a truly wondrous creation.

— 4 —

We pause, now, to admire a planet with A Hundred Moons. The celestial choreographer has arranged these balls of rock and ice so that they describe intricate paths, drawing ever-changing patterns in the sky. It is a sublime work of which Slartibartfast himself would be mightily proud.

— 5 —

Moving on we are reminded that the universe can be a dangerous place. Even on this mostly harmless planet swinging round an ordinary star and nestling in the habitable zone where liquid water is abundant its native creatures need to take care. For here is a picturesque section of river known as the Strid that is thought to be the most dangerous stretch of water on this world. Its series of waterfalls and rapids hide a deep underwater channel, quite calm and inviting on the surface but deadly to any unwary animal that ventures into the water.

— 6 —

Our destiny is becoming clear. A living body is forming. It will house our soul. Soon. But for a little while we must remain in this immaterial Transient State. The prospect is exciting. Our heart, if we had one, would be pounding, our life blood would be coursing through newly minted arteries and veins, our fresh new mind would be thrilled with the sights and sounds of a very different world, a world of bone, sinew and mortal flesh.

— 7 —

It is time. The images in the celestial picture book are fading. God has ordered a Return To Text. For a moment all that remains is inadequate words, black characters on white pages, staring back at us where rainbow colours used to be. And yet there is poetry in those lines. Consonants snap, vowels sing, syllables flow with a soothing, satisfying rhythm. Now that the pictures have gone we can, finally, see and hear the music written on the page.

— 8 —

All memory has been erased. Body and soul are fusing in the pure white heat of a sorcerer’s Reactor vessel, a crystal crucible tough enough to withstand even the fires of Hell. The sights, sounds and feelings of our former life have been expunged leaving a blank sheet on which to write the thoughts and deeds of our reincarnated self.

— 9 —

A child gazes through the Window to where our humdrum star bathes the garden in sunlight. The trees and the flowers drink in the rays; they suck in carbon dioxide from the air, building woody trunks, fleshy stems, green leaves and pretty petals. Butterflies and bees gather nectar, pollinating the plants that the animals munch on. The sun drives the water cycle, too; the harder she pedals the more moisture she lifts from the oceans into the air where it forms clouds. And the clouds make the gentle rain that quenches the thirst of every living thing on this beautiful blue planet.

colours

From a distance the Penguin’s star is a smooth, bright ball of sound but, if we get a little closer, we can hear it sizzling with energy. Piano runs spin repeatedly, eddies on the fluid skin of a great ball of fire. Although amidst those roiling surface motifs there are calmer, darker patches and short, but spectacular, eruptions of improvisation. The double bass rings with the slower resonance of whole-body vibrations but it, too, bounds restlessly along, surrounding the piano runs with great circles of its own. And the drums fizz with radiation heating the star’s atmosphere to unimaginable temperatures.

This latest album could be considered humdrum in the sense that it continues the main sequence of development established by GoGo Penguin‘s previous albums but it is far from ordinary. It is the brightest star in their constellation so far. How they can follow this is a mystery that Crotchety Man doesn’t even dare to consider.

“It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

― Carl Sagan

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

A Clutch of Collectives

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


collective

adjective

  1. Done by people acting as a group.
    “a collective protest”

noun

  1. A cooperative enterprise.
    “the anarchist collective and bookshop”

What’s the collective noun for ‘collective’? Wiktionary defines a ‘catch’ of ‘collective nouns’ but is silent on ‘collective’ itself. I need to know because this week I want to bring to your attention two new releases by bands calling themselves a collective, and that happy coincidence has given me a flimsy theme for this post. I considered stealing ‘catch’ but that lacks imagination. ‘Collective’ is too obvious and too cute. So, as you can see, I’ve gone for ‘clutch’, which seems appropriate for small numbers like two.

The bands in question are Lydian Collective and Echo Collective. Neither of them has reached the Crotchety ears before so let’s see what that great collection of knowledge known as the Internet says about them.

lydian collective

Lydian Collective

From the About page on the Lydian Collective‘s website:

London’s Lydian Collective are … Aaron ‘Lazslo’ Wheeler (keys), Todd Baker (guitar), Ida Hollis (bass) and Sophie Alloway (drums).

The Lydian Collective sound is a unique combination of accessible melodies, accomplished musicianship, hypnotic rhythms and an uplifting vibe, which has already been drawing in audiences from around the world. A unique combination of jazz musicianship, melodies that catch the ear and the heart, and infectious rhythms …

I’ve tagged them as ‘cocktail jazz’ because their fine musicianship would draw me into the hotel bar, the infectious rhythms would sit me down and those easy-on-the-ear melodies would keep me there for just one more cherry on a cocktail stick. Or two. And if you care to join me I know the evening will just fly by.

echo collective

Echo Collective

Let me get you another Martini and I’ll tell you about Echo Collective. They are Neil Leiter, Margaret Hermant and a few of their musician friends. This Belgian-based collective brings together classically trained musicians who work with modern composers and bands as well as writing their own compositions. There doesn’t seem to be an accepted name for their style of music; it has been called post-classical, neo-classical and non-classical but I think of it as ‘classical crossover’. The instruments are orchestral but the form and structure is twenty first century. The short sample I’m giving you today, though, illustrates their approach better than any words I can write.

Kurt Overbergh of the Ancienne Belgique concert hall commissioned Echo Collective to reinterpret one of Radiohead‘s albums – either Kid A or Amnesiac. According to Leiter they chose the latter because it “had more layers, more complexity, was a little more esoteric, so there was more to chew on and add our sound to”. The result was released as the album, Echo Collective Plays Amnesiac, which gathers together all but one of the Radiohead album tracks and presents them in orchestral form. Does it work? I think so but I hope you’ll judge for yourselves.

Although both Collectives have some videos on YouTube neither of the tracks I’m highlighting today are there so I’ve put together a Spotify playlist. Track 2 is Lydian Collective‘s Lydia’s Dream then there is the original Radiohead version of Knives Out followed by Echo Collective‘s orchestral interpretation of that track.

In a fit of generosity (perhaps it’s your company, perhaps it’s the cocktails) I’ve added three bonus tracks, all of which were in my Release Radar this week. Groove of Satan from Owane‘s Yeah Whatever album provides a short, proggy/jazzy introduction and tacked on at the end there are two slower ballads: Copenhagen by Camille Christel continues the chamber orchestra feel and The Echo of You by Kira Skov and Bonnie “Prince” Billy sounds like a lost Leonard Cohen track, so much so that it even quotes the title of Dance Me To The End of Love in the lyrics.

Some collective nouns are peculiar, some are startlingly apt and some are wildly amusing. Although it’s not official I very much like a flamboyance of flamingos. Then there’s a yearning of yesterdays, a twinkling of todays and a promise of tomorrows. There are plenty more to savour here. Sadly, though, that page doesn’t list a clutch of collectives.

A Thousand Shards of Heaven

milky way

The English word ‘lunatic’ comes from the Latin ‘lunaticus’, which means someone who is afflicted by one of the diseases of the mind caused by the moon. These days it is generally taken to mean a person who is endearingly foolish and unpredictable rather than actually mad and can be a term of affection.

Perhaps you have a friend like that – someone who goes through life with gay abandon never seeing the dangers that their frivolous actions might entail. Someone, perhaps, who ties helium-filled balloons to his chair until he floats up into the sky, drifts away on the wind and is never seen again. That, I think, is the kind of madness that Mariusz Duda had in mind when he chose ‘Lunatic Soul’ as the name of his solo project.

Duda is, apparently, better known as the vocalist and bass player with the Polish prog/metal band Riverside. Not being a fan of metal, Crotchety Man is totally ignorant of Riverside‘s slant on music but Lunatic Soul‘s latest album, Fractured, definitely doesn’t fit in the metal category. All but one of the tracks on that album sit at the soft end of progressive rock and my Track of the Week, A Thousand Shards of Heaven, almost qualifies as ambient for the first four minutes or so.

But before we get to Heaven, for those of you who don’t have time for the full 12 minute journey, here’s a five minute executive summary of the Fractured album. It’s a track called Red Light Escape and it illustrates Mariusz Duda’s song writing style rather more succinctly.

In Red Light the vocals are prominent and the words are important but the instruments provide much more than a backing track. Guitars, keyboards, bass and drums all support the voice and each other, forming a structure of separate but interlocking parts. And towards the end the warm buzz of a saxophone provides a refreshing change of texture. The drums may be a little fidgety but this is a thoughtful, gentle kind of rock music, red light years from the frantic thrashing of a mainstream metal band.

Now let’s turn on the boosters and build up to escape velocity. We left Earth orbit long ago but now we need to leave the material world all together and smash through the crystal barrier dividing us from the spiritual world above. Brace yourselves …

Our ship shudders with the sound of shattering glass.

We’re through! A thousand shards of heaven’s pearly gate are spinning silently away into the infinity of God’s realm and a deep, deep peace pervades the air.

A guitar begins to play. It could be a John Williams piece from one of the Sky albums – a classical composition with an electric edge. An angel’s string ensemble contrasts with the plucked guitar notes and softens the overall tone. A tenor voice, close by, sings a simple melody. His words tell of a man who, in the wake of tragedy, is yearning for release from his suffering.

I want to feel what it’s like
When sorrow turns into strength.

Slow bass notes add depth. Backing vocals mix in harmonies. An unaccompanied guitar break provides a pause for contemplation. The angel strings sing their own melody. The song continues for another verse.

You can say that I’m surrounded
By the ruins of my previous life
But I am not a prisoner.

At four and a half minutes in you might expect the scattered shards to be dissipating, the song coming to an end. But time has no meaning in heaven. One by one different instruments make their own contribution. The bass begins to pulse more strongly, electronic sounds enter the mix. A drum kit clacks and rattles, another male voice fades in. A funky guitar chatters quietly, a smooth sax croons a mellow commentary.

A thousand shards of heaven
Drinking coldness from the night.

The track has morphed imperceptibly into a slow prog rock anthem picking up impetus without changing tempo, adding several new parts without becoming audibly more complex, reaching a climax without turning up the volume. This is a trick Crotchety Man imagined only the Lord of Heaven could accomplish and he marvels at it.

Finally, one by one, the instruments begin to fall silent again leaving just John Williams’ immortal fingers to remind us of the opening strains before they, too, fade into the distance.

mariusz duda

Mariusz Duda, aka Lunatic Soul

A Thousand Shards of Heaven is both a lovely song and a sliver of haunting, unpretentious prog rock. You’d be a lunatic to knock it. And I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course.

SaveSave

SaveSave

Days of Pearly Spencer

 

sinking fast

Sometimes I feel I’m losing the will to live. It’s usually when I’m ironing – shirts are so darn fiddly, aren’t they? So I do my ironing weekday afternoons between 1 and 4 pm so that I can listen to the Radcliffe and Maconie show on the radio. They play some good music and they have a lot of laughs; it’s the most effective antidote for boredom that I know.

So there I was, ironing another shirt, when a jaunty disco tune came on. I barely noticed it at first. Then, over the funky bass and perky drum machine, a familiar jingle wormed its way into the Crotchety ears. I know that song, I thought, and its title flashed up on the mental display screen: The Days of Pearly Spencer.

But Pearly Spencer, as I remembered it, wasn’t a disco record. And yet there was that distinctive motif that pervaded the airwaves of every decent radio station back in the late sixties. If it wasn’t the song I knew it had to be a later cover. For the next 3 or 4 minutes ironing shirts was no longer a chore. Wrinkles in the cloth magically disappeared amidst little puffs of steam, while the Crotchety mind wandered elsewhere and the hands moved on autopilot.

The Pearly Spencer theme ran for another minute or so before the vocals came in with a dire warning for humanity. We are poisoning the planet with pesticides and, sooner or later, nature will have her revenge. That’s not the Pearly Spencer story; some reprobate must have stolen his theme for a completely different song. It was, in fact, a song called Supernature by Marc Cerrone, who (I discovered later) was a disco producer in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Supernature is quite listenable at its 4:22 radio edit length. The full version on the Cerrone I,II,III album is much too long at 9:45 and the YouTube video below runs three tracks together for an interminable 18 minutes plus. It’s visually rather good, though, so watch it until you get bored and then read on.

OK, so you’ve heard the rip-off, now hear the David McWilliams original. There are two versions: the single and a longer one from the album, Working for the Government. Here’s the single on YouTube:

On the Crotchety patented pop-meter that scores an almost perfect 10. The lyrics paint a picture of an old man, battered, bowed and finally defeated by life’s endless battles. And yet, it rocks along irrepressibly. The megaphone sound of the vocals in the chorus gives it an air of the supernatural. And there’s that unforgettable haunting riff in the strings, a phrase that can be plagiarised but never merely quoted, even in homage.

The album was recorded some 20 years after the single release and that version has a completely different arrangement. It dispenses with the rocking beat, the fuzzy chorus vocals and the characteristic haunting riff. It throws away nearly everything that makes the single so memorable and appealing. It slows the pace and nearly doubles the playing time, too. It’s almost a different song. And Crotchety Man says it’s amazing.

I can’t find this version on YouTube, so here it is on Spotify.

David McWilliams was a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Northern Ireland. The Crotchety memory banks have him down as a one-hit wonder but the usual online sources say he released some 14 albums and was, for a time, very popular in continental Europe.

Surprisingly, although The Days of Pearly Spencer topped the charts in “numerous countries” and sold over a million copies, it was never a hit in the UK. Wikipedia puts this down to the record being banned by the BBC because of somewhat indirect links to the ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline. I find that explanation hard to swallow because Pearly Spencer had no trouble reaching my ears – and the only pirate station I listened to had been shut down before the record was released. Perhaps my memory is at fault.

David McWilliams died in 2002 but the Pearly Spencer story lives on. McWilliams had a daughter, Mandy Bingham, and she released a version of The Days of Pearly Spencer just last year, 50 years to the day after her father’s single. The Mandy Bingham version brings back the distinctive riff as a viola’s lament in a lovely folk song arrangement where it complements Mandy’s lead vocal beautifully. This release also features Mandy’s daughter, Lola, on backing vocals.

The Crotchety pop-meter gets horribly confused by the Mandy Bingham recording but the prototype folk-meter goes right off the scale. It’s subjective, I know, but to the Crotchety ears this is the best rendition yet of a timeless song in the pop/folk tradition.

The  ironing pile of life will never be too big if Pearly Spencer is there to relieve the tedium.


Headline Image: https://w-dog.net/wallpaper/pauper-the-homeless-man-dog-street/id/346396/