Sailor’s Tale

dream

A desert is not just a place; it’s also a time. The summer time in the northern hemisphere is often a desert for music lovers. In the summer not much is released and anything that does see the light of day is mostly old and often bedraggled: covers, remasters, demos, out-takes. But there is a little life in the desert. A cactus blooms here, a lizard suns itself on a rock over there. You have to look hard for it, of course. But it is there.

While wandering in the wilderness last week, hidden among the sparse brown shoots of desiccated emails, something caught my eye. Was that a scorpion scuttling across the parched earth? No, it was a link to a recent performance of Sailor’s Tale from a King Crimson concert held way down south, down Mexico way. Fortunately for the sailor it wasn’t situated out in the arid wastelands where only ships of the desert can sail, it was in the Teatro Metropolitan, Mexico City.

And fortunately for Crotchety Man it turned out to be a rousing rendition, an excellent recording and, best of all, a free download. A 30 second snippet is available from this page on the DGM Live website and the free download can be found by following the Purchase Show link. (I suspect you have to register with DGM Live to get it.)

the band

King Crimson in Mexico City, July 2017

Sailor’s Tale was originally released as a track on the Islands album of 1971. It made an instant impact on me when I first heard it. Tang ti tang ti tang tang tang sang the cymbals, locking into a triple-time beat. Duum duum dum dum dum the bass responded, joining them in lockstep. Then came electronic sounds blurting out a slow melody with a buzzy organ pipe texture. The beat was irresistible, the tune urged us to hum along and the first minute promised something special, perhaps extraordinary, to come.

At around 1:30 the opening theme builds to a climax and a wild saxophone blares out like a half-strangled mother goose screaming at her goslings to stay away from the weir where the currents are strong and they have been forbidden to go. She scolds them for a full minute and, as she does so, we realise that some of that electronic buzz comes from Bob Fripp’s effect-laden guitar.

Once the goslings are safe the Sailor’s Tale settles back into an easy rhythm with the bass providing the sparse tune of deeper water. As we drift along another danger soon becomes apparent. A tone-deaf youth who has never touched a guitar is flailing at its loose strings. The water is getting faster. It rushes over the stones in the river bed. There are rapids ahead. Is this music or just the discordant noise of white water?

Soon we are spinning out of control, hurtling towards the waterfall. At 4:30 we plunge over the edge. We are falling. Falling. A mellotron sings as if to welcome us to heaven and, as we crash into the foaming surf at the bottom, the spotty youth jangles the guitar strings again as if to say, “I warned you”. It is the last thing we hear as the waters close over us and we lose consciousness.

The Sailor’s Tale must have been a tragedy.

Here’s a YouTube video of the track from the 1971 album. It has all the drama of my little story but it doesn’t quite have the sonic punch that modern recording techniques can achieve. If you can listen to the live version from the Mexico concert on 14th July 2017 it will reward your efforts.

Men Singing

choir

Back in September 2015 the Crotchety Man blog carried a brief review of the Free Henry Fool EP. At the time I said I would be exploring more of their work “very soon”. Being an honest, upright citizen and a man of my word I did, indeed, do a little research and added their 2001 album, Henry Fool, to my collection soon after. The 16 tracks on that eponymous album didn’t disappoint and I put it down for an Album of the Month slot. Unfortunately, though, the Henry Fool album is not available on Spotify and YouTube was banished from these pages back then¹. Consequently, the Fool was unceremoniously kicked into the long grass bearing the label “requires further research”.

Talking of long grass… There’s a primitive tribe of pygmys living in deepest darkest Africa where the grass grows tall and strong. Anthropologists call them the Fukawi. Sightings of the Fukawi are extremely rare. They shun modern society and hide in the undergrowth when strangers approach. Occasionally, though, a small head has been glimpsed as one of the tribe’s lookouts jumps high in the air to see above the green fronds and tassel heads of the indigenous vegetation. All that is known about them is their tribal name which comes from their piercing cry of “We’re the Fukawi!”².

Like those Fukawi lookouts Henry Fool pops up into view once in a while. I spotted his proud head again recently and it reminded me that a full album review is long overdue. So, here are a few words about the band’s second album, Men Singing, which (as you will have gathered from the active link) is on Spotify.

cover

Artwork from the Men Singing album cover

Let’s start with the track listing, which is:

  1. Everyone in Sweden
  2. Man Singing
  3. My Favourite Zombie Dream
  4. Chic Hippo

That looks awfully short. A mere pygmy of an album. But the first and last tracks are over 13 minutes long and the two 6 minute tracks in the middle take the total time up to just over 40 minutes. Not the most generous of offerings by today’s standards but enough to stop the buyer from feeling short changed.

Everyone in Sweden is a longer version of the first track on the free EP. It rocks along contentedly, harking back to the carefree Canterbury scene of the seventies: early Soft Machine, Caravan, Hatfield and the North. If you believe the stereotypes everyone in Sweden is supposed to be this laid back except, perhaps, for the odd angst-ridden detective in a thick knitted sweater. It’s a track for chilling out but it rewards more focused listening, too.

Next up is the not-quite-title-track, Man Singing. This is ambient flute and synthesiser music embellished with crisp percussion, solid bass and gritty guitar. We may still be in Sweden but there’s a deeper, more serious side to the detective story now. Perhaps there is more to the plot than we imagined but there are no words to unravel the mystery – in spite of the title, this is another instrumental.

At this point a dark figure comes shambling over the horizon. He shuffles uncertainly towards us under a lowering sky. Brief flashes of light illuminate his face against the distant hills. His eyes and mouth are moving but his features are horrifyingly devoid of life. Our canine companions shrink away and cower in the shadows. Behind him more half-dead bodies lurch along as if towed in his wake. The air is full of eerie sounds. Is this zombie music? It does wander rather aimlessly and seems to have been drained of the melody of life. No, I have to confess, this is not my favourite zombie soundtrack.

When we finally wake from the nightmare we are treated to a violin serenade over a characteristically gentle Henry Fool backing track. It is morning but we are still sleepy and not yet ready to face the day. The violin poses an idle question and it is answered by a saxophone. An organ joins in the conversation and then a guitar. One by one the instruments murmur disconnected thoughts as our mind drifts somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. This close to slumber even the lumbering of a hippo seems chic. And we wish we could stay like this forever.

henry fool

Henry Fool

So that’s Men Singing. Four tracks, ironically none of them with vocals. Ambient, Canterbury scene, progressive rock and jazz blended into a smooth and satisfying package. The zombies may lack a little vitality but overall this is a fine album that fully deserves to be the current Album of the Month.

Notes

  1. It looks as though all the tracks on the Henry Fool album are in the YouTube topic here.
  2. There is some dispute among the experts about the language being used here.

Something Different

white apples

Crotchety Man lives in two parallel worlds. There’s the real world of solid objects like houses, apples and people. Then there’s the insubstantial world of the imagination. The other day, at the click of a mouse button, a bubble of the imagined world burst into the mundanity of real life.

My computer screen had given a link into a province of La La land known as Prog Rock and through that portal I glimpsed a new and intriguing vista. Here was a video showing a guy with a seven-string bass guitar, the bottom three strings unfretted. I’d never seen one of those before. Like a tractor beam the play button drew me in.

I have, of course, visited those regions many times before. Although I know the landscape pretty well I am always on the lookout for something different. And now I’ve found it. Something Different is the debut solo album by the Italian bass player and composer, Alberto Rigoni. He is currently crowd funding his next EP and you’ll find his biography here.

In some ways Something Different is much the same as any number of prog rock albums on the heavy side of the genre. It kicks off in typical prog fashion with a funky, rocky track called Factory with some fine guest musicians on guitar, keyboards and drums. Then we are treated to the “bass ballad”, Trying To Forget, a slow, melodic bass solo in which Alberto plays his instrument more like a Chapman Stick than a bass guitar. The contrast makes you sit up and promises good things to come.

Next up is Glory Of Life, another full band instrumental that swings easily along as it celebrates the joy of living. Track four, SMS, starts with an electronic buzz vaguely reminiscent of the original text message ringtone before slipping into a bass guitar duet backed by handclaps simulated on electronic drums.

It’s been a gentle perambulation down some pleasant prog paths so far, but just around the bend there’s a roadside bomb that will knock your socks off – along with a few toes if you’re not careful. Here’s the video for the X-rated BASSex. (The sexy vocals are by Irene Ermolli.)

Phew! After that we need a breather (or a cigarette, perhaps). And that’s just what we get for 1 minute 59 seconds with the ambient keyboard and bass piece, One Moment Before. Then it’s time to fasten your seatbelt for the Roller Coaster ride into prog metal territory complete with fast fuzzy guitars and snarling vocals.

The sleeve notes for Desert Break only list Alberto’s bass guitar but that’s misleading. There’s an intricate drum machine beat and recorded voices of children playing in the background that take it way off the main path and, presumably, into the desert. While we are there we are treated to some Jammin’ On Vocal Drums (whatever they are) with some superb jazzy guitar over a funky beat.

The album ends with the kind of ambient piano and bass track that plays behind the credits of a film in which the gutsy central character has seen unimaginable tragedy but has come through it and can now look forward to living out her days in comfort surrounded by those she loves. It’s called Sweet Tears.

Looking back, where have we been? We have encountered the heavy metal edge of hardened steel, we have celebrated the glory of life and even indulged in a little casual sex. There have been calmer moments, too. Times when we tried to forget and, finally, we have been able to rest easy bathed in our own sweet tears. A lot has happened on our short journey. And that’s the something that’s different about this album.

Magnolia

Magnolia - face

It’s prog, Jim, but not as we know it.

Magnolia is the latest album by The Pineapple Thief, which is generally regarded as a progressive rock band. But that categorisation sits uneasily with Crotchety Man. When I think of ‘prog’ my first thoughts are of Yes, Genesis and King Crimson and then ELP, Gentle Giant and perhaps Jethro Tull. The songs on Magnolia aren’t quite like those bands’ compositions and yet they fit the definition of prog rock too well to be excluded.

So, what is it that characterises prog rock? The most succinct description I know says that prog rock is “a mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility”. It’s high-brow rock. In their pursuit of greater sophistication the early prog rock bands took many ideas from classical music. They wrote long tracks and collected them together on albums with a common theme. They used keyboards or traditional orchestras to create big, symphonic soundscapes. They incorporated long instrumental passages. And they weren’t afraid to use complex harmonies and rhythms. Prog rock was music to be appreciated for its technical merits as well as its more visceral impact.

Magnolia isn’t really like that. There are no tracks on the album longer than 4 minutes 20 seconds and there are no instrumentals. It’s not an album that could be accused of being pretentious. On the other hand, the band does use orchestral instruments, there are some intricate rhythms and, overall, it does raise rock music a notch above the average sophistication level of most rock bands. Is it prog rock? Well, sort of. It’s what Wikipedia labels ‘new prog’.

Magnolia - band

To my ear the songs on Magnolia sound like a cross between recent Radiohead and Muse – thoughtfully constructed art rock with outbreaks of crashing hard rock. The first track, Simple As That, is a straightforward hard rock piece but with a vocal very reminiscent of Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke. It is followed by another rocker, Alone At Sea, that sounds to me like something by the indie rock band Two Door Cinema Club. The next two tracks are quieter and more melodic. Don’t Tell Me introduces strings for the first time and builds to an anthemic ending. The title track is a late night festival crowd song, one for gently waving Magnolia flowers and singing along dreamily as the bass rolls forward toward the coming dawn.

Next comes the slow, lush Seasons Past with a haunting piano/synth theme and plenty of sensual strings bringing past times reverberating into the present. And then we’re Coming Home, but it’s a journey that we seem reluctant to take, a road that is taking us back to pay for our sins. The One You Left To Die picks up the beat again, telling a story of regret after leaving a loved one. Perhaps that is the sin we must atone for. Then Breathe crashes in with flailing guitar chords as if a medic is frantically pumping a ribcage while we can only watch and quietly pray that our friend will come back to life.

From Me is a short mournful interlude about a dear relative who has been taken to an old folks home far away “for the dying days”. It’s rather too slow and melancholy for my taste, though. In complete contrast, Sense of Fear starts with a machine-gun guitar that takes us into an ominous hard rock song, although it’s not clear what terrible fate is about to befall the two of us. Perhaps it’s just A Loneliness that awaits us as we are serenaded by a choir and our loving relationship slowly goes up in flames. Then, finally, the Bond between us is broken. All that’s left is the wash of sad orchestral sounds and a plaintive muted trumpet bewailing our loss.

Magnolia - sculpture

Magnolia Sculpture – Himalayan Gardens, 2013

So, this ‘new prog’ thing … Do I like it? Is it any good? Well, yes, I think so. Magnolia was added to the Crotchety Collection quite recently and it has settled in quite nicely. I’d rate it 3.5 out of 5 – happy to have it, will play it from time to time, but won’t swoon over it. The acid test is to see how those tracks affect me when they come up on an all-songs shuffle, but it’s too early yet to know what that will bring.

Postscript

A new album by The Pineapple Thief is due for release on 12th August; it’s called Your Wilderness.

Lucky Man

Lucky Man - piano

They say bad things and London buses come in threes. Of course, when you’re waiting for a bus you want it to come quickly; you don’t want bad things to come at all. But come they do. Sadly, in the space of a few weeks, the deaths of three prominent figures in the music business have been announced. First it was David Bowie, then George Martin and on Friday Keith Emerson.

If you live in the UK, are not deaf and are older than, oh I don’t know, let’s say three, you must be familiar with David Bowie. The same goes for the Beatles and, if you have any interest in popular music, you will know that George Martin was their friend and producer. Keith Emerson was less well known but, arguably, no less talented. He was brought up on western classical music but went on to become one of the greatest rock keyboard players of all time.

Fanfare - ELP

Emerson came to prominence as the organist and front man of The Nice. Their version of Leonard Bernstein’s America reached number 21 on the UK singles chart in July 1968 and three of their albums made the top 5 in the UK album charts. The Nice were one of the first progressive rock bands and when that band crumbled Emerson recruited Greg Lake and Carl Palmer to continue the prog rock theme as Emerson, Lake and Palmer. ELP released four studio albums between 1970 and 1973 which all charted in the top five in the UK. There were three more albums in 1977 and 1978 that also enjoyed some chart success. Their last two albums in 1992 and 1994 sold well but didn’t chart.

Although ELP released a few singles¹ they were much better known for their albums and live performances. Their stage act was, by all accounts, spectacular. They would often use pyrotechnics and Emerson himself developed a number of highly theatrical tricks: wedging knives into his Hammond organ, playing while upside down or suspended in mid air and spinning round. But ELP were first and foremost musicians and the visual side of their act was always subservient to the music. And the fans loved it.

A large part of the repertoire of both The Nice and ELP consisted of Emerson’s arrangements of classical pieces. These included: Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition,  Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta and works by J. S. BachBéla Bartók and Alberto Ginastera. It would not be stretching a point too far to say that Keith Emerson was primarily an arranger and performer of other composers’ works. With ELP the other composers included Greg Lake who, as a member of the band, contributed some of the most memorable tunes on their albums. Having said that, Emerson did also compose material of his own and insert extended improvisations into the scored pieces.

Keith Emerson was an immensely talented keyboard player. With ELP Emerson brought classical music to modern audiences by presenting it as grand theatrical rock. That is his unique and lasting achievement.

Lucky Man - biker

For me, Greg Lake’s Lucky Man is an eerily fitting epitaph for him. In the song a man with great wealth and destined for high honour is killed by a bullet. Was he a lucky man? Until his untimely death you would have thought so. Keith Emerson, too, was blessed with great musical ability and the trappings of a successful career. He was also killed by a bullet – a self-inflicted head wound that we must assume was suicide. We will probably never know what drove him to take his own life but, whatever it was, I think we can still say he was a very lucky man.

Notes

  1. Only Fanfare for the Common Man charted in the UK. It reached no. 2. I mentioned it in this blog post.
  2. Emerson’s death was announced on the BBC, in Rolling Stone magazine and several other news sites.
  3. Keith Emerson was briefly a member of the band 3. They made one album, To the Power of Three, in 1988 but it wasn’t a success. Perhaps 3 is not a lucky number.

Island

Renaissance - Island

One day in 1969, when I was just a lad, rippling piano arpeggios rang out from the radio. That was odd because the portable transistor radio in the kitchen was always tuned to the light entertainment channel. Radio 3, the BBC’s classical music station, might have been on in the living room but not until after I had been packed off to bed and certainly not in the cramped kitchen of our flat where serious music couldn’t be appreciated.

Curiosity compelled the youthful Crotchety Man to listen. After a few bars the piano gave way to strummed electric guitar chords, a gentle drum beat and a rich electric bass. This wasn’t a piano concerto but it wasn’t like any pop music I’d heard before, either. A woman’s warm, clear voice began to sing over the backing track.

There is an island where it should never be,
Surrounded by cerulean sea …

It was a haunting melody and a song with a captivating mystery. Where is this island? Why shouldn’t it be there? Is it a paradise or a manifestation of hell? Listening intently I strained to pick out the lyrics. Some of the words were muffled and distorted by the recording, the AM transmission and the electronics in the cheap radio receiver but the refrain was quite clear.

I want to be there,
I want to be there,
I want to be there,
For the rest of my time.

There could be no doubt any more. This island is a perfect place, a paradise if not heaven itself. But, like heaven, it is somewhere else, somewhere the singer longs to be, a place she fervently believes she will reach in the end.

I know that it’s waiting
I know there’s a place ready for me

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Island was a single by Renaissance, a band whose music is usually described as progressive rock or symphonic rock. I prefer the latter term because it emphasises both the strong classical influence in their compositions and their unashamed use of orchestral arrangements. In fact, as their collaborations with classical orchestras attest, no band straddles the rock/classical divide more successfully than Renaissance (and that includes ELP and Elbow).

The self-titled debut album from Renaissance contained both Island and another lush keyboard piece called Wanderer that was (apparently) never released as a single but did receive some airplay. Those two tracks burned the name of Renaissance into the Crotchety brain as permanently as a red hot branding iron on cattle hide. Although the original band personnel changed completely over the next couple of years the rock/classical blend remained and the Crotchety LP collection gradually accumulated no less than 5 LPs by Renaissance (and that’s a lot).

Island was the spark that prompted Crotchety Man to roam a little further out from the pop/rock mainland towards the continent of classical music in search of deeper waters and lasting beauty. For that I am making it my Track of the Week.

Lizard

It’s a brave man that disagrees with the renowned guitarist, composer and producer Bob Fripp but, when it comes to King Crimson’s third album, Crotchety Man takes issue with him. In the early seventies Lizard graced my turntable as much as any other record I possessed; it could almost be described as the soundtrack to my university days. I must have listened to it for many, many, hours. So, when Fripp described it as “unlistenable” in 1999 I think he was mistaken. If anyone else had said that I might have assumed it was just a deliberately controversial comment intended to promote the then forthcoming 30th Anniversary release on CD. But the man who co-founded the Discipline Global Mobile label “to be a model of ethical business in an industry founded on exploitation, oiled by deceit, riven with theft and fueled by greed” wouldn’t do that.

Lizard is certainly the jazziest of King Crimson’s albums. All the material was written by Bob Fripp and Pete Sinfield during a band “interregnum” when King Crimson had no other permanent members. The album was recorded after hastily recruiting Mel Collins (saxophone, flute), Andy McCulloch (drums) and Gordon Haskell (bass) into the band and drafting in guest jazz musicians Keith Tippet (piano), Mark Charig (cornet), Nick Evans (trombone) and Robin Miller (oboe, cor anglais). Jon Anderson of Yes also supplied vocals on the title track.

The first side of the original 1970 vinyl release contained four songs; side two was a single 23 minute track in four sections.

King Crimson - Lizard - TracksThe album opens with Cirkus, an intriguing mix of guitar, mellotron, saxophone, drums, bass and vocals that can best be described as progressive rock with strong jazz and classical influences. There are echoes of the stadium-filling grandeur of earlier tracks such as In The Court of the Crimson King, but it’s a lighter, shorter piece – a song rather than a movement from a symphony.

The next track, Indoor Games is similar: a relatively short, predominantly guitar, Mellotron and synthesiser tune with a curiously light-hearted feel and some obtuse and lurid lyrics.

Happy Family adds Keith Tippet’s piano and the horn section to give a frosting of jazzy sparkle. It would be easy to dismiss this as frothy bling but if you let your ears unpick the multi-layered fabric of woven chords and melody you will find a carefully constructed work of art. You can also have fun decoding the lyrics which make unflattering comments about the Beatles.

Side one ends with the gentle ballad, Lady of the Dancing Water. Unusually for music on the periphery of rock it features the sounds of flute and trombone over acoustic guitar and electric piano. The trombone is as warm as the summer sun, the guitar tinkles softly like distant rapids and the flute flits with the butterflies across the fields. It’s a wistful memory of a beautiful day by a brook with the singer’s lady love.

On the second side of the LP the title track is divided into three main sections and a short coda. The first part is called Prince Rupert Awakes and it’s a tuneful song that benefits hugely from Jon Anderson’s clear, mellow voice. It sounds at first like a piece of classical piano music. But the piano is accompanied by a guitar, and a Mellotron duets with the vocalist. There are interjections of discordant electronic effects, too, creating a kind of musical chiaroscuro. This has to be one of my all-time favourite passages by King Crimson – or anyone else.

Once Prince Rupert is awake we hear Bolero – The Peacock’s Tale. The drums tap out the bolero rhythm steadily through the whole six minutes of this second section while the cornet begins to sing a story with no words. After a while the cor anglais takes up the tale and soon other voices join in: saxophones, trombone, piano and bass. What started as a simple melody has morphed into a 7-part jazz instrumental without ever losing the initial theme. Then, in amongst the other instruments, the piano goes off on an astonishing flight of fancy – the ivories ripple and tinkle, ascending like a pair of squabbling birds, up and up, octave after octave as if each hand is racing to be the first to leap off the top of the keyboard. The other instruments raise their voices, too. Then, suddenly, the piano notes stop just as the rest of the band resolve their own crescendo. Order restored, the instruments take it in turns to complete the story.

The third section of Lizard, The Battle of Glass Tears, is (I think) the least successful part of the album. It is divided into three sub-sections: Dawn Song, Last Skirmish and Prince Rupert’s Lament. These represent the periods before, during and after the battle. Dawn Song tells of the tension in the opposing armies as they prepare for the coming conflict. It works as an introduction to the battle itself but wouldn’t be strong enough to be a track in its own right. Last Skirmish is (as you’d expect) loud, raucous and chaotic. It certainly sounds like a battle but who wants to hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth that comes with war? After the skirmish there is, predictably, a period of sadness and reflection as we listen to Prince Rupert’s Lament, in which Bob Fripp’s guitar moans and whimpers over the trudging drumbeat of an army in retreat.

Finally, and incongruously, the coda brings us the theme of the Big Top, as if to herald the entrance of the clowns. It fades in, rises in pitch as if the DJ has fiddled with the speed control, staggers along drunkenly for a while and fades away. The whole thing lasts less than 1 minute 20 seconds. Is this meant to signify that soldiers are as laughable as circus clowns? Does it simply remind us that the first track on the album is called Cirkus? Or is it there just to pad out the LP? I suspect it’s just a bit of fun.

Overall Lizard is still one of my favourite albums. It has stood the test of time. The battle parts may be raw and uncompromising but the rest is a sublime blend of prog rock and jazz styles. My only caveat is that Gordon Haskell’s voice never quite seems to fit in. I’d have loved to have heard Greg Lake or Jon Anderson on vocals but that wasn’t to be.

I have the 30th Anniversary CD release which was remastered in 1999 and released, according to Wikipedia, in 2001. There’s also a 2009 40th Anniversary release (remastered by Steven Wilson with Bob Fripp’s blessing). Now, by my reckoning 30 years on from 1970 is 2000 and 40 years on is 2010 so those ‘anniversary’ releases may be mis-timed but albums that last that long must have something going for them. I think Bruce Eder (of AllMusic) deserves the final assessment. He described Lizard as “an acquired taste”. I acquired the taste in the early seventies and it’s my flavour of the month again in January 2016.

P.S.

Apologies for the YouTube link above. Unfortunately Lizard is not available on Spotify, etc.