The Lesson

kitten

Do you believe in formal education or are you a proponent of the school of hard knocks? Was your schooling a good preparation for your adult life or did it squeeze every precious drop of creativity from your soul like the juice of the lemon in a lemonade press? Did you leave school/university a rounded individual bursting with valuable skills or a desiccated husk of humanity with nothing left to give? A round, ripe, nutritious orange or the shrivelled and bitter skin of a crushed lemon?

Premiata Forneria Marconi¹ provide their thoughts on the subject in The Lesson, a single taken from their new album, Emotional Tattoos². Unfortunately, the Crotchety ears can’t make out enough of the words to know what message they bring.

Exercise 1: Listen to the song on YouTube and see if you can do any better.

On the double album PFM give us two bites at the cherry. The Lesson is given first in English and then, on the second disc, in Italian. In fact, all the songs on the first disc are sung in English and repeated, in Italian, on the second. (Except for the instrumental, Freedom Square, for obvious reasons.) Not that it helps this particular student; I’d need many, many Italian language lessons first. Perhaps I should have paid more attention in those boring Latin periods back in the sixties.

premiata forneria marconi

PFM is unquestionably the foremost Italian progressive rock band³ and has been since they were formed in 1970. Their albums from those early days still sound as fresh as newly picked fruit. This latest single is a lively song in the prog rock tradition. It doesn’t taste quite as sweet as those from the vintage Jet Lag album of 1977 but it would still perk up a patient in a hospital bed more effectively than a bunch of grapes.

The PFM vine may be old and twisted but it still produces plenty of fruit. I like to accompany it with grapes; preferably crushed, fermented and drunk. That pleasure is a lesson you learn only from experience; it isn’t taught in schools.

Homework

Discuss the following quote:

The difference between school and life?

In school you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.

– Tom Bodett

Further Reading

  1. The name means “award-winning Marconi bakery”.
  2. Sid Smith’s review of the album on teamrock.com hits the nail squarely on the head.
  3. Unless, of course, you know different.
  4. There’s a sour poem by Roger McGough giving a teacher’s wishful thoughts when confronted by an unruly class here. It, too, is called The Lesson and it smacks of long-suffering classroom experience.

Starless

starless night

For those who are unfamiliar with the British folk music scene The Unthanks are a five-piece folk group led by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. The band was formed in 2004 as an all female group called Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. After lineup changes that brought Adrian McNally into the band as pianist, arranger, producer and manager the name was shortened to The Unthanks.

They perform mainly traditional English folk songs. The credits for their second album, The Bairns, list Rachel’s contributions as voice, cello, ukulele and feet, the latter being a reference to the sound of clog dancing which formed part of their live act. So, you see, we are deep in folk music country here, but The Unthanks frequently flirt with other musical genres, too, and that is what qualifies them for inclusion in the Crotchety Man pages.

rachel & becky

Rachel and Becky Unthank

For my Track of the Week I have chosen Starless from The Unthank‘s 2011 album Last.

A gentle violin and piano introduction leads into a haunting trumpet melody. Reflected in the trumpet’s shining brass we see a dark brooding landscape lit only by the faint glow of moonbeams filtering through a charcoal sky. Any stars have been suffocated under a thick blanket of low cloud. The night cloaks the scene in a bible black shroud. On the Earthly plane we are alone; in spirit we share this god-forsaken place with the ghost of a brass band soloist.

As if wakened by the trumpeter’s song the black treacle voices of the Unthank sisters take up the story. Somewhere beyond the horizon a brilliant sun is setting but it is hidden by a curtain of doubt and despair.

Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Only see
Starless and bible black

Spectral figures drift across our vision and the soulful sounds of a chamber orchestra emphasise the bleakness of our inward gaze. Listen. That is the sound of Churchill’s black dog stalking the night.

The Unthanks have taken a modern folk song and given it a wonderfully atmospheric orchestral arrangement. Or so it would seem. But Starless was not conceived as a folk song. It was originally intended as the title track of King Crimson‘s Starless and Bible Black album released in March 1974.

The lyrics and melody were written by John Wetton, King Crimson‘s then bassist, but Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford didn’t like it and the title was used for an unrelated instrumental on that album. When the original song was subsequently revised and revived for King Crimson‘s next album, Red, it was given the shorter title of Starless. By this time David Cross had left the band and the melody that he would have played on his electric violin was switched to Robert Fripp’s guitar. Even in 1974, several decades before The Unthanks rearranged it again, the melody line had jumped like a dancing will-o’-the-wisp from one instrument to another.

Starless is still performed by King Crimson. In their hands it is a sweeping progressive rock track with passages in 13/4 and 13/8 time. Here’s a live version from 2015 that is included on their latest album Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind. It still has that haunting melody but this rendition builds to a frantic climax propelled irresistibly forward by KC’s three drummers. Watch and marvel!

Whichever way you slice it, orchestral folk or progressive rock, Starless is a truly great track that will haunt you long after Hallowe’en. There is no trick. It is a treat to be savoured. Especially when the black dog comes stalking and dark thoughts rise from the mists of the subconscious monkey mind.

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.