Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"1-Sided"/Diamonds in the rough

Continuing this ongoing analysis of progressive rock, here's 2 posts 4 the price of 1....

The "1-sided album" effect seems fairly common in prog -- that being the effect when 1 side of an album is clearly brilliantly planned, composed & performed, whereas the other side seems more like plunging off a cliff.
My favorite Xample of this is Camel's THE SINGLE FACTOR (1982) -- which I 1st discovered a cassette of in that same San Antonio, Texas, Target store in 1983 where I stumbled over that series of Italian best-of "Storia E Musica" cassettes I wrote about awhile back.
Like sevral other prog albums I'm about 2 list, Side 2 of THE SINGLE FACTOR seemed among the best, most consistent, most rockin' & ear-grabbing work I'd ever heard by Camel. But the 1st side seemed as if it were done by a completely diffrent band -- tired, schlogging, lethargic, lifeless. Going thru the motions. Contractual Obligation.
It wasn't 'til I found a vinyl copy of the album years later & got a look at the inner sleeve that I learned about summa the stress behind the making of the album: The fact that drummer Andy Ward had left, that British Decca had applied some pressure 2 get the album done, & that guitarist/leader Andy Latimer completed the album with help from members of the Alan Parsons Project & tons of special guests -- like former Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips, former Sky & Curved Air keyboardist Francis Monkman, & original Camel keyboard whiz Peter Bardens.
This at least Xplained why some of the album sounded confused & distracted. But it couldn't Xplain how Side 2 came out so solid -- with the classic intertwining melodic guitars of "Sasquatch," the FURIOUS guitar midsection & overall feeling of anger & frustration in "Manic," & the poignant gtr epilogue "End Peace."
But as I looked around & listened more over the years, it seemed 2 me like this "1-sided-ness" happened rather a lot in prog, 4 whatever reason. At least 2 me.
A few other Xamples of albums with 1 outstandingly strong side:
Jethro Tull: MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY (1975), Side 2.
Be-Bop Deluxe: SUNBURST FINISH (1975), Side 1.
Kate Bush: THE KICK INSIDE (1978), Side 1.
Camel: BREATHLESS (1978), Side 1.
Hawkwind: HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN GRILL (1974), Side 2.
Supertramp: EVEN IN THE QUIETEST MOMENTS (1977), Side 2.
Mike Oldfield: TUBULAR BELLS (1973), OMMADAWN (1976), INCANTATIONS (1978), all Side 1.
Gryphon: RAINDANCE (1975), Side 2.
Al Stewart: PAST PRESENT AND FUTURE (1974), Side 2.
Tangerine Dream: ENCORE/LIVE (1977), Side 3.
Saga: WORLDS APART (1982), Side 1.
Not sure why this seems 2 happen so often -- or if it only seems that way 2 me. Also curious about why Side 2 of a single album so often seems the stronger of the 2 -- U'd think the artist would wanna put all the best stuff on Side 1 2 grab yer ear right off, yes...?

...Then there's those albums where brilliant bits & pieces R sprinkled thruout, but not all 2gether, not all on 1 side -- albums that U keep just cos the Good Stuff is so damn GOOD. If anything, this sorta thing happens WAY MORE OFTEN than the "1-sided" effect. This is where U havta sift out those diamonds in the rough.
Some Xamples:
Jethro Tull: SONGS FROM THE WOOD (1977). At least 4 great songs, scattered all over....
Manfred Mann's Earth Band: CHANCE (1980). "Stranded" is freaking BRILLIANT, summa the rest is at least "intresting" ... in a robotic, mechanical, then-high-tech sorta way....
Spirit: TWELVE DREAMS OF DOCTOR SARDONICUS (1970). 7 great songs, all clumped at the beginning & the end.
Gentle Giant: FREE HAND (1975). The beginning & the Nd R mush, but there's 5 great songs squoze in the middle.
Barclay James Harvest: GONE TO EARTH (1977). 3 pretty-great songs scattered thruout, but the rest is merely avg....
Gentle Giant: THREE FRIENDS (1972). "Schooldays," "Peel the Paint" & "Mister Class and Quality" R all high-quality Giant. But summa the rest is mush. & it's 2 short....
Caravan: BLIND DOG AT ST. DUNSTAN'S (1976). 2 gorgeous pieces buried at the Nd, a couple above-avg at the Bginning, + a bit of silliness & 1 real dog.
Gentle Giant: OCTOPUS (1973). 3/4 of a solid 1st side, but only the haunting "Think of Me With Kindness" lifts Side 2.
Rare Bird: EPIC FOREST (1972). The title track & "Birdman" R both pretty great. 2 bad there's 7 more dull songs here.
Rush: MOVING PICTURES (1981). "The Camera Eye" is a gorgeous 10-minute mood piece & "Red Barchetta"'s great. 1/2 the rest U've heard 2 much. & there was a reason U never heard the other 2 trax....
Genesis: ...AND THEN THERE WERE THREE... (1978). Well, the more adventurous 1/2 of it's pretty great ("Undertow," "Burning Rope," "Snowbound," "Deep in the Motherlode," "Down and Out," "The Lady Lies"). But the rest gets pretty dull.
Moody Blues: LONG DISTANCE VOYAGER (1981). I love these guys, but they've hardly ever done a side without something U HAVE 2 skip....
Pink Floyd: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON (1973). Maybe what I need's a CD. The 1st track I can listen 2 on Side 1 is "The Great Gig in the Sky." After that, I don't have 2 many problems....
King Crimson: IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (1969). Still think there's 2 (pretty great) heavy-Moody-Blues trax & "Schizoid Man." & that's all....
David Sancious & Tone: TRANSFORMATION (THE SPEED OF LOVE) (1976). 2 great, gorgeous pieces. Out of 4. But 1 of 'em takes up a whole side....
Nektar: THRU THE EARS (1977). 2 pretty-great sides. But a lotta filler.
Genesis: WIND AND WUTHERING (1977). 3&1/2 great songs. & speaking of filler....
Camel: I CAN SEE YOUR HOUSE FROM HERE (1979). 3 pretty great songs. & a lot more filler....
ELP: WORKS VOLUME 1 (1977). 3 solid pieces spread over 4 sides....

Not everything can always B a masterpiece -- not every album, not every book, not every post. I understand that. Sometimes U just gotta do the best U can with what U have. But the perfectionist in me would love more consistency....

Monday, April 4, 2011

TAD's fave prog albums

Say, since I'm on this crusade 2 review & Xpose Really Bad Prog, maybe I should backtrack & give U some points of reference 2 work from.
Here's a list of my fave Progressive Rock albums ever. If U've bn reading me 4 awhile, none of these should come as a big suprise. These R all albums whose quality I can vouch 4, even if some of them Rn't Xactly perfect. In fact, a few of them tend 2 slide just a bit toward the Nd....
There might B a few suprises here 4 big Prog fans. Such as: There's no Pink Floyd listed here. No ELP. No Jethro Tull. If I could find NE albums by those folks that I could listen 2 all the way thru without getting bored or disgusted, I'd list them here.
Outside of King Crimson, there also isn't much REALLY LOUD stuff. THAT should reveal summa my obvious prejudices....
I also make no Xcuses about the presence of best-of's & live albums -- if it hit me really hard, it's here.
What follows is just stuff I've been playing 4 years that's never let me down. See if U feel the same way. Or if you have some nominations, bring 'em on!
1 final note: This list is subject 2 change without warning, based on all the stuff I Haven't Heard.
In roughly descending order:

Providence: EVER SENSE THE DAWN (1972).
Gryphon: TREASON (1977).
Yes: YESSONGS (1973).
Kansas: LEFTOVERTURE (1976).
Moody Blues: THE PRESENT (1983).
Justin Hayward & John Lodge: BLUE JAYS (1975).
Group 87: (1st) (1980).
Happy the Man: CRAFTY HANDS (1978).
Renaissance: LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL (1976).
Illusion: OUT OF THE MIST (1977).
Camel: NUDE (1981).
Camel: THE SNOW GOOSE (1975).
Al Stewart: MODERN TIMES (1975).
King Crimson: THE GREAT DECEIVER/LIVE 1973-74 (1992).
Rush: CHRONICLES (1991).
Grace Slick: DREAMS (1980).
U.K.: (1st) (1978).
Genesis: A TRICK OF THE TAIL (1976).
Clannad: MACALLA (1987).
Steve Tibbetts: YR (1980).
Sally Oldfield: WATER BEARER (1978).
Electric Light Orchestra: TIME (1981).
Sky: SKY2 (1980).
Amazing Blondel: FANTASIA LINDUM (1972).
Glass Moon: (1st) (1980).
Alan Parsons Project: THE INSTRUMENTAL WORKS (1988).

...That at least gives you somewhere 2 work from re: my musical taste. Any discussion?
...Maybe it would also B informative 2 make a list of great "1-sided" prog albums -- like Camel's THE SINGLE FACTOR & Jethro Tull's MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY. Or prog albums that're great in the middle but the beginning & end R mush -- like Gentle Giant's FREE HAND & THREE FRIENDS....
More lists coming soon, quite likely....

Friday, April 1, 2011

The best prog band ever?

In the 5 years between highschool & when the Air Force dragged me away from Idaho, I thot Gryphon was the best progressive rock band ever. I still think they're pretty great.
At the time, I thot their music had a bigger emotional impact than Caravan, they were more melodic than Camel, more consistent than Yes, & spacier than the Moody Blues. & their mix of sweet British Isles folk with modern electronics created a sound like no other.
4 me the Gryphon story started with their 3rd album, RED QUEEN TO GRYPHON THREE (1974), which my old buddy Don Vincent fished-out of the cutout bin at Boise's Budget Tapes and Records in the Summer of 1977, & which turned out 4 R little circle 2 B the greatest cutout-bin discovery ever. Don had the knack of tripping over stuff like that, buying it sight-unheard & somehow making it worth the $$$ he'd spent.
RED QUEEN -- issued by Bell Records just as it was morphing into Arista -- was Gryphon's only American release, apparently issued while the quintet was touring the US in support of Yes. Tho they apparently attracted some attention with their unique sound, it wasn't enuf 2 help sell their album -- & Bell's shakiness probly didn't help. Besides, who Xpected 2 find Xcellent progressive rock on the same label as Barry Manilow, the Fifth Dimension, Terry Jacks & the Partridge Family?
4 whatever reason, apparently 1,000's of copies of RED QUEEN Nded-up in cutout bins around the country. Don paid $2.99 4 his copy. & after I heard it, I dashed 2 my fave record store & grabbed a copy 4 myself.
Don & I were both Trying To Write Creatively back in those days, & it seemed important 2 have the right mood music 4 such creative endeavors. Gryphon worked perfectly. Their mix of British folk, tasteful acoustic & electric guitars, & often gorgeous keyboards were melodic & ear-catching enuf.
But their secret weapon was the little wind instruments they added 2 the mix. Keyboardist & main composer Richard Harvey doubled on recorder & krumhorn. Brian Gulland played recorder, krumhorn & bassoon. These light, piping sorta noisemakers added a delicate, sprightly, sorta wind-up-toy sound 2 the band unlike NEthing else I've ever heard. They could also rock out or go heavy on the mournful lyricism -- but the "standard" Gryphon track was usually a mix of lighter-than-air wind-up complexity tied 2 solid drumming & forceful guitar 2 keep things from floating away. & those little noisemakers could get pretty forceful at times, 2....
RED QUEEN was a good introduction 2 the band, sorta a sampler of all their moods. Only 4 trax, but each 1 scored. "Lament" was a gorgeous, mournful 10-minute 3-part suite that started out sad & haunting & Nded-up life-affirming. It's still my fave of all their stuff. "Checkmate" rocked out the most, with a memorable bass&guitar theme & a silly honking & tooting midsection.
The 1st side featured 2 high-energy pieces, "Opening Move" & "Second Spasm," that mixed modern electronics with the rustic olde folk sound. If nothing on Side 2 worked 4 you, Side 1 could still grab yr ear.
I thot the album was almost perfect, & was shocked that something this good was left 2 gather dust among the cutouts. The 1/2-dozen music fans in R bunch weren't the only 1's impressed by the album. A few years later I found a review of RED QUEEN published in an old issue of PLAYBOY -- of all places -- in which their critics called Side 1 of RED QUEEN something like "the best mix of British Isles folk & rock instrumentals that we've ever heard." They were less convinced about Side 2....
Soon I was working in my fave record store, & immediately ordered every other Gryphon album listed in the JEM Imports catalog. The albums musta bn pretty rare back in England, 2 -- they took almost a year 2 arrive.
I finally heard the rest of their work in the Summer of 1978. TREASON (1977) was the most impressive, sorta a kinder, gentler Jethro Tull album, released in The Year Of Punk by Harvest/EMI. Gryphon had changed in the time since RED QUEEN, adding LOTS more vocals (by drummer Dave Oberle), + a coupla new members, & losing gtrist Graeme Taylor & bassist Phil Nestor, who'd both done standout work on RED QUEEN -- Taylor, Nestor & Gulland had teamed-up 2 compose "Lament."
The result was a prog-pop band, but a good 1 -- the album's opening track, the marvelous 10-minute "Spring Song," coulda bn a prog landmark if it'd bn released 5 years earlier. Mixing a haunting keyboard & recorder melody with Tim Sebastion's Olde-English-fantasy-style lyrics, the track was a winding adventure with great choruses. I still think an edited version coulda got some radio play. Bouncy, happy, high-energy -- it sounds sunny.
"Falero Lady" was the most Tull-like track, sorta pushy & vaguely bawdy. There were quieter pieces like the moving "Fall of the Leaf," & "Round and Round" with its Xcellent choruses. The Xcellent "Major Disaster" was Gryphon's 1st love song, with lyrics co-written by new guitarist Bob Foster. All these trax had Xcellent group vocals 2 go with Richard Harvey's standout keyboards & the usual recorders & krumhorns. There were also a couple throwaways -- 1 of which, tellingly, was an instrumental....
The album didn't sell -- it was out of place in England with Punk as the big new thing, & the group broke-up soon after. But I loved TREASON, & turned 2 the other, older albums -- all issued in England by Transatlantic -- 2 see what else Gryphon had going.
RAINDANCE (1975) was pretty inconsistent -- the 1st side was filled with mostly shorter pieces, including the silly clockwork "Ormolu," Taylor's relaxed "Fontinental Version," some stuff in French, & a version of the Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son" that was even worse than John Denver's version.
But Side 2 featured 3 great trax: Harvey's Xcellent, high-speed, bouncy & twangy "Wallbanger;" Taylor's brief & charming "Don't Say Go;" & the album's centerpiece, the 16-minute "(Ein Klein) Heldenleben," another winding instrumental mix of gtr, krumhorns, keyboards & much more, coming across as sort of a scenic travel piece that ends with a wedding celebration...(?). Some rather nice rockin' Taylor gtr work at the Nd of this 1....
Going further back, MIDNIGHT MUSHRUMPS (early 1974) was also a bit inconsistent, leading off with the crashingly melodramatic 19-minute title track, composed 4 a production of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST.
The 2nd side shuffled shorter pieces of varying quality, opening with the spirited traditional-folk piece "The Ploughboy's Dream" (with Oberle's 1st vocal), & closing with the gorgeous "Ethelion" -- which starts with Gulland's deep echoing laughter, sounding like some evil troll chasing kids thru some spooky woods ... then morphs into a flat-out gorgeous recorder&krumhorn piece that slowly adds all the members of the band. It's a freakin knockout.
Gryphon's (1st) album (1973) is all acoustic, seems kinda primitive, & isn't rock&roll, but things pick-up on some of the faster-paced #'s, such as "Estampie" & "Juniper Suite."
These days Gryphon has at least 1 fan website, & there R occasional rumors of a reunion. There's at least 1 best-of collection, which features most of the very 1st album & high points from every album up 2 TREASON.
If you're a fan of British folk-rock & like unusual sounds mixed in with yr rock, you should give these guys a try -- if you can track down NE of their stuff. I'd recommend RED QUEEN & TREASON 4 beginners. The rest, tho VERY good in places, can wait.
Maybe not the best prog band ever, & maybe my taste is clouded by nostalgia 4 the times when I 1st heard them, but still....