Monday, March 27, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #92 - Kraftwerk - The Man-Machine (1978)

In many ways, The Man-Machne is the synthesis of everything Kraftwerk had been doing musically for the preceding decade. Having played around with vocoders, mechanical rhythms, songs about the soullessness of the modern world, and making synthesizers sound as remote from anything human as possible, the band now embrace the stereotypes of what everyone imagines them to be, and actually portray themselves as robots.

This is not my favorite Kraftwerk album (that title belonging to the earlier Radio-Activity) but I certainly think it's their tightest, most consistent, and most fully realized in its concept. From the Soviet-Constructivist artwork to the assembly line synth rhythms that open the record, everything here is steeped in futurism and automation.

What separates this album from earlier Kraftwerk records is the clean production. They’ve figured out how to transform their early synth experiments into tight, catchy, dancefloor anthems. It's hard to believe this is the same band that, a few years earlier, used gentle flute melodies in songs about going for a morning walk (Autobahn).

As ever, the band seems to have an ambivalent relationship with technology. It's hard to see a track like Spacelab as anything but optimistic in it's cheerful and soaring protrayal of science and exploration, despite the absence of lyrics, and it's clear that the band has embraced new technology in music making with both love and devotion. On the other hand, Metropolis is the dark, pessimistic counterpart to Spacelab, painting a picture of a grim and impersonal city of the future.

This dichotomy is summed up in the track The Model. At first, it seems out of place. After all, it's about an actual human being, and it's sung without the usual robotic vocoders, omnipresent elsewhere on the album. But in fact, the song fits in perfectly. It's fundamentally about objectification and the substitution for an impersonal, glamorized image for real humanity. Yet at the same time, it glorifies the subject for her beauty and style. Two sides of the same coin, progress and the sense of leaving something behind, are captured here as well as anywhere else on the record.

The penultimate track on the album is the gently drifting Neon Lights, which again seems to celebrate the wonders of the modern age while at the same time expressing a sense of loneliness. After the vocals fade away, the track continues as an instrumental of lovely, melancholy melodies, drifting effortlessly into the title track, in which man's transformation into machine is finally complete. Honestly, it's the final track that impresses me most every time I hear the album. More than anything else they’ve ever done, it sounds like it was made by robots for robots. Robots who want to dance.

Not too many people listen to Kraftwerk these days, which is a shame because few bands have had a greater influence on electronic music. Without Kraftwerk, there would be no techno, and while other acts like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze where plenty adventurous with analogue synths, none of them displayed the same commitment to tight rhythms and a compressed pop structure. It's hard to imagine what modern, mainstream electronica would look like had The Man-Machine never been released.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #93 - Jimi Hendrix - Band of Gypsys (1970)

I've never thought Jimi Hendrix was a particularly good songwriter. He certainly wasn't a great singer. But, to quote another guitar hero now gone, he could play a guitar just like ringin' a bell. I've always believed that there were three great masters who revolutionized electric guitar playing. The first was Chuck Berry, who developed a distinctly electric vocabulary for the guitar. The third was Eddie Van Halen, whose use of two hand tapping and whammy bars opened up new possibilities for the instrument. Jimi Hendrix was the second, and arguably most important, combining virtuosity, soul, and extended techniques to give the guitar possibilities unavailable to any other instrument.

Band of Gypsys is the last album Hendrix released in his lifetime. It's a live record covering two consecutive gigs, one on New Year's Eve and the other on New Year's Day, together ushering in the new decade. The sixties were over, the seventies were just beginning. Sadly, Hendrix would not be around for the decade, or who knows what kind of mischief he would have gotten up to, or what new innovations he would have explored on his instrument?

Already, in his short career, we can hear Hendrix conquering and subsequently getting bored with a number of genres. He played around with blues and ballads, embraced more straightforward soul and rock, and spent most of Electric Ladyland deep in a exotic realms of jam-based psychedelia.  With band of Gypsys, he stretches himself still further, starting to play around with jazzier and funkier textures than we have heard from him before. 

On this outing, he is backed by the stripped down lineup of Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass, having fallen out one too many times with the Jimi Hendrix Experience backing band. Hendrix generously lets Miles share vocal duties and sing a few of his own songs, which is nice for Buddy but frankly the least interesting parts of the record. Elsewhere though, the musicianship of the sidemen is excellent, particularly Miles' snare drum contributions to Machine Gun, which imitates the sound of the title weapon.

Speaking of Machine Gun, it's undoubtedly the centerpiece of the album, being both the longest and most musically adventurous track here. For almost 13 minutes, Hendrix sings an indictment of violence while illustrating his point with his snarling, howling guitar antics, which mimic both sirens and screams while Miles rat-a-tats away. Apparently unable to find sufficient challenge in the fretboard itself, Hendrix resorts to playing the feedback from his amplifier in a way that anticipates Robert Fripp's solo on David Bowie's "Heroes" seven years later. It's pretty thrilling to listen to, not to mention innovative.

Lyrically, Hendrix seems to be in a reflective, almost meditative frame of mind, with the songs dominated by themes of peace, love, and lamenting violence. There's a sadness in the material that, in retrospect, seems appropriate given how short the remainder of Jimi's life would be. It's also reminiscent of some of the political work of bands like Parliament and Funkadelic, with whom Hendrix seems to be in sympathy on parts of this record. Power to Love in particular bears distinctive traces of funk influence.

We'll never know what would have happened if Hendrix had continued his career throughout the seventies. Maybe he would have explored new forms, created new innovations, bounced through jazz, funk, and fusion, and improved on an already enormous legacy. Maybe he would have fizzled out and become just another irrelevant relic of the past. In any case, rock guitar's debt to his playing cannot be overstated, and although his style of music is not something I'm personally drawn to too often, as a technician and innovator, it's impossible not to be amazed by him.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #94 - King Crimson - Starless and Bible Black (1974)

King Crimson is one of my favorite bands, and I've always felt that Starless and Bible Black was unjustly overlooked, sandwiched as it was between the more popular Larks' Tongues in Aspic and Red. I'm pleased to see it getting the credit it deserves here, as a thrilling statement of experimentalism and virtuosity. No other band sounds like this, and certainly no band playing in 1974.

First, a little background. King Crimson has always had a turbulent existence. In 1969, their stunning debut shattered accepted notions of what rock music could be, but constant lineup changes threatened to tear the group apart multiple times in just a few years. After a handful of followups that managed to be great despite the inner turmoil, guitarist and group leader Robert Fripp pulled together a new lineup that included John Wetton on bass and vocals, David Cross on Violin, and Bill Bruford, fresh from his tenure with fellow progressive rockers Yes, on drums. There was also a short lived contribution from percussionist Jamie Muir, but that was aborted by the time of Starless and Bible Black when he went to go live in a monastery or something. 

This lineup made three excellent albums, of which Starless is the middle one. What's interesting about the record is that it is drawn largely from material recorded live, cleaned up with a few studio overdubs, and features far more improvisation than most other rock records.

Until this point, improvisation in rock music had typically been relegated to extended stoner jams and self-indulgent solos, exhibited by psychedelic mainstays like In a Gadda-Da-Vida. King Crimson's improvisations are nothing like this. They more closely resemble jazz, feature thoughtful erudition, and focus simultaneously on structure and texture, transversing complex harmonic territory and creating an actual complex piece of music instead of just rocking back and forth between two chords.

This only works because all four of the musicians are at the very top of their game. Fripp's guitar technique is right up there with the greats, and Bruford remains one of rock's very finest drummers, employing subtlety and finesse as well as perfect timing and technical mastery. Particularly remarkable is his contribution to the track Trio, a live improvisation for mellotron, violin, and bass in which he elected not to play at all, allowing the other three musicians to finish their thoughts uninterrupted by the clattering of his kit. This may not sound like much, but trust me, a drummer choosing not to play when given the opportunity is beyond rare.

The centerpiece of the album is Fracture, the eleven minute instrumental that closes Side 2. It's a masterpiece of composition, establishing a handful of themes early on an developing slowly in a variety of forms as the piece progresses, each time growing in energy tension until at last resolution is delivered. It's also brimming with technical challenges, and it's a treat to here Fripp pushed to the limits of his abilities with his urgent, rapid-fire guitar lines.

In many ways, it would be fair to say that this is an album by musicians, for musicians. There is no doubt that people with more than a casual understanding of harmonic theory will get more out of it than a layperson. Nevertheless, I don't think that means that others can't enjoy the album as well. The group succeeds in building tension like no other, and there are great melodies here as well. If nothing else, you'd be hard pressed to find any band as consistently willing to push the boundaries of rock as King Crimson, and Starless and Bible Black is a snapshot of them at their finest.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #95 - Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti (1975)

The first of several double albums on this list, which is nice because it gives me an opportunity to talk about double albums. There's something about double albums that I absolutely love. They are very rarely perfect records, but they are always overflowing with creativity, passion, and enthusiasm. Double albums are what result when a band is cooking so hot that it simply can't contain all its ideas in a single disc, and whether or not the final product is tight, or even advisable, that's exciting.

Physical Graffiti is no exception. I admit that I have been a reluctant convert to Led Zeppelin. Perhaps a victim of their own over the top hype, I spent years struggling to understand why this band is spoken of in such exalted tones, Physical Graffiti may finally be the record that's converted me to their cause.

On Disc One, things just click. From the blistering country-blues of Custard Pie to the Faulknerian southern Gothic of In My Time of Dying, a sinister 11 minutes workout for slide guitar, this is Led Zeppelin at its most epic and most adventurous. The riffs are untouchable, as in the monumental Kashmir, and the melodies are generally stronger than in the past. The Rover might be the best actual song the band ever wrote, and Houses of the Holy, taken its title from the previous album, is downright singable.

If Zeppelin had stopped at the end of Disc One, they would have produced the best album of their career, and one of the best albums of any decade. But they didn't, a fact which is simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating.

Disc Two of Physical Graffiti is something altogether different and unexpected. Rather than continue the epic rocking, Middle Eastern -tinged riffage, and the Celtic mysticism that has always been part of the band's style, Page, Plant and Co. take advantage of the extra space to stretch out, arguably beyond their comfort zone.

The tracks on the second half of Physical Graffiti are mainly genre experiments. There is a short, bucolic instrumental, a boogie-woogie breakdown, a lilting Neil Young-esque ballad, and a healthy helping of the country stylings with which Page was so enamored. It's comparatively lightweight stuff that, although often fun and enjoyable, seems a little redundant in the wake of what precedes it.

All four band members are in exquisite form throughout, though, and it's a treat to hear so much energy, bolstered by a clear love for the material, coming through the speakers.  Physical Graffiti is the lowest ranking of four Led Zeppelin albums on this list, but I think it might be my favorite.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #96 - Iggy Pop - The Idiot (1977)

Iggy Pop goes New Wave! Five years after the furious onslaught of The Stooges, Iggy Pop returned to music in surprisingly humble, experimental way. Whereas his goal with The Stooges frequently seemed to be making as much noise as possible, here we find Pop at his most introspective, which is a welcome change.

In fairness, a large part of the album's sound is due to producer and co-writer David Bowie. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to call this a Bowie album in everything but name, for the songs here are remarkably similar to the early Berlin-period work that the Thin White Duke was exploring at the time, and two of the tracks, China Girl and Sister Midnight, would later resurface on Bowie albums, albeit in substantially altered forms.

Still, Pop is responsible for most of the lyrics on the album, as well as the vocal interpretation, and that's saying something. While not as accomplished a singer as Bowie, Pop's voice lends the tracks a vulnerability we haven't often heard before.

There's a theme I intend to come back to several times during this series: Fatigue with the rock and roll lifestyle. As the wild and raucous rock stars of the 1960s get a little older and a little more mature, it seems that an almost universal sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction descended upon them in a body. Lou Reed may have been the first one to make endless partying sound exhausting and depressing, but he was certainly not the last, and it's my theory that this feeling is a large part of what drove the energy of punk so quickly into the dark, cold world of post-punk.

Nightclubbing, written by Pop to describe what it was like hanging out with Bowie, encapsulates this kind of burnt out weariness perfectly. Nightclubs are supposed to be fun, but here they are painted with the mechanical rhythms of Kraftwerk and a droning, emotionless vocal. One gets the sense that everyone is tired and wants to go home, only no one wants to be the first one to say so. Similarly, Funtime doesn't sound as fun as its title would suggest.

For me, the high point of the album is China Girl, closing out Side One. While Bowie's more familiar version is more polished and well-produced, I prefer Pop's apocalyptic take, with the crushing descending bass line. In Bowie's hands, it sounds like a charming little love song. Pop makes it sound like the world is coming to an end.

Starting with its title and not letting up until the last track, The Idiot is a study in indecision, doubt, and regret. Coming from someone with Iggy Pop's bravado, it's a refreshing and engaging listen.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #97 - Jimmy Cliff - The Harder They Come (1972)

Okay, it's not really a Jimmy Cliff album, but I hate the term "Various Artists" and Cliff is certainly the star player here, dominating the soundtrack album of the film in which he played the lead role. I should begin by saying that reggae is not really my thing, although I appreciate the influence it has had on other styles of music (we'll get to the Clash later in the list, who owe a great deal to the genre.)

With that in mind, this album raises an important question about musical analysis: to what extent should we let context influence our perceptions of music? Is the sound itself enough, or should we look to historical, social, and other non-musical elements to explain what we are hearing? Of course, in a certain sense, everything is context. Even a simple chord progression relies on centuries of musical tradition ingrained in our civilization in order for an audience to make sense of it. And all lyrics are about something, usually relating to the world outside the sleeve of the record itself.

Still, different types of music use context in a different way. For example, the first album I reviewed for this series, Before and After Science, largely puts sound over meaning, playing with nonsense lyrics and interesting new textures coaxed from synthesizers, as well as modernistic playing from the instrumentalists that plays with our expectations of what melody and harmony are supposed to be.

The Harder They Come is the exact opposite. There are no complex chord progressions here, no exotic instruments, no sounds you're not likely to have heard before. It's protest music, man. Three chords and the truth. The sound is a vehicle for the meaning, and the meaning is everything.

So what does it mean? Well, first of all, it's the soundtrack of a film in which the hero, played by Cliff, tries to make good, but ultimately is destroyed by crime and corruption, a grim tale lacking in hope or redemption, and reflecting the impoverished and generally unpleasant conditions in Jamaica at the time. In that context, the album is a sad one indeed, for the songs themselves are overflowing with optimism. You can get it if you really want, sings Cliff. The harder they come, the harder they fall. If we work together and hold our heads high, nothing can beat us. Given the fact that there was never any real hope of success to begin with, the album embodies the pathos of oblivious confidence exceeded all realistic expectations.

We are given clues to this cognitive dissonance on other tracks, mostly the ones not sung by Cliff. Songs like Shanty Town and By the Rivers of Babylon give the listener clues that all is not as sunny as Cliff would have you believe. There is sadness behind the singing, a sadness that reemerges as subtext when the title song is reprised at the end of the record.

The Harder They Come is simple and powerful, but it's also very much a product of its time and place, and I can't help but feel that I would find it more meaningful if I had lived through 1970s Jamaica. I kind of doubt it would be worth it, though.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #98 - Robert Wyatt - Rock Bottom (1974)

I must begin this entry with an apology. I had intended to post a new review every week, but as astute reads will have noticed, I have already failed in that ambition, and only three albums in! The reason is that the album in question, Rock Bottom, was out of print in my country and I had difficulty in obtaining a copy. After my initial order from Amazon was abruptly cancelled days after it was supposed to arrive, I had to pursue overseas options, which even in the futuristic space age in which we live took rather longer than I expected. This will likely not be the last such roadblock, as there are several more albums in the list that are currently unavailable, but I shall endeavor to make allowances and obtain them in a timely fashion. In any case, I have the album now, so we can proceed.

While an avid lover of progressive rock, I have never much cared for the Canterbury scene. Bands such as Caravan and the Soft Machine have failed to hold my interest, and as Wyatt is well-known as one of the major figures of that subgenre, I confess I approached this record with a bit of trepidation. Wyatt's voice is not one that I find especially pleasant, particularly in its higher registers, and indeed I would call his vocals my least favorite part of the album. Apart from that minor niggle, however, I was pleasantly surprised by Rock Bottom, which is in every respect an engaging and satisfying listen.

Beginning with a relatively straightforward song, we are at once alerted that things are not quite right, as the otherwise conventional structure is interrupted by stabs of atonal piano, and strangely droning keyboards. The influence of jazz is prominent, but the unusual harmonic and melodic language is used in this context in what I would characterize as an impressionistic fashion.

Indeed, the whole album oddly reminds me of a Monet painting. There are no sharp edges, and everything is hazy and diffuse. In this respect, the cover painting is perfect. The album's centerpiece, Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road, is built on a tapestry of echoing, interlocking trumpets that produce a mesmerizing effect.

For me at least, the album seems to invite such extra-musical comparisons. Many of the lyrics consist of nonsense poetry, which, combined with its extremely English ad literate sensibilities, reminds me of the work of Lewis Carroll, which is assuredly a good thing.

As I've mentioned before, the ability to choose good collaborators is one of the marks of a great musician, and sat this Wyatt excels. The contributions of guest musicians, primarily to the album's closer, are delightful, from Mike Oldfield's trademarked layered guitars, to Fred Frith's viola, to Ivor Cutler's strangely accented recitation, accompanied by the creaking and groaning of a baritone concertina.

The album is paradoxical in that it comes across as both dark and light, both sad and joyous. There is desperation here; the tragic “stop its” of Little Red Riding Hood are heartbreaking, and this is understandable given that Wyatt was having to come to terms with being a paraplegic at the time of this album, having lost the use of his legs from a four-stroy fall. Yet there is also hope and love, and his devotion to his wife, who appears on the album and about whom many of the lyrics center, is clear. In fact, one of the last lines on the record sums up the nature of love with succinct poignancy: "Your madness fits in nicely with my own." What more could anyone ask in a significant other?