Monday, October 17, 2011

Power of Zeus - The Gospel According to Zeus (1970)

Power of Zeus were a hard rock/psychedelic group that had the misfortune to get signed to a Motown subsidiary. The folks at the label really had no experience with this kind of music, and the result of their efforts packs less of a punch than it might. The band members have expressed dissatisfaction with the album, claiming that it did not capture their live sound and, regrettably, they never got another chance.

Before writing them off as a footnote to the psychedelic movement, however, we have to admit that many of the songs presented here are quite good. The band had a lot of unique ideas, solid musicianship and the charm that only a Hammond Organ can bring. A couple of the tracks teeter on the edge of the then burgeoning progressive rock movement, while simultaneously delivering quite a trip to those inclined to such things.

The albums highlight is, at least for me, the seven and a half minute "The Death Trip" which, as the title implies, chronicles a man's journey into the afterlife. Apart from being spooky as all get out, it also rocks really hard. The climax has the singer screaming "I see the light!" over swirling and majestic Hammond chords, and is sure to get your adrenaline pumping. The closing track, "The Sorcerer of Isis," is similarly dark, although not quite as intense, with Eastern influenced guitar lines and mystical lyrics. The band's singer cites it as best capturing their live sound. "In The Night" is a personal favorite, and although a pretty straightforward rock song, it touches on the Devil and things that go bump in the night in a very satisfying way.

The rest of the album is filled out by capable, if somewhat mainstream, hard rock and the obligatory flower power hippy lovefest "Green Grass and Clover." While not a masterpiece, this album is a solid slab of seventies hard rock/psychedelia, and ranks a good deal higher in my book than Iron Butterfly's debut. It is sure to please fans of Uriah Heep, Deep Purple and Atomic Rooster.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Luc Ferrari - Son Memorise (2006)

Luc Ferrari is something of a legendary figure in the strnage world of Musique Concrete/sound collage. Few composers have devoted so much time and effort to creating sounds which 99% of the population would not consider to be actual music. Thankfully for the other 1%, however, he remained an unstoppable force of unique and interesting composition for half a century, right up until his death in 2005.

Like John Cage before him, Ferrari was able to hear the beauty in everyday environmental sounds, and this posthumous album puts this quality on display wonderfully. Here we are treated to three long pieces. The first of these is a continuation of Ferrari's "Presque Rien" series, in which environmental sounds are edited down and assembled in such a way as to almost form a loose narratives. Conversation snatches in French and Italian, animal noises and ambient sound blend together with the occasional rhythmic pattern to make a fascinating pastiche. Most of the time the edits are barely noticeable, but occasionally you can pick out repetitions and carefully constructed patterns indicative of the care taken by the composer.

The second piece is similar in nature, but longer and for me more engaging. It consists of a half hour of Ferrari strolling through a small town in Algeria, and the sheer variety of sound he captures is staggering. Bells, roosters, donkeys, locals singing, gun shots and many other exotic and beautiful noises forma rich tapestry of sound. This piece dates all the way back to 1978, but to me it sounds just as fresh and modern as anything else here. The final work abandons field recordings in favor of a more traditional example of Musique Concrete. It is well thought out and well constructed, but personally I prefer the field recordings for their magical ability to transport the listener to another time and place.

The only problem I have with this release is the bizarre approach to track indexing, in which each composition is broken up into seemingly arbitrary sections, but that's a very minor complaint given the quality of the music itself. Luc Ferrari is a definite must for those interested in electro-acoustic music, field recordings or Musique Concrete. And while the uninitiated will likely dismiss it is "just noise," those with an open mind and vivid imagination will find music like this refreshingly unique and beautifully evocative.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Third Ear Band - Alchemy (1969) / Elements (1970)

The Third Ear Band is the fortuitous result of a struggling group of rock musicians having most of their instruments stolen. Left with no amplifiers, guitars, keyboards or drum kits, they were forced to make do with a violin, a cello, an oboe and some hand percussion and assorted other small noisemakers. The ensuing sound came to earn them some unexpected popularity and record deals were soon forthcoming.

This release combines their first two studio albums, "Alchemy" from 1969 and a self-titled release commonly known as "Elements" for reasons that will soon become apparent, from a year later. The music is very loosely structured, and the melodies and instrumental palate create a sound that is somewhere between the music of medieval Europe and the more exotic textures of Indian classical music. The band have managed to capture a feeling of mystery quite well both with their sound and cover art littered with alchemical symbols and imagery from the dark ages.

The first album contains many short pieces of different character and energy levels, while the second has four long tracks, each named for the four elements of classical antiquity: earth, air, fire and water. These last are accompanied by appropriate sound effects, which may seem a bit silly and over the top to some, but I find it enhances the mood nicely. On the whole, it's hard to say which album I prefer. They are both enjoyable in different ways. When I want to here a theme fully fleshed out and developed over the course of ten minutes, I turn to "Elements," but when I'm in the mood for short bursts of contrasting styles "Alchemy" suits me just fine.

It is unclear how much of the material here is improvised, but I suspect that the answer is "most of it." There seems to be some general plan as to themes and structure, especially on "Elements," but the individual parts do not have the feel of careful composition, which I think lends an authenticity to the music that is quite exciting. The melodies are not the kind that western ears have become accustomed to, and these albums would doubtless prove too dense and inaccessible for many people, but those who enjoy Indian ragas or medieval polyphony should find plenty to love in the Third Ear Band.