Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #85 - Wire - 154 (1979)

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but if that's the case then I would argue that boredom is its father. The genre of post-punk is proof of this. Punk emerged in the mid-1970s as a reaction against the pretense and excessive of progressive rock, but it only took a few years for the best punk bands to get restless with the aggressive simplicity of the genre, and began to experiment. Thus, post-punk was born, and few bands made the transition more rapidly and completely than Wire.

154 is the third and last Wire album before the band broke up. It represents the end of a three year journey that no one would have been able to predict the end of. Stripped down guitar rock has been replaced by cold and icy textures, with once reviled keyboards appearing prominently, wrapped around surprisingly tuneful melodies.

What's most remarkable here is the atmosphere. The dark and gloomy nature of this record sounds like a more intelligent version of Echo and the Bunnymen, as well as a precursor to goth rock (Bauhaus' debut single, Bela Lugosi's Dead, was released the same year, marking the official launch of the genre in many people's minds.)

The songs on 154 are unabashedly experimental. Rather than being build up around basic chord progressions or melodies, many start with little more than an angular chunk of sound, created on guitars or synthesizers, and the rest of the structure emerges around that one piece. For example, The Other Window rests on a bed of trembling guitar flange, with the lyrics delivered spoken word style on top of it. Indirect Enquiries is built on a two-note riff backed by a crunchy, percussive guitar effect.

At times, the band is even willing to abandon conventional song titles, with the first single from the album bafflingly called "Map Ref. 41°N 93°W".  I looked it up; apparently its in Iowa, although you'd never guess it from the cryptic lyrics. The tune is pretty good, though, and one thing I admire about Wire is that they don't sacrifice melody, as so many other bands do, even when they are stretching the genre to its breaking point.

Sometimes these experiments play out in a couple of minutes, and sometimes they are given more space to breathe. A great example of the latter, and the highlight of the album, is the nearly seven minute A Touching Display. Beginning with a clean, Morricone-esque riff, the song soon descends into somber waves of droning guitar distortion, almost abandoning form altogether in favor of raw sound. I don't doubt that this track must have been influential to later drone-metal and post-metal bands like Earth, Sunn O))), or Melvins. It's a thrilling willingness to throw musical convention completely out the window.

It's a shame Wire broke up when they did; given their trajectory over their three albums, there's no telling what would have come next. Just like post-punk contemporaries Joy Division, the band was perhaps cut short before achieving their full potential. Still, 154 remains a remarkable document of an emerging genre, and still somehow sounds fresh today.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #86 - Joni Mitchell - Blue (1971)

When I embarked upon this project, I knew that there would be albums on the list I wouldn’t like all that much, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue loomed large as the most likely contender. I’ve never been a fan of soft, female-vocaled adult contemporary music. I prefer something with a little more edge. Still, this whole experience is about broadening my musical horizons, so I tried to approach the record with as open a mind as possible.

On the first listen, it didn’t really do much for me. I found the songs meandering, the lyrics difficult to relate to. “Maybe you have to be a woman to get it,” I thought. Undeterred, I kept listening. You can’t evaluate an album in one hearing. Time would surely reveal hidden depths. But as I repeated the experience again and again, I came to realize something. I don’t just dislike this album; I hate it.

It seems odd to describe an album of stripped down folk-pop as “pretentious”, but that’s exactly what Blue is. In the Pitchfork review, Mitchell is compared to Bob Dylan, but Dylan was always honest (at least after the protest years) even when he was singing with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. He didn’t put on airs or pretend to be anything that he was not. He just did what he wanted to do. He wasn’t worried about impressing anybody.

The college I went to was attached to a music conservatory, and there were a lot of opera singers around. Everyone hated the opera singers. These were kids who had always been praised for their voices, and remained acutely and constantly aware of the fact that they could sing better than almost everyone else. This led to an intolerable personality of smug superiority. At first I couldn’t figure out what bothered me about Joni Mitchell’s singing, but this is it. She’s like that person who feels the need to insert harmony parts into Happy Birthday when sung at an office birthday party, just to show how clever and talented she is. There’s not a note on Blue that isn’t torturously subjected to vibrato and arbitrary leaps into the high soprano range. Mitchell knows she has a good voice, and by God she’s not going to let you forget it.

A couple of years after Blue, Bruce Springsteen would find fame singing anthems for the working class, kids stuck in dead end jobs in dying, midwestern towns with no futures and no options. When Joni Mitchell runs into trouble, she unhesitatingly jets off to Paris or Spain (I count at least six European countries mentioned in the lyrics), where she can rent a spacious loft apartment decorated with a grand piano and plenty of natural light. There she can pout about being misunderstood while basking in a Bohemian community brimming with praise for her talent and joie de vivre. Must be nice.

There’s no trace of real vulnerability on the album. Every attempt at self-deprecation is undercut by an unsubtle humblebrag (which I think would be a good alternate title for the album). In “River,” ostensibly a song about needing to escape, she doesn’t even make it out of the first verse before gloating “I’m gonna make a lot of money”. It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone claiming they feel trapped when a plane trip to Europe or California is within such easy reach.

The only thing I found myself really able to appreciate on the album was Stephen Stills providing a rhythmic anchor to Carey in the form of a lively bass line, preventing that song from drifting off into the aimless navel gazing that dominates the rest of the record. Unfortunately, he disappears after that one track and is not seen again.

I hate to be uncharitable, but I find Blue to be nothing more than the self-satisfied musings of a flakey, “free spirited”, white girl with no real problems except how boring it all is.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #87 - Roxy Music - For Your Pleasure (1973)

The album cover of Roxy Music's second album, apart from being extremely visually striking, gives you a pretty good idea of what the music is going to be like before you even put on the record. On the right, the trashy glamour of a skin-tight vinyl dress, elbow-length gloves, and impractical heels. On the left, the menacing snarl of a barely-restrained panther, shrouded in shadow and backlit by the big city at night. Those competing, yet oddly complimentary, images are both very much present on this remarkable disc.

For Your Pleasure is a sinister and unsettling record, abandoning the brighter elements of the band's debut (which were not that many to begin with) to concentrate on instrumental textures and more contemplative lyrics. Although the album starts out innocuously enough, with a parody of 60s dance crazes, it quickly becomes clear that there's something darker going on here.

Before I get into the songs any further, it's important to acknowledge the band's composition and musicianship, which is a big part of what makes this album so unique. Lead vocalist, frontman, and principal songwriter Brian Ferry has a voice that's like a bizarre cross between Bing Crosby's crooning and David Byrne's yelp. He has the air of a wannabe Romeo who is just too strange and awkward to realize that he will never be believable in the role.

In addition to the usual backing instruments (all played expertly), the band utilizes the talents of Andy McKay on various reed instruments, most notably saxophone and oboe. I don't know too many rock bands that feature oboe, and this combined with his saxophone work adds a weird blend of 50s rock and roll and some sort of foreign otherness that keeps any of the songs from sounding at all normal. Finally, we have Brian Eno   on keyboards and, more importantly, sound manipulations. His brief career with Roxy Music predates any of his more familiar ambient work, but the signature style is already there, and very noticeable.

Eno's influence causes all the sounds on the record to be tweaked, filtered, and processed, making the whole thing sound weird and alien. Even when the basic structure of a song is simple and ordinary, it is this attention to detail that makes it remarkable, and even today there are few producers creating anything that sounds like For Your Pleasure. It's a terribly unique record even 40 years later.

Then there are the songs themselves. I think it's safe to say that Brian Ferry is a deeply strange person, and we are the beneficiaries of his strangeness. Strictly Confidential rides along a haunting oboe melody with vague lyrics about guilt, regret, darkness, and death. The Bogus Man is nearly ten minutes of plodding, paranoid instrumental jamming with occasional lyrics about a stalker.  The album's tour de force is In Every Dream Home A Heartache, which rocks back and forth between a two-phrase melody as it slowly builds to its climax. You're unlikely to ever hear a better love song directed towards a blow-up doll. The lyrics explore perversion driven by boredom, and paint a chilling picture of a wealthy bachelor slowly going mad all alone in a luxurious mansion. The way the song slowly builds tension through repetition is masterly, and it will stay with you for long after the last notes have faded away. The album's closer, the title track, transforms a relatively normal beginning into an end that is almost Musique Concret, which layer upon layer of tape manipulation that becomes so abstract as to be unrecognizable by the end. An entirely fitting conclusion.

For Your Pleasure was to be Eno's last record with Roxy Music, which is a real shame, because the tension between his and Ferry's style really works. It's almost like a surreal Lennon-McCartney in which each brings out the best in the other, despite their wildly different styles. The story I heard is that Ferry became jealous of the attention Eno's eccentric lifestyle was getting from the press and booted him out of the band, but who knows for sure? Both artists would go on to pursue productive careers long after, but For Your Pleasure remains a remarkable document of a moment when competing artistic visions fused together in a way that surpassed either individually.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #88 - Giorgio Moroder - From Here to Eternity (1977)

Disco is a much maligned genre, and I guess I can see why. It supplanted the lush, technical, hyper-musical, heavily expressive, virtuosic, jazz- and classic-influenced progressive rock of the early seventies with throbbing, soulless beats, computer rhythms, and synthesized, phony baloney strings and horns. Great songwriters like Jeff Lynne and Freddie Mercury away from their sublime melodies and towards repetitive, inhuman grooves. I get it.

Still, I've never had this visceral hatred of disco, and this list, which contains several of the best albums from the genre, has given me a new appreciation for it. It's hard to criticize disco for being robotic when you listen to Kraftwerk. It's hard to criticize it as soulless when you listen to Throbbing Gristle. It's hard to criticize it as artificial or inauthentic when you appreciate lost genres like Exotica or Bubblegum. So I'm not ashamed to say I enjoy disco, especially for its influence on New Wave and much of modern electronica.

Nevertheless, in this enjoyment, I find something deeply depressing about it, and about this album in particular. Giorgio Moroder was an Italian producer who helped raise Donna Summer to stardom with his programming prowess. Here, he steps out from behind the mixing desk and lets his work stand on its own, untainted by any exterior interpreter.

And stand it does. The music is tight and well-produced. The melodies are catchy. The background vocals are superb. So why depressing? I think it has to do with the sense of fatigue that comes from the repetitive beat. The first track starts out sublime, but as he human vocals fade into robotic vocoders, its exuberance slips into a minor key and turns dark. All the time the four on the floor beat remains constant, monotonous, inexorable.

Like Lou Reed singing about the pointless, yet inescapable, life of the hard partying drug user, this feels like an early commentary on club culture, almost before there was such a thing. Moments of occasional euphoria fade away to reveal a deep emptiness, and yet through it all you keep desperately dancing, even after all enthusiasm or joy for the activity has died.

Make no mistake: I don't regard this as a weakness of the album. Instead, it's really what makes it so strong. There are a million records of cheerful, upbeat, one-dimensional techno. From Here to Eternity has an emotional depth lacking in similar yet inferior records. Even the title is perfect. At first glance, it sounds inspiring, but upon further reflection it suggests fatigue and hopelessness. Just like the eternal, thumping, bass beat, there’s no end in sight to an existence of empty hedonism.

Giorgio Maroder is one of the pioneers of electronic dance music, and this remains his most popular and influential work. Even if you're not a fan of disco, you have to appreciate his technical savvy and artistic vision. As a high water mark of pristine electronic production, From Here to Eternity totally holds up 40 years after its release.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #89 - Devo - Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)

David Bowie described them as "the band of the future," and it's not hard to see why. As the bloated and pompous progressive rock of the early seventies gave way to the stripped down futurism of the latter half of the decade, and romanticism was replaced by cynicism, Devo was a band on the cutting edge.

More than even the Ramones, Devo embraced stupidity as an aesthetic on their debut album, a hymn to the "devolution" of modern man that straddles the line between social commentary and meaningless absurdism. In this sense, this album is as "punk" as anything else on this list, helped along by the fact that the band can barely play their instruments.

Of particular note is the fact that Brian Eno agreed to produce this album. It bears little resemblance to his own work, and while his influence on Talking Heads albums at around the same time can be heard in subtle audio manipulations that give the music a rich and unique texture, here his involvement seems to have been limited to leaving the band alone and letting them do what they wanted. This is apparently more due to Devo's unwillingness to accept his ideas than any conscious effort on his part, though.

Devo is at their best when they are able to apply their blunt sound and yelped vocals to a catchy pop hook. Unfortunately, that only happens in a few places here. Space Junk, with it's high, chiming guitars is radio gold. Mongoloid is equally good, in its mundane treatment of a rather controversial topic.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album struggles to find good melodies. Jocko Homo features the iconic "Are we not men? We are Devo!" chant, but is otherwise fairly uninteresting. Gut Feeling in exciting only in that it features some clearly Eno-influenced synth parts, and the cover of the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction highlights the dumb and primitive nature of the original, but it's not as fun to listen to.

In a lot of ways, Devo embodied the New Wave movement at the end of the seventies as much as any other band. Transforming punk from antisocial caterwauling to subversiveness that was radio-friendly , complete with angular melodies, high-pitched amelodic vocals, and generally futurist mindset.

But while Devo were certainly pioneers, they were neither as catchy nor as inventive as their contemporaries and those who would come later. Ironically, the genre would continue to evolve for the better, even as the band championed devolution.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #90 - Fela Kuti - Zombie (1977)

Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician who not only popularized the Afrobeat genre with his innovative and funky arrangements, but also succeeded in seriously annoying the Nigerian government with his anti-establishment, pro-freedom lyrics. Anyone who uses music to stand up to tyranny at personal cost is okay by me, and although I was unfamiliar with Fela Kuti's work prior to starting this list, I'm glad to have the opportunity to appreciate it.

The original album is short, consisting of two tracks that together clock in at less than half an hour. And although CD reissues add two bonus tracks of live material, the impact of the original packs quite a punch on its own.

The title track, Zombie, is built on a funk guitar pattern that stays the same throughout the song's 15 minutes. On top of that, a blaring staccato horn arrangement plays a repeated descending riff that is surprisingly catchy. It's a fast paced, aggressive piece, which makes sense when you consider that the whole thing is a critique of the Nigerian military, analogizing their members to zombies, unthinking monsters who do what they are told, even when it means committing atrocities.

The second track, Mister Follow Follow, is more laid back. Lyrically, it treads the same themes as its predecessor. The titular Mister Follow Follow is the mindless drone who goes along with authority without questioning the consequences. Musically, though, it's quite different. Whereas Zombie is firmly rooted in funk, Mister Follow Follow is more jazz-based, with instrumental solos taking turns over a stable rhythmic backdrop.

Of particular note is an extended saxophone solo, presumably played by Kuti himself. It's an extremely creative and engaging part, everywhere hitting notes you wouldn't expect, but always in ways that sounds great. It proves that the band leader is not only revolutionary and iconoclastic, but extremely gifted technically as well. While Mister Follow Follow is not as immediately catchy or as confrontational as the title track, I prefer it for its subtlety and the way it showcases individual band members.

Speaking of the band, The Africa '70 is worth a shout out for how tightly they hold together. This kind of music is so heavily focussed on a great rhythm section, it doesn't work unless you have the players to carry it off. Combined with general competence, the folding in of African drum patterns to otherwise Western musical idioms makes for a very engaging listen.

Protest music comes in all forms, from the "Three Chords and the Truth" style of American folk music, to Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff's political reggae. It always works best, however, when the music can stand on its own, as the music on Zombie certainly does.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #91 - Throbbing Gristle - 20 Jazz Funk Great (1978)

One of the reasons I chose this Top 100 list from Pitchfork Magazine instead of, say, Rolling Stone, is that they’re not afraid to include groups like Throbbing Gristle, bands that everybody hates and no one listens to, but which were undeniably important in the development of modern music.

For the record, I don’t hate Throbbing Gristle. I think they’re awesome.

I've already reviewed this album once for this blog, but for the sake of continuity and a fresh pair of ears, I am happy to do so again. Throbbing Gristle emerged out of the English working class, where poverty, post-colonialism, and a declining influence in the world left many young people feeling alienated and disaffected. Throbbing Gristle channeled their misanthropy and hopelessness into making "industrial music for industrial people," melding post-punk and proto-electronica into something that was as bleak and cold as their teenage surroundings.

20 Jazz Funk Greats is the band's third official album, and sees them branching out from their noisy and distorted roots, crafting some pretty sophisticated and moody music. The album obviously owes a debt to early lounge music, as evidenced both by the title track and the similar "Exotica" which recalls some of the sounds popularized by Les Baxter and Martin Denny, albeit in a more perverse way. In contrast to the in your face aggression of the first two albums, this album is more like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet: sinister depravity lurking underneath a seemingly benign exterior.

For example, Beachy Head sounds like a lovely spot to go for a stroll until you realize that it’s a leading spot for suicide jumpers in Britain. Hot on the Heels of Love resembles a perfectly pleasant dance track, but the deadpan delivery of the group's chanteuse, Cosey Fanni Tutti, is almost pleading: “waiting for help from above”. The way the line is said makes it clear that the wished for help is not coming.

Elsewhere, frontman Genesis P-Orridge is in characteristically creepy form, as he sings about "Persuasion" and "Convincing People" to do things it's clear that they're going to regret very soon. In fact, this could be seen as a sort of theme for the record, as it lures you in with its slick and subdued beats only to yield much that is deeply disturbing. Rather than bombard listeners with feedback and growling, 20 Jazz Funk Greats persuades them, although they may not enjoy having themselves persuaded in the long run. 

I would be remiss not to talk about Throbbing Gristle's influence. In addition to basically inventing the industrial genre single-handedly, and spawning future acts like Coil, Psychic TV, and Chris & Cosey, the band's electronic experiments and penchant for minimalism and mind-altering substances went a long way towards inspiring trance music, not to mention their contributions to numerous experimental artists who have collaborated with the band members over the years. Throbbing Gristle took punk's anarchy and turned it up to eleven, not in volume, but in anti-establishment aesthetics, leading many of us to question our very notions of what constitutes music. For that alone, they deserve a place in history.

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.