I interview a series of musicians, from Zappa alumni like Robert (Bobby) Martin and Mike Keneally through to Thighpaulsandra, Matt Stevens and …probably too many others, asking them about what Zappa record they’d recommend as a starting point.
I got a chance recently to speak with Bryan Beller of The Aristocrats, Joe Satriani and many other cool things. We talk about the upcoming Aristocrats tour, his solo work and touch on Mike Keneally’s Scambot 2.
So part of what I spoke of in my update post is completed, with me completing February Album Writing Month (FAWM) for the 4th time. It’s a great way to break through any creative blocks you may be having, and just fun in general (albeit life-consuming fun). You can view all 16 tracks on the link above, but as that page will be wiped by the next February, I thought I’d chuck a few permanent links up for some of my favourite tracks I wrote. And a few vaguely related images to pretty it up a bit!
Island were a four-piece avant-garde progressive rock group from Switzerland. They released their debut album Pictures in 1977 and vanished into obscurity, which is an absolute shame, as the album is a relatively unknown classic of the progressive rock area.
One of the key elements that makes Island sound so different right out of the gate is their choice of instrumentation. There is no guitar or bass – the latter role is fulfilled by bass-pedals. Instead, the focus is on percussion, keyboards, vocals and wind instruments (sax, flute and clarinet). That sounds crowded, but there is still a lot of space on the album. Each instrument sounds isolated by itself – on its own island, if you will – yet stills gels with the rest of the band. Over the course of the album’s five tracks, the dark, lonely atmosphere is palpable, conjuring up images of an alien landscape.
In fact, it’s one of the more perfect uses of H.R. Giger for an album cover. The music shifts between worlds, morphing from progressive rock to zeuhl to chamber music to jazz to combining it all together and making the beautiful, yet freakish monster that is this album. This is the music Xenomorphs would create.
“Introduction” certainly does a good job of giving the album’s feel. The track begins with monkish chanting before the clarinet takes over, providing an eerie, yet wistful atmosphere. Whispering vocals creep in, building towards a frenzy alongside the percussion for the pure aural chaos that is the finale. Its one and a half minute duration perfectly encapsulates the creepiness and hints at the prog that we’re about to be treated to over the course of the album.
The 16-minute title track “Pictures” is my personal favourite, running the gamut of all the genres mentioned above, culminating in a truly fascinating, multifarious piece of music. Of particular note are the vocal lines that intertwine and reach beyond Gentle Giant-levels of complexity, as well as a great saxophone solo.
The first 4 minutes of “Herold And King (Dloreh)” are deceptively simple. Brooding, beautiful piano plays before the track erupts, only to implode back in upon itself for some incomprehensible, a cappella craziness, leading to the single greatest non sequitur ever shouted in music:
‘HE ILLUMINATES THE SENATE!’
So it’s not to say the band doesn’t have a sense of humour; I’m not sure I can ever hear the line ‘Gastric! Juices!’ without chuckling.
It’s not an album you can necessarily expect to fully appreciate on the first few listens. These are pieces that reward multiple listens, and the complexity of some of these pieces cannot be understated.
The CD version ends with a 23 minute bonus track titled “Empty Bottles”, which is very different from the rest of Pictures. It’s more in line with the Canterbury scene or jazz fusion, and just shows how capable these musicians were of playing any style of music. It’s a great piece, exploring many different jams, the peak being halfway through the track where we are treated to a surprisingly catchy and uplifting section. It’s very different to what came before, but not unwelcome.
These are some very good musicians playing some very challenging music that defies any single genre. Fans of Univers Zero who want something a little more prog should definitely check this out.
This is the first studio album by Mats/Morgan since 2005’s Thanks for Flying With Us. For those not initiated with the singularly unique sound of these skilled Swedes, the brains behind Mats/Morgan are Morgan Ågren (drums) and Mats Öberg (keyboards). Both child prodigies on their respective instruments, the duo became of particular note when Frank Zappa met them while on tour. Suitably impressed at their mastery of his own work, he took them under his wing and acted as a teacher and mentor.
The technically challenging and playful qualities of Zappa’s music have definitely carried over to Mats/Morgan’s own work, but the band certainly aren’t restricting themselves to pure Zappa worship. On their latest release [schack tati], Mats/Morgan delves into old school progressive rock, jazz fusion and dance music to name a few genres. “Dracul of Nancy” is where 8-bit Nintendo music collides with saxophones and polyrhythms, whilst things take a more introspective turn for the mainly keyboard-driven lengthy instrumental “Mr. Piccand”.
Limitless textures and sounds are explored here. You’d expect so much from such a skilled keyboardist (who’s blind, by the way!), but it’s pleasantly surprising to hear so many different styles employed by Ågren. Acoustic and electronic drums are both utilised to their full ability, alongside samples, electronic glitches and a variety of percussion. Pick any two tracks and there’s a different keyboard patch, a different drum sound. These subtle changes add a lot to [schack tati] overall, and that the album still manages to escaping sounding schizophrenic is admirable.
If fact, the incorporation of the aforementioned glitches into their already expansive palette of rhythms leads to some of the best parts of the album, the heavily electronic “Walk Here” and the much jazzier and frenzied “Rappel”.
However, the stand-out track has to be the album opener “Rubber Sky”. Keyboards dance around the simple yet killer groove set in place by Ågren (playing drums, guitar and bass). The groove drops away completely for some of the only vocals on the album – sung by Morgan’s son, Alvin Ågren. The childish (literally) vocals add that playful, undeniably Zappa-esque quality to the music, particularly when juxtaposed with the heavy bass and guitar grooves. “Rubber Sky” rocks hard, fitting a lot into its three minute runtime without sounding like it’s doing so. Part of me laments that the track isn’t particularly indicative of [schack tati] as a whole, as I’d love to hear more music in this vein.
To their credit, no track overstays its welcome. Mats/Morgan manage to fit their unique brand of experimental instrumental music into short nuggets of gold – most of the 12 tracks sit comfortably between 2 and 4 minutes. Everything is honed down to a fine art, so not surprising it was 9 years between albums. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another 9 years for another, but if it’s generating music of this quality I certainly won’t mind too much.
I wrote an article for Echoes and Dust, looking at songs by progressive rock groups that are 4 minutes or under to see if they can still encapsulate the sound of the bands. Plenty of bands and music lie herein, so check it out!
I recently interviewed Marco Minnemann for the website Echoes and Dust, which you can read here. You can also check out my review of his album EEPShere.
If you’ve not heard the work of Marco Minnemann, I strongly recommend you check him out. He drums for pretty much everyone awesome, but also is one of those people I’m incredibly envious of; he has an ability to play every instrument ever at the highest level.