What I’m Listening To: June 2020

In this new series I am going to write about tracks I have been listening to recently and share my thoughts on them. I was inspired to do this by Steven Wilson’s excellent posts on music he has been enjoying in a particular year.

The first track Chapel Belle comes for Talitha Rise I discovered her via a blog but I can’t remember the name of the original site. I think I was trying to get tickets to see Pineapple Thief and as my browsing session became more wide ranging I found this video.

What I really like about this track is the difficulty I find in placing it in any particular genre. The closest analogue I can think of is Kate Bush, but in this case the similarities are quite superficial. The song follows it’s own wayward structure that defies simple pop formulas. Lyrically the song is enigmatic and defies simple explanations. As a listener you get the feeling that the song is dealing with confronting some dark and uncomfortable truth this compliments the haunting feel of the music.

Next is The Great Curve by Talking Heads. I was hipped to this by a friend. My favorite part of this track is the truly weird guitar solo, it goes everywhere including far outside the harmony of the song. If there was ever an example that rhythm is more important than note choice it is certainly this. The guitar solo is such a device so laden with cliché it is refreshing to hear something different from the norm. It was recorded by Adrian Belew who through work like this established himself as a master of unorthodox guitar playing.

Also, the song has the feeling that it could sit well with some American film (I refuse to use the obvious cliché). I was aware of Talking Heads prior hearing this track but have never bothered to investigate them in any depth. I must remedy this.

I have really enjoyed revisiting this excellent track by Chris Brown:

I originally heard this on Moses Boyd’s show that he used to have on BBC 1Xtra. The heart of this track is bass line, it’s cool to hear something so distorted in a Pop/RnB context. The video is quite cool too, I like the the retro-future aesthetic mixed up with some ideas from Bruce Lee films.

Next is Up North by Bill Bruford’s group Earthworks. I think this track needs some explanation as I am sure some people will not have any idea what it is I am recommending.

Bill Bruford is best known from playing drums with King Crimson and Yes. After leaving this music behind he changed course artistically by playing jazz and started working under his own name. He was one of the first drummers to explore augmenting the drum kit in unusual ways and pairing acoustic drums with electronic pads/triggers. This is now common place but when he did it it was revolutionary. This track showcases him generating chords off the pads during the head whist keeping a beat going with his feet. In some ways you can see what he was doing a precursor the explosion of creative uses of the drum kit that has occurred in recent years. Drummers that are part of this that you should check out are: Mark Guiliana, Mike Mitchell and Chris Dave.

I really like this tune, it is certainly reminiscent of emotions that I feel when in England that is hard to explain. There’s nostalgia and there’s the feeling of the countryside and pubs.

Albums That Shaped Me: The Mars Volta, Octahedron

Ocathedron is the fifth album from The Mars Volta an rock band from Los Angles that defy easy description. They were clearly influenced by Led Zeppelin but this influence was filtered through there own psychotic mix of Latin American music, psychedelia, punk rock, heavy guitar music, Jazz and their own brand of relentless aggression. The product of this chaotic blend of styles resulted in truly unique music that brought a fresh energy to rock.
Octahedron documents the band turning away extended song forms to write shorter pieces that are all part of a greater conceptual unity. The band were blessed with an excellent selection or drummers throughout their career. Octahedron featuring the force that is Thomas Pridgen, his aggressive playing style jelled well with the band’s aesthetic. Although, it must be said that he is not my favourite drummer of the band’s roster.

Octahedron was the first album from The Mars Volta I ever owned what impressed me about this release was the sheer diversity of music presented in the album and how much sonic ground was covered in such short songs. New territory is explored here especially on the haunting track With Twilight as My Guide which exists in a very ethereal place and does not as in previous go to a more conventional high energy space. The song showcases Cedric Bixler Zavala’s incredible vocal range.

What the meaning of this album is meant to be is as with all of the bands’ output hard to decipher. I have heard that the track Teflon is about a group of dropouts and stoners killing the American presidential candidate John McCain in a possible future where he would have become president. Throughout the album there are various references the occult/and or Satanic powers (it should be noted that Zavala has sought to distance himself from such interpretations of the music).

To state the obvious, there are eight songs in total on the album which coincides with the geometrical figure that is named in the title. It is hard to say if this name denotes any further significance. Throughout, the album a synthesized tones makes frequent appearances, functioning as a sonic glue between the individual songs. For a band that is notoriously inaccessible and hard to interpret this album for all its aggression, lyrical density and extreme aesthetic Octahedron can still be said to be the band’s most “commercial” release when compared the rest of their catalogue. This is more telling of the strangeness of The Mars Volta than of the contents of Octahedron.

For surely it is their undeniable strangeness that has given them the success and enduring popularity they have enjoyed. In their music unfiltered aggression meets sophistication and abstraction. An event I was at with one of their members was very well attended, which happened long after the band had disbanded.

When I think of The Mars Volta I feel a mixture of elation and sorrow: elation at the music I am hearing but at the same time sadness that I cannot think of a band that has achieved any level of notoriety in recent years that is a innovative as they were. Perhaps my sorrow is simply due to ignorance. I would prefer this to be true rather than any alternative hypothesis. That good new music is simply being lost in the incomprehensible volume of new releases each year? That originality can no longer prosper in the music “industry”? In the darkness of the unknown false certainty will not help us. To live with ambiguity is sometimes a necessity.

Albums That Shaped Me: Weather Report, Black Market

Black Market is my favorite album by Weather Report who were primarily a Jazz band but were also know from bringing influences from many other genres into there music. They are seen by many as one of the progenitors of “Fusion” music. Which I think is a completely useless term for the simple reason that there is no such thing as “pure” music. If you go far back enough all culture has at all times been influenced by something from outside itself or a combination with something other.

Regardless, Black Market is a concise and powerful work that had a strong impact on me as teenager. I think the reason that this album had a such a strong impact on me was the flawless bass playing by Jaco Pastorious on tracks 2 and 6 (Alphonso Johnson is on bass for the rest of the album). It has been said many times but bares repeating, Jaco Pastorius was a genius who completely changed the was bass guitar was played forever. He was the pioneer of fretless bass and one of the few electric bass players to have a deep understanding of Jazz.

In addition, he invented several techniques that had never been attempted on the instrument prior. On top of these monumental talents he was a strong composer who would go on to write many of Weather Report’s best music. He was also decent drummer and had a functional understanding of the piano. He was one of the rare people that nature freely gifted incredible abilities. To this day he still represents the highest standard a bass player can aspire to. As far as I can tell, none have.

As impressive as Pastorius was what captivated me just as much was the music. There was a unique chemistry between this iteration of Weather Report which was never replicated in future lineups. One of the joys of this album and the band in general is the complete absence of guitar in the music. The space this leaves allows the keyboard and bass to have more room to play. It must be said that some of the playing on this album is simply outrageous.

All this said, the contribution of Alphonso Johnson should not be ignored. For a long time I thought Pastorius played bass on the whole album. It was only later that I learned that there were two bass players featured here. Johnson’s playing has often been ignored by the bass community whilst Pastorius is endlessly celebrated, I think this is unfair. Both players were masters of their respective styles. In certain moods I even prefer the playing of Johnson over Pastorius as sometimes Pastorius’s approach could be too dominant and overbearing, especially in a live context. His tone was often (although not always) very bright and strident occasionally it can feel fatiguing and oppressive to listen to. By contrast Johnson had a far darker tone which felt to me at times more supportive of the music, it never felt dictatorial.

With hindsight it must be said that Weather Report’s career represents the high water mark of Jazz being successful in the mainstream. In later eras this was never recaptured. As much as all the musicians in the band were highly accomplished players they did not use their talents at the expense of the emotional aspects of music. What musicians gain in ability can often be lost in sensitivity, simplicity and patience. At their best Weather Report charted territory through new emotional spaces that none of their contemporaries were able to achieve. This is particularly evident on the Gibraltar where the band explores a dark mood with a sense of foreboding at the start of the piece, later moving into an a funk feel.

Later on, all the members of band featured in Black Market with exception of Shorter and Zawinul left the band. Eventually both of them parted ways and went on to have successful solo careers. As much good music happened in their later lives I will always hold the work they did in this band as my favorite of their achievements. It is a truth music history has shown again and again: great artist work best in collaboration. It is in the chemistry that occurs through a meeting of minds that the greatest magic can happen.

Solo albums are impressive in so far as they display a singularity of vision and the execution of that vision but are rarely as strong as those produced in collaboration.

Albums That Shaped Me: The Raven That Refused To Sing, Steven Wilson

The Raven That Refused To Sing is Steven Wilson’s mature masterpiece. By this point in his career he had already achieved so much as the leader of Porcupine Tree as well working as part of numerous other projects. Whilst his solo ventures prior to The Raven… impressed me it with this album that he really hit his stride as a solo artist.

The musicians who play on this album are all of the highest calibre (Marco Mineman, Guthrie Govan, Nick Beggs, Adam Holzman). What is so impressive about the album is that whilst all of the musicians are strong players with dazzling abilities, they approach the music with maturity and taste, never overplaying and always leaving space for the whole band to shine. No one’s ego is served at the expense of the material.

This album is one of the few examples of a work that draws from a wide variety of influences whilst at the same time remain cohesive. What unites the material is Steven Wilson’s consummate taste at unique compositional style. What is the this style? Wilson has a reputation for writing emotionally dark material. The lyrics speak of murder, loss and despair. Musically Wilson often uses abrupt transitions in songs to shock the listener, the most obvious example of this being the end of Watchmaker were tenderness turns into brutality. He freely mixes simple songs with highly complex structures that are symphonic in scope.

Stylistically there an incredible range and combination of different influences metal, jazz and rock are all present to different degrees. One of the aspects of music that fascinated me was Nick Begg’s playing. He can be considered in his approach and sound the inheritor of Chris Squire’s legacy. For the obvious reason that he plays with a pick and plays with a distorted tone. Less obviously, the bass often takes a very prominent place in the music which was always true of Squire’s band Yes. Further, The Raven… represents the most successful attempt to reinvent and modernize the musical vocabulary that some of the stranger rock bands in the 60s and 70s used. Whilst element of the past can be heard there is a startling freshness to The Raven… which in a genre that is mired in cliché this album stands in a category by itself.

If my house were burning down this CD would have to be saved.

Albums That Shaped Me: David Bowie, Blackstar

Blackstar is the final album David Bowie, he died shortly after its release. At the time it came out I was aware of Bowie but I hadn’t investigated his music in any depth.

In many ways, writing and talking about music is pointless as the true experience that is worth having cannot be had on the level of the intellect and conscious willing but only on what Schopenhaeur refers to as the silencing of the will through the experience of artistic beauty. However, by writing this piece I am not trying to “explain” this music. Rather, I am trying to pose questions that may lead to a deeper understanding.

My first contact with this album was the video for the title track Blackstar.

When I first heard this I was immediately hooked by the unusual structure of the song and the strangeness of the lyrics, music and video. I had only known Bowie through older material. I had no idea that he had gone through a phase of producing emotionally dark music in the 90s and that he had in the albums prior to this been experimenting with Jazz arrangements for his music (The Next Day). I was totally surprised by what I was hearing.

Blackstar is a enigmatic work that defies simple explanations. Clearly some of it is concerned with Bowie’s facing up to his own mortality and his inevitable demise. By creating this music Bowie turned his own death into a musical statement. However, there is more to explore beyond this obvious analysis. For the enigma of Blackstar lies in all the other themes and allusions that occur under the overarching concept of death. For example, in the title track the demise is cast in a positive light: towards the end the song transitions from minor to a major tonality. The concept of an enduring spirit is introduced:

Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside

Is this Bowie’s artistic legacy? Perhaps this symbolises the continuation of music through each generation?

The songs Sue and ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore do not have any obvious biographical content (if any) and seem slightly out of place in the album. The reason for them being included is something of a mystery, especially given that the far more obvious song No Plan which was recorded a part of the Blackstar sessions was not included in the final release.

The idea of a black star has something the occult about it adding the the mysterious feeling surrounding the album. For there is a reference to the star of the nativity in the first track:

I’m not a wandering star

I’m a blackstar

This interpretation is reinforced by the imagery of the music video supporting the title track which is the bizarre and disturbing. Again, borrowing from the visual language of the occult or a horror film (scarecrows, candles, spasmodic dancing, the bandages over Bowie’s eyes). This imagery may obliquely refer a fear of death or a preoccupation with the supernatural, but the abstract way in which these images are given to us does not support any one interpretation.

Musically, Blackstar represents the joining of two very different musical forces: Bowie and the musicians from what was the regular line-up of Donny McCaslin’s band. In my mind the band are something like the modern equivalent of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters with funk influences being replaced by styles and sounds from electronic music.

What is interesting about this collaboration is that by joining forces with Bowie the musicians on this album have to be more controlled in their approach so that the music supports the vocals. This leads to there being more space in the music than on a typical record by McCaslin’s band.

Blackstar influenced me profoundly. It is one of my favourite albums of all time. It showed me that there is still an appetite amongst the public for music that defies any easy genre categorisations and demands a great deal from the listener. It is an inspiring example of artistic bravery in the face of death that deserves to be remembered.

Albums That Shaped Me: Muse, Absolution

This album was the vehicle for Muse to achieve mainstream acceptance. Many of the innovations they pioneered have since become cliché but at the time they helped revitalize my interest in heavy music.

Absolution is the most substantial achievement of their early career. The dark mood that pervades the album keeps the collection of songs thematically unified without the artificiality that plagues so many concept albums.

The guitar and bass tones of this album are monstrous and were one the catalysts for me to start exploring unorthodox sounds on the bass. For example, in Stockholm Syndrome during the guitar solo the guitar is doubled with a digital recreation of the guitar line.

Throughout Absolutions Matt Belamy adopts a variety of persona which live in the lyrics. The most obvious case being Apocalypse Please where he adopts the role of a religious fanatic. More subtly, in Thoughts of a Dying Atheist he appears to be himself but dancing closer to death. These different persona give the album an emotional depth and sophistication which can be missing from purely biographical songs. All of this being very  reminiscent of David Bowie and his every morphing identity.

Another influence from Absolution that has stayed with me is the strong relationship between the bass and drums. There is a weird funkiness that Dominic Howard and Chris Wolstenholme achieved together that left a strong impression on me. Especially, on Time is Running Out. Later in their career this quality could no longer be heard in the music as they fell under the malign influence of Queen.

Muse have now largely become a victims of their own success. In this they follow an arc that many bands have followed: early success, mainstream acceptance and finally stagnation.

I will always look back on Absolution with fond memories. It is a unique achievement that will never be replicated.

Albums That Shaped Me: D’angelo, Voodoo

I can’t remember how I first heard this album. I think I had the CD on loan from a generous neighbour. What I am certain of is that this album changed my life.

What first hit me was the undeniable chemistry between Pino Palladino and Questlove. The way that the stretched the time and rhythms freely within a song was something I had never heard before. Even on the “straighter” songs the groove they created together was ferocious whilst always supporting the rest of the music. I was at the same time captivated and baffled by what I was hearing. Years later, I am still far from totally understanding how they did it.

Voodoo represents a magical moment in time where fate aligned with opportunity. So great was the power of the music that it attracted someone like me, who could not have lived a more different life from D’angelo, to his story and his atmosphere. To me his music still sounds like it is coming from somewhere else.

With hindsight, I can see how this album was part of the musical eruption that was later name “Neo-soul”. Labels aside, the influence of Voodoo can be heard everywhere. Rhythm sections around the world can heard imitating it’s grooves and feels. Pino Palladino single-handedly brought the P-bass back into fashion and set the new standard for all to aspire.

Albums That Shaped Me: Jean Baudin, Mechanisms

In this series I will be exploring albums that had a great influence on my musical development.

Jean Baudin’s Mechanisms is consists entirely of solo performances. The instrument Jean plays has 11 strings and does not easily fit into the category of either bass guitar or guitar. With this unique instrument he makes music that breaks fresh conceptual territory in a genre that is polluted by the constant presence of empty virtuosity. The music on Mechanisms escapes the ghetto of solo guitar/bass music and moves through a impressive range of emotions: at times dark, melancholy and finally transcendent.

One of the ways the album influenced me was the wide variety of sounds Baudin uses. The obvious examples being the effects that are used to colour the sound of the bass either modifying, or entirely transforming it. The sound of Baduin’s instrument is so unusual that even his uncoloured tone sounds futuristic.

Mechanisms showed me that instrumental music can go to a place that words can’t and that one instrument can have the power of many.

You can purchase this album from: http://www.jeanbaudin.com/store.html

Introducing The DYLEMA Collective

The DYLEMA Collective is a musical project I have been a part of since it’s inception in 2016. The group encompasses a wide variety of influences and styles which make playing in this band a unique and challenging experience for me. The fact that the project is still going strong for one year with big plans for the future is a great surprise to me. I can remember when David (drums) pitched the idea of getting together and jamming with some people I only really said yes out of politeness as I was not familiar with any of the musical touchstones he mentioned. Having had a band I had earnestly tried to setup implode I was not in the mood to commit myself to something new. My decision to stay was essentially made after our first rehearsal there was real chemistry in the jams we did and I was hooked.

To give you some idea of what we sound like here is some footage from a show last year for Sofar Sounds London:

Playing in The DYLEMA Collective has been full of surprises both musical and spiritual and has really forced me to push myself as a player to try and bring something unique and fresh to the music. I have high hopes for the future and have no idea where this journey will take me.

DYLEMA: Do You Let Every Man Adapt.


The DYLEMA Collective On Tour

As you may be aware The DYLEMA Collective are currently on tour in the UK. The shows we have done so far have been exciting and we have had the privileged to play to receptive and open minded audiences. Below is a revised list of tour dates:

Playing in this band is a honour and a joy for me, the people I work with are all exceptional and force me to raise my game every night.

I will see you on the road.