Favorite Albums Of The Year(So Far) : Oneohtrix Point Never’s ‘Good Time’ S/T

I came to Oneohtrix Point Never around 3 years ago. I think I’d avoided them because Pitchfork was telling me that I should love them. Of course I’m going to go against that urge to listen and absolutely NOT take advice from a bunch of pretentious music critics catering to the “what’s happening now” crowd. This mindset is dangerous, ignorant, and just plain wrong, especially when I suppose I’m somewhat of an amateur music critic myself. I mean, I could never write for a ‘zine of any kind. I write in a much more personal way than any respectable magazine could tolerate.

Anyways, I’m getting off point here(yes, there’s a point.)

So back to OPN…I finally jumped into Daniel Lopatin’s world in the fall of 2014. Since Boards of Canada were now on Warp Records and Lopatin was on Warp Records I thought I should at least give him a shot. I bought R Plus Seven and immediately felt my mind warp in a significantly unnatural way. Oneohtrix Point Never’s music, to my ears, felt like stepping inside someone’s skull and walking thru their thoughts and secrets. Songs were more like impressionistic paintings relating hopes, fears, daydreams, and nightmares in these aural tapestries. I hadn’t been that excited about a band since Boards of Canada’s Music Has The Right To Children cracked open my head and rewired my brain. This electronic music wasn’t purposed for the dancefloor. It was made to help you connect with the universe and engage with the world around you. R Plus Seven was catnip for this Midwestern curmudgeon introvert.

Of course I fell right into a OPN wormhole. I began grabbing as many records as I could. Betrayed In The Octagon, Drawn and Quartered, Russian Mind, Returnal, and Replica were all immediately snagged up. All were these same but different musical worlds. Earlier records were more fractured new age and psychedelic ambient than the later stuff, which delved into more modern and percussive sounds.

This same year was the year I discovered the wonderful world of panic attacks and anxiety. Discovering Oneohtrix Point Never this year seemed to be sort of a blessing in disguise as I found real solace in these albums. Amidst the noise, chaos, and manic sonic explosions I found a center where I could calm down. My wife had started a new job earlier in 2014 and she’d begun traveling, which left me at home making sure all three kids were getting up for school, getting homework done, my oldest was getting to band camp and work on time and all the while working 8 hours and hoping the children were doing what they were supposed to be doing at home when they were off for summer vacation.

Oneohtrix Point Never provided a sonic place I could escape to and realign my head.

Suffice it to say, I will always have a soft spot for Daniel Lopatin and OPN. 2015s Garden Of Delete was one of my favorite records that year and felt like a total reimagining of Lopatin as a composer and electronic musician. It was hard to imagine where he could even go from there. Turns out film scoring was where he was going, and it was a brilliant step.

I still have yet to see The Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, but if Lopatin’s score is any indication it’s an absolute adrenaline-fueled psychedelic trip through New York City. I haven’t seen any of The Safdie Brothers’ previous films, and if I’m being honest I had no idea who they were before I’d read Oneohtrix Point Never was scoring their movie. I figure if Daniel Lopatin is good with them then so am I.

The soundtrack. If I didn’t know it was a soundtrack to a film I would’ve easily believed this to be just a new OPN album. It comes together beautifully as a sonic journey. There’s a few moments of dialogue, but that doesn’t feel that out of place for OPN. It has moments of tension and noisy chaos that comes with the territory, but there’s also moments of musical beauty. Something like “The Acid Hits” proposes to the listener pyramid-like sounds stacked upon each other, while “Leaving The Park” harkens back to earlier OPN musical adventures. It flutters and bounces like music to some ancient video game.

Even with all the impressive sounds and musical moods on this album, my standout track is the final one. “The Pure And The Damned” stands completely on its own as this fractured and beautiful pop song. It’s a piano-driven song sung by Iggy Pop. “The pure always act for love/The damned always act from love” Pop sings as he talks about going to a place where “we can pet the crocodiles”. It’s a bizarre and tender track. I can only imagine after seeing the film that it will mean that much more. I honestly love this song.

I don’t know if this would be a great place for the uninitiated to start or not, but once you have been initiated you must find your way to this record. It’s essential OPN.

 

For Whom The Blue Bell Knolls

It wasn’t always easy being able to admit my love for Cocteau Twins. Now that I’m in my 40s, middle-aged with an odd-shaped balding head it doesn’t really matter what I admit freely. No one is listening, nor do they care even if they’re in earshot of my incessant Midwest groaning. But being a metal head in Yuckety Yuk, Indiana in the late 80s/early 90s was a balancing act of testosterone ragin’ while keeping your sensitive side neatly tucked away. Maybe you’d keep that soft side of you in some old shoe box under your bed with a pair of your baby shoes, or buried in the backyard with a signed head shot of Soleil Moon Frye and a Popeye t-shirt your mom bought you when you were 8. You couldn’t show weakness in front of other sweaty, over-nourished metalheads or you were likely to be shunned from the group. You’d be sent to the woods to be eaten by wolves. Or worse, Pentecostals.

Point is, a band like Cocteau Twins was about as alien in my adolescent stomping grounds as ,well, aliens. You know, like Hanger 18 aliens. But there was something about Elizabeth Fraser’s voice that dug right into my freakish, greasy teen soul. It was haunting, ghostly, and ethereal like some divine whisper from the universe itself. Of course at 16-years old I would’ve said something more like “What the fuck? This is weird…but good weird like Brazil or potato chips on my bologna sandwich.” I can distinctly remember sitting over at my best friend Jason’s house on a Saturday night re-watching the previous week’s episode of 120 Minutes. We’d dig into Concrete Blonde, My Bloody Valentine, and whatever other 4AD band was the “it” alternative flavor of the week. Then Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven Or Las Vegas” came on and I sort of felt stunned. Like, what was happening? Is this what it feels like to be touched by an angel? Or groped by a ghost? As Jason started to fast forward the video I say to him “Hey man. Let’s just let this one play, you know for shits and giggles? We could just sit here silently and make fun of it in our minds without words. Or something.” Fortunately, Jason was thinking those same thoughts I was thinking about these Scottish dream poppers. We couldn’t put it into words, but we both knew there was something special going on. Of course we immediately threw on some Suicidal Tendencies or Faith No More and pretended we didn’t just have a moment.

I moved on, 120 Minutes was cancelled, Matt Pinfield got a new job, and I sort of forgot about Cocteau Twins for a couple years until The Crow came out and that soundtrack ruled my brain for most of 1994. One song in-particular got my attention. Medicine’s “Time Baby III”. It was a really cool song, but what really stuck out was the guest vocals of Elizabeth Fraser. It was a voice I hadn’t heard in a long time and it reminded me that I needed to go back to Cocteau Twins and investigate further.

Then about 20 years went by.

Back in 2014 I started up on Cocteau Twins. Having gone “full vinyl”, I knew I had to find some of their albums on the big, black circle. The first album I bought was Heaven Or Las Vegas. It had to be that. That was the album that broke through my big dumb brain in the first place. “Cherry-Coloured Funk” and “Heaven Or Las Vegas” were in my DNA. But the the second one I bought was Blue Bell Knoll. On a streaming binge I happened across the album and was pretty much floored by the whole thing. “Carolyn’s Fingers” felt like a chill going down my spine. Once I heard that I was done.

There are better albums by Cocteau Twins than Blue Bell Knoll. I’m a big fan of Garlands. I love the post-punk vibe and that I can hear where The Cure got their sound from on a song like “Wax and Wane”. Treasure was the first album that saw that truly mesmerizingly beautiful tone they would go on to perfect on Heaven Or Las Vegas. So where does that leave an album like Blue Bell Knoll? Well, to my ears, it’s the last Cocteau Twins album where they still sounded like a small band with very big ideas.

“Blue Bell Knoll” starts out with some of those dark, ominous tones of the early records but quickly adds some synth flourishes and stacks Fraser’s beautiful vocals on top to give the song a much welcomed dreaminess. “Athol-brose” is just absolute brilliance. It’s the moment Dorothy steps from her black and white farmhouse to soak in the technicolor beauty of Oz. It’s dizzying and an overload of the senses. No band sounds like this. Just Cocteau Twins. That’s it. “For Phoebe Still A Baby” feels like some alien lullaby. The bass puts me in mind of mid-80s Cure. I think there’s a thru-line between the two bands. It’s like they both drank from the same Gothic well and somehow worked through whatever demons they were struggling with. This track sounds like contentment with an overcast day.

I have to admit that for years I thought Cocteau Twins were Swedish or French or Finnish. There was something in Fraser’s vocals that made me think what she was singing was not English. I thought it was a very foreign language that was being sung. I was wrong. Cocteau Twins are a Scottish band, but I still think there’s a very alien lean to the words sung by Elizabeth Fraser. She sings beautifully, but it sounds like a language made up by Fraser. The magic in Cocteau Twins, besides the dream-like clouds of flangered bass, guitar, and walls of synth created by Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde, was that voice. It got me every time I heard it. Elizabeth Fraser had a voice like no other. For my money no one has yet to top it.

Every song on Blue Bell Knoll carried some sort of strange magic. “Cico Buff”, “Spooning Good Singing Gum”, “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat”, and “Ella Megalast Burls Forever” all contain some bit of melancholy genius. There’s absolute pop perfection contained on every track here. If it was a fair and just world, Cocteau Twins would’ve been played on pop radio stations worldwide instead of Debbie Gibson, Taylor Dayne, and NKOTB. Of course the population at large couldn’t take this kind of beauty on their commute to work or bus ride to school. There would’ve been massive existential crisis, love-ins in every county courthouse, and the world as we know it would’ve changed exponentially for the better. We couldn’t have that.

Come to think of it, this actually might be their best album.

I guess it’s better this way. A band like Cocteau Twins will live on forever, allowing future generations to discover their timeless dream pop. Their ghostly songs can fill earbuds in the future and maybe shine a little ethereal light on whatever shit show we may be enduring in 10, 20, or 30 years. And hopefully by then, no matter a metal head in the Midwest or a goat herder in Afghanistan, the Cocteau Twins can be enjoyed openly, freely, and without shame.

I love you Soleil Moon Frye. I always have.

 

 

Favorite Albums Of 2017(so far) : Quaeschning & Schnauss’ ‘Synthwaves’

When Edgar Froese passed away back in early 2015 it seemed that it might be an end to one of the most prolific heavy synth bands to ever step out from the German Krautrock scene of the late 60s. Despite numerous line up changes in their nearly 50 year career, Froese was always a constant. Tangerine Dream was more than a band. They were a fucking institution of heady, intellectual tones. Deep space flights of existential musical fancy. With Froese breaking through to the other side it was hard to say what would become of Tangerine Dream. Fortunately for us and generations to come Edgar Froese had some incredibly solid musicians in TD at the time of his passing. Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss, and Hoshiko Yamane had all been in Tangerine since 2005, 2014, and 2011 respectively and had become a tight knit musical unit. They recently released the excellent Quantum Gate as Tangerine Dream and it keeps the spirit of the Komische king alive and well.

So while they weren’t working on Tangerine Dream material, Thorsten and Ulrich got together and began writing music. Quaeschning had plenty of studio experience prior to Tangerine Dream, producing and working in other musical projects. He was also pretty adept at synths, drums, keyboards, and knew his way around a mixing board. Schnauss has had a pretty prolific career as a solo artist putting out some of my favorite electronic albums in the last 15 years. The idea that these two would come together for some heady analog goodness was something I was pretty excited about. Back in the summer these synth jam sessions came to fruition in the form of the album Synthwaves, released by one of my new favorite record labels Azure Vista Records. The record was everything I’d hoped it would be and so much more.

This record hit my ears back in the heat of late June and early July. The album was a soundtrack to solar meditation in the wooded hills of Brown County. As I sat on the porch of a rented cabin I let “Main Theme” overtake my psyche. There was a mix of melancholic nostalgia and new age sublimity as this opening synth salvo filled my head. Even right now it’s hard for me to describe the emotional heaviness of this track to me. Imagine jumping in a time machine and watching points of your childhood float by you. This track is a time machine for me. The 70s and 80s collide into a very bizarre 2017. “Main Theme” offers a contemplative moment to take it all in.

“Slow Life” pulls you from the drama of the day and into a bubble of serenity. The trickling of analog blips and beeps like synthetic rain drop into your ears to take away all the noise and buzz. This one really reminded me of 80s TD, btw. Very much in the vein of Three O’Clock High and Risky Business.

“Cats & Dogs” has a dreamy vibe to it. Well, most of these tracks have a dreamy quality about them but this one is extra dreamy. Like a dream within a dream kind of dream. Am I awake or am I still dreaming? I don’t know, but this music good. If I am still dreaming I don’t want to wake up.

Listening to Synthwaves I can’t help but imagine how incredible those two weeks in Berlin were. Quaeschning and Schnauss holed up in a Berlin recording studio with nothing but vintage analog gear and many pots of coffee. Exploring sonic worlds with circuits, wires, and their imagination. I guess I’m just one that romanticizes the creative process. I love the idea of a space of total creativity sparked by the bouncing of musical ideas, caffeine, nicotine, and maybe even mind-expanding ingredients like a great burrito or smoked cheese tray(what can I say, food inspires me.) You get the feeling from listening to this record that these two were wholly inspired to make great art. And they did.

There really are no skipping points on this album. “Thirst” feels like traveling through some space/time void to the next dimension, while “Flare” is all dark moods and mysterious contemplation. It sounds like a Berlin School version of The X-Files theme music. “Prism” feels like a proper end to an album. It’s big and epic but refrains from laying on too much chutzpah.

Synthwaves is the gold standard when it comes to making a vintage-sounding, classic heavy synth record. This album feels aged and well worn in, but it doesn’t come across as a derivative of something else. It sits as a unique piece of musical art. It’s something you can put on in the background while chopping carrots and scallions for a stew, or you can put on some Koss cans, plop down on the couch with a high ABV stout, and get completely lost in Quaeschning and Schnauss’ Synthwaves. If you’re a fan of Tangerine Dream or solo Schnauss you should already have this and you should be spinning it often. Very often, like me.

If you don’t have it, what are you waiting for?

Favorite Albums of 2017(so far) : Maine’s ‘V’

There’s been a gradual shift in my brain over the last few years to music that doesn’t necessarily tell a story through words more than through mood. Listen, I grew up devouring the Beatles, Rush, the Kinks, Flaming Lips, Radiohead, Wilco, and the list goes on. I was a song guy. I was moved by stories and words and grand musical statements in the classic songwriting tradition. I still love the songwriting tradition and even do it myself when time allows, but over the last three to four years I’ve found myself drawn to instrumental music. In-particular, heavy synth music. There’s something about synth music that feels ingrained into my DNA that I hadn’t known was there till about four years ago when I bought Walter Rizatti’s score for House By The Cemetery. The last time I’d heard that music was when I was probably 14 years old when I first watched Fulci’s trashy classic. Hearing it again at the ripe middle age of 39 I felt there was something that I’d unlocked in my head that had been stuck up there since that balmy summer night all those years ago. That music instantly connected with me. There was no warming up period. It just instantly hit me.

From that point on I began grabbing as many of those Italian horror scores as I could, and expanded into newer artists that had a kinship with the synth and all things eerie and Gothic. I’m always looking for someone who can move me with a turn of a melody, hypnotic repetition, and who can create a sonic world where I’m quite comfortable spending time in. One person new on my musical radar that can do all of those in spades is Michel Dupay, aka MAINE. While a lot of synth music is a synthetic creation, built on circuits, wires, tubes, and buzzing waves of noise, Dupay takes a much  more organic approach to his heavy synth sound. According to his Bandcamp page, MAINE’s music is “Fiercely analogue, pre-midi musique from Montmartre, Paris.” A lot of electronic music uses midi to help create and build songs. It’s a process by which an artist can connect and sync several pieces of electronic tools and gadgets allowing a pristine connection of different musical pieces. Dupay is creating music the old fashioned way, by performing these songs as a band without the safety net of midi and syncing.

“He makes music the old fashioned way. He performs it.” – John Houseman.

I’d seen Burning Witches Records talking MAINE’s new album V up quite a bit over the summer. A couple months ago I finally got around to checking it out and I was absolutely blown away by the record. It hits every dark, melancholy tone just right. It’s a slow burn LP, too. It allows you to work your way into the album gradually as to savor the bits and pieces without overindulging. You find new things to love each time you drop the needle. There’s something very European about the sound. It’s quietly alluring and subtly dance floor-ready. Something like the vinyl-only “Black Cloud” feels like a slow cloud rolling in over the Parisian sun. “La Pluie” evokes visions of cobblestone streets, centuries-old villages, and seaside walks. “Cadence” has a very early-80s vibe. Something that might have accompanied the opening credits to a “Satanic Panic” occult film. “Below The Landslide(featuring Nina)” is an exquisite piece of synth music. With the addition of vocals it becomes something far more emotional and engaging. “The World Without” is pure desolate beauty, like a slow crawl through some dystopian landscape. “I Never Wanted to Write These Words down for You” gives you the feeling of waking from some long, ancient rest. Tremolo-effected electric piano gives the track an almost pop sensibility. It’s like the moment when the clouds break and there’s shards of light hitting the earth once again.

This record is so sonically rich. It has the production value of an early 70s Alan Parsons production. There’s an aged refinement that permeates the record I can’t get enough of. It’s dark, but there’s a warmth in the songs. Like early OMD obsessed with Vangelis. The production and engineering is almost like another instrument altogether.

V is an hypnotic listening experience. There are not overwrought explosions of sound. It’s all very cool and calculated. Some tracks feel as if they feed right into the next, giving you the experience of one long, musical piece rather than individual shots of songs. The album’s organic nature only adds to the feeling that these songs sprung up from the earth. Dupay masterfully weaves these songs together like a Gothic tapestry for us to wrap ourselves in and embrace whatever journey they’re going to take us on. I cannot recommend V enough. It’s a masterpiece of restraint and storied beauty.

Buy the album right here.

 

Favorite Albums Of 2017(so far) : Timothy Fife’s ‘Black Carbon’

Normally by this time in the year I’ve posted at least two lists of my favorite albums of the year, first in April at the 3 month point then in July at the 6 month point. It appears that the year keeps rolling by whether I want it to or not. Needless to say I haven’t made a list of anything(other than that weekly grocery list on Thursdays.) There will be a year-end list, and even though no major lists so far this year I do plan on sharing a few of the records that have been blowing my mind thus far in the year of our Lord, 2017.

First up is Timothy Fife’s Black Carbon.

I first came across Timothy Fife last year with his Victims’ Form Hell release with Chris Livengood. That record really blew me away, both in how it seemed to appear from out of nowhere(via Death Waltz Originals) and just how fully formed the two tracks were. Fife and Livengood(along with Aaron Dilloway) seemed to pull some Komische magic out of the ether and created two beautifully dense tracks that I’ve played more times than I can remember. I talked to Timothy and Chris here.

I made it a point to keep tabs on Fife as I’d heard he was releasing his debut solo record via Death Waltz Originals. 2016 turned to 2017 and before I knew it I was holding Black Carbon in my hands. At only 3 songs(4 in its digital form), I have to admit I was hoping for a whole hour of bubbly synth and vast space vibes. Fortunately, Fife packs quite a punch with those three tracks. His debut for Death Waltz Originals is a tasty bit of synth voodoo that will pull you out of the everyday doldrums.

The album opens with the epic “Sydney At Night”. When you listen to this track there’s an oppressive quality to it at first. Crackling distortion, ominous electronic howls emanate from the speakers, and there’s just a general sense of dread. You can hear crickets begin to chirp and a distant wave of synth begins to emerge from the darkness. Pulsating synth starts up and at this point you feel as if you’ve taken flight. Soon enough the chirps subside and a dark melody emerges. This is very much a journey track. Whether you’re cascading through the black of an Australian night or burning miles on the open road with a slight buzz putting you in some other headspace, “Sydney At Night” is a track that takes you somewhere. Where that is lies firmly in your brain. Side A is dominated by this 17 minute mind melter.

“Black Carbon” opens side B. It’s the shortest song on the album but it makes its presence known quickly. Ponging synth structures bubble up and down as the track moves along effortlessly. Three and a half minutes, it’s in and it’s out. Its sits perfectly on this record, very reminiscent of Fife’s work with Chris Livengood in Victims.

The great thing about Timothy Fife’s work is that he has a very deft touch when it comes to compositions. He never lays it on too thick, while the tracks never feel overly sparse. His songs are carefully layered to reveal maybe something new you didn’t hear the first time you listened, but he’s never going to reveal too much. What’s the fun in that?

The real sonic surprise here is closing track “Low Plain Landscape”. It deviates from the Komische atmosphere of the previous tracks and gives us a lighter, contemplative ambient track that is reminiscent of Daniel Lopatin’s early Oneohtrix Point Never albums(check out Betrayed In The Octagon, Russian Mind, and Drawn and Quartered for beautiful counterpoints.) I feel that this track is what distinguishes Fife from other artists working in the heavy synth realm. He’s not afraid to set the pulsating arpeggios and Edgar Froese-isms to the side and just open the universe a bit in one track. There’s a free floating quality to “Low Plain Landscape” that I just can’t get enough of. I imagine some futuristic visions of floating cities and double sunrises, or unlocking some “Pandora’s Box” of life meanings when this song is playing. There’s a serenity throughout, though at the 9 minute mark a slight turn of the knob creates tension for a moment. Like enlightenment is great, but it comes at a price. You dig?

Timothy Fife just announced a new release coming out in October via Polytechnic Youth. I’d buy it from the artwork alone, but I’m sure it’s gonna be another amazing track from one amazing musician. If you haven’t yet, grab a copy of Black Carbon at Mondotees. There’s still some of that wax available. Or just download it here.

Frame By Frame : Belew, The Boy, and 80s King Crimson

Last Friday night was the big show. My son and I headed out and made our way east 40 minutes to the Sweetwater Pavilion. Adrian Belew Power Trio was treating some Midwest folks to one hell of a show and I wanted my son to experience the power of Belew. What’s the Sweetwater Pavilion you ask? Well it’s a outdoor pavilion adjacent to the Sweetwater Sound music complex just outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana. It hosts a plethora of national acts that make their way through the Fort. Adrian Belew has played a few times at Sweetwater over the years. The wife and I saw him back in February of 2009 during a promotional tour for his then new Parker Fly guitar. It was some music playing and some storytelling, as well as some talking up his $10,000 Signature guitar. But the show last Friday was just the Adrian Belew Power Trio getting down to business.

The evening was opened with Los Angeles prog/pop band Spock’s Beard. The first five to ten minutes was pretty cool. These guys were all amazing musicians(the drummer was actually a Sweetwater employee that used to be their full-time drummer.) If it had stayed an instrumental affair I would’ve enjoyed maybe 35 minutes of it, but there were vocals. It was like a prog-rock Journey, or Fates Warning gone pop. I know there were some hard core fans there(I’d never heard of them prior to this show), so it was cool that some folks were digging the set. But it wasn’t really my cup of tea. There were elements of Yes, Kansas, Saga, and the aforementioned Journey. The music was distinct enough that it didn’t sound exactly like those mentioned bands, but generic enough that if you had walked up on it you’d think they were a really good cover band.

After an hour of that Spock’s Beard left the stage and their gear was hauled away by stage hands and the band alike. My son and I made our way to the front of the stage for Adrian Belew. He came out onto the stage and began messing with a Mac Book near his guitar setup. He looked like some guy leafing through the Sunday paper searching for international news with his reading glasses on. I was in awe. 20 feet in front of me looking through bifocals was, in my opinion, a musical legend. Here was a guy that had played with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, and was a core member of King Crimson for over 20 years. He also created four of my favorite albums…ever. As I stood in awe of this 67-year old guitar genius my son stood next to me squishing a plastic water bottle in unison with the music playing over the PA system.

Before I knew it Belew was back on the stage in a black one piece suit, bright red sneakers and hat, along with bassist Julie Slick and guest drummer Kris Myers of the band Umphrey’s McGee. It was a set filled heavily with both Belew’s solo work and with songs from his tenure in King Crimson. As thrilled as I was to hear those old Belew tunes(like “Men In Helicopters”, “Young Lions”, and “Big Electric Cat” to name a few), it was the King Crimson songs that really stuck with me. “Frame By Frame”, “Dinosaur”, “One Time”, “Three Of A Perfect Pair”, and “Neurotica” were all played to perfection by this “Power Trio”. It really reminded me just how much I loved those 80s Crimson records.

My son and I bathed in the sub woofer tones for an hour before he said he was ready to go home. As much as I wanted to stay I didn’t want his memory of the night to be a crappy Wendy’s burger and getting tired at the rock concert, so I bid adieu to Mr. Belew, Ms. Slick, and Mr. Myers and we made our way through the night back to our home in the woods. We talked about how good everyone was along the way, and that the first band was really good but played too long. We were both amazed at Julie Slick and Kris Myers. For a rhythm section that only had two rehearsals prior to this show they were tight and on point. Slick is a virtuosic bass player and started playing with Belew(along with her brother Eric who now drums for Dr. Dog) when they were just teens out of a music school in Philly. They were barely adults when I saw them knocking our socks off 8 years ago. Kris Myers was impressive as hell. I know nothing of Umphrey’s McGee, other than they have a funny name. But if his intensity and breadth of musicianship is any indication, I might want to look them up.

So over the weekend that followed I sort of fell down the 80s King Crimson rabbit hole. I used to own the three big 80s records on CD, Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair. I bought them back in the early 90s when I was a full-on Belew fanatic, eating up everything I could that he was involved in. I didn’t jump into the Zappa, Bowie, and Talking Heads stuff till years later, but the Crimson stuff I dug. Back then I was more interested in the poppier aspects Belew brought to the prog rock monsters acerbic vibe. Robert Fripp already seemed to me like an android programmed to scare people with his angular guitar style and soulless scowl, so adding the affable Belew to the mix I think really changed the vibe of the band. VROOM was an early 90s record that I really enjoyed, too. Belew’s solo sound had really permeated tracks like “Dinosaur” and “One Time”. The band had been expanded to include guitarist Trey Gunn and percussionist Pat Mastelotto. It was a companion piece to the following year’s THRAK. It contained a song called “Walking On Air” that put me in mind of both their classic “Matte Kudasai” and something John Lennon would’ve recorded in the mid-70s.

Shortly after that I kind of fell out of King Crimson and Belew for years. I’d revisit Belew of course, but Crimson lost favor in my head. A couple years ago my interest re-peaked after I’d begun to get into the John Wetton-era Crimson in the early 70s. I’d hit up Youtube and watch old live clips of the 80s stuff and was once again floored. But more so by the band and not just the guy singing and playing crazy guitar. The syncopation between Tony Levin’s Chapman Stick playing and Bill Bruford’s intricate rhythms was pretty mind-blowing. I could also really see where the guitar lines were drawn between Fripp and Belew. Fripp was the anchor with his chord structures while Belew created soundscapes and chaos one minute and calm and hazy atmosphere the next.

I found copies of Discipline and Beat on vinyl at pretty reasonable prices over the last two years and have been enjoying them tremendously. “Frame By Frame” “Elephant Talk”, “Matte Kudasai”, “Thela Hun Ginjeet”, “Neal, Jack, and Me”, “Heartbeat”, “Neurotica”, “Waiting Man”, and “Requiem” are current favorites. I still need to find a copy of Three of a Perfect Pair. Soon. Very soon.

So taking my son to his first concert worked on two fronts. First, he got to see a master up close and personal his first time out. When he’s older I think he’ll truly appreciate just how big of a first gig this was. We had a great time together, and we also got a soft-serve cone of ice cream at the show. So ice cream and rock and roll: win-win. Second, seeing Mr. Belew up there revisiting some of his classic Crimson tunes really got me to give those records another listen and I realized I was only hearing part of the genius all those years ago. I feel all the more lucky to have seen this show now.

Now if only Tangerine Dream tours soon, I can make my son’s next show even better. And no lousy Wendy’s this time.

El Supremo : For The Love of Steely Dan’s ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’

It’s sad that only when someone dies do we feel driven to talk about them. I guess its only natural that after someone you admire passes that you want to explore their past work and see if maybe you’d missed something. For me, with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker passing away last week I wasn’t going back to see what I’d missed about the Dan while the guy was alive. I’ve loved the duo of Becker/Fagen for over 20 years now and have dug into the Dan discography more times than I can shake a stick at. I’ve never got tired of the Steely Dan discography. Never. Not once. I can’t even say that about the Beatles, the Kinks, or even JHubner73 stalwarts Wilco. Steely Dan have always intrigued me(once I “got em”.) The mixture of sci fi-meets-beatnik-meets-downtown derelict lyrics, subtle funky rhythms, and intricate jazz breakdowns were the things of late night drives, young man contemplation, and stoned conversations. Theirs was a confection of William Burroughs, 50 years of jazz history, and burnt out 60s disillusionment turned into sardonic 70s pessimism.

It was a biting and beautiful thing.

No, what I was going after this past week was digging through that decade of Dan and finding what I might’ve overlooked. I hadn’t really overlooked things, but I never truly appreciated Steely Dan as a “band”. I was always drawn to the later records that were Becker/Fagen- conducted affairs. The revolving doors of wizard-like studio musicians that Don and Walter would direct into meticulous solos and takes. Records like Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, and Aja were my jams. They felt like these alternate universes where lowlifes and degenerates ruled the city streets. Each song felt like stories half written by Jim Thompson and half written by Philip K. Dick with the music arranged in the spirit of Wayne Shorter’s Juju. That was what initially brought me in. But the last few years I’ve been drawn to the first half of their career. Can’t Buy A Thrill isn’t played a whole lot by me, though it does have its charms(“Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”, “Only A Fool Would Say That”, and “Fire In The Hole” are standouts.) For me, Countdown To Ecstasy is the record that truly introduced the world to Steely Dan. It led to the excellent Pretzel Logic which was the last album to feature the original 5-piece band of Becker, Fagen, Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Jim Hodder. Countdown To Ecstasy was their most rock and roll record. It’s gritty, out there, and holds within it a cast of characters Robert Altman would be thrilled to put on screen.

When you open an album with a hyper speed boogie number called “Bodhisattva”, a track that boast serious guitar solos, keyboard solos, and lyrics like “Can you show me the shine of your Japan/The sparkle of your china, can you show me“, you’re not just laying down the grooves just to jam. The definition of Bodhisattva, for those that don’t know it, simply states: “(in Mahayana Buddhism) a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings.” Fagen was never one to write simple lyrics. He was out to tell a story each time out, and throw his literate lyrics over top a serious jam like this and you’re bound for greatness.

Then they follow that with the excellent “Razor Boy”. “Will you still have a song to sing, when the Razor Boy comes and takes your fancy things away/Will you still be singing it on that cold and windy day?” Put to to jazzy vibes and Baxter’s beautiful pedal steel playing, this song is the perfect example of how well Steely Dan could create these subversive songs and make them fluffy radio friendly. Look at a hit like “Peg” which subtly refers to the business of the porn industry(“done up in blueprint blue/it sure looks good on you“) or their biggest hit “Hey Nineteen” referring to “the fine Columbian“(I’m sure they were referring to a cup of coffee.) “Razor Boy” is a nod to drug addiction under the guise of some street punk carrying a blade. It’s really quite genius.

“The Boston Rag” is another stellar track that showcases Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar wizardry, courtesy of his pedal steel. There’s an ominous vibe here that Fagen lays on it with his vocals. “You were Lady Bayside/There was nothing that I could do/So I pointed my car down/Seventh Avenue“, Fagen sings over a seriously tight groove. There’s a grimy downtown vibe in this track. For an album that was recorded in Colorado and Los Angeles there’s some serious New York vibes here.

One of my favorite jams is “Your Gold Teeth”. It’s just an all out barn burner. I never truly appreciated this song till many years later. Fagen’s keyboard work on this is absolutely brilliant. Victor Feldman’s percussion work also makes this song burn brightly. Absolutely brilliant.

One of the most biting tracks opens side two. “Show Biz Kids” is Fagen’s ode to stuck up LA kids blowing mom and dad’s money and generally not giving a shit about anyone else but themselves. He says as much in one of the lines, “Showbiz Kids making movies of themselves, you know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else.” There’s talk of a “Steely Dan t-shirt” and “shapely bods”, and one of my personal bits of favorite lyrical gold “After closing time/At the Guernsey Fair/I detect the El Supremo/From the room at the top of the stairs”. You can almost see Fagen’s smirk as you listen to this track.

“My Old School” was I think the only long lasting radio track, something you still hear on classic rock radio from time to time. It’s another great story song about a drug bust at Bard College when Becker and Fagen were students. I seriously don’t know how this wasn’t a hit song back in 1973. It’s a great tune with a earworm of a melody and excellent storytelling.

“Pearl of the Quarter” for years was one of my favorite Steely Dan songs. The story of a prostitute and the “John” that fell for her. “I walked alone down the miracle mile/I met my baby by the shine of the martyr/She stole my heart with her Cajun smile/Singing voulez vous“, Fagen sings over some beautiful pedal steel and melancholy piano chords. I remember being in a dive bar in town 20+ years ago and going to the jukebox and seeing Countdown to Ecstasy in it. I happily dropped an abundance of coin in the slot and played this track more than a few times. I got plenty of jeers, but the one guy sitting by himself singing along to his bottle of Micheloeb was enough to make it all worth it.

“King of the World”, an ode to the last man on earth is a sci fi rocker that closes the record on a uptempo groove. Complete with synthesizers, jazzy drums, Becker’s excellent bass playing, and more of Baxter’s great slide playing. Lyrically Fagen paints a portrait of a dead world with the guy that pulled the shortest straw, aka the King of the world. “No marigolds in the promised land/There’s a hole in the ground, Where they used to grow/Any man left on the Rio Grande, Is the king of the world/As far as I know“. I think these are probably some of the best lyrics on Countdown To Ecstasy.

Surprisingly(to me, anyways), while this album was highly regarded by critics and fans it didn’t yield much in the hits department and was seen as a disappointment by the record label. Of course they’d follow this up with the monster that is Pretzel Logic only a mere 7 months later and from that point on they would put out one stellar record after another until 1980 when they would take a 20 year hiatus until 2000s Two Against Nature.

Though they would inevitably go on to make better albums, there’s something about Countdown To Ecstasy that makes it stand out in the Dan canon. Maybe because it’s a “live” album, written for a rock and roll band to perform. Maybe because there’s a heavier sci fi slant here that makes the record seem like more of an outlier. Or maybe it’s the grittier, street-sweaty manor of the songs here that makes Countdown To Ecstasy a record I find myself going to as of late. I guess it doesn’t really matter what it is that keeps me coming back.

If the Razor Boy approves, then that’s what matters.