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Spock’s Beard – Top Ten List August 16, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in music, music commentary, progressive rock, rock music, Spock's Beard.
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This is the second of what will be a series of posts offering Top-Ten lists of selections from various progressive rock bands, past and present. (When I started this blog, I said it would be mainly for writing, but with some surprises. I have now posted a number of times about music, including a few posts specifically about progressive rock: The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes, The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”, Flower Kings – Top Ten list, Music Review/Comentary – MoeTar and Beggar’s Opera – Rock Music Commentary. I released my own mystic jazz CD “Issa Music” late last year.)

A few words about this Top Ten list for Spock’s Beard—this list will pertain to the six studio albums released between 1995 and 2002 that included Neal Morse. For me, “Spock’s Beard” without Neal Morse sounds like a different band. Also, “Snow,” the final release of the six, is a dramatic whole. I have extracted cuts from that whole for this list, and have not treated “Snow” as one selection. I also treated “The Healing Colors of Sound” from “Day for Night” as one selection even though it is offered as six selections. It is as complete a whole as other long-form selections on the other CDs. This choice is arbitrary. “Snow,” for me, was uneven, and would not make this list as a whole. But selections from it are wonderful, worthy of consideration for the list.

For my tastes (please offer comments if your tastes are different—or, you can say if you agree), I found no Top Ten selections from their first CD, “The Light.” And I found many from “Kindness of Strangers,” “Day for Night,” and “V.” So, obviously, for people trying to decide which Neal Morse “Spock’s Beard” CDs to buy first, I recommend those three CDs.

So here’s the list, from Number Ten, finishing with Number One:

10 – “The Big Nothing” from “V,” 2000 (27:18)
One of Spock’s Beard’s epics with catchy piano riffs and poignant acoustic guitar riffs tying together melodic voice-chord song sections also punctuated with guitar and keyboard solos. The riffs stretch out into improvisational opportunities. They tie the big epic together near the end with the melodic electric guitar riff that started it off, concluding the nearly thirty minute selection with an anthem-like finish featuring two wailing guitars. The subject seems to be about music commerciality versus art.

9 – “The Devil’s Got My Throat” from “Snow,” 2002 (7:17)
This is a visceral, driving, tuneful song from Spock’s Beard’s opera “Snow.” It starts out with an ambiguous rhythm of hammering, thumping organ chords jumping in intervals, working its way into its dynamic hook—“The Devil’s Got My Throat, I’m going down, that’s all she wrote.” They slip into a few instrumental interludes, and even some vocal counterpoint, developing themes from the bass rhythm and notes, but the song’s strength is that driving rhythm and jumping, pounding chords.

8 – “The Doorway” from “Beware of Darkness,” 1996 (11:27)
One of Spock’s Beard’s most thematically developed long-form pieces, with ideas worked over and varied as the song seems to describe a spiritual journey, though the exact nature of the doorway, and the “[who] are the doorway” that goes with the “you are the doorway,” is left open to interpretation. The anthem-like conclusion (followed by a brief coda) and the inventive development of this early Spock’s Beard piece puts it in the Top Ten.

7 – “At the End of the Day,” from “V,” 2000 (16:30)
Much of Spock’s Beard’s music, including many of the epic progressive-style pieces, evolve around strong songs—chords under lyrics in a great marriage of words and music. So for a number of the epic-length pieces coming up, it is a matter of taste, of what melody, what song, strikes the listener as most pleasurable. The hook “at the end of the day” is pleasant and so is the theme of not getting too wound up about transient events because “at the end today, you’ll be fine.” Also included is some solid development of the main melody, played by a french horn, and a B section reminiscent of a sort of Spanish-style chord progression/riff, with an electric piano solo played over the riff. The reprise of the main verse sections features a great running bassline pounding underneath with some wah guitar effects adding to the turbulent flavor of the final reprise.

6 – “Day for Night,” from “Day for Night,” 1999 (7:34)
“Day for Night” is another fine song, great melody and chords, winding out into a larger whole. It is a tighter construction than some of the epics, making it easier to grasp, so for me, elevating it on the list. The song climaxes with some wonderful vocal harmonies and counterpoint, making this memorable tune, well-developed and economical, one of the top Spock’s Beard tracks.

5 – “The Healing Colors of Sound” from “Day for Night” (selections 8 to 13) 1999 (total cumulative time 21:07)
In the tradition of Jethro Tull’s “Passion Play” (and even “Jesus Christ Superstar”), we have a story-selection (broken into different parts, but clearly meant to be taken in as a single whole) loosely based on the New Testament story of Jesus. Memorable themes, anthems that build in intensity—the “My Shoes” vocal line rises an octave as it evolves—make this a top Spock’s Beard effort. Along the way, we have the biting rock style of “Mommy Comes Back,” and the lighter rock style of “The Healing Colors of Sound” complete with fanfarish french horns. The whole selection culminates with a huge anthem, the epitome of the Spock’s Beard style, a reprise of “My Shoes.”

4 – “Flow” from “The Kindness of Strangers,” 1997 (15:48)
This is a long form, epic piece with a few simple ideas—the biggest idea is the “true believer” who will never be a victim of the “great deceiver.” For my taste, the entire piece hangs together magnificently, with every instrumental interlude and new theme a joy with no real soft spots. And the concluding spiritual/mystical section (“Into the Source”) is one of my favorite Spock’s Beard musical moments, with its towering simplicity, musically and lyrically. After sections of turbulence and tension, the “Into the Source” finale invites us into a simple yet elegant state of mind.

3 – “The Good Don’t Last” from “The Kindness of Strangers,” 1997 (10:04)
This is my favorite of the epic-length Spock’s Beard pieces (Number Two and Number One are shorter song forms). The opening jazz waltz, with one line working up while another works down until they are joined at the end of the phrase, lets us know we’re in for something special. The verses have a tuneful, memorable flow. The piece seems to refer to lost opportunities, to missed chances to accomplish greatness. But at the end, there is hope we still have a chance—“The radiant is still here… And it’s not going to disappear.”

2 – “June” from “The Kindness of Strangers,” 1997 (5:29)
For the top two, I admit I am emphasizing music over lyrics, song-craft over epic-craft. This song simply has a wonderful melody and harmony, with images of nostalgia and “fire girls” dancing through it. Yes, it is the kind of song that sticks in your head for days.

1 – “Skin” from “Day for Night” 1999 (3:58)
This song is just simply a great combination of words and music. It’s catchy and there is depth to the lyrics as well. It is not as big in form as some of the grander Spock’s Beard epic cuts. But it is a song I can hear over and over and walk away singing. This makes it a great melding of progressive rock and tuneful, popular music.

Almost Made the Top Ten

11 – “Wind at My Back” and “Made Alive Again/Wind at My Back” from “Snow” 2002 (5:12, 8:28)

  • One of the big anthem selections from Spock’s Beard’s two-CD rock opera “Snow.” I listed the selections together because they both feature the “Wind at My Back” melody. There is an exhilarating inspirational quality to the song.

12 – “I Will Go” from “Snow,” 2002 (5:09)

  • Right before the big climax of “Snow” with “Wind at My Back,” comes this song of decision, rising, building from the depths of despair to the energy of determination.

13 – “Revelation” from “V” 2000 (6:04)

  • Starts as a dreamy song, with electric piano bouncing across the speakers, then hammered with a big hook about the “rain of revelation.”

14 – “Crack in the Big Sky” from “Day for Night” 1999 (9:59)

  • Driving-rock, guitar-riff oriented epic-length song about “Crack in the Big Sky,” with rain, but with “night staying and music playing” that “could not shame this high.”

15 – “Long Time Suffering” from “Snow,” 2002 (6:04)

  • Great hook on the lyrics “Long Time Suffering,” in this selection toward the beginning of “Snow.”

16 – “Gibberish” from “Day for Night,” 1999 (4:18)

  • Complex instrumental and vocal counterpoint, reminiscent of Gentle Giant’s “Reflections” give us an adventurous progressive rock song influenced by Gentle Giant, but with Spock’s Beard’s distinctive stamp.

17 – “Strange World” from “The Kindness of Strangers,” 1997 (4:20)

  • “The bomber got his manifesto published in the New York Times.” It is a “strange world,” well described musically in his ditty-like, quirky song.

With this post, I have followed my Top Ten list for Flower Kings. These two progressive rock groups are more contemporary groups, issuing their CDs during the 1990s and 2000’s. My next Top Ten progressive rock posts will be more ambitious. I will tackle Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, King Crimson, and Gentle Giant. You can expect those posts over the next six months or so. In the meantime, feel free to offer your comments. Formulating a list like this is a way to share reactions to the music. Of course, there is no right answer to this sort of assessment. So please feel free to offer your own take on Spock’s Beard with your comments.

Music Review/Comentary – MoeTar May 9, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in MoeTar, music, music commentary, progressive rock, rock music.
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There are a few times in my life when I have heard new music and was stunned. “What exactly was that? I’ve never heard anything like that before. What the hell was that? I need to hear it again—and again—and again.” Some instances I can recall: 1) As a teenage kid hearing “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, 2) As a slightly older teenage kid hearing Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Tarkus,” 3) Around the same time—“Dance of the Maya” by John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, 4) As a college student hearing Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” for the first time, 5) Later in adulthood hearing Dimitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, particularly the leaping slightly off-kilter fanfares that start the piece, and 6) “Cult of Personality” by the late 80s/early 90s group, Living Colour. Now we can add to that “Dichotomy” by MoeTar. Thank you Magna Carta records for keeping me on your mailing list and letting me know about these people.

“Dichotomy” is one of a number of really captivating cuts in the MoeTar style. I’ll discuss each cut individually. Generally, we have the crystal clear female vocal stylings (except for occasional raspiness in the upper range) of Moorea Dickason over adventurous rhythms and harmonies (most writing credits are attributed to bassist Tarik Ragab) producing a sound that is hard to compare to anything I’ve heard before. Certainly influences from progressive rock both past and present are evident. But this really is an original sound. And during some sections, if you want to sing along, you are going to have a challenge keeping up with Moorea Dickason as she sings complex vocal lines in unison, and sometimes in harmony, with the guitar and keyboard. Do I think MoeTar will break through the way Jimi Hendrix did? In this current music climate, probably not. This music takes effort to absorb—effort well worth expending, by the way—and often in our culture now it is the simple, sometimes overly simple, pounding drum and bass lines under step-like melodies with easy leaps that catch our attention, then fade quickly as their shallowness causes our attention to drift to the next banality. But those of us who like our music fresh, and inventive, and adventurous, need to stick up for acts like MoeTar. And—encourage them to produce more music!

My comments on the cuts:

Dichotomy (3:57) – It’s in eight. Not two 4/4 measures. It’s in eight. The rhythm throbs along with a strange bass accent at the end of the eight that had me searching for an unconventional time signature. So the rhythm calls out for attention. After a rousing introduction with quick instrumental flourishes, in comes the lilting, jazzy vocals: “Doom architects, skin cineplex infiltrate dynastic manifest…” Here we go! The lyrics fly by—it took a few listens just to pick out a few lines I really love: “…masters of our own banality,” “…experiments on supplicants, social engineering detriments”—with the closest to a vocal hook being “paradox dichotomy,” recurring throughout the song. In the middle of the song, we have an interplay among bassist Tarik Ragab, keyboardist Matt Lebofsky and guitarist Matthew Heulitt reminiscent of Gentle Giant. In fact, the song reminds me faintly of “Cogs and Cogs,” though “Dichotomy” is no clone of that progressive rock classic! The lyrics and music sail by so fast that I was compelled to listen over and over—to try to figure out—what the hell happened here! Once I got a handle on it, I could only marvel at how wonderful the song is, and hope for more of the same. This is my favorite on the CD, but others come close as I will discuss.

Infinitesimal Sky (3:01) – Starting right out with the line “where’s that idiot clown,” this song features block chord shifts over a quirky driving rhythm in five. The lyrics—“Burn up. Burn down. So much for you.”—bring us to a climax of sorts.

Butchers of Baghdad (4:19) – The underpinnings of this song—the bass, keyboard and drum rhythm section—could be a chord progression/arrangement for a late Beatles song. But over the top is a flurry of lyrics and complex vocal lines sung in perfect unison with the guitar. A few lines speak out absent the guitar doubling, offering a contrast of clean purity against the turbulence of the unison sections. A performance of this song is featured in MoeTar’s video at their web site http://www.moetar.com.

Random Tandem (4:11) – A light carnival feel here, with alternating long note melodic sections and flashes of quick, leaping lines (a trademark of the MoeTar style). The exotic doubling of the long vocal notes with a lilting instrumental note adds to the creepy carnival effect.

Ist or Ism (4:57) – This starts out with a hard rock riff stated by the guitar, developed into the main A section, also with a heavy rockish feel. The A section is then wonderfully contrasted with a lighter B section, with a jazzy, swinging rhythm, consisting of scat sections that would make the scat-master female vocalists of Manhattan Transfer proud.

Morning Person (2:54) – Lumbering tribute to waking up slowly, with some wild instrumental interplay at the end.

New World Chaos (5:39) – Dickason’s overdubbed vocal pad provides the gentle, haunting pulse for the song—the guitar, keyboard, bass and drums flit around through the shifting, calm-within-the-storm vocals. Through this section, the vocals are the rhythm section. This matches the title’s implied mood perfectly. The guitar, keyboard, bass and drums calm down with the lyrics: “Blue skies. Green scenes. White light. Red dreams.” This creates a mystical repose with the rhythm section and vocals in sync again. But it is a masterful out-of-sync before we get to that repose!

Screed (4:40) – This one starts out with a big Gothic theme and develops into one of the more straightforward cuts on the CD, still recognizable as MoeTar, thanks to the lyrical style of Moorea Dickason’s distinctive vocals.

Never Home (4:50) – Gentle ballad about never feeling at home in New York City, in a light, slow, jazz waltz style. MoeTar dresses it up at the end with the jam-like coda section.

From these Small Seeds (5:19) – Okay, here’s another one—“What the hell was that?” Turbulent harmonies and off-kilter rhythms underpinning lyrics like “harbinger of dreams…  Precognistic themes… Apocalyptic dreams and memes…” This goes on until the jumble stops dead with the wonderfully harmonized words “who cares.” There’s something of a swagger with this line, as if we are caught in a mismash of pretentious abstraction, and so we throw up our hands—“who cares.” And then we shift into a clearly stated hook: “I’m past the point of no return.” But that line cadences off the home chord of the key we are in, leading us right back to the wonderfully controlled chaos that permeates most of the song, including a vocal interplay at the end that leaves us unsettled—the song is not going to give us an easy way out. If I had heard this before “Dichotomy,” it might have been my favorite. It is a close second for me.

Friction (3:07) – Great finishing cut. “Golden prizes fill your eyes to fill your head…” A big soaring melody over an unconventional chord progression. (No I-IV-V-I’s for this group!) The shifts from four to three give the cut a wandering feeling, shifting, drifting, searching. The chords themselves seem in search of a resting place but simply will not arrive there. The cut seems to be in any number of keys all at once. And if you think the final chord will give you that resting place, forget it! “Fear and deny. Turn from the cry. Now.” I consider this in my top three favorite cuts from this sensational album.

*******

MoeTar indicates on their website that they’re working on a new CD, possibly as you are reading this right now. I say to them—bring it on! I suspect there is an enormous amount of creative opportunity within this style!

Flower Kings – Top Ten List March 25, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Flower Kings, music, music commentary, progressive rock, rock music, Uncategorized.
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This is the first of what will be a series of posts offering Top-Ten lists of selections from various progressive rock bands, past and present. (When I started this blog, I said it would be mainly for writing, but with some surprises. I have now posted a number of times about music, including a few posts specifically about progressive rock: The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes, The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”, Flower Kings – Top Ten list. I released my own mystic jazz CD “Issa Music” late last year.)

My first two posts will be about two more recent progressive rock groups, my favorite contemporary (within the last decade or so) groups. The first is a Top-Ten list for Flower Kings. (The next Top-Ten post will be about Spock’s Beard. Those familiar with this music know that key members of Flower Kings and Spock’s Beard, Roine Stolt and Neal Morse, combined their prodigious talents in the progressive rock super-group, Transatlantic.) I am not sure why we don’t hear a lot more about Flower Kings. I sort of stumbled on them a number of years ago when playing around at CD Universe, looking at “customers who bought this also bought this.” Flower Kings have produced album after album of fresh, dynamic material, big-themed, sophisticated development of musical themes—everything we can ask from progressive rock groups. I think their style resembles most closely the progressive rock group Yes, but also includes elements of Gentle Giant and King Crimson within their influences. And make no mistake about it, they have their own unique style!

Coming up with this list was not easy! It was mainly a challenge of narrowing things down.  I’ve included a second ten as well. (I won’t do that in every post.) I limited myself to the studio albums of the 1990s and 2000s (no live cuts included). I included Roine Stolt’s “The Flower King” album which includes many of the same personnel of the Flower Kings group—it really seems like a first Flower Kings album. It was not easy comparing shorter songs with longer ones. (In the case of Flower Kings, we’re talking about songs under six or seven minutes as short.) But, all disclaimers and explanations aside, here is my list. Of course, offer your own at the comment page! Or your quibbles…

10 – “Driver’s Seat” from “Adam and Eve,” 2004, 18:22
A rock epic about taking control, getting back into the “Driver Seat’s.” The middle section brings us a really wonderful alliance of a driving harmonic and rhythmic momentum carrying vivid lyrics, dramatizing how out of control our circumstances can get. This sets us on a musical journey ending with a repossession of the “Driver’s Seat,” “a million options chiming,” but ending with an ambiguous line—“Time is such a bitch and fate its little liar”—did we get into the “Driver’s Seat,” or was that impossible from the start?

9 – “I Am the Sun” from “Space Revolver,” 2000, Part I, 15:03; Part II, 10:48
Progressive rock at its best, with motivic and thematic development, shifting moods, twisting and turning through various sonic-scapes. There is a nice section in the middle of Part I with the repeating phrase “break down doors,” which then moves into a hard-edged riff and off to some hard-driving rock guitar work. Part I ends with a haunting, utterly gorgeous section, minor key shifting to major chord cadences:

            “In time our heart will open, you’ll let her in
            To see we are one, this one that we are
            In time your eyes will open, time will tell
            ‘Larger-than-life,’ ‘revolve among stars’”

Part II acts as a long coda, as if it is a few comments after the journey in Part I. This starts as a gentle, casual coda, and finishes with a final statement of the main theme, followed by an extended musical journey moving through synth, bass and guitar lines migrating over continually shifting chords.

8 – “The Flower King” from Roine Stolt’s 1994 album “The Flower King,” 10:28
Roine Stolt, the undoubted first among equal artists in the Flower Kings, says in the liner notes of “The Flower King” album that he recorded this song as a counterweight “to the flood of destructive, dark ‘n-evil-hard-core-death-trash-speed-black ‘n suicidal metal music’ out at the time.” Basically this is a simple anthem, with some progressive rock type development, but at its essence a simple positive statement, lyrically and musically. It can be considered nothing less than the theme song for this great progressive rock group, a group with the courage to reach out with some positivity during a time when cynicism often rules and optimism is often thought of as a synonym for naivete. This song also displays one of Roine Stolt’s big strengths as a songwriter; he creates anthems—this song would be the first of many for “Flower Kings.”

7 – “Monkey Business” from “Unfold the Future,” 2002, 4:20
This is the shortest song on this Top Ten list, essentially a modified blues progression song with a bridge. This made the list because the verses are catchy; it’s a tight little song. Each of the four verses starts out with a protestation of what the singer is not, followed by some clever phrases about what he is—better than a monkey, but not better than much of anything else.

6 – “Devil’s Playground” from “Unfold the Future,” 2002, 24:30
Here is one of those epic song/pieces characteristic of progressive rock. “Devil’s Playground” is about making a deal with the devil to survive. The Flower Kings call us out in this one:

            “This is how you raise the Cain
            This is what you teach our children
            Back on duty, dog eat dog
            Clueless in the Devil’s Playground”

The music backing this section is memorable and effective. They use it frequently within a number of musical settings. They seem to implore us to reconsider our activities on the “Devil’s Playground,” after working us through a musical journey. The 24 minutes holds together as a unified whole—provocative, evocative and musically satisfy.

5 – “In the Eyes of the World” from “Stardust We Are,” 1997, 10:38
A brilliant song about that insecurity people have all felt, that everyone watching us finds us to be ridiculous. From the driving organ ditty that starts it off, clown-like, leading to the weightier parts of the song, what makes it most effective is that the chorus starts well away from the tonic minor key and drifts toward it with a series of unresolved chords that finally payoff at the end of the line—“I’m just a clown in the eyes of the world.” There is some nice development, reminiscent of 1970s Gentle Giant. The song has an everyman allusion in it—that feeling that every mistake we make is on display for all to see.

4 – “Chicken Farmer Song” from “Space Revolver,” 2000, 5:09
I admit it; this one is here because I simply love the way it sounds. I love the cascading vocal harmonies in the verses, the driving triplet-laden rhythm, and the fun chorus about being a “chicken farmer.” This is just a flawless song, gorgeously arranged, dreaming of the simpler life—no big spiritual/mystical event here, just a fun, well-crafted song! 

3 – “Genie in a Bottle” from “Unfold the Future,” 2002, 8:10
Another catchy one from the Floral Royalty—Yes, this one has a real sticky little hook!  “Look to the left, look to the right, I’m looking for a Genie in a Bottle!” But to go with that catchy hook is actually a much deeper song. It’s about that last hopeful dream when all hope seems lost—that desperate wish for a magic miracle that will solve all problems, that will lift the dreamer from the depths:

            “All I need is another dream
            All I need is some self-esteem
            Can you take me, can you take me this time?”

Just looking for that big miracle, that “Genie in a Bottle.”

2 – “Psycedelic Postcard” from “Flower Power,” 1998, 9:50 (that’s that way they spell it on the album…)
This one starts out quirky, almost as if it is a joke song—“the world is all in the hands of a juggler.” The timbre of the vocals could be called the Munchkins Tabernacle Choir, telling us about strange, maybe even drug-induced images. But by the end, the tone is much more serious—and uplifting. It is possible to be free of the absurdity of these images–

            “My Mind’s Eye can still see…..,
            Can’t take that away from me
            In My Mind’s Eye I’ll be free….,
            Freedom believer, Freedom deliver”

The journey of the song, from absurdity to uplifting anthem, puts it near the top of the list.

1 – “Love Supreme” from “Adam and Eve,” 2004, 19:50
“Coming up, growing up, looking for a bigger understanding
Coming up, growing up, speaking of respect for all the planet
Coming up, building up, new religion sees the light of day
Coming up, building up, changes ahead but don’t you be afraid”

For someone like me who loves progressive rock for the big themes, the ambitious song subjects, the long forms developed, forged with peaks and valleys, this is my favorite of the Flower Kings album selections. It shimmers with Steve Howe type leads and Yes-like vocal harmonies. We have the song of19:50culminating with almost a gospel-church feel—“…all my wanting is down to understanding,” “…all my longing is focused to be justified… I’m finding out just who I am.” When the musical journey charted by this epic ends, engaged listeners will feel as if they have been through a mystical experience.

The Second Ten

11 – “The Truth Will Set You Free” from “Unfold the Future,” 2002, 30:04

  • Great chorus for the title line, well-developed in this lengthy selection.

12 – “The Merry-Go-Round” from “Stardust We Are,” 1997 8:17

  • A musical whirlwind in five, shooting through changes like a fast merry-go-round! (It does move off into a more conventional four.)

13 – “Slave to Money” from “Space Revolver,” 2000, 7:30

  • Strong, powerful piece about the perils of being a “Slave to Money”—“God may look at what we’ve done, knowing we are the ugly ones.”

14 – “Underdog” from “Space Revolver,” 2000, 5:29

  • Classic Roine Stolt anthem/epic complete with bagpipe sounds.

15 – “Garden of Dreams” from “Flower Power,” 1998, 59:57 (18 parts)

  • Eighteen part epic disjointed and uneven at times, but “Don’t Let the d’Evil In” and “Love is the Word” are classic Flower Kings brilliance.

16 – “Silent Inferno” from “Unfold the Future,” 2002, 14:25

  • The “Silent Inferno” appears to be a reference to insomnia over second thoughts; the verses flow through a dark but gentle chord progression.

17 – “Deaf Dumb and Blind” from “Flower Power,” 1998, 11:09

  • Poignant piece about spiritual wisdom lost, with a great litany in the middle: “gone the spirit, gone the gold; gone the justice, so we’re told…”

18 – “Paradox Hotel,” from “Paradox Hotel,” 2006, 6:30

  • Hard rock riff gives this relatively simple song big energy.

19 – “Road to Sanctuary” from “The Rainmaker,” 2001. 13:50

  • Big wall-of-sound theme with driving guitar riffs contrasts with gentle emotional sections in Roine Stolt’s classic anthem style.

20 – “Monsters and Men” from “Paradox Hotel,” 2006, 21:19

  • Musical call for rejection of fanaticism, and for reconciliation, includes poignant vocal harmonies: “the more you look, the more you try; the more you free the inner eye; there’s a mountain we can climb.”

Beggar’s Opera – Rock Music Commentary January 11, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Beggar's Opera, electrosensitivity, music, music commentary, progressive rock, Ricky Gardiner, rock music.
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This post exists purely because of the internet, specifically because of blogging. Beggar’s Opera, the 1970s progressive rock group, came to my attention as a result of interactions with my blog. I had never heard of Beggar’s Opera. I did a little internet research and had a feeling I would like them—some of my favorite music from the 1970s is progressive rock, and my research indicated they created music in that style. I picked up their first four albums, and two more recent efforts of their lead guitarist. It’s fun to find new music from an old era. Progressive rock has migrated to new places—places I like by the way—Spock’s Beard and Flower Kings, to name a few. But 1970s Beggar’s Opera takes me back to a past era, offering new musical experiences in an old familiar style, like an old friend offering new surprises: 

“Act One” (1970): This album reminded me immediately of Keith Emerson’s pre-ELP group, the Nice. (With apologies to Lee Jackson, the vocals on Beggar’s Opera are a big improvement over the Nice.) Alan Park, the organist, quotes classical music pieces throughout “Act One,” with guitarist Ricky Gardiner joining in. They even play homage to the Nice with a quote from the Karelia Suite, one of the Nice’s more successful pieces. The song “Memory,” with its shift of rhythm, and shift through chord changes, riffs gliding over the rhythm and harmony, took me back to early Yes and Gentle Giant, with a hard rock driving push added.

“Waters of Change” (1971): A mellotron is added to many of the tracks, thickening the texture of Beggar’s Opera’s music. But one of the highlights of this CD is a short piece, “Lament,” with an organ and distant drum offering a droning chant-like feel, like a bagpiper standing alone on a hill in the early morning mist, plaintively calling for attention. “Festival” is another highlight of the “Waters of Change” album, calling to mind Jethro Tull, along with other progressive rock influences. Flute riffs permeate the background of parts of “Festival.” The music throbs through wonderful chord migrations with the cadence on the lyrics “festival is here to stay” that surprises in a really satisfying way. “Festival” paces through development and shifts as we expect from a good progressive rock song. In fact, this is my favorite cut from the first four Beggar’s Opera albums. The quotes of classical music are reduced in this album, but have certainly not disappeared. “Silver Peacock” starts out with the C minor prelude from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (I) played flawlessly at break-neck speed on the organ.

“Pathfinder” (1972): This album starts with “Hobo,” a catchy song about a truly tragic situation! The bouncy minor key seems at odds with the story, an effective tension that makes the song effective. They also take on pop music’s late 1960s flirtation with the progressive rock style, “MacArthurPark.” The keyboard background and soaring vocals put the band’s stamp on the song. Creative combinations of piano, harpsichord and organ bring enchanting colors to the effort.

“Get Your Dog Off of Me” (1973): The group seems to be transitioning away from the progressive rock style with this final effort from the original “Beggar’s Opera.” There is a bluesy, old-time rock ’n roll, sometimes almost country-rock feel to many of the songs. There are some hints of progressive rock here, with adventurous chord shifts during “Morning Day,” and the riff-based “Working Man,” with guitar lead lines flowing through the lead vocals of the chorus in well-placed counterpoint. And they offer a great progressive rock rendition of Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” with a dynamic synthesizer fanfare where the brass section comes in, and an instrumental break with a crisp synth solo.

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The other two CDs I picked up are recent releases from Beggar’s Opera’s guitarist, Ricky Gardiner. One is a Beggar’s Opera CD. The other is a rock opera about an affliction Gardiner has been struggling with, “electrosensitivity.”

“Close to My Heart” (2007): This Beggar’s Opera group is a family affair with the original Beggar’s Opera guitarist playing the guitars, bass, and adding some vocals. His wife, Virginia Scott, a member of the group in some of the original Beggar’s Opera recordings, sings the lead vocals and provides some supporting keyboard parts, including mellotron sounds, recalling her contributions to the 1970s albums. Their son, Tom Gardiner, plays the drums. This CD is basically a guitar CD, with block chords and searing, clean-sounding leads soaring over the chords. But though the textures are relatively simple, and certainly simple for progressive rock, the music itself has an exotic feel, with unconventional chord changes, involving chromatic moves as well as through shifting keys, overlaid with the lilting quality of Virginia Scott’s voice, often effectively doubled with harmonies. “Passing Her” is a highlight of this CD, with an apparently simple rhythm, with simple melodic lines. But the exotic chromatic moves give the music a pleasantly eerie vibe. The B section breaks into an electronic pulsing bass that lowers while the melodic line raises, creating a musical stretching effect. “A-Ha” is a hypnotic, catchy song with a little bass riff during the chorus that will stick with you long after you hear it. “Angelus Thread” starts out simply, with two chord progressions moving in half steps under a chant-like melody. But as the song develops, we get our most progressive rockish selection, with flowing guitar lines and piano countermelodies intertwining through the chord progressions.

“Lost a Life” (2011): This is a rock opera produced by the same Gardiner family comprising the 2007 Beggar’s Opera group. It is the story of an affliction that has transformed the life of Beggar’s Opera guitarist Ricky Gardiner—“electrosensitivity,” a disabling sensitivity to the electricity generated by all the technological devices surrounding us. It seems a cruel fate for someone so steeped in music electronics, someone so capable with beautiful, clear-toned electric guitar passages. But Gardiner takes on the affliction in the way we might expect, by creating music about it. During “Masts On My Roof,” we have what may be the signature passage of the rock opera, with choruses of “electrosensivity” harmonized in Virginia Scott’s upper vocal range, calling out in distress, with that one word, begging for an explanation and a solution. It does not seem to be forthcoming. The selection ends with a long list of devices that must be avoided—and heart-wrenchingly, even people with those devices. One of the more striking of the selections from “Lost a Life” is “Dr. Carlo.” Finally, a medical person takes the affliction seriously. It is not just some psychological tweak—“electrosensitivity” is a real illness, with drastic measures needed to address it, but validating the symptoms experienced as something beyond “in the head.”

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I suspect there are other gems out there like Beggar’s Opera. Folks, if you know of one, please feel free to comment!