header("Content-Type: text/html; charset=utf-8"); ?>
...featuring 737 albums from 1965 to 2008. Leaning towards the progressive, electronic, ambient, alternative, post rock, and generally arty... but anything that's good is considered!
As a sometime obsessive Pink Floyd fan, and sometime keyboard player, I have to write something here in memory of Richard Wright, who sadly died yesterday. As the quiet, modest musician, he was the member of Pink Floyd I had the most affection for, excepting perhaps Syd Barrett. The George Harrison figure, perhaps (no prizes for matching up the rest of them!) Most other obituaries will be highlighting his most famous composition "The Great Gig in the Sky", quite understandably. Apart from their "song about death" suddenly having gained extra significance, it was a fantastic piece of grandiose symphonic rock, Clare Torry's wordless vocal solo an oddly effective substitute for the more usual guitar.
But I also want to point out some of his lesser-known achievements. Rick conceived and played what I think was the most significant single note in all of Floyd's 30 year canon. "Echoes" was the piece that showed that after losing Syd, they had finally grown into something more than a decent space-rock band. It starts with a single piano note fed through a Leslie amp, and repeated like a sonar transmitter. The chilly, inner-space atmosphere set by this "ping" pervades the whole of an epic rock masterpiece that they've barely, if at all, bettered. Having had the sound as my text message alert tone for several years hasn't dampened its power!
My next four favourite Pink Floyd notes are Dave Gilmour's electrifying phrase that lights up "Shine On You Crazy Diamond", but they wouldn't have been nearly as effective without Rick's enveloping synthesiser backdrop to emerge from. As Dave said yesterday in tribute, Rick was an overlooked but essential part of the band's sound. Compare the opening of 1975's "Have a Cigar" to the opening of "The Division Bell"'s first song "What Do You Want from Me", 20 years later, and hear how his choppy, bluesy organ blends so distinctively with Dave Gilmour's liquid Stratocaster.
In the Syd years, Rick's electronic organ fireworks fuelled their gloopy psychedelia, and his musical input continued to drive their spacy explorations. His contribution to the notorious side of solo projects on Pink Floyd's "Ummagumma" was "Sisyphus". It's an amusingly bish-bash-bosh piece of late sixties experimentalism, but certain passages showed his ambitions to be a serious jazz-cum-classical piano virtuoso. Comparing this with Keith Jarrett's renowned improvised solo concerts from a few years later, I wonder what might have happened if Rick's career had taken a different turn.
Later in the 1970s he was sidelined and eventually kicked out of Pink Floyd, the force of Roger Waters' personality perhaps conflicting with Rick's own preference for an easy life over grand ambitions. Rick's little-known solo album "Wet Dream" is a fluffy but listenable document of the period, as he escaped home turmoils by bumming around Greek islands in a yacht. His wistful, deadpan musings are conveyed with firmly 70s middle-of-the-road style music and affectionate jazzy flourishes.
After Roger's departure, Pink Floyd's love of live grandiosity and atmosphere-setting was never again matched by their songwriting ability. But a welcome part of their resurrection was Rick's reinstatement as a full band member for 1994's "The Division Bell". He wrote and sang the brooding "Wearing the Inside Out" on that album, and not long after, Rick made another little-known solo album, "Broken China". Continuing the theme of that song, it was inspired by his experiences of his wife's clinical depression. It's a tasteful and ultimately positive treatment of a serious subject, with ambient instrumentals, polished in a familiar Floyd style, sequenced with some fairly decent songs. The highlight is Rick's gripping duet with Sinead O'Connor, "Reaching for the Rail".
Following on from my last post where I scratched my head at the existence of "female vocalists" as a genre, I'll casually perpetuate this way of thinking by taking my pick of the best female singers I've recently discovered. All debut albums from the last couple of years. Coincidentally these three all record under one-person band pseudonyms, none of which are really gendered.
Bat For Lashes - Fur And Gold (2006)
Occasionally I hear an album that's crammed with my particular musical fetishes. This debut by Natasha Khan and company, which got a lot of acclaim last year, ticks many of my boxes. Sensual and colourful female voice, interesting instruments, strong tunes with a particular sort of "edgy" harmony... it would feel annoyingly formulaic if it wasn't so good! It's a really solid set of tunes that get under the skin, all suffused with a spidery, gothic atmosphere. She embraces exotica in a similar way to Björk. Not only through the sounds, such as glittering harpsichords, dulcimers and offbeat handclap rhythms, but the imagery of the songs, from redwood forests through to caves and oceans. Though the actual tone of her voice is closer to Sinéad O'Connor. The first few songs are basically at the same medium pace, so it's welcome when it ventures into more experimental territory in the second half. The creepy "Bat's Mouth" and the decadent "Seal Jubilee" have a lavishly surreal atmosphere of a kind I've heard rarely since Kate Bush's "Sensual World". The most dramatic treat is saved for the end, "I Saw a Light", which swings between restrained anticipation and cathartic climax, as she a observes the aftermath of a car tragedy from a distance.
My Brightest Diamond - Bring Me The Workhorse (2006)
Shara Worden adapts her serious classical voice wonderfully to a sort of Kate Bush-inspired theatrical art-pop style on her debut album. The songs generally go like so: a verse with the barest of soft rock backings, then some strings swell up and her voice is let loose in its higher register for a big-emotion chorus, like "it was beautiful! and terrible!" "I feel like a golden star... exploding!" "come and fly away.. with me!". But it's a pattern that works, since the tunes are well written and she carries them with a Real Voice - several octaves of true power but never gratuitously flashy. She does a fine line in creepy animal tales on "The Robin's Jar" and, with some almost Led Zeppelin-like grinding rock, on "Magic Rabbit". Though "Freak Out" "freaks out" with slightly too self-conscious piano plonks and yelping. Several times she achieves the sultry langour of Goldfrapp's "Felt Mountain". Quite tasty stuff.
St. Vincent - Marry Me (2007)
St. Vincent is the stage name of singer/songwriter/guitarist/pianist Annie Clark. The popping-eyed cover photo and ironically-inviting title of her debut beckon us into her world of sideways-looking, slightly jaded but still bright and jazzy pop. It grabs the attention with some very busy, colourful rock-cabaret arrangements, and a quirky backing chorus that keep chipping in. On the strong opener "Now Now" she chastises her mistreaters while punning on her name, to an endearing choppy rhythm. "Jesus Saves, I Spend" sets some peculiar imagery to a breezy barbershop-style backing. It does veer towards rather too smooshy a cabaret-lounge style on occasion but avoids it with regular bursts of energy, like the light-footed jazz of "Human Racing". The clear highlight is "Your Lips Are Red", which reels off repetitive body-parts wordplay to some shockingly inventive music, booming bassline and choppy guitars that it's not too much of a stretch to call prog-rock.
Every now and again I think about using Genre tags to label and organise files in my digital music collection. This is a thorny issue. Of course it's never certain what genre a piece of music is, or even if it has a unique genre, but that doesn't mean we should just throw away the whole idea. Labels describe how people think of music, how they relate to it. When I'm feeling more self-centred, I think of genre as something that comes entirely from within myself, within the listener. The indie rock type stuff I might put on while cooking dinner, for example. Or the sort of ambient thing I might put on at 11pm. But when I'm feeling less misanthropic, I think of genre as how society in general views the music or the artist. For example, would a CD be filed under "classic rock", "modern rock" or "electronic" in a shop.
I'm feeling less misanthropic at the moment. So I was interested to find a script for the Amarok music player which automatically fills in genre tags for your files. It uses data from the last.fm music-based social networking site. On this site, people tag artists or albums with short style and genre descriptions. The script finds the most popular tag for each album, artist or track and saves it in your file. Good idea, I thought, because that shows how people in general think of the music. Where people = users of one of the most popular music websites.
So the next step was to find out how reliable these people are. Did I agree with their assessments? OK, Dead Can Dance, the script said, are "ambient". The Decemberists, "indie". Not that controversial, while not exactly specific. But let's try Tori Amos. "Female vocalists", it said. Female vocalists. Hmmm. That's not a genre. That's a gender! Looking more closely, I found that the tag "female vocalists" has been used 523,445 times on last.fm. But "male vocalists" has only been used 90,303 times. Eh? What's with this sexism? Why are people more likely to notice a female singer's gender?
The top three artists under the "female vocalists" tag on last.fm are Björk, Tori Amos and Regina Spektor. Thinking about it, "female vocalists" is exactly how I categorise them in my head as well, so I'm susceptible to exactly the same sexism. Are women more likely than men to become solo singers, rather than front a band? Possibly. Not sure how to test that hypothesis. Perhaps they're so tagged because they're interesting solo artists who are hard to categorise any other way? But that also applies to Jeff Buckley, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and they don't get labelled "male vocalists". "Singer-songwriter" is more likely for these.
The top representatives of the "male vocalists" tag on last.fm are Justin Timberlake and Robbie Williams. OK, they've certainly been known to use their gender as a principal selling point, so that might be fair! While boy or girl bands were never my thing, I've long loved singers with interesting voices, such as Björk, Kate Bush, Liz Fraser (Cocteau Twins), and more recently, Joanna Newsom. Their voices are such a distinctive aspect of what they do (indeed they annoy as many people as they attract!) and their femaleness is such a major part of their voices, that "female singers" is the first label that springs to mind. That's also fair. But it seems to me the label should be applied equitably to men.
So go to last.fm and tag some singers!
Next on the list of great discoveries in this website's two year absence...
A Silver Mt. Zion are usually considered as "post-rock". I should start by explaining what the heck that means. Since the term "progressive rock" became tainted by association with the excesses of certain 1970s acts and their followers, the proggers' spirit of musical experimentation has cropped up in various places under more respectable names. In my view, the genre most likely to have been called "prog" if it had emerged thirty years earlier is "post-rock". It's a hard style to characterise except by its "anything goes" spirit, favouring instrumentals over conventional song forms, lots of dynamics and unconventional instruments, though with less overt classical influences and instrumental flashiness than 70s prog. Post-rock isn't even really a single movement. Even so, one distinctive strand seemed to arise in the late 90s, simultaneously in Glasgow with Mogwai (Young Team) and in Montreal with a nine-piece band called Godspeed You Black Emperor! (F# A# ∞). Later, Sigur Rós emerged from Iceland to bring the style even more into the mainstream (Ágætis Byrjun). It's all about dynamics, and makes you wonder why rock music doesn't use loud and soft in such an effective way more often. Long, long crescendi and diminuendi between peaks of full-band guitar noise and dramatic silences, repetitive tune-building in the manner of classical minimalism, and a space-filling, often self-consciously beautiful, use of sound colour. Godspeed You Black Emperor! in particular have been labelled "apocalyptic" post-rock, due to their running theme of the destruction of civilisation, and the spirit of humanity in the face of impending or recent apocalypse.
The band who have perhaps made the most colourful variety of noises in this genre were formed by Godspeed You Black Emperor! members Efrim Menuck (voice/guitar/piano), Sophie Trudeau (violin) and Thierry Amar (bass). Though they frequently modify their name, they're usually known by what they started off as - A Silver Mt Zion. With a couple of gorgeous albums, He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms and Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward, they distilled this "apocalyptic" sound into a warm and luminous instrumental style. Their first really individual twist on the style was using lead vocals. Efrim's strident singing voice is probably their most distinctive, and potentially off-putting, feature, though it lends them plenty of punk vigour and makes for an exciting live experience. An even more interesting sideways turn ("This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing,) saw them building a rousing harmony choir and then crushing them in post-industrial oblivion. Despite the "post-rock" label, a lot of the time you can't even call A Silver Mt. Zion "rock" - later they twisted their sound into a sort of surreal protest-folk sound that doesn't sound like it came from any country or tradition (Horses in the Sky). The image I always return to is musicians beside a post-apocalyptic campfire. Their latest release 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons isn't great, but any of their other albums are well worth investigating.
A Silver Mt. Zion - He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms (2000)
With this nearly flawless album of luscious instrumental music, Efrim and co's Montreal collective set themselves apart from their parent group Godspeed You Black Emperor! with a warmer and more concise take on the "apocalyptic post-rock" style. With lyrical melodies developed from minimalism, and with the greatest care taken in how piano, guitars, violin and bass are effected and combined, they sculpt an austere but beautifully elegant sound. ...Read more
The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band with Choir - "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing, (2003)
As they recruited more musicians, and their pieces fattened to an album of four quarter-hour tracks, it seemed only natural for Silver Mt. Zion to release their third album with a lengthened band name and album title. Now both their moniker and ensemble are joined by a choir. On the ambitious opening piece, this ragged vocal group takes the stage with some rousing and strange harmonies...Read more
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band - Horses In The Sky (2005)
The Silver Mt. Zion sound seems to have travelled a long way from post-rock romantic beauty for their fourth full album. "Horses in the Sky" is an uncompromising listen, whose style, if it can be described at all, is a surreal, twisted sort of folk music. And though they never took a cheery view of the world, their lyrics here are gloomier than ever, now with a loose theme of the tragedy of war and those commanded to fight it. While they occasionally wallow in bare acoustic misery, some inspired and strange music manages to lift our spirits from the dirt and build some semblance of hope....Read more
Named after a galaxy visible in the constellation Hydra (rather than a non-existent Scottish motorway) M83 were formed by Anthony Gonzalez and Nicholas Fromageau in Antibes, south France. After an uninspiring, though promising in retrospect, debut (M83, review), they made two of the decade's finest albums with the sweeping landscapes of Dead Seas, Red Cities and Lost Ghosts (review). and (after the departure of Fromageau) the raw drama of Before the Dawn Heals Us (review). These were huge creations, maintaining a spine-tingling excitement from lush harmonies of warm noise, fat electronics, fuzzed guitars and breathy vocals. More recently they've dabbled in icy ambient (Digital Shades, review) and crisped up their lavish sound with a distinct 1980s pop flavour on the sunny Saturdays = Youth (review).
It's a cliche to describe instrumental rock music as a "soundtrack for imaginary movies", but instead of being too precious to have their pure muse sullied by reference to more superficial artforms, M83 are honest enough to embrace and build on that cinematic image. They frequently include imaginary film dialogue samples, and have even allowed their music to be extensively borrowed for soundtracks. Most importantly their music has a visceral drama that stands on its own. It's so easy to love because of that straightforward honesty, on top of their freshness, exuberance and plain dazzling soundscaping.
More selfishly, they seem to be just made for me, taking the best elements of a lot of styles I've loved in the past. The distorted intensity of shoegaze (Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine) updated by the more modern post-rock dynamics of Mogwai and Sigur Ros, with a dash of the high romance of the old synth maestros like Vangelis with pleasingly dirtier electronics, all sounding completely fresh.
Oh and they have the cutest of official band website names!!! OMG www.ilovem83.com!!! AndI♥ponies!!!
M83 - Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (2003)
Anthony Gonzalez and Nicholas Fromageau hit the mainstream with this exhilarating album that envelops you in a continuous sweep of drama. Hugely ambitious, their alternately driving and sweepingly romantic rock/electronic instrumentals take you across the world and back, whirling though geological landscapes, urban skylines and the babble of human society....Read more
M83 - Before the Dawn Heals Us (2005)
As if to compensate for the departure of collaborator Nicholas Fromageau, M83 mainstay Anthony Gonzalez pulled off the remarkable feat of making their monumental instrumental theatre even bigger. But instead of the tour around the planet evoked by "Dead Seas, Red Cities and Lost Ghosts", their third album works at a human level, playing out a melodrama of high emotions, rendered with huge, huge music....Read more
M83 - Saturdays = Youth (2008)
Being a teenager, in general, sucks. As does much of the music people tend to listen to when the hormones start sloshing around. But just as fantasy and escapism can make life bearable at the time, by looking back with a nostalgic eye we can pick out the best parts and piece together a story of carefree, though occasionally tear-stained, youth. That's the approach Anthony Gonzalez takes for his latest grand creation, which evokes a romanticised 1980's high-school world, with an eye on movies like "The Breakfast Club" and his lavish sound now tinged with Tears For Fears and Duran Duran....Read more
The Dead Texan - The Dead Texan | Brian McBride - When the Detail Lost its Freedom | MONO & World's End Girlfriend - Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain | Tarentel - From Bone To Satellite | Yndi Halda - Enjoy Eternal Bliss | Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band - 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons | The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band - Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward | Thee Silver Mountain Reveries - The "Pretty Little Lightning Paw" EP | M83 - Digital Shades | Protogonos - Strange Geographie