Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pretentious Dinosaurs

For a change of pace, I'd like to introduce you to three songs from what I'll call "neo-progressive" rock bands: O.S.I., Opeth, and UKZ.  You can click on the rubricated hyperlinks below at your leisure.  Perhaps a brief explanation of this genre is in order.  Let me break it down into two parts.  The label "progressive rock" essentially refers to a style of music that matured in the Seventies with bands such as Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, and King Crimson.  These bands vary in their lineups, instrumentation, lyrical themes, and general mood, but they share some commonalities: thoughtful lyrics (for the most part), long instrumental sections, multi-part epics with recurring motifs, a variety of time signatures, incorporation of classical or jazz music, and greater attention to the music rather than hype and stage antics.

By "neo-progressive" I mean a genre of music that has taken many of these aforementioned elements of old-school progressive rock but has added a harder edge.  Usually this means heavy guitars and a faster pace.  The labels "neo-progressive" and "progressive metal" are almost interchangeable, for many of these bands, excluding UKZ which has more of a jazz fusion base, could qualify as "metal."  I suppose the American group Dream Theater has had the most success since the progressive metal renaissance of the 1990s.  For some of you music buffs out there, you might find my definition of this hybrid genre rather inadequate.  In my defense, I just want to get to the musical selections below!  Call this music what you want.  Some people, who dismiss music they don't understand or can't dance to or could never play themselves, refer to this genre, or its practitioners at any rate, as "pretentious dinosaurs."  I sometimes use this epithet with tongue-in-cheek affection.

Pardon a few more prefatory remarks before we delve into the musical goodies.  I'd like to take this moment to recognize two individuals who have turned me on to progressive music; both of them are phlegmatic in temperament and play the bass guitar, but they don't know each other and come from different periods in my life.  Andy introduced me to progressive music via Rush and Genesis in high school; he also encouraged me to switch from drums to keyboards back in the day.  Geoff, a creative partner in musical crime in the more recent past, has graciously supplied me with nuggets of music, new and old and usually outside the mainstream, such as the three songs I'm commenting upon here.  We formed a progressive rock band years ago and upon its demise continued to work on songwriting and recording.  Our friendship has since gone beyond music, though distance and our respective solitary natures have us meeting but once in a blue moon.

The following songs have a dark and intense tone.   Those of you unfamiliar with progressive rockmost of the readers of this blog, I suspectwill probably get a skewed notion of this genre.  I say dark, but not necessarily negative or depressing.  Major keys are great for giving us a cheerful disposition, but sometimes dissonance can provide even more musical solace to the weary of heart.  In all seriousness, I don't know how I'd cope without the diminished fifth and Phrygian scale.

The first selelection is  Radiologue  (2009) by O.S.I. or Office of Strategic Influence.  The band includes ex-Dream Theater keyboardist Kevin Moore, Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos, and drummer Gavin Harrison—a kind of super group under the radar that released its third CD this past year.  The tune features ambient keyboards and electronica samples, a catchy driving chord progression, and a powerful chorus that builds at the end.  You must listen to it on headphones to catch some of the nuances and subtleties of the soundscapes.  Moore’s inimitable vocal style, rather subdued and laid-back, seems perfectly suited for the atmospheric and melancholic feel of the song.  Perhaps the tune will resonate with the wistful impulse that autumn brings out in you, no?  Harrison is hands down my favorite drummer; he replaced Dream Theater’s (ex) drummer Mike Portnoy on this record.  This song doesn’t necessarily showcase his full talent, but do take note of his double-kick work just as the last chorus comes to a close.  Feel the subtle power and momentum as Moore sings through the final iteration of the chorus.  The main motif, played in octaves, begins with an acoustic guitar, but eventually the electric guitar and keyboards join in on the riff. 

If you'll permit me a superlative, the best song outro in the history of humankind can be heard in Opeth's song Deliverance (2002), in case you were wondering.  Opeth is a five-piece Swedish metal band fronted by the talented Mr. Mikael Akerfeldt.  While many progressive metal acts featuring virtuoso chops and operatic vocals have come from Scandinavia in the last couple of decades, Opeth is arguably a different breed.  Thanks to Akerfeldt's diverse vocal ability, the band manages to keep a foot in both the "death metal" scene and in the old-school progressive world à la Genesis.  They're not afraid to take on a melodic ballad in one moment, only to drive off into a musical blitzkrieg in the next.  A case in point is the title song of their CD Deliverance, which features acoustic guitars in some sections and heavy "cookie monster" vocals in the next.  If you don't like the song, if it's not your cup of tea, then at least forward it to 9:39, and enjoy the ride, every nuance, as the repeated riff presses on with precision and intensity to the very end. Kudos to the drumming in particular.

Our final selection is Radiation (2008) from UKZ.  Fronted by keyboardist and electric violinist Eddie Jobson (pictured at the top), UKZ features an international group of top-notch musicians.  Trey Gunn, noted Chapman stick and touch-style Warr guitar player, is the one American in the group and best known for his work with King Crimson.  Indeed, "Radiation" has a Crimson feel to it, most notably the chorus riff and the rhythm guitar work in the verses.  The song is great from beginning to end in my estimation.  The keyboard sounds and atmosphere are not over the top.  In fact, while Jobson is one of the best keyboardists in the annals of rock and has a classical background, he relegates  virtuoso "noodling" to the background and focuses on mood and feel.  That's not to say, however, that the instrumental section doesn't bedazzle with technical mastery.  It showcases the talents of German drummer Marco Minneman, Austrian guitarist Alex Machacek, and Jobson on violin.  Minneman breaks through the soft opening of the instrumental section with tom and double-kick work in masterful precision not unlike Terry Bozzio.  Note how the end of the guitar solo glides seamlessly into Jobson's distorted electronic violin.  (The video nicely shows Machacek's sweep-picking of arpeggios and a legato style à la Alan Holdsworth.)  Aaron Lippert's vocals are superb, and the distortion on the voice adds to the subject matter and overall mood.  A Boston real estate agent of Belgian descent, Lippert is perhaps the one unknown member of the band, but he holds his own.  One word characterizes the performances on this track: tasteful.  "Radiation" appears on the band's 4-song EP they released last year.  You might not have heard of Jobson before, but his fans have waited a quarter of a century for his return to rock.  Along with Keith Emerson and the boys in Rush, he has probably exerted more musical influence on me than anyone else in rock.  (Don't worry, Chopin, you're still my first love!)