Shouts On Goal
“Talent is a wonderful thing, but it won’t carry a quitter.”
NORMIE MONDAY ep. 72 - Toy Matinee
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. Last week, I reviewed an album by Giraffe, the first significant project by Kevin Gilbert (one of my favorite singer/songwriters). This week, I’m continuing on with the tragic saga of Kevin Gilbert by reviewing the first and only album from Toy Matinee, a project that saw him abandoning his previous Bay-area group and heading for the bright lights of L.A.
After Giraffe won the Yamaha-sponsored Soundcheck Competition in 1988, Kevin Gilbert (who was the lead singer and principle songwriter in Giraffe) was approached by Patrick Leonard (one of the judges of the competition) about undertaking a musical project together. Patrick Leonard had achieved great success as a producer of some of the biggest musical acts of the 1980’s, most notably Madonna and post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd (two associations that would heavily shape the outcome of his new project with Gilbert). Leonard managed to seduce Gilbert away from his fledgling Giraffe band with the promise of fame, fortune, major label backing and a chance to work with some of the biggest names in music. In a move that would soon come to haunt him in a darkly karmic fashion, Gilbert abandoned his Giraffe band mates and moved to L.A. to work with Leonard.
The new project was eventually titled Toy Matinee, named after one of the songs on the album. Patrick Leonard enlisted the help of some of the hottest session players of the L.A. scene to back up himself and Gilbert. The bass was handled by Guy Pratt, who had acted as Pink Floyd’s touring bassist following the departure of Roger Waters and had played on Madonna’s Like A Prayer and Bryan Ferry’s Bête Noire (both albums that Leonard had produced). Lead guitar duties (Gilbert handled most of the rhythm parts) were assigned to Tim Pierce, mostly known for playing lead guitar in Rick Springfield’s band throughout the 1980’s (though he’s also played with Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Elton John and a whole host of others). Initially, Gilbert and Leonard had wanted Terry Bozzio (best known for a stint with Frank Zappa) to play drums, but he was unavailable. Instead, they went with Brian MacLeod, a young drummer that Kevin had known for several years. Though his resume was much less impressive than Pratt or Pierce (by that point he’d played with Wire Train and former Go-Go’s member Jane Wiedlin), he would become a noted session drummer in the 1990’s. Also, unlike Pratt and Pierce, MacLeod’s association with Gilbert did not end with this album, as he’s worked with Gilbert on several more of his subsequent projects.
Julian Lennon (first son of Beatle and rock legend John Lennon) also joined the proceedings by provided background vocals on two songs (Leonard had just finished producing Lennon’s 1989 album Mr. Jordan). Although Patrick Leonard was a noted producer in his own right, for this new project he wanted to be more in a musician/songwriter position, handling most of the keyboards himself (though Gilbert also provided some keys), so he hired Bill Bottrell to produce the album, who had by that point worked on three Electric Light Orchestra albums, Michael Jackson’s Bad, Madonna’s Like A Prayer (with Leonard), The Traveling Wilbury’s Vol. 1 and Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever (not to mention several others). Bottrell immediately formed a close bond with the young Gilbert and would go on to have a major impact on his life and career (as we shall see more of next week). Concurrent to his work with Toy Matinee, Bottrell was working with Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album, and he managed to get Kevin Gilbert involved with that project as well, with Gilbert providing some sequencer work for Jackson’s smash hit “Black Or White.” Additionally, both Leonard and Bottrell were concurrently working on Madonna’s I’m Breathless album (her soundtrack to the Dick Tracy movie). Gilbert engineered the recordings and even co-produced one track, and Guy Pratt and Tim Pierce also made significant bass and guitar contributions (respectively) to that album, providing somewhat of a link between I’m Breathless and the self-titled Toy Matinee.
Patrick Leonard’s inspiration for forming Toy Matinee was to play in a real band that collaborated on songs and hung out together. He’d grown tired of the L.A. session scene where musicians mostly worked for money and had no personal or emotional connection between the music and the artists that they played for. Essentially, Leonard wanted to go back to the garage (so to speak) and record an album where all of the band members were involved and emotionally invested in the music. According to an interview with Brian MacLeod, he had become very close friends with Gilbert and Pratt (and Julian Lennon for a short time) and they would often go clubbing and have a grand ol’ time on the L.A. strip. Though MacLeod also says that the recording of the album was fraught with frequent disagreements, and Gilbert and Leonard often butted heads about the material. Still, the resulting album may have benefited from the quarreling, as it displays a wide range of influences and directions, ranging from AOR to synth pop to pop rock to prog rock to folk to funk. This assembling of styles is part of what makes it such a rewarding listen.
Toy Matinee opens with (what I feel to be) the strongest song on the album, “Last Plane Out.” It begins with a dizzying climb up a chromatic keyboard riff, starting on piano and morphing to a strange synth as it progresses. After this, a short bit of industrial sounding drums and a sample from the middle of the forthcoming track lead to the main portion of the song. A pair of harmonized bouzoukis (a Greek stringed instrument similar to a mandolin) begin playing a fancy, dancing melody that has a vaguely Old English feel to it. As the melody comes to a close, the band launches into the groove of the song with Pratt and MacLeod laying down a fat groove while Pierce plays shimmering guitar arpeggios over the top of it. When Gilbert begins singing, his vocal maturation since Giraffe becomes immediately apparent. He’s now singing with more of a conversational tone and putting much more emotion into his delivery. The lyrics of this song deal with the overly decadent nature of America and how our deeds are slowly destroying the world. Gilbert then hopes for, “Passage on the last plane out,” in a Noah’s Arc-type scenario where the world is destroyed and there’s one (hypothetical) way off.
After the funky verse, the chorus takes off with soaring vocal harmonies and majestically strummed bouzouki. Gilbert wails emotionally, injecting Gospel-influenced solo vocal lines between the tightly harmonized main vocal lines. After the chorus, a brief reprise of the harmonized twin bouzoukis drops us back into the funky verse. After another verse and chorus, the harmonized bouzouki passage is once again restated and expanded upon before Leonard and Pierce begin playing a catchy melody in unison on the organ and guitar (respectively). This leads to a bridge that alternates Gilbert’s emotive voice with the organ/guitar melody. After this, the harmonized bouzouki line quickly brings us back to another verse, followed by the final triumphant chorus. This song was chosen to be a single, the second released from the album, reaching #23 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
The next track is probably the quirkiest song on the album. “Turn It On Salvador” is dedicated to surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and makes several references to his artwork in the lyrics. It begins with a slashing electric guitar chord before the rhythm section makes its entrance via a couple of tightly synced accents. The band drops into a funky groove with Guy Pratt laying down a fat fretless bass groove. The lyrics of this song prove almost as indecipherable as Dalí’s artwork, often seeming like random strings of nonsense words. At the end of the verse, a climbing chord progression leads into a cute little piano melody that goes into the chorus where a choir of tightly harmonized voices (one of which belonging to Julian Lennon) sing, “Didn’t he say how he likes to make the holes? Time melts away while he tries to make the holes.” After another verse and chorus comes an immensely clever middle section where the harmonized voices sing, “Da da da da da da,” (Dalí was sometimes associated with the Dadaist movement in art) with a clarinet trio playing a jazzy melody in the background. Following this neat section, Pierce takes a tasty guitar solo before the final chorus. At the end of the song, they return to the “Da da da da da da” section, and the music slowly fades out leaving only the clarinets honking away like a Dixieland jazz band.
Up next is the less funky, slightly calmer “Things She Said.” It begins with Gilbert gently strumming an acoustic guitar backed by a thin synth pad. Pratt adds some dancing fretless bass lines before Gilbert begins singing the lyrics that seem to be about a failed romance. Gilbert turns in some great lines, such as, “The eyes that hold the promise of perfection will find the flaw that no one can erase.” After the mellow verses, the band picks it up into a much more uptempo chorus which falls back down for the second verse. Julian Lennon also provides backing vocals for this song, and his voice is more noticeable in this one. After the second chorus, the band moves into a charging bridge, followed by the final verse and chorus.
Another of my favorites is up next, the very Tears For Fears-sounding “Remember My Name.” It begins with a sequenced synthesizer beat that persists in the background throughout the song. When the band drops into the song, Pierce plays a two-note harmonics melody that reminds me of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears For Fears, and the beat and overall feel of that song aren’t too dissimilar either. Gilbert dedicated this song to Czechoslovakian poet/playwright Václav Havel, but the capacity of his inspiration on this song remains a mystery to me. This song has a fairly static beat (unlike several other songs on the album that jump around a lot and play with sudden dynamic shifts), but the beat is solid, and the band gives it a slow buildup in intensity. Gilbert’s vocals are especially impressive in this song, almost hitting some Mercurian (as in Freddie Mercury) heights of grandeur. The lyrics seem to be a plea for recognition in an increasingly faceless world, with Gilbert emotively wailing, “The martyrs and madmen I learned of in school will remember my name,” and then later, “Spellbound in anger, my heroes have failed to remember my name.” In the final chorus, he lets go with some vocal cord-shredding wails that are infinitely impressive. At the time of recording, several members of the band (including producer Bill Bottrell) thought that this song would be the lead single from the album, but it never reached the single stage. It was, however, used in the soundtrack for the 1991 teen comedy Mystery Date.
The album’s title track (and the band’s namesake) comes next, the melodramatic “Toy Matinee.” It begins with the sound of an old mechanical toy being wound up before some ethereal piano chords are introduced. Gilbert begins singing the lyrics (some of the best on the album) about the mindless dance of life that so many people engage in, never reaching for anything great or attempting anything special. The melancholic piano is soon joined by rumbling bass and a mellow tribal beat on the toms. Tim Pierce plays some especially noteworthy guitar on this song, his singing melodies weaving in and out between the vocal lines. At the end of the song, the piano and guitar take turns playing spacious melodies until the end of the song, where the previously wound-up toy slowly winds down to nothingness.
“Queen Of Misery” is up next, and it’s probably my least favorite song on the album. It has more of a decidedly “80’s” quality than anything else on the album with the sequencers chirping away. Reportedly, this song was written about Madonna, whom Leonard knew very well personally and almost the whole band was working with around the same time. Whoever the song is about, it paints a picture of a lonely woman with a lot of complexes, hangups and a daddy complex. The bouncing bass of Guy Pratt is the highlight of this song, with his busy-yet-supportive line driving the song along and providing a human touch to the cold sequencers.
The next track, “The Ballad Of Jenny Ledge,” is probably the best known song on the album. It was the first single released from the album, reaching #23 on the Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. It’s a catchy song about a former girlfriend of Gilbert’s who left him for an Elvis impersonator. As such, the track’s lyrics are peppered with references to Elvis songs. Gilbert ruminates on how “Jenny” (as she’s called in the song, though it’s not her real name) decided to stop trying and choose security (I assume that Elvis impersonators make a pretty decent living) over living an adventurous and bohemian lifestyle. This song is anchored by a funky electric piano figure from Leonard and a bubbling bass line from Pratt. Every now and then, Pierce turns in a rippling electric guitar chord that washes over the listener. This song successfully walks a fine line between humorous (all the Elvis references) and poignant (lines like, “My anger unspoken, my eyes are learning to cry instead”). The song ends with Gilbert singing a few lines from “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”
Up next is one of the more serious songs on the album. Reportedly, Patrick Leonard wrote “There Was A Little Boy” about a friend of his that was dying from AIDS. The lyrics talk about this friend’s unhappy childhood with an uncaring mother and abusive step-father. He moves away from home young and finds happiness in the embrace of men. The song talks about all of his insecurities, fears and shame, but the chorus reminds us that, before it all, “There was a little boy.” Musically, the song has some ambient piano noodling at the start and between the verses. You can really hear Bill Bottrell’s experiences working with Jeff Lynne (who was his mentor) on this song, particularly the rhythm track which has that exceptionally tight feel that late 80’s/early 90’s Tom Petty recordings possess. Also of note is Tim Pierce’s slightly dissonant little guitar melodies after the choruses, which are doubled by a Mellotron. The song ends with the noodling piano taking on a more prominent role.
The album ends with the folksy “We Always Come Home,” Patrick Leonard’s tribute to his childhood and his family. It’s the only song on the album that credits Leonard as the sole writer. It begins with a pair of quiet acoustic guitars arpeggiating the chord progression over which Gilbert sings the first verse. His singing on this song seems not to possess the same level of emotionality that it does on the other songs, possibly due to his lack of participation in the writing process. It’s still a great song, though. Leonard provides some tasty electric piano accents, and the infinitely anthemic sing-a-long chorus of “We always come home,” is endlessly memorable. It ends the album on a very heartfelt and emotional level.
Toy Matinee was released on Reprise Records in June of 1990 to little fanfare. By the time of the album’s release, the unified band that Patrick Leonard had envisioned had crumbled. The three session musicians went back to their day jobs. Guy Pratt went back to play bass with Pink Floyd (can you blame him?) and didn’t have time to dedicate to Toy Matinee. Brian MacLeod went back to playing with Wire Train (who he has said were like his brothers), though he maintained a close working relationship with Kevin Gilbert. Tim Pierce went back to his gig as a high-profile session guitarist (he seemed like the least concerned with being in a real “band” to begin with). Patrick Leonard, unsettled by the daunting task of putting together another band, chose to abandon the project and went to produce Roger Waters’ Amused To Death album in England (which Tim Pierce also worked on).
That left Kevin Gilbert with an album on a major label and nothing happening to it. Gilbert, not content to sit around, assembled a band to tour and promote the album. He enlisted the prominent Bay area guitarist Marc Bonilla, drummer Toss Panos, bassist Spencer Campbell and a then-unknown Sheryl Crow on keyboards. He made frequent appearances on L.A. radio shows (most notably Mark and Brian on KLOS) and toured up and down the West Coast, eventually getting the album into the Billboard top 200 (it peaked at #129) and getting the two singles mentioned earlier to both peak at #23. While on tour, Gilbert and Crow would become romantically involved, and the fruit of their collaborative efforts will be the subject of next weeks article, so stay tuned.
In summary, if you enjoy music that is intricate and clever, but catchy and fun, then Toy Matinee is for you. The lyrics can be a bit dark and jaded at times (a sign of Gilbert’s growing cynicism and depression), but the juxtaposition with the perky music provides an interesting contrast. It is one of the most significant releases in the tragic saga of Kevin Gilbert, his first major-label release, and his first minor taste of success. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/2ocngKAIWALXzsaeT2i4Av
Shouts On Goal
"The joy in life is his who has the heart to demand it."
NORMIE MONDAY ep. 71 - The Power Of Suggestion
Hello music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. The final song on last week’s featured album, Spock’s Beard’s V, was a near-30 minute prog rock composition entitled “The Great Nothing.” The track’s narrative was based on Spock’s Beard frontman Neal Morse’s own failed attempts to make it in the music business combined with the tragic story of the band’s friend and fellow musician Kevin Gilbert, one of my personal favorite songwriters. I thought that I’d follow up my review of Spock’s Beard’s V with a series of articles detailing the life, work and untimely demise of Kevin Gilbert, starting with a look at one of his first releases of any significant merit, his band Giraffe’s debut album The Power Of Suggestion.
Kevin Gilbert was born in New Jersey, but his family moved to Sacramento, California when he was young. Kevin showed an early aptitude towards music, starting piano lessons at the age of six. As a teenager, he landed a job at the small Sensa Sound recording studio in nearby Sunnyvale, starting as a lowly errand boy before moving up to a technical position. Working at the studio gave Gilbert the freedom to hone his songwriting, performing and producing skills. He was given free reign over the studio after hours, where he cut his first album in 1984 when he was just eighteen years old, a prog rock band with his friend Jason Hubbard entitled NRG. Another project from these formative years was a collaboration between Gilbert, fellow songwriter Robert Ferris, keyboardist/programmer Michael Abowd and guitarist Oliver Harris that would eventually morph into the group Giraffe.
After graduating from Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, he spent a year at UCLA’s film school before dropping out once he got an offer to play keyboards on tour with Eddie Money during his 1987 “Take Me Home Tonight” tour. Gilbert later spoke unfavorably of this experience, citing Money’s heroin addiction and his own feelings of being taken advantage of by Money’s managers as his main reasons for leaving that organization. After this, Gilbert moved back to Sunnyvale to continue working on his own material. He found that Sensa Sound studio had been purchased and renamed The Recording Studio (T.R.S.) by a drummer named J. Scott Smith, whom Gilbert quickly became close friends with. Gilbert played Smith some of the material that he’d been working on before going to college, and Smith showed a keen interest on working on it. Gilbert got back in touch with old friend Michael Abowd, and Smith brought in his old friend, guitarist Stan Cotey. The lineup was completed with the addition of bassist Chris Beveridge.
The quintet took the original recordings that Gilbert had made with Abowd, Robert Ferris and Oliver Harris, updated and significantly overdubbed them and added more newly written material to complete the band’s first album. The group took its name from a joke that Kevin Gilbert and Robert Ferris had where they were making fun of bands that use the initials of the members’ last names to create a band name. Gilbert took the “Gi” from his last name and combined it with Ferris’s initials (R.A.F.) to create GIRAF, which was how Gilbert labeled all the original tapes that he’d made. When he reformed the band, he decided to keep it but changed it to the more conventionally spelled Giraffe.
The recordings were completed by the end of 1987, and one of the more interesting developments of the story came next. Gilbert had a friend that worked in a plant that manufactured CD-ROMs, and he convinced this friend to press 500 copies of Giraffe’s first album, by now titled The Power Of Suggestion, onto CD, essentially becoming the first musical act to ever independently press their own CD’s. This was accomplished in early 1988, and Gilbert set about putting copies of The Power Of Suggestion in record stores on consignment and feverishly entering the recording in band contests and showcases. This strategy paid off, as Giraffe was selected as one of eight finalists for the Yamaha-sponsored Soundcheck Competition, which the band won later on in 1988.
While the digital sheen and heavily sequenced nature of the music do sound a bit dated by today’s standards, the music on The Power Of Suggestion definitely shows the burgeoning talents of the still relatively young (21 years old) Kevin Gilbert. Reviews have labeled the neo-progressive Giraffe as sounding like what Genesis would have sounded like if Peter Gabriel had never quit. I also hear the influence of Hall And Oates 80’s material and synth pop bands like Tears For Fears and Big Country. However, underneath all of the layers of digital sequencers and glossy 80’s production lies a batch of songs that are melodically interesting and often times immediately catchy. Although the lyrics sometimes fall into the standard “I love you” relationship-type lyrics, glimpses of the sharp-tongued wit and social consciousness that would become one of Gilbert’s signatures occasionally poke their head through.
The album opens with the short instrumental “Overture.” Though not an overture in the strictest sense, as it doesn’t pull together several themes throughout the course of the album, it does provide a powerful opening to the album. After a brief bit of dissonant synth noise, a sampled voice (it sounds like it’s from some old piece of war propaganda or something) says, “This is the power of suggestion.” This leads into a tense drum machine rhythm underpinned by a thin synth pad and a clean electric guitar accenting dramatic chords on the fourth beat. Eventually, a funky bass line joins the mix and soon a propulsive live drum track is added. Several odd samples from old movies are employed over the course of this short song, a trend that resurfaces frequently throughout the course of the album. It closes with a sampled voice saying, “By following the simple directions in the manual and listening carefully to the record, you will find yourself dancing almost immediately.”
This segues into the next track, the funky 80’s synth pop of “The Last Thing On Your Mind.” This track also features Dan Meblin on guitar and Greg Garcia on bass. It begins with a very dry drum drum beat before a bubbling synth line and funky slap-bass line is added. After the first verse, some searing guitar lines are added before dropping into the chorus, which brings things up for an ascending chord progression and energetic synth stabs. The song goes through a few more verses and choruses before ending on an off-beat after Gilbert builds up the intensity with his soaring vocals.
The next track shows the most obvious Genesis influence. “In Every Line” is a neat little song about the goals of writers and the ultimate defeat that almost always awaits them. It is anchored by a staccato rhythm from a sequencer and a twinkling synth pad. The band brings things up dynamically for the chorus where Gilbert does his best Phil Collins impression (seriously, his melodic phrasing is almost identical to Collins during this stage of his musical development). After a down-tempo bridge comes a tasty guitar solo that is followed by one last anthemic chorus that is spiked with additional guitar fills. After a quick bit of drum machine beats, the song ends with a sampled voice saying, “I am starting to experience the joys of a mind free from strain and a body charged with energy.”
Up next is probably the highlight of the album. “This Warm Night” is a moody, yet tense bit of 80’s pop. It begins with a tribal programmed beat underscored by odd guitar squeals and strange synth sounds. Gilbert’s voice possesses a nimble melodicism, strong tonal center and inviting delivery, but at this young age he’d still had a bit to learn about injecting emotion into the lines (don’t worry, by the early 90’s he would definitely master this). After the soaring vocals in the verse comes the chorus, where Gilbert sings in a hushed voice, “I move with the intent, she moves like an accident. We come together, I hold her tight. Her heart is a quick drum, the last of an evening sun. We dance together on this warm night.” After another verse and chorus, the band brings it down for one quick half verse before exploding back into a full on tribal drum jam with an atmospheric piano melody poking out through the rhythmic melange. Live, the band would extend this end into a full-on percussion jam with every member of the band picking up some sort of percussion device. This was one of the two songs that helped Giraffe win first place at Yamaha’s Soundcheck Competition.
The next track, “Image Maker,” is a track that Gilbert would revisit almost a decade later (foreshadowing a subsequent review). It begins with a spacey synth wash before an odd programmed rhythm is introduced. As this progresses, the synths build up until it gives way to a jittery synth bass melody over which Gilbert speak-sings the lyrics about the shallowness and deception of the music industry (a theme that would become one of Gilbert’s major lyrical motifs, as we shall soon see). For the chorus, Gilbert goes back to his typical soaring vocals. For the instrumental bridge, the band engages in some very 80’s-sounding “Hi-yo, hi-yo” singing. After another verse and chorus, the song ends with eight seconds of silence and a sampled voice saying, “You have just heard eight seconds of silence, and silence is one of the most powerful tools at your command.”
“Because Of You,” the next track, would go on to become probably the band’s best known song (not that it was any kind of major hit or anything). Indeed, Gilbert would rework the lyrics into a much less 80’s sounding, more 90’s friendly song for his first solo album, 1995’s Thud. As with most of the songs on the album, it begins with a programmed beat and synth sequencers before expounding upon that with vocals and live instruments. The lyrics express a combination of admiration for a potential lover and self-loathing (another trait that Gilbert would soon become known for, unfortunately). The opening line of the first verse is particularly clever, “’Cause you are the highest building and I am the street. I guess it will take an earthquake for our eyes to meet.” After the first verse, things pick up a bit as the sparse piano chords are filled in by busy programmed beats and sequencers. The vocal chant in the chorus of, “Da de doe da da doe” is one of the songs more memorable characteristics. This was the other song that the band chose to play for Yamaha’s Soundcheck Competition, and it was the single track that the group chose to repeat for the Band Explosion competition in Japan later on that year.
Up next comes a slightly more gentle ballad, a nice respite from the pounding drum sequencers. “Everything We Are” begins with a mellow guitar arpeggio with a ticking hi-hat in the background. Gilbert begins singing the smooth verse before things pick up dramatically for the chorus where Gilbert sings lyrics about attempting to reconcile with a former lover because, “Love’s a part of everything we are.” This track features Oliver Harris on guitar, one of the original members of the project before Gilbert went off to College. He takes a ripping solo at the end of the song.
“New Patriots,” more than any other song on the album, shows an early indication of Gilbert’s jaded pessimism and distrust of conservationism and commercialism. The song is littered with samples from commercials, news reports and televangelists. The typical 80’s sequencers and drum machines are aided by tubular bells and orchestral stabs. Gilbert wails, “Everybody’s a new patriot, everybody’s a flag waver, everybody’s an American saver,” in the chorus. The best part of this song (and one of the highlights of the album overall) comes towards the end when Gilbert sings, “I want to thank you for keeping me whole. I want to thank you for keeping me clean. I want to thank you for keeping me blind in this shallow conservative dream,” over a dramatically rising chord progression.
Up next comes another ballad, the gentle “Can’t Make This Love Go Away,” another very Genesis-sounding track. It begins with a sparse programmed rhythm track before a synth begins padding out chords while another synth adds gentle staccato chord stabs over the top of it. Gilbert’s piano and soulful voice enters next, singing a song of love and rejection. For the chorus, a choir of voices join in with tight harmonies. The bridge of this song is especially noteworthy, with the piano playing brisk stabbing chords as the song takes on more of an immediacy. After this, a pair of harmonized guitars play a tasty solo that recalls the vocal melody in the chorus. Although this song is a little bit cheesy, it has a winning melody and a unique enough chord progression to provide for some interesting listening.
The next track, “The World Just Gets Smaller,” is another of the main album highlights and an early example of Gilbert’s growing social consciousness. It begins with an exotic flute melody and an Eastern sounding programmed rhythm (something very akin to what Peter Gabriel was doing around this time). This is soon joined by a funky rhythm section and staccato synth stabs. Gilbert begins singing about the fears and irrationalities that people possess that keep us from loving our neighbors and (ultimately) keeping the world a big scary place. Gilbert then surmises, “But with the meeting of our hands, the world just gets smaller. We feel the same, we understand, the world just gets smaller. Without the hate inside our hearts, the world just gets smaller. We’ll never split this world apart, the world just gets smaller.” This song possesses a powerful message presented with poetically charged lyrics, and given a more subdued arrangement could have been a hit in any time period.
Up next comes the short “Power Reprise,” a brief return to the musical themes of “Overture,” but in a slightly faster, tenser form. It ends with a sample from Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, where Gene Wilder says, “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
Next, we get a remix of “Because Of You,” subtitled the “11th Hour Mix.” It’s a near-ten minute dance remix of the track that highlights the programmed beat and sequencers. It also features elements from “This Warm Night” and “Image Maker” mixed in, as well as a ripping guitar solo.
The album closes with the strange “Finale,” a short instrumental piece of ragtime-influenced piano that sounds strangely out of place on this album. The main figure of this track would be revisited for Giraffe’s next album for a song entitled “All Fall Down.”
Giraffe won Yamaha’s Soundcheck Competition by playing “This Warm Night” and “Because Of You.” This garnered the band a $25,000 in cash and equipment, a chance to record a 24-track demo with a professional producer and entrance into the Band Explosion contest in Japan, on which Giraffe placed second. More importantly, it garnered Giraffe a significant amount of exposure to record executives and A&R people. The Soundcheck Competition would prove to be a pivotal point in Kevin Gilbert’s life as one of the judges, a well known record producer named Patrick Leonard, approached Gilbert about starting a new project, but more on that next week. Giraffe recorded one more album, 1989’s exceptional The View From Here (probably better than The Power Of Suggestion overall), before dissolving so that Gilbert could move to Los Angeles to try his hand at a new project with Pat Leonard.
In summary, although The Power Of Suggestion may sound a little dated by today’s standards, it does contain some fine songs if you don’t mind wadding though the programmed drum beats, sequenced synthesizers and digital 80’s production. Really, it is more important as an early artifact in the life of the exceptionally talented Kevin Gilbert (honestly, I probably wouldn’t listen to this album if he wasn’t involved with it). Over the course of the next eight years, he honed his craft significantly, but some of the basic elements of his songcraft are still on display here. Stay tuned for a look at his work with Toy Matinee, Sheryl Crow and his heart-breakingly beautiful solo work. However, The Power Of Suggestion is a fine place to start in the journey that is the tragic story of Kevin Gilbert. I couldn’t recommend it more highly if you have a penchant for 80’s music and clever lyrics. Give it a listen, see what you think.
You can listen to the entire album here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLF088327B52D4B65F
NORMIE MONDAY ep. 70 - V
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. This week, I’ll be wrapping up my series detailing the main bands of the individual members behind the progressive rock supergroup Transatlantic. After articles on Marillion (bassist Pete Trewavas), Dream Theater (drummer Mike Portnoy) and The Flower Kings (guitarist Roine Stolt), I’ve saved (arguably) the best for last; vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist/songwriter Neal Morse’s Spock’s Beard and their 2000 masterpiece V.
Spock’s Beard was formed by the Morse brothers, Neal (lead vocals, keyboards and rhythm guitar) and Alan (lead guitar) in the early 90’s as a vehicle for Neal’s songwriting and composing. Neal had spent the 1980’s trying to make it as a singer/songwriter in L.A., but never managed to secure a record deal or garner any major attention. He wound up playing sets of cover tunes in small bars to make ends meet. After failing as a mainstream pop singer/songwriter, Neal joined forces with his brother Alan to form a group that focused on music that was just about as polarizingly opposite from his pop attempts as could possibly be. Neal was trying his hand out at his other musical love; progressive rock. The Morse brothers enlisted the help of veteran L.A. bassist Dave Meros (who had previously toured with the likes of Mark Lindsay, Gary Myrick, Bobby Kimball and Eric Burdon) and a relatively young drummer (about ten years younger than anyone else in the band) Nick D’Virgilio to form Spock’s Beard.
The band got its strange and silly name after Alan attended a wild party. Later, he commented to Neal about how the party seemed like it had been in an alternate universe, like in that Star Trek episode where Spock has a beard. The two joked about how that would be a funny band name. Later, when the band was trying to decide on a name, Alan stuck Spock’s Beard onto the list of possible candidates as a joke. The rest of the band thought it was funny and all decided to adopt the bizarre moniker.
Spock’s Beard recorded their first album in 1995, entitled The Light. Although their debut is probably their “proggiest” offering on the whole (it consists of only four extended compositions), it definitely shows Neal’s pop leanings, bringing melodic clarity, catchy hooks and soulful vocals to a genre (prog rock) more commonly known for melodic dissonance, freewheeling songcraft and high-pitched bombastic vocals. Indeed, Neal’s invitingly warm voice has always sounded (to me) like a cross between John Lennon, Don Henley and Billy Joel. Combined with music that harkened back to the glory days of progressive rock (think early Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull and Gentle Giant), The Light managed to secure Spock’s Beard a small, but rabid, group of followers who were tuned in to the group’s “prog pop” stylings.
Neal only refined his songcraft with each successive Spock’s Beard album, staring with 1996’s Beware Of Darkness (which saw the addition of second keyboardist Ryo Okumoto) and 1998’s The Kindness Of Strangers. Both of these albums worked shorter, more radio-friendly songs in between the prog rock epics, and Neal’s compositional and arranging skills only improved with each release. 1999’s Day For Night saw the group offering their most overtly mainstream set of songs yet, but unlike other bands of the genre who try to release poppier material (see Dream Theater’s Falling Into Infinity), Day For Night is actually a fine set of songs that manages to walk a fine line between commercially viable and artistically challenging.
Neal Morse befriended Mike Portnoy when Spock’s Beard was selected as the opening act for Dream Theater’s 1999 tour. The two put together the supergroup Transatlantic later on that year with The Flower Kings guitarist Roine Stolt and Marillion bassist Pete Trewavas. The association with the increasingly popular Dream Theater only bolstered Spock’s Beard’s popularity (indeed, it was how I first got into them), and the group responded by recording an album that harkened back to the expansive progressive rock of their debut, but maintained the finely honed songcraft and accessible song construction that Neal had developed over the previous five years. The album, eventually titled V (because it’s their fifth album), was recorded throughout the first half of 2000 at Kevin Gilbert’s Lawnmower and Garden Supply studio in Pasadena, CA (more on him later), with later overdubbing at Morse’s home studio.
V opens with one of the longer epics, the monumental “At The End Of The Day.” Possibly the greatest single track that Spock’s Beard ever released, it contains over the course of it sixteen-and-a-half minutes everything that makes the band special, all arranged into a perfect prog rock composition. It begins with a melancholic melody being played by a pair of English horns (courtesy of session musician Kathy Ann Lord). For the second statement of the melody, the English horns are joined by dramatic strings (played by noted Nashville session musician Chris Carmichael) that move to the forefront as the melancholic melody is replaced by one of soaring exuberance (this melody will be frequently revisited over the course of the song). After this, the band makes its formal entrance with a joyous chord progression on the electric piano underpinned by a bubbling eighth note bass line. As the electric piano progresses, it is joined by twinkling cymbals, a simple electric guitar figure and a quickly arpeggiating organ lick. As all of this builds, the bass and drums begin taking part in a bombastic rhythmic exchange of thunderous toms and rumbling bass notes. At the end of this, a tasty drum fill leads into the meat of the song, with Nick D’Virgilio and Dave Meros laying down a driving rock beat as the Morse brothers combine their synth and electric guitar for a tasty hook while Ryo Okumoto pads out the chords on the organ.
Neal begins singing at about the two minute mark, and it’s immediately apparent as to why his vocals stand out in the prog rock scene. They possess a soulful warmth and emotive phrasing not commonly associated with progressive rock. Neal’s lyrics tend to deal with themes of fate, destiny, morality, consciousness and self-discovery, and this song is no exception. “Earth dancing ‘round the fire. Come meet the Western sky. Life walking on a wire. Reach to know the reason why,” sings Neal in the first verse, with his richly vibrant voice easily becoming the main focal point. For the chorus, Nick, Alan and Dave harmonize with Neal (vocal harmonies are one of the band’s strongest suits, as we shall see later), “At the end of the day you’ll be lying in a suit of gray. At the end of the day you’ll be fine,” Neal’s way of pondering the finality of mortal existence and suggesting to not sweat the small stuff. After another verse (with the first half featuring a tribal beat on the toms) and chorus, the band falls back to (and expands upon) the soaringly exuberant string melody from the intro.
A major dynamic shift occurs next, with the soaring melody fading out to a tensely strummed acoustic guitar playing a vaguely Spanish-influenced chord progression. Upright bass and a bevy of percussive devices join the acoustic guitar before the organ begins picking out a Latin melody. After a quick break, the band reenters in full rock mode, adding crunching power chords and a driving beat to the Spanish chord progression. After one stanza of lyrics about someone who feels depressed and is hung up on self-pity, the band drops down to a softer jazzy beat over the Spanish chord progression as Neal shows off his keyboarding skills with a funky electric piano solo that walks a fine line between tasty and flashy. At the end of the solo, the band brings things back up to rock mode as a brass section takes over (played by trumpeter Joey Pippin and French horn player Katie Hagen), forcefully stating the organ motif from the beginning of the Spanish section. After another stanza of lyrics, the band enters a short mellow section anchored by delicate piano chords. Nick D’Virgilio and Neal Morse begin trading vocal lines, with Nick’s higher-pitched falsetto acting as the perfect foil to Neal’s warmer voice. A short, melodic guitar solo brings this brief section to a close.
Another quick shift leads to the meat of the middle section, a sombre chord progression with soaring vocals that builds in intensity as it progresses through a pair of verses and choruses. After this, the heavily distorted electric guitar begins pounding out the Spanish chord progression from earlier in full-on thrash mode while Ryo Okumoto takes a spiraling organ solo. This leads smoothly into a short synth solo from Neal before the whole band engages in some nimble unison riffing interspersed with goofy sound effects. The band then falls back to a restatement of the chorus from the previous section, followed by a soaring guitar solo from Alan.
The song ends by reverting to the theme from the band’s entrance at the beginning of the song, with another blazing guitar solo from Alan. Alan Morse is an interesting guitar player in that he never uses picks. He always plays fingerstyle, even for ripping solos. The guitar solo leads to a reprise of the first set of verses, with this final verse being one of the highlights of the song. Dave Meros turns in some preposterously agile fretless bass licks during this verse, doing his best Jaco Pastorius impersonation, while Alan lays down a funky wah-wah guitar figure. After one more triumphant chorus, Nick begins playing a mellow beat on the toms as the band winds down until the song ends with a quick flourish of piano notes. Overall, I find this to be one of the most tightly composed and superbly executed compositions of the entire progressive rock movement. Neal’s earlier epic compositions (i.e. “The Light,” “The Water” and “The Healing Colors Of Sound”) always tended to feel like the second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road (which Neal has admitted is one of his biggest influences), more like a collection of short vignettes sewn together with the occasional reoccurring motif than a cohesive whole. But this track never feels forced, and all the pieces flow together as if they were made to be that way.
The shorter songs start next with “Revelation,” a brooding hard rocker that features a rare co-writing credit from Alan, Nick and Ryo. It begins with some spacey sound effects before Dave starts plucking out some vibey chords on the bass while Neal creates some textures with a vibrato-effected electric piano. The drums enter with the vocals, with Neal singing about a romantic relationship that seemed to have a big effect on him, “If she’s the wind, then I’m a fan. Blowing through and changing who I am.” For the chorus, Alan’s fierce electric guitar joins the mix, laying down a sludgy hard rock riff as Neal wails, “It’s the rain of revelation, just keeps comin’ down. It’s the pain of pure elation I can’t live without.” The lyrics of this song hint at Neal’s ever-increasing Christianity, which would come to full fruition a few years later. After the first chorus, Neal takes a vibey electric piano solo. After the second chorus, the band plays a descending unison riff that leads into a powerful bridge. Another subdued electric piano solo leads into a fiery electric guitar solo from Alan that moves into the closing chorus, ending the song with one long held-out chord.
The next track, though short, is one of the most complex of the band’s career, the jaw-dropping “Thoughts (Part II),” co-written by Neal and Alan Morse. The first part of “Thoughts” was featured on Beware Of Darkness, and it was the band’s first attempt at the Gentle Giant-inspired counterpoint vocal harmonies that soon became one of their trademarks. “Thoughts (Part II)” begins with two acoustic guitars, one strumming out gentle chords while the other plays a mellow lead line. Over this, Neal sings, “I thought I’d come to you and say all the things I had on my mind. I thought it might be really great to show you how I feel inside. Then I think… MAYBE NOT!” Immediately after this brash exclamation, the band launches into one of the fiercest riffs that they’ve ever recorded. The bass and electric guitar lock into a hard rock groove while Nick lays down a thick Bonham-esque beat. As Neal and Ryo enter, adding odd counterpoint melodies on the piano and organ (respectively), the drums metrically modulate to a faster beat. After a bit of this, the band suddenly drops out as Neal, Alan, Nick and Dave begin doing the counterpoint vocal harmony section. “You wouldn’t speak to me, I would be left behind. We’d be through if you knew all the things in my mind,” sing all four of them with interweaving and interlocking rhythms and melodies. This song seems to explore the delicate balance of an intimate relationship and the difference between how your significant other perceives you and how you really are, with both parties opting to just remain quiet and not really reveal themselves to the other. After the first counterpoint vocal section, the band drops back in with a creepy piano/organ arpeggio over bombastic accents from the rhythm section. After a bit of climactic buildup with some distorted wah-wah bass, the band drops out again as Neal returns to the intro of the song with gentle organ and acoustic guitar. Once again, the mood shifts suddenly back to rock as Dave takes a ripping bass solo, which is interrupted by a Baroque string section that recalls the counterpoint vocal harmonies. The second time the string section comes in, it is peppered with dissonance and odd squeals of violin, creating a disconcerting feeling. After the strange string section, the band launches back into the main riff of the song with the vocalists returning to the counterpoint harmonies in full-band mode. After this, the band engages in some ferocious interplay before a wild drum fill signals the end of the song, with Neal doing a quick reprise of the intro of the song on acoustic guitar, “I thought I’d come to you and say all the things I had on my mind.”
The next song is the most obvious attempt at commerciality on the album, the poppy “All On A Sunday.” It begins with a catchy organ melody over a suspenseful rhythm section, with the bass laying down a tense eighth note bounce. After a few times through the melody, the band explodes into a fuller rocking version of the riff which builds up climactically until the band drops out on a dime to leave room for Neal’s energetically strummed acoustic guitar and cheery vocals. Lyrically, the song describes someone having a lazy Sunday, sleeping until noon and watching Ben Hur on TV. The narrator really wishes to get out and have a more exciting life, but can’t seem to find the motivation to get started. After a mellow verse, the band launches into an uplifting chorus, followed by a more uptempo verse with a groovy bass line. After another chorus, the band falls into a soaring bridge where the narrator exclaims, “I wanna live like the longest and curviest driveway.” At the end of the bridge, the band does a quick, somewhat psychedelic dissolve into spaciness before a return to the chorus signals the end of the song. This track was released as a single (only the second time that Spock’s Beard ever officially released a single), but for some reason they chose to completely rerecord it, cutting it down by about forty seconds.
Up next, we get the required Neal Morse ballad, but it happens to be one of his better ones (sometimes, they can be a little bit cheesy). “Goodbye To Yesterday” is (as the title would suggest) about letting go of the hangups of the past and moving boldly into the future. It begins with a gently finger-picked acoustic guitar before Neal’s soulful vocal enters, singing the first verse about someone who feels worn down by the trials of life. In the pre-chorus, an atmospheric Mellotron begins padding out the chords while an electric guitar (effected to sound like a sitar) plucks out a minimalistic melody, and when the chorus hits, a dulcet piano begins picking out twinkling notes. For the second verse, a mellow beat is introduced on hand percussion while the bass plays a supportive line and the piano is replaced by electric piano. For the second chorus, the drums enter fully and the vocals become tightly harmonized in their calls of, “Goodbye to yesterday.” After the second chorus, a french horn takes a quick little solo before the band takes the song into the final extended chorus, after which the band gradually brings it down until the gentle conclusion of the song.
The last song on the album (I’m only using the term “song” loosely) is the monster prog rock epic “The Great Nothing.” Another highlight of the bands entire career, the twenty-seven minute long, six-part suite describes the trials of a man trying to succeed in the music business. Supposedly, the story is a combination of Neal’s own decade-long attempt to “make it” combined with the tragic story of the band’s friend Kevin Gilbert (who I will go into more fully over the course of the next several weeks’ articles).
The first part, subtitled “From Nowhere,” is an instrumental piece that kinda acts as an overture to the entire suite. It begins with a choir of Mellotron voices playing a melodramatic chant-like dirge (I believe that the tone of these synthesized voices is a subtle ode to Kevin Gilbert, who used a vocal sound like this quite often) before a synthesizer starts playing a cinematic melody while sweeping washes of synths create the effect of a wide-open emptiness. After this dramatic opening, a sombre acoustic guitar pops up, picking out a sad melody before the band launches into a stomping rock groove while harsh cello plays a variation of the acoustic guitar melody. Soon, the cello is joined by a crunchy electric guitar. At the end of this melody, the band builds the intensity through a series of energetic drum fills into a driving rock beat. Over this, the guitar and bass play a dancing melody in unison before the synth joins them in an ascending riff that spirals up into a haze of while light before the next subsection begins.
The “One Note” subsection begins with gentle piano chords from Neal before he begins singing about the timeless, immortal nature of music. He seems to be borrowing an idea from Pete Townshend’s early-70’s aborted Lifehouse project (which wound up becoming the Who’s Next album), particularly the songs “Pure And Easy” and “The Song Is Over,” that ponders the spiritual and enigmatic nature of music, particularly the notion that music exists as its own separate entity from those who create it, and the creators are really only tapping in to some cosmic source. “One note, timeless, came out of nowhere. It wailed like the wind at night. It sought no glory, it added no meaning. Not even a reason why,” sings Neal over the gentle piano backing before a bombastic drum fill leads us into the chorus. The chorus features soaring vocal harmonies, singing slide guitar work from Alan and churchy organ chords from Ryo. A quick piano interlude heralds the second verse, which is more rocked out than the first, in which Neal talks about one man who feels that he has grabbed onto the cosmic musical source and has decided to dedicate his life to bringing it to other people. After one more anthemic chorus, a sombre piano figure closes out the “One Note” subsection.
The ending piano of the previous subsection gives way to the acoustic guitar intro of the “Come Up Breathing” subsection. This briskly strummed, folksy acoustic guitar passage reminds me quite a bit of early-70’s Jethro Tull (think of the song “Mother Goose,” if you know it). Neal and Nick begin singing in tight harmony about how the music business fat cats don’t care about the cosmically spiritual nature of music, only about sales and exposure. After the vocals are done, the acoustic guitar begins playing a tense figure, which is soon joined by piano. Then, on the drop of a hat, the rest of the band launches into a rocking beat with a dancing melody played in unison by the electric guitar and synth. After a bit of this, Neal dramatically sings, “One note, timeless,” before the bass begins playing the guitar/synth melody over a somewhat industrial beat with all kinds of weird sound effects going on in the background. This strange section eventually moves into a jazzy organ solo from Ryo that smoothly transitions back into the guitar/synth melody, with some nifty up/down dynamics with mellow piano and Mellotron flutes alternating with the rocking riff. Another call of “One note, timeless,” leads into a quick ascending riff that leads into the final verse of this section, where Neal begins singing about how so many people trying to make it in as musicians start to self-medicate as a way to cope with the shallow nature of the music industry. This subsection ends with a gentle restatement of the acoustic guitar figure from the beginning of the track, this time played by piano with textural Mellotron backing.
The next subsection, entitled “Submerged,” begins with a fierce riff from the drums and bass, interrupted by a neat little electric piano figure, only to go back to the drums and bass riff, to be interrupted again by the electric piano. After this, the band expands on the drums and bass riff, adding organ chords and electric guitar fills. When Neal’s voice enters, the band pauses the riff and hangs on a note. Neal begins singing from the point of view of a music industry executive who views the protagonist of the story as someone who, “has got potential, but he’s never had commercial success,” due to his smoking, drinking and stubborn nature. This relatively short subsection (only about two minutes) end with the band jamming on the drums and bass riff for a bit before segueing seamlessly into the next subsection.
The “Missed Your Calling” subsection begins with a bouncy, Beatle-esque piano vamp before Neal begins singing about the story’s protagonist looking back at his life and seeing all the mistakes that he made over the course of his life. He gave up living a normal life to pursue something greater, but threw away his chance at that by partying too much and refusing to play the music industry game. After the bouncy verse, the band launches into a more driving chorus where Neal claims, “You missed your calling every time.” After the first chorus comes a cheeky little section where a piano and Mellotron flute play a neat little melody while the sound of someone pouring themself a drink pans from the right ear to the left. After one more verse and chorus, Neal plays a tasty solo on the synth that recalls the vocal melody. After this, comes another chorus that ends with the band dissolving into a spacey haze for a bit before building back up into a vibey electric guitar solo that ends with a restatement of the unison guitar/synth riff from middle of the “Come Up Breathing” section. After this, the band flies back into the verse figure from the “Submerged” subsection, where Neal once again assumes the stance of a music industry executive who has given up on the protagonist, “We tried to change his future fate, but now it’s too late.” The band keeps jamming the drums and bass riff from that section for a bit until they bring it down to Neal gently playing the piano and singing, “Something keeps telling me, ‘quiet now, quiet now, quiet now.’” This subsection ends with Neal holding out the last “Quiet now,” as the band creates a wash of cymbals, textural Mellotrons, tensely strummed acoustic guitar and twinkling piano.
The last subsection, the titular “The Great Nothing” begins with a restatement of almost the entire “From Nowhere” subsection, including the sombre acoustic guitar figure, the stomping rock groove, the harsh cello/electric guitar melody and the dancing guitar/bass unison line. However, they amp up the energy with additional guitar fireworks, drum fills and spiraling synth arpeggios. At the end of this, they once again state the quick ascending melody from the end of the “From Nowhere” subsection and take the last note into a whooshing haze of feedback, crashing cymbals and spiraling synths before anthemically crashing into the final verse of the song, a reprise of the “One Note” subsection. This final verse is one of the most emotionally moving moments of Neal’s career (indeed, a video of him laying down the vocal tracks in the studio reveal him breaking down into tears upon the first attempt). The band is raging sublimely and climactically behind Neal while he delivers the tear-jerking lyrics about how even though the one man who tried to make it for himself failed, the cosmically immortal one note will never die, “Out of the great nothing, with nobody knowing, it plays on and on…” At the end of this moving line, the band begins playing a “grand finale” section that takes the harsh cello melody from earlier and turns it into a soaring crescendo of uplifting power. The electric guitar soars into the upper stratospheres as the band wails triumphantly until the last big crescendo leads into a final few minutes of spacey Mellotron chords, twinkling piano and melancholic synth melodies. After the spacey finale ends, the 27 minute long track ends with one simple chord from the acoustic piano, maybe signifying the one note, timeless. Even though this one track is almost a half-hour long, it seems to fly by because it is so expertly constructed and assembled, one of Neal Morse’s crowning achievements for sure.
V came out in August of 2000 and was immediately hailed by many fans (including myself) as being Spock’s Beard’s greatest work to date. They would release one more album with Neal, the two-disc pseudo-Christian rock opera Snow (which, although it is loved by many fans, is not a personal favorite of mine), before Neal went off the deep end with his religiosity and quit the band to pursue a career as a Christian recording artist (I remember the day that I found this out, I almost cried). The band pulled a “Genesis” by redesignating their drummer Nick D’Virgilio as their lead vocalist (an ironic move considering that Nick had played drums on Genesis’s Calling All Stations album after Phil Collins had quit the group). Spock’s Beard released four more albums with Nick as the vocalist (none of which even come close to reaching the sublime heights set by Neal) before he too quit in 2011 and was replaced by Jimmy Keegan on drums (who had also acted as their live drummer while Nick performed lead vocal duties) and former Enchant vocalist Ted Leonard filling in for the lead vocalist position. They’ve released one album, 2013’s Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep, with this lineup, who continue to record and tour to this day.
In summary, while Spock’s Beard may get lumped into the progressive rock category, I feel that they can be appreciated by more than just prog rock fans due to Neal Morse’s deft songwriting ability, knack for crafting immediately catchy hooks and adroit arrangement skills. In fact, many fans of the harsher, more dissonant, atonal, avant-garde side of prog rock (i.e. King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator, Can, Soft Machine, etc…) might find themselves alienated by the melodic beauty, tight sonic architecture and lyricism of Spock’s Beard. I, for one, was obsessed with Spock’s Beard and (primarily) V from about 2000 to 2005, probably listening to it more than just about any other album. I recommend this album highly to anyone that appreciates soaringly majestic and sublimely anthemic prog rock, but only if you don’t mind touches of poppy singer/songwriter material with an uplifting spiritual message. Give it a listen, see what you think.
You can listen to the entire album here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zd80FukivDo
Shouts On Goal
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
NORMIE MONDAY ep. 69 - Space Revolver
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. This week’s article finds us right in the middle of a series of reviews dedicated to the progressive rock supergroup Transatlantic and each member’s respective original groups. First, I discussed bassist Pete Trewavas’s group Marillion, followed by drummer Mike Portnoy’s Dream Theater, and now this week I’m going to look at guitarist Roine Stolt’s band The Flower Kings. Although The Flower Kings are by far my least favorite of the four groups represented by Transatlantic, I do find some enjoyment in their brand of psychedelically tinged, uplifting prog rock with jazz fusion undertones, my favorite album of theirs being the 2000 offering Space Revolver.
Swedish guitarist Roine Stolt formed The Flower Kings in 1994 as a touring outfit for his recently released solo album The Flower King. By this point, Stolt was already a veteran of the Swedish prog rock scene, already having achieved some regional success with the band Kaipa, who released three albums in the mid-seventies. Stolt quit Kaipa in 1979 to form his own band, called Fantasia, but this band proved much less successful than Kaipa, and they soon disbanded. Stolt spent the 1980’s working as a session guitarist, producer and arranger, but along the way he managed to release a couple of solo albums in more of an 80’s R&B vein.
The prog rock revival of the early 90’s (caused in part by Dream Theater) motivated Stolt to release an album that harkened back to his roots in Kaipa, the soon-to-be self-titled The Flower King. For this album, he played all of the guitar, bass and keyboard parts himself, only enlisting help from drummer Jaime Salazar, percussionist Hasse Bruniusson, saxophonist Ulf Wallander and vocalist Hasse Fröberg (although Stolt performed most of the lead vocals parts himself as well). The album was so well-received that Stolt decided to put together a full-time band to support the album. Retaining Salazar, Bruniusson, Wallander and Fröberg (although Bruniusson and Wallander would never become official band members, only guest musicians) he added his brother Michael Stolt on bass and his old friend Tomas Bodin on keyboards, and the first official incarnation of The Flower Kings was born.
The group released Back In The World Of Adventures, their first album as an official band, in 1995, followed closely by their sophomore effort Retropolis in 1996. It was their third album however, 1997’s sprawling double album Stardust We Are, that first garnered the band some attention outside their native Sweden. They followed this with yet another mammoth double album, entitled Flower Power, in 1999. By now, the sheer volume of material they’d released (six discs of music in five years) had managed to garner them a small but dedicated following, but the band found their greatest exposure in 2000 when Stolt agreed to be in the supergroup Transatlantic with Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy (one of the most revered drummers of the 1990’s).
The Flower Kings capitalized on this boost in popularity by releasing a tighter and (relatively) more compact set of songs later in 2000. However, by the time of the recording sessions for the Space Revolver album, bassist Michael Stolt had decided to leave the group. He was replaced by Jonas Reingold, who’s singing fretless bass lines and jazzier approach brought a whole new level of virtuosity to the group. Recording sessions for Space Revolver were conducted throughout the first three months of 2000, with the album coming out later that summer.
The first track on the album is probably the highlight, “I Am The Sun - Part One.” It begins with a synth pad slowly fading up (a la Pink Floyd) before the guitar and bass start adding spacey melodies and the cymbals add splashes of color. Eventually, the happy mood gets replaced by a slightly more ominous tone as the keyboards shift to a minor tonality. Things really pick up as the band enters in full, playing an uplifting melody with big accents from the drums in 4/4 while the bass plucks out a counter-rhythm in 3/8. After a slight dynamic shift, the bass begins playing a variation of the uplifting melody, but in a more sombre modality, but things pick right back up again as the uplifting melody is restated positively. One thing The Flower Kings are known for is having a positive vibe to the music and an inspirational tone to the lyrics, and this song is no exception. The lyrics come in after the band falls into a sludgy, stomping groove akin to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” with a crunchy organ providing a chordal structure underneath the heavy riff.
Roine Stolt’s singing voice is unusual in the prog rock context, possessing an earthy grittiness not akin to the high-pitched bombast usually associated with the genre, and a fairly deep warbling vibrato brings to mind David Bowie. The pseudo-spiritual lyrics of this song seem to be about the yearning of all people to become more than just one human being, and to achieve something greater than themselves. After two verses and choruses, the band brings it down while the saxophone does a quiet, little melodic solo that recalls the vocal melody. This is followed by one more stomping verse before the band begins vamping on the uplifting melody from the start of the song. After this, the song enters a new section that is softer and more melodic than the previous verse/chorus sections. Stolt croons out a couple of verses for this section backed by mellow organ and gently finger-picked nylon-stringed guitar, with occasional harpsichord and synth string flourishes.
This mellow section eventually gives way to a jazzy instrumental section that features some tight interplay between the keyboards and guitar. This dissolves into a dissonant organ melody that is explored by the band with noisy abandon. Stolt croons out a chorus of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” during this part. The band brings it back to an uptempo jam section that features some tasty guitar and keyboard solos. Stolt’s guitar playing lies somewhere between David Gilmour’s lyrical melodicism, Steve Howe’s edgy jazz-influenced riffing and Frank Zappa’s virtuosic bluesy shredding. The song ends with a couple of verses that drop to a slow, atmospheric haze of synth pads, dancing fretless lines, classical guitar flourishes and textural hand percussion. After one more big set of bombastic accents, gentle acoustic guitar arpeggios coax the listener into a state of tranquility as they fade out.
Up next is the short atmospheric number “Dream On Dreamer,” which was co-written by Roine Stolt and keyboardist Tomas Bodin. Spacey electric piano chords provide the basic chordal movement with the saxophone and fretless bass adding melodies and textures between Stolt’s gently delivered vocals. I don’t think there are any guitars or drums in this song. The song ends with what sounds like a music box playing a lilting, pastoral melody.
The delicate music box is interrupted by a squall of feedback as the next track begins. “Rumble Fish Twist” was composed by Tomas Bodin, and it’s a hard-hitting instrumental workout that is unusual for The Flower Kings in its metallic quality. This track features some especially noteworthy playing from drummer Jaime Salazar and bassist Jonas Reingold, who each get turns to shine in solo spots. Bodin also turns in some spiraling synth solos, including some frenzied unison riffing between the keyboards, bass and drums at one point. About halfway through the song, the propulsive hard rock groove is replaced by contemplative atmospherics and a sombre tone. Reingold’s upfront fretless bass playing really shines here as well as the drums take on a military march feel and Stolt begins constructing a melodic guitar solo. This brings the track to a climactic conclusion.
Another epic is up next, the near-thirteen minute “Monster Within.” As the title implies, the song is about the darkness that dwells inside all of us. Moreover, it is about the choices that we make to either let the darkness out, resulting in negative or evil consequences, or to keep it inside. The song begins innocently enough, with a melodic keyboard intro, but that soon gives way to a hard-rocking riff with a stomping groove. Old monster movie sound effects are added to add to the creepy vibe. After a couple of rocking verses and choruses, the band falls into a mellow section anchored by the Mellotron. As this sombre section develops, an old recording of Adolf Hilter giving a speech can be heard in the background, illustrating an example of when the monster within was allowed to fully blossom. Next, a Gothic keyboard motif becomes the dominant figure, but this is eventually replaced by a tense chord progression, over which Stolt takes a fiery guitar solo. This gives way to a dramatic bridge that features the voice of Hasse Fröberg more prominently. I definitely don’t enjoy Fröberg’s voice as much as Stolt’s, as I feel that it possesses a cheesier, more typically “prog rock” bombast. After some more prog rock riffing, the band falls into a stomping groove that is very similar to the main riff from “I Am The Sun – Part One” (I’m not sure whether this is an intentional thematic reiteration or just a lack of compositional variation from song to song). The last couple of minutes of the song are made up of alternating rocking riffs and dramatically soaring melodies, with a reiteration of the second verse.
Up next is the fun “Chicken Farmer Song,” which is a pleasant mid-tempo shuffle about Stolt’s want to lead a freer, more rural and idyllic life, “where the chicken farmers run.” A Morse-code sounding keyboard figure pervades much of the track, with the groovy rhythm section laying down a simple 4/4 beat between the Morse code. This song, to me, sounds like something that Jon Anderson would have written for Yes in the late-seventies (think “Wonderous Stories”), and the perky keyboard melody between the verses only accentuates the twee Yes-ness. However, as with many Flower Kings songs, the mood shifts dramatically for the second half of the song, replacing the lighthearted pastoralism with a tenser groove, over which Stolt and Bodin trade tasty solos. The merry vibe is revisited for the end of the song, ending the song on a happy note.
One of the best songs on the album comes next, the anthemic “Underdog.” It begins with a harmonium and some bagpipes, over which Stolt plays some bluesy slide licks, giving the song a rustic feel right from the start. The verses are a simple I-IV vamp with a tom-heavy drum beat lending the song a slow tribal feel. Stolt plays some tasty slide licks over the verses, but the real treasure of this song is the soaringly climactic chorus, with Stolt and Fröberg harmonizing in pleads of, “Don’t let it break you and take you away from us.” I much prefer Fröberg’s voice when it’s harmonizing with Stolt’s, as it tempers some of the cheese. After the second chorus, Stolt takes a tasty blues guitar solo, after which, the band repeats the chorus, bringing the tension up and up until the climactic outro of the song, where the band begins playing a crunchy riff that eventually dissolves into a din of noise.
We get the required song by Hasse Fröberg next, the forgettable “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got.” Fröberg seems to get at least one song per release, and they’re usually the low points of the albums, but at least in this case the song is very short (only about two-and-a-half minutes). Fröberg’s cheese-tastic voice is pushed to the forefront here, backed by a gently strummed acoustic guitar and some hand percussion. Stolt provides a vocal counterpoint in the second verse, which somewhat tempers Fröberg’s overly melismatic voice. Fortunately, the song is over quickly.
Unfortunately, the next song is another low point of the album. “Slave To Money” is an overly bombastic prog-rocker that never really goes anywhere too interesting. The best part is the beginning, where the band fades up with a circus parade march, but this quickly gives way to an endlessly cheesy riff that sounds, to me, like the music you hear in a video game when you complete a level; WAY to pointlessly bombastic. Even the lyrics about the evils of money and the aimless pursuit of wealth, a theme that I usually appreciate, come off as fairly trite and overly preachy. The middle section of the song is slightly more tolerable, with some interesting rhythmic interplay and dissonant keyboard chords. After a guitar solo from Stolt, the song ends with a dramatic wash of Gothic keyboard chords and textural atmospherics from the rest of the band.
Up next is another one of the better songs on the album, the soulful “A King’s Prayer.” It begins with a gently strummed acoustic guitar, over which Stolt sings lyrics written from the point of view of a leader who tried to do good, but was spoiled by evil men with bad intentions. Fröberg takes the lead in the soaring chorus, and his voice seems more appropriate here than on other songs. After two verse/chorus sets, the band settles into a jazzy jam section where Stolt takes an emotive solo while the organ pads out dramatically climbing chords. The jam builds to a climactic finish until the band falls into a funky groove, ending the song on a high note.
The last chord of the previous song fades into the intro of the final song on the album, the continuation of the opening track, “I Am The Sun – Part Two.” It picks up right where the first part left off with the gently arpeggiated acoustic guitar fading back up as the Mellotron plays a perky melody. Stolt sings the only three stanzas of lyrics over an optimistic acoustic guitar figure that slowly builds up over the three verses with drums and keyboards gradually being added. After the lyrics are done, the perky Mellotron melody is reintroduced and expanded upon with saxophone. This transforms into a melodically tasty guitar solo before the band dissolves into a swirling mass of atmospheric noise and spacey melodies. After a big crescendo, the band launches back into the uplifting melody from the beginning of part one, which is followed quickly by a restatement of the mellow section from the middle of part one (lyrics and all). The last four minutes of the song are made up of a majestic “grand finale” type section where the band is playing incredibly powerfully. Reingold adds some more of his dancing fretless bass lines while Bodin plays some soaring leads on a synth. This gives way to the final climactic guitar solo, intertwining with the soaring synth lines. The band gets very big and cinematic here, almost like at the end of a symphonic movement. The song ends with the band slowly dying out until only a sparse Mellotron is left with the bass and guitar playing soft melodies over the top of it while a piano comps delicate chords, until they too fade out into nothingness.
Space Revolver was released in July of 2000. The Flower Kings would release one more album (2001’s The Rainmaker, a far weaker effort in my opinion) before drummer Jaime Salazar decided to leave the group. Since then, the band has had a hard time holding on to drummers (they’ve gone through four since). They also added Pain Of Salvation guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist and fellow Swede Daniel Gildenlöw for a couple of years in the early 00’s, but he was forced to leave the band before their 2005 U.S. tour because he refused to submit his biometric data for the U.S.’s US-VISIT immigration system. The band took a three year hiatus from 2009-2012, but have released two albums since with drummer Felix Lehrmann.
In summary, while The Flower Kings are far from my favorite band, I do appreciate some of their melodies, textures and instrumental fireworks. The music and vibe of much of their work is fairly similar to Spock’s Beard (the subject of next week’s Normie Monday), but I feel that Roine Stolt, while an excellent guitarist and composer of melodies, isn’t nearly as good of a sonic architect as Spock’s Beard’s Neal Morse, who is able to construct perfect progressive rock suites while maximizing the emotional impact of every second. Stolt, on the other hand, tends to rely much more on spontaneity and improvisation, which while I approve in principle, it doesn’t yield as perfectly constructed masterpieces, as we shall see with Spock’s Beard next week. Even still, if you enjoy melodically uplifting and epically symphonic prog rock, then The Flower Kings would be a good band for you to check out, and Space Revolver is as good a place as any to start. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/6IFg78UOWFJVZiu4dq68tk
NORMIE MONDAY ep. 68 - Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. Two weeks ago, I took a look at an album by the prog rock supergroup Transatlantic. Then I decided to do a series of articles dedicated to the individual members of Transatlantic and their original bands, starting last week with bassist Pete Trewavas’s group Marillion. This week, I’m going to review an album by drummer Mike Portnoy’s first group Dream Theater; their 1999 magnum opus Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory.
Dream Theater was formed in 1985 by drummer Mike Portnoy, guitarist John Petrucci and bassist John Myung while the three were attending the prestigious Berklee College Of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. The trio, originally called Majesty, then recruited Petrucci’s high school friend and band mate Kevin Moore to play keyboards, and the vocal duties were initially handled by Chris Collins, who was quickly replaced by Charlie Dominici. The band changed their name to Dream Theater after another group with the name Majesty threatened to sue, and they continued to rehearse and perform small local shows until they were offered a recording contract with Mechanic Records, a subsidiary of MCA, in 1988. The band released their first album, When Dream And Day Unite, on Mechanic in 1989, but the album was a commercial flop due (partly) to Mechanic’s lack of financial support.
Shortly after a small tour in support of their debut, Dream Theater fired Dominici because the rest of the band felt that his vocal style was not conducive to the direction in which they wished to move. It took them almost two years to find a permanent replacement, but eventually James LaBrie, a Canadian, auditioned successfully and was given the lead vocalist position in January of 1991. Shortly after this, Dream Theater signed with Atco Records, who released their second album, Images And Words, in 1992 and helped the band reach a new audience that appreciated their brand of technical progressive metal. This album became Dream Theater’s major breakthrough, going gold in the U.S. and platinum in Japan, and spawning a minor hit single with the song “Pull Me Under.” To date, “Pull Me Under” is Dream Theater’s highest charting single.
Shortly after the recording of their third album, 1994’s darker Awake (which proved to be a minor disappointment after the commercial breakthrough of Images And Words), keyboardist Kevin Moore decided to leave the band due to the pressures of touring and an overall unhappiness with the direction of the material. Dream Theater hired fellow Berklee alumnus Derek Sherinian (who had previously played with Kiss and Alice Cooper) as a temporary touring replacement, but decided to make him an official member of the band following the tour. Their first recorded offering with Sherinian was 1995’s A Change Of Seasons EP, which consisted of the 23 minute epic title track (a song that had roots in the band’s earliest days) and several live covers. This was followed by the Falling Into Infinity album in 1997, which found Dream Theater attempting to write a more commercially accessible record under pressure from their label. This proved to be a dismal effort, flopping in the charts and receiving negative criticism from many of their fans. Mike Portnoy revealed in later years that Falling Into Infinity had nearly broken up the band.
After Falling Into Infinity, Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci participated in a supergroup called Liquid Tension Experiment with famed session bassist Tony Levin and keyboardist Jordan Rudess (a rising star of the progressive metal scene who’d toured with the Dixie Dregs). The chemistry between Portnoy, Petrucci and Rudess was so strong that the two members of Dream Theater asked Rudess to join the band, summarily firing Sherinian. For their next album, Dream Theater told their record label that they wanted complete control over the artistic direction or they would jump ship. The label relented, and Dream Theater began working on a complex and intriguing concept album, the story of which began as a continuation of an earlier Dream Theater song, “Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle And The Sleeper,” from their Images And Words album.
The album, which was eventually titled Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory, was recorded at BearTracks Studios in Suffern, New York (where Images And Words and A Change Of Season had also been recorded). The recording sessions lasted four months in the winter/spring of 1999, with Portnoy and Petrucci self-producing the album, only bringing in noted producers Kevin Shirley (who’d produced Falling Into Infinity) and David Bottrill to assist with the final mixing. The recording sessions and details about the album were kept closely guarded as to add to the mystery and mystique of the album’s concept, which deals with a man named Nicholas undergoing hypnotherapy in order to solve the murder of a young woman named Victoria whom he had been in a previous life. To compliment the complex and engrossing storyline, the band composed some of the tightest and most intricate arrangements of their entire career, turning in some of their most jaw-dropping musical performances along the way.
Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory opens with a short prelude track entitled “Regression” which begins with the sound of a ticking clock, each tick bouncing back and forth between the left and right channels. After about ten seconds, the voice of the hypnotherapist begins instructing Nicholas on how to enter a hypnotic state, “Close your eyes, and begin to relax. Take a deep breath, and let it out slowly.” As the hypnotherapist begins to count down from ten to one, the ticking clock slowly fades out, to be replaced by a gently strummed acoustic guitar. When the hypnotherapist reaches one, Nicholas begins to sing about his feelings in the hypnotic state as his “subconscious mind starts spinning through time.” The track ends with the line, “Hello Victoria, so glad to see you my friend,” indicating that Nicholas is meeting the consciousness of a person that he knew in a former life.
After the gentle nature of the opening track, we are immediately assaulted by the aggressive opening of “Overture 1928,” which begins with a menacing keyboard pad as the drums, guitar and bass fade up with an pummeling marching beat that recalls “Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle And The Sleeper” from Images And Words. After the marching beat climaxes, the band launches into an anthemic riff. The band uses this overture in a way similar to The Who’s “Overture” from Tommy and Rush’s “Overture” from 2112, stating themes that occur later on in the album, but squashed together in a more aggressively powerful manner. After a blazingly fast unison riff from the guitar and bass, the band enters a short section that foreshadows the chorus from “Strange Deja Vu.” After this, the band engages in another syncopated, choppy unison riff before returning to the anthemic riff from earlier, over which Rudess takes a spiraling synth solo. After this, the band shifts to a sweepingly melodic section that foreshadows part of “Home” (also part of “Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle And The Sleeper”) before a jazzy guitar solo, that also sees a reoccurrence in “One Last Time,” gives us a glimpse of some of Petrucci’s finest chops. The band falls back to the “Strange Deja Vu” chorus once more before a soaring guitar melody is introduced. This melody is one of the album’s main musical motifs, occurring numerous other times throughout the course of the album, in “One Last Time,” “Finally Free” and several other spots. The song ends with some breakneck unison riffing before the band segues seamlessly into the next track.
“Strange Deja Vu” picks right up where “Overture 1928” leaves off, opening with a pummeling riff as LaBrie’s high-pitched, nasally voice enters, singing about Nicholas’s visions while in his hypnotic state. Nicholas sees an old house at the end of a long, winding path. He enters the house and walks up the stairs to a room with a mirror in it. In the mirror, he sees the face of a young woman that seems to be trying to tell him something important. The driving riffs of the verse lead to a more subdued chorus (featured earlier in “Overture 1928”), during which Victoria speaks to Nicholas of a guilt that is tormenting her soul. After Nicholas’s vision, he is brought back to the real world, but he cannot shake the visions he’s had, becoming obsessed with discovering the answers to the questions about Victoria. The music during this last verse is a hard-rocking riff that modulates from E to F#, then back to E over the course of the verse. Another chorus, where Nicholas resolves to find the truth, brings the song to a climactic finale.
The next song is a short connecting piece. “Through My Words” features a mellow piano figure with lyrics that seem to show that Nicholas has begun to realize that he was Victoria in a previous life and has been reincarnated.
The piano takes on a darker tinge as the previous song segues into “Fatal Tragedy,” where the details of Victoria’s fate are further explained. Nicholas finds an old man who knows some of the story, telling Nicholas that Victoria had been murdered in 1928, but these are the only facts revealed so far. The music of this song ranges from sludgy riffs at the start, to a somewhat early-Queen-inspired section of alternating Gothic organ chords and harmonized guitar licks, to an ending section that features some rapid-fire riffs and solo swapping between the guitar and keyboards. After the technical fireworks, the song ends as the band stops on a dime, and a piano starts plucking out some staccato chords. The hypnotherapist returns to bring Nicholas back into a hypnotic state, telling him, “Now it is time to see how you died. Remember that death is not the end, but only a transition.”
We are then assaulted with the brutal opening riff of “Beyond This Life,” a dissonant thrashing guitar figure that the band assists with a pummeling beat and oddly creepy calliope sounding keyboard accents. The first set of lyrics for this song are taken from a newspaper describing Victoria’s murder (a facsimile of which is included on the back of the CD tray card). We learn that the official story is that Victoria was murdered by a former lover that she had recently broken it off with due to his drinking, gambling and drug addiction. The man, named Julian Baynes, then supposedly confronted her in an alleyway and shot her. When a witness heard her scream and a gun shot fired, he found Julian standing over her body with a gun in his hand. The witness tried to get the gun away from Julian, but he turned the gun on himself, committing suicide. The newspaper goes on to elaborate that a suicide letter was found in Julian’s pocket. Although there are some inconsistencies in the newspaper article, it is taken as truth, and the account goes into the history books as a murder/suicide. The bulk of this song is a thrashing heavy metal attack, but there are a couple of lighter moments, where the idea of reincarnation is further explored, with LaBrie singing, “Our deeds have traveled far. What we have been is what we are. All that we learn this time is carried beyond this life.” The second half (or so) of this song is an extended instrumental workout, at times resembling the jam section of Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Petrucci has some shining moments in this section as does Rudess, who’s keyboard prowess adds a whole new level to Dream Theater’s sonic palette on this album. After an elongated section of impossibly fast and complex riffing, the band falls back to one more climactic chorus before a mellow acoustic guitar ends the mostly brutal song on a relatively light note.
The next song, the ballad “Through Her Eyes,” was the only official single released from the album. It begins with an atmospheric keyboard padding out chords as hired background vocalist Theresa Thomason begins inserting soulful vocal interjections. Petrucci begins playing tasty guitar licks, taking turns with Thomason until the band enters with a spacious beat, gently strummed acoustic guitar and a melodic fretless bass. LaBrie begins singing about Nicholas’s visit to Victoria’s gravestone. He is overcome with sadness at the loss of such an innocent young life, but is comforted by the fact that, “I’m learning all about my life by looking through her eyes.” Petrucci takes a couple of uncharacteristically restrained, soulful guitar solos in this one, trading in his usual frenzied riffing for a melodic lyricism that owes more than a little bit to David Gilmour. This song provides an emotional close to the “first act,” as it’s called.
The “second act” begins with the highlight of the album, and possibly the highlight of Dream Theater’s entire career, the epic “Home.” It begins with a quiet acoustic guitar picking out a macabre, middle-eastern sounding melody, a feel that is enhanced by the use of (fake) sitar. The intro builds with the addition of a creepy bass line and a minimalistic drum beat until, with a big flourish, the band surges into a hard-rocking riff that builds on the bass line introduced earlier. Petrucci effects the first two notes of the guitar riff with wah-wah, creating a jarring effect. The guitar and keyboards then explore more Eastern-inspired riffs and melodies before falling into a stomping rock groove. LaBrie begins singing from the point of view of Julian Barnes, who cannot shake his addictions to drugs, drink and gambling. He knows that he has lost Victoria because of his waywardness, and he wants to leave his addictions behind so that he can get her back. This song, more than anywhere else on the album, has musical and lyrical allusions to the “Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle And The Sleeper” track, particularly the soaringly powerful chorus chord progression and melody.
For the second verse, LaBrie shifts his singing to the viewpoint of Edward Baynes (Julian’s brother). Although I’ve never been the biggest fan of LaBrie’s singing voice, I applaud his ability to change his voice to suit the personalities of the characters, giving the lyrics a darker, sinister edge for Edward, whom we soon learn to be the antagonist. Edward reveals that Victoria came to him for a shoulder to cry on after leaving Julian. Edward then falls for her and seduces her. After another powerful chorus, we once more get a ferocious instrumental workout. It begins with the sound of slot machines ringing and a dealer calling a game of cards in the left channel while the sounds of a woman’s orgasmic moaning can be heard in the right channel, suggesting Victoria’s affair with Edward while Julian is out gambling. After some more incredibly challenging musical interplay, we get a final chorus from the viewpoint of Nicholas, who now feels closer to solving the mystery of Victoria’s murder. The song ends with another flurry of impossibly fast riffs and solos.
Up next, we get another instrumental entitled “The Dance Of Eternity,” which showcases some of the craziest instrumental work of Dream Theater’s career. It begins similarly to “Overture 1928,” but after the marching buildup, it goes into a series of incredibly dexterous time changes with lightening-fast riffs dancing wildly between the shifting meters. The rhythm section are especially on fire for this one, with Portnoy’s adroit drumming weaving a tapestry through the constantly changing time signatures. Additionally, John Myung takes a ripping bass solo in this one, and Jordan Rudess also stands out with a cheeky little ragtime piano solo smack dab in the middle of the song, adding a bit of joviality to the proceedings. The song segues seamlessly into the next track.
“One Last Time” expands on an anthemic chord progression introduced during the overture, with Rudess taking a nimble piano solo at the start of the song. We then find out that Nicholas is starting to piece together the untimely fate of Victoria. He learns that she felt guilty over her affair with Edward and told him that she didn’t want to see him anymore, returning to Julian. Nicholas then goes to the house where Edward once lived, and visions begin to pour into his head that point to the fact that Edward actually killed Victoria and Julian and then made it look as if Julian had perpetrated a murder/suicide.
After Nicholas learns the truth about Victoria’s murder, he feels more at peace with his consciousness. He goes back to the hypnotherapist and talks with Victoria, the results of which make up the bulk of the next track, “The Spirit Carries On.” Musically, it’s a reprise of the “Regression” acoustic guitar theme from the opening of the album, though stated mainly by the piano for this song. One of the most moving ballads of Dream Theater’s career (usually, I’m not a big fan of their ballads), it possesses a soaring beauty that crescendos and builds as the song progresses. True to the songs title, the song finds Nicholas musing on the inevitability of reincarnation and the infinite nature of the soul. In a powerful bridge, Victoria tells Nicholas to “move on, be brave, don’t weep at my grave because I am no longer here. But please never let your memory of me disappear.” Nicholas now feels at peace with the demons that have been haunting him for his whole life. The song ends with an emotional guitar solo from Petrucci before the piano takes us out with a gentle cadence.
At the intro for the last song, the hypnotherapist brings Nicholas out of a hypnotic state for the last time with the “Regression” theme once again playing in the background. Nicholas awakens and gets in his car to go home, probably intent on revealing the truth behind his story in the morning. As soon as the car pulls away, the music takes on a more sinister note, and “Finally Free” begins in earnest. Basically, it just goes deeper into the actual murder scene, beginning with a verse sung by Edward immediately after killing Victoria and Julian about how he planted the fake suicide note and lied to the authorities about witnessing the murder/suicide. The next verse goes slightly backwards in time, with Victoria singing about meeting up with Julian, who’s pledged to change his ways and quit indulging in his addictions. Victoria is overjoyed because she now feels that she can be happy with the man that she really loves. They agree to meet later that night, but Edward finds them and kills them. At this point, the band plays a menacing riff while the sounds of a struggle, gunshots and screaming can be heard in the background. After this comes a reprise of the “One Last Time” theme, this time being sung by Julian who, still alive, crawls over to Victoria so that he can die by her side. After Victoria and Julian die, the song goes through a monumental buildup that resembles the end of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” with the band jamming a sinister riff that slowly fades out until it sounds like it’s coming out of a car radio. We are transported back to Nicholas’s world as he turns off the car and goes inside his house. He puts on a record of classical music and closes his eyes. Then, we hear footsteps and the voice of the hypnotherapist creepily says, “Open your eyes, Nicholas,” very similar to Edward’s final words to Victoria from earlier in the song. After this, Nicholas screams and the record scratches off the turntable into static. The band have said that they intended for this to mean that the hypnotherapist was actually the reincarnation of Edward, and he had killed Nicholas, essentially completing the circle.
Dream Theater released Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory in October of 1999 to great acclaim from critics and fans, although it only managed to place a lowly #73 on the charts (their lowest placing since their debut, and still their lowest to date, except their debut). However, the magnitude of the respect that it garnered the band caused them to become a force to be reckoned with in the music industry, and their stellar live shows secured them a rabidly dedicated fanbase. Dream Theater continue to record and tour to this day. However, sadly, founding member Mike Portnoy chose to leave the group in 2010 citing exhaustion. They’ve released two albums since with Mike Mangini on drums.
In conclusion, although Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory might not be for everyone, the ingenuity and originality of its storyline cannot be denied. Additionally, the musical and instrumental prowess of each individual player is readily obvious. Each member is a master of their respective instruments, and they compose challenging, thought provoking music that utilizes their skills at the highest levels. Even though the hard-edged metal riffing and sheer bombast of the music may only appeal to me on select occasions nowadays, this album was definitely a major influence on me when I was in high school. I listened to this album so much, I almost wore it out. Even now, I still put it on every now and then and headbang until my little heart is content. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/1QZi8laY96nhaeGSklvN4D
NORMIE MONDAY ep. 67 - Afraid Of Sunlight
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. Last week, I reviewed the album SMPT:e by the supergroup Transatlantic, one of my favorite albums in high school. I’m going to continue on with a look at some of my other favorite albums while I was in high school by highlighting the individual members of Transatlantic and their main groups, starting with bassist Pete Trewavas’s original group Marillion and their excellent 1995 release Afraid Of Sunlight.
Marillion formed in 1979 when guitarist Steve Rothery answered an ad in the music press for a band in need of a guitarist. The group, initially called The Silmarillion (after the name of a book by J.R.R. Tolkein), originally consisted of Rothery on guitar, Doug Irvine on bass and lead vocals, Brian Jelliman on keyboards and Mick Pointer on drums. However, with the departure of Irvine in 1981, the group added bassist Diz Minnitt and the enigmatic frontman and vocalist Derek Dick (nicknamed “Fish”). Further lineup changes occurred before their first official recordings, with keyboardist Mark Kelly replacing Jelliman and bassist Pete Trewavas replacing Minnitt. Marillion signed with EMI Records in 1982 and released their first single, a song called “Market Square Heroes,” followed by a full-length album entitled Script For A Jester’s Tear in 1983.
These early releases showcased the band’s style of artfully composed complex compositions that harkened back to the glory days of progressive rock, influenced by early Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes and Rush. Fish’s lyrics often dealt with themes ranging from intensely personal inner conflicts to overtly political statements, and his larger-than-life stage presence (including wearing face paint, acting out small dramatic skits and engaging the crowd in audience participation) secured the band a loyal fan base and managed to break their debut album into the U.K. top ten, peaking at #7 (although it only managed to reach #175 in the U.S., a trend that would plague the band throughout their career).
After the tour in support of Script For A Jester’s Tear, drummer Mick Pointer quit, and the band went through a quick succession of drummers (including Andy Ward, John Marter and Jonathan Mover) in less than one year before eventually settling on Ian Mosley (who had previously played with Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett) in 1984. With Mosely, the group recorded the Fugazi album, which saw the band shed some of their progressive styling for a sleeker, electronic, more typically 80’s sound, which further increased the band’s popularity in the U.K. Marillion followed this with what has become by far their most successful album, 1985’s heady concept album Misplaced Childhood, which managed to top the U.K. charts and even make it to the top 50 in the U.S. (their only album to do so). It also spawned two top ten singles in the U.K., and the mega successful “Kayleigh” (#2 in the U.K.) even managed to reach #74 in the U.S. (their only single to ever chart here).
Marillion followed this triumphant success with a darker and more personal statement from Fish, 1987’s Clutching At Straws, a concept album about an out-of-work and down-on-his-luck musician. Perhaps prophetically, this would be Fish’s last album with Marillion. He quit the group in 1988 to pursue a solo career in a move similar to Peter Gabriel (a singer with whom Fish is often compared) and his departure from Genesis (a band with whom Marillion was often compared). However, unlike Gabriel who went on to even greater success as a solo artist, Fish’s solo career floundered a bit (no pun intended).
Marillion went on the hunt for a new singer, auditioning several before finding Steve “H” Hogarth, who had previously played keyboards and sang backup vocals (and occasionally lead vocals) in the group The Europeans. Marillion made a risky move by recruiting a singer that had a considerably different style vocally, lyrically and performance-wise to their former singer. Hogarth possesses a warmer and decidedly more melodic singing voice than the acidic bite and sometimes off-kilter phrasing of Fish, and his lyrics are typically more impressionistic and less deeply personal than Fish’s. Additionally, Hogarth wasn’t as much of a “stage performer” as Fish, opting to focus more on singing and being musical than being dramatic and conceptual (he also supplied keyboard and guitar parts to Marillion’s music, something that Fish wasn’t able to do). The lineup of Rothery, Kelly, Trewavas, Mosley and Hogarth remains unchanged to the current day.
The first Marillion album with Steve Hogarth was entitled Season’s End. It consisted of music that the group had written while Fish was still in the band with new lyrics written by Hogarth (occasionally with help from his writing partner John Helmer), and some new songs that Hogarth had written before he joined the group (including the excellent “Easter,” one of my all-time favorite Marillion songs). Season’s End managed to reach #7 in the U.K., as did it’s followup Holidays In Eden, which saw the group attempting to make a decidedly “pop” album.
Maybe as a reaction to the blatant commercialism of Holidays In Eden, Marillion followed this up with the complexly cerebral and thematically dark Brave, a concept album about a runaway teenage girl. This is viewed by many fans as their first album with Steve Hogarth fully integrated into the band. By now, they had created a new sound that had distanced themselves from the 80’s Fish-era. Although they weren’t reaching the same levels of popularity that they had in the 80’s, they still had a rabidly loyal fan base that managed to push Brave to the #10 spot in the U.K.
For the followup to Brave, Marillion were pressured by their label into recording an album at a much faster pace than their previous album, which had taken the band over a year to record. The band decided to once again work with producer Dave Meegan, who had worked as assistant engineer on the band’s second album and produced Brave. Despite the rushed recording process, Marillion turned out what many critics and fans consider to be their best and most consistent work. The album, entitled Afraid Of Sunlight, features a loose concept about the pressures and pitfalls of fame. Many songs on the album refer to specific celebrities, and in the case of songs about musicians, the band even attempts to mimic the sound or style of the artist that the song is about.
The album opens with “Gazpacho,” a song about the emotional and marital problems of former athletes, inspired by the cases of Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson. The song opens with the sound of a ringside announcer emceeing a boxing match. Gradually, an airy keyboard begins padding out a spacious chord progression as the bass starts plucking out a soft melody. Things kick in to high gear as Steve Rothery’s chiming guitar begins playing an uptempo guitar figure, and the rhythm section comes in with a driving rhythm. I’m particularly fond of Pete Trewavas’s uplifting bass line in this part. Hogarth’s inviting voice enters and begins singing the lyrics about fallen heroes, with lines about Mike Tyson like, “Nothing left for you to fight about, and no one wants to see you try.” After the first driving verse, the band falls into a slower, more anthemic chorus, which finds Hogarth noting that, “The king is losing his grip again.” After another verse and chorus, the band goes into a tense bridge with dramatic electric guitar strumming and bombastic accents from the rhythm section. After one more climactic chorus, the band returns to the bridge progression for an extended coda of tension building with Hogarth repeating the line, “Now the ring is just a band of gold,” pointing to the marital tension of fallen athletes. The song ends with samples of news reports covering O.J. Simpson’s murder case and flight from police.
Up next is the silly “Cannibal Surf Babe,” a song inspired by Brian Wilson’s fragile mental state. As such, it possesses Beach Boys-inspired harmonies and a freewheeling surf-rock vibe. The song is anchored by a ferocious bass line, overlaid with odd keyboard and guitar melodies. The song tells the bizarre tale of an encounter with a beautiful lady on the beach, who actually turns out to be a monster in disguise. The song even name-checks Brian Wilson in the chorus, “Mr. Wilson, where’s your sandbox and your beard?” While I appreciate the fun nature of this song, it is not one of my favorites on the album, partly due to the fact that I don’t much enjoy Hogarth’s delivery of this song. He works much better in deep emotional earnestness, and I feel like he struggles with finding the right level of joviality for this song.
However, the next song is a real beauty. “Beautiful” begins with a ringing guitar arpeggio and a melodic bass line before the rest of the band comes in with a vaguely gospel-inspired backing. Hogarth begins singing the emotional lyrics about how society chews up and spits out the fragile and the sensitive people of the world. Hogarth’s voice really soars in the chorus, as he wails, “And the leaves turn from red to brown to be trodden down,” with over-the-top emotion. This supremely powerful and movingly inspirational song was the only single released from the album, reaching #29 in the U.K.
One of my personal favorites is up next, the sensual “Afraid Of Sunrise.” It begins with mellow acoustic guitar arpeggios, a dancing fretless bass line and a vibey drum beat in 7/8, featuring a brushed snare drum. This song perfectly captures the feel of driving through the desert, a la Hunter S. Thompson, with the imagery of, “Dayglo Jesus on the dash, scorch marks on the road ahead.” The lyrics are more impressionistic than much of the rest of the album, but they seem to be about people who only live the nightlife, with Hogarth asking, “So, how do we now come to be afraid of sunlight?” Mark Kelly’s atmospheric keyboard leads color the landscape of this song with textural splashes of color as the band lays down the mellow groove.
While the previous two songs are not about anyone specific, the next song was written in direct reference to one individual. “Out Of This World” was written about Donald Campbell, who was famous for setting land and water speed records and was killed while attempting to break the water speed record in 1967. Another of the album’s main highlights, it begins with a slow, steady drum beat that fades up as a melancholic guitar figure is introduced. Although the song is about Campbell on the surface, it’s really about obsession and the need that some people have to go where nobody else has gone and push things to the limit. After an extended spacey verse, Rothery takes one of his only real “guitar solos” on the album, a thing that he’d largely forsaken by this point in favor of melodies and textures. After the guitar solo comes the climax of the song with Hogarth wailing, “Only love will turn you around.” The last three minutes of the song feature Hogarth singing emotionally about Campbell’s final moments and what was going through his head, backed by nothing but an atmospheric keyboard.
Next comes the title track, “Afraid Of Sunlight.” Although it shares some lines and phrases with the similarly named “Afraid Of Sunrise” from earlier, the music is completely different. The vibey dessert atmosphere of the earlier song is replaced by a mellow melodicism on this one. The lyrics seem to be about risk taking celebrities like James Dean who can only find joy and meaning in life through thrill seeking. The mellow verses give way to a soaring, tension building chorus where Hogarth once again asks, “How do we now come to be afraid of sunlight?” This song reaches new heights of anthemic emotion, with a synth French horn echoing the vocal melody of the chorus at one point. A textural guitar solo ends the song in proper, with Hogarth reprising a verse from “Afraid Of Sunrise” at the very end of the song, backed by a thin keyboard pad.
“Beyond You” comes up next, and it’s an homage to Phil Spector and his signature “wall of sound” production technique. It was also mixed in monaural, as per the norm with Spector productions. The Phil Spector qualities becomes very apparent in the chorus, with the heavily reverbed percussion and symphonic pop arrangement echoing the early Motown records that Spector worked on. Lyrically, it deals with the fine line between creative genius and madness, with Hogarth delivering the lines with his usual emotional fervor. While I appreciate the lyrical content and the production concept of this song, I feel that musically it never really goes anywhere, almost like they put more thought into the idea of the production than into the actual melodies and chordal structure of the song.
The album ends on an especially high note, however, with the climactic “King.” A song about the crushing weight of stardom and genius, it can be seen as being about everyone ranging from Elvis Presley to John Lennon to Michael Jackson to Kurt Cobain. The Cobain reference is the most outwardly obvious, and the song begins with a grungy guitar riff that I felt was meant to imitate Cobain’s signature guitar sound. This song also contains samples of interviews and news reports relating to some of the above artists. One of the main themes of this song is the difference between the utopia that people perceive fame to be like and the cold reality of what it actually is. The bulk of this song consists of a moody chord progression that rises and falls dynamically, beginning with a simply arpeggiated electric guitar that soon adds spectral electric piano embellishments. Steve Rothery takes one of his fieriest guitar solos on this song, a raging monster that is juxtaposed with Pete Trewavas’s strange two note bass line that pops up occasionally over the course of the song. The final buildup of this song is especially intense with the band taking the moody chord progression into the upper stratospheres until they are creating a wall of rock ‘n’ roll noise that ends abruptly with the sound of a gun shot, a reference to Cobain ending his own life under the crushing weight of stardom.
Afraid Of Sunlight was released in June of 1995 to enthusiastic reviews and fan accolades, but strangely enough, it became Marillion’s first album ever to not crack the U.K. top ten. In response to the continuing decline in popularity and commercial success, EMI decided to drop Marillion after this album. They continued to release albums on smaller independent labels, but witnessed an even steeper decline in sales over the second half of the 90’s. However, in 2004, the band had a surprise hit with the song “You’re Gone” from their album Marbles, which reached #7 in the U.K. singles chart, their first single to break the top ten since the departure of Fish. Marillion continues to record and tour to this day with varying degrees of commercial popularity, but a never wavering support system from their loyal fans.
In summary, Afraid Of Sunlight is an excellent place to start your journey into Marillion’s impressive body of work. While Brave might be a better album overall, and the Fish era might be more “interesting,” Afraid Of Sunlight has some of the best songwriting of the band’s career, and Steve Hogarth’s voice has never sounded better. There are many songs and moments on this album that manage to induce a lump in my throat with the power of the music and the emotions conveyed by the lyrics. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album (plus a bonus disc of B-sides, outtakes and demos) here: http://open.spotify.com/album/5D7KP6CX2VqwJ1M0UqlVEO
Shouts On Goal
"In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone."
St. Louis, it was short and sweet but you always show the love. Until next time. Springfield MO you’re up next! Tonight at the Outland Ballroom!
Shouts On Goal
"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."