Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Empty Space Orchestra Rock The Amps, Not the Mic

From Bend, Oregon comes Empty Space Orchestra: part spacy post-rock, part shapeshifting, Mars Volta inspired math-rock, with a frequently dramatic, cinematic edge and an unexpected sense of humor. Fun may not be something you equate with the Mars Volta, but it’s definitely part of the blueprint for Empty Space Orchestra. The songs on their new, self-titled, all-instrumental album often have a mocking, satirical bite that’s completely out of character in this genre. How cool is it to finally find a proggy-sounding band that doesn’t take itself seriously?

The ornateness of the arrangements attests to the band’s classical background. Guitarist Shane Thomas and bassist Patrick Pearsall are riffmeisters, often working in tandem. Keyboardist Keith O’Dell brings the drama with stately classical flourishes; multi-instrumentalist Graham Jacobs (reeds and keys) seems to be in charge of atmospherics. Drummer Lindsey Elias propels the behemoth with a power and precision worthy of Bill Bruford. The most comedic song here is Get Some, a stomping faux-Vegas stripper theme that opens with a cheesy faux-brass keyboard patch and then brings in creepy yet funky funeral organ. Eventually, the guitar takes over, with a metal edge, sax alternating between robotic and robust. The rest of it is a characteristic mix of wit and wrath: a silly synth solo followed by a tersely dramatic, emphatic guitar solo that eventually smolders and bursts into flame as the whole band heats up.

The single best song here might be Tiger Puss, a slowly stomping, hypnotic tableau that hints at dub, with some truly bizarre, slurpy noises in the background. Up with ringing reverb guitar, it goes warpspeed a la the Bad Brains for a bit and then hits a pounding metal interlude. From there it slowly grinds to a halt, switching from sarcasm to genuine plaintiveness as it winds out. El Viento builds slowly to a psychedelic southwestern gothic melody and without warning morphs into a bright, wide-eyed adventure theme (in 10/4 time for those of you who like to count), that finally starts coming apart at the seams as the guitar hisses and sputters. And Intergalactic Battle Cruiser offers an update on the Ventures for the 21st century, with twin riffage from bass and guitar and a vividly intense, tremolo-picked guitar solo while the drums manage to simultaneously blend pure insanity and perfect precision.

There are a couple of short ones here that are also a lot of fun. Tennessee Red offes less than two minutes of searing, chromatic metal, with a potently simple slide guitar solo; The Hangar is an Allen Lanier-style piano interlude that grows epic for a second before gracefully returning home. The rest of the album mixes the comical with the cerebral. Exit Strategy sounds like Rush as done by Queen, with a chorus by Loverboy. The opening track, Brainjar, moves artfully from 80s style adventure movie calisthenics to an ominous Peter Hook bass figure and then back again; the closing track does the same but with a Beatlesque interlude. There’s a lot going on here and it’s a lot of fun.

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May 13, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

17 Pygmies’ Follow-up to Their Classic Celestina Album Defies the Odds

Trying to follow up a classic is inevitably a thankless task. What do you do after you’ve recorded your Dark Side of the Moon, written your Foundation trilogy or painted your Starry Night? Conventional wisdom is that it’s time to move on, completely shift gears, flip the script and defy comparisons with your masterpiece, even if it might need a concluding chapter. Veteran California art-rock band 17 Pygmies have taken the hard road with their new album CII: Second Son, a sequel to their 2008 tour de force Celestina. That album, based on a short story about love and betrayal in outer space by guitarist/bandleader Jackson Del Rey, is a lavish, majestic, cruelly beautiful song cycle (we picked it as one of the 1000 best albums of all time). This one is similar, right down to the elegant silver packaging, but it’s more of an instrumental suite, sort of like Twin Peaks in outer space. Again, it’s based on a Del Rey short story, a twisted, Rod Serling-style cliffhanger included in the cd booklet. If the plot is to be taken on face value, heaven is autotuned: which makes it…what? You figure it out.

The opening instrumental sets the stage. It’s a retro 50s noir pop theme done as lushly orchestrated space rock, Angelo Badalamenti meets ELO at their eeriest circa 1980. With layers of guitar synthesizer, electric piano and string synth, it’s a lush, hypnotic wash of sound. They follow it with the first of only two vocal numbers, a 6/8 ballad sung with quietly menacing relish by keyboardist Meg Maryatt (who thankfully is not autotuned) which illustrates the story, that she’s landed in a place that’s too good to be true. Richly interwoven themes and textures follow: creepy music box electric piano, an ominous March of the Robots, backward masking, mellotron, pulsing waves of sound and a mantra of “shut down this process” that repeats again and again.

A variation on the ballad emerges from a long, hypnotic vamp: “There’s a hole in the sky,” Maryatt intones, spellbound, and then the strings go totally Hitchcock, fluttering with horror. “The sky, cold to the sight…” White noise echoes; an offcenter piano waltz, disjointedly disquieting synthy interlude and something of an operatic crescendo with a spooky choir give way to distant, starlit piano that morphs unexpectedly into a methodical, slightly funky Atomheart Mother-style art-rock vamp with distorted guitar and organ. They leave it there on an unfinished note. On one level, it’s a pity all this grandeur and suspense has such a hard act to follow. On the other hand, as lush, unselfconsciously beautiful psychedelia, it stands on its own. And as Del Rey has made pretty clear, this story isn’t over yet: if this is Foundation and Empire, we have what will hopefully be his Second Foundation to look forward to at some future time. It’s out now on Trakwerx.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Album of the Day 8/24/10

We’re officially on vacation, so this week’s additions to the 1000 best albums of all time are ones previously featured in our three years’ existence. Over that time, we’ve found out that discovering a classic album is 10% being able to spot it for what it is, and 90% simply the dumb luck of knowing that it exists at all. Tuesday’s album is a prime example:

889. 17 PygmiesCelestina

In their practically thirty-year existence, 17 Pygmies have played quirky new wave, postpunk, ambient soundscapes and artsy, Fairport Convention style folk-rock. This is their masterpiece, an eleven-part symphonic rock suite about love and betrayal in space based on a short story written by bandleader/guitarist Jackson Del Rey. A theme and variations, its rich, icy layers of guitars and synthesized orchestration fade in and out of the mix, alternately hypnotic and jarring, with echoes of Pink Floyd, the Church, the Cocteau Twins, and echoing in the distance, Del Rey’s pioneering noise-instrumental band Savage Republic. Its centerpiece is a menacing, droning twelve-minute feedback instrumental punctuated by bassist Meg Maryatt’s gorgeously melodic, ruthless riffage. A major rediscovery waiting to happen: released on Trakwerx in 2008, it’s still available.

August 24, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 4/25/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Sunday’s song is #95:

The Church – Kings

Grimly hypnotic, apocalyptic anthem from the legendary psychedelic janglerockers’ visionary Priest=Aura album, 1992.

Software hums and hardware hears
We’re destined, babe, to live these years

The link above is a torrent of the whole album.

April 25, 2010 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Blues in Space at le Poisson Rouge, NYC 8/19/09

Nice to see a good crowd come out late on a brutally hot weeknight and fill the house for a creative band who refuse to be pigeonholed. Are Blues in Space a metal band? Art-rock? Avant garde? Yes, all of the above and more. This time out bandleader/cellist Rubin Kodheli was backed by a powerfully propulsive drummer and two guitarists, one playing an eight-string a la Charlie Hunter for basslines when Kodheli himself wasn’t fingerpicking a line himself. But bass isn’t what this band is all about – the show was a whirlwind of rich textures, mostly in the high midrange where most noise-rockers make their home. Matching lush melody to ferocious roar, they played a mix of both recorded and unreleased material that almost predictably spanned a vast range of styles.

They opened with the appropriately titled Rage, a chromatically-charged, minor-key stomp perfect for Ozzfest. Kodheli transcends the mold of the classically trained string player, showing off a smirkingly vast knowledge of metal licks and an ability to transpose guitar voicings to the cello. The single best song of the night was a spaghetti western instrumental, Tumbleweed, probably the last thing you’d ever expect an ornate, amplified string ensemble to tackle, but it worked, masterfully, right up to the understated diminuendo of the ending. In the same vein, the group reworked the metal raveup Apocalypse almost as a chamber music suite, the two guitarists feeding the fire with a remarkable restraint. The playfully titled Happy Minor was in fact upbeat, inspiring and completely psychedelic, with the echoey effects on the stringed instruments blending into one another. They closed with another playful, ornate, smartly crafted multistylistic number, The Greatest, matching atmospherics to a crushing metal crescendo. Bands like Blues in Space make a good battering ram: they destroy boundaries. It would make as much sense for them to do Bang on a Can as it would for them to do Ozzfest or for that matter take up residency at a place like Barbes.

August 20, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Steve Kilbey – Painkiller

His best solo album. Steve Kilbey, visionary frontman and main songwriter of legendary Australian art rockers the Church, usually saves his best material for the band. Some of the lush, intricately crafted songs here have the percussive insistence that characterized much of the band’s 1984 Remote Luxury album, others sound an awful lot like the neo-psychedelia of Brian Jonestown Massacre, which makes sense since Ricky Rene Maymi of that band is on this cd. Kilbey’s infrequent solo albums (this is his first in eight years) typically have a lo-fi charm, a mix of what often sound like sketches and outtakes, many of them acoustic, Kilbey playing most if not all of the instruments. But this is a full-band album, eight of its eleven tracks credited to the group Kilbey assembled for it (along with Maymi there’s Scott Von Ryper of the Black Ryder and Morning After Girls and William Bowden on electronics as well as Tim Powles from the Church on drums). While Kilbey’s signature sound has always been atmospheric, this is a new direction for him, equal parts retro and futurist and it works extremely well. As Kilbey calls it on his myspace, it’s “space rock,” richly layered with oscillating keyboards and what sound like a small city worth of guitar tracks fading in and out of the mix.

 

The cd begins with the fast, driving Outbound, Kilbey’s vocals impressively strong, even aggressive, what seems to be an escape anthem. He’s quick to insist that he’s “not what the man in the street supposes…not a real time being, it’s the shadow you’re seeing.” There’s an eerie, minimalist guitar solo with a Middle Eastern tinge. The next two tracks share the same fast 80s beat, Wolfe (with what sound like sarcastic faux Sonic Youth vocals) seemingly a slap at a monkey on the back (LOTS of drug references here), Celestial maintaining the sarcastic feel with watery late 80s Robert Smith style guitar.

 

Song for the Masking (a pun on Song for the Asking, a beautiful ballad from the 2001 Church album After Everything Now This) builds from insistent downstroke acoustic guitar, getting darker and murkier with umpteen layers of effects and…of course…backward masking. “Come on,” Kilbey gleefully intones as the next cut, Look Homeward Angel gets underway, basically a swirling one-chord jam: “Got a heart like mercury…got a silver lining hanging over me.” The wooziest and the most overtly retro, BJM-influenced of all the songs here, Spirit in Flame pounds along, slow and hypnotic. 

 

The best song on the album, the fleetingly gorgeous Forever Lasts for Nothing comes toward the end, a Kilbey classic that in a lot of ways sounds like a rewrite of Bel Air from the Church’s first album, Of Skins and Heart. Dating from the waning days of the Bush regime, it’s a call to arms, not something you’d expect here – to say that it packs a punch would be an understatement:

 

Standing at the junction of two great highways, post-industrial breeze

No one fucking cares about your broken heart, or your slow release…

I got a little plan, I’ll start acting like a man, you can act like me…

Just like a welcome mat you lay down on the floor

Just like the love for rich and fist for the poor…

 

There are also a couple of one-chord stoner jams including one really long one to close the album, ending with samples of a thunderstorm and what sound like whale songs. Fans of any kind of psychedelia from throughout the ages should get this; for Church fans, it’s a must-own. Kilbey’s blog is also worth bookmarking: his prose poems are often as insightful and savagely amusing as his song lyrics.      

April 25, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment