Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Playlist: October + review of Pink Floyd's "Endless River"

  • Pink Floyd—The Endless River (2014)
  • The Amazing—Picture You (2015)
  • Flying Lotus—You're Dead (2014)
  • Burnt Belief—Etymology (2014)
  • Steve Rothery—The Ghosts of Pripyat (2014)
  • Knifeworld—The Unraveling (2014)
  • Aphex Twin—Syro (2014)
  • Amplifier—Mystoria (2014)
  • David Bowie—"Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" (2014); The Next Day Extra edition (2013)
  • Joseph Arthur—The Ballad of Boogie Christ, Act 2 (2013)
  • Bjork—Biophilia (2011)
  • Big Wreck—The Pleasure and the Greed (2001)
  • Tool—Lateralus (2001)
  • Justin Adams—Desert Road (2000)
  • Boards of Canada—Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
  • The Cure—Disintegration (1989)
  • Dire Straits—Brothers in Arms (1985)
  • Depeche Mode—Black Celebration (1985)
  • Talking Heads—Remain in Light (1980)
  • Goblin—Roller (1976)
  • Terje Rypdal—Odyssey: In the Studio and Beyond (1975)
  • Can—Future Days (1973)
  • Led Zeppelin—IV (1971, deluxe reissue 2014); Houses of the Holy (1973, deluxe reissue 2014)
  • Frank Zappa—Hot Rats (1969)
There's been something of a common theme to my playlist this past month—they're mostly instrumental albums. A famous rock band has commissioned a book from me and, for some reason, I find it difficult to write while listening to songs featuring singers. My mind tends to automatically largely tune out music with vocals when I'm on my computer. Instrumental music works much better. My wife and I have also just moved from Los Angeles to Boston, so these albums have provided a great soundtrack to the chore of packing moving boxes.

First, I gotta tell you about the album that most surprised me this year—electronic hip-hop artist Flying Lotus' You're Dead. Now, if you stopped reading at the words "hip-hop," I implore you to carry on because this album isn't really a rap record. You're Dead does feature guest appearances by rappers Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, but it really sounds like a great progressive rock album.

It's a tight 38 minutes of mostly ethereal, organic instrumental music that draws upon jazz, electronica, hip-hop, prog, fusion and funk. It sounds like  a 21st-century take on Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. Indeed, Flying Lotus cites King Crimson, Soft Machine, Slayer, Pink Floyd and Weather Report as influences on the album. I hear Funkadelic's Maggot Brain in there, too.

You're Dead features saxophonist Kamasi Washington, ex-Mars Volta drummer Deantoni Parks and Metalocalypse guitarist Brendon Small. And Flying Lotus also roped in Herbie Hancock with the idea of making hip-hop music that'd impress Miles Davis—"a jazz record, that would fuck him up."   Thankfully, he insisted that Hancock ditch his crappy modern keyboards and play Fender Rhodes. Result? Consistently gorgeous and adventurous music that's genuinely progressive.

One of 2014's very best records. Take a listen to this sample from it, below.

As a massive fan of Porcupine Tree, I've followed the solo endeavors of each of its musicians. Each band member has produced very strong work since Porcupine's Tree's extended—perhaps indefinite—hiatus. Bassist Colin Edwin has pursued a hydra career, flitting between his longtime band Ex-Wise Heads, his new Twinscapes bass duo, and guesting on various Tim Bowness projects. He's also established an exciting band called Burnt Belief with an American guitarist named Jon Durant.

I hadn't previously come across Durant who, like me, lives in Boston. Here's a tweet-length bio: The one-time Berklee College of Music student used to be the demo guy for Lexicon's JamMan guitar looping technology, which was utilized by the likes of Joseph Arthur. In 1996, Durant founded Alchemy records, which has released albums by Michael Manring, Wayne Krantz/Leni Stern and, now, Burnt Belief.

I was knocked out by the debut Burnt Belief album in 2013. The duo's new release, Etymology, defies easy categorization. Not quite jazz, not quite fusion, not quite new age, not quite prog. It's guitar-based instrumental music that sounds as if it's seeped through the cracks of an alternate dimension.

Durant's cloud guitar will appeal to fans of Robert Fripp and David Torn and Carl Verheyen, though the Massachusetts guitarist doesn't quite sound like any of those players. His often textural guitarwork is distinguished by brazen and fierce lead parts. For instance, Durant's guitar sounds like a chorus of trumpets during the opener, "Chromatique," On the Middle-eastern flavored "Dissemble," Durant's underwater guitar sound tangles and twists around crystal clear violin parts by No-Man's Steve Bingham. "Rivulet" showcases two signature aspects of Durant's guitar playing: His shimmering vibrato and the way in which he deliberately smudges his way between notes. For a change of pace, check out the minimalist "Hover," in which Durant's guitar notes gleam like bells.

Burnt Belief's sound, which often draws on eastern modes, is a natural fit for Edwin. He is a master of slow-churn grooves and ethereal textures. I love Edwin's bass undertow in "Not Indifferent" and "Hfraunfosser" as well as his lancing lines during "Squall." Edwin's sinewy treble is one of the most beautiful aspects of Etymology's sound. This stuff will take your head to outer space.

I recently received a review copy of Pink Floyd's The Endless River. What does it sound like? Put it this way: Remember how Steven Wilson created a library of his sounds for the Ghostwriter software? Well, this sounds like the Pink Floyd version of that—a compilation of its best known and classic sounds. Which is to say that little here that's remotely new or different from anything we've heard from these musicians before. Like the latest albums by Aphex Twin and My Bloody Valentine, this Floyd record is more a consolidation of a distinctive sound than it is a progression. Like those other two records, The Endless River is gorgeous music if you accept it on those terms.

Though The Endless River was pieced together from hours of soundscape noodling and jamming, the result sounds more focused than one might expect. Unlike The Orb/David Gilmour record Metallic Spheres, which meandered without any compass, these instrumental tracks have been tightly edited. Nine of the tracks clock in at less than two minutes. The result is a continuous flow of musical ideas that don't outstay their welcome. Each instrumental segues into the next to create a holistic listening experience in which the sum is greater than its parts. For that reason, I'd recommend the CD version of the album rather than the vinyl version for an uninterrupted listen.

The opening track, "Things Left Unsaid," begins in Dark Side of the Moon style with candid admissions by several disembodied voices. "We have an unspoken understanding, but certain things left unsaid as well," says one band member. "Well, we shout and argue and fight and work it all out," says the voice of David Gilmour."The sum is greater than the parts," adds a third voice. Over the next four minutes, Richard Wright's keyboards breathe and sigh in pastoral bliss as Gilmour's Glissando guitar parts shimmer like a heat haze.

The pulse picks up during "It's What We Do." Wright's Minimoog evokes the introduction to "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." Nick Mason reminds listeners that his unhurried fills and drizzled cymbals are a unique and essential component of the Floyd sound. When Gilmour's guitar solo comes in like a laser beam refracted through a prism, your ears will swoon. For the next several minutes, his blues-y guitar notes swoop and dip over a gentle acoustic strum that sounds as it had been lifted from "Dogs" on Animals. Beautiful. "Ebb and Flow" circles back to the slurred guitar sound of the opening track and features candy-sweet keyboard lines. This trio of pieces is a stunning start to the album.

"Skins" begins with the same keyboard sound that opens "Cluster One" on The Division Bell. It's soon subsumed by crackling sounds, a trembling keyboard figure and the snarling guitar Gilmour deployed on "Sorrow." Mason plays the sort of tom-tom figures last heard on "Time" and "Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun." His drums come to the fore for an extended solo on "Skins," which is psychedelic and spooky and harks back to "A Saucerful of Secrets." The extended tenor sax solo and a glass-cut guitar solo of "Anisina" comes as something of a surprise. It's joyful and jubilant, musical qualities seldom associated with Pink Floyd. 

My other fave part of the album is the seven-song suite that begins with the reflective piano piece of "The Lost Art of Conversation." By turns playful, whimsical and then brooding, the suite begins with atmospheric noodling (one track is even titled "On Noodle Street"). The music come to a boil with "Allons-y Pt. 1" and "Allons-y Pt. 2," which is bridged by Rick Wright's majestic turn at the organ inside the Royal Albert Hall on "Autumn '68." "Allons-y Pt. 2" takes off with a heatseeker solo by David Gilmour that wholly plagiarizes"Another Brick in the Wall," but is no less enjoyable for it. The awkwardly titled "Talkin' Hawkin'"—which features the processed voice of Stephen Hawking over "Great Gig in the Sky"-style ululations of a female singer—continues the album's loose theme of the importance of communication.  

Wright's keyboards are front and center during the final suite. "Calling" would be a fitting alternate theme tune to Carl Sagan's Cosmos. The dramatic mood piece "Eyes to Pearls" could work as the soundtrack to a suspense theme in a spy movie."Surfacing" is a direct lift of musical motifs from The Division Bell's "High Hopes." The album concludes with "Louder than Words," the first single and the sole song with vocals. Its lyric summarizes the troubled history of Pink Floyd, a band cursed by musicianly acrimony, yet blessed with musical alchemy. I was initially underwhelmed by "Louder than Words." But it snuck up on me and has taken up residence in my mental jukebox. I adore it now. 

Gotta admit that the first time I listened to The Endless River, I was underwhelmed. I imagine some people will be disappointed in the album given that it only has one proper song. Some may feel that the album lacks the substance and weight of previous releases. After all, it's not a proper album as much as it is a burnished compilation of fragmentary leftovers. But my opinion of The Endless River changed with repeat plays. The key to getting the most out of this album is, a) to listen to it as a continuous piece without distraction, and b) to accept that it's an album fashioned from used parts. I prefer this album to The Division Bell, which I felt was a poor album with just a handful of good tunes. To me, The Endless River is a stronger farewell from Pink Floyd.

I've played this album over and over and over, which is testament to its strengths.

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