Sunday 31 May 2009

Picked up a good book

One of the things I find most frustrating is that I'm not particularly well-read. I went through a phase in my 20's when I started to read some of the classics and some more challenging modern fiction. I even bought Ulysses, but put it away until I was ready for it.

Truth is, I don't think I'll ever be ready for it. I got fed up one day when reading some impenetrable passage of magical realism by an author whose name I cannot remember and picked up Julian Rathbone's The Last English King instead. This was different, this And interesting. And very moving.

After Rathbone, I got into Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, Steven Pressfield and then went back to David Gemmell (I read Gemmell's fantasy novels when I was a teenager and loved them; my 13 year-old son has subsequently worked his way through my ageing collection of Gemmell paperbacks with great energy and passion.)

From historical fiction, I moved on to factual historical books (again, something I read a lot of when I was a teenager)and also discovered a love for books about engineering and popular science. And that, broadly, is where my tastes lie now. In fact, my current reading list covers rather typical 40-year-old-male territory. By the side of my bed, should you choose to look there, you will find books on Alexander the Great, Anglo-Saxon England, Victorian Engineering, D-Day and disused railway lines. Oh, and also an autobiography by Bill Bruford.

In fact, probably the only constant in my reading habits over the last quarter of a century has been books on rock music. And I think Bruford has just written one of the best of them.

Bruford's book is not yer typical kind of book about rock. If you're after a straightforward canter through Bruford's musical life, then this isn't the place to start. Instead, it's a portrayal of the world-view of an unusually thoughtful musician coming to the end of his career. Sure, there are some interesting anecdotes in there about Yes and Crimson and Genesis, but this book is valuable because of its insight, because it makes you think.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Is this the best prog album ever made?

Selling England has been voted the best ever prog album by readers of Classic Rock Presents Prog.

I voted in the poll, which has just been published in the second issue of Prog, and put Selling England at number one. However, I haven't listened to it properly for a while so, as the light faded, I drifted off into the garden for a listen on my iPod to give it a critical appraisal.

I could go on and on about the extraordinary ensemble playing, sophisticated writing and arrangements, the beautiful pastoral feel and the several key moments on the album that almost define prog at its best.

But I won't. I'll just say that, yes, it is the best prog album ever made.

Infamy, infamy...

The Progressive Rock Hall of Infamy site is an interesting new blog.

Whatever your opinions on the content of the blog, it's certainly written in a combative style.

Here is an excerpt from PRHOI. It's an attack on Yes which sidesteps the obvious targets and takes a swipe at Relayer, Going For the One and Tormato (best not to read any further if you like everything Yes have done):

'Over the years, thinking more and more about the time lost to Rick Wakeman’s keyboard peregrinations and Anderson’s sheep-being-slaughtered vocal excesses, I came to despise Yes, blaming them for ruining Prog and making an already bleak and sorrowful world an even darker place with the truly wretched excess of their output. There have been many things said about Yes, and if I wanted to, I could keep the PRHOI in business for the next five years just publishing reviews of Yes albums proper, various side-projects and the myriad groups they somehow inspired to make similarly indulgent and pointless music. I’m going to pass on that option, as I’m forbiddingly depressed enough already to ever survive writing my thoughts on Tales from Topographic Oceans or Wakeman’s own Journey to the Center of the Earth madness. Instead, I’m going to deal with three of the albums that Yes released over a roughly 40 month span in the mid to late 70’s, albums that signaled a band in decline and yet simultaneously at the height of their powers. For as they died, like a great god or king, they resolved to take everyone down with them, and the results of this infernal pact with the Lords of Suck were Relayer, Going for the One, and Tormato – the last perhaps the worst and most ridiculous title ever bestowed on any album, crap or classic, Prog or mainstream. Look at that goddamn album cover, look at it – and tell me your liberal heart still yearns to abolish capital punishment for a crime against aesthetics so vile and miserable. Shark Sandwich was made up, but these motherfuckers were coming from the heart.'

'The incomprehensible – and in my view inexcusable – long-term popularity of Yes is largely due to a phenomenon I have observed in other culturally-challenged sub groupings of society – prison Nazis, collectors of Thomas Kinkade paintings, people with a lot of Pottery Barn flatware in their kitchens. The problem is one of mistaking all similar product with being of similar quality; i.e., if I like King Crimson, it is only natural that I would have a yen for Yes. If I drink beer, then Budweiser or Kokanee will be fine if Pilsner is too expensive. If mushrooms make for a good trip, perhaps I’ll try huffing nail polish remover. The point is, none of these quasi-syllogisms ring true, and are in fact dangerous misjudgments that help define the culture whore as opposed to the truly cultured.'

I happen to think that Going For the One is one of the greatest of all prog albums, but I have some sympathy for the PRHOI position on Relayer (excluding the lovely 'Soon' section, of course)...

'Relayer was in the spirit of earlier Yes efforts, meaning that the record starts with a 21:55 second “song” that is about as focused as a drunk’s urine stream and hops from notion to notion (none of the elements could be properly called “ideas”) like a third-grader who forgot to take his Ritalin. Sadly, as Steve Howe’s guitar work is often dynamic – there is even what appears to be a little nod to Jimmy Page’s brilliantly messy solo from “Heartbreaker” on “Sound Chaser” – the music is controlled by the interruptions of Alan White’s overly noisy drums and the unusually aggressive vocal stylings of Anderson. Indeed, what identifies Relayer the most to me is its sheer noisiness – new member Patrick Moraz, having replaced the grandiose stylings of Rick Wakeman on keyboards, is given little chance to do other than offer fills to violent bursts of cacophony and the ever-present threat of Anderson’s bleating; allowed to calm these tracks down a little, Moraz might have proved valuable. As it is, he’s lost in a mix overrun mad with ego'

Tormato, however, gets the full broadside:

'Finally, the triumvirate collapses utterly on Tormato, an album so worthless that I almost feel bad for the kind of band that would produce such drek. Not a lot can be said about the banality of this waste, so why not just consider the song titles and tell me that you have any desire to actually listen to the fucking thing: “Don’t Kill the Whale”, “Arriving UFO” and “On the Silent Wings of Freedom” – the last very probably the worst song on any of the three disastrous albums in question'

It's worth reading the whole post at the Hall where a number of other bands and sub-genres are targeted in similar fashion.