Monday, October 31, 2016

Lull: Continue

Well, it is Halloween and I've often considered taking this 1996 recording, released on Relapse Records, or others made under the moniker of Lull by Mick Harris and playing it outside when trick or treaters tentatively make their way up to the house.

This is partly because I live in a canyon community, appropriately called Sleepy Hollow, where we have dark, narrow streets, lots of trees, and, in this case, a replica Victorian home that might give an aura of spookiness, particularly when decorated for Halloween.

Then, if Continue is playing in its entirety as an unbroken 62 minute exercise in slow, dark, hypnotic electronic droning, how could a trick or treater not feel a sense of dread, foreboding, unease and even fear?

Any other day in the year, though, at least to this listener, the album actually has a calming, introspective effect, even if it does have a chilling aura to it.  Harris establishes, without overt rhythm, a sense of flow and the rising and falling of electronic sound that captivates and draws the listener in.  He creates a powerful aural soundscape that doesn't get old.

Whether it is music to many people is another question entirely.  As the description of this blog states, courtesy of the great modernist composer Edgard VarĂ©se, "music is organized sound."  How that factors into conventional conceptions like melody, harmony, counterpoint or how it might square with orthodox views on beauty is up to the hearer.

For this listener, Continue is a fascinating immersive experience, a sound world that blots out extraneous circumstances when heard on headphones.  It is a aural journey into a world that is dark, but also fluid and open.   In fact, it is no accident that Lull's first recording was titled Journey through Underworlds.

Because, yeah, it is like that.

Harris has been conspicuously silent for the last couple of years and hopefully has not given up on making music.  With Scorn, Lull, and his many collaborations, his body of distinctive work has been really interesting.  May he reemerge with new music soon, no matter what the moniker.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

King Crimson: Starless and Bible Black

In 2009, fifteen years after last hearing any King Crimson and twenty-five years since hearing this particular record, the opportunity to come across it again, just after relistening to Larks Tongues in Aspic, which rekindled (particularly the awesome "The Talking Drum") an interest in this remarkable band again.

It had actually been Starless and Bible Black that had stuck in my mind all those years, but actually, any memory of why the album had done so was totally unclear.  No particular songs came to mind, it was just some general impression somehow.

At any rate, that first time going back through the recording, what was striking was the effort Robert Fripp put into presenting a mix of live material (with audience reaction removed) and studio tracks as if to present the idea that the band's qualities were essentially the same in both settings.  At the same time, he has characterized the albums as love letters and concerts as hot dates, which might be construed as the idea that it was in performance that the band was best understood and appreciated.

On Starless, the lines between live and in studio work are blurred and improvisation plays a significant role in the proceedings.  The latter is especially highlighted in the remarkable "Trio," in which the band, noted for increasingly intense and powerful concerts, turned in a contemplative, hushed performance in which drummer Bill Bruford, who could be both a powerhouse and a sensitive accompanist, sat out.  Robert Fripp felt that, for making that unselfish move, the drummer deserved a writing credit.

"We'll Let You Know" and "The Mincer" are both largely improvised concert excerpts, although some studio overdubbing was applied to the former.  "Starless and Bible Black" is a powerful piece, with a piercing, probing Fripp solo backed by the duo propulsion of bassist (and vocalist) John Wetton and Bruford.

A word about violinst David Cross, who also played viola, mellotron and electric piano, as well.  Fripp brought him into the group to provide a lighter touch as counterweight to the heaviness of the others.  Over time, he was marginalized and simply overpowered by the intensity of the other musicians.  Yet, he plays beautifully on the violin in many places, esepcially on "The Night Warch", and dutifully did what needed to be done elsewhere.

As for the vocal pieces, there're all fine efforts, including the much-maligned "The Great Deceiver," which has an opening line reference to "health food faggot," which led American critics and fans to condemn lyricist Richard Palmer-James' homophobia.  He and Fripp, however, have stressed that the use of the term was about a vegetarian form of an English meatball in this song about Beelzebub.

"Lament" and "The Night Watch" are both interesting in terms of their introspective views concerning a musician's life on the road, in the case of the former, and the powerful experience of gazing about Rembrandt's famed painting in Amsterdam, in the instance of the latter.  Wetton's dusky vocals are served quite well in the two songs.

The pinnacle of this record and one of the great King Crimson tunes of them all is the staggering "Fracture," which includes the rhythm section providing powerful backing to Fripp's amazing speed, dexterity and control in his phenomenal playing.

As with other signature performances, Fripp didn't rely on pyrotechnics and acrobatics in his playing, so much as precision, power and placement of notes where they needed to be.  "Fracture" is a textbook example of that and it's also a stellar full band performance and a stunning way to end this very interesting and diverse album.

The 2011 release of the 40th Anniversary edition, mainly remastered by Porcupine Tree guitarist Steven Wilson and Fripp, on Fripp's DGM label includes many bonus tracks, as does the accompanying DVD, which offers 5.1 surround, MLP lossless stereo, and PCM stereo versions and more bonuses, too.  The best bonuses, though, are the video performances of "Easy Money" from Larks Tongues and the improvisation "Fragged Dusty Wall Carpet" from a gig at Central Park in June 1973.  Getting this edition is well worth it for those items, excepts from Fripp's 2000 and 2011 diaries, when preparing 30th and 40th anniversary editions and Crimson biographer Sid Smith's always-interesting liners.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Zakir Hussain: Selects

One of the first Indian classical music recordings purchased back in 1990 was the spectacular Venu by flaustist Hariprasad Chaurasia with accompaniment on tabla by Zakir Hussain.  Over time, other recordings featuring both were acquired and, in the case of the incomparable Hussain, his staggering speed, dexterity, precision, power and invention have become increasingly apparent.
This has been true in such recordings as the studio and live releases of Tabla Beat Society, which Hussain formed with the great bassist and producer Bill Laswell, and in others.

Gradual exposure to more Indian classical music over the years, especially through a slew of impressive releases on the British-based Nimbus label, have also increased the desire to attend a concert, but this had proved elusive over the last quarter-century . . . until last night.

My wife and I went to the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts to hear Hussain and sitarist Niladri Kumar.  We got cheap $20 seats on the upper level overlooking the stage at stage left, but the ability to look down somewhat directly over the two master musicians, especially Hussain who was on the right side of the stage, seemed to me to make the siting a superb bargain.

For two and a half hours I sat mesmerized by the incomparable artistry of this incredible players.  Kumar was very impressive, starting out, typically, with slow evocations of themes and gradually building the foundations of his improvisations in the time-honored tradition of Hindustani raga.   When it came to the fast sections, he performed with amazing speed, power and flexibility and was deserving of all the praise heaped upon him by Hussain and the audience.

The ustad (maestro) was humble and humorous, gently introducing the music, his fellow musician, and throwing in charming bits of playful comedic touches that put everyone at ease.  He said, rightly, that the tabla player is there to support the lead instrument (whether this is a sitar, sarod, sarangi, vocalist, etc.) and he was extraordinarily generous in giving Kumar plenty of room to show off his technique and style.

However, Hussain was the undisputed star of the show.  It is hard to describe what a master does in words.  The only reasonable way to express what his astounding playing does is to simply say that pressing my hands against my face or side of my head, grinning or smiling, and shaking my head each time he launched into a dazzling display of virtuosity was the reaction.  It was simply unbelievable.

My wife, who has hardly heard any Indian classical music before and was probably exhausted after getting up at 5:15 a.m., working all day, and then getting our kids fed, was highly engaged and impressed and thanked me for taking her.

Well, thank you, Ustad Zakir Hussain and Niladri Lumar for fulfilling beyond expectation what had been 26 years of unfulfilled wishes to see a performance of Indian classical music.  Now, I want to see more.

Before the show, I purchased Selects, a CD produced by Hussain and his wife Antonia Minnecola for their Moment! Records label from excerpts of live recordings in India from 1994 to 2000.  Notably, there is no sitar here, but there is excellent work on the harmonium by Appa-ji and the sarangi by the phenomenal Ustad Sultan Khan.  Of course, Hussain's unreal tabla work is highlighted in these pieces.

It has to be said that, as great as this disc is, it just cannot, so soon after hearing the mindblowing concert given by Hussain and Kumar, come close to capturing that feeling of the live performance experienced in person.  That might seem obvious, but it becomes glaringly apparent after especially powerful concert experiences, such as last night.  What a thrilling and memorable experience!