Thursday, 23 June 2016

Invention Of Knowledge

The second part of the Anderson Trilogy has now been released. It is an inter-net collaboration between Jon Anderson and Roine Stolt the guitarist with the Flower Kings and Transatlantic.

Jon sent Roine a number of his music files of demo’s recorded with various collaborators and Roine, with the help of band mates and musical accomplices, fleshed out those demos and the results were traded back and forth until they were happy a final result had been achieved.
   
Part 1

A Prog - Rock Musical Soundtrack Olias comes to Hollywood.  

The first suite of three movements begins evoking the spirit of the re introduced beginning of Tales From Topographic Oceans, before a neat flurry from Tom Brislin (Keyboards). The main melodic riff is a variation from Yes’s ”The Ancient” which Roine Stolt constantly borrows quotes from as the piece proceeds, indeed the quotes from The Ancient are passed baton like between Jonas Reingold (Bass), Tom and Roine Stolt with a particularly nice reference to Steve' Howe's Pedal Steel playing at one point. The final refrain from the overture before Jon's verse singing is one of the big riffs from Gates of Delirium overture. All of this I am sure is intended both to entertain as well as set out the stall for the aspiration and direction of the music.
They have poured a good deal of music into the first suite with many ideas coalescing to create a totality which sounds like the soundtrack to a rock musical, up lifting major key rather than minor key tunes with lush orchestral inserts. There are neat brief runs from Roine the odd fill and roll from the drums but it sounds orchestral rather than jazz influenced. There is no tear arse playing or extensions; the dominant feature is Jon's vocals. 

This lack of instrumental development gives the playing a sense of homage making. Tom Brislin offers exciting spirited flourishes avoiding stock “prog rock” mannerisms but the dense claustrophobic arrangements extends to all of the playing so rather than each player expressing their own personality and giving the music a sense of self it feels like a rather sophisticated homage.

The second movement takes the vocal melody of "Unbroken Spirit of Mine" and moves into a nice groove called "We are truth". Indeed low down in the mix you can hear Jon’s customary rhythmic acoustic guitar playing. There is a real sense of performance with this section and I feel the band is communicating the music outward towards myself.
 
The piece moves through some standard up lifting key changes and then it comes off its crescendo and falls into a kind of mood music feel. This isn’t the cool mystery of Sibelius but much more the obvious communication of John Williams. This is too Holly wood for my taste but a great success.  

The third movement begins with a recapitulation of the main melody of the first movement but those large scale crescendo's undermine the crescendos in the second movement; the music rises falls back with a rather unconvincing ballad section and rises again before that quiet intriguing Tales opening reappears and drops out via some musical progressions from “Close To The Edge”.
   
If they really wanted to evoke the spirit of Yes they should have taken several of the themes and written some really strong instrumental passages to give more of a sense of journey rather than the disengaged routine feel of the Musical Soundtrack it sounds like. The music lacks a kind of compositional robustness and tends to drift rather than develop which in part is due to Jon’s wordy fussy delivery.

The piece also demonstrates the towering importance of Chris Squire to Yes's functionality. For many this will sound like Yes but on closer examination it is quite different. Chris would often play the root of the note, the tonic, that Jon was singing, on the Bass, as well as harmonize vocally so Jon was getting double support from Chris. 

The bass playing here is more atypical and will tend to trade the riffs with the guitar or keyboard, that is why when Jon isn't multi track chanting his voice tends to sound more organizationally lonely than when in Yes. It also an issue here of sound. If you sing Counter Tenor there is no better way to give it context than to underpin it with a warm rounded Bass sound to create light and shade and give the Counter Tenor a musical "home". With that absent the voice is exposed and its lack of timbre and depth becomes clearer. In choral terms it is as if you are singing 4 part harmony with three parts with the root missing so it has no foundation.    

There are occasional moments when the backing vocals respond to Jon but this is not the close harmony of Yes. In the second movement there is a rare example of the bass playing the tune and shadowing what Jon is singing, which is why it is probably the best element of the suite. Indeed I have listened to this first suite with just Jonas and Jon’s playing and singing in focus and far to often Jon’s vocal dance and phrasing is out of step with Jonas’s playing, indeed when they come together the music becomes much stronger and more powerful. Listening to the second movement where the playing and singing are in sync that sense of randomness disappears.    

After repeated listens I realized I wasn’t really captured by this project and I did not quite realize why. So I listened to “Love Devotion and Surrender” a very spiritually fused project from John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana and Roine’s latest project with Transatlantic “Kaleidoscope” again driven by a very spiritually energized Band. What struck me forcibly were three qualities: -

1)    A very real sense of performance with powerful crescendo’s and beautiful diminuendo’s which communicate real emotion.
2)    The music is more organic, the core vocal contributions are powerful and incisive allowing the instrumental players to really let go and express themselves.
3)    Whilst strongly spiritual, not every ones ‘cup of tea” the message in the lyrics and the vocal performance was much more compelling.
4)    The songs all had much more personality and variety.      

Part 2 

The remaining six "sections" operate quite differently from the first suite. Organized into three separate pieces, two suites and an extended piece, they are essentially 6 separate straight forward songs, mainly MOR pop melodies, where an attempt is made to give them significance by collecting them self-consciously into extended works. 
Mission Praise Plus
Everybody Heals/Better By Far/Golden Light are three almost entirely disconnected pieces (movement 1 and 3 share some musical verse ideas). The playing here is so much better than the basic musical ideas and Jon’s dirge like vocals contrast with the occasional skilled intervention by the team in Sweden. This feels like a poor man’s ABWH channeling the feel of Brother Of Mine and Quartet which contained much better “songs”. 

"Everybody Heals" is the low point of the project with its generic Christian Praise vibe combined with a brief interlude at the end with some good work from the band which feels tacked on and musically random, one is longing when Tom comes in and plays some spirited acoustic piano responding to Roine to really get down to some serious and communicative music making. Indeed the suite finishes with two "Rock Musical" vignettes, Better By Far begins with the opening musical riff from the Overture of Fly From Here and ends with some good acoustic piano work, which feels like an after thought. This isn't Igor Khorshev's beautiful ending to Home world, which was anticipated and brought in by Steve Howe's guitar, it simply comes across as some late night playing of a couple of inversions of the themes. Technically its right but it has no emotional gravitas whereas Wally Minko rhapsodic introduction to Wondrous Stories, that he plays in the APB live set feels real, fresh and emotional. The overall experience of this suite generates no sense of completion or real communication. Elements to admire within the overall musical arrangement for a Yes musicologist but nothing complete that you can form a relationship with.  

I am bound to say the lack of real musical "trading" going on between Jon and the Stolt team shows here with Roine working really hard to make a silk purse out of sows ear. The playing and musical arrangements flatter the routine ideas.  

Delusions of Grandeur.
"The Knowing" and "Chase and Harmony" include within them some very attractive melodies and a vocal arrangement, which has real personality and is genuinely memorable. If it had been shaped as a 6 1/2 minute pocket symphony with neat tight movements it would have been very moving and a powerful musical moment. Instead the ideas lose their impact by spreading them over 17 minutes, demonstrating the impact of too self consciously trying to frame music beyond its natural life span. 
The overall impact of this piece is further decimated by taking ideas, which belong within the "Knowing" and placing them in the similarly named "Know". The refrain is placed after a long Jazz Ballad instead of being a 90 second piece of genius connected to the original work. 
The refrain then leads into a 6-minute section, which then reruns the main melody from the Knowing all over again with endless variations. There is a real sense of music overstaying its welcome, four beautiful musical ideas which Brian Wilson would have encapsulated in 6 1/2 minutes are extended over 28 minutes and when the piano plays out the theme yet again, it has no impact. This is no grand exit it feels like a computer being shut down at the end of an over long day. 
The sense that these six pieces are instrumentally more ambiguous and generic is only half of the musical story. The other being that Jon utterly dominates the music. This over inclusiveness spoiled elements of both Ladder and Magnification where the instrumental part of the equation did not breath properly. Without the Yes Harmonies this puts Jon's vocal arrangements and lyrics even more in the spotlight. 

On the former there is a real lack of imagination and variety, the core arrangement of the vocal melody of the Knowing being an exception, endless chanting and repeats come across as one dimensional and uninteresting. What’s more the actual lyrics themselves are rigidly formulaic; the dense imagery of yesteryear replaced by endless platitudes heard so many times before. When his voice is another instrument it is less important, the melody and the sound can carry it through but frankly his trite lyrics and restricted vocal dance is not capable of carrying the music as is intended here. The overall effect is tiresome and repetitive. 
This is not so much an Invention of Knowledge but an "Exercise in Indiscipline" and getting to know this music, once you get past the entertaining opening suite, is an exercise in perseverance.       
Once again I decided to listen to a Pop Album with a twist “Lucky Old Sun” from Brian Wilson. It to is thematic and offers repeats and reprises as well as a narrative, a dangerous approach for pop music. What I noted was: -

1)  The really outstanding melodies were showcased with the right kind of brevity in     concise well crafted modular disciplined arrangements.
2)   Overall the music seemed to have a much greater sense of what it was so when the themes are reprised it adds to the cohesion of the piece growing its unity rather than sounding like endless variations. I suspect this is because Knowing and Know fall between two stools. They are neither structured like a Yes “Rockaphonic “with real tension and release and a sense of journey nor careful orchestral musical. Instead a series of pop songs are treated almost like a jam of melodic ideas, there is a distinct lack of compositional focus.

There is a slight irony to these remarks because there is a really advanced demo, which has been heard by aficionados, which treats the Knowing musical ideas in the kind of self disciplined format which like the best of music leaves you satisfied but feeling you want more.

Jon has talked about wanting to get back to longer works but the music has to justify such aspirations and live up to such ambition. The basic ideas that he sent to Roine to kick-start this project weren't all necessarily intended to be included in 25-minute multi movement suites and it shows. 
Roine the eager foot soldier has added his insanely detailed music to the pieces at a tactical level, what much of the music needs, even the successful first suite, is a producer who would look at the music strategically, the overall quality of the ideas and make changes so the good music is much more dynamic and exciting, drop the routine pop songs and present the remaining "Know" ideas in a self disciplined tighter format.  

One positive that emerges from his project is Jon's voice has regained its brightness and color that may bode well for the final element of the Trilogy, the up and coming project with Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman. It will be interesting to see how Trevor Rabin, who always leads his projects, harnesses Jon's current approach to music making.

Sound 

I do not consider myself an audiophile but as regards those last six pieces two matters stand out about the mix.

1) The Drums and Bass are very anonymous contributing to the generic sense of the music.

2) Jon's voice on several occasions is far to loud. A particular example is when the "Know" theme is introduced midway through the final piece it sounds overloud, harsh and unattractive which is only made more obvious through the back up singers who sound melodious and sweet to listen to. As someone who listens to the very best vocal performances Streisand/Krall/Sinatra et al who dominate the sound spectrum there is a real difference of quality from the aforementioned when Jon is placed in a singular spotlight. Indeed I find after several moments, rather like the Ladder in parts, the performance sounds wearing and a trial rather than seducing me into the narrative.    

Summary 

Who can deny the man has energy and enthusiasm after recovering from challenging illness, for me that energy and enthusiasm needs to be applied with more self discipline and dare I say it so that all involved can really express themselves and do something genuinely memorable which flourishes. I sense Roine was to eager to please Jon rather than consider objectively what was needed. However as the two men have only met twice, once after the recording was completed, entering into a really powerful honest dialogue was unrealistic, given the circumstances you could argue what has been achieved represents a real achievement.

Roine and his guys did their best and should be proud of what they managed to achieve but Jon needs to be open to the kind of interaction that took place between 1968 and  1972. Then we may get something really special.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent review and summary and no surprise considering the collaboration was remote. I won't be buying anyway and will wait for ARW and APB new music

    Question why do you feel Anderson's collaboration from 68 to 72 was different to 73-77 ?

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  2. Thank you for taking an interest in my review. The methodology in rehearsal changed with the switch of drummer. Chris once said that after a day of rehearsal with the Bruford Band some times they had nothing to show for it whereas when they rehearsed Topographic Alan was more of an eager beaver vibing along with the basic ideas.

    Rehearsals were in one sense more productive but they lost that sense of "Building music". The beautiful elegant constructions where every note was fought over were replaced by something often warmer and more expressive but less controlled and elegant. It wasn't ironically until Drama that Chris and Alan reclaimed that sense of pertinence and direct playing of the Chris and Bill rhythm section. When Bill left the balance in the band shifted and with Topographic Jon with Steve's help got his way with less argument and intervention, Relayer was a reaction to that where the music was worked over more and Going For The One was a summation of the best of the solo's but neither had the incisive organised feel of TYA/Fragile and Close To The Edge. Interestingly I think Jean Luc and Trevor Rabin are much better fits for JA because they take his musical enthusiasms and fit it into something more robust and concise. There is nothing on Invention that communicates or is structured like Renaissance of the Sun or Infinity-Soul Eternal or say Trevor's Jacaranda. I have heard it said so many times by different people Jon needs pinning down musically then he is at his best. In interviews when Jon described Jean Luc that sense that he is dealing with a brilliant musical formal intellect comes across very strongly. Possibly the reason that BLTN took so long to be worked over was down to Jean Luc applying the same rigorous standards as the Bruford band did all those years ago.

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  3. Just to add thats not to say that Roine did not work really hard on the project he and his team clearly did its just that I see with APB more of balance in the relationship with Jon having to come toward Jean Luc's music producing a more concise and self disciplined and effective outcome. That said the weakest elements of that project and all the pieces left of the CD are the solo versions of Yes music which Jon was responsible for organising with the band.

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