Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Robbie Robertson

Far removed from his folk-rock noodlings with The Band, Robbie Robertson's debut eponymous album is a remarkable, cohesive masterpiece that practically defines the word "atmospheric". Enriched with the prodigious skills of uber-producer Daniel Lanois, and bolstered by sturdy support from luminaries like Peter Gabriel, Levon Helm, the BoDeans and U2, "Robbie Robertson" is underlaid with all manner of production textures, found-sound effects and instrumental colours that comprise a broodily quirky, at-times disconcerting but still effective listen.

"Robbie Robertson" runs through a plethora of styles - evocative, spacey mood pieces ("Fallen Angel", "Broken Arrow"), fiery but measured rock-outs ("Sweet Fire of Love", "Showdown at Big Sky"), stately, mid-tempo rock showcases ("American Roulette", "Hell's Half Acre", "Testimony"), and eerie, unsettling sonic excursions (the brilliant spoken-word song travelogue "Somewhere Down the Crazy River"). And as far as lyrical contents go, Robertson masterfully evokes fantastic, haunting images of death and desolation, devils and wildernesses, stormy weather and barren forests, weathered men and enigmatic women.

In terms of historical importance, "Robbie Robertson" ranks next to other 1980s opuses like Peter Gabriel's "So" and Paul Simon's "Graceland" in decisively proving that frontmen of classic-rock outfits can still make a name for themselves outside the defined parameters of their former groups. Superb, through and through.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A Soundtrack

A soundtrack of sorts that acts as an auditory narrative of my recent two-week sojourn in Melbourne, the events of which can best be explained by the lyrical contents of these songs:

1. ONE - Filter
2. BROKEN ARROW - Robbie Robertson
5. ROUND MIDNIGHT - Miles Davis
6. TEMPTED - Squeeze
7. THE BOYS OF SUMMER - Don Henley
8. LATE FOR THE SKY - Jackson Browne
10. TILL THE DREAMING'S DONE - Bruce Hornsby
11. SATURDAY NIGHT - The Blue Nile

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Solsbury Hill

Peter Gabriel was not quite the inventive and innovative musical polymath that he is now when he first embarked on his solo jaunt back in the mid-1970s. Having just left the hallowed ranks of prog-rock giants Genesis two years earlier in 1975, Gabriel's eponymous debut from 1977 still mostly bore strong traces of the intricate chord progressions, lyrical abstruseness and dense production values that were hallmarks of his work with Genesis.

Epically inclined tracks like "Moribund the Burgermesiter", "Modern Love" and "Down the Dolce Vita" sound like they could have been outtakes from the "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" sessions, although one could discern that Gabriel was trying his best to carve out an artistic niche of his own.

Thankfully, there is one song on "Peter Gabriel" that displayed the new-look Gabriel in the most effective manner, away from the constricting confines of his previous band. "Solsbury Hill" had it all: upfront lyrics that tell of Gabriel's yearning to break free from his Genesis persona, a deceptively simple acoustic-guitar riff that acts as the anchor of the song, quietly confident percussion fills that drew from the pitch-shifting characteristics of West African talking drums (a precursor of sorts to the worldbeat explorations of later years), and above it all, an earnest vocal that shows off Gabriel's gravelly pipes marvellously.

Thirty years after its initial release, "Solsbury Hill" still awes and inspires with its statement of purpose about gaining the spirit to start over in a tumultuous life. One of the most provocative and towering achievements in Gabriel's long career.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Duran Duran Mood Pieces

Far removed from the obvious hit-single characteristics of standards like "Hungry Like the Wolf", "Is There Something I Should Know" and "The Reflex", there is another aspect to the new-wave sonic template of Duran Duran. Mostly conceived and driven on by Nick Rhodes's synth wizardry and production aptitude, these evocative mood pieces suitably display the more avant-garde qualities of the band. Here are several noteworthy instances of Duran Duran's artier side:

Long, sweeping synth layers and slow-motion guitar riffs comprise the basic framework of this ominous tune that suffers slightly from typically nonsensical lyrics. Arguably the least poppish track on the debut album.

Highly reminiscent of mid-period Roxy Music, this moody number plays perfectly to any given scene from the dystopian classic "Blade Runner". Throbbing synth patterns, snarly guitar hooks and skittish drumbeats all add up to a futuristic-sounding melody that is the arguable highlight of the band's eponymous debut.

TEL AVIV (1981)
A vaguely arabesque-sounding instrumental that takes in nervy keyboard stabs, synth-string waftings and sampled call-to-prayer wailings. The band almost goes the psych-rock route here.

Arguably Duran Duran's most experimental track to date, this extended tone poem is built around ice-cold synth staccatos, a growling bass undertow and pan-pipe samples. Simultaneously elegant and ghostly in nature, there also exists an academically interesting stripped-down version that is anchored by acoustic-guitar pluckings and fretless-bass tappings.

An atmospheric, cabalistic instrumental that is the sole property of Nick Rhodes, who plays everything here. High-register synth tones and sampled tribal percussion enhance the track's inherent aura of intrigue. Great use of Fairlight sampling technology here.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Church Instrumentals

Purveyors of melancholy, Gothic-tinged neo-psychedelia and perennial champions of the Rickenbacker 12-string, The Church remains a cryptic, cabalistic band to the majority of contemporary chart watchers. Shunned by the general record-buying public for their wilfully esoteric Goth-rock conceptions; the abstruse, bordering-on-overbearing soundscapes; and frontman Steve Kilbey's sometimes droll, but mostly maddeningly nebulous wordplay.

However, Church devotees are aplenty all over the world, and these are the same faithful disciples who have stuck with the band through thick and thin, conscientiously worshipping abstract, ambiguous compositions about reincarnated extraterrestrials in Ancient Persia, willowy, white-cloaked femme fatales called Anna Miranda, and feeling out of sync with the rest of the universe because you're trapped in the middle of an "emerging random memory in flux".

While most Church followers are on instantly familial terms with certified standards like "Under the Milky Way", "Myrrh" and "Ripple", there is a less unexplored side to the band that merits at least some cursory review. Like Pink Floyd, one of their forerunners and inspirational sources, The Church has also produced a number of instrumentals that allowed them to work with arrangements otherwise unfeasible to fit onto the relatively conventional structures of their vocal tracks:

The Church's first commercially successful work, 1986's appropriately titled "Heyday", threw up this carefully considered, Great Plains Native American-influenced mood piece, garnished with some gentle tribal rhythmic cadences and a cinematic string backdrop.

FILM (Priest = Aura, 1992)
Coming from the band's undisputed 1992 magnum opus, "Film" is a sweeping, guitar-driven epic that makes for a fantastic ending theme to a grand-scale historical narrative by Kurosawa. The guitar overdubs here are terrifically evocative, and the backing synth drones give new meaning to the word "atmospheric".

EASTERN (Sometime Anywhere, 1994)
An odd little number that relies on piercing Arabesque tonalities and swooning Pannonia-apprised violin swirls, the otherwise lazily titled "Eastern" signals the band's initial, mostly successful foray into Middle Eastern-influenced worldbeat.

ROMANY CARAVAN (Magician Among the Spirits, 1996)
Guest violinist Linda Neil is given her chance to shine on this quirky, animated, Eastern European-informed tune, which is further enlivened by some quick-stepping percussion work and unconventional classical-guitar tunings.

AFTER IMAGE (Magician Among the Spirits, 1996)
A tranquil-sounding but evocatively melancholy solo-piano ballad that provided a good ending to the band's 1996 investigation of Kraut-rock, "After Image" possesses a palpable, ghostly ambience that makes for a perfect soundtrack to a late-night séance in late-era Victorian London. The sampled, filtered female sighs enhance the sense of despondency and defeatism.

BETWEEN MIRAGES (El Momento Descuidado, 2004)
A surprisingly relaxed, uncomplicated coda comprising calmly collected piano arpeggios, measured classical-guitar chords, and empathic acoustic-bass undertows that ends the band's 2004 unplugged effort "El Momento Descuidado" on a vaguely optimistic note.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Depeche Mode After Alan WIlder

While it is an undisputed fact that multi-instrumentalist and production whiz Alan Wilder was the heart and soul of Depeche Mode, and that the electro-pop pioneers largely went awry after his acrimonious departuer in 1995, there are a few instances of inspiration amongst the three albums that the remaining trio of Martin Gore, Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher put out after Wilder flew the coop. These moments might not be the real equivalent of Wilder-engineered classics like "Enjoy the Silence", "Personal Jesus", "Stripped" and "Strangelove", they do provide a sense of how the band has evolved since the late 1990s:

A grinding, murky number that employs hitherto unexplored trip-hop textures, "Barrel of a Gun" mostly works through the guidance of producer Tim Simenon (of Bomb the Bass fame), who adds all manner of processed studio touches and off-kilter instrumentation to the mix. A necessarily despairing crawl through the darkest corners of the band's pscyhe, if only as a means to exorcise the lingering nasty phantoms of the "Songs of Faith and Devotion" era.

IT'S NO GOOD (1997)
Pulsing with some tense, industrial-tinged hip-hop beats and a simmering rhythmic undercurrent, "It's No Good" is arguably the most accessible moment on 1997's "Ultra", the first post-Wilder album. Gahan's vocal performance is at its most assured here, and more confident than it has ever been in the preceding five years.

HOME (1997)
A lavish, grand-scale Martin Gore ballad that is anchored by widescreen, impressionistic string orchestrations, "Home" is a positively heart-wrenching, if a bit calculated, tune that lends a bit of light to the otherwise gloom-filled proceedings of "Ultra".

Almost old-school Depeche Mode in its overall structure, the club-ready, beat-driven "I Feel Loved" is highly reminiscent of the dancier moments of "Black Celebration" and "Music for the Masses". The only track on 2001's "Exciter" that doesn't bear the ambient-techno imprint of producer Mark Bell from IDM pioneers LFO.

An elegant, experimental ballad replete with subdued industrial effects and IDM touches, and arguably Depeche Mode's most melodic moment since "Enjoy the Silence". The single version, remixed slightly by Flood, disitls most of Bell's original production bells and whistles, going for a more straightforward synth-pop approach.

Featuring Gore's most accomplished guitar work in a decade, "Precious" is a conscious throwback to the "Violator" period, employing the same high-register, staccato synth patterns, old-fashioned drum-machine rhythms and slightly dramatic key-change flourishes.

An aggressive castigation of organised religion (much in the vein of 1984's "Blasphemous Rumours"), "John the Revelator" makes brilliant use of analogue synth effects and upfront, heavily industrial cadences, making for the most assertive number on 2005's "Playing the Angel".

The perfect closer to "Playing the Angel", this nocturnal, epic-sized threnody takes some production ideas from the Smashing Pumpkins' 1998 electro-pop showcase "Adore" and makes them uniquely Depeche Mode by incorporating some atmospheric, dark-toned melodic chords into the mix.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Sky Blue and Black

One of the most expressive and empathic love songs ever committed to record. Ever.

Jackson Browne, 1993

In the calling out to one another
Of the lovers up and down the strand
In the sound of the waves and the cries
Of the seagulls circling the sand

In the fragments of the songs
Carried down the wind from some radio
In the murmuring of the city in the distance
Ominous and low

I hear the sound of the world where we played
And the far too simple beauty
Of the promises we made

If you ever need holding
Call my name, I'll be there
If you ever need holding
And no holding back, I'll see you through
Sky blue and black

Where the touch of the lover ends
And the soul of the friend begins
There's a need to be separate and a need to be one
And a struggle neither wins

Where you gave me the world I was in
And a place I could make a stand
I could never see how you doubted me
When I'd let go of your hand

Yeah, and I was much younger then
And I must have thought that I would know
If things were going to end

And the heavens were rolling
Like a wheel on a track
And our sky was unfolding
And it'll never fold back
Sky blue and black

And I'd have fought the world for you
If I thought that you wanted me to
Or put aside what was true or untrue
If I'd known that's what you needed
What you needed me to do

But the moment has passed by me now
To have put away my pride
And just come through for you somehow

If you ever need holding
Call my name, I'll be there
If you ever need holding
And no holding back, I'll see you through

You're the colour of the sky
Reflected in each storefront window pane
You're the whispering and the sighing
Of my tires in the rain

You're the hidden cost and the thing that's lost
In everything I do
Yeah and I'll never stop looking for you
In the sunlight and the shadows
And the faces on the avenue

That's the way love is
That's the way love is
That's the way love is

Sky blue and black

Great TV Themes

The most overlooked aspect of any given TV show is often its opening theme. While some programmes are content to utilise standard-issue orchestral scores as their themes, other edgier shows prefer to tap the talents of somewhat leftfield composers to write and perform the music for the opening sequences. Here are some significant examples of unique TV opening themes for some innovative shows:

Veteran score composer Mark Snow manages to come up with an instantly memorable electronic-based theme for one of television's most artistically prominent programmes. A recurring, echoing sequencer line, coupled with an eerie-sounding modified whistle sample, equals one of the most recognised TV themes anywhere.

Mark Snow is on board once again for Chris Carter's second most well-known series, producing a relentlessly grim, disheartening threnody that aptly suits the general mood of the show. Juxtaposed alongside protagonist Frank Black's perpetually glum, world-weary expression and the bleak, rain-lashed environment of Seattle (where the show is primarily set in), Snow's dark-toned, cello-based lamentation almost seems like a musical commentary on the hopelessness nand despair of it all.

A dramatic theme by experimental group ES Posthumos that incorporates electronica textures and orchestral theatrics. A perfect musical companion to the desolate, forlorn atmosphere of one of the most underrated detective shows around.

Angelo Badalementi's stately, elegant theme is actually derived from "Falling", a composition by Badalamenti and avant-garde auteur David Lynch (who also created "Twin Peaks"). Taken from the debut album of Julee Cruise, an icy-voiced chanteuse whose heartbreaking soprano has soundtracked many a nightmarish Lynch production, the majestic temperament of "Falling" glibly masks the horrifyingly bizarre nature of the show.

Nerf Herder's post-grunge theme is a fun, punkish ditty that brilliantly complements the insouciant nature of the show, and also underscores the turbulence and confusion of post-adolescent youth culture portrayed on the series.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Siren Song

For all the indefinable objects of affection the whole world over:


I could’ve found the way
Could’ve sailed through the storm
Are these only words?
That find their way home again?
But come to nought in the light

Sunlight fills the empty shadows
I could’ve said it before the dark
These rivers that lie between us
On the rocks where the waves still play
My earthbound heart will decide

She raises the curfew to see the moon
I’ve come to believe in what she claims
But is this just a siren song?
That will fade with the daybreak?
And leaves me shipwrecked inside

Down by the beach one dark morning
A trail of footsteps ending at water’s edge
She still guards her secrets well
She’s been through all this before
These ghosts still fly over ebony seas

Resolution comes in the endgame
But it could’ve torn me up inside
I’ll give her nothing she needs
Through the snowfalls and rainfalls
All those yesterdays in the making

So she’ll be blessed by time and chance
As the world still spins in silence
Across the skies and into the dreaming
Something is coming to an end
In the last echo of a siren song

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Great Bassists

While they are not as deified as their guitar-wielding counterparts, there's no denying that bass players have an equally important role in the constitution of any given band. Without the presence of the bassist, songs would have no real depth, and there would be no one to provide low-end harmonic counterpoints.

There have been several bass guitarists in the industry who have made a name for themselves, and it's worthwhile to have a brief look at their individual techniques and their roles in the scheme of things:

Instantly recognisable by his trademark high-register riffs, Hook is arguably the most well-known bassist of the post-punk era. His most famous riff has to be the recurrring two-note synthesised motif for "Blue Monday". Also notorious for his low-slung playing position, which has influenced a million following shoegazer acts.

In the midst of all the Beatles-related mythologising, it's easy to forget that Macca is, at the core, a simply great bass guitarist. Mostly known for his straightforward but melodic runs, Macca is the epitome of the conventional, steady bassist who can provide solid counter-melodic backing to any given composition.

Undisputed master of the fretboard-tapping based Chapman Stick, the bald-headed Levin has cut his teeth playing for marquee prog-rock acts like King Crimson, Yes, Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel. Also famous for the creation of the innovative "funk fingers", a device for approximating the sound of drumsticks hitting bass strings.

An accomplished fretless bass guitarist, famous for his trademark "sproingy" sound, Karn, formerly one of the founding members of Japan, has gone on to carve out a niche of his own as a respected sonic avant-gardist. Karn's effortless glissando and vibrato intonations are second to none.

An often underrated six-string bassist known for his effortless, fluid riffing. Much of the longevity of Goth-pop icons The Cure is due to him. The memorable snaking bass line in "Lovesong" is arguably Gallup's finest hour.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Chopin's Prelude No. 15 in D Flat Major ("Raindrop")

If the first movement of Beethoven's deathless Piano Sonata No. 14 (otherwise known as the Moonlight Sonata) is most suited to soundtrack those long, dark, lonely, desolate nights of the soul, then Chopin's Prelude No. 15 in D Flat Major is most suitable for those long, grey, rainy autumn afternoons, when optimism is a mere fancy, and the anticipation is that of a resigned variety.

Appropriately titled the "Raindrop" prelude, this short movemment, played Sostenuto, is a evenly paced prelude that, however, brims with an understated sense of menace that lurks just beneath the surface. Decidedly melancholy and intentionally colourless, the Prelude No. 15 in D Flat Major is the perfect musical equivalent of dreary weather.