Award shows are almost invariably about three things: p.r., p.r., and p.r. The leaders of an industry get together not to honor greatness or artistry but instead to recognize those who most fully exemplify the things that make money.
Thus it is with the Grammy awards, the recording industry’s big annual event, which will be shown on CBS tonight. What makes money today in the recording industry is apparently two things: intellectual simplicity and overt passion. Thus the nominations for major awards tend toward works with simple, driving beats, lyrics that express an uncomplicated point of view, and wailing or shrieking vocals loosely derived from the gospel-music tradition. (The drawling inflections of rap seem to derive from country music more than anything else, which itself has gospel roots.)
Jonah Goldberg aptly described the prevailing attitude of contemporary pop music on NRO last week as “canned rebelliousness.” The appeal of canned rebelliousness, I would submit, is that it allows a consumer to feel both individualistic and one of the crowd. That appears to be a central premise of consumer culture, as it happens.
To demonstrate the industry’s appeal to all types of people (and hence lure them to the record stores and websites), the Grammy-nominating committees strive for some variety in selecting candidates for the major awards, covering all types of music–except anything truly ambitious or challenging. This year the Album of the Year category, for example, includes works by Paul McCartney, Bono, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, and Gwen Stefani–something for the ’60s generation, another for Gen X, and three major contemporary styles, but nothing artistically earth-shaking or new. The nominations for Record of the Year drop the two oldsters and add Gorillaz and Green Day, a couple of spunkier offerings for the kiddies. For Song of the Year, the nominees cover a few more styles by including Rascal Flatts, Bruce Springsteen, and John Legend.
Given the huge number of categories–more than 100–there are always some nominees whose music does something out of the mainstream and worth doing (such as Adrian Belew, Death Cab for Cutie, and George Jones), but the bulk of the attention goes to the moneymaking superstars. This is an industry, after all, not a charity.
But there is a positive artistic story here as well, though we won’t see much evidence of it at the Grammys. Modern digital technology is making music production less expensive, and modern telecommunications technology is making it ever-easier for independent artists to reach consumers eager for music that is more challenging, enlightening, and, yes, pleasurable than the commercial products the Grammys and other awards programs honor.
As a result, there are countless artists making very good music these days, and although they will not win Grammys any time soon, numerous releases in just the past year demonstrate that a significant number of artists are venturing outside the boundaries to create music that is simultaneously interesting, pleasing, educative, and challenging.
Among the most promising recent debuts are the appealing retro-progressive rock album Peace Among the Ruins, by Presto Ballet, and Motions of Desire, by the talented Norwegian band Magic Pie (the lyrics of which are sung in English). The latter release is delightfully inventive and enjoyable, with a definite classic song in the 20-minute opening track, “Change,” a tune that spices up classic, Yes-style progressive rock with elements of hard rock, soaring power balladry, folksy pop, jazz fusion, funk, and whatever else they found in their kitchen sink during the recording sessions. These guys can play.
As good as those discs were, the Debut Album of the year is A Doorway to Summer, by Moon Safari, produced by Tomas Bodin of the Swedish prog giants the Flower Kings. Like the legendary rockers Yes, Moon Safari creates long, progressive rock songs filled with memorable melodies and bright, cheerful, musical textures. Acoustic guitar, Hammond organ, analog synthesizers, mellotron, soaring vocal harmonies (all sung in English), and other classic early ’70s sounds are prominent in the mix, and there is real energy in the performances. This is one of the most tuneful, buoyant, and delightful albums of recent years.
It’s Not Unusual to be Unusual
Genre-mixing and revival of forgotten musical forms are often good ways of generating original music, and some very interesting and unusual recent releases have taken that route. Might Could, for example, is a Maryland-based group composed of three guitars and one bass, all acoustic. In their aptly named All Intertwined, they perform highly complex but tuneful instrumental music simultaneously reminiscent of 1980s King Crimson, ’70s fusion jazz, Baroque-era sonatas, and even a touch of flamenco. It works, and it’s good.
Ed Englerth’s D.I.A.L. Business has an unusual and very pleasing musical style combining elements of jam bands, jazz, progressive folk, blues, and modern melodic rock. Englerth’s masterful guitar playing, direct and unpretentious vocals, and thoughtful lyrics are increasingly impressive upon repeated listenings.
Raw-Word, by Gypsy Carns, The Blues Preacher, an album of classic-style gospel blues consisting only of voice, dobro (a type of acoustic guitar), and kick drum and cymbal. Carns’s sound is highly reminiscent of Blind Willie Johnson and the Rev. Gary Davis, which is high praise indeed. In fact, thanks to the better recording quality, Carns’s work is more immediately enjoyable than some of what his great predecessors did.
The Origin of Consciousness, by the Texas-based band the Underground Railroad, is an idiosyncratic album of odd, jazzy time signatures, strange chord sequences, unusual sound textures, and philosophical lyrics, yet it has an undeniable appeal as the band manages to place memorable melodies in their distinctive sonic mixture.
Izz, a New York-based progressive-rock band whose earlier albums showed impressive instrumentation and a level of melodicism reminiscent of 1970s pop groups such as Badfinger and the Raspberries, released the somewhat harder-edged My River Flows. The new album is heavier and more guitar-oriented at times than the band’s previous work, but the solid vocals, strong tunes, and thoughtful lyrics are still there.
Symphony for a Misanthrope, by the American progressive-rock band Magellan, has the musical intricacy (long, keyboard-driven songs in punctuated rhythms ranging in pace from restrained to frenetic), “wall of sound” density, morally centered lyrics, and passionate tenor vocals of Trent Gardner that we have come to expect of this veteran progressive band. Two brief, classical-oriented interludes add further sophistication to the sound.
The Dreams of Men, by Pallas, and Believe, by Pendragon, are two solid releases by veteran British progressive groups, each showing renewed energy by taking a step beyond their usual comfort zone to include socially engaged lyrics and an occasionally harder-edged sound. The Brass Serpent, by the American band Akacia, is a beautiful album of epic progressive rock with Christian lyrics.
Dracula, by the veteran 1970s Italian progressive rock band Premiata Forneria Marconi, is a dramatic, spectacular rock opera based on the novel of the same name. Sung in Italian by a variety of vocalists and featuring arrangements ranging from gentle folk to crunchy metal to angelic choirs, it’s a grand, operatic, very Italian good time.
Spock’s Beard is a veteran, California-based group that started recording in the early ’90s and pioneered a sound combining the strong melodic appeal of the Beatles with the instrumental virtuosity and sonic complexity of progressive bands such as Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Octane, their latest release, includes a long suite, “A Flash Before My Eyes,” in which the band illustrates the last moment of a modern American man’s life as it races before his eyes after an automobile accident. Ranging from pop to metal to folk and classical-inspired passages, Octane shows a highly talented band of independent artists exploring interesting new sonic territory.
One Small Step is another impressive release by Manning, led by and named after the British singer, songwriter, guitarist, and keyboardist Guy Manning. Manning has a highly expressive baritone voice (although it is marred by an occasional lisp) and conveys strong passions without overdramatizing. Manning’s songs, though long and progressive in style, are very accessible, taking the form of driving rockers, lilting ballads, jazz inflections, and the like. The instrumentation revolves around and complements the main vocal lines, which are invariably interesting and use Manning’s voice to fine effect. The lyrics show an appealing concern for rightness in personal and social moral choices.
The English band Tr3nity features philosophical lyrics, earnest vocals, swirling washes of keyboards, and melodic, blues-based guitar solos in long songs that passionately express the dilemmas of living in a postmodern world of fleeting emotional connections and uncertain values. The music on their third album, Precious Seconds, is highly accessible and deliberately catchy and melodic, occasionally reminiscent of bands such Pink Floyd and Kansas but with a sound all its own. The grandeur the band is able to create with electric instruments is a testament to the widespread availability of sophisticated recording technology at relatively low cost.
Deadwing, by Porcupine Tree, the veteran English band led by Steve Wilson on voice, songwriting, guitar, and keyboards, is another excellent album of driving, hypnotic, passionate music of the sort for which the band is justly renowned. It’s a tuneful mixture combining elements of progressive, metal, and ambient music.
Wall Street Voodoo, a two-disc solo recording by Roine Stolt, leader of the Swedish progressive rock masters the Flower Kings, demonstrates once again that Stolt is one of the most prolific and talented musicians of our time. Wall Street Voodoo hearkens back to the sounds of the late ’60s as Stolt’s lyrics look at the world today, measure it against Christian ideals, and find it wanting. Combining blues, psychedelia, hard rock, country rock, funk, and other sounds of that musically exuberant era, but with an original sound of its own, Stolt’s tight musical arrangements and virtuoso guitar work evoke memories of classic performers such as Cream, Frank Zappa, and Jimi Hendrix–and his willingness to limit the self-indulgent soloing gives the recording a strong sense of musical logic.
The English band Arena offers a progressive-metal sound that combines heavy guitars with sophisticated keyboards, a complex interplay of melodies, and dramatic vocals. Their current release, Pepper’s Ghost, consists of seven songs (ranging from four to thirteen minutes) that tell colorful stories set in the Victorian era. The narratives, given graphic-novel treatment in the artwork insert, deal with exorcisms, premonitions, time travel, serial killings, black magic, and other heavy-metal fare, but the Victorian setting makes for a very interesting variation. The music is appropriately grand, dramatic, and operatic.
And the Album of the Year Is…
The race for Album of the Year was extremely close this time, and the following four artists all created recordings of highly impressive quality.
The Florida band Little Atlas just keeps getting better. Their second and most recent album, Wanderlust, combines strong melodicism, philosophical depth, and musical sophistication. The vocal melodies are significantly catchier than those of most major-label pop groups, and the arrangements, featuring complex interplay between guitars and keyboards, eccentric rhythms, unusual chord progressions, and quick changes of tempo, make most rock music seem stuffy by comparison.
Mimi’s Magic Moment, by the brilliant, Chattanooga-based quartet Salem Hill, consists of four epic songs in the classic progressive rock style, distinguished by memorable melodies, intelligently varied tempos, instrumental virtuosity, complex melodic interplay, sophisticated lyrics, and expressive vocals. As always, Carl Groves’ tenor voice is a great strength, and the complex vocal harmonies are used to grand and stirring effect, as in the chorus of “All Fall Down.” Guest performers such as singer Neal Morse, keyboardist Fred Schendel of Glass Hammer, and Kansas violinist David Ragsdale add further variety to the band’s distinctive sound. The overall effect of the recording is that of a masterful group of musician/composers at the top of their game.
The Inconsolable Secret is a two-CD release by the American progressive rock group Glass Hammer. The lyrics and musical concepts are based on The Lay of Lirazel, a 20,000-word narrative poem written by singer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Babb. (Full disclosure: this author helped edit the published version of the poem.) The compositions are highly ambitious, ranging from intelligent art rock to medieval, classical, and early romantic music, with several passages reminiscent of early 20th century composers such as Ravel, Debussy, and Vaughn Williams. These sections in particular have the beauty of great classical music. The Inconsolable Secret is an essential recording for those interested in contemporary music that aspires to classical standards.
The Album of the Year is ?, by Neal Morse. In his third rock album since leaving Spock’s Beard a couple of years ago, Morse’s new release follows the pattern of Brian Wilson’s brilliant album SmiLE in presenting an album-long suite of songs in which recurring musical and lyrical ideas tie the entire piece together into a coherent and moving whole. But whereas Wilson’s sound was pop-based and dipped liberally into older forms of popular American music for its inspiration, Morse’s album sticks largely to more contemporary influences.
Morse is a brilliant composer of appealing melodies, and with his passionate, Lennon-like voice, he sings highly spiritual lyrics in musical settings ranging from immensely catchy, Beatlesque pop through funk, soul, hard rock, metal, bebop, hip-hop, folk, psychedelic, jam bands, progressive, jazz fusion, adult contemporary, Celtic, southern rock, and even a full choir, is, among other good things, an amazing tour of American musical virtuosity, and its lyrics demonstrate the artist’s passionate commitment to and understanding of Christianity. This is a great recording, and it well deserves recognition as Album of the Year.