Psych and Prog

Milton Nascimento- Minas (EMI, 1975)

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Some albums just ooze a singular atmosphere and vibe that transcend language or rational thought. Milton Nascimento’s Minas is one of those albums. A Brazilian singer-songwriter who boasts a commanding, supple vocal style, Nascimento has collaborated with many prominent American and English musicians (Wayne Shorter, Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson, Cat Stevens, and, uh, Duran Duran), yet his own records aren’t that well known here. But among the record-collector cognoscenti, he’s revered as something of a prog-folk-soul genius. You could think of Nascimento as something of a South American Tim Buckley, but even that doesn’t quite nail his special talent.

My Brazilian import copy of Minas contains scant info about the recording, but maybe not knowing every detail of it somehow enhances the listening experience. Savor the mystery! Milton sings in Portuguese, a wonderfully musical language that has a warm, tranquilizing effect on me. He enlists a children’s choir on a couple of tracks, which is one of my least favorite ploys, but for some reason it’s not as cloying as usual in Nascimento’s hands. Much of Minas is deceptively beautiful; most of the songs here don’t immediately stun you, but rather over repeat listens their oddly alluring contours begin to make sense and trigger your pleasure centers. By the fifth listen, you’re convinced Minas is a classic song cycle as devastatingly moving as Buckley’s Starsailor, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, or any of Scott Walker’s first four solo joints.

Minas‘ highlight is “Fé Cega, Faca Amolada” (which Royal Trux, of all people, reverently and authoritatively covered; look for it on their box set Singles, Live, Unreleased). Co-written with Ronaldo Bastos, this song finds Milton trading unbelievably expressive vocals with Beto Guedes as the music flares and lopes with balletic grace and soulful buoyancy, like some superhuman strain of tropical pop whose rewards will never cease. I’ve no idea what they’re singing, but the vocalists convey powerful uplift, and that lump in my throat is real. Someone at the usually trustworthy Dusty Groove site noted about Minas that “the backings have a positive, triumphant quality that’s extremely upbeat and bright, yet without sounding commercial at all.” This is accurate. Nascimento and his cohorts gently unleash a new kind of beauty on us here and we should all devote a good chunk of the rest of our lives to luxuriating in it—language barrier be damned. -Buckley Mayfield

Cymande “Cymande” (Janus, 1972)

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Here’s a stone-classic album that’s still not widely known enough—even with its uplifting funk track “Bra” being sampled by De La Soul on “Change In Speak” from 3 Feet High & Rising and appearing in Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn. (Hip-hop and electronic-music producers have sampled Cymande at least 77 times, according to who-sampled.com.) Cymande put out three strong albums (I’ve not heard their fourth, Arrival), but their debut is the best, if only judging by how often I play tracks from it in DJ sets. It’s one of those rare funk full-lengths that you can play from start to finish without lifting the needle off a tepid ballad.

But to call Cymande merely a funk band is inadequate. The English nonet—who featured musicians from London, St. Vincent, Guyana, and Jamaica—also incorporated jazz, reggae, calypso, and progressive rock in their inspirational tracks, and such hybridization resulted in highly flavorful material that is bathed in a spiritual glow that can’t be faked. Cymande call it “nyah-rock,” which they describe in the liners as “the music of the man who finds in life a reason for living.” I’ll say.

Side 1 is largely mellow and meditative and marked by Patrick Patterson’s fluid guitar ruminations, Steve Scipio’s lithe bass lines, Mike Rose’s circuitous flute motifs, and Ray King’s soulful vocals that carry subtle hints of Caribbean patois. LP opener “Zion I” is the exception: a spiritual reggae tune with righteous massed vocals and a bass line on which you can trampoline.

Side 2 is where Cymande really shines. “Dove” (sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan in “Problems” and the Fugees in “The Score,” among many other places) is simply one of the greatest pieces of music ever waxed. It begins in great intrigue, Patrick Patterson’s guitar modulating a Santana-esque wail, setting the scene for Steve Scipio’s world-beating, sidewinder bass line to lift the track onto a higher, more libidinous level. Stealthy, undulant funk beats and blissed-out “la la la la-la”s contribute to making the 11-minute “Dove” one of the ultimate sex jams. The aforementioned “Bra” is simply one of the most joyous pieces of music ever waxed. The next time you’re really down, play it and feel your worries dissolve amid its levitational rhythms, percolating congas and bongos, and triumphant horn charts. “The Message” is more subdued, but no less seductive with its nocturnal funk strut. “Ras Tafarian Folk Song” is definitely the album’s weak link, but that could just be my bias against religious belief systems talking. Thankfully, it’s over in three minutes. Everything else on Cymande, though, deserves to be blazed into your memory banks till your last breath—especially “Dove.” -Buckley Mayfield

Spacecraft “Paradoxe” (Wah Wah reissue, 2012; orig. rel. 1978)

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With Spacecraft member John Livengood’s name flung back into consciousness with the Record Store Day vinyl reissue of his and Richard Pinhas’ super-nice 1994 space-rock/ambient album Cyborg Sally, it seems like an opportune time to review Spacecraft’s Paradoxe. Keyboardist Livengood (Red Noise) and guitarist/bassist Ivan Coaquette (Delired Cameleon Family, Musica Elettronica Viva) recorded this deeply underground psych-prog classic in the mid ’70s, and it’s a serious head-bonk. (Spalax reissued it on CD in 1995 with an utterly hypnotic bonus track from 1973, the spaced-out epic “Pays De Glace”; Wah Wah put out a much-needed vinyl edition in 2012.)

One listen to Paradoxe and you wonder why it didn’t make it onto the fabled Nurse With Wound List; perhaps it was too obscure even for Steven Stapleton and company. From the first seconds of the first track, “Lumiere De Lune,” you feel as if you’ve been transported into a much weirder and more interesting sphere, as Spacecraft swathe you in a silvery miasma of interstellar synth and guitar emissions, making gravity seem like an absurd joke. “Cosmic Wheel” really ratchets up the sense of tingling disorientation and intensifies the immersion into alien frequencies. Your DMT trip would be very disconcerting if this were soundtracking it. The synthetic solar winds and chattering guitar pointillism rushing through “Chromatique One’s” sounds like the sort of brain-bending 22nd-century astral jazz that would make Sun Ra squeal with joy.

The cruise-control, star-trekkin’ “Harabizant” could be a higher-altitude Harmonia, while “Surface” writhes and arpeggiates like near-peak Heldon and Lard Free, fellow French explorers of deep space rock and far-out fusion. Coaquette’s guitar solo in the coda is heart-tremblingly gorgeous. Yet for all its sonic treasures, Paradoxe remains largely overlooked. If you’re at all into challenging, instrumental electronic rock, you owe it to yourself to track down this profoundly hallucinogenic zoner. -Buckley Mayfield

Relatively Clean Rivers “Relatively Clean Rivers (Phoenix repress; orig. rel. 1975/1976)

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There’s an original copy of Relatively Clean Rivers’ first and only LP on the wall at a Portland record store that’ll cost you $800 (not a typo). It’s been sitting there for at least four or five years… although after this review goes live, probably for not much longer. Why the absurdly high price? I mean, Relatively Clean Rivers is a great record, but is it $800 great? Is any record worth that much? Maybe I’m not the best person to ask, as the most I’ve paid for a single album is $60. But enough about record-collector economics…

The brainchild of Orange County guitarist/vocalist/bassist Phil Pearlman (he also plays flute, “sahz,” harmonica, and synthesizer and is responsible for those crucial psych-rock opuses by Electronic Hole and Beat Of The Earth; his son was also a member of Al Qaeda, but don’t let that distract you from the sonic beauty at hand), Relatively Clean Rivers is a perfect combination of the Grateful Dead at their most concise and mellowest and Popol Vuh at their most accessible, e.g., Letzte Tage – Letzte Nächt. And if you love the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” it’s pretty certain you’ll dig Relatively Clean Rivers.

This music sounds like the archetypal output of stoned-to-the-bone American hippies in the summer of 1969: bathed in a golden glow of gentle acoustic and electric guitar ramble and choogle, bursting with yearning melodies that twang your heart strings with utmost delicacy, and topped with Pearlman’s peace-mongering lyrics (“Hoping we an all get together, the Arabs and the Jews/And melt down weapons into water sprinklers”) and just-soulful-enough, Garcia-soft vocals. Every song’s a blessed wallow in laid-back melodiousness, with just enough rhythmic oomph to get your hips swaying and your upper lip sweating. Front to back, RCR keeps your manageable high at a sensible hum. It sounds best at sundown by the water with your tightest homies (especially “Hello Sunshine”), but these songs can elevate your mood wherever and whenever you happen to be.

In actuality, Relatively Clean Rivers is so great, I can’t fully trust anyone who doesn’t love it like Donald Trump loves attention. But I still wouldn’t pay 800 freakin’ US dollars for it. So thank you, Phoenix Records, for the reasonably priced reissue. -Buckley Mayfield

Soft Machine “Six” (Columbia, 1973)

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By this point in Soft Machine’s history, drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt was long gone and the Dadaist art pop of the first two LPs had vanished in a thick cloud of jazz-fusion smoke. But it would be a mistake to ignore Soft Machine’s post-Wyatt output. While many praise Third as the group’s peak after sweet Bobby W. left, I’m partial to Six—and it’s mainly because of two epic tracks: “The Soft Weed Factor” (John Barth allusion noted) and “Chloe And The Pirates.” I’ll explain why shortly. But first, it’s important to say that Six consists of one live LP and one studio record. The latter is where the best tracks lie.

Don’t get me wrong—the 11 live songs here are quite good. Whenever you have musicians the caliber of Hugh Hopper (bass), Mike Ratledge (keyboards, celeste), John Marshall (drums, percussion), and former Nucleus member Karl Jenkins (oboe, saxes, pianos), you’re going to get smart, complex, timbrally interesting compositions. Ratledge and Jenkins dominate the songwriting, and their PhD-level prog and jazz chops keep your neurons on their proverbial toes (clunky metaphor alert), as you try to figure out their crazy time signatures. The highlight of the concert recordings may be “Lefty,” which sounds like Miles Davis in At Filmore/Live-Evil/Big Fun mode—surprising and explosive.

Now about those two standouts mentioned in the first paragraph. Jenkins’ 11-minute “Soft Weed Factor” is a patiently unspooling piece featuring Jenkins and Ratledge’s intertwining keyboards, a helix of slow-motion, Terry Riley-esque hypnosis. When the methodical funk beats, sinuous bass line, and sax come in, it sounds like Miles and his In A Silent Way band have infiltrated the studio. Chills ensue. It would be okay if this were three times longer. Ratledge’s “Chloe And The Pirates” begins with a spacey electric-piano-dominated fantasia not unlike the intro to Deodato’s “Thus Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” before gradually shifting into a showcase for Jenkins’ beautiful oboe arabesques. He kind of puts Andy Mackay’s part in Roxy Music’s “Ladytron” to shame. Six ends on a very weird note, with Hopper’s “1983” evoking a spinal-fluid-chilling horror-soundtrack vibe with chthonic piano and percussion whose spooked-wind-chime timbres I’ve never heard anywhere else. (If they haven’t already, Demdike Stare really should sample this.) Here’s to world-class studio trickery… -Buckley Mayfield  

Budgie “Squawk” (Repertoire, 1972)

1288564Deep cuts! Hardly known at the time outside of the U.K (and beat to the punch by Sabbath and Savoy in their own country), Budgie were heavy and hard, furthering forms adopted by metallers and rockers anywhere from Iron Maiden to Black Flag.

Comparisons are also drawn to the progressive tendencies of Rush, but I hear more vocal work akin to Geddy than anything else at this point in their trajectory. “Squawk” is more of a solid hard rock slab, a bit cleaner than Blue Cheer, but more straight ahead, a real stoked engine. Also hear some Savoy Brown… Chimes appear hear and there, keyboards on occasion, and acoustic numbers seem to be overlooked in other write-ups.

Anyway, seeing a Budgie album will guarantee a good time if you enjoy Heavy Rock, roots in Metal or the first to second wave of British Blues. Riff, chug chug, riff chug chug… Heavy three pieces can’t be beat, you know? Check out “Hot As A Docker’s Armpit” for more. -Wade

Kate Bush “Never For Ever” (EMI, 1980)

Kate_Bush_-_Never_for_EverBritish music scribe Simon Reynolds, a champion of arty underground music from the late 70′s/early 80′s, had a bit of a fascination with the popular Kate Bush. Mostly with how she triumphed as a pop star with so many radical sounding singles. And also, while her work is far-reaching, arty and interesting in the way prog-to-pop folks like Peter Gabriel are in the studio, she gives very little insight into her process, or her inspirations.

In 1980, UK music was full of arty types and the most hip had punk rock credentials in some form or another. Kate Bush is just as arty and modern as The Slits, Wire… yet, no ripped clothes, so little hip factor. And when those groups sound scrambling or angular, Kate’s sound is ornate, meticulously layered and placed in direct opposition. “Never For Ever” is her third full length, the most focused of the bunch and the one that further secured her place in pop culture after a string of leftfield-hits like “Wuthering Heights” and “Wow.” And it’s another step sideways from conventional pop.

And speaking of hits, the tracks bookending the album are two of her best. “Babooshka” is a classic that chronicles a wife’s desire to test her husband’s loyalty by taking on the guise of a younger woman… From personally paranoid to worldly heavy, album closer and single “Breathing” is about being born after a nuclear holocaust, which seemed like a very legitimate threat around that time.

Even with such content, Kate is pleasant throughout, with songs ranging from piano ballads to art rock. The darker tone is reminiscent to the glam of UK group Japan. “Never For Ever” is a good one to dive into before further exploring her discography, which is varied and still keeps her a bit of a cypher, despite massive popularity. -Wade

Hella “Hold Your Horse Is” (5 Rue Christine, 2002)

a2970431076_10Modern Rock’s possible reality as natural progression post-Hip Hop/Drum and Bass? A product of over-saturated media youth?

Hella fall short of being a traditional rock group by only having two members, but tradition isn’t a relevant factor when the stuff these guys push feels so immediate. Debut album “Hold Your Horse Is” would be as good a place as any to start with their brand of hyper-fast prog rush. An electronic doodle kicks off the album that brings to mind 90′s gaming console sound chips, before the live element crashes through with “Biblical Violence” and from that point never lets up.

To produce the sort of manic nowness of your active day, Hella’s self taught drummer Zach Hill actually uses (in a relative sense) slow punctuated beats… but fills the space between by hitting the skins and cymbals as fast as superhumanly possible, creating a striking sound that’s not start/stop but rather start/gogogogogogo/start et al. While Hill flogs his kit, guitarist Spencer Seim plays spastic melodies, creates strange drones and chips away at you with repetition. And whenever necessary, they make neck-breaking changes. It happens a lot.

As crazed as all this may sound, the overall tone here is not violent or oppressive but rather triumphant, it can be used sonic pick-me-up; like chugging a pot of coffee to get through a heavily scheduled day. Does that help you? “Hold Your Horse Is” is about as focused and concise as their albums get and a solid debut… After this, the duo felt free enough to experiment in more electronic territory and at one point expanded their roster.

This album is near-live instrumental music synced to modern times, man made jams informed by all sorts of media blitzkriegs, and a document that is as good a tool to your life as amphetamine might be, if that’s your drug of choice. -Wade

Pink Fairies “Kings of Oblivion” (1973)

If you are curious about inspired Motorhead’s unique sound, and have already explored MC5, The Stooges, Hawkwind and The Groundhogs, then go no further than this album. Larry Wallis and Duncan Sanderson later appeared on Motorhead recordings and the song “City Kids”, debuting here, is also featured on Motorhead’s 1979 LP On Parole. “City Kids” here is more stark than Lemmy’s amphetamine-enriched version, but no less powerful. ‘I wish I was a Girl” is a track worthy of the Groundhogs “Split” album in its inventiveness – but the raw power is undiminished. Sure it lacks a little something due to recording techniques in those days – a clear sense of perspective is needed, as this is music of its time and yet way ahead of it. “When’s the Fun Begin” is not one to listen to if you’re verging on a depression, but provides a nice contrast to the driving “Chromium Plating” and “Raceway.” Something about these tracks actually seems to contain the acrid smell and excitement of motor racing in a far less clinical way than say, Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” “Chambermaid” is quirky and may require several listens to pick up on the humour, and “Street Urchin” is the track that leaves you wanting more.

Kings of Oblivion is one of the best-kept secrets of hard rock – and an important part of its history. If you like your rock and roll “real,” it doesn’t get much more real than this. Just don’t go expecting Judas Priest, AC/DC or Black Sabbath; This is high-energy rock that truly belongs on the streets, and a landmark album in its genre. Truly a classic. —Fuuhq

Camel “I Can See Your House From Here” (1979)

While prog-purists might frown at I Can See Your House From Here, which watches Camel trod closer to the middle of the road, anyone who’s been seduced by the easy-going charm that is the band’s calling card will find it well worth their time. Confusing lineup changes continue to hallmark the second phase of Camel’s career, which here features two keyboardists in Kit Watkins (Happy The Man) and Jan Schelhaas (Caravan), plus Colin Bass on his namesake and some lead vocals. Continuing to feel pressure from their label for some kind of chart action, Camel offer up straightforward pop-inclined material in the tense “Wait,” easy going melodies of “Your Love Is Stranger Than Mine,” and tough-guy tale “Neon Magic,” while “Remote Romance” is an odd stab at synth pop. Sandwiched between these tracks are the very Happy The Man-ish instrumental “Eye of the Storm,” and some excellent blends of prog and pop on “Who We Are” and “Hymn to Her,” before the cold vastness of space is explored via an extended guitar and synthesizer showcase in “Ice.” Despite it’s commercial leanings and continued shuffling of the band’s lineup, I Can See Your House From Here still delivers the Camel-essence. —Ben

Amon Duul II “Wolf City” (1972)

So I saw this live video of “Surrounded By The Stars” about a month or so back and I was inspired to pull this one out. My God, what an absolute monster. When I think of Amon Duul II, I absolutely do not think of the more straightforward, prog-rock-inclined band on display here. I think of a bunch of dudes who felt they were ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED to put a side-long freakout on each of the first three records they did (and in the case of “Yeti”, it ran well over a side). I think of the incredible power conveyed by their particular brand of screaming anarchy. While this record is adventurous in its own way, and there is certainly no shortage of screaming, “anarchy” doesn’t describe this record at all; it’s very structured, very song-oriented. Nothing even cracks the eight minute mark. So I can certainly see why someone whose primary interest in the band is “Yeti” would be disappointed by this record. But having said that, I’m someone whose primary interest in the band is “Yeti” and “Phallus Dei”, yet this is my favorite record of theirs. There’s a sometimes-unspoken assumption among most music nerds, particularly the ones who listen to so-called “Krautrock”, that the more commercial something is, the worse it is. For me this record is a serious challenge to that hypothesis. Making a record better than “Phallus Dei” is a formidable enough achievement in its own right. Capturing the raw, atavistic power of that record while condensing the songs to a much shorter length and still managing to bring more shades of meaning and musical/emotional depth to the table, well, that’s damn near unprecedented. (I realize the preceding sentence is painful rock-critic-ese, but this is a difficult album to speak about. Perhaps I should just say “IT’S FREAKING AWESOME” and leave it at that.) In particular there’s a definite “bad trip” vibe to the whole proceedings, as evidenced by the fact that I personally have had a bad trip while listening to it, which is a pretty significant feat when you don’t do drugs. It’s much darker than the typical music of the time, in a way I can’t readily define but which nonetheless becomes nearly palpable when it’s blasting through your speakers. No doubt everybody in the band was pretty familiar with bad trips through personal experience by this point in their career, which does a pretty good job of explaining the really upbeat, “everything’s going to be ok” vibe of the last two minutes of the record. I applaud their sense of social responsibility in this; most bands today are content to draw you into a relentless nightmare hellscape without taking the time to pull you back out. Maybe that’s why the world is so screwed up today. Probably not, but wouldn’t it be great if that was really the only problem we had, and all that needed to be done to fix it was for more people to make records like Wolf City?

I guess what I’m saying about this record is, IT’S FREAKING AWESOME. —David

Incredible String Band “The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion” (1967)

The second ISB album, regarded by many as a peak moment in the evolution of the British psychedelic underground. Following the release of the band’s trio debut in the summer of 1966, Clive Palmer had split for Afghanistan, Robin Williamson had taken his girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie, to Morocco for an open-ended stay, and Mike Heron had opted to stay in Edinburgh. Heron returned to playing rock music, but in late 1966, Williamson came back from Marrakesh, bearing a wealth of strange North African musical instruments, and an equal number of compositional ideas.

Before long, the two had reformed the ISB as a duo, and they soon began woodshedding in a rural Scottish cottage. Joe Boyd, who had produced the first LP, had started a new club in London called the UFO, in partnership with John “Hoppy” Hopkins (the founder of The International Times). Boyd felt the scene was boiling over and was convinced the ISB had their part to play. He visited the pair, suggesting he become their manager and that they record a second album. The sessions for The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion happened at John Wood’s London studio in late spring 1967, and featured the lovely bass work of Danny Thompson (who had joined Pentangle two months earlier), the vocals of Licorice, and guest spots for “Hoppy”’s piano and Nazir Jairazbhoy’s sitar.

The album was released to great fanfare in July, 1967, just as the ISB was returning from an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. With its uber-psych cover art by Dutch design firm The Fool (then being envied for their work with The Beatles), and classic songs (traditional folk, swathed in kaftans, incense and finger cymbals), 5000 Layers was truly a record for its time. Hailed by everyone from John Peel to Paul McCartney, the album went to Number One on the UK folk charts, and was an omnipresent accessory in every student garret. Four-plus decades on, it remains one of the all-time readymade classics of the ‘60s. —Forced Exposure