A few weeks ago, I added an old classmate as a friend on Facebook. We had been to primary school together, more than 20 years ago. Within seconds, he sent me this short message: “One word: Queen.” It made me smile, because I honestly couldn’t recall bothering my schoolmates with Queen trivia …
Then I remembered how I mimed to the ‘Live Killers’ version of Sheer Heart Attack, dressed as Freddie Mercury at Live Aid, with a painted moustache and a thin pvc pipe that served as a sawn-off mic, in front of a baffled audience of Spice Girls and Take That fans. Indeed, only one word mattered at that time: Queen.
QueenPod is doing all right and diving deep
Why am I writing this? I’m kind of late to the party, but over the last week I’ve been listening to the QueenPod podcast. Every episode digs deep into a single side of a Queen album. How deep? Well, to give you an idea: side A of Queen’s 1973 debut album is just four tracks long, but it keeps the panel going for 1 hour and 53 minutes straight. That’s how deep.
An interesting detail is that the podcast is made with the consent of Queen’s management, meaning that the makers are allowed to use the music they’re discussing, which is a huge advantage—even if this extended track-by-track approach will mostly appeal to fans who know the entire discography by heart.
“It was never easy being a Queen fan. But Queen music was my launching pad into an eclectic jungle of sound.”
It enables the members of the panel to draw attention to particular details in the music. Roy Thomas Baker playing a stylophone in Seven Seas of Rhye? All right, let’s hear it. And what is Rhye anyway? No stone is left unturned.
Comedian Sooz Kempner delivers nice insights into musical matters such as key changes, Freddie’s vocal range and time signatures. Fellow comedian and superfan John Robins is brilliant throughout. In Simon Lupton, the QueenPod has a guy on board who actually worked closely with the band in recent years, literally a witness from the wings. Host Rohan Acharya ties it all together nicely. Everyone shares their personal stories and invites the listeners do to the same. So here we are (though not born to be kings).
Flash Gordon approaching (and disappearing fast)
A picture exists of my classroom Queen gig. Behind me, a friend in a football shirt sits slumped on a chair, with his hand covering his mouth, trying to hide his laughter. It was never easy being a Queen fan. But as someone shared with QueenPod, Queen music was my launching pad into an eclectic jungle of sound.
The first artists I got into in my early teens after Queen were Van Halen, Bowie and Jeff Beck. Then Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. Then King Crimson, Frank Zappa (who gets regular mentions on the QueenPod show, particularly by John Robins), Rush, XTC, Wire and Porcupine Tree. Then Miles, John Zorn, Swans, Snarky Puppy and Stereolab. If you’re exposed to Queen from a young age, you can easily develop a taste for the eccentric or the outlandish. At least I did.
I got to know Queen through a copy of ‘Greatest Hits’ in my uncle’s collection, which soon became the first CD I bought for myself. When later I cycled to the record shop to buy another Queen album with my pocket money, I decided to choose value for money and picked the CD with the most trackson them.
“I imagined how we would return home without even catching a glimpse of Brian’s tour bus.”
The next day, my father, brought the ‘Flash Gordon’ soundtrack back to where it came from. He returned home with his own childhood favorite, ‘A Night At The Opera’, which really set things alight. From that point on, I had to have, read and hear everything. The solo stuff too.
The night that nearly did me in
Then in 1998, at the age of 12, an event happened I had been ridiculoulsy nervousabout for weeks. Brian May, who had just released ‘Another World’, played the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. Unfortunately, driving there in pre-GPS days, we got lost in the busy streets of the city. And stuck in traffic.
I panicked and imagined how we would return home without even catching a glimpse of Brian’s tour bus. Luckily, dads always get the job done.
I found a good spot in the back, leaning on the fence around sound engineer Trip Khalaf’s mixing desk. I sang along as if it was the last time I would ever need my voice. And for a brief moment in time, life was perfect.
A conversation with Greg Chambers, AKA Superfluous Motor
Since Greg Chambers put ‘Trifecta’ online for free, only a small portion of the prog/fusion populace has picked up on it. Quite perplexing.
‘Trifecta’ is a mammoth, immersive three-piece album–one part Fusion, one part Funk, one part Prog–propelled by challenging rhythms, playful twists and turns, and ever-changing moods that wrap themselves around you like a blanket. One moment, the music hangs in the background, quietly and innocently, the next its melodies grab you and don’t let go.
During the recent lockdown, I’ve come to appreciate both qualities of the music; the reason I got in touch with Greg in the first place. As a bonus, Superfluous Motor was a well-kept secret only a few hundred people knew about.
That’s no surprise. Superfluous Motor is a one-man-band that operates entirely outside of the music business. You won’t find ‘Trifecta’ on CD or vinyl. You can’t catch Superfluous Motor on tour.
“I’m terrible at self-promotion”, Greg told me. But judging from the reactions on his Bandcamp and YouTube channels, Superfluous Motor has the power to affect listeners deeply.
I sat down with Greg–virtually, with a very safe social distance of 6000 km–and asked him about his life as an artist outside of the mainstream.
Let me start by quoting some of the comments listeners left below your YouTube videos: “Soundtrack to my life.” “Perfect music for writing.” “Listening to it while hiking in British Columbia.” It seems like your music takes people places. How would explain that specific ‘transporting’ quality?
Greg Chambers (Superfluous Motor): “First off, it honours me deeply to see comments like that. Knowing that my music has had that effect on even one person, let alone several people, is encouraging and meaningful to me.”
On his approach to albums: “Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”
“I think the ‘secret sauce’ that might make my music immersive–for lack of a better word–stems from my progressive rock influences. All my favourite 70s era prog rock albums have the same sort of immersive vibe. There’s a lot of layers in the music and you can grab on to different aspects on each listen. I also usually end up releasing full-length concept albums instead of a bunch of singles compiled together.”
Why do concepts fit you better than regular albums?
“I always gravitated to the idea of songs in an album having a flow and all being part of a bigger picture or complimenting each other, especially when the transitions between tracks are seamless. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but the singles approach is much more common these days. Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”
‘Trifecta: Fusion’ was inspired by space travel and exploration of the unknown. ‘Idiosyncrasies’ deals with the “quirks, mental illnesses and characteristics that make us who we are”. How do these concepts take shape?
“The concepts usually help as a creative prompt for me. The three genres in ‘Trifecta’ allowed me to focus my efforts and make things a little less ‘all over the place’ than my usual content. Although I didn’t fully succeed as the last two songs on the Fusion section were basically mild Vaporwave tracks. But it did help me maintain focus and finish the stupidly ambitious three albums on one album. I also might have overexerted myself because other than the ‘Double Vision’ album with Caius Hubris, I didn’t release a Superfluous Motor album last year, breaking the “minimum: one album a year” streak I was on.
Tell me about your writing process. How do you start and elaborate your ideas?
“It varies. Sometimes it’s an idea I’ve had in my head for a while. ‘Kaleidoscope’ was a bucket list concept album I’ve always wanted to do. Inspired by Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, I wanted to write an hour of continuous unbroken music with no or minimal repeating parts. The idea for that was to use music to replicate the effect of looking through a kaleidoscope. Whether I successfully accomplished that is up for debate.”
“Some songs come from trial and error. From beating my head against it until the song finally has a structure and flow. I usually write the drum and bass parts first and add the keys, melody and harmony elements on top. Other songs are smaller parts that I write individually and find creative and interesting ways to get them all to fit together. Some songs are piano pieces adapted for a full band arrangement. And if all else fails, I’ll mimic an existing idea or concept and put my own spin on it. I’m sure my ADHD also has a bit of an effect of the twists and turns some of my songs take too.”
The question that must arise with everyone who hears your music: composing, producting, playing and programming … how do you pull it off all on your own?
“I don’t want to ruin the magic for anyone but most of it is me noodling around with a midi keyboard and a bunch of instrument plugins in FL Studio [a Digital Audio Workstation – UM]. Then I take the songs and mix and master them. I stick to plugins with high-quality samples for drums and bass and the keyboards.”
About artistic freedom: “I don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound”
“The drums are all hand programmed by me, but I also have a very good drummer friend who studied music. He taught me a lot of the theory and drum techniques to replicate and kind of pulled me into the jazz, funk and fusion stuff in general. On occasion, I’ve invited musical friends to meander around with me and often take their suggestions or knowledge of instrument into consideration during the process.”
You’ve called yourself ‘not a people person’. Is working alone a direct consequence of your personality?
“Partly, maybe. Referring to myself as “not a people person” is more of a tongue in cheek approach to my mildly introverted nature. I have a great circle of friends and have played countless gigs in a few different bands over the years.”
“Being a family man with two kids keeps me busy, but I still work on my music whenever I get the chance. I usually get a few hours of writing or recording done almost every day, but I will also say that lately, my song graveyard is growing rapidly. I’d estimate that maybe 20% of what I write ever sees the light of day.”
I suppose recording on your own, in your home, grants you a lot of freedom?
“Indeed. It’s always been a fever dream to maybe organize a larger group of musicians interested in playing the intricate sounds of Superfluous. But for now, the solo, low pressure, non-committal, full creative control, and non-gigging nature of Superfluous Motor means that it will always be a project that I work on.”
“I don’t necessarily stick to specific genres and don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound. The freedom to do whatever I want has been a great way to learn and grow as a musician. But at the end of the day Superfluous Motor is a vessel for me to produce music that I want to make and want to hear.”
You’ve worked together with Canadian rapper Caius Hubris. It seems to be an odd pairing, but together you made the quite spectacular ‘Double Vision’ and record two tracks for Trifecta. What makes it work?
“It’s that Canadian Hospitality. I think we work together well because we don’t have strict creative limits. No idea is too crazy or stupid for us to do (see our silly funk cover of Mad World for example). There are no egos when we collaborate so we just get out of each other’s way and let each other do what we do best.”
“Caius is also extremely good at guiding me during the arranging process. I might have an idea that is okay at best and he will suggest a couple things that turn it into pure magic. It also helps that we’re basically the same person personality-wise, no joke. He’s basically the extroverted version of me … or am I the introverted version of him?”
You’re very good at crafting interesting rhythms. Those drum tracks are so precise and adventurous, even in crazy time signatures. Maybe they are the secret ingredient of the Superfluous Motor sound to me. Why do they work so well?
“Probably because of my overuse of polyrhythms. I use them a lot. For the uninitiated, a polyrhythm is where multiple rhythms are layered on top of each other. The drums parts are also usually the first thing I write and everything else is written around them. I wish I knew why they’re so effective but I do know that if a song kicks off with a killer drum groove, it’ll have me hooked from the start.”
About the unlikely influence of techno: “I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I made some questionable techno and grew a deeper respect for the process”
Though ‘Trifecta’ is based around funk, prog and fusion, I can’t help but feel the spirit of electronics artists such as Aphex Twin or Squarepusher or Amon Tobin. Or am I insane?
“Electronic music always finds its influence into my music somehow–probably from my early novelty techno music days. It’s not a conscious decision, but you’re definitely not insane.”
Are you saying techno was an early influence on you?
“If I remember correctly, I disliked techno music back in the day. I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I downloaded FL Studio and made some questionable techno, grew a deeper respect for the process and realized that making music was kind of hard but endlessly entertaining and rewarding.”
“I kept making music until it sounded pretty good (to me) and eventually that silly techno project eventually evolved into Superfluous Motor. However, I didn’t publicly release works. I lacked direction and confidence until coming up with the ‘Shattered Groove’ album. I liked that album enough to release it and kinda figured that it did no good sitting unheard on my hard drive.”
Talking about electronic music, some of your tracks wouldn’t sound out of place in a videogame. You were a gamer, right?
“I’ve always been a huge gaming nerd. I was born in the late 80s and grew up with Nintendo, Super Nintendo and the like. There’s a lot of amazing music in video games and it has always been part of my life. The influence video game music has on me is mostly subconscious (unless I’m making a chiptune track). I don’t directly try or intend to emulate or evoke video game soundtracks in my music, but a lot of my music would fit nicely into a video game.”
“That said, I was working on a cover that featured a mashup of me performing my favourite tracks from ‘Gradius III’[a shooter game, originally released by Konami in 1989 – UM], but it was eventually scrapped and added to the graveyard because I couldn’t figure out how to end it.”
Niagara Falls and Herbie
You’re from Niagara Falls, pretty close to Toronto, and you’re a big prog fan. So I guess we need to talk about Rush.
“I’ve always enjoyed Rush’s music and it’s neat that they’re local. My childhood friend was Neil Peart’s nephew. Sadly, I never got to meet Neil. I’ve also been to Lakeside Park[the title of a 1975 Rush song, Peart lived close to LP during his childhood – UM] several times throughout my life and rode the carousel as a kid. With all that said, Canadian radio has a 35% ‘Canadian content’ quota, so Rush and other popular Canadian acts have been slightly overplayed. Unfortunately, due to oversaturation, I haven’t truly delved deep into Rush’s music. But their overall influence on the music industry has most certainly had an influence on my music too.”
Do the Niagara Falls inspire your music in some way?
“As a born and raised Niagara Falls resident, the allure of the big water drip mostly eludes me. But there is a lot of beauty here, lots of nice nature trails. Going for a hike at the gorge is always an inspiring time.”
“It’s unfortunate that the local music scene here is mostly background music cover bands at bars. But it is a nice city to live in and I love living here. Most of my musical inspiration and influences stem from the city of Hamilton (about a 50 minute drive from the Falls). Hamilton is where I did most of my gigging in the local funk fusion bands and where I truly learned and grew as a musician. It’s a vibe.”
About Herbie Hancock: “Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general”
Who do you consider to be your peers?
“Calling them peers would be putting myself a bit too high on the pedestal. So I’ll just say that my influences that I feel stylistically connected with are probably: Medeski, Martin & Wood, Herbie Hancock, Snarky Puppy, Vulfpeck, Focus, Yes, Tower of Power, Jethro Tull, Lettuce, Chick Corea, Jan Hammer, Soft Machine, Billy Cobham, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston and, in spirit, Ben Folds.
Herbie is one of your biggest idols, right? Why is that? And is there any chance that the synth opening to Anxiety (of ‘Idiosyncracies) was influenced by Chameleon?
“Darn, you caught me! The synth bass intro to Anxiety is dangerous close, treading into stolen/rip-off territory. Herbie Hancock is definitely my number one idol and biggest influence. His entire approach and attitude towards music was life-changing for me. Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general.”
“There was a documentary he made titled ‘Possibilities’ that documented him recording his album, also named ‘Possibilities’ [watch it on Herbie’s YouTube Channel – UM]. The album is a big collaboration between him and all kinds of different artists. Seeing Herbie’s attitude towards these other musicians and his attitude towards music in general was the most eye-opening and inspiring thing I had ever seen up until that point in my life.”
“I wish I had the money to own any genuine vintage gear myself. But the Hammond B3 Organ will always be ‘the one’ for me. I started playing piano when I was a kid and didn’t see my first Hammond organ until I was about 18, but it was a love at first sight moment.”
“I luckily have access to a vintage Hammond C3 to play and practice on, which is exactly the same as the B3 the only difference is that the cabinet has an alternate design. My gig keyboards are a Hammond SK2 for organs and a Moog Sub 37 for synth leads, I also sometimes use a Korg SV1 for that vintage Rhodes and Wurli sound. Currently, for recording, I use a Novation Launchkey 61 for organs, bass, synths and clavs and the 88 key Korg SV1 for pianos and electric pianos, with both keyboards functioning as midi controllers.”
You grew up in the 90s and 00s. How did you experience the music and how did it influence your tastes?
“My brother, who is two years older than me, would use cassette tapes to record songs we liked off the boombox radio we had. I grew up listening to The Beatles, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Motley Crüe, Rage Against the Machine, Korn, Limp Bizkit and pretty much everything that was popular over the years on the Canadian TV channel Much Music, basically Canadian MTV. When Napster became a thing then we burnt CDs of music we liked and so on and so forth.”
“My brother started playing guitar at a very young age and became a gigging musician before I ever considered doing anything other than basic noodling on the piano. He then got me listening to stuff like Converge, Daughters and Dillinger Escape Plan. I grew up in a rock and roll and hardcore/metal household and can’t quite remember how I got into prog and fusion stuff.”
On the 70s: “If I was a musician then, I would probably be a guitarist. Lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 is no fun.”
How do listen to music yourself nowadays?
“My preferred way to listen to music is currently through Spotify while driving in my car. Driving my car on a quiet road is a nice place to be alone and fully absorbed into the music. I usually try to focus on a specific artist and listen to one of their full albums in one sitting. If I find an album I really enjoy that will be on repeat for a while. But I also will check out stuff on YouTube if the performances are filmed, like Snarky Puppy or Vulfpeck.”
“My wife and I also have a music jar with several artists (52+) written on pieces of paper for our two year old son to draw an artist from once a week and then we dive deep into their musical catalog, in hopes to expose him to a variety of musical themes and styles.”
It seems that the internet is crucial for you to get your music out, even to other parts of the world. Still, there’s so much music around and it’s so hard to be heard. So how do you reach the right people?
“Very true, Superfluous Motor would be a bunch of tunes collecting dust on a hard drive (or reel-to-reel tape) if the internet didn’t exist. As for getting heard? I wish I knew, it mostly seems like a mix of luck and sharing to the right place at the right time. Most of my growth was from sharing tunes on reddit. But I haven’t been doing that much lately due to their self-promotion restrictions.”
Suppose you started out in the 70s or 80s. Ever thought about how you would be recording and distributing your music in those decades?
“Superfluous Motor would be a lot less ambitious and probably a cover band if I was doing it in that era. I’d also probably be a guitar player because lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 plus 300lbs of synths and keyboards is no fun.”
All over the place (like Kandinsky)
You haven’t put out a physical release yet. Why is that? I’d be happy to contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to get that 3LP edition of ‘Trifecta’ out there 🙂
“It’s mostly monetary reasons combined with subpar organizational skills. The downside of being a one-man-show is that creating content and managing social platforms, adding merch and managing all that on my own might be out of my skill set. I hope I can get it all sorted out one day, I’d love to get my albums pressed on vinyl and offer it to those who would want it or even have my logo on a hat, shirt or rad hoodie.”
The Kandinsky covers that accompany your releases would really work great on a 12” record sleeve. Why Kandinsky?
“I always liked abstract art and felt it fit the ‘all over the place’ style of my music. I saw Kandinsky’s work was public domain and started using it. After it became a theme, my wife came home with a huge Kandinsky print larger than our car that now hangs out in the jam space for inspiring creative flow.”
Ever thought about going professional as a recording or touring artist and giving up your day job?
“I think about that every day, I’d love to do this for a living, it’s basically the only thing I’m good at. But, I’m also terrible at self promotion and putting myself out there … let’s just say the seeds been planted but who knows what will come of it.”
Finally, what do you dream of achieving with Superfluous Motor?
“It’s likely to always be my humble little solo project for making and releasing music. As for the future projects I’d love to see more collaborators infusing bits of the work . Wherever it leads, it’ll be sure to be ever in motion.”
The Album Years, a new music podcast by No-Man colleagues Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness, went off to a roaring start, with fans applauding the first two episodes. The new series even hit the top 3 on Apple Podcasts in various countries.
My opinion? The enthusiasm and insights of Wilson and Bowness make you want to pick up a pencil and take extensive notes. I’m afraid this series is going to cost me a small fortune in record stores. If a music podcast can achieve that, it’s a success in my book.
Each episode zooms in on a particular ‘album year’, a year from an era where albums existed as a unified art form, not just a random collection of hits. For Wilson and Bowness, who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, the era started in the mid-60’s–which is true, as long as you don’t take jazz albums into account–and ‘ended’ around the year 2000, which seems to be a more arbitrary choice, especially since the album era never really ended. But you need to draw the line somewhere. I get that.
Beyond Bowie and Pink Floyd
The first two episodes, focussing on 1980 and 1973, where lots of fun already. Without spoiling anything, I can say that while ‘Closer’ by Joy Division, Bowie’s ’Scary Monsters’ and Pink Floyd’s ’The Dark Side of the Moon’ are briefly mentioned they don’t feature in the official selection. As Wilson rightfully comments, these albums have been dissected and reconstructed over and over already: “There’s nothing more to say.”
Instead, Wilson and Bowness pick favorite, significant and strangely-under-the-radar records of a particular year and reflect on it, placing the albums in their historical context, commenting on sonic innovations, adding personal recollections and funny ad-libs (like only friends can), talking about the influence and nachleben of certain albums, often connecting the dots between them. It’s history, debate and annotated playlist rolled into one.
They don’t always agree, which is the kind of dynamic you need to make a podcast like this interesting. Even more so as the podcast isn’t allowed to use any sound clips, so both hosts have to work extra hard to ‘dance about architecture’ and they’re magnificent at it.
Wilson talks quite quickly and in a confident voice (almost as if his knowledge and opinions are fighting to get out), at times cutting off the soft-spoken Tim Bowness mid-sentence.
The latter chooses his words with great care and manages to keep his composure when Wilson questions his choices or statements. It really makes you want to be a fly on the wall during No-Man recording sessions, which have consistently spawned great albums. Maybe that’s their magic.
But both offer remarkable insights and analysis. Even when they talk about records you already know, you’ll be inclined to dig up that LP and listen to it with a new pair of ears.
Just to give you one example: in the 1973 episode, Wilson talks about the horrific drum sound on Todd Rundgren’s ‘A Wizard, A True Star’. So I went back to the Zen Archer, and lo and behold, he’s right. Though one could argue it’s part of the DIY aesthetic of the album.
Insightful and exciting
There’s really no point in judging the selection of albums. Wilson and Bowness have been sharing their playlists online for years. Together they turned me on to dozens of albums. They set out the boundaries of the podcast clearly and within that framework I’m confident they’ll keep balancing every episode between the familiar and the obscure, the accessible and the bizarre. The Album Years has been both insightful and exciting so far.
Enjoy ’The Album Years’ now on all major podcast platforms.
Think of a well-known Smiths melody and start scatting: “Some jazz is more epic than other.” It might not be one hundred procent correct grammatically. But as Miles Davis would say: “So what.” He rewrote the rulebook more than once: most notably on modal jazz milestone ‘Kind of Blue’ (1959) and on the monumental – one might say epic – double album ‘Bitches Brew’ (1969), which paved the way for a cornucopia of fusions between jazz, rock, funk and world music.
So what … is ‘epic’? It’s a feeling, a mood, certainly not a genre. A timeless atmosphere or cinematic quality that oozes out of jazz’s most grand and often groundbreaking gestures. Epic jazz unfolds its stories patiently, sometimes violently, and might deal with matters that transcend our understanding, such as time and space, inhuman suffering and superhuman achievements, …
Here’s a list of records that sound epic or cinematic to my ears, ordered counter-chronologically, honouring the unruly nature of many of these albums. They were released between 1960 and 2015, which raises another question: was 1959, when ‘Kind of Blue’ (Davis) and ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ (Ornette Coleman), iconoclastic statements in their own right, freed musicians from their harmonic and compositional straight jacket, the year when jazz became more epic?
Kamasi Washington – ‘The Epic’ (2015)
Look at Washington’s overlord pose and confident glare, and tell me this album isn’t epic. It spans almost three hours of highly addictive music. A sidemen to people like Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, saxophonist Washington and his impressive troupe of musicians channel everything from Debussy’sClair De Luneand Donald Byrd’s jazz and gospel choir classic ‘A New Perspective’ to modern soul andFender Rhodes explorationsby the likes of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. An epic of biblical proportions indeed.
Brad Mehldau – ‘Highway Rider’ (2010)
Piano player Brad Mehldau doesn’t dwell in the same place for too long. He travels between trio recordings and sharp-edged collaborations. Most recently, he teamed up with Mark Guiliana on jazz-funk-prog album ‘Taming The Dragon’.
Mehldau’s restless ambition reached its peak on ‘Highway Rider’, a 100-minute cycle of jazz and classical music with elements of pop – there’s even a salute to Elliott Smith – and electronica, beautifully arranged and executed by Mehldau’s trio, sax player Joshua Redman and a full-blown orchestra.
Exploding Star Orchestra – ‘Stars Have Shapes’ (2010)
For Exploding Star Orchestra, a large band led by Chicago musician Rob Mazurak, everything seems to revolve around … the sun. Or should I say Sun Ra? They’re certainly at ease with the cosmic side of things.
Dropping listeners in mid-space, Ascension Ghost Impression no. 2 floats towards complete astral chaos, with gigantic wooshes of sound and near-collisions of cosmic debris. After a brief soothing middle section, the turmoil returns, and then transforms again.Three Blocks of Lightrepresents a different type of avant-garde jazz from outer space, and whileImpression no. 1contains some familiar jazz elements, it’s equally disorienting.
Patricia Barber – ‘Mythologies’ (2006)
Deep-voiced jazz pianist and composer Patricia Barber meanders through Ovid’s classical masterpiece ‘Metamorphoses’ and turns it into a thrilling suite on ‘Mythologies’. Despite her often offbeat sense of melody, the album progresses smoothly, propelled by subtle piano, brief sax improvs, spirited percussion and blistering guitar, courtesy of Neal Alger.
On songs like Icarus andPhaeton Barber’s voice is out of this world. Just spell-binding. A timeless album, ‘Mythologies’ clearly flies close to the sun. But never too close.
Electric Masada – ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ (2005)
Masada is the name of a series of insanely versatile klezmer-inspired songbooks written by John Zorn. Versatile? Because these compositions have been interpreted by numerous bands and musicians, both within and outside of Zorn’s immediate entourage. In 2013, Pat Metheny had a shot at taming Zorn’s ‘Book of Angels, Vol. 20’.
Almost a decade before that, a rather extreme ensemble aimed at the Masada repertoire too. No surprise it was one of Zorn’s own groups: the allmighty Electric Masada, which took a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach to the music.
Compare the quiet Abidanto the complex and brutal Metal Tov. The obi that goes with double-disc live album ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ puts it right:
“Tight as a drum and hot as a blowtorch, these two incredible live performances will leave you breathless. Astonishing group conductions, searing solos and crazed insanity from one of the most amazing bands Zorn has ever had.”
Pat Metheny – ‘The Way Up’ (2005)
Guitarist extraordinaire Pat Metheny and keyboardist-sidekick Lyle Mays took their Pat Metheny Group recordings to the next level with this 68-minute twisting and turning piece of music. Partnering gorgeous melody with bursts of bebop improvisation, and Steve Reich-like pulses with a proggy compositional structure, ‘The Way Up’ is one of a kind.
Metheny had embarked on such grand-scale adventures before. ’80/81′, ‘As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls’, ‘Zero Tolerance for Silence’ (his take on ‘Metal Machine Music’), … anyone? After ‘The Way Up’, Metheny’s next step was to replace his Group by a stagewide construction of automated instruments, the orchestrion, which he dragged aIl around the world.
Dave Holland Quintet – ‘Extended Play. Live at Birdland’ (2003)
Honestly, the first track on ‘Extended Play’,The Balance is one of the most celestial pieces of music I know. The way the horns parts fight each other, and then fall into each other’s arms, is beyond words. As is the polyrhytmic base provided by Dave Holland (bass), Steve Nelson (marimba) and Billy Kelson (drums). ‘Extended Play’, an ECM release, was recorded live at Birdland in 2001.
Every single track on this massive set is a stretched-out version of a composition that was first recorded in the studio. In other words: Extended. And Play-ful most of the time, especially during the Chris Potter-Kevin Eubanks battle on Prime Directive. ‘Extended Play’ remains a crowning achievement for one of jazz’s finest band leaders.
Jaga Jazzist – ‘A Livingroom Hush’ (2002)
The last track on ‘A Livingroom Hush’ by prodigious Norwegian ensemble Jaga Jazzist is called Cinematic. Tellingly, this minor-key noise elegy is the least cinematic of all.
Main composer Lars Horntveth has a sixth sense for grand melodies and brightly coloured arrangements. Take Animal Chin and its huge, textured sound, which couples jazz marimba with electronics and turntables. One great theme is followed by another followed by another … culminating in a strange voyage through Lithuania, which couples Tortoise-like minimalism with orchestrated house. Now that’s cinematic.
The Necks – ‘Next’ (1990)
The Necks are an unusual Australian experimental jazz combo, with a very common set-up: piano, bass and drums. For years now, they have been releasing single, looooong compositions as albums, like ‘See Through’ and ‘Mosquito’. Meticously crafted acres of improvised music, time and time again. Debut album ‘Sex’ introduced the format. Follow-up ‘Next’ broke it.
It’s 28-minute centerpiece Pele, which patiently and brilliantly builts towards a gently pounding climax, sets the tone for The Necks’ further career, together with final piece The World At War. The ghostly guitar funk of Nice Policeman Nasty Policeman and the Seinfeld slapp bass of the title song only add to the fun on this overlooked album.
John Zorn – ‘Spillane’ (1987)
One of the most versatile composers around, John Zorn had released challenging ‘game pieces’ and a splendid tribute to Ennio Morricone (‘The Big Gundown’), before seeking inspiration from cult crime writer Mickey Spillane. The 25-minute title piece wouldn’t have sounded out of place in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, the cartoon/live-action film that hit the theaters a year later. Both ‘Spillane’ and ‘Roger Rabbit’ share the same setting: the 40’s-50’s LA underworld.
Zorn’s jumpcutting technique (from cartoons to harsh reality in a split second), samples and Morricone-mystique all work brilliantly. Besides Spillane there’s a thunderous blues jam featuring Albert Collins (Two-Lane Highway), and a mindblowing modern classical piece performed by the Kronos Quartet (Forbidden Fruit). Together with the Ornette Coleman readings of ‘Spy vs. Spy’, ‘Spillane’ would lead directly to jazz/hardcore masterpiece ‘Naked City’.
John Abercrombie – ‘Timeless’ (1975)
‘Timeless’ begins with rapid-fire interaction between guitarist John Abercrombie and keyboard player Jan Hammer (the Miami Vice guy). Meanwhile Jack DeJohnette holds everything together with his automatic weapon drumming.
But very soon, the trio sails into calmer water, evocating a wide range of moods:Love Song is a moving acoustic, well, love song. Just piano and guitar.
Red and Orange,by contrast, seems to predate early 1990s rave music like Nightmares on Wax. And the first four minutes of the title song provide an early example of ambient, while the next part has an elegant repetitive motif, which makes you think of Portishead, or even Radiohead. To top all that, ‘Timeless’ has that cystal clear ECM production. It’s a classic without expiration date.
Keith Jarret – ‘The Köln Concert’ (1975)
When on 24 January 1975 Keith Jarret finally sat down on his piano stool in the Köln Opera House, he didn’t have the slightest idea of what to play. He improvised his solo concert from start to finish. And still it became the best-selling solo piano album in jazz history.
But even more wonderous than the sales figures, is the fact that Jarret’s on the spot invention maintains a constant quality throughout two lengthy pieces, and knows no boundaries whatsoever – you’ll even find a Laura Nyre-like pop melody at about 02:25 in Part II c. Pressed on two LP’s and released on ECM Records, ‘The Köln Concert’ is a sincere work of art.
John Coltrane – ‘Interstellar Space’ (1974)
‘Interstellar Space’ is Coltrane’s posthumously released, deeply spiritual cosmos voyage. Recorded just five months before his untimely death in July 1967, his odes to Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn and the constellation of Leo are among the final sounds he put to tape.
On ‘Interstellar Space’, it’s just Coltrane, his wildly inventive sax improvisations, and the equally intense drum parts of Rashied Ali. As a listener you’ve got very little to hold on to. No melody to whistle along to.No beat to tap your foot to. This album is lightyears away from his beautiful ‘A Love Supreme’ (1965), which he had recorded just two years before, and therefore a witness of his increasingly restless soul.
Sun Ra – ‘Space Is the Place’ (1973)
It takes just one Google Images search to find out that Sun Ra was a mythical character, inspired by ancient Egypt. As you start digging into his vast body of work, another lifelong obsession emerges: outer spaceand the future. No wonder he confused audience and critics alike.
‘Space Is the Place’ – especially its sidelong, freeform, cosmos-worshipping centerpiece – is a gentler (i.e. more easily digestible) ode to all things celestial than Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’. And its title track, a whirlwind of repetitive voices, horns and keyboards, is a testament to the genius of one of jazz’s maddest mavericks. But let’s not fall into the trap of explaining too much, as Sun Ra warns in his liner notes:
“What can I say other than the music itself? Music? Yes, to the ears that dare to hear, that dare to hear, that dare to hear. Both the silence and the sound.”
Miles Davis – ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’ (1971)
The genesis of Right Off, the first of two +25 minute tracks on ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’, is a special one. Apparently, while waiting for Miles, guitarist John McLaughlin started a riff on his guitar. Drummer Billy Cobham and bass player Michael Henderson joined in. Together they built an explosive foundation for Miles’ solo, which starts at 02:19.
In the meantime, Herbie Hancock, who happened to be in the NYC building for some other business, was ushered into the 30th Street Studio to play keyboards. Track two, Yesternow, may be a less succesful cut-and-paste affair, but ‘Jack Johnson’ emulates the power of the legendary boxer it was inspired by. Johnson himself, voiced by actor Brock Peters, had the final word:
“I’m Jack Johnson, heavy-weight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.”
Soft Machine – ‘Third’ (1970)
With tensions within Soft Machine rising, and the sword of Damocles hanging above his head, drummer, singer and songwriter Robert Wyatt remained silent on all tracks but one, his own compositionMoon In June. The other members of Soft Machine wanted to pursue purely instrumental jazz, a schism which would very soon lead to Wyatt’s dismissal from his own band.All brilliantly described by Marcus O’Dair in ‘Different Every Time’.
Luckily, the internal dissonance is not evident from ‘Third’. The album comprises four glorious side-long tracks. And though its sound and scope seem modelled on ‘Bitches Brew’, it was recorded before Miles even released that set. It’s a defiantly idiosyncatric and British sounding record, and arguably one of the all time finest marriages of jazz and rock.
Peter Brötzmann Octet – ‘Machine Gun’ (1968)
“This historic free jazz album is a heavy-impact sonic assault so aggressive it still knocks listeners back on their heels decades later”,writes Allmusic’s Joslyn Layne. And she’s not exaggerating. It takes some nerve to get ‘Machine Gun’ out of its sleeve, to put it on the turntable and to let a wild bunch of sax players, bassist, pianists and drummers trash your ears, your walls and your furniture.
It’s an even bigger challenge to sit through the entire thing. But it will send chills down your spine. Albeit chills that feel like bullets. To quote Layne again: “Much like standing outside during a violent storm, withstanding this kind of fierce energy is a primal thrill.”
Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)
An orchestrated tour de force divided into four parts, ‘The Black and the Sinner Lady’ was ahead of its time. It had nothing to do with free jazz. Instead, the record seemed to come entirely out of Mingus’ mind. So much, in fact, that his psychologistDr. Edmund Pollock provided liner notesto the original album:
“To me this particular composition contains Mr. Mingus’ personal and also a social message. He feels intensively. He tries to tell people he is in great pain and anguish because he loves.”
Anyway, whatever Mingus tried to say, he did so in a heart-stoppingly beautiful way. Incorporating everything from avant-garde to flamenco guitar in neat – in turns elegant and heavy – arrangements.
Ornette Coleman – ‘Free Jazz’ (1960)
Back to where we started:according to Fred Kaplan, 1959 was the year everything changed. Miles went modal and Ornette Coleman went free, with ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. The latter then further revolutionalized jazz with ‘Free Jazz’: one monumental improvisation – created on the spot by his double quartet – split into two sides.
“No re-takes, no splices”, say the original liner notes. It’s a quintessential stereo record, with a set of horns, bass and drums in each speaker. There’s always someone keeping a familiar rhythmic pulse somewhere. That’s why ‘Free Jazz’ is a more relaxing listen than Brötzman’s ‘Machine Gun’. Still, Coleman provided the original landmark. One which impact on the shape of jazz to come is epic in its own right.
What are your views? Which records did I miss? What about the void I left in the 1980s? And was 1959 a landmark year for increasingly ambitious jazz albums?
Special thanks to Jonas Aerts for his suggestions and feedback.
And to the devoted followers of Facebook-group ECM Records for their input and support.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an episode of The Guardian Radio Hour Podcast, in which comedian Stewart Lee talked about the cross-pollination between music (or more precisely: punk) and alternative comedy in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
A fascinating listen. In fact, I listened to it twice. The first time while falling asleep, smiling like an idiot. The second time to make extensive playlist notes … smiling like an idiot.
The one track I couldn’t shake off, was ‘Jilted John’ by Jilted John, a brilliantly funny slice of teenage life which reached no. 4 in the UK single charts in 1978.
John and Julie
At just 19 years old, Manchester-based comedian Graham Fellows created the character Jilted John and released the album ‘True Love Stories’ that same year. The back sleeve of ‘True Love Stories’ provides some insight into Fellows’s alter-ego:
“Jilted John, otherwise known as Graham Fellows, is a full time drama student in Manchester and his ambition is to become a full time actor. He has 3 sisters and a very nice mother and father who live in Yorkshire. Jilted John likes fancy mice, Kate Bush and the countryside. His dislikes include Gordon the Moron, anyone successful with girls and gardening.”
Gordon the Moron being the name of interest there.
I think I can safely say that Gordon is Jilted John’s nemesis. The song ‘Jilted John’ wouldn’t be half as good without a depressed and angry John bemoaning losing his girlfriend Julie to Gordon, who is – so he keeps repeating – a moron.
Yeah yeah, it’s not fair
In just a few lines, Fellows paints a series of vivid, tragicomic scenes, that gain power through John’s mildly revengeful cockney-voiced delivery:
“She said listen, John, I love you
But there’s this bloke I fancy
I don’t want to two-time you,
So it’s the end for you and me”
“Who’s this bloke, I asked her
Goo-oo-oor-don, she replied
Not that puff, I said dismayed
Yes, but he’s no puff she cried”
(He’s more of a man than you’ll ever be)
Later on, while crying “all the way to the chip shop”, John is mocked by Gordon and Julie, “standing at the busstop”.
“Gordon is a moron”, John decides, before he launches into a feast of insults and hilarious threats.
In ‘The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy’ (2006), Julian Hall writes: “[Jilted John’s] lament that “Gordon is a moron” made for one the most bizarre singles of the 1970s – no small feat in a decade that also gave us punk and the Wombles.”
Factoid: ‘True Love Stories’ was produced by Martin Hannett – then Martin Zero – who went on to produce such landmark albums as ‘Unknown Pleasures’ by Joy Division and ‘The Return of the Durutti Column’, as well as work by Magazine, New Order and Happy Mondays.
The die-cut sleeve is very much alive. To prove it, I handpicked four jaw-dropping pieces of evidence from my record cabinet.
Scissor seventies: early die-cut sleeves
First off, some … background. One of the most famous die-cut sleeve examples – and one of the most ambitious record sleeves altogether – is surely Led Zeppelin’s double album ‘Physical Graffiti’ (1975).
Designer Peter Corriston cut the windows out of two New York tenement buildings, exposing well-known faces like Lee Harvey Oswald and Laurel & Hardy on the inner sleeves as well as (printed on the insert) the letters that form the album title. Read all about it on Dangerous Minds.
Also check out the amazing die-cut sleeve of ‘In a Glass House’ by Gentle Giant (1973) on Discogs: “Album comes in a gimmix cover with the center part of the jacket front side being transparent foil with black print on it; there is a printed cardboard insert that provides the remainder of the cover image.”
More recent examples show a more minimal approach to die-cut sleeve design. Let’s cut to the chase.
Die-cut sleeve design: in the wake of Bowie’s death, much has been written about every detail of his life and artistry, including the meaning behind the die-cut sleeve design of ‘Blackstar’. But let’s keep it simple. London agency Barnbrook designed a pitch black gatefold sleeve, with shiny pieces of stars at the bottom of the front sleeve, and above that, a big cut-out star.
There is no printed inner sleeve, only a thick transparant plastic sleeve that holds the actual record. Prices for this limited edition clear vinyl edition skyrocketed after the Starman left Planet Earth. It has already been sold on Discogs for 409.10 euro! Insane, but it’s a magical thing!
2. The Durutti Column – The Sandpapery Die-Cut Sleeve
Artist: The Durutti Column Title: ‘The Return of the Durutti Column’ Version:FBN 114, UK Label: Factory Benelux Year of release: 2013 (originally 1980) Designer: James Nice / Peter Saville
Die-cut sleeve design: the first pressing of this 1980 album was distributed in an iconoclastic sandpaper sleeve, famously assembled by the members of Joy Division. This 2013 reissue pays tribute to that version, albeit with bigger respect for neighbouring record sleeves in your collection.
The outside sleeve is off-white. An old Factory Records logo by Peter Saville was cut out and accentuated by the orangy grinding paper that’s paisted on a white inner sleeve. The inner sleeve provides additional information on its remarkable design.
One word of advice: always keep the actual record at a safe distance from its sandpaper sleeve. You might scrape of some great guitar bits!
3. Goat – The Triangular Space Tunnel Die-Cut Sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: Swedish band Goat pushes things to a psychedelic level. Inside the cut-out triangle of the golden outer sleeve, a mind-altering space storm of red and blue seems to be raging, going in circles or coming straight at you, depending on how you insert the inner sleeve.
As a bonus, this Rocket Recording edition – nomen est omen! – contains eye-catching ‘red with blue splatter’ vinyl.
4. Steven Wilson – The Girls Behind Bars Die-Cut Sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: this release features a sober grey outside sleeve. Four and a half strips of cardboard are cut out, which nicely references the album title.
The two women that peep through the ‘bars’ are on the inner sleeve, captured in a magnificently coloured photograph, that brings to mind the even more intense, heavily filtered pictures of war-torn Congo by Richard Mosse.
Amazing, isn’t it? Which records would you add? Tell me!
Bowie’s ★ is out. I haven’t received my copy yet. Not my fault: pre-order shipping delay at Warner’s … Luckily, the man who once fell to earth already offered a glimpse of his new directions. He released the title track and Lazarus as singles and paired them with deeply unsettling videos. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a well-established NY jazz combo to play a major role in Bowie’s new sound. But it does. So let’s focus on Donny McCaslin. Who is he? How did he appear on the Thin White Duke’s radar? And why should you track down his work?
In short: Donny McCaslin is an insanely gifted, soaring saxophone player, based in New York, just like David Bowie nowadays. When the news of ★’s imminent launch broke, I immediately delved into ‘Casting for Gravity’ (2012). The album sees McCaslin his extraordinary band – including force of nature and Brad Mehldau collaborator Mark Guiliana on drums and electronics – combining all kinds of influences into a strange-yet-familiar jazz melange. Notice their brilliant reworking of Alpha and Omega by Boards of Canada, a performance even Bowie used as a reference during the ★ sessions:
Bowie did not just recruit McCaslin. He wanted the entire band. And you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to understand why. McCaslin, Guiliana, Jason Lindner (keys), Tim Lefebvre (bass) and ace guitarist Ben Monder are excellent instrumentalists in their own right, which is just part of the story. Together they create an abundance of ideas and form a closer than close-knit unit.
When McCaslin’s gang reaches for extatic heights, as in Praia Grande, it doesn’t resort to cheap tricks. Instead, it surfs the harmonic waves skillfully and with telepathic ease. The band is equally strong in the angular metropolitan territory of Bend (not too much unlike overlooked Japanese fusionistas Machine & The Synergetic Nuts)
Eno, Fripp, Grohl
Bowie was never really a lone rider. He’s been scouting the country’s and the world’s top musicians for decades. The names of Mick Ronson and Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and blues master Stevie Ray Vaughan will resonate the most. Not to mention one-off guest spots for John Lennon (Fame), Dave Grohl (on Neil Young cover I’ve Been Waiting for You) and Pete Townshend (well, two times … on Because You’re Young and Slow Burn twenty years later).
And what about the excellence provided by lifelong companion Tony Visconti, and by the likes of Gail Ann Dorsey (her Under Pressurevocals on the Reality Tour were spell-binding), Mike Garson (hear his avant-garde soloing on Alladin Sane) and Carlos Alomar (listen to him layering funky guitar with Earl Slick on Stay).
So when Bowie is going to hire a jazz band, you know it’s not going to be some run-off-the-mill combo that never looks beyond Georgia On My Mind or Autumn Leaves. He needs lieutenants who bring their own vision to the mixing table. And that’s why Donny McCaslin’s band, which released the excellent ‘Fast Future’ in 2015, is such a great catch.
Not “Bowie with jazz combo”
Last december, both ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut Magazine’ reported on how McCaslin was instrumental in the making of ★, follow-up album to jack in the box comeback ‘The Next Day’ (2013). Bowie met McCaslin while recording fierce 10″ single Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. McCaslin took the lead in the hefty brass parts, which sounded more forward-looking than anything on ‘The Next Day’, a fine, but fairly conservative album, measured by some of Bowie’s 70’s and 90’s standards.
As the story goes, Bowie dived into ‘Casting for Gravity’ at home, took notes and invoted the entire band into the studio, early 2015. But as McCaslin clarifies in Mojo, it’s not “Bowie with jazz combo”. A claim that’s been intensified by pre-album singles Blackstar and Lazarus.
McCaslin’s star is rising
Donny McCaslin’s involvement in Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ is great in many ways. It transports Bowie to yet another reinvention of himself. Besides, McCaslin is a frontrow witness of Bowie’s current work ethic. A spokesman role he shares with Tony Visconti, while Bowie mysteriously stays out of the limelight. McCaslin’s studio story even reached – somewhat bizarelly – British tabloid ‘The Sun’.
At the same time, McCaslin’s Bowie liaison will no doubt boost exposure for his own work. In a perfect world, he’ll be playing ‘Casting for Gravity’ and ‘Fast Future’, truly great albums, somewhere near you soon. In a surreal world, he’s supporting Bowie minutes before joining him for his long-awaited return to the stage.★
A few days ago, Steven Wilson played the Montréal Jazz Festival in Canada. During a public interview he shared some passionate words about discovering music. As well as the treasure he most recently dug up.
I’ve been on the road now for four months with this band. And the last thing you want to to do when you get home is going to a show. It’s like going to the office. But I do still – voraciously – devour music.
[…] The thing about the history of music is: just when you think you’ve heard everything, something else will come along and surprise you. And I think also your musical taste changes as you get older. Things that didn’t make sense to you as a teenager suddenly click.
[…] I’m always amazed by how much fantastic music is available and still there to be discovered. Even at my age. So i’m still very curious and passionate about discovering music I’m not familiar with.
You know, my parents were very electic in their musical taste. I grew in up in a house where we’d be listening to quite serious intellectual rock music, but then also to Abba and The Carpenters and The Bee Gees. And I still … to this day I love pure pop. When it’s done beautifully …
On his latest discovery:
I was listening to an old jazz album by a guy called Les McCann, ‘Invitation to Openness’. Early seventies Atlantic jazz record, very inspired by Miles. Kind of ‘In a Silent Way’. And again, that was just a record I was introduced to only the last few weeks. And I’ve completely fallen in love with it.
Discovering new music is one of the great thrills in life. I know I won’t stumble upon a ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or ‘Skylarking’ every day. But I’m always either fixing holes in my record collection or reaching out my antennae to find gripping melodies, off-kilter sounds and downright musical iconoclasm.
Some sixty years ago, you needed a traveller’s mind, a portable tape recorder and preferably Lomax for a last name. Today, you can become a music explorer operating from the toilet! Well, most of the time.
I’m not referring to more haphazard ways of discovering music, like sitting by the radio and wait endlessly for a refreshing tune, or randomly picking songs on Spotify. No, you better have a guiding light, some guarantee that you’re at least looking in the right directions.
The following tips reveal how I’m unearthing music. Now and in the future. Use what you like and do let me know what you discover!
Never a dull moment!
1. Dive into your parents’ or uncle’s record stash. Ask what they grooved to when they were young. And join them on a trip down their memory lane. Chances are you’ll find more obscure titles than ‘Rumours’ or ‘The Joshua Tree’.
In fact, this is how I experienced my big bang. At the age of 9, I played my uncle’s copy of Queen’s ‘Greatest Hits’. Things expanded from there.
2. Flip through a music or genre book or encyclopaedia. ‘The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings’, ‘The Great Rock/Metal/Psychedelic Discography’ by Martin C. Strong, ‘The Rough Guide to the Best Music You’ve Never Heard’, ‘Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music’ by Rob Young, Allmusic.com, …
And check out the editorial picks and the albums behind the stories. Fascinating stuff!
3. Shake the Twitter tree by searching for particular hastags like #psychsoul or #nowspinning (almost exclusively used by vinyl enthusiasts). Whatever niche you like. Did you encounter accounts that regularly share reviews or recommendations? Set up a Twitter list of music sources. That way, you’ll keep the milk of paradise flowing …
Next step: use TweetDeck to create your own music discovery dashboard, with colums for each of your lists and keyword/hashtag searches.
4. Get the most out of Spotify (or Deezer).The platform is loaded with excellent playlists, compiled by users. Just feed the search bar with keywords like ‘mellotron’ or ‘new york punk’ and put your headhones on. Also, try the Discover function. The more you listen, the more accurate the suggestions you get.
And are your friends notorious for their great taste in music? Keep an eye on the right sidebar to get inspired by what they’re listening to.
5. Start a conversation with the record store clerk. Come on, don’t be shy! I understand it’s tempting to just get your records, and get out. But these guys are surrounded by new and reissued music 24/7. So use their knowledge, tell them what kind of records you’re looking for and rush home to discover the gems you bought.
6. Read music blogs and magazines. Hype Machine keeps a list of over 800 handpicked blogs. Me? I like old school magazines like Mojo and Uncut. Because they have it all: great pictures, expertly written, evocative reviews of albums and reissues, in-depth pieces on new and old bands by seasoned journalists, an excellent cd with each issue and … a crossword puzzle.
7. Exchange mixtapes.One of the greatest aspects of any friendship is to discuss music, to meet at the front row for a concert, and to recommend albums. Does that mean you should have your notebook ready every time you go out for a drink? Well, why not?
Better still, ask your friends to put their latest favourite tunes on a cassette, CD-r, MiniDisk, … Before long, you’ll even know the running order by heart and you’ll be tracking down some of the original albums.
Also consider this nerdy alternative: invite your music buddies for a music night, to introduce and share songs that the others musn’t miss. Usually an inebriated affair, I picked up a lot from every single one of the so-called Deurne Sessions!
8. Find out what your favourite musicians are spinning. Sneak into their apartment? That’s one option, but not the one I would suggest. Instead, check if they have a listening now-list going on their website, or a playlist covering their influences on Spotify. In my experience, a lot musicians have a taste that stretches far beyond the style they’re known for themselves. And lots of interviews are sheer name-dropping feasts. Harvest time!
9. Go where other music explorers go.On Last.fm or Discogs, on RateYourMusic or Progarchives, … On all of these platforms you’ll find countless discussions and/or personal lists. Moreover, Last.fm keeps track of what over 58 million users listen to on their computers or mobile devices. Find people with an interesting taste and enjoy their discoveries!
10. Dig into musician’s collaborations. If you’d bring together the discographies of everyone who ever played with Miles Davis, you’d have thousands of hours worth of excellent music: by Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, John Scofield, John McLaughlin, Bill Evans, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarret, … Of course, Miles is an extreme example. But you get the picture.
11. Follow records labels very closely.They usually have a very clear concept. Some focus on a certain genre, others only hire bands that bring a unique expertimental voice to the table. If a certain label delivers the goods for you, it will probably continue to do so in the future.
Interestingly, there are labels specifically oriented towards uncovering and reissuing burried treasures. Light In The Attic Records, obviously. Their catalog is simply mindblowing. Some personal highlights: ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ by Michael Chapman (1970), ‘Dreamin’ by Donnie & Joe Emerson (1979), ‘L’Amour’ by the elusive Lewis Baloue (1983) and ‘Songs from Suicide Bridge’ by David Kauffmann and Eric Caboor (1984).
Now it’s time to get out there and discover new music. Do let me know what you’ve found. I want to hear it too!