Saturday, December 20, 2014

Music Review: Yes - 'Heaven & Earth'

Classic progressive rock fans can't expect a cutting edge release from Yes this late in their career. The pioneering British rock band that formed in 1968 and helped spearhead the progressive rock wave of the late 1960s and early '70s now releases an album every few years or so, as if dutifully doing their taxes.

The new album Heaven & Earth - my vote for the blandest album title of the year - is the first with lead singer/lyricist Jon Davison. He replaces founding member Jon Anderson who has gone solo again. This latest full-length is so light and passive (dainty even), it is nearly void of any signature progressive rock musicianship, let alone any defining Yes flourishes.

Sure, Chris Squire's anchored bass still provides a solid platform for the band to work from, and Steve Howe's flashy fret work still thrives with a seasoned confidence, but so lazily are these contributions offered, along with Alan White's barely distinguishable drumming, the performances sound as if they were lap-topped in from the four corners of the globe. 

Loyalists may have a challenge warming up to singer Davison's freakishly spot-on impersonation of Jon Anderson, the ageless choirboy voice of Yes on such classic albums as Close To The Edge and Fragile. Davison's vocals sound only like an accomplished enactment - he was the lead singer in a Yes cover band - and his cosmically light lyrics rarely invoke the striking imagery fans could expect from Anderson.

If pressed, one could kindly describe Heaven & Earth as a pleasant, if unadventurous album. Keyboardist Geoff Downes' pretty and linear playing seems insistent on keeping this garden free of any progressive growth. Songs like "It Was All We Knew" and "In A World Of Our Own" have a pop flavor unfortunately diluted by the drowning remnants of progressive rock. One wonders what might have been had the songs been more fully charged with a steeper degree of drama and flash.

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Book Review: 'The Opposite Of Everything" by David Kalish

This is a lighthearted and comedic novel concerning Daniel Plotnick, an Associated Press business writer who, upon learning he has contracted thyroid cancer, decides to change his life by doing the opposite of everything. What he once deemed important - a solid marriage, a successful career, reasonable good health - would now be, in his enlightenment, obstacles to avoid.

His doctor first informs him that if you're going to get cancer, thyroid cancer, a mostly curable disease "is the one to get". After further examination the same surgeon does a complete about-face and declares Plotnick's condition as incurable. After sacrificing his thyroid, a vocal nerve, and a portion of his trachea to the surgeon's scalpel, Plotnick is given a 50-50 chance of surviving 10 years and the unsettling advice to "live each day with meaning".

What makes David Kalish's thin and breezy book so appealing is its refusal to treat the Big C as anything but a motivation for humor. Never does the disease reach dramatic threatening height, all the while intimidating the character's very existence. The point here is - the choices one makes in life, including the frantic choices a cancer diagnosis may invoke, are essential in determining one's well-being and quality of life, regardless of how little time that life has left.

After running the tread mill of cancer treatment, Plotnick concludes that the choices he has made in life - the smart practical choices - have not served him well. Why not then, he supposes, do the opposite of all he held significant? He locks his wife out of their apartment and soon divorces her. He gets fitted for a nose ring and dresses in gothic black like his beloved death metal rock bands. He goes on drinking binges, practically lives in bars, and roams the night like a Metallica reject.

In his most radical departure from the norm, he accompanies his swinging singles father on a weird odyssey to a Catskills resort senior citizens weekend. Here, his life takes another spin as he slips even further into his psycho abyss when he can't tolerate his father's playing of The Village People's "Macho Man" at full volume on his father's Mustang cassette deck. 

Before Plotnick self-destructs with or without a terminal illness, the author allows his protagonist to fall in love with a lovely Columbian woman who sees his reckless behavior as a calling to her own needs and desires. With that happy outcome, witty Seinfeld-like dialogue, and bizarre situations that confront the commonplace (Plotnick falls or is pushed from a famous American landmark) The Opposite Of Everything is a passive and engaging read. 

The character of Judy, Plotnick's first wife is sketchy at best. She is a cast-off wife who only serves as a catalyst to his ensuing adventure and romance. I thought the author's treatment of her was harsh. It's the only false note in a novel that is grinning from ear to ear with the promise of another day. 

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Music Review: Brian Jonestown Massacre - 'Revelation'

The fourteenth Brian Jonestown Massacre album, Revelation - the first to be recorded in their new Berlin, Germany recording studio - is a jangly psych-rock affair glazed in a frosty shoegazing chill. Although it's a terribly bland title, the new album is spirited with BJM's gloomy, then bright  psychedelic haze.

The band's one constant -  singer, writer, multi-instrumentalist Anton Newcombe - is a survivor of documented drug addiction (the rock documentary Dig!) and rumored alienation. He has produced an album with an almost paranoiac tone yet with a glint of light, of hope, creeping through the window of his safe European home. He has relocated to Berlin and is now a husband, father of a young son, and record producer. Word is, he's on the mend.

BJM have always been conspiracy-minded with a reckless enthusiasm for all things dark and dangerous. What more can you expect from a band name that is a combination of tragic Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, and the mass suicide (or was it murder?) of hundreds of members of The People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. On Revelation an adult maturity has seized and anchored Newcombe, as if it suddenly dawned on him that being alive is better than being dead. "You've got to wake up and be a man, and know the plan", he sings on "What You Isn't", a song bristling with angry confidence and backed by a white-knuckled organ and American Indian tom-tom percussion.

The album boasts Newcombe's musical influences. He raises his glass to Robert Smith and The Cure on the ska-tinged, "Food For Clouds". He channels The Man Who Sold The World -era David Bowie on the whimsically lovelorn "Unknown". "Memorymix" impossibly combines The Beatles repeating Sgt. Pepper (title track) guitar riff with '90s electronica and club land dub, and is the most experimental song here even while constrained to a dance groove.

Newcombe never sounded so at peace with himself as he does on "Nightbird", a soulful "waking up alone" ballad with a modest string arrangement accompanying an acoustic guitar and killer melody. Throughout the album jangly Byrds-era guitar and customary drum beats that break in at perfect intervals add a sunny splash to the moody atmospherics.

Revelation gets darker and deeper on repeated listens. On first take the instrumental "Duck and Cover" seems only filler. On further listens, the whistling keyboards, like a perfectly cued air raid siren, paint a drone-filled sky governing the continents. It's food for thought from an artist not quite ready to abandon his inner rebel.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Music Review: Swans - 'To Be Kind'

Is that a melody? The new Swans album is packed with leader Michael Gira's trademark loud art rock - lengthy guitar slams and atmospheric droning passages in a no-wave political music one might meditate to while contemplating global domination. Add to the equation a sparkling melody and a shiny pop sheen.

There are downright catchy background vocals on the funk-minded "A Little God In My Hands". A trombone assault closes "Oxygen" like a Duke Ellington show-stopper, and there's guitar intros so rudimentary you could swear you're listening to Grand Funk Railroad strumming chords in search of a song structure. Swans have been infected with rhythm and melody, not to mention rock 'n roll.

It's a welcome change, a bright human element in Gira's bleak worldview where the godless militant sky squashes men like in an old Raid! commercial. Not that Swans have abandoned their metal shield of all things unnatural. The darkness is still visible in long guitar noise of complete chemical breakdown. Weird twisted tribal tongues still bark in the face of established religion. Moments of pure silence are shattered by a deafening assault on the ears. It's just that they've never sounded happier about total devastation.

On the 34-minutes long "Bring The Sun  / Toussaint L' Outerture", Gira sounds positively joyous singing a gripping infectious mantra above a cacophony of fierce guitar waves as if shouting "Ride 'em cowboy!" while straddling a nuclear missile.

In the David Lynch inspired collage "Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)", he channels a cosmic hillbilly sporting a metal plate in his forehead while bleating "I'm just a little boy! I need love!". It's an eerie crawling music full of metallic tinkering and atmospheric hum interrupted by a mocking television laugh track. I envision a human harvesting operation in the Ozarks. The dedication to the great bluesman Burnett ("Howlin' Wolf") may be indicative of both Swans and Burnett employing pounding repetition in their music.

To Be Kind is a mammoth 2-disc recording (Special Edition has 3 discs) with over two hours of poetic, adventurous music. Swans have never sounded so accessible and yet so dark and mysterious. Largely funded by the Swans fan base, the album answers to no one but the delighted mesmerized listener.

Swans just started an extensive American and European tour.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Theatre Review: 'The Anastasia Trials in The Court of Women' by Carolyn Gage at Rust Belt Books (Buffalo, NY)

A tiny space in a back room at Rust Belt Books on Allen Street in Buffalo, NY, is the venue for The Brazen Faced Varlet's production of "The Anastasia Trials in The Court of Women" by Carolyn Gage. It is an informal stage to say the least. Just ask the late arrivals who stepped through a door and into the small theatre and found themselves center stage during performance. They promptly sat in chairs that were certainly part of the set design.  A cast member turned to them and rudely said, "you can't sit there - go sit over there", and pointed to the designated seating with all the authority of a traffic cop and without losing a beat of her monologue.

The Varlets, a feminist thespian troupe, were prepared and likely eager for any impromptu minor collision to occur in this reckless comedic tour de force, a play within a play, concerning the trials, both genuine and psychological, of The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikulaevna,  the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

Before you envision Ingrid Bergman offering longing haunted looks to a movie camera, know that this Anastasia is a traumatized veiled waif who screams wildly at the mere mention of her history and behaves as though she needs a miracle worker and not a lawyer. She is played by a member of the bickering cast-within-a-cast who are mounting a theatrical production about a courtroom trial in which Anastasia accuses five women of denying her a rightful identity.

The production is falling apart at the seams as the cast bickers over everything and backstage shenanigans ensue. Two top critics are rumored to be attending the night's performance debunking the theory expressed by several of the ensemble that "The patriarchal media never reviews women's theatre!". More theatrical clichés are decked out like vaudevillian vignettes. A young ingénue hopes to steal the spotlight from a seasoned thespian; the playwright adds a new character moments before the curtain rises and informs the cast that she herself will play the role; a stagehand with a phobia of acting is thrust onstage much against her will. It is a recipe for the broadest and possibly blandest of comedy.

Yet this comedy with all its silliness rests assuredly on the historical plight of equality for women and the very genuine sorrow of the raped and murdered Grand Duchess Anastasia and her pathetic imposter who was briefly the toast of the New York City elite in the 1920s. That this "Noises Off" farce could so seriously strike a humanitarian feminist vein in the midst of its outrageous comedy is a credit to its impassioned and energized cast and director, Lara D. Haberberger.

Diane McNamara playing Anastasia's aunt and closest surviving relative embodies the entire fallen Russian empire in gestures of regal hollowness that turn the stage deadly significant however briefly. She offers a surprisingly touching account of her niece's final days. Kelly M. Beuth playing a cussing bag lady friend of Anastasia is as animated as an adrenalin-charged cartoon character, and as wise as theatrical bag ladies will be. The entire cast performs well teetering between loud absurdist comedy and empowered feminist statement.

The audience plays judge and are asked at times to allow an attorney to proceed or be sustained, through the use of little stick women designating yes or no, handed out as the audience enters the theatre. It's a cute gimmick that adds a childlike touch to a strange night of theatre wherein the audience exits with the dubious and possibly schizophrenic understanding that we are all Anastasia, Grand Duchess to the Tsar of Russia.

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Monday, January 6, 2014

Music Review: Various Artists - 'Punk Goes Christmas'

This is not your father's anarchic punk Christmas..The punks in the new holiday compilation from Fearless Records, Punk Goes Christmas ,are a gentle lot content on cuddling warm embraces under the mistletoe and marveling over Santa's solid gold Cadillac. These punks are tame mainstream rockers with holiday songs more indebted to Brenda Lee than The Sex Pistols.

William Beckett's "Do You Hear What I Hear?" is so void of irony, so traditional, you might as well be listening to Catholic mass. Even Alvin and The Chipmunks probably have a more sparkling rendition of this holiday chestnut.

There are more familiar punk leanings on Man Overboard's snotty "Father Christmas" with a jagged garage guitar backing up a leftist sentiment of an unfair Santa who gives "all the toys to the little rich boys". The song is all about rolling Santa for his money and is about as radical as this music gets.

Issues' "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays" (no shortage of uninspired song titles) is catchy radio fare with an aggressive metal vocal grunt merging with a squeaky clean pop vocal track. It's a delectable blend of Top 40 kiddie pop with just a sprinkle of holiday sentiment.

Set It Off's "This Christmas (I'll Burn It To The Ground)" sounds more Halloween than Christmas. It offers a traditional "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" morphing into a Gothic dripping Christmas rampage concerning a can of gasoline. Not only does Grandma get run over by a reindeer, she is  burned alive at the stake.

But mostly these are tame radio friendly songs your Grandmother might tap her foot along to. New Found Glory's "Nothing For Christmas" is an acoustic-strumming, folksy love song about wanting nothing for Christmas because "I got what I needed ... it's you".  The Summer Sets' "This Christmas" is a slick and danceable glitter ball of kiddie techno culture. That is as fine as Top 40 radio gets.

But is this punk? Absolutely not. But it is is a most agreeable grab bag of Christmas candy. These young punks still believe in Santa Claus.

this review was first published at

Friday, November 29, 2013

Music Review: Al Kryszak, 'Lullabies For People Who Don't Need Sleep'

Bless the unknown musician who, despite a constant output of musical creation thrown to the wind unheard, continues to burrow through the icy and crowded stream of musical culture with his latest, soon to be unheralded collection of songs.

Al Kryszak, creator and front man of Buffalo-based alt-rock outfit REV, is one such musician. With four full-length REV albums and several classical music and film score releases distributed from his one-man operation,  Kryszak continues to produce and release fiercely independent music that goes largely unheard.

His newest, first alt-rock solo release, Lullabies for People Who Don't Need Sleep is an intricately woven but wildly stitched pattern of acoustic composition adorned with a light arrangement of sparse background collage that support the subtlest, and often sweetest, of melodies.

The lingering melody rises above a low hum and rattle industrial soundscape in the somber "Shadow of A Coal Plant". Kryszak's soft acoustic plucking, and a swirling, decidedly '70s style church organ paint a lovingly polluted blue-grey sky over a dominating, watchful coal plant. It's a sad, nearly resigned protest song set in a post-apocalyptic-like urban wasteland where citizens work their cancer-causing impossible gardens "in the shadow of the coal plant". It is the outstanding track on this album.

The organic acoustic compositions, often adorned with low-key techno arrangements, snake through a jungle of urban and emotional angst that finds modern blight suffocating the artist sadly strumming his guitar at its center.  Album opener "Declare Nothing" is a downcast of anger with overdubbed vocals and altering guitar riffs. It finds the composition of music and its empty reception, a lifestyle where "talking to the mynah bird" is the art of writing a song.

Elsewhere things get a bit more cheery. "The Rock I Came From" is a funky acoustic jam that explores the genre of rock music, or existence itself, as a rapidly disappearing entity where flowers still grow. "Trying To Remember" is a warm slice of dreamy psych music with the slightest detection of an old Neil Diamond guitar chord at its base.

One gets the impression that when Kryszak touches upon a musical nirvana, such as the peaceful plateau he reaches on "Trying To Remember", the field is ripe for further exploration. But he quickly moves up the path, searching for another riff or melody, as if snuffing out any commercial weeds growing in his garden. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. It makes for wildly creative music, but you may want to linger a little longer on the breezy summit of "Trying To Remember", which is just over two minutes long.

Lullabies For People Who Don't Need Sleep is a little rough around the edges. The naked, likely first-take vocals are sometimes harsh, when you know he can sound better, as he does when he supports his own voice with background vocals. It is his choice for the organic sound of the recording, a precious expression of a genuine artist.

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