On today's episode: PROG?
I remember this came out when I was working at Tower, so I got to hear it a time or two in the store and always dug it. It's not quite ambient, but completely instrumental save for a few wordless vocals. It has a great kind of southwestern spaghetti vibe to it on songs like 'Agave' and 'Carla.' Elsewhere, it takes on a kind of airy, ever descending ambient like on the first and last tracks 'Two Worlds' and 'Todos Santos.' In the middle, you get kind of ambient pop dub things like 'Frozen' that just defy categorization. Through it all is Daniel's slide guitar and pedal steel, like a tour guide through all these worlds of sound. Definitely a nice revisit.
Midsummer — Catch and Blur (1999)
Midsummer, I'd reckon, is probably in the top ten or so best American bands of the last fifteen years. Too bad nobody cared. I first heard of them on the split album they did with Coastal. And, at first, I had no idea what to make of their dreamy prog sound. But the more I listened to it, the more I got it (like many things discussed here). Seemingly wordless vocals and layers of dreamy, meticulous arpeggios often give way to exuberant, cymbal heavy explosions of pure sound. A lot of their songs are six minute, multi-movement epics —especially on this, their first release. Have a listen to 'Where the Waves' for an example of just how good they were. For a first release, absolutely stunning.
Midsummer — Moon Shadow (2001)
At this point, I should point out that everything Midsummer did was really artsy and "pure" sounding, so even though I've basically described them as a shoegaze band, they were most certainly not. This EP, for instance, is just one long song, broken up into four movements. There's tons of loud parts, odd time signature switching and even accompaniment from a string section. It's a very complete piece of work and ventures close to prog ideals in more cases than a few. Ambitious as hell and pretty to boot, I'd say it would be hard to improve on such quality, but we're talking Midsummer here, so spoiler: I'd be wrong.
Midsummer — Inside the Trees (2007)
When the band finally released a full length, it was just an over the top release of pure creativity, filtered through a net of dreamy melodies and seemingly endless good ideas. Songs drop through holes, change direction entirely and break themselves down only to be built magically and triumphantly back up. The big revelation here is that now the band was now able to do all that in under four minutes. There's still those longform epics and they're still just as potent, but hearing it all blasted so perfectly in such a short burst is truly impressive. It's only now that I had to seek out these albums from drummer Steve Elkins that I realized how neglected this band was (even by me; better late than never). Inside the Trees should have been a landmark album in American rock music, but alas, it was not meant to be. However, this album is on Spotify along with the rest of their catalogue, thankfully. Just unbelievably good.
David Sylvian + Robert Fripp — Damage (1993)
Recorded live on the tour for the First Day, these performances have a sense of space and crunchiness that the studio album either cluttered up or muted — not that it's a bad record; these performances are just that good. Indeed, the way 'Brightness Falls' morphs into the Rain Tree Crow tune 'Every Colour You Are' is just chill-inducing and probably the highlight here. But, truly, there is no way anyone that even remotely liked the studio album won't absolutely love these live recordings. And you'll find a lot more to assess and you'll see new things in these arrangements of the tunes, as well. Definitely worth it, if for nothing else than the Gone to Earth songs.
David Sylvian — Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities (mid 1980's)
This compilation has the essential Jon Hassell collaboration Words With the Shaman EP right up front, but I already had that on the Brilliant Trees CD reissue so it was not new to me. Still very awesome, though. The rest of the CD is filled out by ambient works featuring a cast of Sylvian's usual collaborators and it's uniformly excellent. The solo Sylvian pieces 'Preparations for a Journey' and 'The Stigma of Childhood' are the highlights of the new-to-me material, but really, the whole thing is just brilliant. Stands up very well as its own album of Sylvian's ambient side.
David Sylvian — Approaching Silence (early 1990's)
More ambient Sylvian stuff. There's a sense of moody calm to Sylvian's ambient music that's unlike anything else I've encountered, so when 'The Beekeeper's Apprentice' begins with three minutes of wind chimes and pedal steel, you know it's gonna be good. There's just three tracks here, two of those over thirty minutes in length and the short 'Epiphany' to separate them. The title track is a nearly fourty minute trip that seems to take you on a journey into another solar system. Easily the highlight of this disc, and possibly of Sylvian's ambient work.
Jon Hassell + Bluescreen — Dressing for Pleasure (1994)
Basically Hassell doing hip hop beats, if you can believe that. I guess, at the time, the kids would have called it acid jazz. But that sounds so un-hip at this point. I'm not sure what to call it. Just like everything Hassell has done. This is a helluva lot more catchy than most Hassell, I will concede that much. Have a listen to the leadoff track 'G Spot' for an idea of what's up here. It's very beat heavy and, honestly, seems like Hassell's idea of a pop record. Only the closing tune 'Blue Night' turns in a longer running length and sounds remotely like any previous Jon Hassell tunes. This is an interesting album in Hassell's catalogue and I find it kind of funny that his poppiest record is probably my least favorite.
Jon Hassell — Maarifa Street (2005)
This album is now almost a decade old and it's still Hassell's second most recent release. It's cobbled together from live recordings and studio attempts to recreate those live performances. It's a much more uptempo, bass-heavy affair than I'm used to for newer Hassell albums. Have a listen to 'Divine S.O.S.' and dig it. There's a lot of polyrhythms going on here and, because of the prominence of the bass, it's probably one of Hassell's funkiest albums when it's all said and done. He has a hard time running out of ideas with his solos here and this, more than any of his other records of the past twenty years, sounds the most like he was the true successor to Miles Davis' 70's space funk. Outstanding.