Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Sputnik Music

So I've actually had more going on on the written webpage musicwise than I've had either viewing or listening to music. My latest passion is a webpage called Sputnik Music at www.sputnikmusic.com. It's not new, but it is new to me.

I've been looking for a decent site for new alternative music, and this one is pretty good. I read Pitchfork, but I find that I completely disagree with their taste -- albums that they say are great I usually find so-so, and invariably new albums I love are either not reviewed or given mediocre-to-negative ratings.

I like Sputnik Music largely because it's a little like Wikipedia -- it has a staff, but it's largely viewer maintained. Community members have the opportunity to write reviews and rate albums they like (or don't like). Members also have the ability to add albums to the site, and while there's a concentration on new music, they cover music going back to the '60s.

I've been adding artists previously missing from the site, like The Good Rats, Priory and Antigone Rising, and adding missing albums for bands like Future Bible Heroes and Quarterflash.

I'll probably put some reviews up for a few of the artists I've been working on. The site has been running a little slow for the last few days, though, so I'll wait until it gets up to speed.

These days, there are a couple of ways I find new music. I subscribe to Alternative Press, which is a little punk- and hardcore-heavy for my taste, but I usually find some interesting bands there. I also find good stuff on the satellite radio station Alt Nation (which Denise subscribes to), and on the Music Choice Alternative channel on my cable TV. And I keep up with new releases on Amazon.com, especially releases from bands I've already heard good stuff from in the past. (I really miss the annual Good Times Long Island Music Festival as a means of finding new local bands, though, although I do still find some interesting local bands in Good Times).

In the meantime, I've finally got some tickets for some upcoming live shows to look forward to, but I'll wait to post them until after the fact (so you don't all rob my house).

I missed out on the recent Twenty One Pilots show at Madison Square Garden. Denise bought tickets for the kids, but I passed because I wasn't that familiar with the band. Then, after she bought the tickets, I got to hear their "Heathens" song from the Suicide Squad soundtrack and decided I really liked it. Oh well. You snooze, you lose. (I also missed out on Mutemath as the opening act because we didn't know they were part of the show until D. and the kids got there). Anyway, they all loved the concert, although they didn't love having to stand for an hour and a half on the LIRR all the way home. So boo, LIRR. You guys suck.

Best CDs of the year that I'm enjoying so far are the self-titled album from Andy Black (otherwise known as Andy Bierstock of Black Veil Brides fame), and the new full-length album by promising young Poughkeepsie band Against the Current.

'Til next time ...

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Astonishing

Before I start, one quick correction to my last post: When I listed upcoming albums by Long Island artists, I listed one by Jack's Waterfall. Actually, the album, Tribal Dance Party, was put out by a different Jack Licitra project, White Spider. Both the White Spider CD and most of the CDs by Jack's Waterfall are available on what is probably the best site out there for independent artists' music, CD Baby.


Today I'm going to talk about an album that won't reach my Top Ten this year, which is unfortunate because it might well be the most ambitious project of the year. I'm talking about The Astonishing, a 2-CD rock opera by the Long Island progressive rock band Dream Theater. Why am I writing about an album that won't reach my Top Ten? Mostly because it's a project where the band aimed for the stars, and I respect them for that, even if they fell short.

I've put a lot of work into listening to this album, maybe even more than I normally do. My usual process for a new CD is this: I put four new CDs out in my car at a time, and play them through in rotation four times each. When I have a double album project, I generally put the first disc and the second disc in two different groups, so one rotation of CDs isn't overly dominated by any one band. (It keeps my ears fresh). When I've done this, I replace the CDs in my car with a new group, then bring the old CDs in and listen to them twice more with headphones. For this set of listens, I'll listen to the various discs of a multi-disc album together. Finally, I pick my top songs for each CD and listen to them again in order of preference. (This not only gives me a pretty good grasp of a new album, it also lets me create a list of top songs for the year to work from when I pick my Top 20 Songs.) For The Astonishing, I also read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia to make sure I understood it, and when I listened with headphones, I did so while reading along the lyrics provided in the CD's booklet.

OCD, anyone?

As you might expect from a band like Dream Theater, this is a complex piece of music. They wrote it inspired by the great rock opera's like Tommy, and by television and film epics such as Game of Thrones and the Star Wars saga. So what's the verdict? Sadly, it's mixed.

For one thing, on those first listens, I couldn't make heads or tails of the plot. Now this isn't damning in and of itself. It's been many years since those first few times I listened to Tommy, but I suspect I didn't understand the plot without lyrics sheet then either.

Briefly, here's the story: The opera is set in a dystopian future, where society is run by a tyrant, and the general population has forgotten music. Their only entertainment is provided by floating electronic noise machines. In the far part of the empire, a man has arisen who is named by the people as their savior because he brings the gift of music. This chosen one falls in love, and is loved in return by the emperor's daughter. This daughter is accidentally killed, but with an assist from the people who were inspired by him, the hero, Gabriel, sings his lover back to life. The Emperor sees the error of his ways, the noise machines are turned off, and the people look forward to a brighter future.

So the plot is a little bit sappy. And it seems even more so, because too many of the characters have names that describe their personalities -- the Emperor is called Nefaryus (nefarious, get it?!), while his daughter is named Faythe (faith, get it!?), and Gabriel's brother, the head of the rebel army is Arhys (Aries, get it!?). This problem is underscored by the fact that most of songs involving Faythe just emphasize this corniness -- "Act of Faythe," "The Faythe That Divides" and "Losing Faythe." Barf.

Now the album has garnered mostly positive reviews, many of them particularly praising the vocals of James LaBrie, who provides the vox for the entire double album. Apparently, LaBrie worked extra hard to develop and differentiate between the different characters. Unfortunately (again), I found his performance to be one of the weaknesses of the album.

For starters, I think LaBrie is a decent vocalist -- his voice is strong, and it's not an unpleasant voice -- it doesn't make you want to reach for the dial to turn him off. However, his voice just isn't interesting enough to make you want to listen to him without a break through an entire double album's worth of music. It might seem unfair to compare The Awakening to an all-time great album like Tommy, but that's what they were shooting for, so that's what I'm measuring them by. And not only does LaBrie's voice lack the beauty of Roger Daltry's, but The Who also sprinkled in the vocals of Pete Townshend and John Entwistle  to keep the sound fresh and interesting.

And hard as LaBrie might have worked to try to differentiate between characters, on those first few listens when I wasn't reading along with the script, I couldn't distinguish between many of the songs sung by Gabriel and those sung by Faythe, and I especially couldn't pick apart when he was singing the villanous and/or warlike roles of Nefaryus, Arhys and Nefaryus's son Daryus. Which leads to another problem, namely that the vocals for these roles were often unpleasant precisely because they emphasized the villainy and/or aggressive nature of these roles.

I feel bad making these criticisms. There's a lot to like here. Some of the music is beautiful, and it's certainly complicated and ambitious. I applaud the band for shooting so high, and I applaud LaBrie for the effort he clearly put into the work, even when it wasn't always successful. And I will admit that when I listened while reading along, I found The Astonishing more enjoyable. I've developed an affection for the work, and it's definitely worthwhile enough that I'd jump at the chance to see the band perform it live. Ultimately, though, I found the band's previous eponymous album more satisfying. And the bottom line is I have to admit that when the two discs were in my car rotation, I found that I wasn't looking forward to their turn coming up -- I was more excited to hear less ambitious CDs like the new Santana album or the new Miike Snow CD.


While I'm on the subject of progressive rock, one of the concert DVDs I picked up recently was a performance of Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, from a 1975 concert in Melbourne, Australia, with the accompaniment of the Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra.

I remember as a teenager being thrilled by the CD version of Journey. In a time of ambitious projects like Emerson, Lake & Palmer's version of Pictures at an Exhibition, Tomita's Snowflakes Are Dancing and Wakeman's own Six Wives of Henry VIII, I thought this composition raised classical-based rock music to a new height, and maybe even raised Wakeman to the heights of Bach and Mozart.

Again, I was a teenager.

Watching it now, I have to admit there are times that the work is cringeworthily pretentious, particularly during the narrative segments. Nevertheless, there's still a lot to enjoy and admire here.

The concert includes an entire performance of Journey, plus segments on Wakeman's other two top-selling albums, Six Wives and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. While Six Wives of Henry VIII is probably the Wakeman piece held in the highest esteem these days, I've always thought King Arthur was his finest work, and the excerpts from that record ("Merlin" and especially "Guinivere") were the highlights of the show.

The performance isn't note perfect. Wakeman, wearing his traditional white glittery robe, flubs some notes here and there, and the band wasn't always in perfect sync with the orchestra. Nevertheless, if you're a fan of progressive rock in general and Rick Wakeman in particular, this DVD will surely bring a smile to your face. And there are some extras here, as most of the band was brought back together to talk about the tour.