(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Interview - Ray Shulman of Gentle Giant

Ray Shulman played bass and a list of other instruments in the progressive rock band Gentle Giant. The band’s 1974 release, The Power and the Glory has been recently reissued (review), with remastering by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson. I spoke with Ray about the remastered package and Gentle Giant’s past.

Jester Jay: Hi, Ray. I’m very excited to talk with you about the reissue of The Power and the Glory. I know that you’ve had some interaction with Steven Wilson over the years. For example, you were credited with DVD authoring on his album, The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories).

Ray Shulman: I’ve worked with him for quite a while now on a few of his Blu-rays and DVDs. So, we got to know each other quite well.

JJ: Did that have anything to do with him getting involved in this project?

RS: A little bit. Actually, I found out that he was a fan of Gentle Giant and he’d been dying to do the remixes for a long time. It just became an opportunity. The timing was right. We were ready. We’d had offers from other people who wanted to mix it in surround (sound) before and we weren’t very enthusiastic. But because I knew Steven and I really like his work, I like what he does – I like him as an engineer, as a producer and he’s a great musician – the time was definitely right.

JJ: I would agree. He’s done a wonderful job with the King Crimson back catalog and his other projects. What did he bring to The Power and the Glory?

RS: We were happy with him. What we said was, “Do whatever you want. Do it how you feel. Don’t be dictated to by our mix, by the original mix. Just go ahead and do it.” But on the other hand, he’s so respectful of the past. He won’t do anything alien. Like, for instance, he wouldn’t use modern reverb or anything like that. He definitely has a reverence and respect for what we did back then. But what he brought… obviously, the technology has moved on enormously since we recorded the album and, in a way, I think that his philosophy is, “mix it how you would mix it if you were working today, bring that technology to bear, but don’t let it dominate.” To me, it sounds more open and a bit deeper. I think our original mix is really good, but he definitely brought a depth to it and an openness to it that I really like. Also, just the fact that when he mixed it in surround sound, he mixed it in 5.1 and that opened it up a lot for me. I really enjoyed his mixes.

JJ: In contrast to the 35th Anniversary reissue that Derek (Shulman) put together, I noticed that Wilson included the instrumental outtake from “Aspirations” instead of the live version of “Proclamation”.

RS: Steven just found that on the multi-track and I think he really enjoyed it. What it was, we did a couple of versions on that track, “Aspirations”. It’s more or less a jam in the studio; it’s basically one take and we’d just overdub a vocal, I believe. But we did it and we just couldn’t get the feel right. I think we went to the pub and after we came back from the pub, we decided to take a last try. That’s how it was. I think Steven found the outtake on the multi-tracks and he wanted to include it.

JJ: The regular album version is great, but this one really lets you focus on the smooth integration of all the musicians coming together on it. It has a very immediate sound. 

I had another question about the track list for the remaster. In the past, members of the band have expressed unhappiness with the title single, saying that it was an afterthought, that the record label came at the end, looking for a single. Do you still feel unhappy with that piece?

RS: In a way, you’re right. It wasn’t really part of the album. The record company at the time was definitely looking for a single, something they could take to radio. So, I think we recorded about three different tracks. We can never find the other two tracks. I think we had three goes at writing a short piece, a three minute piece and “The Power and the Glory” is ultimately what we were happiest with, but it was never going to be included on the album. Nowadays, it just has historic value, as opposed to any kind of intrinsic album value. It’s kind of a rarity, in a way.

JJ: I agree that it doesn’t quite fit the album, but it also doesn’t seem to be that bad a piece.

RS: No, exactly. And also, I think that, with time, you kind of mellow. Things you were kind of militant about at the time… time passes and you can see some kind of value in it.

JJ: Can you tell me about the DVD and Blu-ray?

RS: Yes, what happened was that when I knew that Steven was going to mix it, I thought, “What’s the best quality audio you can put out there?” At the moment, it’s really Blu-ray for uncompressed surround sound and 96/24 stereo and it’s DVD, which is somewhat lower quality, but it’s still high end audio. When we decided to do that, for the visual side, you can do captions for each song: just the title of the song appears on screen. But because I work in graphics as part of my day job – I do some motion graphics – I thought I’d have a go at doing something. I started off…I think the first track I did was “Cogs in Cogs”. I made up some motion graphics for it and I sent that to Derek (Shulman) and Kerry (Minnear) and they were really encouraging. They said, “This is great. Carry on and do it.” Any kind of spare time, I’d try to do something for each track. In the end, we ended up with an album full of visuals. It’s not a strict interpretation of the lyrics really; it’s more an interpretation of the music. Derek wrote the lyrics and, obviously, every listener can interpret them in different ways, but I just wanted to give something just to accompany it. Hopefully, the people who buy it will appreciate that.

JJ: Looking back at when Gentle Giant originally made this album, how did you develop your arrangements? You guys were all multi-instrumentalists, so how did you decide on the roles and textures for a particular piece?

RS: Well, myself and Kerry were the main music writers and Derek was the main lyricist. In the early days, we used to collaborate more: one section would be my section and one section would be Kerry’s. As time developed, we wrote whole pieces on our own. Kerry’s pieces, he’s a classically trained musician, so he’d almost write them orchestrally and even if you learned the parts by ear, they could be on manuscript. He’d share out his arrangement as he demoed it. Then later, in rehearsal, you’d add your own touches to it. Likewise, with mine, I’d write on guitar and when it came to giving Kerry a keyboard part, it made the keyboard part kind of unconventional because Kerry would play a guitar line on the keyboard and then embellish it with different implementations. In the studio, we’d always record a basic track, with just a bass, drums, basic keyboard and guitar. Then after that, we’d really experiment and try all these newfangled instruments, just to have a go on. Or even older instruments; we’d bring a pipe organ into the studio, just to see if it added any kind of textural thing to any particular song. There were also new, electronic instruments coming in at that time, as well. So, you’d want to just bring them in, even if you hadn’t worked out a fixed idea. If the texture fit, Kerry would always come up with a part that worked. It was like that, really.

JJ: Listening to a piece like “So Sincere”, it’s like a roller coaster ride. It runs through a host of musical ideas.

RS: That one is particularly well written. That’s one of Kerry’s tracks and it’s a fine piece of writing, I think. On any level, you could transcribe that as a score.

JJ: That’s part of what stands out about Gentle Giant’s music. The interesting rhythmic complexity has a well-crafted sound.

RS: It’s good you said that, because, at the time, it was hard to get a mass audience into that kind of sophisticated arrangement.

JJ: I know that some of your later material tried to find a wider audience and cross over. Bands like Yes and Genesis transitioned into a more popular sound. Was this a conscious attempt to move towards a more mainstream sound?

RS: It was, in a way. In order to continue, we always wanted to grow the audience. We were very aware that our early stuff was quite sophisticated. In a certain way, you almost needed to be a musician to understand it. As you say, a lot of our contemporaries were crossing over to a more mainstream audience. That must have been on our minds at the time, but there was always something holding us back. We could never quite fully do it. Even though on surface, we’d write a kind of commercial song, we’d always have to throw in something weird to entertain ourselves. But unfortunately, that also alienated the mass audience. It was never meant to be a mass audience kind of music. It should have just remained part of the underground, really.

JJ: Before I close, I’d like to hear about your more recent work. I know that you’ve worked a lot as a producer and as a composer. Can you tell me about some of these projects?

RS: I’ve done so much. Since the band, since 1980, I’ve done all kinds of things, always to do with music. When the band first broke up, I wrote music for advertising over here. It was very well-paid and I developed a knack for writing to order. I did that for quite a while, but I got bored with that. Then I went into production. In the late ‘80s throughout the ‘90s, I was in the studio all the time recording bands like the Sugarcubes, a band called the Sundays and lots of more independent bands. I enjoyed that for a while. After that, it was enough of the studio. I was spending so long in the studio, hours and hours, I really didn’t have any kind of home life. So, I decided to retire from production and the next thing I did was write music for computer games. I got into computers early on and loved them. I got into games and I started writing some soundtracks. And then, when DVDs came, I thought I’d learn how to do some graphics and I could work from home and make my living that way. And that’s what I’ve kept doing, really. I’ve had quite a diverse career, but it’s always about music and that’s where I am today.

JJ: It’s been a pleasure to talk with you and it’s been great to reacquaint myself with The Power and the Glory.

RS: Thank you ever so much.

(This interview first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Recording review - Gentle Giant, The Power and the Glory (Steven Wilson remaster) (2014/1974)

A timeless progressive treat shines for a younger audience

Steven Wilson is a sonic archaeologist, patiently brushing away the sand and the cruft to reveal the bright beauty of the past. The Porcupine Tree frontman divides his professional life between learning from the classic prog rock groups, celebrating their monumental accomplishments, and making his own contributions to the art. Ever since Robert Fripp bestowed his blessings on Wilson’s production work by inviting him to be the curator for the King Crimson back catalog, he’s tackled a number of his earliest influences and remastered their classic works with loving care. Gentle Giant’s The Power and the Glory (1974) is his latest project and he’s done a brilliant job of cleaning it up and fine-tuning the impact, both in stereo and in 5.1 surround sound. This engineering effort can be underestimated and undervalued, but the comparison between Wilson’s mix and my old vinyl (or what you may find online) is stunning. This release is rich and lively, and somehow newly relevant.

It helps a lot that this music is somewhat timeless. Sure, the complexity and technical expression are anchored in an early ’70s aesthetic, but Gentle Giant often struck out on their own path and weren’t really concerned with what their progressive contemporaries were doing. Moreover, the band members were each adept at multiple instruments and they could draw on a wide range of inspirations from folk to baroque to avant-garde jazz.

Wilson makes his mark from the start. “Proclamation” opens with a grey-noise wash of crowd sound quickly overtaken by an electric piano riff and the clarity is crisp. The mix cleanly separates Derek Shulman’s vocals from the sparse bars of keyboard; both are lightly reverbed but the delays are different enough to create a good separation between the two. The keyboards recall Supertramp’s early days, but the angular phrasing behind the vocals is distinctly tied to Gentle Giant’s sense of rhythm. By the third verse, the other instruments have joined the interlock. This sets up a tight melodic interlude that transitions through a series of moods. I can’t help but savor the interplay of beat and harmony as they mesh and separate. This is the band’s hallmark: the music is unpredictable and intricate, but a structure emerges and, by the end, the patient listener is rewarded as order coalesces.

The next track, “So Sincere”, winds its way between tentative, sidling melodies and stumbling King Crimson style exclamations. The stylized singing takes advantage of some very old-school close harmonies, but the most engaging feature is how the players stay tightly aligned, whether it’s the piano and guitar leapfrogging one another or a riff skittering across a series of instruments. This is among the more accessible tunes on the album, but it’s still quite challenging and far from casual listening music. The piece seems almost schizophrenic as it tries to encompass a feverish set of ideas in just under four minutes. Rather than providing no handle, there are a multitude of entry points and the song is too restless to let any dominate for long. But despite the challenges, they never drift off into incomprehensibility or self-indulgence.

The Power and the Glory proceeds through its allegory of idealism and corruption. It’s less heavy-handed than some concept albums, relying mostly on close attention to the lyrics, although “Valedictory” is more overt as a tarnished reworking of the themes from “Proclamation”. Along the way, Gentle Giant traipses across genres, showing off their many-faceted musical interests: a jazzy turn on “Aspirations”, intense fusion on “Cogs in Cogs”, folky touches on “No Gods A Man”, and the hard edge of “Valedictory”. Like the 2005 remastered version, Wilson’s package includes the title single that was never part of the original release. While the band has dismissed this track as atrocious, it really isn’t that bad, even if it’s a bit bouncier than the other songs. Where the 35th Anniversary edition included a live version of “Proclamation”, Wilson opts for an instrumental outtake of “Aspirations”, which works remarkably well in this form. Kerry Minnear’s piano anchors the piece along with Ray Shulman’s warm bass. Without the vocals, it’s easier to fall into the reverie of the groove.

Listening to The Power and the Glory now, it still stands out as a strong, coherent piece, but it also plays up the differences between Gentle Giant and their more long-lived contemporaries. The guys in Gentle Giant turned inward, spurring each other into deeper musical expression, while other bands like Yes, Genesis, and Styx, who were hardly dealing in trivialities, each found formulas to connect with a larger audience. Later in their career, the band would soften their intensity in a bid to make the same transition, but they never quite found the balance between the complexity of their ideas and the accessible clarity that the market demands. To their credit, they’ve never tried to resurrect the band in the years after their 1980 split, in recognition that they wouldn’t want to compromise on the integrity of their legacy. As this remastered version shows, their ideals powered a strong artistic vision and a musical aesthetic you rarely hear anymore.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Recording review - Got a Girl, I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now (2014)

Moody pop with swinging retro French style

While it's not quite as surprising as finding out that Phil Collins is a recognized expert on the Alamo, you're still likely to be taken aback by Daniel Nakamura's deep appreciation for retro French pop. Dan the Automator is known for quirky and creative production, but his work with Got a Girl is refreshingly direct. Collaborating with the actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Got a Girl fills I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now with chill sophistication and nuanced musical allusions that demonstrate an understanding of the genre without slavishly recreating the past. The two of them flow like top grade dance partners, effortlessly leveraging moody grooves into lush gems while drawing on contemporary pop.

Nakamura and Winstead met when they both worked on the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and that connection laid the groundwork for Got a Girl. They nailed down the idea for I Love You But as early as 2012, but it took a long time for the project to come to fruition. Along the way, Winstead contributed vocals to Deltron 3030′s Event 2. Listening to their work on that album, it’s hard to hear the continuity with Got a Girl’s sound, although there’s a hint of Winstead’s pop chops in her backing for “Looking at the Sky”. Of course, the Deltron project was a completely different animal, with Dan the Automator taking a more typical hip-hop approach on his beats and Winstead’s voice used more for texture than lead. Still, that contrast make this new release more satisfying for its ambiance.

The album sets the hook early, with “Did We Live Too Fast”. The carillon intro sets a thoughtful tone, and then the main groove drops the song into the middle of a ’60s mod movie. Winstead alternates between coy seduction and sultry distance, and Nakamura’s music masterfully supports her performance with horn punches and sighing strings. His arrangement captures the sense of the era, but it incorporates modern touches, periodically tagging lines with a light glitch skip or using a glaring synth melody on the bridge. As the title suggests, the lyrics are filled with both wistful nostalgia and jaded fatalism. The pair tap into that same vein again on “Things Will Never Be the Same”, this time getting darker and more theatrical.

Later, on “Close To You”, the synth instrumentation and disco rhythm push the album forward into the ’7Os, but the bridge reaches backward as it paraphrases the classic late ’60s hit, “Love Is Blue (L’Amour Est Bleu).” It’s almost subliminal and probably too subtle for younger listeners, but it shows that Nakamura has done his homework. Even the seemingly normal pop tunes like “I’ll Never Hold You Back” or “Last Stop” have a sparse beauty. Winstead uses these tracks to show her versatility; her voice opens and softens, complementing the sweet simplicity.

I Love You But is remarkably even with one exception, the poorly conceived “Da Da Da”. The rest of the album maintains a well-crafted sense of time and mood, but this one tune sabotages all of that work. The music doesn’t drift too far, but Winstead’s petulant boredom and the crass lyrics hit like a warm spray of spittle. This is clearly intended to be a joke, but as she announces, “This song is shit/ It sucks/ It’s a piece of shit,” her point is all too true. The slinky tension of the final song, “Heavenly”, does its best to recover, but the bad smell lingers. Unfortunately, it’s hard to unhear the offending track; the best I can do is delete it from the playlist and wait for its memory to fade.

(A version of this review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Concert review - Punch Drunk Munky Funk with Miscomunicado

28 August 2014 (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)

In recent years, the "Phish pre-show party" has become a thing. In the days before Phish is due to play, bars in nearby towns throw some jam bands onstage and try to capitalize on the fans' excitement. Without naming names, I've been to a few of these and generally found them to be disappointing because the bands aren't a good fit or they just don't have the chops. This show at Hodi's served up a strong counterargument to my lack of enthusiasm. Both Punch Drunk Munky Funk and their opener, Miscomunicado, put on strong shows and made it a great summer evening of music, regardless of the space-time proximity of Phish's tour schedule.

018 Miscomunicado
As much as I enjoy catching bands I love, one of the best thing about writing these reviews is that I am exposed to music I might never have otherwise come across. Opening acts can make or break the total show experience, so some people play it safe and show up fashionably late, just in time for the headliner. Anybody running that strategy for this show missed a very interesting band. Miscomunicado juxtaposed a few standard ideas into a strange, but cool band configuration. Drawing from electronic acts and hip hop, they relied on laptop driven tracks for the foundation beats and bass. But instead of MCs or turntablists filling out the group, they had a two-pronged guitar attack that expanded the sound into deep-space funk. Rounding out the performance, their live projection artist, skEYEfi, provided a psychedelic visual accompaniment.

017 Miscomunicado
Luke Barone jump started the show with a solid funk groove. Dan Scott Forreal and James Hodgkins quickly joined in with their guitars, pushing the tune into trippier dimensions. The music had a strong improvisational looseness, but the backing rhythm maintained the structure. From song to song, Barone controlled the main mood via his pre-recorded chunklets. The guitars added riff-driven, heady accents for the jam. Barone had the flexibility to extend and mutate the backing, so they could milk the pieces for maximum effect. While several of the songs were instrumentals, Forreal and Hodgkins sang some of the time. For the most part, these were funk style sloganeering -- repetitive vocal accents that could provide a bit of context for the song -- but they also had some lyrics that rose above that simple role.

014 Miscomunicado
While Miscomunicado's music was anchored in improvisational funk, it was usually cross-pollinated with dance pop, electronica, uptempo rock, or psychedelic fringes. This meant that each song had its own character. The projection work adapted to the mood, taking advantage of found footage and movie clips or abstract kaleidoscopic patterns and animations. Given that the art was the primary source of stage lighting, that made it a supreme challenge to get good pictures, but the live experience is pretty fun.

056 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
My introduction to Punch Drunk Munky Funk was the "Funk Your Face Off" show earlier this summer at The Mishiwaka. Their set impressed me then because they were undeniably capable of launching out into creative musical sojourns, but their impressively focused rhythm section anchored the songs. That tight-loose dichotomy lies at the heart of the best jam bands and this made PDMF a good fit for the whole Phish pre-show theme. But from the beginning of this show, the band wasn't going to leave any doubt. An amorphous lead-in created a trippy mood that opened the door for Chris Robbiano's bass heavy funk groove, and it quickly became clear that this was their version of Phish's "Down With Disease".

067 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
Keyboard player Mike Givens handled the vocal duties, doing a passable job of sounding like Trey Anastasio, while Alex Boivin showed that he had the guitar part well in hand. Switching adeptly between sharp funk chordlets and more flowing jazz melodies, he held court at center stage. While Phish can easily make the tune last a good 20 to 30 minutes, PDMF didn't drag it out as long, but it was a solid jam that pumped up the crowd.

044 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
The band went on to play some of their own music, including one of my favorite tunes, "Double Richard". "Double Richard, you found your twin/ A dose of Siamese peace within," the oblique lyrics became a mantra, backed by a cheerful march beat before the band sprang off into well-paced melodic exploration. They'd go on to round out the set with servings of disco funk, jazz (both spacey and cool), and even a bit of folky jam. This stylistic meandering let the band demonstrate their versatility between getting down and dirty on the beat and leaving more breathing room in the mix.

030 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
After a brief intermission, they came out for the second set, where they pretty much became a Phish tribute band. "Down With Disease" had gone so well, but let's face it, Phish is not an easy band to imitate in longer form. Most aspirants don't have the technical skills to sustain a full set, and those that do, often get there by slavishly recreating the originals. Either way, tribute bands usually leave me pining for the real thing rather than satisfied. Punch Drunk Munky Funk's second set broke that pattern about the time they slipped into their cover of "Stash". Boivin casually tossed off the trademark opening guitar riff and the rest of the band joined in, staying fairly true to the original: the tight percussion fills and electric piano vamps perfectly hit their marks as they supported the guitar line. The crowd loved it, providing the staccato claps on cue to help out the percussion. The band went on to make the tune their own, with the band members showing off their abilities without merely imitating Trey and company.

050 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
Michelle Pietrafitta's drumming, which blew me away at The Mish, was equally amazing here. She could find space to nestle some impressive open fills within her tight snare and high hat work. This relaxed the beat just enough to create both tension and a sense of inevitability as the beat, never lost, reasserted itself. Similarly, while the mix didn't always accentuate his contribution, Robbiano's bass playing helped drive the dynamics of the songs, drifting between flashy punch and bubbling melodic lines.

047 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
The set was packed with classic Phish tunes, with "Punch You In The Eye" and "Mike's Song" being standout moments. By the time it was done, I was flying with their versions of the songs, feeling little need to listen to the real band on the ride home. The encore performance of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (AKA "2001") was just icing on the cake. This was a different side of the band compared to their Funk Your Face Off performance, but I'm eager now to hear what else they can do.

055 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
More photos on my Flickr.