Sunday, 22 June 2014

Quantum Fantay: walking in an unexplored lonely planet

When I was a teenager, I frowned and shivered every time I heard the term “electronic music”. I did not like it, at all. I hated it, actually. Nowadays, well, it’s not that I’m a big fan, but I’ve come to appreciate certain music that has some electronic elements (not properly electronic music, though).

Perhaps my favourite electronic-ish band is Quantum Fantay, a Belgian band that was formed about ten years ago in Lokeren. Describing them is a quest worthy of being told in the most epic stories and timeless songs. The shortest way would be something like “have you ever listened to Ozric Tentacles? Yes? Well that’s it”. This is obviously not really true; although I’ve barely started listening to Ozric Tentacles, a band twenty years older, I can hear the differences (maybe the Ozric guys’ music sounds better when you’re high on mushrooms? Nah, joking, I can’t really explain), and for the moment, I prefer Quantum Fantay, although both are good.

The official term used is, I believe, “space rock”. It’s instrumental music and the lineup, in this specific case, is the classical rock one, except the synths (these are some heavy ones!) play a vital part, and you can occasionally hear a flute (if there’s a flute involved, it should be good). Ok wait, I’m wrong. There’s more stuff. The current lineup is the following: Pete Mush, synths and programming; Jaro, bass guitar, djembé, didgeridoo; Gino Bartolini; drums, djembé and other percussion; Dario Frodo, guitars. Then there are Tom Tas (guitars) and Charles Sla (flute) as guests. So as you can see, they use some cool percussion instruments, and let’s face it, who uses a didgeridoo in a rock band? Brilliant!

I’ve been surfing the net a bit to see if I find a proper description of their music style there, and I’d say the most accurate thing I’ve read is that “their music is sounding like a mixture of progressive rock, electronic music, groove, world music and most of all psychedelic rock, it also contains elements of reggae and dub”. I guess that works. Extremely original, don’t you think? I definitely find it that way, and my mind was blown when I started listening to their music. I feel like I am in some kind of science fiction movie, in a very distant planet, walking alone and discovering all sorts of weird plants and animals. And no, I don’t take any drugs while listening to Quantum Fantay (or anything else, ahem). In their facebook page, they list a number of influences, such as Ozric Tentacles (shocked), Hydria Spacefolk (I listened to a couple of their CDs and I didn’t find them that good, but the song Amos Ame is brilliant, like mixing Jethro Tull and psychodelia), Pink Floyd, Porcupine Tree (I have to give those guys a proper listen very soon), Jethro Tull (smart people, these Quantum, yep) and some others. Going back to the beginning of the post, and if you listen to one or two songs, you’ll see this is not electronic music at all, but there are indeed strong electronic elements.

It’s easy to find different tempos and styles inside the same song, but I don’t really know how to differentiate the different albums between them. Excluding their first demo and their two live albums, which I haven’t really bothered to listen, they have five CDs. The first one is called Agapanthusterra, from 2005, which starts with the slow opener T.N.S.F.P. to put us in the mood for some trippy stuff. Lantanasch, Agapanthusterra and the slow and atmospheric Wintershades are simply amazing. I can't find the title track on youtube or grooveshark, sorry, and my laptop is getting old and windows movie maker makes it work like bovine excrement, so I don't think I'm uploading songs on youtube for a while.

Their second album, Ugisiunsi (2007) is my absolute favourite. Each and every single song there is outstanding, music full of imagination and skill, I can’t get enough of it. Ugisiunsi, Blocktail, Niek Shlut, March of the Buffelario, Autumn Landscapes (another atmospheric track)... damn, the other songs are also excellent. I suggest that if you’re considering listening to this band (I understand most people wouldn’t really like this, and I certainly would have despised it seven or eight years ago), you start with this album. Here's a playlist with the whole thing:

And here are links to March of the Buffelario and Niek Shlut anyway:

Kaleidothrope is their third album (2009), but I’ve just given it a couple of listens, and that was about a year ago. I’m not so thrilled about it, but it’s still good (especially the title track, The Spirit and Zwar Tsych Apy, and no sir, I have no idea of how they choose the names of the songs). Again, I couldn't find the title track on youtube or grooveshark... actually, if there's anyone crazy enough to like this stuff, I'm more than willing to send it by email.

Then there’s Bridges or Kukuriku (2010). Oh by the way, don’t ask me where Kukuriku is, I don’t know, although I guess it's a shop where they sell very good "special" mushrooms. Ok bad joke. The album consists of six relatively long songs (the shortest one is five minutes long, and then there’s another that runs for 7.54. The rest, eight or nine minutes each). As in Ugisiunsi, the whole album is very, very good, but anyway I’d like to highlight Follow The Star - Bridge Two (love the part starting at 4.04), Portable Forest - Bridge Four (amazing beginning, if clubs had that kind of music, I’d go much more often) and Counter Clockwise - Bridge Five, especially the section starting at 2.30.

Finally, there’s Terragaia, released this year. I downloaded it today and I just listened to the whole CD. I need more time to let this album grow on me, however I was surprised by the beginning (mostly the second minute) of Azu kéné déké lepé... I’ve never heard Quantum Fantay so play such... well, happy music. Also, some parts of Aargh sounds strangely folky for a band like Quantum Fantay. Yah Roste Fooroap has a cool reggae-ish beginning... and well, the album sounds cool but as I said I need more time, and anyway I don’t really know when I’ll listen to it again, so I think this is it for this post. The last song I mentioned is the only one from the new album that I could find on youtube, by the way.

And of course, here's the facebook page for the blog, there's not much activity but I still have the innocent hope of discussing music there!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Jethro Tull (IV): 1972

It has been too long since I last wrote about the mighty Jethro Tull guys, so here I go again! Time to talk about 1972. In the seventies, these guys produced at least an album every year, so this will take time. Their fifth studio album is called Thick as a Brick, and I’d say it’s nowadays their best known one after Aqualung.

Thick as a Brick is not only the title of the album, but also of the song that, well, of the only song. A forty-five minute song, with sections and subsections and stuff but one song after all... a perfect prototype of concept album. Actually Ian Anderson did it for fun and it was supposed to be more like a parody of a concept album. Some critics labeled their previous album, Aqualung, as a concept album, so he decided to make “the mother of all concept albums”, combining complex music with a sense of humour, in Anderson’s words, a “bit of a satire about the whole concept of grand rock-based concept albums”. People liked it quite a lot, though.

The story here is that the album is supposed to be a musical adaptation of an epic poem by an eight-year-old boy called Gerald Bostock. Of course, Bostock doesn’t exist, and it was Anderson who wrote all the lyrics (and music). Funnily enough, some people actually thought the whole story was true.

The original LP cover is like a multiple-paged small-town English newspaper (The St Cleve Chronicle and Linwell Advertisers), full of articles, competitions and ads making fun of the typical parochial and amateurish journalism of local English newspapers. Chrysalis Records complained at first because of its price, but Ian Anderson insisted.

I haven’t had the chance to read that little newspaper myself (I have most Jethro Tull albums in their original version, and by this I mean I bought them... but not Thick as a Brick), but I’d love to, as apparently it contains lots of inside puns, a very frank review of the album itself written by Anderson under a pseudonym, and well, much more stuff. The best thing is the front page, which talks about the disqualification of Gerald Bostock from a poetry contest which he won with Thick as a Brick, disqualification that came after an avalanche of protest and threats because of the offensive nature of the problem and the boy’s psychological instability.

The newspaper was written mainly by Anderson, bassist Jeffrey Hammond and pianist John Evan. The cover took longer to produce than the music. Ah, those times when it wasn’t just about producing pre-made music and getting shitloads of money. I feel like nowadays so many so-called artists/ musicians just record whatever catchy stuff they can, get the money and run, and some years ago this was something different, the dedication was different. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always that way nowadays, but probably too often. I guess this sounds like a cheap cliché and I’m not explaining it properly, but whatever.

Regarding the music itself... ahem... maybe you’ve read about that Tull hipster side of me... yes, not my favourite. I’d probably choose four or five Tull albums over this one, but that’s also because I probably overlistened to Thick as a Brick during my Tull beginnings. I still think it’s an amazing album though. Critics were, and are, pretty enthusiastic about it, too. The review written in, for example, says stuff like this: “(...) a masterpiece in the annals of progressive rock, and one of the few works of its kind that still holds up decades later”, “(...) the group created a dazzling tour de force, at once playful, profound, and challenging, without overwhelming the listener”. The one in Rolling Stone, written in 1972, is much longer but equally positive.

I personally think, long story short, that the first half is outstanding, while the second is good but has some weak points. The whole thing is incredible though, so many themes, tempo shifts, time signature changes, instruments (apart from the typical rock stuff, other instruments featured are harpsichord, xylophone, timpani, violin, lute, trumpet, saxophone and a string section). Progressive rock, folk, so much stuff, such complex music, and yet it makes perfect sense.

As for the first half of the album, the first three minutes or so are probably the best known part of Thick as a Brick. Calm, acoustic, but soon Martin Barre’s guitar comes to stay. First tempo shift, first melody change. Of many.

The part that starts at 5.00, The Poet and the Painter (well, those are the first lyrics and I call it like that) is my favourite part of the album. Amazing, unbelievable, epic, damn I’m getting overexcited as I write this (while listening to that bit, of course). That section’s instrumental part is also excellent, the combination of Barre’s guitar and Anderson’s flute is eargasmic. The whole section goes on until 10.35 or so. I think that’s all I want to highlight from part one, but the rest of it is also excellent... equally excellent, so I don’t really know what else to say.

Part two features a good drum solo by Barrie Barlow (bah gawd what an amazing drummer he is) starting at 2.03. However, the first six minutes of this part are just not as good as the previous one. This section goes on for five minutes, and then there’s an instrumental bridge towards the next one. Because of course, every section is perfectly linked with the following one. The sped-up section at 14.05 is also remarkable, but the rest of this part pales a little bit in comparison to the first half of the album. Still, Thick as a Brick is a must.

When playing live, the band mostly did shorter versions of the song, which is understandable. I think they’ve only performed the whole thing in 1972 and then forty years later, in 2012, when Ian Anderson produced Thick as a Brick 2. I was in one of the 2012 concerts and what can I say, Ian’s voice is pretty much gone and I’d rather have seen one of the 70s lineups but I can die happy now. Here’s one of the shorter versions.

Jethro Tull released another album in 1972: Living in the Past, a collection of singles and outtakes from the first four years of the band. There are different versions of the album (USA vinyl, UK vinyl, USA CD, UK CD, I think), and one or two songs may be, or not be there depending of the version. I’m not a huge fan of this album, but there are some very good songs in here too, such as Christmas Song (check out the lyrics!), Living in the Past (who can use a time signature of 5/4 on a song and make it sound good? Jethro Tull can), Witch's Promise, Just Trying to Be, Wond’ring Again or Dr. Bogenbroom.

By the way, here's the link for the blog's facebook page:

Bonus... tracks (?): here's Thick as a Brick in a Hyundai's commercial (Ian Anderson recorded this 30 second version for the ad) and also closing a Simpsons episode.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Otis Redding and his early death

I’m not a huge soul fan and by no means I’m an expert, actually I know almost nothing about it. I occasionally listen to Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, nothing else. Two good singers who died young for different (and unfortunate) reasons. This time I’ll write a short post about the first, basically about the story of (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, probably his best known song. If you’re into this kind of music I’m sure you already know it, but for casual listeners like me it may be interesting. Also, I bet you know it even if you don’t know its title!

Otis Redding was born in Georgia in 1941 to a gospel singer and a housekeeper, not the richest of families. When he was a child, he sang in the Vineville Baptist Church choir and learned guitar and piano, and when he was ten years old he also started taking drum and singing lessons. He sang in the school band at high school and he earned six dollars every Sunday by performing gospel songs for Macon radio station WIBB. Oh well, I guess you won’t be surprised if I tell you his passion was singing.

He didn’t have an easy life, as many black people in those times, I suppose. He had to abandon school to help his family financially when he was fifteen, as his father had tuberculosis and spent quite a lot of time hospitalized. His mother’s salary was obviously not enough for the whole family. Redding had several jobs, some of them related to music, of course.

When he was 19, he met Zelma, a 15 year old girl, they had a son and married the following year. Around that time, he started writing his own songs, which made him well known in a relatively short period of time (although he didn’t have much time to enjoy fame either). While his success was mostly amongst soul fans, he got a big amount of respect from many groups formed by write people. A good example of this is the two covers the Rolling Stones did (That’s How Strong my Love Is” and “Pain in my Heart”. However it is true that the year 1967 saw him being more successful with the white audience (he had an extremely well received performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival).

I won’t really talk about his career, as I haven’t heard most of his music, only his posthumous album The Dock of the Bay and some random songs here and there. What I really wanted to tell in this little post is how a beautiful voice left this world so early. Not much to say, to be honest. He perished in a plane accident in Wisconsin when he was only 26 years old. Four members of the Bar-Kays, his backup band, also died in the crash.  It was raining a lot, it was foggy too, but the plane took off in spite of the warnings. Who knows the stuff he would have done had he lived longer!

Anyway, I should indeed talk about music a little bit, so I’ll briefly talk about the only Redding album I’ve properly listened to, and I say briefly because I honestly don’t know what to say! The Dock of the Bay is apparently a mish-mash of singles and B-sides starting from July 1965, which makes the album not especially cohesive when it comes to musical styles. But who cares, his voice is great and the album is great.

(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay is obviously the best known song here, and maybe his best known song of all time. This song was recorded three days before the plane crash. I've read somewhere that apparently he was later going to properly sing the last part, but, as he obviously couldn’t, the song was left with the whistling (done by his bandleader, Sam "Bluzman" Taylor, after Redding's death), which is one of the things that makes it so famous. 

There are a few very good songs here, songs I’ve heard at some point (most of them) before getting my hands on this CD, so you may know them. If I had to choose some of them, I’d say Let Me Come on Home, The Glory of Love, I’m Coming Home to See About You and Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out, a song I had previously heard in Eric Clapton’s fantastic Unplugged.

Hmmm. I guess I should stick to stuff I know a bit better, but this post was basically an excuse to write about Redding’s early death and the story of the song (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, as many of the friends I’ve told don’t know it. As always, here's the link for the facebook page for this blog:

But oh, let me show you a few more of his songs before I go to bed. They're pretty famous and even a casual listener will probably recognize most of them, if not all.