Archive for Prog-Rock

Rush’s “Caress of Steel” (1975)

Posted in Caress of Steel (1975), Prog-Rock, Rush (band), Works inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien with tags , , , on January 12, 2018 by Manuel Paul Arenas

During my sappy youth in Montevideo, Uruguay during the early 80’s my friend Rolando turned me on to Rush. Over the years my appreciation for the band has grown, despite their fluctuating popularity. Although I respect their decision to move with the times and explore new trends, I really only ever listen to the early classic works from 1974-1981, which chronicle their growth from a Led Zeppelin-inspired hard rock band to the heavy prog-rock royalty.

Cover art for “Caress of Steel” by Rush (1975, Mercury).

Caress of Steel (1975) was the band’s 3rd album, and the 2nd one to feature their new drummer Neil Peart, who brought to the mix not only his singular percussion skills, but also his talent as a thoughtful and imaginative lyricist. Topics range from French history to Tolkienesque fantasy, and nostalgia for the halcyon days of one’s youth. It is musically “heavy” in the old-style rock vein, though not quite heavy metal per se, with complex arrangements and serious chops. It also has moments of delicacy, many of which may be found in the epic track, The Fountain of Lamneth.  The album opens with Bastille Day, which rocks like a classic Led Zeppelin tune, yet with much headier lyrics than anything the mighty Zeppelin ever penned. Somehow I can’t imagine Robert Plant ever singing about the storming of the Bastille and guillotines claiming their “bloody prize”.

Then comes I Think I’m Going Bald, a mid-tempo rocker which according to Wikipedia is a spoof of the Kiss song “Goin’ Blind”:

Canadian progressive rock band Rush, who had opened for Kiss during both bands’ early years, poked fun at this song with “I Think I’m Going Bald”, from their 1975 album Caress of Steel. In the book Contents Under Pressure, Rush frontman Geddy Lee explained: “We were touring a lot with Kiss in those days and they had a song called ‘I Think I’m Going Blind.’ So we were kind of taking the piss out of that title by just coming up with this.” Lee noted that the title originated with Rush drummer Neil Peart, who was making light of the fact that guitarist Alex Lifeson was constantly worried about the future possibility of going bald, often employing “all kinds of ingredients to put on his scalp. And I think it just got Neil thinking about aging…” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goin%27_Blind#Parodies, retrieved 01/07/2018]

Lakeside Park is a light song about Neil Peart’s memories of working a summer job at the titular venue on Victoria Day. I rather like its wistful sentimentality, although I understand Geddy Lee would as soon forget it:

A lot of the early stuff I’m really proud of. Some of it sounds really goofy, but some of it stands up better than I gave it credit for. As weird as my voice sounds when I listen back, I certainly dig some of the arrangements. I can’t go back beyond 2112 really, because that starts to get a bit hairy for me, and if I hear “Lakeside Park” on the radio I cringe. What a lousy song! Still, I don’t regret anything that I’ve done!

— Geddy Lee, Raw Magazine  
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lakeside_Park_(song), retrieved 01/07/2018]
The Necromancer is where the album really begins to hint at what was to come as far as Rush’s new direction is concerned. This is a song which really shows the influence of some of the Prog-rock bands they had been listening to at the time, particularly Genesis:
Alex Lifeson cited Steve Hackett as a major influence on the sound he strove for in this song and album, particularly on the guitar solo during “No One at the Bridge”: “Steve Hackett is so articulate and melodic, precise and flowing. I think our Caress of Steel period is when I was most influenced by him. There’s even a solo on that album which is almost a steal from his style of playing. It’s one of my favorites, called ‘No One at the Bridge.'” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fountain_of_Lamneth#Song_information%5D
The song is separated into three parts: Into the Darkness, Under the Shadow, and Return of the Prince. Each segment begins with a half-speed voiceover setting up the scene. The lyrics tell the story of “three travelers, men of Willow Dale”, which apparently is a veiled reference to the members of Rush, as both Lee and Lifeson grew up in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale. The travellers find themselves in the demesne of the Necromancer who espies them through his prism then, magically ensnaring them, locks the trio away in his dungeon. They are eventually freed by Prince By-Tor who, oddly enough, appeared in the song By-Tor and the Snow Dog on the previous album Fly By Night (1975) as a villain.
The music is moody and the lyrics are evocative of the darkness and doom of the Necromancer’s lair:
“Even now the intensity of his dread power can be felt, weakening the body and saddening the heart. Ultimately they will become empty, mindless spectres. Stripped of mind and soul.” My favorite line comes soon after where the shadow of his nearness weighs like iron tears. This is all very reminiscent of what Frodo and Sam go through as they try to avoid the Eye of Sauron when trudging through Mordor to destroy the One Ring.
The flip side of the album continues in this vein with the sidelong track, The Fountain of Lamneth which tells the tale of a young man’s quest to find the titular fountain in six individual, but thematically connected, songs. Along the way he has experiences that constitute a sort of rite of passage. In the opening track, In the Valley, Geddy Lee sings: Look at me, I am young / Sight unseen, life unsung. The rest of the song tells of the beginning of his journey traversing a valley and over a mountain. There is some nice pastoral imagery as the young man muses on the novelty of all he sees:
Living one long sunrise, for to me all things are new / I’ve never watched the sky grow pale, or strolled through fields of dew
Continuing, he affirms his steadfastness of purpose:
I do not know of dust to dust, I live from breath to breath / I live to climb that mountain to the Fountain of Lamneth.
Part 2, Didacts and Narpets, the title of which is I have never seen explained anywhere, consists mostly of waves of percussion cresting in exclamations of commands. From what I gather of the following quote from an interview with Peart, I assume Narpets is a scramble of the word Parents, but I cannot suss out Didacts:
Regarding the section “Didacts and Narpets”, Neil Peart, in the October 1991 news release from the Rush Backstage Club, said: “Okay, I may have answered this before, but if not, the shouted words in that song represent an argument between Our Hero and the Didacts and Narpets – teachers and parents. I honestly can’t remember what the actual words were, but they took up opposite positions like: ‘Work! Live! Earn! Give!’ and like that.”
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fountain_of_Lamneth#Song_information, retrieved 1/10/2018]
 
This segment seems, lyrically at least, to be in an odd spot in the narrative since the hero is already on his journey. Unless he is remembering what he was told by his elders before he left. (Update, 02-13-2018: I have since given a closer listen and think that I may have been too hasty in my assessment of the timeline here. I believe the actual journey does begin in part 3 ) Some cassette editions of the album swapped the sequence of this track to with I Think I’m Going Bald on side A, sandwiched between Bastille Day and Lakeside Park. I actually owned one of these back in the 80’s. I have read somewhere that this was because of time constraints in the formatting, but there do exist cassette versions with the tracks in their rightful places.

Caress of Steel US cassette tape with Didacts & Narpets swapped with I Think Im Going Bald.

No One at the Bridge continues the journey, this time at sea. Sea spray blurs his vision as the hero’s barque is tossed about on the pitching waves. Desperate, he cries out for guidance and salvation but no one seems to hear. He reflects on how eager he had been at the start of his voyage, how eagerly he took the helm, but now his crew has deserted him and he is lost at the brink of the maelstrom.
Despite his precarious situation in the previous segment, he makes it ashore where he encounters a mysterious woman, Panacea, who gives him shelter…with benefits. Although artless in execution, Panacea has a lot of tenderness and is an honest depiction of a young man’s moon-eyed first encounter with love. Alas, his bliss is short-lived, as he must move on to continue on his journey:  My heart will lie beside you / as my wandering body grieves.
 Bacchus Plateau finds our hero drowning his sorrows in wine as he questions his path and hankers for his former passion for the quest:
Draw another goblet from the cask of ’43 / Crimson misty memory, hazy glimpse of me / Give me back my wonder – I’ve got something more to give / I guess it doesn’t matter – there’s not much more to live.
In the end, he reaches the fountain: Now, at last I fall before the Fountain of Lamneth / I thought I would be singing, but I’m tired…out of breath / Many journeys end here but, the secret’s told the same / Life just a candle and a dream must give it flame.
In fine, although a bit unwieldy and naïve, The Fountain of Lamneth is an inspiring and epic song, and it resonates with me even today in my maturity. Unfortunately, I am about the only person who seems to feel that way. Caress of Steel didn’t fare well with critics and sold poorly.

Mercury Records ad for Caress of Steel.

Due to poor sales, low concert attendance and overall media indifference, the 1975–76 tour supporting Caress of Steel became known by the band as the “Down the Tubes” tour. Given that and record company pressure to record more accessible, radio-friendly material similar to their first album – something Lee, Lifeson and Peart were unwilling to do – the trio feared that the end of the group was near. Ignoring their record label’s advice and vowing to “fight or fall”, 2112  ultimately paved the way for lasting commercial success, despite opening with a 20-and-a-half-minute conceptual title track. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caress_of_Steel#Reception, retrieved 01/10/2018]

Rush promo pic from 1975. (L to R: Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson).

 
By sticking to their guns they created the album that made them stars, but were it not for the chances they took on Caress of Steel and the flack they caught for it, they might never have been inspired to prove their mettle and create such an epic album as 2112. To me Caress of Steel is a prime example of an artist following their heart despite what the pundits or mainstream taste might dictate to the contrary. A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.

 

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Gentle Giant’s “Octopus”

Posted in Album Review, Gentle Giant, Octopus (album), Prog-Rock, regal (instrument) with tags , , , , on January 30, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Lately I’ve been going back to listening to CD’s during my work commute, since my new job is a little further from my home than I have been used to these past few years. One of the CD’s that has been finding a lot of play is the 1973 album “Octopus”, by Gentle Giant. I have been a fan of this band since I was a teenager, and this album has always had a special place in my heart. It is unique in the it has had a couple of different and yet equally significant album covers. The original, designed by renowned artist Roger Dean, whose name will forever be associated with the group Yes because of all of the album covers he did for them during their heyday, and depicted an underwater scene that featured a giant octopus.

 

octopus-gatefold-cover

Japanese mini-LP reproduction of the original cover.

The US version of the cover featured a die-cut image of an octopus in a jar. Later releases dispensed with the die-cut.

 

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US album cover; initial pressings had a die-cut of the jar.

The album itself is a flawless mixture of early music, modern art music, and good ol’ British Prog-Rock.

gargantua-pape

A page from “The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel” by Rabelais illustrated by Frank C. Pape, circa 1900.

 

Lyrical themes vary from the meeting of Gargantua & Panagruel from the Rabelais book La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel (the second time they had referenced this 16th century satire; the first being “The Nativity of Pantagruel” on 1971’s “Acquiring the Taste”), a backhanded tribute to their roadies entitled “A Dog’s Life” which featured a solo from a portable reed organ called a regal. It sounds almost comical, and suggests to me the gait of a bedraggled cur.

 

regal.jpg

A 20th century regal based on an instrument from the 16th century.

 

There is “Knots”, which is a tribute to the circuitous writings of psychiatrist R.D. Laing. To emphasize the tortuous nature of the lyrics the vocals are arranged in a round with three voices singing the same line, but starting at different times to create an infinite canon, interspersed with quirky riffs and a xylophone solo.

 

knots

“Knots” by R.D. Laing (1972, Vintage).

 

“A Cry for Everyone”, a sobering lyric on accepting the inevitability of death, is apparently influenced by the writings of Albert Camus.

 

Not everything on “Octopus” is so heady or quirky; there are some normal (for Gentle Giant) Prog-Rock tunes, and there is even a nice ballad by organist Kerry Minnear. Surprisingly, “Octopus” is one of Gentle Giant’s most popular albums and a medley of the main themes, entitled “Excerpts from Octopus” was a regular concert feature throughout most of their career. Before the resurgence of interest in their music in the early oughts, which lead to several re-issues and re-masterings of their main catalog, “Octopus” and its predecessor, “Three Friends” were still in print from Columbia Records in the US well into the 90’s. Most recently, it has been re-issued with a brand new mix by Steven Wilson, whose job it seems these days is to remix every classic Prog album ever made. He has revamped the catalogs of King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull, and most recently he has worked his mixing magic on Yes. So far, I mostly like his mixes, although I am still glad that the original album mixes are usually available side-by-side in the deluxe re-packaging.

 

gentle-giant-73

Gentle Giant circa 1973.

 

“Octopus” remains one of my favorite albums to this day and I do not believe we will ever see or hear the likes of it again, at least not until someone new comes around with the group’s eclecticism and consummate musicianship, as well as a willingness to make the music they want to hear without kowtowing to the pressures of the music industry and contemporary stylistic trends.

For more info on “Octopus” and everything else Gentle Giant, go to their website at http://www.blazemonger.com/GG/Gentle_Giant_Home_Page

 

 

“Part the Second”, by the Dark Young

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 31, 2015 by Manuel Paul Arenas

20 plus years in the making, with tracks recorded not only in several different states, but even different countries, my old band the Dark Young have finally released the follow-up to their eponymously titled 1994 debut cassette tape (!) entitled “Part the Second”. My old bandmate, guitarist Mac Randall, wrote a nice blurb on our Bandcamp page detailing the story of how these tracks came to be. To read this and to check out the album itself just click on the link below:

http://thedarkyoung.bandcamp.com/album/part-the-second

Cover art for "Part the Second", by the Dark Young.

Cover art for “Part the Second”, by the Dark Young.

The image we used for the album cover art, pictured above, is by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913).

Photo from the recording sessions at the Sound Museum in Boston, 06-07-2010. Left to right: guitarist Mac Randall, Me, and drummer Geoff Chase.

Photo from the recording sessions at the Sound Museum in Boston, 06-07-2010. Left to right: guitarist Mac Randall, Me, and drummer Geoff Chase.