December 22, 2011

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Levin Torn White

Levin Torn White

(Lazy Bones)

When thinking about progressive rock, or “prog rock” for short, a few things likely come to mind:  gratuitously long pieces, incomprehensible concept albums and Roger Dean’s cheesy fantasy landscape cover art. Drummer Alan White is best known as a longtime member of Yes, which has been guilty of all aforementioned sins at various times. However, his latest collaborative album, created alongside Tony Levin and David Torn, has a definite prog-rock soul but is free of many of the excesses associated with the genre.

The studio album Levin Torn White has the two key features of prog rock, complexity and virtuosity, delivered in manageable bites, and there’s a good balance with the power-trio configuration romping tightly through time signature changes and tricky passages.

Levin, known as a sideman for Peter Gabriel and a member of King Crimson, offers his recognizable, adept bass playing and Chapman Stick tapping. One can’t help but think of Discipline-era King Crimson when listening to tracks like “Ultra Mullett.” Even guitarist David Torn’s skronking and soaring bears certain similarities to Adrian Belew’s animalistic guitar warping; at other times, his more atmospheric playing, as on the foggy “Convergence,” brings to mind Robert Fripp’s soundscape work. However, Torn seems to be careful to not ape those two players; instead, he fosters his own ideas based on certain foundations and comes up with inventive noises on numbers like “The Hood Fell.”

White’s drumming is not flashy but instead is solidly moderated, at times raising the intensity with quick bass-drum/cymbal-tap interplay when needed; anyone would hope to have his level of energy at the age of 62. Levin Torn White is very much a studio creation—one can frequently hear Levin’s notes bopping between channels—and sounds sculpted yet spontaneous. In the grand scheme of things, Levin Torn White may not rank with Discipline or Close to the Edge in the canon, but it does just fine to scratch that prog-rock itch.

Various Artists

The Total Groovy

(Drag City)

The short-lived British label Groovy Records could have been some forgotten dalliance and a footnote in the career of co-founder Pete Shelley (more famously, of the essential punk band Buzzcocks), but this welcome reissue of the label’s entire output―three albums originally released in 1980―plus a disc of unreleased material brings to light the small yet potent and incredibly strange catalog that’s worthy of a new, appreciative audience. Buzzcocks fans, note―this music does not at all sound like Buzzcocks. A good part of it sounds like nothing else, actually.

Shelley’s electronic solo album Sky Yen was recorded in 1974 and consists of two long tracks that solely use an oscillator and an echo box to make sweeping, piercing tones that float and dive-bomb; it’s an enveloping album that works a lot better than it probably should, although many people, apart from avant-garde electronic music aficionados, will likely find this unlistenable. The collection gets even weirder. Hangahar from Sally Smmit and Her Musicians (Sally Smmit being Sally Timms of The Mekons) is an absolutely haunting, unsettling, yet oddly beautiful amalgam, with droning keyboard chords, irregular drumming, junkyard rattling  and choirgirl vocals singing sweetly in some unknown tongue. The phrase “space-druid free improv ceremony” comes to mind.

Featuring label co-creator Francis Cookson, Shelley, Eric Random and other conspirators, 」3.33 by Free Agents and the hitherto unreleased fourth disc, billed as Strange Men in Sheds with Spanners, are more noticeably rooted in the post-punk zeitgeist (sometimes anchored by drumbeats), but they lean toward the experimental and uneasy industrial-music moods (think Throbbing Gristle) rather than a more familiar rock sound; it’s unpredictable, compelling stuff.  The albums comprising The Total Groovy are currently available on vinyl and as digital downloads―the CD boxed set arrives in January―and they’re  fascinating, nearly-lost treasures combining a D.I.Y. spirit, a bold “anything goes” attitude, and a penchant for sonic exploration.


December 22, 2011

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