Posts Tagged ‘Live’

The Black Angels’ Joyful Darkness.

April 8, 2013

Black Angels Trip Out at Union Transfer

Black Angels-IndigoAustin psychedelic rockers The Black Angels create a sound that weaves joy and darkness layered under waves of reverb and shuddering tremolo guitar. That sound was heard in full hallucinogenic effect last night at Union Transfer in Philadelphia.  Playing behind their new CD, Indigo Meadow, the band essayed all of that album as well as much of their previous CD, Phosphene Dream.    Indigo Meadow is a more stripped down, rocked-out album than the more paisley patterned Phosphene Dream, but live those songs fit right in with repeated, distorted hypnotic guitar patterns drenched in echo from Christian Bland, doubled up alternately by Kyle Hunt and Rishi Dhir, that buoys up the nasal wail of lead singer Alex Maas.  All of it is held together by Stephanie Bailey’s rock-the-Rock-of-Gibraltar drums.  She may be one of the hardest hitting, and locked down drummers in rock.

Black Angels-PhospheneIndigo Meadow is an album full of songs about love relationships that might be most kindly characterized as ambivalent, if not outright antagonistic.  The title track laments a woman who “likes a hell of a show.” “Evil Things” brings out the Heavy Metal side of the band with the grinding, “Iron Man” riffing as Maas sings of his love interest, “We were both evil, doing evil things” and “Love is your gun,” a particularly fatalistic approach to romance to be sure.  A similar metaphor emerges on “Don’t Play with Guns.” Even on a song like “Love Me Forever” Maas sings that chorus more like it’s a prison sentence than a plea.

That darkness is not alleviated in other songs like “Holland,” about misadventures in Amsterdam, or the anti-war songs as psychological metaphor on “War on Holiday” and “Broken Soldier” both of which confront fear and uncertainty.

Their musical references were always more psych-garage rock than late sixties flower pop or San Franciso idylls.  Even though Pink Floyd asides always leak through the distorted haze, the vintage Farfisa and Reem electric organs signal their lineage in ? and the Mysterians, The Seeds and the Nuggets anthology.

In concert, The Black Angels immerse you in these songs.  They’ve upgraded their light show with a bigger screen and multi-layered panels that envelope the band within the op-art mirror image patterns they favor.   It reflects their shimmering, driving sound where Maas’ voice is barely intelligible within the web of reverb and slap-back echo he uses on almost every song.  While his singing is clear on their recordings, in concert he merges, sometimes incoherently, with the ricocheting guitars, becoming an instrumental effect more than a lyric vehicle.  He should probably dial down the reverb in concert, especially in  live room like Union Transfer.

They played several tracks off of Phosphene Dream.  “Entrance Song” drove down the endless hallucinogenic highway and “Bad Vibrations” still reverberates.  It was great to see them bring the coda back on “Yellow Elevator #2,” which they’d dropped in their last two Philadelphia performances.  You need an uplifting chorus of illumination sometimes.

In their early days, The Black Angels stretched out quite a bit more on tracks like “Snake in the Grass” and “Never/Ever. ” But these were unformed works that lacked a propulsive center.  Now that their song-writing skills are more finely honed, I’d like to see them bring that discipline to more improvised rave-ups, to use an old 60′s expression.

The Black Angels take you out of this world.

~John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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Metheny Mécanique and Karaoke Koncerts

May 19, 2010

What’s the difference between a concert and Karaoke?

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The specter of plug ‘n’ play concerts has reared its pre-wired head again. I’ve been confronted with another spate of contrasting concerts.  On the one hand, there’s music that’s played live and in the moment and on the other, music that’s been packaged and frozen.   In the latter case, a live performance consists of defrosting the material while a lone musician solos  over the top.  This is especially hard for me to confront because most of that music is the stuff I love and have supported for over 35 years.

Pat Metheny & Orchestrion

Many electronic concerts have become little more than karaoke. A musician walks on stage, sits in front of one or two laptops, maybe a keyboard, hits start and spends most of the concert staring at a computer screen watching his composition slide by. Occasionally he might play some synth pads or even a solo line, but by and large, it’s all as fresh as a Swanson TV dinner.

Proponents of laptop performances will argue that with programs like Ableton Live, they can interact and change the music in real time. And I have seen this happen. Ulrich Schnauss gave a musically remarkable performance in the Echoes Living Room and at World Cafe Live a couple of years ago. His concert versions of music from Goodbye were radically different from the album. Yet even throughout this performance, I kept thinking, “Man, this would be so much more powerful if he had a couple of guitarists, keyboard player, bassist and drums.”  Canned music will never have the impact of a true live performance.    That was brought home by four  recent concerts.

Robert Rich @ Echoes

Both Spyra and Robert Rich recently played performances in Philadelphia including live Echoes sessions. I’ve been singing the praises of Robert Rich for a long time now. His album Ylang was an Echoes CD of the Month. But in concert, Rich is essentially doing a Music Minus One set, playing flutes and lap steel guitar over his elaborate, but completely pre-programmed backing tracks.

Spyra @ Echoes

At least Rich  brings along some real synthesizers that are triggered.  Wolfram Spyra pretty much left  his set to a couple of Mac computers and a couple of keyboards over which he noodled solos.    Bass lines pound, drums ricochet, chords lays down heavenly pathways and synthesizers shoot melodies off the rafters of St. Mary’s Church at The Gatherings,  but the only musician on stage stares mutely at a computer screen.

Artists like this make a pretense of live performance, but it’s barely a step above playing a CD on stage.   JJ, a band from Europe doesn’t even make that pretense.  On their CD, No. 3, they conjure up  a haunting brand of electronica with Elin Kastlander‘s smokey alto voice intoning echoes from the abyss.  In concert they sound just like their CD because the only thing live is Kastlander, who stood stoically still,  her thick blonde hair cascading over her shoulders, while she sang in front of their full backing tracks.  A couple of times, Joakim Benon, (I think), would come on stage, strum a guitar aimlessly and hug Kastlander before exiting. It was creepy, especially when the Enyaesque choirs of “Let Go” came forth, but there was only Eastlander, barely moving her lips.   There were times I thought she might be lip-syncing. When did alt-rock concerts become a Solid Gold performance? If you’re gonna do that, at least bring on the dancers.

I don’t know JJ’s story, but Sprya and Robert Rich argue that their music is too complex for one person to play live and that it’s not financially viable to bring a band.   I would argue that your live music should be scaled to what you’re capable of live.  If that means a solo set, then scale it to what you can actually play live without backing.    If you really need a band but you’re not committed enough to go to the expense or find like-minded players willing to suffer for your art, ,  then perhaps you shouldn’t be playing live concerts at all. Hundreds of rock groups scuffle through tiny clubs to make their art.   How is it different for these electronic acts?    A recording is one thing, a live performance is something else entirely.

Metheny's Orchestrion

Which brings me to Pat Metheny. He’s built his reputation on live performances presented in myriad permutations, the most popular being the Pat Metheny Group.    For this past year he’s been touring his Orchestrion concert. The Orchestrion is a mechanical orchestra with an exploded drum kit, pianos, vibes, marimba, glockenspiel, electric bass, robot guitars, bottle organs and more. Metheny can control much of this monster with his guitar, doubling lines on vibes and marimba, setting tempos on percussion and sometimes just playing piano with his guitar.  (Hear Metheny talk about the Orchestrion here.)

But the arrangements of the “Orchestrion Suite” are complex, as complex as the music on his previous Pat Metheny Group album, The Way Up and there is no way he can do that live no matter how fast he can trigger the Orchestrion instruments.    Instead, computers had the launch codes for much of the music.   What was a little deceptive was an improvisation the guitarist played to end the show before encores. He said it was a demonstration of how the system works. He played a guitar riff, looped it, played another riff and looped that in sync and started adding sounds from his orchestrion that were clearly triggered by his guitar.  The improvised work built up to a glorious climax with Metheny playing a classic guitar synth solo at the end.

The thing is, that’s not what he was doing during the rest of the concert. There was no live looping. The five compositions played from the Orchestrion album  were obviously pre-programmed arrangements and the only improvisation was in Metheny’s guitar solos. Those guitar solos were great and beyond the ken of most electronic musicians to match, but much of the rest was canned, albeit, in elaborate if not bizarre fashion with his stage-filling Orchestrion beast.

The lines of live vs pre-programmed are less clear with Pat Metheny.  The Orchestrion is a conceptual art project as much as a music performance.  He’s not trying to replicate a band.   It’s an amazing feat of technology and tenacity, and Metheny made it all appear effortless, but ultimately, there was something missing from the stage, which needed either 10 Pat Methenys or ten other musicians to effect his vision.

Jimmy Lavalle of Album Leaf @ Echoes

These concerts contrasted sharply with two other recent shows, The Album Leaf and Jonsi. Both shows were full of live musicians, and even though there was little improvisation, the performances were in the moment, energized by the mood on stage and the audiences.   The Jonsi show at the Electric Factory was transcendent, visually and musically.  The Sigur Ros singer/guitarist created a theatrical work that was  meticulously choreographed,  yet ragingly intense.    The Album Leaf gave a powerhouse show in the sweltering heat of the First Unitarian Church and came into the Echoes living room the next day, stripped down their live set-up to the basics, and still sounded amazing. Yes, they do use some glitch backing tracks, but by and large, it’s six musicians, in communion. It’s what happens when real musicians are playing live.

Music isn’t pure.  Technology pushes limits and especially with DJ and dance culture,  performance concepts that were taboo have fallen.  I don’t think there’s a line to be drawn, but I think I know when it’s been crossed.  So let me ask again:  What’s the difference between a concert and karaoke?

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

Still: Echoes-Echoes Living Room Concerts Volume 15

November 17, 2009

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Still: Echoes, the Echoes Living Room Concerts Volume 15 has arrived. Like all our CDs it’s a perfect Echoes blend of music from pure acoustic works to the extremes of electronic music, with ambient chamber music nestled next to deep space explorations.  The album builds in an arc from Jesse Cook’s sweet “Rain,” with some nice ambient violin by Chris Church giving Jesse Cook’s lilting melody the feel of a wistful, fading memory. The CD peaks dynamically in the middle with Al Di Meola’s “Siberiana,” an energized and nearly symphonic work of global fusion.  Featuring his World Sinfonia band and Di Meola bounces fiery leads off the accordion of Fausto Beccalossi.   And it ends with some gentle acoustic works: Ronn McFarlane’s 21st century compositions for a 16th century instrument, the Renaissance lute,  and Lisa Lynne and Aryeh Frankfurter‘s contemplative romantic duo for harp and violin.


Contributing to that arc is a haunting track by Whitetree. “Other Nature” begins with a a solo piano theme from Ludovico Einaudi, but just as you think it’s going to be a poignant piano tune, brush stroked drums, sampled balaphon and electronic ambiences from Robert and Ronald Lippok slip in and take you to another space. That leads into one of the most dynamic tracks on the CD, “Beauxsong” by The Mandrake Project. Based around a rhythm loop, Mandrake Project takes this track into unexpected terrain including electro-symphonic violins, a jazz-flecked electric piano solo that recalls vintage CTI records like Deodato and a ripping guitar solo. It’s a piece that takes progressive rock into the ambient lounge.


There’s lots of instrument manipulation on Still: Echoes.  Mandrakes’ Rick Nelson stacks his violin, while Matthew Schoening loops and distorts his cello on “Emotional Clockwork.”  I love the circular relationships he creates in this chamber work of melodic flow and drive.  In realtime, he orchestrates a cinematic work of classical dimensions.  But no one manipulates their instrument more than Ben Neill with  his mutantrumpet.  With three different bells, two sets of valves, a mini-trombone slide and electronics, Neill creates an electronic excursion on “Futura” with the trumpet sound playing hide-and-seek between layers of looped textures and distortions.

Al di Meola

The most haunting song on the album may be Alu‘s “Recluse,” a song of alienation sung in a little-girl-lost voice with again, some riveting violin work, this time by Hiroyuki Goto, who wraps his instrument across Alu’s electronica groove, alternating pizzicato and arco lines while Alu breaks your heart with her pleas.  Her 21st century lament is a nice counterpoint to the other vocal track on the album, Solas‘ “Mollai na gCuach Ni Chuilleanain,” a traditional Irish aire sung  beautifully by Máiréad Phelan.   The contrast in emotional pain and serenity is striking,  More Celtic music is heard on Aine Minogue‘s “The Grove.”  Originally recorded for our Christmas show, Sonic Seasonings, it sounds great in any season with Minogue’s lilting Irish harp and Steve Gorn‘s soulful bansuri flute.

Ben Neill

There’s always at least one solo acoustic guitar track on our CDs and there are always a lot of candidates for the slot. This year it went to Canadian finger-style player Antoine DuFour with “You and I,” an intricate and crystalline track.   I love some of the deeply contemplative tracks on the album.  The Marcin Wasilewski Trio from Poland bring an intuitively improvised sound to “The First Touch,” getting that deeply introspective mood you expect from ECM record artists.  But we never let contemplation get in the way of a little exuberance and that’s what your get with Fernwood‘s     “Open Seas.”  Along with the Di Meola track, it’s the pivot point of the album with it’s blend of Indian sitar, bouzouki and mandolin taking us to a high of energy and joy.

Every time I put on Still: Echoes, I feel like I’m being taken on a trip to lands exotic and familiar, a wonderful communion of sound, spirit and musical adventure.  Take the trip yourself.

Still: Echoes is available here.
John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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