Monday, October 25, 2010

Under A Dark Sky: An Appreciation

Uli Jon Roth is, along with Ritchie Blackmore, the progenitor and pioneer of the movement to fuse Art Music with Heavy Metal/Hard Rock. Though Blackmore was first in incorporating exotic scales and arpeggios in heavy rock in the 70s, Uli took it further than anyone else in the genre: witness the early Scorpions and Electric Sun albums for evidence. The impact of his music is monumental, the post-Randy Rhoads "neo-classical" scene is inconceivable without him. One of the biggest differences between Uli and the neo-classical movement that proceded from his influence is the fact that he has been more serious in integrating the distorted electric guitar into an orchestral context, as opposed to writing lead guitar fixated "concertos" with silly, unnecessary orchestration. Uli took upon himself the role of both composer and guitarist, with no apparent self-consciousness. With "Under a Dark Sky", Roth has reached a peak in his compositional powers; no other artist or release in the genre of heavy rock guitar music has so effectively incorporated distorted lead guitar into an art music context, specifically in terms of compositional intricacy, dynamic range, and thematic depth.

On a more personal note: when I first bought this cd I was forewarned to prepare myself for a listen that would be almost entirely non-Metallic. Once I got past that I was floored by how advanced that Uli's writing has become. He really is a composer that happens to play guitar instead of, say, a lead guitar player struggling to blow up a basic heavy metal structure for an orchestra. He has perfected the place of the guitar among the other orchestral instruments, unlike others who just rewrote the cello cadenza parts for electric guitar. I should also mention that from a purely lead guitar playing perspective, Uli's personal tone, attack, and sense of dynamics has become at least equal to the best living Rock players, such as Jeff Beck and Ritchie Blackmore. Under a Dark Sky takes as its base the pioneering progressive rock of the 70s and, particularly with the lead guitar in Uli's hands, ups the expressive content of the compositions to a heretofore unrealized degree. The guitar becomes like a separate voice, a prime protagonist in an apocalyptic opera.

I must champion also the lyrical content of "Under a Dark Sky". The cd's Weltanschauung operates under a similar air as Beethoven's 9th Symphony, i.e. matters are becoming urgent, hate is killing the world, only love can save humanity. The heavy metal kids might reject such a message in that amusing, willfully cantankerous way of theirs; but, the reality is that humanity remains just as primitive as it ever was, if not moreso with the onset of both the information superhighway and weapons of mass destruction. People cheer murder, worship money, and continue to waste their imaginations on ways to look down on and/or kill each other. Only a devastatingly powerful movement to love can save the world, the answer is inside. Such a sentiment is easy to sympathize with by the mature minded.

It's impossible to overstate the painstaking attention to detail evident throughout this album. In interviews preceeding the release of "Under a Dark Sky", Uli had mentioned how hard it was for him to mix down all the different layers he'd recorded into a single stereo track, and there's no question that this album will be more effectively represented with a 5.1 remix. On the other hand, the limited stereo mix makes the album especially compelling, as it takes many listens to fully absorb the proceedings. The more one listens, the more gets one out of the CD, which to me one of the definitions of great art.

I realize that a lot of people won't like the arty nature of this cd: the choirs, the length, the idiosyncratic song structures. But that's nothing new, as  the great majority of folks don't like to have to focus when they listen to a Rock/Metal cd, preferring to listen to the same song structures ad infinitum. For them, music is mostly entertainment, which of course is fine, it's there for everyone to suit to their own needs. But, as both a musician and composer, I can't help but declare my profound admiration for what Uli has accomplished here. I think this is by far the most musically interesting Rock guitar release so far in the 21st century, with a direly important message.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pete Townshend is Endlessly Wired...Into Great Songwriting

There's a lot on this album that could barely even be construed as Rock, much less hard rock. And the first couple of listens turned me off, as both Daltrey and Townshend are very much showing their age vocally. On the third listen, some of it started clicking in a big way, and on the fifth I "got" it, and found myself inspired.

This album isn't meant to be stacked next to the monster classics like Who's Next or Tommy, though there are elements of those albums on here. Taken on its own terms, Endless Wire is easily the best Who album since Who Are You, and there are actually songs that stand up with their best: "Trilby's Piano", "Tea and Theater", and the Tom Waits influenced "Into the Ether" being the most obvious. They're the kind of songs that help one understand exactly why Pete Townshend is widely considered one of the top five songwriters in Rock history.

The mini-opera "Wire and Glass" is often interesting, and makes the album even more dynamically engaging. But it's the first, Who By Numbers-esque half I most admire, and that half has quite a dynamic range on its own. Compositional subtleties abound on this album, and as usual the lyrics range from clever to spectacularly insightful and expressive. As a Rock/Metal composer myself, I learned a few important things from both the arrangements and instrumentation. There was so much care taken with this, and yet songs like "Mike Post Theme" and the (unfortunately short) "We've Got a Hit" showcase that the band can belt it with plenty of sincerity and relative simplicity when it's called for.

My original, four out of five star rating reflects the past to an extent, and I regret it already. In light of the mostly reheated garbage that passes for "Rock music" today, this is a 5 star release.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Your Music Sucks Until You're Dead

The attitude that "the last important music was written by dead people", or past a certain time limit, should have been obsolete decades ago. It astounds me when I hear that assessment today, it's musical bigotry of the most ignorant kind. Hopefully the day is coming when non-musicians will come out of the Dark Ages and accept Rock/Metal music as they would any other genre. A dead giveaway of the musically uneducated person is his or her derogatization of the term "popular music", especially when used as an umbrella to lump in Lady Ga Ga with Uli Jon Roth. Though there are many Rock/Metal songs that stay within the timeless I-IV-V, "popular" framework, there are nearly as many exceptions to this adherence as there are examples.

It's humorous to witness how the snobbily-inclined fasten on the more popular side of music genres, as though any individual bids to popularity prove the invalidity of that whole genre. I've had to deal with people, including some "classically trained" professionals, who had an inordinately hard time listening to Rock/Metal music, saying things like "why does the guitar have to sound like that" and "what's that obnoxious sound?". If they'd let themselves have any perspective, they'd realize that people were saying the similar things about Beethoven's Eroica (too noisy, too epic), and later whining to the high heavens about the introduction of the Wagner tuba (such an unpleasant roar! oh dear!).
After having pored over biographies and music of the great composers, I learned something that completely affirmed my regard toward Rock/Metal music. Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart...they all wrote with money and popularity on their mind, most of the time. The masses, whom go out of their way not to think too much, try to pretend a movie like "Amadeus" or "Immortal Beloved" is fact and not fiction. Take for instance the Hollywood faerie tale that Mozart suffered from poverty because his music was "too advanced", or "revolutionary". What a joke. Mozart lived it up; his letters and myriad testimonies from contemporaries bear that out. He had a very bad habit of getting a big commission, blowing it on high living, then borrowing and blowing it all over again. There's also the myth that he was "woefully underrated in his time". Mozart was recognized as a spectacular composer all across Europe, the only amount of "obscurity" he might have experienced was because Joseph Haydn came before him, and invented the templates that Mozart wrote from.

And Mozart, just like the rest of the greats, mostly wrote music because he was either getting or expecting to be paid. True, there are many compositions that he and the other "classic composers" wrote just out of love for the art; but it's notable that most of the stuff he is remembered for, (not just the catchy stuff), music like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the Requiem were paid for in advance. The big knock against popular music, the idea that money and fashion rule over substance, looks pretty silly when viewed in this light. Not to pick on Mozart, a terrific composer of course, but he wrote within the Sonata framework, which is a very set style that was all the rage in that century, (and still knocking them dead well into the 19th century). It was the style that paid.

Tell me the Allegros of the Sonata Facile, Rondo Alla Turca, Eine Kleine, etc. aren't Poppy. There are dozens of other examples.

To quote Jon Lord, as fine a musician as I can think of, "our (Deep Purple's) music is just as legitimate as Beethoven's". And for its place and time, it most certainly is.