Kronomyth 1.0: SON OF THE RETURN TO FOREVER. The first solo album from Stanley Clarke is an RTF record in all but name; a Light As A Feather in his cap, if you will. It’s a transitional record, featuring vocals and flute (holdovers from the last RTF album) while looking forward to the future quartet of Clarke, Chick Corea, Lenny White and electric guitar (here provided by Pat Martino). Andy Bey and Dee Dee Bridgewater create an interesting male/female dynamic in the vocals that gives Children of Forever a unique flavor among RTF-related albums that almost feels like Frank Zappa at times (“Children of Forever,” for example, always reminds me of Frank’s “Village of the Sun.”) Children of Forever is both a collaboration between Clarke and Corea and an inversion of their previous roles, with Clarke writing all but one track, lyricist Neville Potter providing the spacey/spiritual subject matter and Corea handling the arrangements to keep everything contained within the RTF universe. The one track arranged by Clarke, “Children of the Future,” begins to fall apart in the middle and suggests that Corea was the stronger arranger of the two (the rest of the album bears that out). “Unexpected Days” shows the difference in their styles, and has a much more sophisticated and languid feel with no trace of funk. Speaking of sophistication, “Butterfly Dreams,” the only track to feature Bey without Bridgewater, could have come from the smooth-as-butter Johnny Hartman himself. On those tracks and the longer “Sea Journey,” it feels as though Corea has hijacked the session, and that may be the only complaint that Clarke fans can level against the album: it’s not a true Stanley Clarke solo album in the same sense as a School Days. As a warm run for the next iteration of RTF, however, Children of Forever is a welcome find for fusion fans and one of the better examples of Corea’s music in a song-oriented form. It’s not the bass showcase I expected, except for the brilliant “Bass Folk Song” and a wild bass fiddle solo on “Sea Journey,” nor is the guitar fully integrated into their sound yet (Pat Martino’s lone solo on “Sea Journey” is more notey than notable). All in all, it’s not quite as amazing as LAAF, Hymn or the Di Meola-era discs (in my opinion), but it’s definitely in the same family.
Kronomyth 3.0: SOMETHING FOR THE HUNGRY DEAD(HEADS). In the 70s, Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings recorded two albums featuring the sounds of Tibetan bells: Tibetan Bells (1971) and Tibetan Bells II (1979). Sonorous and otherworldly—literally, in the sense that the bells were traditionally used to communicate with the dead (hungry ghosts in particular)—these records have been cited as some of the earliest examples of new age music. Clearly, the music spoke to at least one member of the Dead, Mickey Hart, who collaborated with the pair on their next album, Yamantaka. For those of you without the Gods & Demigods supplement to the Dungeon Master’s Guide (only kidding, since I don’t think he’s in there), Yamantaka is a Buddhist god of the underworld who often manifests with multiple arms and heads, most of them angry looking. It’s not clear to me whether the music of Yamantaka is intended as a meditation on death, a musical offering to the god himself or something in between. There are moments on both “The Revolving Mask of Yamantaka” and “Yamantaka” that feel like landscape paintings of the afterlife; bells ring through an endless wasteland, sounds hum with the tedium of eternity, lost souls loom with no physical frame of reference. I couldn’t tell you how this compares to the first two Tibetan Bells, although it seems that Mickey Hart’s contributions expanded the landscape to include a mix of exotic and innovative instruments. I can tell you that Yamantaka is an interesting trip for navel-gazers, although at 35 minutes it might have been a longer trip. The later CD reissue switches the order of the original two tracks and adds three new compositions from Hennings and Wolff to the mix. The new songs fit more easily into the “new age music made with Tibetan bells” category, noting that if any such category does exist, it owes its existence to the original Tibetan Bells albums and, perhaps moreso (given the visibility that Hart brought to the project), to Yamantaka. Unless you’re inclined to sit still for forty minutes of ambient music, a good ten minutes of which is simple resonance, you can pass on this record. But if you believe that music can consist of nothing more than finger cymbals and feedback, a new world awaits on Yamantaka.
Kronomyth 11.0: SECRET ADMIRER. Poor me, pity for me, I didn’t appreciate this album for years. It sounded overproduced a la The Key, and the endless game of musical chairs was beginning to grow tiresome. Then there was the fact that little on Secret Secrets got under my skin, so much as on my nerves with its edgy, off-kilter production. The singles “Temptation” and “Thinking Man” are the obvious winners, and a pair of collaborations with labelmate Joe Jackson, “Talking To The Wall” and “Love By You,” are gems. The rest of it struck me as standoffishly noisy. That is until I recognized that, under all of the production lipstick, “Persona Grata,” “Secret Secrets” and “One Night” were really lovely songs. You won’t hear Joan’s piano or guitar on these songs. What you will hear is some of her strongest songwriting over a storied career. Secret Secrets is a very sophisticated album. Mike Howlett’s heavy production hand won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; in fact, it’s not soothing at all. Scratch the glossy surface, however, and it’s the same raw emotion and revitalizing energy that fuel her best work. As I said, it took me years to get to this place. Initially, the modern production touches, saxophone solos and Pino Palladino’s fretless bass were distractions. If you have the same reaction, go back to “Persona Grata” and “Temptation” and listen to the way those songs shift gears so effortlessly. There’s an ominous tone to both songs in their beginnings, but they prove to be walls that quickly crumble, revealing the artist of the beautiful underneath. Now, to go back and give The Key another turn…
The solo career of the second drummer in the Dead has essentially been a series of fascinating drum solos, by which I mean that his music has focused on percussion to the exclusion of almost every other instrument. Rolling Thunder (1972) was the exception: a Dead soundalike (of sorts) with vocals and actual songs. Hart’s next effort, a collaboration with Zakir Hussain and nearly a dozen different percussionists billed as Diga Rhythm Band, turned out to be the true direction of his muse. Mixing eastern and western percussion instrument (with a modicum of guitar from Jerry Garcia), the panethnic percussion of Diga (1976) was years ahead of its time.
Hart’s next few albums included some highly experimental efforts. Yamantaka (1983) focused on Tibetan bells; Music To Be Born By (1989) was built around his newborn son’s heartbeat. At The Edge (1990) and Planet Drum (1991) returned to the multicultural, multiplayer percussion of Diga Rhythm Band; the latter even landed Hart a Grammy for Best World Music Album. Although Mystery Box (1996) again proved Hart to be highly capable of making commercial music, his main musical interest remains pushing the boundaries of music through a mastery of percussion and its potentialities. If you’re inclined the follow the beat of a different drum, the music of Mickey Hart beckons.
During the Dead’s second 70’s hiatus, Mickey Hart joined Zakir Hussain in a newly formed “percussion orchestra” (Hart’s words, not mine) dubbed Diga Rhythm Band. It may not have been the groundbreaking cultural crossover it should have been—the world still wasn’t ready for an entire album of panethnic percussion—but Diga certainly succeeded at stretching some skins and expanding a few minds. The album in its original form starts with a pair of short pieces augmented by Jerry Garcia’s guitar, the second of which (“Happiness Is Drumming”) went on to serve as the inspiration for Shakedown Street’s “Fire on The Mountain.” Both opening shorts introduce the idea of wisps of melody (via marimba, vibes and sparing guitar) enveloped in a thick swarm of eastern and western percussion (tabla, drumk kit, tympani, bongos and so on). The three longer pieces feature less melody and more percussion, shifting the sound in a rich kaleidoscope of trills, rolls, beats, bumps and assorted onomatopoeia. It’s an amazing album both in its revelation of the musical potentialities of percussion and its cross-cultural mission to blend east and west into something new and exciting. Of course, appreciating this album presumes that you’re open to forty-two minutes of sonic sensory exploration. If you found the drum solos during the Dead concerts a bore, you’re not going to dig Diga. But if you did enjoy them, Diga is in many ways their logical culmination: an entire album consisting of almost nothing but drums. I’d tell you this is one of the most fascinating side chambers in the catacombs of the Dead, but I’m an incurable navel-gazer at heart. Note that, for some reason, the subsequent CD reissues changed the track order and edited a few minutes from “Tal Mala.” I prefer the elpee version, since the shorter tracks with Garcia ease you into Diga’s unique soundscape.
Kronomyth 2.2: DOWNES IN THE DUMPS. I read that John wrote this song for Geoff Downes in five minutes, which sounds about right. Although it’s one of my least favorite Asia songs, I admit that I find myself humming it often, so maybe I’m not giving it enough credit. The band released a sophisticated video to support it: a miniature French film about divorce that ends with a little girl jumping off a bridge. I know, right, just when you thought the song couldn’t be any more depressing. Truly, the best of Asia represented the worst of times: loneliness, depression, nuclear war. The B side is another overlooked Steve Howe contribution, poppier than most of what made it onto Alpha, although it feels like the finishing touches for it are missing.
Kronomyth 2.01: OWNERS OF A LONELY ARK. The first single from Asia’s second album was the disappointing “Don’t Cry.” I write “disappointing” because it doesn’t stand up to the standards of their first record, which was itself an artistic compromise compared to Yes, U.K. and ELP. A cute video was released to support the single, featuring the band in a Raiders of the Lost Ark setting. Although the run time for this single is listed at about 15 seconds under the album version, it actually runs about eight seconds longer by my watch (3:38 versus the album’s 3:30 length). The difference in time can be explained by a longer fadeout at the end; otherwise, the two versions are identical. In the US, the B side was the nonalbum “Daylight,” which appeared only on cassette versions of Alpha. It’s actually better than most of the material on Alpha, with an ELO-styled chorus and a return to the verses of “Sole Survivor” in the middle.
Steve Howe and Martin Taylor are a pair of outstanding instrumentalists, but it’s the instruments that take center stage on Masterpiece Guitars. This collaborative project actually includes a third party, collector Scott Chinery, who had amassed an impressive array of classic guitars in his (short) lifetime. Chinery had planned to publish an illustrated book of his guitar collection and, after seeing Howe’s own guitar book, engaged Howe and Taylor to preserve the collection in eternal audio as well through new recordings. The music featured on Masterpiece Guitars includes original compositions from Howe and Taylor as well as classics arranged for (mostly) jazz guitar: “Smile,” “Somewhere,” “All The Things You Are,” “Thank Heaven For Little Girls.” Steve Howe’s role is primarily as a producer/accompanist, with Taylor assuming the lion’s share of the playing. Thus, the disc is skewed toward the fluid jazz style that Taylor had established during his years alongside Stephane Grappelli, with Howe’s new age or country pieces in between. In other words, Steve Howe fans don’t necessarily need to add this disc to their own collection. And yet it is a wonderful-sounding disc, rich with the ringing intonations of guitar royalty. If you can name more than five vintage luthiers, chances are you’ll appreciate this effort. In fact, if you even know what a luthier is, you’re probably in the target demographic for this disc. From a Steve Howe perspective (since I’m not a huge jazz guitar fan), it’s interesting to see Masterpiece Guitars as the culmination of Howe’s own guitar cataloguery (ok, I made that word up), but only a few tracks (e.g., “Tailpiece,” “Thought Waves”) actually sound like the work of Howe. For the same price, you could get an entire album of Howe on any one of the Homebrew recordings. So what you have here is a labor of love from a trio of interesting characters whose interests intersect on fabled bridges, the crossing of which you may or may not feel compelled to make.
Kronomyth 5.0: WATER YOU’VE DONE FOR ME LATELY. Geoff Downes gave Asia a reboot with Aqua, bringing in John Payne (bass/vocals) and Al Pitrelli (guitars) to flesh out a skeletal crew of Carl Palmer, Steve Howe and guests. (Note: Although Palmer and Howe are billed as full-time members, Howe is only audible on a few tracks and I have no earthly idea which tracks Palmer plays on.) John Payne is a very different vocalist than John Wetton, while Pitrelli isn’t that much different from Mandy Meyer, so it’s easy to get hung up on the vocals with Aqua. While the songs are much better than the professionally penned product found on Then & Now, that would apply to most things, so to give you some useful context I would tell you that Aqua is better than Alpha and not quite as good as Astra. The modern production reminds me a lot of Yes’ Union, which isn’t exactly an endorsement in prog circles. A lot of people didn’t like Union, but a lot of people need to lighten up. What Aqua does effectively is breathe new life into a dying franchise. “Who Will Stop The Rain,” “Heaven on Earth” and “The Voice of Reason” will stand the test of time far better than “Summer (Can’t Last Too Long).” Aqua is guilty of some commercial pandering—“Crime of the Heart,” for example, sounds like reheated Meatloaf—but it generally sticks to the love/war arena-rock blueprint of Asia’s beginnings. Honestly, I would forget about the Palmer/Howe connection, since they contribute little to the final product. Instead, this is all about Downes finding a sustainable way to keep Asia alive and somewhat relevant by mixing new blood and old friends. The cover illustration from Rodney Matthews is also a nice touch, showing that Asia understands the importance of preserving its legacy; a point the new material bears out as well.
The first work that John Cale recorded after his emergence from the Velvet Underground was a collaboration with the minimalist composer, Terry Riley. As it turned out, Church of Anthrax would wait a year to see its formal release, but nearly all agree that it was worth waiting for. The first side of music is one of the most stunning examples of experimental, instrumental jazz/rock on record. “Church of Anthrax” is a shifting mosaic of semi-structured jazz/rock that builds up to an explosive Om. It is at once thought-provoking and lurid, beginning with Cale’s insistent bass guitar riff and adding organ, sax and drums to the magnificent drone of jazz-wise Om. A dying horn and squeaking chair end the piece, pulling the listener quickly back into reality, but not before their vision of music’s possibilities has inalterably changed. ”The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles” has been called a proto-ambient piece, and it does seem like a logical precursor to the fixed studies of Brian Eno. Here, sonorous piano notes are clumped together to create a thick fog of sound from which Riley’s horns emerge. Steadily hammered piano notes serve as a mad metronome, while Riley’s sax becomes the focal point, and then a new storm of sounds swirls around us before the entire piece dissipates. Side two brings a jarring note of normalcy in John Cale’s stilted pop song, “The Soul of Patrick Lee.” It honestly feels like a pop advertisement after the previous two pieces; the effect is stunning, but it’s a complete departure from the previous collaboration with Terry Riley. Patrick Lee turns out to be a sweet anomaly, however, as the pair return to the wide berths of chaos on the last two tracks. Truth be told, “Ides of March” is a long bore, featuring only piano and drums for eleven minutes, and “The Protégé” is exactly what you would have expected from a Cale/Riley collaboration: a VU backing track with a wrench thrown into it. Had the Church of Anthrax been contained only to the second side of music, critics would remember it for “The Soul of Patrick Lee” and little else. It’s on the first two tracks that Church’s faithful have built their foundation, and those tracks remain a vital destination for musical pilgrims who would kneel at one of the 70s great altars of alternative rock.