Future Banana Replacement FBR008 2015
DD & CD album, 41m 33s
$7+ DD $12.97 CD
The ‘progressive’ is a quietly contested quality in rock music. There’s a great deal of music that can be accurately described as such, a small subset of which can be categorised stylistically as ‘progressive rock’. A smaller subset of music that is ‘progressive rock’ in style could also be described as progressive in character. There is an annoyingly vocal minority in the progressive-rock community that likes to shout ‘not prog!’ at anything that doesn’t fit their particular shopping list of stylistic markers, but relatively few artists fighting for their right to the adjective, since they have other things on their minds if their work is progressive, like making great music. What I need here is a Venn diagram, showing each band or artist as a dot somewhere in relation to these sets, but that might be too geeky even for that tiny minority of my blog’s followers that actually read my ridiculously abstruse reviews. The principal difficulty with such a diagram would be that a band as interesting as Opposite Day would in fact need to be placed in a great number of sets, and Venn diagrams with more than three sets can get astonishingly complicated. Basically, what I find so irksome about the whole ‘prog’ thing is that so many prog-rock bands are so amazingly conservative, so stylistically generic, so pompous and so humourless, leaving truly progressive artists that don’t happen to fit the stylistic prescription casting around for a convenient shorthand to describe their music. The music on Space Taste Race, Pt. 2 would actually pass most prog-nerds’ filters, but it’s a strikingly diverse set of songs, that sounds more deeply indebted to, say, Mr. Bungle, than it does to something like ELP. The term ‘prog-rock’ would certainly not suggest to most listeners that they should expect anything so entertaining and inventive.
I should hasten to point out that this album doesn’t sound like Mr. Bungle: it’s a lot more accessible, and it’s full of shiny, attractive melodies, but Opposite Day are given to changing feel on a dime, sometimes repeatedly in rapid succession. Jerky funk metal, heavy riffs, layered anthemic choruses, twinkly atmospheres, psychedelic pop, and, yes, prog-rock, all jostle for our ears’ attention, in complex arrangements that always sound coherent and stylistically unified, even as they flip-flop unpredictably from groove to groove. The album is an object lesson in the art of putting technique to good use, every track showcasing killer playing from all quarters without descending into a wank-fest, or sounding as though the arrangements have been written to show us how clever they all are at playing their instruments. I suppose it would be fair to argue there’s a certain amount of cleverness about the whole thing, but in a good (and very humorous) way. Grooves are exactingly tight, unison parts sound well-drilled, and everything sounds extremely relaxed irrespective of the tempo, or of whether the band are slamming down the metal like they do in ‘Airtight Chariot’, or executing delicate filigrees around the gorgeous bass chord-melody heart of ‘Theia’. I don’t know anything about the players’ backgrounds, but they are very good at doing what they do, and have clearly put a great deal of work into both their own practice and this recording. The approach is rarely contemplative, tending more towards the driving and exciting, but the emotional compass of Space Taste Race, Pt. 2 is broad enough to satisfy my personal need for affective subtlety, and Opposite Day know exactly how to produce light and shade, both in their individual performances and as an ensemble.
Thematically the songs are often focussed on the neglected topic (in rock music) of space science. ‘Fictional Astrobiology’ is an amusing commentary on science fiction, and the eponymous ‘Airtight Chariot’ is clearly a space capsule. Classical references abound, particularly of the sort that relate to celestial bodies, as in ‘Theia’ (the Titan who gave birth to the sun, the moon and the dawn), ‘Golden Age of Saturn’ or the line ‘Helios, the boss of fusion’ in ‘Helios Panoptes’ – and that the title of this song refers to one of Helios’ lesser known epithets gives a hint of the depth of Opposite Day’s erudition. Without either a lyric sheet or a rather more extended close listening session prior to setting digits to chiclets, it’s hard to talk authoritatively or analytically about the lyrical content, but their authors’ humour and intelligence are evident, and the effect of the lines that jump out is intriguing, to say the least. ‘Air and Food’ seems to be related from the perspective of someone setting up camp on a comet, although it is unclear (from my brutally cursory listening) whether their appeal for sustenance is directed at a political authority or some kind of AI. Whatever the precise denotational meanings of the songs may be, the effect of listening to them provides exactly the kind of sophisticated cartoonish entertainment one might expect from the witty cover art. There is a very strong synergy between musical and lyrical materials, both of which are founded on equal measures of serious creative endeavour and intelligent humour. The arrangements and grooves are powerful, visceral beasts, but the overall thrust of the album is relatively cerebral, more Apollonian than Dionysian. As such it probably doesn’t offer as immersive and overwhelming a listening experience as some of the more cosmic avant-garde releases I review: there is a song called ‘Revolution of the Soul Force’, but its opening lines are ‘some kids stole our bikes/ they were nice bikes and we want them back’. I’m not actually sure what this song’s about either, although I can offer the observation that its refrain to the effect that ‘love is activism and the revolution of the soul force’ is offset nicely by the deadpan feel of the whole piece. So, a fugal psychedelic fantasia this is not, but its combination of care, craft and complexity adds up to something altogether more involving than any of those properties could induce in isolation, and I found it an extremely engaging listening experience. In fact, given the wit and panache with which the compositions are discharged, I’d call it exhilarating. This is a brilliantly written and performed album, that is delivered with such a light touch that it’s easy to overlook just how demanding this material would be to perform.
Very nice post!
Originally, the term, “Progressive Rock”, just meant the musicians were pushing the boundaries of rock. Columbia released an album (around late 1972 or early 1973) called the “Progressives” which included tracks by Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Soft Machine, Matching Mole (Robert Wyatt) and Gentle Giant as well as Bill Evans, Don Ellis, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Walter/Wendy Carlos and Paul Horn. Queen and Pink Floyd, as well as earlier groups that came well before the use of the term, including the Beatles (Sgt. Peppers), Beach Boys (Pet Sounds), Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Moody Blues were creating progressive rock based on solely the definition of “progressive.” Soon, though, the label of Progressive Rock began to be applied to several styles of music: music that was partly baroque in nature (steady chordal foundations with elaborate lines on top) and ranged from Yes, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator/Hammill and ELP — to more experimental art rock groups that were more aligned with so-called avant-garde jazz and classical sensibilities. Minimalist and space rock groups, such as Tangerine Dream, that usually adhered to a Baroque sensibility were also labeled prog-rock. Groups that tried to mimic the progressive rock groups, were not necessarily being progressive at all, but jumping into the tail end of an era (Star Castle, Fireballet.) Groups that formed after the era was over (groups that formed after the mid 1980’s) sometimes also are just imitating a style with little to contribute to extending the boundaries of that style. There is nothing wrong with continuing a style of music, if this is done well, but music history (as well as music critics) tends to ignore those that do. There are many fine Romantic British composers of the early 20th century that are pretty much forgotten due to their more progressive contemporaries. Some of this music is being rediscovered today; as is often the case when enough time passes, music that was non-influential or “dated” when it was written can be better evaluated on its actual musical merit.
Labels are ultimately problematic and ineffectual whether applied towards music of the past or today. Labels provide an immediate means of classification, useful for marketing or music history classes, but such labels usually infer a simplicity of viewpoint or homogeneity of style that is not present.
For me, there is great music, excellent music, interesting music, noteworthy music, challenging music, okay or mediocre music, and poorly written music. We saw ELP, Yes, Gentle Giant and others give us consistently excellent music until the late 1970s, when many of them, for various reasons apparently, starting turning out more mediocre fare. The music of the late sixties and most of the seventies that is still being listened to and discussed, not just by older, nostalgia-seeking listeners, but by the young, is generally music that is a cut or two (no pun intended) above the general mediocrity of the majority of music produced during any era. In another thirty or so years, when most of the original prog-rock audience has passed on, a clearer consensus will begin to emerge of what was truly excellent rock music from that first decade of so-called prog-rock.