ZaRecords Mixtape 7: Colors

Time for another mixtape! I am joined again by my dear friend Mihaela, for a selection of songs inspired by or inspiring of various colors! We didn’t over-analyze and over-think this, we just went with what we liked and compromised as much as we felt comfortable with, so here’s our final selection of colors! Enjoy!

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The Beatles – The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) (1968)

The trouble with having an ideal reader in your mind at all times, whether writing fiction or criti-fiction (such as the more meaty posts on ZaRecords), especially if that person really exists, is that you become able to guess very early on what they’d say about one of your mutterings. That’s all fine and dandy when it helps you write better, but it can be a real challenge when the quality of writing is less the issue than the subject itself. Listen up, nay saying voice in my head, it’s time I schooled you about The Beatles. And what better place to start than arguably their most famous album?

The Beatles

I’ve noticed that some bands, once stuck with the “classics” label, suffer from a great reduction of nuance from listeners having grown up with newer sounds in their ears. I don’t so much mean that people don’t care about them anymore, although that’s also part of it, but that’s only natural, to an extent. What I’m talking about is a sort of off-hand nonchalance of classification, shutting the door on many aspects which made the bands great in the first place. I feel The Beatles are probably the biggest sufferers from this that I can think of – too much Blackbird (which incidentally is on this album) and Hey Jude, and what we’ve got is a convenient label of “Beatlesness” to enjoy or scoff at. Trouble is only some of The Beatles’ music is can sustain this label, while a whopping, staggering amount of it could hardly be recognized as such, were it not for John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s very distinctive voices (sometimes even in spite of those). The sheer amount of diversity, the overwhelming amount of experimentation they brought to their “basic” formula is lost under the huge weight of the accursed “ease of use” of the Beatles label.

That’s why, when talking about the white album, I’ll try to maintain a bird’s eye view and present the record as one of the most complex examples of music with a very intense “meta” element you’ll ever hear. Also, this is one of the most powerful examples of why there is a point to listening to an album start-to-finish – there are ideas and veins to this music which are chopped off when taking songs out of context – the main casualty being the sense of irony-bordering-on-cynicism which permeates the whole record.

The songs I picked from this album aim to illustrate this very point – sure, there’s Blackbird and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, everyone knows those! The thing is though, these well-known songs, which have come to paint The Beatles as a basically harmless, quaint, lovely-little-ditty band, have a completely different point altogether when you realize that they’re placed right next to Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? and Helter Skelter. It’s this contrast which reveals subtle and heartbreaking touches of deep sadness, exhaustion, nostalgia, cynicism and confusion hiding between the sunny notes. This album is a declaration of freedom and a slap on the face – four boys from Liverpool found themselves in a position to be able to say anything and be heard by the entire world. Fuck yes John was more popular than Jesus – why do you think everyone freaked out so much when he said it?! This album is their way of speaking out with the full understanding that not everyone who can hear knows how to listen, and there’s no amount of freedom that can teach people to do that.

There’s the most oppressive feeling of pointlessness, evaporating, as always with them, into the most heartwarming, overwhelmingly beautiful melodies (Mother Nature’s Son, Julia, Dear Prudence), being encroached upon by the increasingly dissonant, angry, grating distillations of frustration (Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?, Glass OnionYer Blues, Helter Skelter), and everything in between. And the funny thing is, it’s not even a cypher, there’s no code, there’s no great cryptic joke being played out only for the wise and savvy. It’s just that this foundation of irony is lost in all the beauty and catchy tunes. I couldn’t say whether it was lost to the listeners back in the sixties (although I’m pretty sure Robert Fripp got it – his obsession with The Beatles is well known and I see no other explanation for how their music could inspire him to the towering complexities of King Crimson), but I’m pretty sure it’s definitely lost to listeners now, which, ironically, only adds to it.

I am reminded of Peter Brook and his “dead theatre” whenever I’m confronted with the label of beatlesness – many love it just so, many more don’t, but somehow the issue is moot, the case is closed either way. Well, I’m here to say to hell with aphorisms, honestly Fripp, but there really is “more to hearing than meets the ear”. I apologize for sounding preachy, there’s a pet peeve I wanted to get off my chest for years now. And yes, I am aware of the hypocrisy inherent in my little speech here, and in the fact that I’ll pick some songs out of the album, but then some issues are harder to work around than others. Nevertheless, I’ll stick to my old adage – enjoy!

Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (2013)

It’s been a while, true, but the thing is, I’m in more of an “input” than “output” musical phase, I’ve been discovering all sorts of new sounds and vibes and I’m trying to sort through all of them. Until I get my bearings again, I’ll probably be updating more scarcely, but that doesn’t meant ZaRecords is dead. Far from it, especially when I am graced with albums such as the one I’m writing about today. I’ve probably already made this abundantly clear in previous posts, but I am a prog-rock nut, so when Steven Wilson puts out a new album, I listen. But this time, more than ever before, I am left electrified and stunned by Steven Wilson’s vision.

Steven WilsonFirst, a bit of trivia about the man himself – Steven Wilson is the founder of Porcupine Tree, one of the most well-known and rightfully appreciated outfits in music, at least for anyone who has any interest in progressive rock. He’s also behind Blackfield, arguably a more radio-friendly band, less prone to confuse DJs as to the actual genre they’re listening to. Also, he’s a tremendous producer, famous, amongst many other things, for having worked with Opeth on two of their very best albums, as well as undertaking the titanic task of remastering the entire King Crimson discography (and he did it formidably well, it’s as if he switched brains with Robert Fripp or something…). “The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)” is his third solo album, and it seems that Steven Wilson has become some sort of avatar of progressive rock, with the consciousness of monsters such as King Crimson, Genesis and Yes flowing, molten, through his veins.

I have never before heard music which shares such kinship with the defining sound of the early seventies, without feeling merely tributary. From the very first play of the record (and there have probably been over a hundred plays since), I felt as if I had discovered an album made right alongside “Selling England By The Pound” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic”. My bones grew to the sound of these albums, twenty years after their release, true, but so it happened nonetheless. I define my musical preferences, one way or the other, through the prog-rock prism. This music represents so much of my identity, and I’ve been so used to confining it to that narrow time-span between the late sixties and late seventies, that “The Raven That Refused To Sing” simply caught me unprepared. Sure, Steven Wilson is well known for integrating prog-rock influences in his music, much more than most, but it’s always felt like a welcome addition, a warm handshake, a knowing nod. What he accomplishes here is, unbelievably, heartbreakingly, perfectly the genuine article.

The music is remarkably textured – the unexpected, entrancing flue, the unmistakeable, cascading sound of the mellotron, the fluid, overwhelming eloquence of the guitar, with tones molded to that elusive edge between smoothness and ferocity, the jagged groove of the bass on some of these songs, expertly counterbalanced by the often forlorn, painfully hollow mood lurking just beneath… this is a musical version of Francis Bacon’s paintings – an unsettling blend of childlike simplicity somehow privy to unfathomable, terrifying depth. I’m sure the record benefited greatly from having Alan Parsons as a producer, however, Steven Wilson’s songwriting genius seems to have reached a level of clarity like never before, capturing that distinctive layering of harmony and structure, that perfect balance of influences and styles which only progressive rock can meld into this glistening, brittle, priceless alloy.

The skin hears this just as much as the ears, and I’m going to have real trouble selecting just two tracks to illustrate this point. As will all prog-rock, this album benefits greatly from a patient, attentive listener, and I feel it can only unfurl its arabesque wings when listened to in full. Of course, I am acutely aware of my considerable bias – I feel like I’ve grown my ears to listen to this kind of music, pure and simple – but I hope I’ve been persuasive enough, for now. Enjoy!

ZaRecords Mixtape 1 – Fall

I promised I’d try and experiment a little in the future and here is the result! The plan is to make one of these every two weeks, in an attempt to exert some gentle form of dominance on the music’s mood setting ability. I also view these mixtapes as a means of showcasing songs from albums I wouldn’t normally write about – you know, those kinds of records you feel are diamonds in the rough, with occasional explosions of glitter. I’ll be introducing the songs, peppering a bit of trivia here and there, bringing guests on the show and maybe even conducting interviews, in time. I’m quite excited about this and I hope you’ll support the new, spoken side of ZaRecords just as generously as you’ve stood by the written side.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This edition is all about autumn, and it holds a total of nine songs which evoke different scenes, in a cinematic way – at least to my mind. I really hope you’ll enjoy the selection, and I’m counting on your feedback for improvement – it is, after all, the first time I’m trying anything like this. Enjoy! See you soon!

King Crimson – Live in Studio (1974)

As some of you will know, King Crimson is my favorite band, which is a bit of a tricky thing to say, given the fact that King Crimson is actually, as Robert Fripp put it, more of an idea, a concept, than a band, taking over groups of musicians at certain times and expressing itself. In 1974, one of the avatars the King inhabited filmed this studio session. It was one of the most creative and eloquent eras for the band, a time in which King Crimson produced three of the most intricate and powerful records in rock history – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and, of course, Red.

The songs performed in this video come from all three of the above, in a stupendous display of prowess which is, as always, enough to leave me speechless. They are: Lark’s Tongues in Aspic Part II, The Night Watch, Lament and the overwhelming Starless. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to welcome back King Crimson. Now it’s time I took a bow and took my leave. See you soon.