14 for 2014

Hello friends! I’m just stopping by to give you my 2014 wrap-up playlist. I’ve been working on this very hard, and I feel it’s finally acquired a certain elusive architecture, so here it is. There’s a lot of oddity on this one, as my life was filled with unusual and overwhelming events, so I feel that a jagged quality is in order for a yearly bottom line such as this. Please feel free to ask about the less common names on the playlist, I’d be happy to elucidate and impart some trivia, if I can. Cheers!

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!

Opeth – Damnation (2003)

Hello and welcome to the spruced-up ZaRecords. There’s a spring vibe in the air, and I thought I’d give the blog a little make-over, making it more user friendly when it comes to searches and backtracking. Even if the theme is slightly different, the style of the content will not change – it’ll be just easier to find.

Opeth is one of the bands I discovered about eight years ago, and they’ve been with me ever since. They were the band I went to see in Budapest for my first “major” concert. Obviously, I still hold a soft spot for them, and there’s plenty of reason to do so, regardless of personal motivation.

Source: opeth.com

This band started off as so many “extreme metal” groups do, setting out to become “the most evil” death-metal band out there. It’s funny how these things turn out, given that throughout the years, Opeth has become one of the most refined, complex and melodically enchanting groups in rock, managing to elegantly graft a wealth of prog-rock influence on their more brutal, metal background. One after the other, the albums they issued seemed to gain depth right before the listener’s eyes, and it was clear that Opeth had managed to create a very intriguing branch of metal – eclectic and yet very well grounded, close to its roots, especially after their initial team-up with Steven Wilson, of Porcupine Tree fame, as a producer. Steven Wilson himself is known for creating music which is notoriously hard to classify, incorporating influences from rock, jazz, blues, metal, post-rock and so on on every album in a truly tantalizing mix. This influence became clear on Opeth’s Blackwater Park album, and it only continued to grow, naturally and of its own accord, ever since.

The band were always cautious about alienating their initial, metal fan base, so at first this perceived dichotomy between a softer, more melodic side of their music and the unrelenting, brutal, “evil” sound of their death metal side led them to issue what is basically a double album, the formidable Deliverance/Damnation records, released in 2002 and 2003 respectively. Deliverance is the harder of the two, while Damnation focuses more on the prog-rock influence, containing no death-metal growling and very little specifically metal sound structures. Damnation was my first contact with the band and it impressed me so much I found myself ready for almost all of their other work, even though I hadn’t been a metal enthusiast before. This album is extremely smooth, marked by a mesmerizing touch of sadness and poetry, flowing from the speakers like a nightly torrent of melody and Gothic imagery. Opeth don’t lose their edge on Damnation, it’s not a “ballad album”, it’s simply a different conceptual approach to the darker themes and flashes which constitute the basis for their brand of metal. The music shifts elegantly between acoustic passages to electrified, mourning stretches of sound, with unparallelled swiftness and balance, so much so that the album as a whole induces imagery of a high-wire ballet, breathtaking and dangerous, constructed in such a way as to keep an ominous, autumnal mood throughout.

Mikael Åkerfeldt’s vocals are exquisitely meditative and yearning on this album, which is definite and satisfying proof that the band don’t have to rely on the contrast between growling and clean singing to empower their softer passages. It’s a rare moment indeed when an originally death-metal band demonstrates this level of code-switching ability to such an extent. The album is so coherent it even manages to incorporate the slightly cheesy, artificial-sounding keyboards in such a way as to be impossible to imagine without them – the music gives the eighties vibe of the instrument a renewed meaning, it creates the perfect context for it to shine the way it does, via its pronounced theatrical air. As I mentioned before, there’s a clear Gothic influence to this album, a twisted reference to a shadowy circus as a musical metaphor for confusion and emotional turmoil, which is thankfully done with grace and subtlety. The lyrics don’t obnoxiously force home this point, allowing the music to really take over and do the “talking”, which is great, since there’s so much eloquence in every phrase and every passage it would’ve been a shame to muddle it with excessive poetic meanderings. Åkerfeldt manages to sing in such a way as to create the impression of a broken, segmented whisper, only complementing the whole, never showing off, even though his soaring voice is truly one of the highlights of the album. I guess that’s what’s truly remarkable about Damnation – the feeling that even the silence is part of the music, that even the pauses are nothing if not integral, fascinating parts of the show.

My recommendation is to enjoy Opeth’s Damnation in solitude and warmth, with wine and a good Gothic novel (Charles Maturin’s “Melmoth the wanderer” comes to mind). I hope you like the new layout and to see you soon!