Category Archives: CN - Listening 2008

The Icicle Works

This band was named after a short sto­ry by Fred­erik Pohl (“The Day the Ici­cle Works Closed”, Galaxy, Feb­ru­ary 1960). I read the sto­ry when I was a kid, in Pohl’s won­der­ful col­lec­tion The Man Who Ate the World. There was a revival of “psy­che­delic” rock in liv­er­pool in the ear­ly 1980’s, and this band was part of that move­ment. The front­man was Ian McN­abb, who remains today a vet­eran crafts­man in British rock, but isn’t well known in North Amer­ica. Drum­mer Chris Shar­rock and bassist Chris Lay­he formed the oth­er two legs of the tri­pod. The band stuck around for quite awhile, but it nev­er made it big, per­haps because the “neo-psy­che­del­ic” for­mula real­ly didn’t suit them. Despite a few trap­pings of that genre, it sounds to me like they real­ly want­ed to do good sol­id rock with clean, crisp arrange­ments. The only album I pos­sess is the epony­mous first (1984), which con­tains their biggest hit “Love is a Won­der­ful Colour”. But I pre­fer “Whis­per To a Scream (Birds Fly)”, which was a big­ger hit here in Cana­da, and I remem­ber it get­ting con­sid­er­able air­play on Toron­to sta­tions. Sharrock’s drum­work is fine in this one, lift­ing them out of the poten­tial wimpi­ness of the psy­che­delic for­mula (the cut pre­ced­ing it, “In the Caul­dron of Love” sounds too much like recy­cled Moody Blues).

Adden­dum: A friend informs me that the Cana­dian release was quite dif­fer­ent from the U.S. release, and reached much high­er in the Cana­dian charts than in either the U.K. or U.S. ones, con­firm­ing my impres­sion. Unfor­tu­nately, I don’t have the vari­a­tions to com­pare. Mine is the Canadian.

Steve Tilston

14-12-05 LISTN Steve TilstonIt will come as no sur­prise to any­one that I’m fond of the Fair­port Con­ven­tion song “Here’s To Tom Paine”. That song was orig­i­nally com­posed by the fine Eng­lish folk gui­tarist, Steve Tilston. While he must have over a dozen albums, the only one I own is Swans at Coole (1990). Though it nowhere says so on the album, this refers to the William But­ler Yeats poem, “The Wild Swans at Coole”, a wist­ful alle­gory of tran­si­tory beau­ty. The album fits that mood. Tilston’s fine, con­trolled, but not flashy gui­tar play­ing is bal­anced with var­ied accom­pa­ni­ments on ban­jo (Kevin Boyle), vio­lin (Stu­art Gor­don), flute (Mag­gy Boyle), and cel­lo (Tony Hilli­gan). If you want to have some­thing play­ing on a cold win­ter evening, gath­ered by the fire­place, with old friends not inclined to chat­ter, this is just about right.

Toward the Unknown Vaughan Williams

Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams - The English Composer, Conductor and Organist, b.Gloucestershire 1872, d. London 1958 credit: ArenaPAL14-10-20 LISTN Toward the Unknown Vaughan Williams pic 2

Ralph Vaugh­an William’s first crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar suc­cess came fair­ly late, when he was 33. This was the remark­able song for cho­rus and orches­tra Toward the Unknown Region, based on Walt Whitman’s poem from the “Whis­pers of Heav­enly Death” sec­tion of Leaves of Grass : Read more »

La Mer and the Garden of Fand

Debussy’s La Mer is so famil­iar that it’s easy to for­get how rev­o­lu­tion­ary a piece it was when it was fin­ished in 1905. After a gazil­lion per­for­mances, it still remains fresh. We are accus­tomed to think of it as a pure exam­ple of “expres­sion­ism”, a kind of musi­cal equiv­a­lent of Monet’s fuzzy lily pads and flow­ers, and it is indeed that. But at the same time, it exhibits a strict clas­si­cism in its struc­ture, and roman­tic dynamism in that a “sto­ry” unfolds as each sec­tion devel­ops from hints in pre­vi­ous sec­tions, and it trav­els through the emo­tions as much as any high roman­tic sym­phony. In fact, it is fair enough to call it a sym­phony, if you think more in terms of the last Sibelius sym­phony than of Beethoven or Schu­bert. So it gives us the best of three worlds. Like most peo­ple who lis­ten to clas­si­cal music, I some­times neglect to lis­ten prop­erly to “con­cert chest­nuts” like this. In fact, it had been quite some time since I had giv­en La Mer any thought. What trig­gered a return to it was lis­ten­ing to anoth­er impres­sion­ist work about the sea, much less well-known, Arnold Bax’s The Gar­den of Fand.

Fand leaves her lover Cu Chu­lainn (Man­an­nan MacLir in the mid­dle casts a spell of obliv­ion upon his wife, Fand) — Illus­tra­tion by Yvonne Gilbert

Arnold Bax (1870–1953) was an Eng­lish com­poser who became obsessed with Irish music, poet­ry and mythol­ogy. He is best known for a series of tone poems on celtic themes, of which Tin­tagel (1917) is the best known, and The Gar­den of Fand (1913–16) is the best. I’ve loved this piece for most of my life, though for a long time could only find a sin­gle record­ing of it. For­tu­nately, it was by Adri­an Boult, the most sym­pa­thetic and able Bax inter­preter. Bax had lit­tle fame or suc­cess dur­ing his life­time. The ear­ly tone poems had a mod­est suc­cess, but his sev­en sym­phonies dropped into obliv­ion. How­ever, Sibelius felt his work was first-rate, and the two men formed a last­ing friend­ship. It was the advo­cacy of Adri­an Boult that slow­ly brought Bax back into view, though most of his works were not avail­able on record until the 1980s. Sibelius’s influ­ence is vis­i­ble in his work, but not obvi­ously so. Debussy’s influ­ence is more obvi­ous, with the French­man’s par­al­lel thirds shift­ing by whole tones, and sparkling wood­wind orna­ments. But Debussy tends to evoke nature with dis­pas­sion, while Bax invokes a more super­nat­ural, even creepy sen­si­bil­ity. The Gar­den of Fand is based on an ancient Irish epic from the Ulster Cycle tale, Ser­g­lige Con Culainn (The Sickbed of Cúchu­lainn). Fand is a Celtic sea god­dess, asso­ci­ated with the tran­si­tion to the oth­er world, faerie. The peren­nial Irish hero, Cúchu­lainn, tan­gles with her, to his per­il. What has always appealed to me about the piece is it’s sin­u­ous, shape-shift­ing melody, which has stuck in my mind far more than most. Around it, Bax weaves no end of dra­matic sur­prises. It’s a fab­u­lously inven­tive piece, with sud­den changes of tem­po and sur­pris­ing effects. Lit­tle twin­kling fig­ures trans­form into sin­is­ter for­tis­si­mos. Like Celtic myth, the piece is decep­tive, noth­ing ever remain­ing the same for long, and noth­ing being quite what if first appears to be… in short, it’s like the sea.

Elgar’s Two and a Half Symphonies

13-04-06 LISTN Elgar's Two and a Half SymphoniesEdward Elgar fell out of fash­ion after World War I, and his exis­tence was bare­ly acknowl­edged by music his­to­ri­ans for the next fifty years. He was so firm­ly asso­ci­ated with British Impe­ri­al­ism, that his music became the sub­ject of sneers. This is par­tic­u­larly sad, because Elgar him­self was a gen­tle, sen­si­tive soul whose pri­mary inspi­ra­tion was nature, and he grew to loathe every per­for­mance of “Land of Hope and Glo­ry”, the bom­bas­tic anthem that had been made from one of his march­es. In the 1890’s he had been a very patri­otic Empire boost­er, along with every­one else. But he was bit­terly dis­ilu­sioned by World War I and sought solace in his beloved Eng­lish coun­try­side. He nev­er much cared for his role as Britain’s Offi­cial Composer.

But despite all the scorn heaped on him, the First Sym­phony, the Cel­lo Con­certo, and the Enig­ma Vari­a­tions con­tin­ued to be per­formed in seri­ous con­certs, while the Pomp and Cir­cum­stance March­es lived on in the Pop Clas­sics reper­toire. The Sec­ond Sym­phony, not at first suc­cess­ful, slow­ly came to be played as often as the first. At his death, he left sketch­es for a third sym­phony, and in 1998, these were trans­formed into a com­plete work by the respect­ed com­poser Antho­ny Payne. Read more »


Grun­truck was a short-lived, but impor­tant band in the Grunge scene that brewed in Seat­tle in the ear­ly nineties. Ben McMil­lan and Scott McCul­lum, both pre­vi­ously from Skin Yard, Tom­my Niemey­er from The Accused, and Tim Paul, from Napalm Beach formed the line­up at the time of their great­est impact. I have a tape of their sec­ond album, Push (1993), but I would bet­ter rec­om­mend the first, Inside Yours (1990), which I’ve only heard scraps of, but which sound­ed bet­ter to my ear. Their sound, in the sec­ond Album, at least, is very sim­i­lar to Alice In Chains.


Born Los­er is a five-song tape giv­en to me by the lead singer, Derek Madi­son, back in 1992. Not great pro­duc­tion qual­ity, but the ener­getic thrash still holds up well to a jad­ed ear. Derek obvi­ously had some stay­ing pow­er, because Grasshop­per still exists, six­teen years lat­er, under the name Grasshop­per Sound­Clash, Their MySpac.e page offers four songs to down­load, with a more melod­ic sound. “Mag­netic Super Blue” is catchy, and could eas­ily find a broad audience.

Swervedriver: Mezcal Head

12-12-04 LISTN Swervedriver - Mezcal HeadI’ve long been fond of this 1993 album by Swervedriv­er, a potent alter­na­tive rock band from Oxford. I have the Cana­dian release on cas­sette tape, which has an addi­tional song, “Nev­er Lose That Feeling/Never Learn”, not avail­able on the U.K. orig­i­nal. Swervedriv­er was an excel­lent band, absorb­ing influ­ences at first from raw bands like Iggy and the Stooges, and slow­ly acquir­ing a denser “alter­na­tive” tex­ture with­out los­ing any aggres­sive­ness. Unlike Dinosaur Jr., Son­ic Youth, My Bloody Valen­tine, and oth­er bands of that gen­eral zeit­geist, Swervedriv­er nev­er found a sat­is­fac­tory rela­tion­ship with a record com­pany, or a broad audi­ence. But Mez­cal Head stands up very well after twen­ty years. “Duel”, the only song to get a video and sig­nif­i­cant air­play, is by no means the only good track on the album. I pre­fer “Last Train To Satans­ville” and the jazz-like “Nev­er Learn”. The vocals are more or less impos­si­ble to make out, and float over the thick instru­men­tal sound like a ping pong ball on a tsuna­mi, but that was par for the course at the time.

Paul Oakenfold — Global Underground 004 Live in Oslo, 1997

This fine mix was record­ed live at Cos­mopo­lite Club in Oslo, Nor­way, as part of the Quart Fes­ti­val. The two-cd set shows two rather dif­fer­ent sides of Oakenfold’s con­sid­er­able tal­ent. The first cd is very mel­low drum & bass merg­ing into goa trance, bare­ly dance-able, but quite enter­tain­ing to lis­ten to. The sec­ond cd is live­ly house that would be best enjoyed on your feet. This comes from the peri­od when the club scene was prob­a­bly at its peak in Europe. Nei­ther part is a “dense” mix (tracks come togeth­er only a few bars at a time). There is noth­ing here that has the impact of Tran­ce­port, but it’s a good sol­id set. Lucky were the Nor­we­gians on that floor.

Beethoven’s First

Haydn is the foun­tain­head from which both Mozart and Beethoven sprung forth. Writ­ten in 1799 and 1800, Bethoven’s Sym­phony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 could be described as “sar­cas­tic Haydn”. It sounds some­thing like a mature Haydn sym­phony, but it has a weird open­ing meant to con­fuse you about the key. It has a min­uetto move­ment that sounds like it’s being danced by metham­phet­a­mine addicts. It has a kind of fake “start” in the last move­ment. All quite weird. We tend to think of Beethoven as humour­less, but he did occa­sion­al­ly show a sense of humour — sort of a Scot­tish put-piss-in-your-beer-glass kind of fun. Some of the stan­dard Beethoven fea­tures are already there, like the strong role for wood­winds and the addic­tion to sforza­to, which seem to have dis­tin­guished him from Haydn right from the begin­ning. But the debt is real­ly obvi­ous in this first sym­phony. It’s only in the third sym­phony that Beethoven real­ly broke loose from the fold. I haven’t actu­ally lis­tened to this one close­ly for years (it’s prob­a­bly Beethoven’s least pop­u­lar sym­phony), so it came at me like a fresh piece.