Consoled by Tomorrow
312 · 18 January 01
Geddy Lee: My Favorite Headache
For about thirty-eight seconds I fear that somebody has convinced Geddy Lee to conceive of the proper role of My Favorite Headache, his first solo album after twenty-six years at what most people probably consider the helm of Rush (since neither drummer/lyricist Neil Peart nor guitarist Alex Lifeson sing), as his long-awaited chance to boldly assert his own preeminence as the rock world's most vital and structurally innovative bass player, and that, in a sudden, bizarre failure of both self-confidence and historical perspective, he has succumbed to the seductive misapprehension that the way to do this is to imagine a wholly new approach to rock music in which the bass is not only integral but central, in the same way that a car might be reengineered to better respect the value of its pistons by dispensing with the drive-train to which they might have connected and instead having them pound directly on the road surface, like the stumpy legs of a small, tantrum-inclined rhinoceros. The title track opens with a grim, writhing bass riff, as if the instrument is being pummeled so violently that the neck is flexing under the pressure, producing pitch-variations less as a result of technique than as prelude to snapping in half. The dual guitar squalls that eventually join in are similarly atonal and thrashing, as if the guitar players have come to their instruments from backgrounds in arc welding or tearing the heads off of adult boa constrictors with their hands. By the time the drums start, they're glaringly superfluous; you will hardly have overlooked the rhythm. A disappointed yowl begins welling up in my chest. If I wanted more strident, misproportioned clamor in my life, I wouldn't have stopped buying Primus albums, nor instituted a personal ban on movies whose protagonists are circus freaks.
But then Geddy starts singing, and although the production treatment on the verses lends his voice a faintly menacing metallic tinge, and his timbre long ago stopped resembling its caricatures, it's still unmistakably Geddy Lee, and twenty-six years of fond, vivid associations flood in: the shrill goofiness of By-Tor and the priests of Syrinx, the rococo black-hole overtures of Dionysus and Apollo, the trouble with the maples, the blacksmiths and the artists, the spirit of radio, my uncle's country place, living on the lighted stage, being cool or being cast out, time standing still, big science. Those may all have been Neil's words, but they became Geddy's stories. By the first chorus, around the minute mark, the guitars are fighting against sighing strings, and once the song spins out into its becalmed, pensive bridge it's clear that all my fears were premature. Geddy understands his place and history. This isn't quite a Rush album, but the differences, especially given Rush's experimentation with their own identity on Counterparts and Test for Echo, are fairly subtle. Geddy's lyrics don't attempt to invoke Ayn Rand, but then neither have Neil Peart's in a long time, and "Who's the fool / When apathy rules?" "It's a heart of darkness / That wants to play that game" and "There is no prayer / To the thieves of celestial history" all capture Rush's sense of literate insight. Soundgarden/Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron employs fewer drums than Peart, hit harder, but to an extent this merely demonstrates the influence of Peart's aggressive, maximalist approach to rock drumming returning, via Dave Grohl, Dave Abbruzzese, Lars Ulrich and even Tim Alexander, more or less full circle. Producer Ben Mink co-wrote the music and plays most of the things Geddy himself doesn't handle, but he obviously knows what Geddy represents, and so instead of trying to defy expectations or overthrow assumptions they set out to make a record on which Peart and Lifeson's absence is the absence of friends, not of repudiated principles, a record that tries neither to imitate nor elude Rush's precedents, and in doing so they come up with as confident, unforced and good-natured an album as maybe anybody is prepared to create. There wasn't much left for Rush to prove, and while I guess Geddy could have let having his own name on the cover reset the metrics, if he'd wanted to, the way Lifeson arguably did on Victor, he sensibly opts not to. And so My Favorite Headache is pop and progressive in whatever proportions emerge, whimsical and serious as appropriate, propulsive and delicate in alternation, intricate as a matter of taste. "The Present Tense" begins with some decisive guitar peals and cymbal crashes, but settles into a lilting vocal melody over a sinuous bass groove. Twinkling acoustic guitar and pinched electric solos wind around each other in the surging, solid "Window to the World". The opening of "Working at Perfekt" is vaguely AC/DC-ish, but the violin cascades in the middle are ready to challenge "Silent Lucidity". "Runaway Train" is as straightforward, in Geddy's idiom, as Soul Asylum's song by the same name was in theirs. "The Angels' Share" is basically a power ballad, a form Rush perfected with "Closer to the Heart" a long time before Night Ranger wrecked it with "Sister Christian". "Moving to Bohemia"'s gleeful mock-solemnity can't disguise a supple, chiming rock song. "Home on the Strange" plays with wah-wah guitar and splattering drums, but funkiness is hardly Geddy Lee's specialty, and I can't hear him sing lines like "He's an apolitical man" or "And he don't like change" without thinking that Tom Sawyer has grown up. The piano-lined "Slipping" is graceful and self-contained. "Still" strikes me as what happens to "Fake Plastic Trees" when you can't shake the faith that the trees are real. And the galloping "Grace to Grace", the understated finale, resolves nothing and shouldn't. There will, after all, be a dozen more albums that derive logically from this one. Rush will make them, or Geddy will make them by himself, or we will coalesce them out of air by sheer belief. I think Rush's music appeals to us, those of us who think it represents one possible ideal, in part because it seems so unconcerned with anything outside its own rules and system. Rush never tried to lead or follow anything, and if a tradition has accreted around them, I think of it less as a movement than a coincidence of purposes and aesthetics. However fashions vacillate, somebody always preserves the obdurate classicist notion that art and craftsmanship are by nature complementary, and we should be thankful for this, because otherwise we'd be ill-prepared to rebuild after this rebellion is done, and get ready for the next one. Punk has come and gone twice, at least, and Geddy Lee is still making records. It's tempting to take that as evidence of either punk's failure, or his obliviousness, but the obvious conflicts are rarely the productive ones. By-Tor owns a snowboard shop now, and Snow Dog naps in the corner by the heater, and it's not that they don't disagree any more, exactly, but they've come to understand what they share, too, well enough to see that polarizing each other never helped, and that their battles always aspired to dialectic and settled for spectacle, which is decorating the problem, not solving it. But that doesn't mean they don't still go down to the Styx every once in a while, when a winter evening feels just right, two old friends with no audience but themselves, and conjure up the old noise that binds them together.
Spock's Beard: V
And while it's obliquely cheering to know that people are still making records that sound like the ones I grew up on, and maybe even more cheering to know that I can still appreciate them, I think it's also dangerously easy to assume that it's only cheering, and miss a deeper significance. A culture of consumption relies on churn, and thus on cultural amnesia. You aren't supposed to still enjoy the things you grew up on, because you're supposed to be buying the new things they've made for you to enjoy now. Marketing operates on the premise that attention is zero-sum, which means that new movements must displace the old ones, thus the chronic oversimplification of cultural history. Punk defeated arena rock, we are taught, and then MTV drove out punk, Nirvana brought it back, and eventually sugary dance-pop beat out complaint-rock, and here we are now. But this is only the way the history looks if you're a Sony executive or a radio programmer. 1977 was the year of Never Mind the Bollocks and The Clash, but it was also the year of A Farewell to Kings and Going for the One. The two sides are supposed to have been incompatible, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who liked them both. Actually, I missed the entire grisly altercation because I was still listening to Hotel California and Saturday Night Fever, and I didn't like Going for the One until much later and still don't like The Clash, but I'm sure I'm not alone in any of those things. Holding onto these threads, though, requires a frightening amount of concentration, and when I talk to anybody but the most devoted music fanatics, I usually find that they've given up. Either they've held onto the past by no longer paying any attention to the present, or they've stayed current by letting go of what they used to love. But so little art is self-explanatory or self-contained. Kurt screaming "Here we are now, entertain us" would have meant far less to me if I didn't hear it in the context of Geddy singing "The suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth". Alanis' resilience is, in my world, partly a belated response to "Pretty in Pink". How would I make any sense of the Spice Girls without having known Berlin and Missing Persons, or Radiohead without King Crimson? If you let yourself outgrow things, you rely on the culture itself progressing, which is not a good bet. So I keep supporting progressive rock, long after it has gone out of fashion, because it embodies a couple critical philosophical tenets. I desperately need to believe that progress is possible, despite abundant evidence that many ostensible steps forward are actually steps back. I need a tradition of constructive social criticism and transformational politics. I need to know that we have not, as a society, forgotten how to write allegories or symphonies, or how to pour our hearts into the most appalling poetry, or how being in a band can be an escape from the tyranny of cool, rather than a tactic for advancing in it.
Spock's Beard have one of the geekiest names in progressive rock, which is saying something, but they also, perhaps ironically, occupy an obscure sub-niche even within that obscure realm. I think of the set of shifts like this: as Metallica moved out of complicated metal into hard rock, Queensrÿche and Dream Theater filled part of the space left behind by pulling much of progressive rock towards progressive metal; the wing of speed metal that produced "Bring the Noise" and Slayer then mutated into Rage Against the Machine and Korn, leaving a melodic void into which progressive metal shifted by trading some progressive intensity for arena-rock's old pop instincts; the continuum from old progressive metal (à la Rage for Order and Images and Words) to Rush (who were never really metal) was thus abandoned by all the established players. Rush didn't make enough albums in the Nineties to be that closely involved, Marillion went their own way, and the once-crowded space was suddenly occupied only by a bunch of Magna Carta cult bands, SI refugees and whomever IQ took in at Giant Electric Pea. Spock's Beard are actually on Metal Blade, but they have much more in common with Magna Carta's Magellan and Shadow Gallery than they do with label-mates Fates Warning. If Magellan can be thought of as an expansion on Yes, in fact, it may be useful to think of Spock's Beard, at least as of Day for Night and V, as a similar extrapolation from Jethro Tull. Although their technical skills and arrangement ambitions seem to me to be on par with Dream Theater's, Neal Morse is a songwriter before he's a sonic architect, and the four short songs on V are all as easy to trace to pop antecedents as they are to metal or progressive ones. The quiet parts of the burbly "Revelation" cast back all the way to the Bee Gees, and even the loud, complicated parts sound more like the effusive pop of the Grays and Jason Falkner to me than they do like Empire. Much of "Thoughts (Part II)", with its multi-part harmonies, grumbling bass and fluttery organ flourishes, is virtually a Yes pastiche, but it's half 90125-era and half "Long Distance Runaround", a combination Yes themselves never exactly tried, and it's punctuated by acoustic-guitar interludes in which Morse's reedy singing suddenly sounds a lot like Michael Penn's. Take the keyboard runs out of "All on a Sunday" and you'd be unnervingly close to Extreme's "Hole-Hearted", and "Goodbye to Yesterday" is a disconcertingly plausible attempt to cross "Silent Lucidity", Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain" and Kansas' "Carry on Wayward Son".
The band retains their progressive credentials, however, by bookending these simpler songs with two unabashed epics. "At the End of the Day", the sixteen-and-a-half-minute opener, rises from a pretty quasi-classical figure to a boisterous charge that mixes elements from Yes, Rush and Dream Theater, sinks back into a strange Latin guitar-and-washboard jitter, slams through a short Deep Purple digression into jazz noodling and then horn fusillades, drifts for a while in a falsetto lullaby that edges from "Candle in the Wind" towards "Bohemian Rhapsody", and finally works its way back to a sputtering Yes/IQ finale. And "The Great Nothing", the album's six-part, twenty-seven-minute conclusion, encompasses just about everything from Cat Stevens campfire folk to Ben Folds and Jon Brion's notions of pop to ELP coliseum bombast, but if you can accept the idea that a single pop song can have a dozen sections and take nearly half an hour instead of having two or three in as many minutes, I think this has a good chance of qualifying. That is, I listen to it like I listen to a three-minute pop song, not as if I've embarked on a journey but as if I'm suspended in a moment, waiting for the next familiar hook to cycle past again. It's a long moment, admittedly, but it's shorter than a sitcom, and I feel, at the end of it, like I've participated in the sustenance of our culture, rather than the disassembly of it.
Enchant: Juggling 9 or Dropping 10
I liked Enchant's 1995 debut A Blueprint of the World OK, but it had Marillion ties to recommend it, and when 1997's self-produced Wounded didn't make much of an impression on me, I mentally relegated them to my progressive-metal fringes. The day I ran across this new album, though, last fall, I'd just been listening to V, IQ's Subterranea concert album and reissues of Pallas' The Sentinel and The Wedge, so I was in a good mood for progressive second-chances. To my happy surprise, Juggling 9 or Dropping 10 turns out to be about the nearest anybody has come in the last eight years, in my experience, to replicating the assaultive thrill of Dream Theater's Images and Words and the elusive elegance of Fates Warning's Parallels. "Paint the Picture" and "Rough Draft", in particular, to me combine the cartwheeling mania of "Pull Me Under" and the pop cohesion of "Eye to Eye" with self-possessed grace. The jagged "Bite My Tongue" reconstructs some of the weird energy I once liked about Faith No More, before I decided to blame them for so much of what subsequently happened to metal. "Colors Fade" executes a smooth crescendo from acoustic strumming to metal churn via a swooping three-note keyboard hook worthy of Jefferson Starship and a guitar solo at which I'd expect Steve Rothery to nod his flattered approval. "Juggling Knives" pushes early Queensrÿche crunch towards a soulful serenity, and "Elyse" drapes hushed melancholy over Fates Warning's nervous asymmetry. The episodic seven-minute "Traces" is the nominal epic, but I'm actually even more fond of the brief, acoustic, against-type conclusion, "Know That", which could easily be a fragment destined for the Backstreet Boys, except that if I'm reading "the pain of flesh is now behind me" correctly the narrator is dead, which makes "Know that my love is forever" haunting, not cloying. By some neutral measure I can imagine that the amount of artifice these Enchant songs entail is about the same as the amount that goes into a Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears dance number, but the implied relationships to technology are incredibly different. The music in Britney's "Stronger" is as much a set as the rendered bridge in the video, a separation of content and context I'm starting to think of as emblematic of cultural bankruptcy, and aesthetically no better than karaoke. Progressive rock exults in its control over its technology, treating machines as extensions of our expressivity, and although many days I feel exactly the opposite, as if I ought to commission an impact study before I so much as pick up a hiking stick, I'm also a technologist by profession, and if a progressive rock album can convince me that I'm being too paranoid, and I can solve more problems than I compound, then I may face tomorrow with enough optimism and resolve to make it true.
And if silly optimism layered over vehement resolve is the goal, there aren't many better soundtracks than Folkémon, the eleventh album in ten years by berserk English folk-metal jesters Skyclad. I've let a few Skyclad albums slip past unremarked upon, as I didn't have much to add to the little I said about Prince of the Poverty Line and The Silent Whales of Lunar Sea, but Folkémon is a minor masterpiece of vitriolic mock-frivolity even by the band's own warped standards. The seething "The Great Brain Robbery" is as histrionic as Gamma Ray and as trenchant as New Model Army. The title of "Think Back and Lie of England" is cheap wordplay, but the song is as biting as "God Save the Queen", and more topical, yet "Polkageist!", delivered in exactly the same vengeful tone, is only a peppy bit of gruesome fantasy highlighted by my favorite oral-sex pun since the one in Deep Purple's "Knocking at Your Back Door". "The Disenchanted Forest" starts out like another rustic folk tableau, but ends up, chanting "Who would die to save my forest?", as a plaintive environmentalists' battle-anthem. The stomping "The Antibody Politic" follows through on what for anybody else would have been a throwaway title, including a couplet that rhymes "ethics awry" with "Vox Populi". "When God Logs-Off" (no, I don't know what the hyphen is doing there either) is the antithesis, along almost every dimension, of Barcelona's "C-64". "You Lost My Memory" might be the most egregiously over-written break-up lament I've ever heard; I don't remember the last time I had to look up a word ("nepenthe": a chemical antidote to grief from the Odyssey) in order to understand the chorus of a heavy-metal song. "Déjà-Vu Ain't What It Used to Be" borrows three verses from Oscar Wilde and ends with a Robert Louis Stevenson quote. "Any Old Irony?" is a fervid, reeling gypsy theme-song, and I have to look up three words in it ("claque": the Medieval equivalent of a studio audience; "bryony": a berry-bearing vine; "wynd": a narrow lane). And the bonus track, a cover of Tenpole Tudor's "Swords of a Thousand Men", manages to be as simultaneously ridiculous and reverent as Skyclad's rendition of "Come On Eileen" on Oui Avant-Garde á Chance. Guitars roar, the violins saw, bored clauricanes gnaw at the foundations of corrupt banks, and whatever they can sap, here is the music for dancing on its ruins.