There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s jump to it.
Aisles – Hawaii: 2016 will go down as one of the pivotal years for the progressive rock genre, perhaps with greater influence than even years during the 1970s heyday. And while it may not be as monumental and pivotal as Marillion’s latest F*** Everyone And Run, or as operatic and grand as The Dear Hunter’s Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional, or even as winning and traditional as Big Big Train’s Folklore, Aisles’ latest Hawaii deserves to share the stage with all three. More conventional in the sense that this two-CD epic explores exploration itself, and humanity’s unwillingness to part from its traditions for its own good, conventionality does not preclude a recording from being good.
The Hawaii in question is a Hawaii of the mind, a memory…more to the point an outpost where the memory of Earth’s former splendor is glorified, even as new hospitable worlds are sought after, since the species made such an awful mess of it the first time around. But are these the pioneers or the carriers of diseases (mostly social) that ensure we’ll always need to find the next neighborhood to live in after we’ve trashed our own? Hawaii is a solid effort and shows continued growth for Aisles, already a promising band. It might be more difficult to seek out Hawaii, but it’s worth your time and effort.
Bubble Gum Orchestra – Sticky Love Songs: Michael Laine Hildebrandt, the man behind the Bubble Gum Orchestra (or BGO, if you like), had a turning point. His outfit effectively worked inside a premise, creating new songs in the musical vein of Jeff Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra. The allusions are obvious, but Hildebrandt has always created his original songs out of love and utmost respect, and that has always stood out. But what do you do when your once-retired muse is no longer retired, as we’ve seen with Lynne’s resurrection of his ELO?
You branch out. Sticky Love Songs still features those Lynne-esque touches, but Hildebrandt gets a little more personal, at times bringing out a harder sound, other times going acoustic. If you’ve been following BGO up to now, you won’t get lost because of the changes. This is still a textured variation of the power pop we’ve come to love. BGO is not out to drop a rock and roll dissertation on your brain, as witnessed by the closing, very tongue-in-cheek “BGO Motel,” but Hildebrandt’s continual evolution from the creator of BGO to the soul behind it is in full representation. If you like independent power pop with it’s classic rock heart firmly affixed to the sleeve, you’ll enjoy Sticky Love Songs.
Speaking of classic rock, the folks at Eagle Vision have a few for you. First is the next edition of their Classic Albums series of documentaries, this time featuring one of the most beloved recordings in the history of ever, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I have been highly critical of this series in the past as it fluctuates wildly between terrific behind-the-scenes details of some of our biggest achievements in music and flat-out uninformative back patting. This effort has a bit of both, I’m afraid. The hitch is that you can’t really talk about The Beach Boys and not talk about the struggles Brian Wilson had with his domineering and abusive father Murray and his cousin Mike Love. This documentary is about the album Pet Sounds, however, not necessarily about the band itself. You hear about Brian’s breakdown, subsequently leading to his decision to get off the road to master his craft in the studio. You hear about Love becoming the de facto leader of the band’s live presence. That’s about it.
Maybe that’s all it needs to be. This is not an expose of the machinations in the outfit, but a look into how these songs, and how they took form, came to be. There’s a lot of great background information here. I specifically enjoyed the series’ standard segment where producers/engineers play the tapes and drop volume on a few of the tracks. To hear the level of detail Brian put to these recordings is inspiring. In the end, the less people know about the band’s drama, the more they’ll like this episode. They might even walk away with some sympathy toward Mike Love, and I don’t believe he deserves it.
Next up, Journey returns with Journey Live In Manila. This three disk (2-cd, 1-dvd) set documents the arrival of the beloved AOR band in the home country of lead singer Arnel Pineda. It is not a new production as the set features the now departed drummer Deen Castronovo, but the band brings out all the old hits (including the obvious and infuriating “Don’t Stop Believin'”) as well as new ones. On the whole everyone is into it and having a good time. Castronovo gets a chance to rip at “Mother, Father” which in my opinion is one of the best songs the group has ever done. I don’t think this release is meant for anyone other than those already in the tank for Journey, especially since I believe the recordings have been on the shelf for a little while. No matter. Arriving in time for the Christmas purchase season, Journey Live In Manila will make the Journey fan in your family very happy, and you’ll enjoy it too if you get to skip over “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
(Seriously, the song is a punchline now. I said it.)
Finally from Eagle Vision, another entry from another of their longstanding series’, the Live At Montreux collection, this CD/DVD pairing finds Toto at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991, just before making the Kingdom Of Desire album. The setlist gives you a taste of that album, two of their biggest hits (bet you can guess what they are), and two covers with Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” and Sly & The Family Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher.”
Toto gets a bit of crap from the musical zeitgeist, and occasionally it is justified. At times their lyrics just aren’t all they could be, and I find that the songs with the weakest wordplay have been the biggest hits. Yet their wins outnumber their losses on a consistent basis (and their reunion album from a couple years back, Toto XIV, is absolutely stellar). Even when the language fails, the musicianship never does and this set really clarifies how talented Messrs. Lukather, Paich, and Porcaros were and are. At heart, Toto is a fusion band, throwing jazz and soul verses together with hard rock choruses in a way that is so natural, it is deceptive. Essentially, it’s easy to talk trash about the band but just try and do what they can.
As a set, I’m glad that Eagle Vision is now pairing audio and video discs together, as opposed to the separate offerings they have previously put out. The CD side sounds passable if a bit too hollow and echoey, stemming from the setup of the recording equipment, the dynamics of the stage, etc. These faults are easily glossed over when the visual component is added. It is more convenient to dismiss the “size” of the sound when you can see it and it makes sense intellectually.
I’d say this is another one for the fans rather than an intro to the group, but it is a good addition to the collection.
Not an Eagle Vision release, but worthy of note after a discussion about Toto is the upcoming third album from Mecca. The brainchild of musician Joe Vana, the group has enlisted Toto alumnus David Hungate on bass and current drummer Shannon Forrest to produce…I want to be careful here. I certainly don’t want to give an impression that Mecca III is anything other than an enjoyable ride throughout its judicious eight tracks. It is tasteful, carefully produced, and the songs have a chordal sophistication you just don’t hear anymore. Chords seldom go the direction you expect, yet they are always right and never jarring. To say that this recording could sit in a lineup with the likes of a Mr. Mister or Toto itself should be seen as a high compliment, although people with an aversion to AOR might not see it that way.
For those who haven’t had an involuntary reaction to what I’ve just stated, let me assure you this is the record you have been waiting for. I went from guardedly (almost cynically) sampling the tracks from the album to preordering it. Songs like “Alone,” “Cry,” and the phenomenal single “Gone” have managed to become lodged in my brain, and pleasantly so. Give Mecca III a spin and i think you too will be persuaded.
Finally, I’ll keep this brief. I would never advise an artist to stop making art. But I would also instruct them to be very critical of what they’ve made, especially if they have had a long career. You are going to be judged by your biggest hits — that’s fairly unavoidable. If you put in the effort, you may rise to your former glories or at the very least been seen as giving your best shot. If you don’t think you’re going to represent yourself fairly, and why on earth would you put yourself in that position, maybe your decisions are being made for you. Lord only knows why people don’t also factor that into the data when they set out to make a record.
You’ve read some of the reviews for Meat Loaf’s latest, Braver Than We Are. They are, on the whole, scathing. I can’t say that I will ever listen to the album again, so let that be my last word on it. For you, however, my advice is to seek out audioclips and hear it to judge for yourself. It might not bother you as much as it bothers me. You might be able to bridge the gaps between intention and completion that I simply could not.
Next time out, I’ll discuss the new Dear Hunter and Marillion albums, and further hyperventilate over why 2016 becomes the year prog silences the naysayers.