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progressive rock Tag

The need for new material from Asia is a subject that on paper, is highly debatable in certain circles. But for those that have caught the reactivated ’80s rockers live in the past few years, it is likely that they are among the converted who have seen the light after hearing the band’s new music intermixed with their classic material.  A few years ago, it seemed unlikely that we’d ever see the classic lineup of John Wetton, Geoff Downes, Steve Howe and Carl Palmer back together on any stage, and the prospects of new material were somewhere below “never” and “not a chance in hell.”  Since the band’s unlikely reunion in 2007, there have been two new Asia albums released, the well-received Phoenix in 2008, followed by the band’s latest album Omega, released earlier this year. (And the band will celebrate their 200th performance since reuniting later this month in California.) 

Phoenix is my favorite of the two albums that they’ve released so far, but as it was when I first saw the reunited band in 2008 (at a time that I was lukewarm about the new album), they did a lot during Friday night’s performance at the House of Blues in Cleveland to sell me on the merits of their new material.  I’m happy that unlike some “classic bands” that tour for an album and then dump the material from the set, Asia have kept two of the strongest cuts from Phoenix —  “Never Again” and “An Extraordinary Life,” in their 2010 setlist.  (And with members of the audience singing along to every single one of the tracks from the past two albums, there was visible proof that people are still buying new music, at least when you’re talking about progressive bands like Asia.)

Though Utopia isn’t quite to Todd Rundgren what Tin Machine was to David Bowie, there are definitely some parallels that can be drawn between the two projects. Both represented an already established artist subverting their egos to pursue a completely different musical path within a band framework, essentially giving them the freedom to establish a separate identity without the high expectations that would have been attached to their own material. Rundgren started Utopia in the early 70s as a response to all the progressive rock bands he saw getting popular at the time, and made them the over-the-top, theatrical flip side to his highly personal, quietly eccentric pop style. What’s interesting, though, is the way Utopia actually evolved over time, quickly becoming more and more commercial as Rundgren’s own material become more and more esoteric. That said, Utopia was still every bit as unpredictable as Todd Rundgren’s own career. The upside to this is that they eventually grew into being a bona fide band as opposed to a mere vanity project, but taking advantage of the freedom to do whatever the hell they wanted meant they never kept a solid audience for too long, outside of the already-devoted Rundgren aficionados. A damn shame, if you ask me, but that’s what the Popdose Guides are for, I suppose. And on that note…

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (1974)
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Though many categorize this album as Todd Rundgren’s big leap into progressive rock, I actually hear a pretty big jazz-fusion influence here as well (à la Return to Forever and the like). Frank Zappa also casts a mighty shadow over the proceedings, “Freak Parade” being more or less a 10-minute Zappa pastiche. To sum it up briefly: this album is a perfectly valid exercise in prog-jazz-rock-fusion-whatever-you-wanna-call-it, mainly because the band is full of first-rate players and Rundgren makes sure to throw in some actual song-like parts amidst all the noodling. However, unless I start investing in a serious psychedelic drug habit, I can’t see this ever entering heavy rotation on my personal playlist. It’s not every day that I’ll want to sit down and listen to a half-hour piece of music, regardless of how good it is (this would be “The Ikon”), and the shortest track on the album (“Freedom Fighters”) is also the least memorable. In spite of my nitpicking, however, this is still a fascinating curio in Todd Rundgren’s discography, and definitely worth at least a cursory listen (though it takes a lot of patience to get to the good stuff). Here’s my favorite track, “Utopia Theme”.

band imageRobbie Robertson coined a phrase in an interview once, and it stuck with me. He said that even though he’d written many types of songs, the ones that always got to him and stayed with him were, if I recall correctly, “skin creepers.”

A skin creeper is a song that may or may not have a hard-core hook yet gets inside your head and stays there; it captures a mood that infects the listener on a personal level. Mystery, emotion, and a definite sense of being “haunted” all typify the skin-creeper ethic. It dawned on me that few songs of this nature actually become hits, because at first blush they can make you feel a little uncomfortable, which was the first thing I felt a few years ago when listening to the songs on Carptree’s Man Made Machine (2005), their third release but the first with U.S. distribution.

The Swedish duo of Niclas Flinck (vocals) and Carl Westholm (keyboards) mine many different aspects of music: a progressive edge, a gothic touch, a metal bite, and a pop sensibility. Music critics love to throw around the word “texture,” usually as a description of a performance that deviates from standard chords and phrasing. That may be true of Carptree as well, but Flinck’s vocals, whispered and sometimes slightly hissed, and Westholm’s insistence on embracing synthetic sounds in the forefront rather than burying them behind traditional ones (besides the piano, which often does take precedence) attempt something a little more “felt” and a little less “heard.” Essentially, Man Made Machine has great, eerie skin-creeping moments in spades.